44. For My Students

Press “play” to listen.

10 September 2022, 11:40

I was born on a Thursday, early in the morning, in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. Ellen, my mom, labored for long hours through the night before the doctors decided I would not be a natural birth— “[Matthew] was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” (Macbeth, V.8). Paul, my dad, could not hold me in his arms because he had a bad rash from poison oak that would not have been kind to a baby’s skin. It was 27 July 1995. (You do the math.)

I started school young, remaining the shortest and smallest kid in my grade until puberty and high school. In Ms. Heagh-Avritt’s second-grade class, I wrote a poem. Barbara, my gramma, got me into the Oregon Student Poetry Contest, where I performed “Loose Tooth.” Won an honorable mention.

I had a pleasant time at West Union Elementary School. Learned arithmetic, cursive, reading, &c. Had a few friends: Kevin K., Joseph S., Matthew L.

Mine was a religious household. Dad was the youth pastor at our church. Got baptized when I was ten years old.

Elbow Lake, 2006

Then it was middle school, which was less than pleasant. Full of drama and awkwardness. Mr. Thacker taught me algebra and geometry; he made it fun and entertaining. Ms. Pettis taught me history and poetry. I had a crush on a girl named Noé. I picked a flower and gave it to her, with a note.

Next, the big leagues: high school. Stopped taking piano lessons and spent all my free time playing sports. Soccer, swimming, baseball, cross country, wrestling, golf, track and field. Curtis joined our family in 2009 when I was a freshman. He was a junior, older, and way bigger than me. We had issues in the beginning, but things became much better over time.

Christmas, 2009

Some folks from my church traveled to Tijuana, México, every summer to build a small house for a family without one. The first time I went was the summer after fifth grade. I woke up one morning with over seventy mosquito bites all over my body. Dad gave me two Benadryl, and I fell asleep on a stack of sheetrock amidst hammers, saws, and shouting. I kept going most summers from then on.

Tijuana, MX, 2010

In high school, I was mainly interested in computers, engineering, math, science, sports, and Jesus. (Only one of these things interests me, now.) I worked hard for my grades, mainly earning As and a few Bs. (One C, from senior year, when I did not try as hard because I was tired and wanted to graduate.)

Liberty High School, 2013

I spent the summer after high school playing Skyrim in my parent’s basement, much to the annoyance of my dad. Video games were only a waste of time to him. I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, for undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University. After a year of calculus and the impending doom of advanced physics, I gave up on that major. Was “undecided” for a term, then found myself in a place I had not expected: studying English literature. I had always liked reading and writing but never thought much about it as a field of study. A year later, I added a major in education to the mix, and my future was cemented. I was to become a teacher.

But first, a study-abroad in Querétaro, México, to improve my Spanish. It was the spring of 2016. Three months. Learned more of the language in that short time than I did in four years of learning in a classroom in the U.S. Took a weekend vacation in Cancún while there.

Cancún, MX, 2016

Back to America. After two more years at OSU, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Arts in Education. Magna Cum Laude and about $30,000 of debt at which I was to start chipping away. (If you can make college free, do it. The government decided I did not deserve help because my parents could afford to pay my way. They paid for part; the rest was on me.)

Corvallis, OR, 2018

Instead of applying for public high school jobs like all my peers were doing, I took an offer from a recruiter to teach English at Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College. Spent the summer beforehand reading up on China and decompressing after five years of stress and hair loss. Then a long flight to a foreign land. It was a wild nine months.

Shanghai, 2018
Teacher and Students

China was a learning experience. I would have stayed, except that I missed my family and friends. Also, air pollution, authoritarianism, internet censorship, and a lack of religious freedom took their toll. Back to America, again. I taught Grade 7 Math and Social Studies for a year in Milwaukie, Oregon. At the tail end, schools closed because of the pandemic. My younger brother, Christopher, graduated from Luther College in Iowa with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. He and I moved to a suburb of Seattle, Washington. He started working as a hospital nurse. I could not land a school-teaching position, so I resorted to private tutoring. My students consisted of three second-graders, four fifth-graders, one sixth-grader, two eighth-graders, and one tenth-grader. It was kind of cool, actually. I learned to value one-on-one and small group teaching, in stark contrast to having a roster of twenty or thirty students.

I felt stuck, though. Two bachelor’s degrees and a couple of years of experience in education did not seem to attract the attention of principals. I decided to go back to school. Started applying and was soon accepted into the M.A. in English program at New York University. Could not turn down an opportunity in the Big Apple. So, in August of 2021, I drove across the country in five days and moved into my new apartment in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn, 2021

The plan was to attend NYU full-time and find a part-time job to pay the bills. (Also, to take on more massive-feeling loans.) I applied to a few schools in the area, just in case. To my surprise, I was offered a full-time position at the High School for Global Citizenship to teach English Language Arts. I accepted. The rest is history in the making.

I teach. I study. This is my life—no time for anything else. But I am learning, which is all that really matters. I move forward.

How did you get here? Where are you going?

32. Milwaukie Drake

24 November 2019, 16:10

Is it smog or fog? I can’t really tell. Though the weather app on my phone places the AQI at 75, or “Moderate.”

When I was younger, tiny water droplets and ice crystals suspended in the air just above the surface of fields, roads, and hills were emblematic of winter in Helvetia, Oregon. Fog that didn’t exist on the Sunset Highway appeared as soon as you took exit 61 and drove a few miles north towards my home. Helvetia Road—especially the three-quarter-mile stretch with Elmer Grossen’s land on the west and the intersection of Phillips Road heading east—could be spooky. Low-lying clouds which blocked the infiltration of high beams burned off by noon and were back by dark.

Then I moved to China, where some days you couldn’t see farther than 15 meters because of the smog. GROUND-LEVEL OZONE, PARTICLE POLLUTION, CARBON MONOXIDE, SULFUR DIOXIDE, and NITROGEN DIOXIDE. (Thanks, EPA.) Some of my students wore surgical masks, though often as a fashion statement, first, and a shield, second. And when I showed them a picture I took of the obscured apartments across the way, they laughed. “Oh, the Chinese government can control the weather. No big deal.”

It’s not funny. I was serious, and I think they got the point.

What’s my point?

I’m worried that what used to be fog is now smog. That the air I breathed as a child is becoming less breathable. That Oregon, known for her Pacific Beauty, will turn invisible. I USED TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE MOUNTAINS. Now, they are a hazy outline in the distance.

I’m worried I don’t quite cut it as a middle school teacher. The irony of my position is fragrant. For a year, I volunteered with WyldLife in Corvallis and found myself struggling to keep up. The other leaders were way too cool for me. The kids were way too cool for me. In the end, I concluded that I just wasn’t enough fun for them. Now, it’s my job, and I have to unravel all the conclusions I had about middle schoolers and rewrite the code of my brain. What do they think of me? Do I care what they think of me? If I don’t, should I care what they think of me?

It was a rough week. They opened my eyes to the delicate nature of INTERACTIONS. Watch what you do, what you say. Be cautious, always. Of course, I understand why. And I agree, mostly, with their reasoning. But I have questions. I have counterpoints. I have my thoughts. Most of all, what is the RULE OF LAW, and WHERE IS IT WRITTEN? I’m sure I’m merely uninformed. And I know it’s not an excuse, but nobody told me, explicitly, what could and couldn’t be done. It’s a steep learning curve I’m on. I’m not sure I belong. I doubt myself often. I fear the results of failure.

On top of all this, I was sick. Couldn’t hardly breathe out of my nose, and my throat was a fountain of phlegm for three days.

It was a rough week. But grace abounds, and God is good. When I’m weak, he is strong.

Aubrey Drake Graham

31. The Place Where He Belongs

29 May 2019, 20:08

He’s 5,784 miles away from home. He has $8,792 to his name (and a little more on the way). He does have a shirt on his back. He’s not taking a train home—he can’t. There’s an ocean between him and home. He’s taking a plane. Delta, niner, niner: he’s coming home. Four days. Three. Two. One. He leaves on Sunday in the afternoon and arrives on Sunday in the afternoon. The flights and layover almost perfectly make up for the 15-hour time difference.

It is humid, and he has mosquito bites on his scalp. It’s about the only place they could land last night, as his arms and ankles were under the covers. He woke, sweaty, twice. He did not sleep well. It was hot, and the unit in his bedroom pushes around stale air and not much else. It is old and out-of-date. And his mind was moving. Fast. Tick. Fast. Tock. Breathe. Tick. Slow. Tock. Empty yourself. Think of nothing. Sleep. No, I cannot. Sorry. Peace, Montag, peace. Take your troubles outside. Burn them and repent. Turn away from the books and the work and the pleasure—better yet, lay them on me. Give me your thoughts and desires and strivings. Lay them on me, and I will make your burden light. Sleep. Peace, Montag, peace.

He is grateful for a bed in a too-hot room. He is grateful for monthly wages even if those wages make him poor. He is grateful for the Bible app on his tablet that reads the gospel to him in the mornings while he eats breakfast and makes notes. He is grateful for a gym where he can exercise and stay healthy. He is grateful for the beauty of humans. For their grace. For their passion. For self-control. He wonders, though, to what end does he sacrifice the many hours of weight training? Is it to improve the look of his body? Is it for the endorphins? His sanity? Is it to attract a girl with similar dedication? And what would happen if he gave it all up? He would undoubtedly have more time for other things. He could read more. He could write more. He could play more music and compose more poetry. Instead, he fills his ears with podcasts and strains his muscles in front of mirrors and other men.

上海第二工业大学 (Shanghai Polytechnic University)

30. Beyond the Finish Line

17 May 2019, 20:45

Be a little careless. I’m done, almost. I taught my last class for Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College today. I don’t know how it went. My eyes are closed. I am typing. I think it went well. They gave me applause when it was all over. I collected their final essays on the similarities and differences between China and America. Then, they evaluated me via QR code and cellular device. Thanks, Huawei, for letting the Party plant their tendrils into your tech company and for staying out of America. Even though your phones are less expensive and better than the alternatives, we’d rather you didn’t do business in the land of the free and home of the brave. We don’t like Big Brother. We’d just as soon snuff out his lies, oversight, central planning, and inner party.

I don’t know how it went. I don’t know if they’ll ever do anything about the things I said. Do you care? I asked. No, they answered. And that’s what I expected. Most of them won’t care. They’ll enjoy the comfort and the full stomachs and the education and the healthcare, but they’ll turn a blind eye to the past and present evils of their government. Evils? Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet: The Three T’s that you’re not supposed to talk about. When I did, Selina, a student, pointed at the cameras in the classroom to remind me that everything I say and do is recorded and watched, maybe. I know, I said. I don’t like it. The cameras are not there for safety or accountability. The cameras are there so you stay in line. So you don’t cross the Party. So you don’t say anything that could even be remotely construed as “anti-China.” But go ahead, say all the anti-American things you want. We don’t mind. There are microphones, too, somewhere. At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know that I’ve seen them. But they are there?

This is The Information Age. Data, Data, Data. Digital everything. We’ve got stuff flying at our eyeballs constantly. If we are to be critical thinkers who engage society and culture in a meaningful way, we need to learn how to parse that information for ourselves. We need to learn to separate appearance from reality by relying on authentic evidence from trustworthy sources.

Who can we trust?

People are dishonest. They tell lies to protect themselves. This happens at a small, personal level AND at a big, societal level. Here are some historical lies: Hitler and the Jews, Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We know that people in power are prone to making big mistakes. We know that people in power sometimes hide the truth or just plain lie to cover up their mistakes. How should we respond?

Do you care?
Are you moved?
To what extent?
Will you think?
Will you talk?
Will you act?

So say the students: No, we do not care. Most of us, anyway. We are not moved. To be moved is a risk to one’s safety. I’d rather stay ignorant. I’d rather not care. It’s safer; it’s more comfortable. Some of us—say, two or three in a class of thirty—are moved. We will remember the things you’ve said. We will not forget how you made us feel. We will miss you. We love you. I love you too, I guess. Though, I pity you. I pity myself. I am small and insignificant. What can I say? What can I do? I’ve enjoyed teaching and learning from all of you. You are bright young students and you can do great things. I hope something stirred in you this semester. I hope you found something I said to be uncomfortable.

Big Ideas:

  1. Carpe Diem! But be smart about it. (Dead Poets Society)
  2. Am I in a cave? I don’t know. (“The Allegory of the Cave”)
  3. Be careful who you trust. (Research & Final Essay)

That’s all folks!
Until next time, Mr. Rogers. Adios. Zàijiàn.

Where’s Waldo?

29. Careless

8 March 2019, 13:15

Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones. Let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless. Sink into the nostalgia, and all of a sudden, miss the times you spent in the campus living room, the room with a piano and couches for dozing and tables for writing essays. Miss it like you’ve never missed it before. Wish you could go back, then know you cannot. Know that where you are is where you are, and where you’re going is a great mystery. Could it be that you’ll decide to stay? Or will you go home to your family? Soon you’ll have to make up your mind. Another year will pass. They do that. Sometimes slower than you’d like. I want somebody who makes me want to stop time. To be with them and never grow old like the girls in my class who, upon hearing of the day, say: We are not women! We are young forever. But they are 18 and in college; they may act like girls, but they will become women. Sooner than they’d like, they’ll have degrees, jobs, pets, and maybe even children. Many of them will teach. I want someone who makes it all stop for even a moment, and I can look into her eyes, and she can look into mine, and we can be silent, still, knowing each other amid our broken skin and graying hair. Stress relief, hear the damper and the resonance of Goldmund. Compose your own threnody to the dead, a wake for the very first time. Improper pronouns making noises. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, the person you didn’t know you’d be. Of course, it’s really all things that make you that person. Take me. Take on me. Take me to the city of green and gold or the cabin by the river where does drink their fill. Stand me up in their midst, a stag. A patronous made to fend off the darkness between moments. I want to protect you. I need to be protected, myself. If I stumble into the darkness, I am naked, dumb, and blind. But if you are with me, I have no fear or shame. I am comforted, even when my skin breaks and my hair recedes and vanishes. I recede. I draw back from the honor and thanks given to me for my excellent teaching and organizational skills from September 2018 to January 2019. Thank you, Mr. Ye and Ms. Hu, for your honor and thanks and the cash bonus. All I did was keep my desk clean and do as I was told. I didn’t argue as much as I could have. I didn’t die on that hill. Instead, I died on my way to the gym. I drank too much bad air and fell flat on my face. But my legs kept going, stepping on the cracks. Running past the restaurants, the hotel, the park, and into the nest of eagles. They bore me away to the land of Rohan. There, I took from the Riders their finest and most regal of horses. He, in turn, bore me through the Lilly pads and to the Mirrormere. Dismounting, I walked up to its banks. They showed me a pale reflection of myself. They, being the banks. I asked for a withdrawal, but they said they had no money. So I dove into their vault, only to find the edges of creation and a stream of never-ending consciousness. O! How insecure he was! So dependent on the approval of others. A leaf falls on him, and he shrivels. Fragile boy! You’ve made it in the nick of time. Climb out of the box for a time. See what there is to see. Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless.

See the sky

28. DOWNTOWN!

26 February 2019, 20:47

Deep breath as you figure out what to say before you say it. Dang. Sorry, Mr. Elbow, I forgot. That’s not the point of this exercise. I’m in Exodus. Moses, speak up. I can’t, Lord; my lips are uncircumcised. What?

Beautiful day today by Shanghai standards. A nice walk to work with Phil Wickham in the ears. Phil is my friend (we’re on a first-name basis—he said as much at his concert last summer).

The Great Road separating The Great Cities
The north gate of TianHua
Looking down

My first class slept through my first class. They were told it started five weeks from now. They were told wrong. I’ll have the communication breakdown, please.

My second class has one boy, and his name is Matthew. He’s losing his hair, and his mom is a Kindergarten teacher, like the rest of the students will be, assuming they stay put long enough to graduate. They should, being nice and well-behaved.

I like early education students: they are kind and listen well. Not that they have a say in the matter of their chosen discipline—likely it was chosen for them. It is difficult to know who actually signed on for the task out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic pressure to conform.

Welcome to China.

After work, the Tianhuogs went DOWNTOWN! on EIGHT-HUNDRED CASH, THAT’S A HELL OF A DEAL. We PULLED UP, MOPED TO THE VALET, and went to the top floor of Robinson Mall for MY SEAT IS LEATHER and hot pot. Then, WITH A BALANCE THAT WILL KEEP HER SAFE, we paid eight yuan for ten minutes in a massage chair. After that, GET OFF MY MULLET and a chocolate Blizzard from DQ. Finally, MOPED LIKE A BULLET in the dark and in the rain back to our apartment. DOPE, I said, GOING 38 km/hr while trying to RUN THE STREETS, BOY.

27. Leg Day

20 February 2019, 17:45

What do I say about fitness?
  I’ve been moving since before first grade
    Never have and never will get paid
      But I reap my returns
        Exercise is health insurance
      The chemical ignitions
    Firing like pistons
      Is all the motivation I need
        Though I ain’t some kind of breed
          Or a workout fiend
            I just like looking lean
          So I get to the gym on the daily
        Discipline my body
      And make it my slave
        All I’ll take to the grave
          Though I do value modesty
            I’m an image-bearer of majesty
          I thank God for my genes
        And keep a steady routine.
Inverted

26. Porsches & Pigs

19 February 2019, 21:52

Now that I’m done adding the old stuff let’s get on to the new stuff. I started this blog several days ago and have been busy posting and backdating a bunch of writing from the past five months, starting with my arrival in Shanghai.

Oddly, I haven’t really explored this place. I spent much of my first semester here developing and holding to a routine. Wake up, shower, eat, read, journal. Go to work, teach, eat, teach, grade, plan. Come home, get changed, jog to the gym, lift weights, jog back. Shower, change, make dinner, eat. Watch something, play a game, read, or write. Sleep. Do it again.

All this order made it difficult to get out and do things. I’m not complaining; I like order. It’s comfortable, safe, and quiet. Then I went home for Christmas and saw my family. Highlight of my year. And in January, I left, alone, for southeast Asia: Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kunming, Wuhan, Shanghai. 18 January to 16 February, almost a month on the road. I did not enjoy every minute, and I didn’t expect to. But the minutes of grandeur, sublimity, reflection, elevation—those are what made it all.

Walking a busy city with a pretty German girl. Bicycling around Angkor from sunrise to sunset. Jon Lott telling of hitchhiking and Forrest Fenn. Rousing at the butt crack of dawn to watch Super Bowl LIII at a pizza joint with my roommate. Pondering oaths cross-legged near a Buddhist temple. Getting a Thai massage. Eating 竹筒饭. Spending time with Emily in Wuhan; going with her to the cinema for The Wandering Earth. Missing my train and then finally unlocking the door to my apartment in Shanghai.

Now that it’s done and I can get into currency, I think I’d like to show you where I live. Outside my front door, and before you get in the elevator, there’s a nice northwestern view of a waterway, a vegetable patch, and the ever-hazy suburbs of Jiading.

Going down, to the left, and out to the front entrance, you’ll pass by a number of luxury vehicles. (In Shanghai, if you own a car, you have money; and because of the importance of giving and saving 面子—miànzi or “face”—many of the cars are new and quite spendy.)

Today is the Lantern Festival, which marks the final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. In case you were wondering, it’s the Year of the Pig.

I went to my gym today, which is on the third floor of a hotel in the Jiading Industrial Center (I don’t know if that’s the proper name for this set of buildings). Typically, it’s about a ten-minute jog from door to door.

After my workout, some folks were setting up for an event that night, which would start in an hour. I jogged back to my apartment, showered, and boiled some 元宵 (yuanxiao), a stuffed, glutinous rice dumpling that had been recommended to me earlier by Jessie, my boss. Being stuffed with peanuts, I mixed them with peanut butter for added protein and flavor. Then I walked back to the event, camera in hand. As expected, lanterns and more food.

25. I’m Back

16 February 2019, 22:20

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

The Return of the King, Tolkien

Except my Rose is just an apartment I’ve not seen in two months, and my Frodo isn’t sailing away to the land of eternal living. Nor was my journey quite as long, and I did not carry a ring. Nor was their fellowship, only loneliness and breakfasts in hostels. There was danger, but not the kind to worry about—petty theft, which I was fortunate enough to avoid. Though I’ve had enough of people staring at me and saying things about me in a language I do not understand. Shanghai is different from Kunming and Wuhan in that regard.

Gong

24. Big Bells

13 February 2019, 21:59

Went to the Hubei Provincial Museum of Wuhan today. Saw some porcelain, some old stuff, some sweet-looking bells, a bunch of ax-knives, pictures of revolutionaries, and some ancient skulls. And there was a board that caught my attention: “Sages and philosophers around the fifth century BC.”

Shang Gao (Western Zhou Dynasty, 1046-771 BC), mathematician
Guan Zhong (645 BC), statesman
Sakyamuni (586-485), founder of Buddhism
Pythagoras (580-497 BC), mathematician and philosopher
Confucius (551-479 BC), philosopher of Confucianism
Lao Tsu (6th century BC), philosopher of Taoism
Chen Zi (5th century BC or earlier), astronomer and mathematician
Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC), ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and casuist
Mo Di (480-390 BC), philosopher of the Monist school
Socrates (478-399 BC), philosopher
Plato (427-347 BC), philosopher
Aristotle (384-322 BC), philosopher
Hui Shi (380-305 BC), philosopher and logician
Meng Ke (372-286 BC), philosopher of Confucianism
Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC), philosopher of Taoism

Haven’t heard of half of these names because half of them are Eastern, and I’m not Eastern. I’m Western. Would like to know more about Eastern philosophy, especially regarding the works and ideas of Confucius. Also, I want to know if these names, dates, and titles are accurate.

Sixty-seven bi (jade in round shape with a hole in the middle) were unearthed. The bi, the most important of the six kinds of auspicious jade ornaments of the Zhou Dynasty, was used in rituals to worship Heaven. In the rules on rites at that time, the big bi measuring one chi two cun in diameter was to be used by the king or presented to the king by a feudal lord. The bi can be used for decoration or worn as an ornament.

I didn’t buy any souvenirs. Should’ve bought coffee from the belt of the world. I’ll keep my eye out for a nice, jade bi I can wear around my neck.