Obviously, a lot of fellows get by perfectly fine without any sort of electronic reading device, but seriously consider the option of getting one. I find myself with nothing to do much more often now.
Good evening Fellows, TFC staff, local officials, and principals. It’s an honor to speak to you all tonight on behalf of Fellows. I’m going to try and somehow summarize a two year experience in about ten minutes. You might say that it’s too much information to fit into a short period of time. You can also say that to the people who wrote PEP curriclum.
We are here to celebrate and reflect on the past two years. You did it, and good riddance, I guess, because you are likely tired, with a few parasites in your system, lungs filled with cigarette smoke. What a relief, right? Many of you thought about leaving. A few actually followed through.
And here we are, the so-called “left behind”. I couldn’t help feeling like this from time to time, like the sad sack who wasn’t smart enough to take up a job at this or that prestigious consulting firm or teaching academy, who stubbornly did not run away from the stress. Who didn’t go home and work a job at ten times the pay.
But I’m still here, and so are you. And what the hell is our problem?
We have rationalize and justify why we came here in the first place, what kept us here, and why we’ve made many sacrifices in committing to this work and this mission.
You may still be here because you have enjoyed personal growth. You are leaving with a stronger sense of self, perhaps more confidence under pressure, better time management skills, what have you.
Or you are still here because you are proud of your students. They’ve grown up. They are coming to terms with some of the challenges that will soon be thrown their way.
Though I’m not up here to pat you on the back. Because you get to leave.
And the kids stay here, and they will grow up. They will continue to have amazing teachers, and great role models, and take on a meaningful life path irregardless of whatever you had hoped for them, or even what you have done for them.
Or they won’t. After all, our students are bound by an insane web of rules—social, political, economic—that keeps them on a path that they did not willingly choose. When I first came here, this was only theory. To see it play out in reality is often devastating.
This past week, crowds of first and second graders pounded constantly on my door. They kept asking me to stay in Ximu forever. Kids that age are insane. They think of adult life as this flat and reversible thing where decisions don’t have consequences and where nothing is permanent. When I told them that to leave was my plan all along, their faces went blank. And they fully expect me to change my mind and return next year, hopefully with more ukuleles and weird American music in hand.
The older students at Ximu had a better grip on it. We’ve celebrated our time together with a party and exchanged gifts. Their biggest concern, as one student told me, is that I’d forget about them.
I’ve been struggling with a question. Because, structurally, our Fellowship is not sustainable. We leave and pass on our knowledge to future Fellows. But at some future moment, there may be no more Fellows at the schools where we once taught.
On top of that, teaching is new to me, even still. I’m just learning how to break into that steel cage, the mind of a child. I’ve just recently been able to take on all of the roles demanded of me—teacher, counselor, mentor, school nurse, local entertainer—and as I sense myself slowly mastering the art of teaching, I leave.
And the kids stay here.
So here is my question: Where do we continue in the lives of our students? Or, rather: do we have the right to continue in the lives of our students?
My answer is a loud yes. Not because these children need us, or that they are helpless, starved of role models or some other nonsense. It’s because our short lives’ experience have shown that any human exchange, from a chance encounter in Hong Kong to a years long friendship, holds a potential to deepen and to expand. To enrich and to enlighten.
I remember a 25-hour train ride I took from Beijing to Shenzhen, standing room only. During Spring Festival. I’m not masochistic; I’m just dumb enough to think that saving 200 yuan is worth the trouble. In this case perhaps my only friend was my Kindle and Thoreau. Something felt right about reading about a man who enjoyed his solitude while getting constantly elbowed in the face. Thoreau definitely had his misanthropic moments, but he also scribbled this sentence out during one of his weeks at Walden Pond: ‘Our friends have no place in the graveyard.’
In the same way you don’t wish to see the deaths of the relationships you’ve built with the people sitting in this room, I wish you relationships with your former students that are very much alive. Relationships that do not simply reflect and feel nostalgic but build up and become stronger. And relationships where you realize that your friends are tracking you as much as you track them. They go to high school. You take up a new job, possibly a family. They hear your language skills improve, and theirs improve too. You express yourself in ways you could not when we were 24. They express themselves in ways they could not when they were 12.
I think it could be a really beautiful and wondrous thing.
Congratulations to Fellows for all of the great work of these past two years, to staff, and to every person who has made a difference. Thank you.