Recently, I have been thinking about my role as a teacher. Inside and outside the classroom, I sometimes have doubts about what I should do and what I should not do.
Well, I have always wanted to be a good teacher. I have had so many good teachers that I feel it would be injustice to not honour them and their teaching, should I end up a lousy one.
To seek clarity in my role as a teacher, I decided to write a series about my great teachers.
Today I want to write about Amy.
Meeting the Legend
I met her in my sophomore year. English Listening and Speaking. That was the first course I took with her. She walked into the language lab like a colourful whirlwind, her light brown hair tied up high in a bun, her long gown reminding me of some ethnic minority costumes in the CCTV Chinese New Year Gala. She looked like a witch. A good witch. Mary Poppins type.
She started introducing herself, literally presenting her entire life to us in 20 minutes. She spoke fast, but with clarity. American accent. Words gushed like a stream after rain. With my limited English at the time, I captured a few things:
Married, has a son, divorced.
Taught French in a college.
U.C. Davis. PhD in comparative literature.
A dreamer and a dream chaser.
Lived in Shenzhen. Hated it. Moved to Shanghai.
I thought to myself: I wish I could speak like her; I wish I had a life that rich and fascinating.
Moments in Class
Later I realized that, like any newbie, Amy was assigned to teach courses that nobody in the department wanted to teach: English Listening and Speaking,. English Reading and Writing, Advanced English Writing, and English Journalism. She didn’t know what she was doing. Yet, she always found a way to sneak in literature.
In English Listening and Speaking, she let us watch “The Joy Luck Club” and discuss mother-daughter relationships. She asked us to recite Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!,” when analysing the sailing scene in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. To show us how words could work like clay that we could move around and play with, she surprised us once with E. E. Cummings’ poem:
For English Reading and Writing I and II, she turned the two skill-based courses into a year-long content course called “The Great Books of Western Civilization”. We read Gilgamesh, Homer, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Woolf, Beckett. At the time, it was difficult to get hold of these books, and we were poor, so she photocopied all of them for us. I still have the thick bricks of the photocopied books in my room in Shanghai. My parents keep pestering me to throw them away. I have stopped them every time.
In Advanced English Writing, she performed an exercise with us whereby she cut up an essay on literary criticism, placed all of the sentences on the floor of the classroom, and asked us to piece them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. (I later used the same exercise on a dissertation chapter I was writing).
Struggles of a New Teacher
As for the journalism course, I could tell that she was struggling badly. She ended up printing out a website to use as a textbook. Despite her struggles, she still tried her best. She never bluffed. She told us when she didn’t know. Then she would go and check and return to us with answers. She even invited a foreign correspondent as a guest lecturer to share his experience working as a journalist in China. It was not a success.
The speaker was a bit too quiet for the large lecture hall we were sitting in; the talk was not that stimulating; we were not in the mood of listening. The class turned into a restless wave of noise, overpowering the guest. I saw Amy by the gate of the lecture hall, furiously staring at every one of us, standing silently as if to defend the poor guy who was still trying to carry on with his talk. I sat there nervously, trying to shush classmates sitting around me, but the chatting only got louder and louder. Amy brushed her tied-up hair with her fingers many times, making it an unconstrained mess. She looked like she was about to cry.
I can’t recall how that awkward lecture ended. But I do recall that when we returned to the lecture hall the next week, Amy was early. She stood there at the podium; the figure she cut was a bit smaller. She was no longer that larger-than-life buoyant and talkative witch. There was something solemn and determined in her eyes. She looked at all of us for a few minutes, waiting for us to settle. This time, we were all quiet.
“I am here to let you know that I am very disappointed. You need to learn to respect people. I give you the rest of the two hours of this lecture to reflect on your behaviour last week. I feel that in order to teach you, I have to refuse to teach today.” She walked out of the hall. The whole class turned into a screeching frenzy.
I thought: Well done Amy! You are such a badass!
Moments outside of Class
My parents’ apartment was in downtown Shanghai. When I was sick of the dorm, I would go back home to sleep. This happened once or twice a week. In Year 3, I discovered a secret shuttle bus from behind the Garden Hotel that took staff and students to the suburban campus of the university. The bus set off at 7:05 a.m., and, because it perfectly missed rush hour, I’d be able to get to Fudan in half an hour. One day, as I ran towards the bus and boarded at 7:04, Amy, sitting in the middle row, greeted me with a warm voice and a beaming smile: “Wen! How wonderful to see you!”
At the time, my English wasn’t fluent, and the right words often escaped me, but I always enjoyed the 30 minutes of conversation with Amy. For me, it was an extra listening and speaking class. It soon became a regular twice-a-week course on the bus. We talked about family, friends, food, studies. One time, Leslie Cheung was mentioned, not long after his suicide. I told her how much I loved his movies, and she told me many of her Chinese friends were devastated.
Another time, we talked about literature. I shied away and said: I am sorry, Amy. I don’t read much English literature. She said: Oh, Wen! Stop being so apologetic! One day, you will find your own passion. “Apologetic”, what a nice multisyllabic adjective; much better than “sorry”. “Passion”, what a powerful, fully charged, heated noun, I thought.
Every time we spoke of literature, without even getting into the details, Amy would turn into a very different person. She would gaze into the distance. It was the look of someone who had been touched. I remember several moments on our bus journeys, where Amy didn’t say anything (which was rare), but entered that state.
If I have to describe that state, I could say I saw it once, in one of the backstreets of Huaihai Road, on a late-winter afternoon. A peddler was selling freshly made popcorn. When the corn popped, the air was filled with the smell of sugar and butter and warmth. A child who was waiting for his turn soaked himself in that heavenly smell, closed his eyes and grinned. His body shook a bit, too. Amy had the same look as the boy every time she talked about literature. It is a state of pure happiness and love.
Somewhere in the middle of the third year, I began to feel that Amy was not just a teacher; a professor of English, but also a close friend. Yet, just as I started to assume she would do what a friend would do for me, she became my teacher again.
Once, I procrastinated and did not finish an essay on time. Before the class, I walked up to the podium and whispered, “May I submit the paper in 3 days? I need a bit more time to work on it.”
Amy frowned, “Submit it by midnight tonight via email, or you fail the assignment.” She said it so loudly that the rest of the class could hear. That night I wrote 1000 words in 2 hours. A Personal record. Still not broken.
Another time I forgot to pick up a recommendation letter on time. She waited in the wet, cold wind for half an hour. I sent my father to pick it up and then called her. “Sorry Amy,” I said timidly on the phone, “my dad forgot about the appointment.” “Oh Wen, that’s pathetic, blaming your father! If you would remember, he would remember.”
After taking all her courses and nailing all of them, I took a final year course on feminism, thinking I would definitely get an A. She gave me a B because the final paper was not solidly argued.
Life as Lessons, Lessons as Life
I often feel very blessed that I met Amy when I met her. She worked for the English Department for 4 years, and I had 3 of them.
I remember she used to have a stamp with “Ai Mei” carved on it. She’d use it to sign her marking. The red ink showed up at the end of her comments: “愛美”. It is her Chinese name, meaning “the love of beauty.” The name works in Chinese, but doesn’t really feel Chinese. The incongruity suits Amy though, as she doesn’t allow herself to fit too comfortably anywhere anyway.
She also gave us lovely handouts that were often colour printed with well-chosen fonts. She said to us, “Things should be beautiful, because life is beautiful.”
When we graduated, she wrote us an epic, in the style of Homer, immortalizing all 59 of us 2005 cohort vividly in the verse.
On a personal level, she encouraged me to join an exchange programme in Hong Kong, which eventually changed my life. She helped me out of an abusive relationship, telling me to stop falling for the same type of men, but to lift myself up to be the type of scholar I could admire. She also showed me her vulnerable sides as a divorced woman living alone in a foreign country, having to raise a son. I also witnessed her losing a battle with a male-dominated system: her work as a teacher was not recognized or rewarded despite students’ love.
Our lives became intertwined.
Recently, I have been thinking about boundaries. Boundaries between teachers and students. I have students of my own now. Do I do too much? Is my passion oppressive? Am I overly enthusiastic about literature? Do I care too much? Should I keep a safe distance or not? Teach students things beyond the syllabus or not? Should a job be just a job?
I then think of Amy. Obviously I haven’t done enough, or so I comfort myself.