Monday June 21, 2010

Thought for the Day:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Robert Browning

I have always liked this defense of unreasonably high expectations and was reminded again of why on our first day of school. I think first days must be somewhat similar everywhere. People select their clothes carefully to make a good first impression and hope this time and learning will be better. I thought our first day yesterday seemed to start especially well when we walked into the room to applause and genuine smiles all around.

The speeches for Global Volunteers don’t vary much. Our hosts always thank us for coming and we always thank them for inviting us. This time the thanks were accompanied by a hope that the “peace and friendship between America and China would last forever,” – certainly a wish we can all support and an expectation that seems extravagant. But a room full of teachers is a room full of realists and idealists, probably combined in the same people. And all of the global volunteers this year have volunteered globally before – chiefly in China. So with our renewed hope and experience we went off to class. Michael and Janet practiced goal setting and at lunch learned about the progress that other volunteers had made with the goals our teachers had set. Betty and John’s students had a very honest discussion, learned a lot about how their teachers felt about their work and may have learned that their teachers had never had a good teacher. Jim’s students practiced listening to English with a “find the lie” game, and Nancy and Ester began getting to feel comfortable interacting by arranging themselves under various categories.

At lunch we had a discussion about why Americans volunteer when people in other countries don’t. I offered a historical explanation I had learned in school, but then decided that even if the Puritans had originated the idea that explanation really didn’t explain why volunteering was so widespread in 2010. Bao Li told us that the Chinese only volunteer on March 5th because they are told to. An ungenerous interpreter of Americans could argue that the Chinese, with an extra billion, have so many people who will work for so little money they really don’t need volunteers. Their highways, for example, are beautifully and elaborately landscaped and free of trash. And Europeans seem to be willing to pay higher taxes for services that people volunteer to do in America.

But neither of these interpretations explains why we volunteer to teach in China.
While I am here I frequently recall an exclamation from a former principal who often volunteers in Xi’an, “I was shooting at these people 50 years ago!” I don’t think he was trying to atone for past sins. He loved teaching and he loved teaching Chinese students.. And that surely explains why many of us are here. There is nothing better than teaching students who are eager to learn and grateful.

And I also recall in Haikou a very nervous looking 9th grade boy pushing himself up from his desk to stand and ask, “Is America a good country?” We really can’t know whether our students will continue to love Americans because they have met us. And it is sobering to admit that Mao and Richard Nixon probably did more to promote peace between China and America than we have done. But helping people to have better lives, particularly people who are so warm and grateful, feels wonderful. And trying to contribute to peace and friendship between our two countries with our money and our time may not make us friends forever, but we think it is worth the reach.


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