This is a massive brainspill of a story... A story that I hope to link coherently into a college essay. Which will hopefully be acceptable after two massive failed attempts... The story is way too long to be told in full. And my essay is really ridiculously long... But I'm completely undecided as to what to focus on. Grammar or syntax isn't an issue right now. But I would super appreciate any feedback on:
1. What might be a potential thread / linking idea.
2. The narrative style alternating between present tense speech and past tense stream of consciousness.
3. Which things are worth keeping and expanding and which things can be cut.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Catherine Zhu and I am a senior at the Western Academy of Beijing. Today, I am honored to be sharing with you a CAS project that I have been closely involved in for the past two years...
It was a good start. My voice was steady and it carried across the length of the banquet hall, where my audience – 600 teachers – were comfortably seated in their formal attire. I followed with a quick explanation of the social context. Then in chronological order, I started to tell the audience how we began. So many memories came to mind.
It was two years ago when I contacted the principal of Taoyuan Migrant School, looking to sponsor a child's education. But I ended up starting a Saturday English class with a friend, when I learned the school's biggest challenge was a lack of teachers—especially English teachers.
... We stepped up to the teacher's podium to face a class of twenty students, all gravely sitting with their hands folded behind their backs, which were as straight as washboards. I was struck dumb for about a minute before I went, "hi, my name is Cathy." It was the genius of calling a break that saved us.
My audience laughed as I recounted my first moments teaching. Yet that break was a turning point. A game of tag broke the ice, and shattered the intimidating first impressions our students had of us – and us them. They were children, like children anywhere else, just extremely timid. And I was just another child, an older sister. Getting them to speak was no easy task. They were afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at. So I purposely made the common mistakes myself, and made jokes out of my own mistakes. It was funny how the sheer delight at spotting a teacher's mistake could impel even the shyest child to attempt phrases in English. There was something magical about throwing aside the strict formality of Chinese teachers and teaching them as a peer. The blackboard was the birthplace of sample sentences and vocabulary, but also a space for hangman and scorekeeping in Pictionary-like games. The front of the class became less of a teacher's podium than a stage, where our sample sentences came to life through different actors, big and small. Wind, rain, or sleet, our class would convene. Gradually, the students left behind their grey shells of shyness, to reveal colorful personalities. They were smart, hardworking, and very, very, eager to learn.
Nathan was one of those students who loved the spotlight—and had the smartest comebacks to any reprimand a teacher could give.
Again, I heard laughter as those in the audience probably recalled similar students in their career.
Naturally that day, his absence did not go unnoticed. I asked one of his friends why was Nathan not here today. He's here, the child answered, just upstairs crying. I ran upstairs to see a red-eyed Nathan coming down, tears streaming down his face. He would not tell me what was wrong, but uttered the most penitent apology I'd ever heard for being late. Only later did I find out from his English teacher, the principal's warning to the twenty students who'd outperformed their peers in a Saturday English Class Entrance Test: "do not let me see you make light of an opportunity that so many other students would be thankful to have—any student who comes late to this class once will not come again."
I was speechless.
I had immediately asked the principal to keep Nathan in my class. But suddenly, I felt my actions to be so... powerlessly inadequate, for all the other students who'd been denied that chance to learn. I sought out the ESOL department for teaching advice, half bribed and half coerced some of my friends to come, and raised some awareness by persuading my homeroom to do a bake sale for getting Taoyuan school supplies. But those little steps won us no lasting members. Some were concerned about CAS credit, others were restricted by parental concern with safety. Lastly, taking taxis were both expensive and unreliable for our members. With these issues in mind, I began emailing school administrators at my school over the holiday.
...Our high school principal gave us her full support as well as providing transport. A teacher from the ESOL department gladly agreed to be our supervisor. The WABX (extracurricular programs) coordinator granted our request for a description and a slot on the extracurricular activities signup sheet. Our CAS coordinator submitted our advertisement to the HS Daily Bulletin and volunteered his office for our first information session meeting. From there, we set up two new classes, which later grew into three.
In reality, it was a bit more complicated than that. I'd assumed that having people signed up for teaching two classes meant on Saturday there would be two classes ready to go. Instead, I found myself bombarded with phone calls apologizing for lateness or last-minute cancels; I found myself the awkward arbiter between a recently broken up couple in heated argument over teaching methods; I found myself sadly unable to magically conjure non-existent lesson plans, art supplies, or teachers to replace the ones missing or late. Those were valuable lessons learned! At first, I chased down everybody every week to check and double check that everything was ready—class plans, supplies, people. After a while, I delegated that responsibility to the ambitious leaders of each group instead. Finally, I came to call weekly meetings during Thursday lunchtimes so that the members of our four groups could use the opportunity to keep updated, share experiences, tackle concerns, and avoid procrastinating on lesson plans.
...As with many school-based service projects, sustainability is one of the greatest challenges. However, we have been consciously working to meet this challenge from early on. This year, the majority of our leadership positions have already shifted from seniors to juniors.
I had to suppress laughter as I recalled my very officially-written recruitment letter from the summer holidays. Most of us senior members felt immensely awkward in that first week of school, walking around in threes with these notices to the boisterous younger grade level homerooms to recruit new members. My fellow speakers had fallen into giggles outside the classroom door. I put away the stupidity I felt as I began a candid narrative about our cause, our group, our project, and extended an invitation for them to join us at our first meeting. Surprisingly, it proved effective. We had a turnout of thirty people on our first official meeting.
...One of these juniors once remarked to me after his second visit, "I admire the noble intent, but it's too idealistic. I mean how much English can we teach them in two hours per week?" It's very true that in the course of their lifetime, what English we teach these children now may not matter. Yet, the real difference we make is not in their English but in their confidence and manner. It's the constant encouragement we bring from a Western education system as opposed to the constant reprimands of their usual teachers, that allows them to learn with initiative and freely express themselves in a classroom. It's through the games we play, that we teach them sportsmanship, how to win with grace and lose with flair...
After the students overcame their shyness, classroom discipline became the next challenge. My older students only got rowdy at competitive games. But they would cheat, accuse each other of cheating, blatantly deny to be cheating themselves, and drown out each other's voices in a deafening shouting match. So as teachers, we took on the dual role of team captains. Many games, many shouting matches, many silences, and many smiling reprimands later, they had gradually learned how to win and how to lose. It was not harsh words, shouting or moralizing that taught them sportsmanship. It was the power of example.
Honestly though, I would not call this a "service project", but a "social project". For as much as we benefit the children through our teaching, we also benefit from teaching them. For us, Taoyuan Migrant School has been a platform to exercise and grow. We have all found a place there, regardless of the aims that first propelled us to the teacher's podium. Whether it was to experience local society, put our talents to use, exercise leadership... or like me, merely to overcome a fear of public speaking.
A strange feeling of calmness settled over me as I left the speaker's podium. Not relief, not exhilaration, but an ordinary feeling, as if it were natural... In tenth grade Model UN, my fear of public speaking had left me dumbstruck in mortification, unable to come up with an answer when asked to tell the class an anecdote of my most embarrassing moment. Yet today, I'd calmly spoken to 600 teachers and survived. There were many things that I once thought impossible of my naturally shy personality. Teaching a class of students. Organizing a group of peers. Speaking to a hall of teachers. Yet sometime during the past two years, another need had arisen to make my fear insignificant in comparison. So I forgot my fear, because whether I was afraid or not did not change what I had to do and would do. And then, what I had once feared became ordinary, natural, normal.