During the lunch period today, a student took me aside and asked if she could meet with me after her afternoon classes were over. She had a piece of writing she wanted to talk about with me, she said, and didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with other students around.
After seventh period, I met the student in our library. The piece of writing she gave me to look at turned out to be an elegy to her head teacher, who died last Thursday. As I was reading, she lowered her head; tears started silently falling down her cheeks. And I was confronted yet again with a dilemma that has been at the forefront of my mind over the past few days: What can I do? How can I really help?
On Wednesday afternoon, two students were missing from one of the second-year classes. When I asked as to their whereabouts, the other students said they had gone to visit their head teacher, who was in the hospital in Xining.
The next morning, I went to their classroom to find it empty. Asking another class, I quickly discovered that the teacher had died during the night. He had been in his fifties.
The teacher was one of those people who, in your mind’s eye, belongs permanently to a place – a person who has seemingly always been there and seemingly will always remain. For this teacher, the place in question was our school, where he had been employed upon graduating university in the mid-1970’s. He had taught math for thirty-five years, and as such had been the school’s longest-serving member of the faculty. His death was sudden; he had been in the hospital for less than two full days. Rumors, fast as a wildfire on a winterdry grassland, were whispered among teachers and students as to what had happened; cancer was the most frequent theory.
Though I knew the teacher reasonably well and interacted with him on a near-daily basis, the most personal aspect of my connection to his death did not, in fact, directly involve him. Instead, it involved the students. This teacher had been the head teacher for one of our classes, and had done a fantastic job working with the students and making them feel supported. As such, the news of his sudden passing hit them hard. Grief was magnified by surprise; the reality of the impermanence of life, the transience of everything, was brought suddenly and jarringly into the forefront, naked under the unpleasant glare of the highpowered spotlights, bare and open and visible for all to see, a spectacle almost rude in its unglossed truthfulness, a spectacle from which none could avert their eyes, minds or hearts.
Last Saturday afternoon, I suggested to the students of that class that writing may be a good way to help them process their feelings of grief – or whatever other emotions they may want to deal with. Writing a letter, writing positive memories of the teacher, writing just anything that comes into your head, I said, can help us make ourselves feel better. We often just need to get out our feelings; with our (my and my students’) families and support systems far away, writing can be a good way to let out emotions out – and, as such, give us blessed release and help us calm our inner turmoils. I told students that they could write in any language, and that they didn’t have to turn it in to me; if they wanted, they could throw it in the river or burn it in a fire or keep it in their journal. This wasn’t an assignment for me; it was an emotional release valve for them.
Several students came to me and, saying they had written pieces over the weekend, admitted that the activity of writing down their feelings or memories had made them feel much better. I was pleased to hear this had helped them, and hoped that more students would do the same. But none of this prepared me for the student who came in this afternoon.
As she started crying, my mind started racing. What am I supposed to do here? How can I help? What is culturally permissible for me as a foreigner and as a man – and what is simply right on the basic level of human nature?
I am these students’ teacher, but I am also more – and less. I am more in that I presume to serve as an independent support system, an outsider in which students can confide, an occasional relief from the pressure of their other courses, an exotic bundle of different – foreign – resources and emotions and perspectives and ideas. But I am also less. When we communicate, it is in their third language (we generally don’t speak in Chinese, and we can’t communicate well in Tibetan due to my continuing failure to learn the language effectively). My outsider status, sometimes such a benefit, is at times a huge liability as well, for I will always be a spectator to their culture, traditions and customs. I will never know what is culturally appropriate, or how people deal with grief or anger or frustration or any other of the myriad emotions we all experience as human beings. And consequently, I will never be able to help these students process their emotions or experiences or desires or fears to the degree that I want to help them. As an outsider, I can do so much, but there is only so much I can do.
Handling the document with shaking hands, the student and I went over the elegantly written piece that she had written. She asked in a broken voice if I could correct the grammar, but I could barely bring myself to put red pen to the paper. I corrected a few lines before I put down the pen.
“This isn’t for me,” I reminded the student. “The grammar is fine. I understand what you’re saying. But here, meaning is the only important thing. This writing is for you. I can’t correct any more. This is yours – and because of that, it is perfect just as it is.”
We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, she got up and, looking me in the eyes, mouthed “thank you” before quietly shuffling out of the room.
I am a teacher, teaching and communicating in my students’ third language. I can do so much, and yet there is only so much I can do.