Don’t translate that

IMG_6608There comes a moment for every teacher when they realize how much they love their students.

I’ve been here for six months. I spend more time at school than anywhere else. I see the same faces every day (or almost every day, depending on which classes I teach or which students decide to rough-house in the hallway I monitor during break).

The stages for teaching at a new school are metamorphic. Both the new teacher and the new students are fascinated by one another. There is some awkward shyness and general curiosity.

This quickly fades into what I like to call “judge and be judged.” That is to say, if you have a strong need for affirmation or personal approval…Don’t be a teacher. This job requires the ability to be scrutinized unmercifully by a hundred tiny people every day. I confess, sometimes I have to drag myself from my office to the cafeteria, pulling the shattered remains of my ego, vanity and overall sense of self-worth dejectedly behind.

I barely survived junior high myself. Teaching it is just as bad.

But putting aside the fact that I always feel like my jokes are funnier in my head (or in my office where I rehearse them), I have done okay. There are only two students who openly make fun of me now and one of them is doing it endearingly, I’m sure.

The third stage is The Crumbling. All the walls come down. The bad sides are shown like Gone with the Wind reruns projected in the park, just as the good sides burst forth in full, aromatic bloom. I love both, to be honest. I love my students who wait patiently at the foot of the chair I’m toppling off of while I pathetically attempt to whistle loud enough for the rest of the class to hear and be quiet. I also love my students who hide under my desk before I come in to see if they can make it through all of roll-call without being noticed.

My walls crumbled too. For starters, I stopped wearing heels months ago. That pretense needed to end. But I have also replaced my nervous giggle with a genuine laugh that comes forth untethered whenever our class shares an “inside joke” – can you believe I’m finally on the inside of something??

We had all gotten settled comfortably into this lovely stage of teacher-student relationship when something jolted the wagon.

This something is called “Edison” and it is an incredible program that brings young adults from other countries into primary schools for “cultural education.”

Teachers and students alike were excited to meet the guests and learn a little about the world.

It was a world-wind week with the dozen new “teachers” buzzing about the school, usually followed by a small fan club.

IMG_6595Monday and Tuesday I sat enraptured with my students as we learned about Chinese food like hot pot, impaled crickets and boiled rabbit’s head. We listened intently to the presentation on Egypt’s most exciting cities. We practically devoured the adorable girl from New Zealand who drew colorful chalk diagrams and kept saying, “I’m a Kiwi, but you can’t eat me!”

But as the week continued I noticed something stirring in me. It was so soft that it almost didn’t register. I don’t think I have felt it since senior year of high school when I took second place at three consecutive speech and debate tournaments to the same person (because I’m a nerd AND a loser – but three cheers for consistency!).

Jealousy.

It’s a funny thing, being jealous about other people’s attention. I still can’t figure out if it’s a display of how much we love others or how much we love ourselves.

But it was there, as sure as the bent fork that is always on top of the silverware pile in the cafeteria. The thing about jealousy is that’s it’s about as useless a feeling as a bent fork, but we use it anyway.

I mean, it made sense. I was no longer a novelty. I had no more secrets or fun facts. I give out homework, for Pete’s sake! These exciting (and good looking) young people (my age, really) came in with a rush of excitement and everyone was caught up. My most disruptive students had become church mice under the charm of these strange new visitors.

Why was I upset by this? Why was I so jealous of these fun, good-hearted people for helping my students learn about faraway places?

“It’s natural,” said my office mate. “We all feel that way when a new teacher comes in. The second broom looks like it does a better job but the first one did all the work.”

I chewed a pen and pondered her words. I’m the second broom, really. In this school I’m the new teacher, even if my students have got used to my American accent and Disney references.

IMG_6603The room was dim to help our eyes make out the clever power point display on the Smartboard (yes, a power point was actually clever – let’s pull out the Nobel Prize). In front of the class was a Persian boy doing a dual presentation on Iran and Australia. It was the last period on Friday and the attention spans of my fourth graders were thinning.

Finally, he opened up for questions. Hands shot in the air – much like they did for me when I first came to school.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“What’s your favorite food?”

“Do you have a pet?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

That last question is pretty common here. There were no untoward giggles or jabs when he said, “No, I don’t right now.” But I caught a glance from a little girl in the middle back row. She looked directly at me and smiled.

Maybe I wouldn’t have understood back in September, but unexciting, washed-up me knew exactly what that smile meant. I shook my head firmly and gave her a “Don’t you dare” stare. She defiantly shook her head back, raising her hand into the air.

She asked the question in Czech but I distinctly heard my name.

I grabbed the elbow of the ninth grader who had come in to help translate. She gave me a curious look.

“Do NOT translate that,” I told her. Now the kids were giggling.

“Don’t do it,” I insisted. “I will fail you on every test you take for the rest of the year.”

She smiled helplessly as the entire fourth grade class began chanting, “Jo! Jo! Jo!”

“They really want me to,” she said. Our poor guest speaker was shifting uncomfortably.

“What’s the question?” he asked (why he thought maintaining classroom transparency with fourth graders was a good idea, I will never know).

“They want to know if you think you and Mary would be good together,” said the ninth grader in the most awkward possible translation of the original question.

The speaker went as red as my sweater and I apologized profusely to his feet, unable to look him in the eyes. I won’t bother to describe how excruciatingly embarrassing this was – but I’ve had a good month so I guess I was due for an incident.

“Well,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Ah, see class? She’s older than me, so that wouldn’t really work.” He smiled cheerfully, if not sincerely, as if that had solved all our problems.

It was a no-win situation. The class was disappointed in the lack of romantic chemistry and I had just been called an old, undate-able woman.

But as I shuffled my students into the hallway toward the cafeteria, I felt all glowy. They had tried to set me up with someone they thought was cool, someone they’d been following around like puppies all week. It was an act of ownership, an ancient ritual practiced by every generation of students since the creation of cool (or at least single) teachers – we can ignore our teachers’ lessons and feeble attempts to silence the classroom because we know them well, but we ignore their feelings and sense of social appropriateness when we love them (all in pursuit of their best interests, of course).

IMG_6687That’s when we reached the next stage. I don’t know what it’s called yet. I just know it’s when I realized how much I love my students. They’re on my mind all the time. Their problems are my problems. I rejoice when they ace a test or volunteer an answer to a hard question or slide all the way down the stairwell railing without getting caught. I can’t wait to look for the fourth graders who hide under my desk or listen to the eighth graders rough-house in the hallway. Sometimes I just sit in the cafeteria after my lunch and look at all the faces, wondering who they’ll turn into and where they’ll all go.

I won’t get to keep them. They will move on, or I will have to – just like the Edison team that came and went in a sudden cloud of glorious fun. But I am so honored, so delighted, so happy that I can be their teacher.

For a time, they are mine.

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