I went to China with 37 middle school students.
We scaled the Great Wall, swayed to the dirges of Buddhist monks, watched Chinese acrobats battle with gravity, stood eye to eye with the Terra Cotta Warriors, gripped the rails of rickshaws on Xian’s ancient city wall, and navigated the open markets of Shanghai.
I watched these 37 students learn self-reliance and confidence as they packed personal suitcases, threw up on 15-hour flights, navigated five international airports, kept track of their passports, bartered for trinkets, and tried fried turtle.
We returned home bursting with stories. And yet the response I often received was one of leery apprehension, “What were you thinking? You must be crazy to have taken 37 middle school students to China.” “Perhaps, but it was an incredible journey,” became my trite reply. Life-altering experiences are often inadequately described with clichés, tied up neatly in a way that leaves the conveyer grappling with the meaning behind the experience. Going to China with these amazing young men and woman was an incredible journey.
As the months passed and I settled back into my life stateside, I finally had a chance to reflect on just why this journey had been so incredible.
With the close of school I rediscovered the lonely luxury of traveling alone. One afternoon I wandered through the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There amidst the haunting duplicates of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy loomed what had become an even more familiar face, Chairman Mao. Warhol’s carefully chosen casts of green and yellow stirred my memories and a knowing smile crept across my face. As I felt my cheeks tighten I heard the hushed voice of a young woman. The middle school teacher in me gauged her to be about 14. “Who is that?” She whispered to a nearby adult, “Wasn’t he a general in World War ll? I think I remember reading about him in Ms. Grouper’s class.” My smile spread deeper. My students would know. My students would stare back at Mao’s cool eyes and know at once that he was deemed to be the “Father of Modern China, leader of the 1949 revolution.”
In China, Mao is perched atop government buildings and bannered over streets. He is strewn across tables beckoning to tourists, as if a visit to China could not possibly be complete without a wrist watch of the “father” or a souvenir coffee mug. Yes, my students would undoubtedly recognize the image, but most significantly, my students would understand the Mao image from a multitude of perspectives. They would gaze at Mao and not only recognize a historical figure but see the metaphor of duality that images like this hold.
Westerners associate Mao with communism, the iron fisted rule of a dictator, a man responsible for the starvation of his people, forced labor camps for intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, and policies that lead to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. As my students and I prepared to visit the land that still carries a torch for Mao, we studied these aspects of history. We also studied censorship and freedom of speech. Our lively debates and classroom discussions often centered on trying to understand the point of view of the Chinese people. My students recognized that there would be some that shared a Western point of view, but that there would be others that would see him as the founding father of their country, a true contributor to a better way of life for a growing people. Peppered in these discussions was the realization that China censors the internet and does not tolerate speech against its policies. These discussions and realizations were exciting and meaningful to my students, but instinctively I knew that these discoveries were being neatly filed away, cleanly cataloged. Without any real personal relevance these were facts that would be relegated to distorted foggy recollections.
Like many teachers I strive to create authentic real-world connections for my students. I knew traveling to China would provide ample opportunity for this, yet I still feared our classroom discussions would fail to resonate half a world away.
On day two of our trip my fears were extinguished.
As our tour bus navigated the Beijing traffic we pressed our faces to the glass, eager to see our first view of Tiananmen Square. Our local tour guide could clearly read our faces. As a preemptive strike he quickly took the mic. “Please do not ask me about the student protests,” he humbly stated, “do not ask me about how many were killed. I cannot answer those questions.” The bus fell silent as 37 pairs of eyes locked with my own.
I knew at that instant that these young people would forever understand the impact free speech has on history. More importantly, I knew they would forever approach their education armed with probing questions about perspective, free speech, and individual liberties.
As our journey continued the real-world connections grew exponentially. When we were welcomed into the apartment of a local family, my students marveled at the kindness that was shown to us. “I didn’t expect them to be so nice,” one student commented. When I gently asked why, the student replied, “well you know everything you said in class, the stuff about the secret police, the re-education, all the pollution, the over-crowding. I figured everyone would be sort of mean. But the families are just like us.”
Now when I hear, “You took 37 middle school students to China, you must be crazy,” I just smile back and say, “I’d be crazy not to.”