Pennies, Street Kids and Blood Pressure Medicine

I was looking forward to an ‘easier’ day on Tuesday as I knew that would have the older class, the same one that I had on Saturday. Monday’s experience with the younger kids had left me a bit frazzled, just by virtue of loudness, their number and my tendency for claustrophobia. So I waltz into class yesterday (a bit late as no cab driver in Beijing seems to be able to find this place on the first try) with a smile on my  face and an actual lesson plan in my backpack.  Well, as Gomer Pyle said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise”….the room was filled to the gills just like on Monday.  Turns out that only about half the kids come on Saturday.  I wondered why 5 boys were standing against the wall outside of the class room yesterday…the room was full, no more chairs and they stuck their heads through the windows to ‘attend class’.

Wednesday's eager faces

My lesson plan had originally revolved around the ability to address individual students with questions.  I’d like them to stop repeating for just a moment and answer a question in a full sentence (Do you like candy?  “Yes, I like candy“).  This doesn’t work in setting where you can’t even see all the kids.  So we went back to reading the text out loud.   I noticed this morning that the sound waves are starting to make the skin peel off my face.

At break time, I was again showered with attention, particularly by the younger kids.  I was given candy, which I dutifully ate, little gifts (ballons, beat up little plastic toys, pieces of cloth (?)).  I was given a little bag of flavored ice.  Very interesting.  It was salty, but not too bad…I only prayed that it was not made with the local water.  Then I was given a ‘fizzy candy’ (yes, I’m sure they all knew what they were doing) which caused me to start foaming at the mouth.  Needless to say, even the kids who are not too sure what I’m all about thought this was hilarious and I got points for being a good sport.

One little boy has become my constant companion, protector, confidont (although most of the time I have no clue what he is talking about) and attache.  He asks me over and over, ‘How many countries have you visited?’, ‘Do you like China?’, ‘Will you come back tomorrow?’.   In the courtyard are recess time, he often holds my hand and fends other kids off.  I ask him not to chase the others away, but he has obviously claimed me.  Yesterday, he asked if I had been to Korea – to which I said I had not.  He said that he speaks Korean.  I understand a few words in Korean and I can confirm that he does speak Korean.  I asked if he was from Korea and he stopped talking.  I’m guessing his family are North Korean refugees who have been here for a while.

After almost two hours of  marathon ‘repeat-after-me’ boredom, I decided to try 15 minutes of individual interaction.  I had a bunch of American pennies in my  bag, so I would ask the question in the text:  How much is the candy?   and hoped against hope to get the answer we had been repeating over and over and over: The candy is one penny.    I squeezed down the aisle and would look individual students in the eyes and ask  HOW MUCH IS THE CANDY. The vast majority had no clue what to say.  The few who did, got a penny.  I said that these were just small souvenirs and that they could keep them.  They were thrilled to see the pennies.  Here is what surprised me, though:  Every last penny came back to me at the end of class.  Every penny.  I told them in Chinese that this wasn’t the idea and that these were just small prizes to keep for those who responded correctly.  No deal.  They all said the same thing:  “Laoshi, I can’t take this”.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but I think they appreciated the offer.  They are awfully good kids who don’t have very much at all.

After school, my little shadow and three other boys (one of whom I had sent to the Director that day for being disruptive) all followed me down the dusty dirty road to the main highway.  They asked questions, most of which I didn’t understand, offered to buy me food from street vendors (remember, these kids are about 10yrs old) and cleared my way of any scruffy dogs or other kids on bikes.   There was obviously big juju here walking down the street with the old foreigner.   We got to the main road and I was suddenly reminded that these really are tough street kids.  Two of them ran out onto the 3 lanes of traffic coming at them at about 50km an hour.  If you have been to China, you know that cars really don’t stop for pedestrians.  They might slow down to get around them….they might.  The kids were stepping in front of oncoming taxis (all them with passengers already) trying to get one to stop for me.  It’s good that I had remembered my blood pressure medicine that morning.  I nearly flipped out.  I pleaded for them to get out of the traffic which they eventually did.  I politely told them that, since there were no cabs coming I would walk alone to the next major intersection and catch a cab there and that I would see them tomorrow.  They bought it and left.  Whew!

I will leave you with this harrowing story in the hope that my next blog will be of a more demure and culturally interesting nature.  This afternoon I am working with the oldest kids in the school – just one hour. What can happen in an hour?

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