On a Monday in mid-November I showed my advanced class scenes from the movie High School Musical to go along with the lesson on high school culture in America that I had prepared. As the movie played, I sat in the back of the classroom in an empty desk, in a unique position to observe the dynamics of the classroom. The minimal laughing and talking that occurred went unchecked, since Class 1 is my best-behaved class and most of them were avidly watching the movie and trying to understand the English. High School Musical is one of my favorites, too (it nursed me through a wretched freshman year at Grand Valley State University), so I was busy rooting for Gabriella and Troy and hoping the Wildcats would, indeed, “get their heads in the game.” But soon my attention began to wander to the top girl in the class, Eleven, and the boy sitting next to her, Steven. The classroom is set up in three rows of about ten pairs of students, amounting to nearly sixty students per class. Eleven and Steven were on the far left of the classroom, the middle pair of students.
Last week, something odd happened during my lesson on mood, feelings, and emotions that should have tipped me off. When I called on Steven to answer the question, “What makes you happy?” the rest of the class took it upon themselves to answer the question for him with a chorused roar of, “When he gets to sit by Eleven!” And then they all laughed. Steven had acknowledged this with a small smile, but he otherwise kept his composure except for the usual nervous look on his face whenever I ask a question, so instead of pinpointing the reason for the good-natured teasing, I pressed on with my questions and the lesson.
The students do not sit in the same seats every week. I have a few classes where the same big, sleepy boys sit in the back of the classroom and try to nap while I teach, but for the most part, the students change seats every week. I think this is a good practice, even if it makes learning names nearly impossible. I have six hundred students, though—learning all their names already was an impossible challenge, since many of them don’t know their English names, either.
The light was dim in the classroom except for the big projector screen as the movie played. I found myself watching Steven and Eleven more and more rather than HSM. Eleven was the most excited of the students, singing along to some of the songs and laughing uproariously at the right moments. She would occasionally turn to Steven and murmur something to him. He’d laugh, but as soon as Eleven turned back to the screen, his face would turn all business again.
He was preoccupied with touching her.
Chinese students are not allowed to date. I don’t know if this is an actual, written rule, but if it isn’t, it is a very strictly enforced unwritten one. Schooling is only compulsory in China up until the ninth grade (the end of junior high), so students who make it into high school based on their test scores from junior high are generally the more motivated ones. Focusing on schoolwork or basketball or whatever it is that you’re good at is considered the one important factor in your life. After high school, if you have performed well on the big test, the gao kao, you may go to college. Your scores on the gao kao determine which college or university you’re allowed to attend. There are so many children in China, and so few opportunities for success. To get anywhere you have to be dedicated, severe, naturally talented, and willing to give up the idea of a childhood. For example, Fishes, another Class 1 student, came up to me and proudly proclaimed she’d gotten her “hairs cut.” I said it looked nice, and did she like it? “It is like a boy,” she said. I couldn’t argue with that. “But it is good for my study.” Ah. “I think long hair is beautiful though,” she said, looking wistfully at my hair.
The students are up every day in time for breakfast at 7:00am, and they have classes, study time, chores, and exercises all day until, I kid you not, 10:00pm. Their jaws dropped when I told them American students are done at 4pm every day, with optional extracurriculars and a few hours of homework. The Chinese students’ homework is done after 10:00pm or during their two-hour lunch break, which, for the senior ones, must be spent studying in the library. It is not an easy life. These students, especially around exam time, are more overworked and exhausted than most American adults I know.
And somehow, in the midst of this, there is time for Steven to be preoccupied with touching Eleven. He took it very seriously. He edged ever so slightly closer to her. When she laughed, her body would convulse to bring her that much nearer to him, and he’d take advantage of that movement to touch her shoulder or upper arm or, if he grew daring, her upper back, with the palm of his hand, as if admonishing her for her laughter. He was careful not to look at her while he did this. His face grew redder and redder. Sometimes he sat back in his chair so he could look at the small expanse of brown skin exposed between her red t-shirt and high-rising uniform pants.
This week’s assigned-seat rotation has Eleven and Steven on opposite ends of the classroom. Karen, Class 1’s headteacher, told me that if the headmaster knew, he would be very unhappy with them. She said, “I do not interfere. I don’t tell them what to do outside of class, no one is going to stop them. But I can make sure they don’t sit by each other. Their test scores this time were very bad.” I’m not sure what to think. Distractions here can’t be tolerated: there’s too much at stake. Karen is one of the sweetest women at my school, and still she knows that test scores are more important than teenage romance.
But there it was: the painful redness of his face, the brief touches of his hand, her overzealous laughter, the way she spoke to him quickly and quietly, the bright smile on her face, and the deadly serious, intent look on his: they were sixteen, they were falling in love, and I was watching it from the back of the classroom, remembering all too clearly what it felt like to be in Eleven’s seat as a student and thinking that the world ‘round, sixteen is sixteen is sixteen.