The Outdoors Poetry Exercise

wet alley (nong tang)  © china.sixty4 on FlickrKeith, already suspicious of John, is doubly suspicious now that John missed their dinner appointment. On a rainy Friday, he wonders about John’s motives for being in China, as he implements a fresh idea into the classroom: a poetry exercise, where the students go outside, and use English to write a poem about what they see.


Keith started class. He did Tongue Twisters. He had arranged them in such a manner that they grew harder the further they went down the list, until the last student had the hardest.

“Theolphius Thistle,” Keith corrected. “Like THis. TH. Got it?”

The boy was shaking. He tried again. He got closer on the ‘th’ sound. Closer. But not correct. Keith kissed the air, drawing some ahhs from the front row, and said, “TH. Like this. Got it?”

They repeated until the bell, and the boy, now trembling, quietly slipped out of class. He never came back.

During the break, Keith found John out in the hall talking to Melanie, a Chinese teacher.

Keith slapped John’s back. “Melanie.”

She turned her face up at him. “Yes?”

“Did you know John here is from America?” he said slowly. You had to be slow; fast English confused them. If Keith had learned one thing in his time here, that was it.

“Yes. You tell it to us.”

“Did you know that he is from my alma mater?” The girl made to answer, but Keith overrode her, “An alma mater is a university from where you graduated.” His lips were puffed again. He pulled them into a smile with his thumbs.

“Yes.”

“Now, you are a new teacher here. Are you having any difficulty?”

“Why are you yell at me?”

“I’m not yelling,” Keith said. And he wasn’t; he was just talking loudly. You sometimes had to do that to make yourself understood. If Keith had learned one thing in his time here, that was it.

The bell buzzed. Melanie ran back to class. John offered a half-hearted smile, nodded and followed her. Keith kissed in the direction they’d gone. Then he returned to class.

The students were talking before he entered, when he entered, and, hey look at this, even after he’d entered. He stood there, his hands on his wide hips, his lips ready to kiss something. Still they talked. He sighed. He yawned. He sighed loudly.

And still they talked.

“Excuse me?” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

The noise gradually dropped off.

“How can we have class when you all are talking?” They were quiet now. Good. Chinese students bowed to the teacher’s authority so easily. God bless Confucius. “If you all are still talking, we cannot have class.”

Now that Keith had their attention, it was time to implement a new idea. His connections at career services still had not replied to his email. It had been, what, two, three weeks now? How much more time should he give them? They must not appreciate all he’d done for them. Well, then he’d make them appreciate it. He’d make sure they never forgot it.

Turning from this, he thought about John. The young man had promised that he’d be there at dinner yesterday, and then he hadn’t shown up. Keith had been looking forward to introducing John to some authentic Chinese food—not that wannabe crap they served in America—and had spent some time rehearsing what he’d say, what John would say, and how much fun they’d have together.

Then John had stood him up.

Which just added to the funny feeling Keith had. It was the same funny feeling he’d gotten from Tom, from Matt. Like them, John had an air of mystery about him.

As if he had something to hide.

And God had put Keith here…

He had the Chinese teachers on it. They reported back to him what John did in each class. So far, so good, but…

Give it time. He’ll show his true colors sooner or later. Keith would root him out.

After all, God has chosen him to be here. It was his job.

When he had every student staring at him, he cleared his throat. It was Friday, so he taught them ‘Thank God It’ s Friday’, ‘TGIF’, and after making them all repeat it and correcting each mistake, he told them to stand up.

“We are going outside,” he enunciated carefully. Carefully. You really could never be too careful.

If he had learned one thing in his time here, that was it.


John stood off to the side as Melanie started a game. He couldn’t remember if he’d taught this class before or not; a few students looked familiar while many did not.

Melanie gathered the reluctant students to the front of the room, three girls and three boys, and she stood between them. She finished saying something in Chinese and then said loudly to the class, “Okay?”

Silence.

“Okay!” She began pointing at the six students. “Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday…” When she reached the end of the week, she said, “Okay?”

More silence.

“Okay!”

Melanie shouted, “Tuesday down!”

The boy squatted and stayed that way.

“Saturday down. Tuesday up!”

Saturday, a short girl with a round face, squatted while Tuesday rose.

They went on through all the days of the week, several times over, in different combinations. Through the barred windows, John got a view of the courtyard. Gray was collecting at the horizon. Not a good sign.

He saw Keith.

Keith was walking his hunchback walk, his lips turned up in a mighty kiss. Trailing him, slunched, were his students.

Where the hell are they going? John wondered.


People stared. The locals here always did, no matter how many times they saw a foreigner. A few girls even giggled. But Keith paid them little mind. He was used to it, really.

Thunder clocked in close by. As they entered the backstreet, the first raindrops began to fall. By the time they had gotten to the fork in the road, rain was pouring. A few students had umbrellas. Those who didn’t collected either under the others’ umbrellas or as close as possible. Keith had no umbrella. Wuhan’s gray rain soaked him.

“Attention!” he shouted, the skin on his face cracking. He tilted his head. Behind him was a big trash heap, used bowls and plates and chopsticks and half-eaten food, half-drunk drinks. This school’s excess. Keith held out his hand and shouted as lightning flared and the girls screamed. “Attention! Today we are doing poetry!”

The students spoke Chinese to each other.

“Quiet! Quiet!” Keith shouted. Some water ran into his mouth. He spat it out. “Quiet!”

“Teacher,” a boy dared say, “it’s raining heavily out here.”

“I said quiet!” Keith’s hands were raised high, like an ancient prophet. Everyone in the nearby shops, safe in their places of work and living, had dropped what they’d been doing to watch. Passers-by stopped as well. All eyes were on Keith. “Quiet now! Today we are doing poetry! Get out your notebooks!”

One girl sneezed. The students under the umbrellas took out their notebooks, pens.

Keith felt dizzy. What were the words? Keep it simple and stupid, he told himself. Simple and stupid.

Simple.

“Poetry describes beautiful things.”

Stupid.

“Use the words of English to describe what you see!” he stepped over to the side, revealing the trash pile as a bike went by and crushed a puddle, splashing some students, who yelled and went running to the other side of the street.

“Quiet now!” Keith shouted. Lord, he had never had a class this disobedient. What were Chinese parents teaching their kids these days?

“You may take notes. Describe the beauty of nature! Write a poem!”

Lightning flared again. One girl screamed and hugged her friend.

“Teacher…”

“I said QUIET!”


The break came and Melanie sent John on his way. The rain had quieted to droplets here and there, and John jogged across the courtyard and crossed the street.

Coming up the other side was Keith. His students behind him. They had their heads down. They were shivering. Keith himself was soaked, his shirt sticking to his enormous belly. One girl coughed deeply. Several sneezed. They marched on like prisoners to the death, poor souls resigned to their horrible fates. John watched them go, wondering just what the hell they had been up to out here.

Talk on The Outdoors Poetry Exercise


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