Two weeks into my China adventure, I finally experience what people in Changsha call a “good air” day. A few rainstorms had cleared the smog and significantly reduced the 30+C temperatures. Under cloudless skies, the sun warm on our backs without scorching us, I walk with Mia, my grad student guide for the day, in companionable silence from our restaurant lunch to my classroom.
Campus is quiet, just a few students walking between buildings, and a couple of soldiers in forest green uniforms cycling past us. We head into the graduate student complex, and cross the small, slightly overgrown inner courtyard. In spite of its unkempt appearance, I marvel every day that I am teaching in a place where palm trees and clumps of bamboo shade my classroom.
Mia smiles a gentle goodbye and I push the already ajar classroom door open and tiptoe inside. I’ve arrived a little earlier than usual so the classroom lights are off but a few students are already back from lunch. Some of them are reading on their laptops or listening to music through earbuds. They look up, surprised to see me, their eyes asking if I plan to start the class early. I shake my head, and hold a finger to my lips. I don’t want to disturb their classmates who are having a nap, a few stretched out across two chairs, others with their heads down on their desks. One of the men is snoring. His colleague, with a wicked grin, whips out his camera and snaps a picture of the open-mouthed sleeper, before resuming his own quiet reading.
I walk over to the open window and lean against the casement. A few hundred meters beyond the window, hidden by scrubby bushes, the 1 p.m. freight train from Beijing to Hong Kong thunders past, one of many we’ll hear during the afternoon. Several times throughout our session, the triumphant notes of a cornet will call to us, a sound which replaces class change buzzers in China’s military-run universities. As a teachers’ professional development course, we aren’t on the same schedule as the rest of the university, so our classroom activities continue in spite of the cornet’s warning.
One sound that does interrupt us is the daily concert of patriotic music, which blares over the loud speakers in the courtyard outside the classroom between 2:15 and 2:30. The same song plays every day at the same time, in every military-run university in China. One of my students never fails to get a few laughs with his comical imitation of the highly dramatic, female operatic vocalist.
But right now, it’s quiet. In a few more minutes, the nappers’ pre-set computer alarms will begin to sound. The rest of the students will return from lunch, greeting their colleagues and getting out their notebooks and their water bottles from their backpacks, offering me samples of whatever fruit or cookies they’ve bought on their noon breaks. Someone will help me get my PowerPoint presentation onto the screen and we’ll be ready to start another lesson.
While it’s true that I savor a few moments of classroom silence now and then, I enjoy student bustle more. Their conversation and laughter tell me that they’re engaged – with the lesson’s content, with each other, and with me. We become an energized community of learners – and, in teaching, it just doesn’t get much better than that.