Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gates of Hell are Always Open

My students are late. Yet again late. It is Thursday and there is morning assembly and this means the entire Junior High of 6th through 10th grade is sitting cross legged on the hard cement court quad to play their reed flutes and receive their public demerits and rewards and then return to my class fifteen minutes late dragging their feet while I stand in the doorway smiling. The lesson is completely ready. There are introductory journals, pre-reading questions and hand drawn pictures, vocabulary outlines, and higher-order thinking questions which require true reflection and deep thought already written on the board.
I have been busy.
My ninth graders are reading an excerpt from Le Ly Hayslips’ autobiography, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places about growing up in a peasant village in 1950’s era Vietnam. She describes the hardships, the struggles, the conflicts of peasants and communist fighters and all the while being stuck in the middle planting rice.
To get students ready I have an activity. I am going to role-play the importance of rice. I have five students come to the front to be my sons, and another five to be my daughters. I am the old woman, the mother. I roll my pant legs up and put on a triangular bamboo hat and wrap a shawl around my shoulders and bend my body like a question mark in front of them.
“Oh!” I spill the grains of rice on the floor from a clear plastic bag.
“Oh no, our dinner!” I cry. “Who will help me pick them up? Where are my children with the hungry mouths? Where are my children with the rumbling bellies? Who will help us to live?”
The students spend the next fifteen minutes of class picking up grains of rice off the floor. On their hands and knees under desks, behind the chairs, flicking off dirt and dust bunnies and putting them back in the clear plastic bag. It is all I can do to watch this and keep myself restrained. I want to scream. I want to howl aloud. It is a huge investment of class time, but I believe in the importance. I want them to feel what it is to go without, to truly suffer, to connect with the poverty of this story and discover how fortunate they really are. I know they’ve never worked a day in their lives. Rich parents have seen to that. Daughters covered in silk parasols. Boys pampered like princes. But not this moment, bent over on the floor, looking up at me groaning on the verge of tears.
“Oh Teacher, this is too hard.”
“Oh Teacher, we are so tired.”
I look down at them and point. “You missed one my child. How are we to feed the village if we waste even one?”
I had been planning this activity since the afternoon before. For over a month every Monday and Wednesday after school I have been tutoring a study group on the GEPT, a National Taiwanese Placement Exam for High Schools. It is of paramount importance if students want to attend a prestigious institution. Yet for each class period, for hours now, my students come to the group without study materials, arriving late, sitting and chattering to one another as I stand in front of them imploring for their attention. They don’t address me, neither saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Thank you,’ and refuse to participate or take me seriously, even cursing aloud when I push them to think about their futures.
So I quit.
The class is full of twenty students and I booted half of them out and spent the rest of the evening calling their parents on the phone. I said their children were rude and abhorrent. They showed no respect for me, the school, the effort, or the money the parents were spending. To my surprise, half the parents agreed with me. They told me to beat them next time, to take out a wooden stick or bamboo rod and beat them over the hands or thighs. I actually stared at the end of the receiver in my hand speechless. The other parents said it was my fault, questioning my ability, stating that I should know how to teach their children, that as an instructor it was my duty to volunteer to work extra hours, to show them the right way, to model hard work. I left the conversations empty and hollow. Didn’t they know I was volunteering my time? Didn’t they see how much extra effort I was putting into this job? What am I doing here? I thought. What am I doing with these people? It was absolutely shameful. It was then I planned the rice activity. Spilt rice: like all my efforts tossed and left to rot on the floor.
Time moves on.
A week later we are wrapping up our Nonfiction Unit, reading breaking news stories, collecting in-depth stories, connecting to human interest pieces, and pouring through magazines. I bring in stories of Taiwan’s H1N1 vaccination donations to other countries, toxic pollutant clean-ups in southern cities, and reconstruction after the late summer’s typhoons. I tell the students the following day they are to bring in a newspaper story and report it to the class. It must be current and they must explain why it was interesting to them personally.
Those were the guidelines of the assignment. Something they could hold up and present to the class. Something they could translate into English and speak about in front of a group. I had no idea it would completely backfire.
The first student to stand up was Jerry. “The story I have chosen is about the most expensive house in the world. It cost 480 million dollars, has 100 rooms and a kitchen that can prepare 800 meals. I like this story because I want to make enough money to buy it.”
“Okay,” I said. Shallow but acceptable, we were off to a decent start. I had no idea what was about to happen, “Thank you Jerry. Who is next?”
The next student was Aimee, “The story I have chosen is about…” she looked at her boyfriend Aden who whispered something in English. “Rape,” she said. “There is a father who had sex with his daughter and a mother who had sex with her son. This has gone on all of their lives. The police called it ‘ridiculous.’ I chose this story because I like shocking stories.”
The class was silent. These are 8th graders and I wasn’t sure if I should make a rule not to speak about graphic details. It was a public newspaper after all, and the reporting was real.
The next student to rise was Sunny, “The story I found was about kidnapping and torture. A man…,” she lifted up the newspaper headline to which the whole class groaned, “I want to kill him,” she said. “He kidnapped this woman and tortured her sexually with an electronic device for a month. Then she died.”
Sick to my stomach, I didn’t want to continue with the exercise. “How did the police catch him?” I winced.
“The man was so stupid,” Aimee replied. “He brought the dead woman to the hospital and said he found her. The police arrested him there.”
“Ummm, that’s repulsive.” I quickly went to the next student.
“My story is about a woman who had breast surgery,” Sarah smiles, “The machine that put plastic in her chest broke the bag and she almost died,” I think it is funny.”
“Sarah what? Why would you say that?”
“Teacher Brian that story is not so bad,” Michael, the smallest boy in class interrupts. “My story is about a school principal who was looking at naked pictures on the internet. He said they were emailed from a student but no one believed him.”
I was feeling dizzy. “Class, I think the stories you are choosing are…” I was interrupted by Shantelle.
“My story is even funnier. There was a man who smelled very badly during sex and so his girlfriend made him have an operation to cut out his glands. I chose this story because it is gross when people smell bad.”
“Okay, class stop!” I put up my hands for everyone to cease. “That is enough!”
“But Teacher,” Shantelle implored, “these stories are real. They are bad, but they happened. We must not be afraid to talk about them.”
“Yes, but your age. You are so young to see and know these things.”
The class laughed. “Oh Teacher Brian,” Tiffany said, “the Chinese have an expression, they say…” she murmured something incoherent in Mandarin, “It means, ‘The Gates of Hell are Always Open.’ People are evil. Nothing will change this. The sooner we know this the better.”
I stared at their faces. I wanted to tell them –No. That the world was full of good people doing good things, that lives would be measured by how much goodness one did, but I could see my words would fall on deaf ears.
It was Aden who saved me.
“I have a good story,” he said, standing with a newspaper cut from the front page. “My story is about Green Architecture in Taiwan. This is a model of a new building downtown that will cost 80 million dollars. Its outside is made entirely of solar panels. I chose this story because it is good for the environment.”
“Thank you, Aden.” I smiled, confident that we had turned a corner.
But from here the class fell apart: Tiffany reported on an 8 year old boy who fell into the river and was missing for three days before his body was found. She said as a writer she felt the image of a child’s body floating in the river was intriguing. “Intriguing,” she looked the word up in the dictionary to my dismay.
Quintin came next, reporting on a murdered four year old whose skull was bashed in by her mother and two aunts who left the body in an apartment bathtub full of ice next to an electronic spinning fan. “The woman was caught by police when she went on-line and asked a chat room how to get rid of a dead body. She was burning the remains when the police opened her door.”
By now my eyes are bloodshot.
“Class,” I begin pleading, “isn’t there anyone who can report something positive?”
“I can,” Dave raises his hand. Dave just got back from Beijing where he was traveling on business with his father. “My story is about the cool inventions of 2009. The first are ‘Translation Glasses’ if you wear them, they can instantly translate a word into any language.”
“I have another,” YoYo chimes in, “My story is about a meteor shower occurring last night. I chose it because in the city I can never see stars and I want the sky to be beautiful.”
“Me too,” Katie said, “My story is about Johnnie Depp, the ‘World’s Most Sexiest Man.’ He has won the award twice: Great actor, good father, and very sexy.”
Her enthusiasm almost knocks me over.
“Thank you class, thank you.” I see I am smiling too and can’t help myself. “You know, even when you were telling me these horrific stories, I still couldn’t believe it. I would rather hear something joyful, something clean and good. I know the world is hard and mean, but there is still goodness. I know there is.”
The bell rings. I have survived another class, another day. I wait for all the students to leave and I close the door and sit in the dark with my eyes closed and breathe.
The following day I am sitting in my office when a group of students enter. It is my GEPT study group. They have a card. It is addressed to “Teacher Brian.” Inside it says exactly the same thing:
Thank you for your time. It helped me a lot. –Louie
Thank you for teaching us. –Caleb
Thank you for using your time to help. –Robert
Thank you for your teaching. –Rex
Thank you, we learned a lot. –Yuno
Thank you for your words. –Ellen
I closed the envelope and put it in my desk. I still believe in the innocence of the world. I still believe that people can be good. The gates of hell may always be open, but may the gates of heaven never close.


  1. H-
    there's a message waiting for you in your inbox. :D

  2. hahahahahahahhahahahahahha.
    the door of hell is always open for you!

  3. “My story is about a school principal who was looking at naked pictures on the internet. He said they were emailed from a student but no one believed him.”

    fony-yuan senior high school...