A Series of Unfortunate Events

a Fortunate Event: Kim's new kitten, Loma, having a beer

I’ve heard about this series of books for teenagers from younger friends, and despite the books’ utter lack of any worth, literary or entertainment, whatsoever (at least from hearsay), the series’ name truly makes a fitting title for this week’s blog post. For the week itself, though extremely busy with midterms and other fun stuff, was promising to be relatively normal and insignificant until a series of events pushed it towards the ‘unfortunate’ end of the spectrum.

None of these occurred through any fault of mine, so ‘unfortunate’ is a pretty accurate appellation. The week started out innocuously enough, with my classes going as normal and nothing special except for my spending extra time to prepare for my midterm exams. The first event happened on Thursday. I was in class 14 and doing an exercise where the students had to draw an image from a dream they’d had recently. I was going to use the pictures to talk about interpretation and analysis; how we talk about the meanings of things. The students would have to stand up and explain their dreams, then I would introduce phrases like “this______ represents/stands for/symbolizes _________.” After doing so, I would collect the pictures, mix them up, and give each group of two students a random picture which they would have to try to explain. I wanted to teach the students not only these phrases, but also how to start guessing the meaning of something they might not know anything about; how to, as we say in college, bullshit your way through a class – or actually come up with valuable insights off the top of your head, while thinking on your toes.

So the kids were drawing, and I was pacing the classroom making sure they were all on task. As I went along the row nearest the window, I thought I caught a whiff of smoke. “I wonder what that is?” I remember thinking. “It must be some old guy burning juniper branches outside or something.”

I walked up to the front of the class, and when I reached the teacher’s desk I turned around and scanned the students. Most students were on task, drawing a picture from their imagination. But when my eyes reached the windowside row, I caught a glimpse of intense, flaring orange and red under a desk. I stared again; the kid at the desk was huddled underneath it and not paying attention to anything that was going on. I came closer and suddenly saw a large whitehot flame sizzling and smoking and cracking on the underside of the desk. The student had started a fire under his desk, using hairspray and a lighter to ignite reams of worksheets from class.

I blew up. “What the fuck are you doing? Put out the fire right now!” I hauled the student out of his desk and straight to the teacher’s office, where I told the head teacher (who I’d already bothered that class period about a girl who wouldn’t give up her cell phone) in Chinese that the kid had started a fire in class. She instantly blew up at him and I was forgotten. I ran back downstairs to find another student starting to experiment with the hairspray and lighter, but (thankfully) not lighting any paper. I quickly took them away.

“Lighting a fire in class is not only disrespectful,” I said, “but stupid and dangerous. No matter how much you hate school right now – even if you want to burn it down – you cannot start a fire in class. If anyone even so much as tries this ever again, you will be hauled straight to the principal who will definitely ask for your parents to come into school for a meeting.”

I went on like that for a while, as I was pretty angry. Finally class was over, and I spent the rest of the day pretty much in a funk. How and why would a student start a fire in class? The incident seemed to me the height of disrespect (not to mention the danger) coming from a student. How ridiculous could the students get? The student who started the fire has definitely been one of my worst students all semester, but I was still shocked to see the flickering orange of flames lighting up the underside of a desk in my crowded classroom.

The kid, at least, actually got punished: he had to bring his parents into school to meet with the principal and had a three-day suspension from school.

But my illusions of actually having any influence whatsoever were dashed the next day during my midterm exam. I had been arguing with Mr. Wang about my midterm all week: when would it be? where? Mr. Wang was unwilling to tell me until Wednesday evening, when he decided it would be Saturday night from 5-6pm. On Thursday, I told all of my classes the time of the exam. But immediately after I got out of my last class (6pm), Mr. Wang met me at the door.

“We changed your exam time,” he said.

“When is it now?”

“It’s at 5.10pm tomorrow evening.”

“But none of my classes know that! All of my students think the exam isn’t until Saturday!”

“That’s OK.  Someone will inform them tomorrow.”

So my exam was set for Friday afternoon (not that my students knew). All of my six classes would take the exam at the same time in their own classrooms, sitting cheek to jowl. Because I had anticipated such a situation, I had created five different versions of each exam and sorted them such that no student would be sitting near another student with the same exam. This precaution took me quite some time; I spent hours on Thursday and Friday copying, stapling, and sorting exams. Finally they were all ready, and I came to Mr. Wang on Friday ready to give the exams out to the proctors who would be monitoring each classroom of students while I floated around to answer questions.

The six proctors came in, and Mr. Wang explained how I wanted the exams handed out. He also explained the procedures: the exam would be one hour long (though the class period was only 45 minutes), I would float to answer questions, and any students that were cheating should have their papers taken away. All of the proctors nodded that they understood, and went away to distribute papers and start the exam.

In Senior 1 class 10, as well as Senior 2 classes 11 and 13, there were no problems. The teachers carefully monitored the students (I checked in from the classrooms’ back windows to see what was happening in my absence) who worked diligently at their desks. However, my other classes had some problems. In class 12, the only problem was that the proctor forgot it was an hour-long exam. After 45 minutes, she collected the papers and was taking them to Mr. Wang’s office when I caught her in the hallway.

“What are you doing?” I said. “This is an hour long exam!”

“Oh,” she said. “I forgot. It’s too late now.”

But that was not a major problem, as class 12 (my best class) would still have, despite their reduced test-taking time, by far the highest test average of any of my classes. The real problem was in Senior 2 class 14, and (to a lesser extent) in Senior 1 class 11. In these classes, the proctors (there were two in each class) teamed up to actually help the students cheat on the exam.

This was how the scheme worked: one proctor would sit at the front of the classroom reading a book or magazine and totally ignoring the students. The other teacher would stand at the doorway and scan the hallway outside for any sign of my presence. If this hallway monitor caught sight of me, she would quickly turn back inside the classroom and yell to the students: “back to your desks, the foreign teacher’s coming!” This was the signal for the students to stop collaborating and pretend like they were doing their own work – at least for the three or four minutes I was present. After I had left the classroom, the teacher would scan the hallway to make sure I was gone (and not watching at the back window) before giving the class the all-clear signal.

I was fortunate enough to observe what was going on in Senior 1 class 11 during a proctor’s momentary lapse in vigilance, and got it confirmed by a student in the class. I exploded at the proctor in Chinese: “I spent hours making five exams and have taught the students all semester. If they have questions they can ask me. But I will not let them cheat. If students cheat in my class they get a zero. I will tell Mr. Wang about this. Understood?”

He understood, but didn’t care; next time I came upstairs I saw the same system in action. But at least in class 11, the students respect me enough that most of them did not actually seem to be cheating. However, the situation was different in class 14, which (after I figured out what was going on from class 11) was a hotbed of raucous yelling and cheating. The door to the classroom was open, and I could hear the raucous students screaming and roughhousing from two floors above the classroom. When I finally went down to check in, the ‘reading’ proctor was sitting helplessly in front of the students, who she had tried to alert about my arrival. But to no avail: students were hovering over each others’ desks, had their textbooks and dictionaries and cell phones out, and were cheating up a storm.

By now I was furious. “The students are obviously cheating,” I told the proctor. “They are using their books and the internet, and this classroom is total chaos. They are cheating, and you’re supposed to control them.”

“I know,” she said, and gave me a look of utter hopelessness.

This remark infuriated me even more, and I knew I would have to leave unless I wanted to have a fit in front of sixty students. “You haven’t done shit to control them,” I muttered under my breath in English as I stormed out of the classroom.

After the exam was over, I told Mr. Wang what happened and asked him to make sure that I would never have those proctors again. He seemed surprised and upset, and agreed fully, but didn’t do anything about the current situation. I spent the weekend grading the tests, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with class 14’s exams. I didn’t get to them until Sunday afternoon, but when I finally reached them I realized I didn’t have to do anything at all: the class average for the exams was less than a passing grade (56%), almost twenty points below the average for any of my other classes. I felt a perverse satisfaction from these students’ terrible results; despite (or maybe because of) rampant cheating, they had utterly failed the exam. Needless to say, this set of exam fiascos made me pretty angry for the entire weekend; I spent the entire time grading, except for a couple of fast and angry runs to get out my frustration at everything that had occurred. I felt like nobody cared at all what happened, that to the school and the other teachers I was unimportant and insignificant at this point.

Monday was my only day of class this week, as the students are currently in midterms, so I decided to show “Karate Kid” in my classes after handing back the exams. Except in class 14: the projector was broken, so I spent the period going over the exams with the class. Again, I felt a perverse satisfaction in the fact that they couldn’t see the movie. Sad but true: these kids are really frustrating me on a daily basis, so it’s nice to ‘get back’ at them occasionally. I know this is a destructive and negative sentiment to harbor against my own students, but it’s helping me come to terms with the shit that Class 14 continually dishes out to me.

After my Monday classes, I quickly packed my bags and jumped in a taxi to go to the east side of town, where I was planning to get a car and go to Rebgong. A week in Rebgong was just what I needed to relax after a stressful week (not to mention a stressful weekend), so I was feeling pretty good as the taxi sped down 昆仑路 towards the Rebgong-car-place (not sure what to call it). All of a sudden, there was some kind of disturbance or commotion ahead in the middle of the road. The driver slammed on the brakes, and we swerved and skidded and CRUNCH rammed into a car in front of us, pushing it into another of couple cars, which in turn crashed into each other. I braced myself for the shock but was not quick enough; my head went flying forward into the metal grate surrounding the driver’s seat and I heard a crack in my nose. I covered my nose with my hands and, after I was sure the car had stopped, raised my head up to look around and take stock of the situation. I felt my nose to make sure it was OK, and it didn’t feel too bad. Then I felt a sticky wetness dripping off my hand to the taxi floor. I took a look down, and saw that my hand was covered in blood, which was gushing out of my nose and through my fingers onto the carpeted seat and floor of the vehicle. I quickly brought my hand back up to my nose to try and slow the bleeding, and quickly realized something was wrong; my nose was definitely out of alignment, and I could already feel a lot of swelling below my nose and in my cheeks.

I quickly got out of the taxi to see what was going on, and was hit with a wave of dizziness; I leaned against the vehicle until it went away. When it finally subsided, I took a look around. The entire front of our taxi was squashed, crushed beyond repair. There were at least seven other vehicles somehow involved in the accident, which by now was causing a massive traffic jam behind us (as only one lane was still passable). The accident included several taxis, as well as some private cars and some of those three-wheeled carts that are so ubiquitous in Xining; all of the drivers were furiously gesticulating and arguing over the damage down to the vehicles and who was at fault. I was the only person who had any kind of visible injury whatsoever, so I started screaming my head off.

“I need to go to the hospital! I need to go to the hospital!” I screamed in Chinese, blood running down my face and dripping off my hand into the roadway. Some of the other drivers turned to look at me, and then went back to arguing. I kept yelling, but they kept arguing; they were concerned about the cost of the damage. One passenger finally came over and checked in on me. “Are you OK?”

“I need to go to the hospital, my nose is broken!” I said. By now, there was also a massive traffic jam on the OTHER side of 昆仑路 caused by people slowing down to take a look at the 老外 with a bloodied face. Does entertainment in Xining get much better than this? Apparently not; I can’t remember ever getting so much attention. In the meantime, I had pulled out my cell phone and was calling everyone I knew, but nobody picked up except for Bill. Bill quickly mobilized a bunch of people to meet me, and told me to try and make my way to the Red Cross Hospital. I tried to pick up my bag, but instantly felt woozy and had to put it down. Finally, a high school student noticed my distress and helped me cross the street and get in a taxi. A few minutes later, I arrived at the hospital, where I waited for Sarah, Devin, and the others to arrive. The taxi driver insisted on charging me full fare despite the blood which was still gushing out of my nose. Finally, the others arrived and we went into the hospital and up to the 15th floor, where a doctor took one look and told me I had to get a CT scan. Maria and Mr. Wang arrived, and – after a bunch of administrative procedures – helped me get the scan. The people in the CT scan department told us that while we could get the results, we couldn’t get the image until the following morning. So after a few fun hours at the hospital, we all piled into taxis and – after requesting that the driver take it slow – made our way back to the 师大 area. I spent the night with Devin and Sarah in case anything happened, and went back to the hospital this morning to get the image. I’m going to have to get a nose-straightening procedure of some kind in the next couple of days, so it looks like Rebgong is out for the week – at least until my dad comes on Friday.

With everything that happened, I’m extremely grateful to Maria, Mr. Wang, Devin, Sarah, and everyone else who helped me out over the past 24 hours or so. The problem is not serious and will quickly be resolved, but everyone responded quickly and effectively, and I have to thank you all for that.

So this week was an interesting mix of the boring and the overly exciting. That’s it for right now, as I have to go back to the hospital. But below, I just wanted to put a couple of pictures: some of my injury, and a couple pictures of Kim’s new kitten to ameliorate any disgust you have after looking at my bloody face.

good morning sunshine!

smile and say 茄子 for the camera!

Devin likes Loma (kitten). Loma likes beer

so cute

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One Response to A Series of Unfortunate Events

  1. Kailah says:

    Oh man you were late for Halloween with that get-up.
    Way to be upbeat about it all, I guess….

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