At the main entrance of the classroom buildings on campus, there is a large canvas printed with 10 rules for the students to follow. While all 10 detail worthwhile pursuits, I have a few favorites. Like #6, which states: “Be frugal and humble. Pay attention to your personal hygiene. Never indulge in smoking or drinking. Nor should you spit around.” (That spitting part doesn’t seem to have caught on yet.) The title of my blog today is the second half of Rule #5, which states, “Take an active part in physical labor and treasure the progeny.”
While I do giggle a little when I read #5, isn’t there something beautiful about the way it’s stated? This is the phrase that’s been stuck in my head since school began.
I’ve decided to try debate with my Senior 1s, 2s, and 3s, and their first assignment is to write a persuasive speech on an assigned topic, from an assigned position. A classmate will argue the opposite position, and their peers will vote on who is more successful. None of their foreign teachers have done debate with them before, and actually, they’ve never done anything like this before in any class, so we’re all sort of giddy about it. Because I also want them to learn something about American current events, these first topics are largely based on controversies- big and small- that exist within public education and/or American teenage life. Introducing these topics means that I’ve found myself having to explain to these 7 senior classes why American students are plagued by things like binge-drinking, mental health challenges, traffic accidents, unhealthy lifestyles, extrinsic-only motivations, and so on. It’s really hard. More often than not, I hear myself saying, “You know, that IS a really big problem…the cause? I guess I don’t really know. Lots of things.” And when they ask, “Is it being addressed?,” I can only say, “Well…we try, but…it’s still a big problem. I don’t know why we haven’t figured it out yet…” It’s not that Chinese students have it all together, but the absolutely blank looks on their faces when I talked about underage drinking and teen drug use left me wondering why these problems are all too familiar to American students.
My Chinese students and I don’t share enough vocabulary for me to explain my meandering thoughts on these complicated issues and the small, subtle, scattered ways in which caring adults step in. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Would any of it explain why our young people have found so many ways to self-destruct and why we, as a society, haven’t been able to implement large-scale change? Why these adolescent pressures exist? Maybe the only answer I can give my students is a simple “I don’t know.”
But I do want my students back home to be healthier people. I worry about too many of them. I want them to always value their minds and and their hearts and their bodies, their families and friendships, their safety, their integrity. I think most adults share this view, yet these little humans who have barely begun to live can suffer from deep depressions, ruin their own bodies, withdraw from the people who love them, and worse. And they can fall into complacency, narrow-thinking, anger. I want them to be more curious, to feel their own intelligence and enjoy it in others, to keep their hands in the air with question after question but never ask, “How many points is this worth?” Every time I read “Treasure the progeny,” I ask myself over and over again: In what ways can I do this? How can I be better for my students?
Don’t get me wrong: plenty of the students I’ve taught have taught me about what it means to be well-adjusted and well-rounded and whole. Happy. To be a lifelong learner. They are models of resilience and patience and forgiveness. It’s just that this time away has given me space to think about what high school looks like at home, how hard it can be. The farther away I am from my American students, the more protective I feel of them. In some ways, I can’t wait to go home to begin anew the process of guiding these exciting new people, these bright spirits, so full of potential (and no, I totally don’t care about how cheesy that sounds). I want to be part of that generation of teachers who can push this generation of kids to be better people than they ever dreamed possible.
It sounds so lofty. But how can I give any less?
Teaching is the hardest job I can imagine (as it is also my only big-girl job ever, I’ll admit to some bias here), and sometimes the responsibilities of being an educator overwhelm me. But I’m grateful to China for helping me realize that I still have the idealistic passion for teaching that led me to this career in the first place. So I’ll add that last half of #5 to my unofficial list of ways in which I can live my life better.
Treasure the progeny, indeed. With all of the tough and teacherly love I’m about to throw down, they’ll be lucky if I don’t suffocate them.