My classroom, like all of urban China, suffered from a space crunch. Twenty-two desks were squeezed together along the walls in the shape of a horseshoe, leaving me, the teacher, a slice of real estate encased by fidgety students. I could traverse the empty space with one big step; the students could touch one another with an outstretched tongue. Every smell and sound was immediately identifiable, and at times it felt as though the kids were eavesdropping on my thoughts.
On this day in early 2010, I was tasked with teaching a group of eight- and nine-year-olds the difference between “many” and “much,” with special emphasis on “too.” It had long ago become apparent that this material was beyond the children’s grasp, or at least beyond my ability to teach. We stumbled along for an hour-and-a-half, but there were still thirty agonizing minutes earmarked for countable and non-countable nouns. The obvious examples had already been exhausted: too much water, too many animals, too much food. I pleaded with them for more, but they looked at me blankly, indifferently – if, that is, they were bothering to look at me.
I had to go on, however, for there is a certain charade element to teaching at private English schools in China: Regardless of whether or not the kids grasp the material and become better English speakers, one must at least feign the transfer of knowledge. The thinking here is that having a native speaker milling about the classroom will, as if by osmosis, imbue the children with the ability to speak English. Never mind that the credentials required to become a teacher often consist of little more than a high school diploma and the ability to string together a few cogent sentences. Westerners will oversee the class and, by virtue of their Western skin, legitimize the proceedings. At schools throughout China, foreign English teachers are akin to Hooters Girls, employed not because of any discernable skill, but because of looks.
But just as being a buxom blonde doesn’t make you a good waitress, being a white-skinned high school graduate doesn’t make you a good teacher. And on this day, my students seemed acutely aware of this fact.
To offset moments like this, when time stalls, many a teacher toted around a pocket-sized piece of paper containing a handful of clock-killing games. In a pinch, they would pluck out the sheet and analyze it in search of inspiration, like an Evangelical might turn to verse in times of crisis. I, unfortunately, had no such sheet. I was an educational atheist. Thus was I destined to suffer, if not for eternity, then at least until class was over.
Desperate, I popped the top off of my erasable marker and took to the whiteboard. I began to write the sentence: There is too much ______.
The plan was to write it twice and then divide the class into two teams, pitting them against one another to see who could most quickly fill in the blanks most correctly. It was axiomatic that letting students write on the board in the context of teams was a shoe-in. You didn’t need a cheat-sheet to tell you that.
Before I had finished writing, there was a stir in the classroom. I figured that someone was goofing off, or that something had been thrown. Ignoring kids who were messing around was my preferred method of discipline, so I just kept on writing.
Alas, no one was goofing off. Instead, someone was throwing up. On account of the sandbox-sized classroom, everyone was now within a couple feet of vomit. When I had turned to write on the board, the students’ faces were flush with boredom and fatigue. Now, pure enthrallment – save, of course, the little girl on the left, who for the second time that day was staring down at a pile of noodles.
Foreign teachers in China get paid a relatively hefty sum of money – too much, really, considering the amount of skill required – but for me that sum was not enough to deal with sick. As such, I instinctively turned to the bi-lingual Chinese teacher, or CT, who is the co-pilot of each class. The job of the CT consists of translating material, handling disciplinary matters and, all too often, correcting the grammatical mistakes that foreign teachers, or FTs, make in class. It’s a thankless job, all the more so because when a little girl splatters the contents of her stomach onto the classroom floor, the FT will invariably turn to the CT with a look of puzzlement. The FT, in this case me, will hold that look until the CT makes a decision about what to do.
Sure enough, before I had a chance to say, “That’s gross,” my CT had ushered the puking girl to the bathroom and arranged for the mess to be cleaned up. She even procured an empty room for us to finish the class. The only thing she hadn’t done was get the minute hand to skip forward thirty times.
The trek from the puke classroom to the new classroom could be submitted as a case study in child psychology. What had moments before been a lethargic group of zombies turned into pure bedlam. It was as though they’d each gone bottoms-up on a half-dozen Pixy Stix.
This was like, back when I myself was about eight, my elementary school went on a field trip to a production of The Nutcracker. The Sugar Plum Fairy, who was on stilts, suddenly toppled to the ground; the dark red curtain came crashing down after her. The crowd was chock-full of grade-schoolers – the whole city was apparently on a field trip – and after a split-second of muted disbelief, we went ape. A deafening roar of clapping, laughing and hollering ensued. The show resumed shortly thereafter, but really, it was all over. After that tumble, the fragile cordialness and etiquette of the ballet had been shattered: You can’t have a mishap like that in front of a roomful of kids and get the crowd back.
Similarly, if a little girl vomits in front of an entire class, things devolve – and quickly.
Yet in an act of futility, I attempted to turn the occasion into a vocabulary tool. While the CT was out of the room, I tried to teach the children the word “vomit.” With my marker I drew an amorphous body-chalk sketch on the ground. To make sure they understood, I mimed what I assumed was the international sign for vomit and pointed to the floor.
“Vooommmmiittt,” I said in the voice I used when I wanted them to repeat me. “Vooommmmiittt.”
I then tried to fold the new vocab into a grammar point.
“Too many vomit?” I asked. “Nooooo. Too much vomit. Tooooo muuuuuuuuch vooommmmiittt.”