"Ni hao" (on teaching, another in a series)

You’ve always loved this drawing. One of your students gave it to you long ago, when you quit your teaching job at South High School. It was his parting gift to you. His name was Binh, which means “peace” in Vietnamese, and he had emigrated to the U.S. when he was a baby.

Binh was a quiet person and he carried himself with deep confidence. You remember the first time you ever saw him, in your Chinese I classroom. He sat in the middle of the rows of desks, his black hair falling sharply over one eye. I bet he’s a dancer, you remember thinking. That was the grace with which he carried himself.

He’s one of many students that you remember from those days, faces that occasionally surface in your mind. You wonder where he is, if he went on to art school. When you think of Binh, you always picture him living on the California coast, in a beach town like Venice, Santa Monica even. It wouldn’t surprise you at all if he were a famous artist now.

The drawing Binh made for you has moved with you everywhere you’ve moved since those long-ago teaching days. It was one of the few things you took with you during a stage of great upheaval over a decade ago. You’ve pounded nails into, let’s see, four walls in four different apartments and houses in the intervening years, in order to hang the drawing so your eyes could fall on it every day.

You think of it as your little Chinese girl.

“Go take a photo of my little Chinese girl, will you?” you said the other day to your youthful companion, pointing to your broken leg. She obligingly trudged upstairs and took the photo.

Your little Chinese girl hangs right now on an upstairs living room wall, just above a desk that you bought at a garage sale and painted orange. On the desk sits a lamp, also bought at a garage sale, and in front of the desk sits an office chair on wheels, which you found on the curb and rolled three blocks to your house. Whenever you walk into that room you look over and say nihao to the little Chinese girl.

She’s looking up at her teacher. She’s wearing a puffy padded Chinese jacket. You imagine it’s winter where she is, and her school is unheated. Her teacher, whose arm and hand are all that’s visible of her, stands in front of the little girl’s desk. She too is wearing a quilted jacket. Their breath plumes into the cold air of the schoolroom.

You feel simultaneously cold and warm every time you look at the little Chinese girl, and every time you look at her, you think of Binh. You picture him as he was in your classroom, how perfect his written Chinese characters were, as perfectly formed as the letters he wrote in English, all in capitals, darkly pencilled on sheets of lined notebook paper.

Other gifts from students can be seen in every room of your house. There’s a heavy brass oversize Chinese fortune cookie on a shelf in the kitchen. A Hmong tapestry over the back of a chair. A handmade black choker with little silver beads hanging from it. A bracelet of small, painted circles that looks, to your eye, like an art gallery taken down from its walls, miniaturized, and strung on elastic.

When you wear that bracelet, people remark on it. They reach out to touch it, turn and twist the tiny paintings. It’s an irresistibly touchable bracelet.

You weren’t much older than your oldest students when you first got that job at South High. (You would later learn that you were only a couple of years older than the very oldest, those who didn’t have a birth certificate and who had stated their ages as young enough, when they emigrated, so that they could go to school. So that they could learn English, learn to read, get an education. Get the tools they needed to get a job.)

Because you hadn’t ever intended to teach, you had never taken education classes or done any sort of student teaching. All you had to go on, by way of teaching, was the teaching that you yourself had experienced, and at that point in your life, two teachers from your past stood out.

One was your high school English teacher, Mrs. Watson, who had eaten a zinnia during your senior year Great Books class during a discussion of the five senses and their importance in literature.

You and your friends had all watched in stupefied fascination as she put the zinnia in her mouth and chewed it up and swallowed it. It was as if you could feel that zinnia going down your own throat, taste the sun and summer air and green livingness of it.

The other teacher was your college Chinese teacher, Bai Laoshi. He was the reason you declared your major to be East Asian Studies/Chinese. He was a magnetic teacher whose presence filled any room he walked into. You still remember the first day of Chinese 101, freshman year in college, sitting around a big table with 15 or so other students. A man with a big nose strode into the room and looked each of you in the eye.

Nimen hao!” he barked.

In your memory, you all sat straight up, frozen with attention, and the class progressed from there. Chinese 101 met every single morning from 8-9 and every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from 2-4:30. Next day, the second day of class, seven students remained.

You had many other good teachers and lots of mediocre ones, but those two –Mrs. Watson and Bai Laoshi— were the ones who were burned into your brain. It made sense to try to be like them, didn’t it?

But you couldn’t. Right from the start, you knew that. This was long before you understood the now-tired definitions of an extrovert as someone who’s energized by a party and an introvert as someone who’s drained by one, but instinctively you knew that you were no Bao Laoshi, nor were you going to eat a zinnia.

Over the years you’ve thought a lot about teaching. It seems to you that at heart there are two kinds of teachers, those who hold the students, every student, to their own standard and personality, and those who have an unspoken, intuitive give-and-take with each individual student.

The first kind of teacher is like the big circle in geometry that holds all the subsets within; this teacher’s personality and standards and beliefs are unbending, and students rise (or don’t rise) to meet them. The teacher does not change her teaching style; the students conform to it.

The second kind of teacher is a line, a force, that connects many different, contained subsets. She is always attuned to the individual forces –forces comprised of all the facets of an individual student’s personality, home life, work life, and physical being– at work in the classroom. She responds instinctively to these forces, subtly, almost imperceptibly, altering her teaching style for each student.

(It just occurred to you that maybe this is a better definition of extroversion and introversion than the party-effect definition.)

These teaching types translate to personality type. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just the way it is.

You are the second type of personality; you are the instinctive, intuitive, alterative teacher and person. Sometimes, as you go through your days, it feels as if your hands are full of many invisible strands of thread, and you’re weaving, weaving, weaving, invisibly weaving everything together.

This kind of person, the intuitive teacher, has to learn how to handle the on-on-on-ness of teaching. You are a person who hates being still, but your first few months of teaching at South High, you would come home after school and lie on the couch, unable to move. Every cell in your body would tremble invisibly under the on-on-on-ness of what those days were like.

“Five classes a day, five days a week,” is the mantra you chant now, whenever you’re talking with a high school teacher, or with someone who used to teach high school. “Hardest job I ever had.”

(Constitutionally, you’re much better suited to college teaching, which is what you do now, part-time in the fall. Classes that meet once or twice a week for looooong stretches of time, four hours in a single block, suit your personality.)

After you lay (laid? had lain?) on the couch you would haul yourself up and out the door, to tromp around Lake Calhoun until your muscles and heart and mind had been hypnotized into calm. Sometimes you walked around the lake once, twice, three times before that happened.

Next morning you would get up at 4:30 to write your stories before heading to school at 6:30 and do it all over again. Sitting here, typing this out, you once again feel the familiar rush of admiration and disbelief at the job that high school teachers, middle school teachers, elementary school teachers do day after day, month after month, year after year. They are astonishing human beings.

Back to Binh, and the other students in those classes: Chinese I. Chinese II. Chinese III-IV.

It didn’t take too long before you figured out that you, being you, could power-teach only three days a week. Power-teaching meant standing up in front of the class, writing on the board, turning and explaining words and phrases and grammar to the students. Laughing, chatting, making sure that they were all focused, as much as you possibly could.

Your close friend at South, another teacher, loved that phrase.

“Power teaching!” he used to say. “I power taught today.”

He would be proud of himself for power teaching. But the reality was that this particular man was capable of power teaching every day, and he did. He had the ability just to keep going without feeling his battery drain and drain and drain. He did not go home and lie on the couch trembling, then haul himself around the lake like a robot.

On one of the two days that you couldn’t power-teach you quizzed the students or had them perform plays or presentations that they created.

The other day, Friday, you either showed a movie that was in Chinese or had something to do with China –social policy, rural life, Chinese cooking, music, opera, taijichuan— or read aloud to the students.

Reading aloud to them was your favorite time of the week. You sat on your desk and they stretched out in their chairs or on the floor, on the big corduroy pillows you kept in a big heap in the corner of the room. All the garage-sale lamps were on and the overhead fluorescence was off.

Something you loved about teaching Chinese was that no one had to take it, which meant that each class could have anyone in it, any sort of student from any one of the many programs offered at the school. Fridays, when you looked up from the book and out at the class, hockey players and honor society members and swimmers and kids who held down full-time jobs after school and at night were all together, quiet and listening.

In the lamplight, all their faces were so young. So beautiful. You see them all now, in your memory. Where are you now, Binh and Sally and Ravi and Brian?

Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman, was your favorite read-aloud. This is a book about Salzman’s two years living in Changsha and teaching English there, told in vignettes, lovely little three- and four-page snippets of life, each one funny and soulful and charming. The students loved it, and so did you.

Sometimes, even years later, you would see some of them in the hall, carrying their own copies of that book.

Sort of like right now, when you look around your house and see all those gifts, treasured over many years.


  1. herhimnbryn · December 13, 2012

    Ah, you have me wanting to learn chinese now. However, it would have to be in one of your classes!


  2. Keith Williams · December 13, 2012

    I certainly remember some of those who taught me Chinese! Both of the types you mentioned were represented, but the do-it-my-way types were the majority. That’s probably not surprising, for several reasons.

    The most amazing thing about it was that I, an Iowa farm boy, made it successfully through the course!


  3. Nicole · December 29, 2012

    lovely post! love this insight into your begins as a teacher & how you taught… all teachers are so different and unique. and you know, the best classes are always the one no one had to take.


  4. Heidi (Engstrom) Wilson · February 4, 2017

    Here I sit after attending the Chinese New Year program produced by my children’s Mandarin immersion elementary school, and hearing the announcement that Highland Sr. High in Saint Paul was the FIRST public high school to start a Mandarin program in Minnesota in 1989. I began a Google search to prove them wrong as I myself was a student of yours in 1987 (Open School of course)! That’s how I happened upon this post. Thanks for the memories! I also remember weekly character bingo and White Rabbit candies….Your classes were a highlight of my high school years which had a great influence on the rest of my career path to this day. I went on to major in, ahem, Russian in college, but sought out students of Mandarin to practice my Chinese. Then I took refresher courses when I was in grad school studying Linguistics. I now am a speech-language pathologist in the most linguistically-diverse district in the state of MN and is my job to evaluate children’s communication skills who come from families that speak 1 of the 126 different languages and dialects spoken among students in our district. And I even get to evaluate Mandarin-speaking children (with the help of an interpreter) once in a while…. And now my young children speak Mandarian better than I ever did and laugh at me when I accidentally say “I want to be like a toilet” (Wo yao xiang ce suo), instead of “I need to go to the bathroom.” (Wo yao shang ce suo).


  5. alisonmcghee · February 24, 2017

    HEIDI!!! Oh. My. Gosh. This is so wonderful, to hear from you like this – my apologies for the late reply, as I just saw it. I remember our days at South with love and affection and so much warmth. How great that your kids speak Mandarin now, and you Russian. Let’s stay in touch. XO


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