Friday, October 30, 2009

In my younger and more vulnerable years

My students hate me, I'm sure of it. My old students love me. They always tell me how much they miss my class. Of course, they do; I would miss my class too. Last year all we did was play games to get the Freshman to open their mouths. Now I teach Juniors, who are effectively Seniors because they graduate in three years. I taught them the word, "Senioritis" because they all have it. They don't want homework (who does?), especially not from the push-over foreign devil. After I assigned the first chapter of The Great Gatsby all I heard was complaints. It's too hard, they kept saying. It is hard. Sometimes it takes me until the fourth or fifth class of teaching a passage to really get what Fitzgerald is saying. The guy is so beyond me that I'm apprehensive to even claim that. But I wanted to challenge them. I wanted to be real teacher and I wanted them to learn something, instead of just play games. So after every reading assignment, I give a short, harmless quiz to make sure they've read it. The results, so far, have varied: some classes did fairly well, while others failed miserably. While one bad apple does seem to spoil the whole batch, I think dedication spurs others on just as effectively. Those classes that do the work and get it seem to be led by certain ardent students. One girl named Sunny read more than I asked the class to, including the last chapter because she wanted to see what happens (ala my sister, Faith).

I should have seen it coming. In my experience, many of my students are shameless cheaters. Whenever I've given a test, patrolling is a necessity, as the students will obviously look at each other's papers or pull out their books. It's absurd. Yesterday I had two classes in the morning. The first class failed the chapter 3 quiz miserably. As I patrolled the aisles, I saw their shame as they sat still without a clue and I pitied them. It is a hard book, after all, I thought. So I gave them one of the answers, outright, and a hint to another. They still failed miserably, but at least not pathetically. The class that directly followed had inverse results: nearly every answer was perfect, and identical. As I patrolled that class, I saw all the correct answers quickly written, and it was like a sinister revelation, like the end of The Usual Suspects. If I was holding a coffee mug, it would have soundlessly tumbled to the ground. I could feel the electricity in the air as the storm clouds hovered over me; I was angry. It wasn't just the test they were cheating, they were cheating me. I felt like a fool for having compassion on the previous class, not just because they abused me. I helped them because I wanted them to like me. It was also surprising that they were so juvenile. Junior college students banding together to cheat as a class in such an obvious fashion. The boldness was astounding. As I normally do when I'm angry, I breathed deeply and spoke softly as I collected their papers.

"Wow," I said sarcastically as I leafed through them in front of the class, "you guys did much better this time. I guess I should be happy, right?"

The students were smilingly timidly; they don't really understand sarcasm, which only encouraged me to lay it on thicker.

"Hm, all the answers are right," I said as I turned to write a short list on the board, "This leaves two options. One, everyone did the homework. Yay! Two," I paused and turned around for effect, "the other class told you the answers."

They all booed and hissed. Of course they didn't cheat, they said. I reminded them that I was a student for sixteen years. "I know," I enunciated. I told them that I really didn't want to have to make different quizzes for every class, but I would if I had to. They didn't like that very much. It took me a minute to collect myself as I was reading through Gatsby, I fumbled over the words, still feeling pangs here and there. Do i just shrug it off? I thought as I read the book aloud, Is forgiveness the answer here? I still have trouble discerning my heart (as Ryan would say): was I only upset because of my insecurity as a teacher? Am I allowed to be angry with them? How does my forgiveness towards them effect how I take measures to keep them from cheating again? No matter the reality of how I was hurt, the fact remains that I took it personally. Certainly, I have learned a basic lesson in teaching (in China): don't trust students just because they giggle and swoon when you smile at them. They want to get by without doing the work just as much as I did in high school, even if they are college students.

The cheating aside, I have felt more comfortable teaching these past few weeks. Finally, this week the students seem excited about reading Gatsby. They want to see what happens when Gatsby and Daisy meet "accidentally" at Nick's for tea (my favorite chapter). I'll end with my favorite line from the book: Nick is hovering around Gatsby's elaborate library as Gatsby and Daisy sit together on the sofa, allowing reality to flirt with, but eventually fall short of, their dreams:

No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man stores up in his ghostly heart.


I have donned a mustache for almost two weeks now and the students have taken notice. General dissatisfaction is the response from my girl students. Chinese girls don't much like facial hair, especially on the upper lip. Except for one. Lily sent me this text message immediately after leaving my class this Monday:

Jon, I like your moustache, which make you more handsome and maturity.

Sweet victory.

Notice the pants. and the awkwardness.