Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Tell Them Stories"

About a week ago I began introducing my seven-year-old students to a few Maori legends. We started with Te Ika A Maui ("The Fish of Maui"), in which the many-counselled trickster Maui fishes the North Island of New Zealand up out of the sea on his magical fishhook. Τhen I told them how Maui took fire from the toenail of the Fire Goddess Mahuika and imprisoned it in the kaikomako tree, where it lies ready to burst into flame whenever it is needed. Today I'll be telling them about how Chief Rata wanted to build a canoe but neglected to sacrifice to Tane, the God of the Forests, before cutting his timber.

I started on the Maori legends mainly because I wanted to take advantage of my students' fascination with New Zealand. (They've never been there, but they have heard about tuataras, and that's enough.) We must talk about something in our lessons, after all, and Maori legends are as good a conversation-starter as anything else.

But I did have other reasons for wanting to incorporate legends -- not just from the Maori tradition, but legends generally -- into our lessons. For one thing, I think my students ought to know what people who live in different places think, and what they have thought over the centuries. They ought to begin to see patterns, or at least be offered a chance to see them. They ought to see that nearly everyone has a flood myth, for example, and that we all take warning from the arrogance or imprudence of our heroes, and that most "just-so" explanations are far stranger and more convoluted than they need to be.

This is partly because they live in the world and should know something of what it is, and what it has been. We have it on good authority that there is one fairly simple way to placate the harpies who guard the gates at the Camp of the Dead, and that is to tell them stories. The idea (as I understand it) is that stories stand proof of the life that generates them, and a soul that has lived deserves free passage through the Camp of the Dead and into the sparkling, particulate cosmos that lies beyond it.

But it is also because knowing these things will help them know other things. Stories represent not just a kind of learning, but a way of learning. If a lifelong accumulation of stories is the hallmark of our respect for what John Updike calls "the marvel of being alive" -- evidence to show the harpies that we have not wasted our days -- it is also a mechanism of that respect. We learn stories as we learn language, because stories are language. They tap a primeval convergence of all knowledge and experience, a time when all learning was magical to one degree or another, and might be fittingly be called "gramarye" -- a time when, as Updike puts it, "history was geography and giants engendered races."

When my students first heard about Maui, they thought of the Hawai'ian island that shares his name, where their parents had taken them for a vacation the year before. Now they know of a person called Maui, and a place called Maui, and great fish that is both the name of a place and the story behind that name. As their understanding of the world becomes more richly textured, they develop a multivalent sense of language. They begin to net words together, names and stories and allusions that ricochet from pole to pole.

A few days ago, thinking to take a break from the Maori stories for a bit, I showed them a map of the world and pointed first to New Zealand and then to the British Isles.

“Look down here,” I said. “Here is the North Island of New Zealand, where the tuataras live and which Maui fished up out of the sea. Now look up here. This is Britain, the countries of England and Scotland and Wales, and now I will tell you a story about a boy named Arthur Pendragon and the sword he pulled from a stone.”

You would think that they’d balk a little at the old-fashioned lexicon. I mean, come on, they’re seven. They’re also still pretty much beginners at English. Advanced beginners at this point, but still not even close to proficient. But by the time I got to Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightwise King born of all England, they were hanging on every word.

And, of course, they now have a new island to place amidst the others in their interior landscapes – Avalon, the island of the apple trees, ringed about with moonlight at the back of the North Wind. Since it has the same compass bearing as Tir Na Nog, the Irish Isles of the Blessed, I reckon they will have to be our next stop.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Du Temps Perdu

The shop around the corner has finally gotten its act together and started selling date biscuits. They have a crumbly exterior, something like shortbread, and a paste filling made of Chinese jujubes and crushed walnuts. I fell in love with them the last time I was in Beijing, when I came here right after college.

Actually, back then they were not quite my favorite kind of Beijing sweet. My very favorites were little pastry shells filled with rose-flavored sugar. They were so evocative of their Central Asian origin that, biting into one, you could practically hear the bells jingling on the camels' harnesses as they humped along the Silk Road, tramping over grassland and desert, plodding across wind-riven ridges and picking their way through stony valleys haunted by lizards and tumbleweed. They were most inspiriting. "How very wide the world is, and I am at large in it." That was how they made one feel.

But the more pedestrian date biscuits were almost as good in their way, and much more readily available. They were to my first sojourn in Beijing what Carr's Digestives were to my years at boarding school: they both marked and epitomized my days here with the placidity of a sundial.

I'd been trying to find them ever since I arrived back in Beijing a couple of months ago. Then a few days ago I finally saw them in the bakery section of the local grocery store, so I bought some and ate them dipped in tea. They were even better than I remembered.

But that was all. They didn't bring the past back to me. As I ate them, I didn't really think about my earlier year in Beijing at all. I just thought, "Boy, these are good."

Well, Nature may imitate Art now and again, but I guess she can hardly be expected to do so on command. Besides, it is surely a good thing to be able to enjoy date biscuits in such absolute terms, to be able to take them as such a thoroughly present pleasure that one feels no particular reliance on whatever history one might happen to share with them.

Still, the incident left me feeling puzzled and a little uneasy. I've always thought of myself as practically defined by a powerfully nostalgic bent. My "senior quote" in my high school yearbook , taken from Book II of Vergil's Aeneid, reflected this view:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Perhaps hereafter even this will be a pleasure to recall.

Of course, it's a common enough reference for graduating seniors, and, with its wry applicability to the travails of school life, its general appeal is easy to understand. But I meant it seriously. Even at seventeen, I had already had plenty of experience with an apparently unbounded capacity for affectionate regret, which was usually directed indiscriminately towards whatever lay behind me. More significantly, my understanding of both the past and the present often seemed to be principally delineated by that feeling, and by its attendant sense of irretrievable loss.

The years since then have introduced me to many variations on this sensation. Life in one place has repeatedly given way to life in another; with each transplantation I am little more laden with retrospection. Last week my students asked me what my favorite word in Greek was (we were doing Favorite Words as a conversation starter) and I found myself replying, without hesitation, "εντροπαλιζομενη," as Homer says of Andromache, who "turns and turns again" as she leaves her husband on the walls of Troy.

I don't quite know when my periodic visits to the Harvard campus began to leave me feeling rootless and dispossessed, but it happened fairly soon after graduation, certainly while I was young enough and connected enough feel that I still belonged there, had I been able to find my way to that point of view.

Yesterday I went to a conference at Beijing Normal University, where I taught English right after college. I wondered if the visit would produce the same forsaken feeling that I had come to expect from my trips to Harvard. In a way it did, but what I really felt was just rather numb and dreamlike.

This detached feeling was itself a little frightening. The vague sense of disorientation associated with the date biscuits and their failure to evoke my first year in Beijing quickly crystallized into a specific concern. I found myself wondering whether, without being aware, I had begun to protect myself so thoroughly against memory's incursions as to become a kind of fortress.

I thought these things as I found the conference hall and settled into my place. But then something rather unexpected happened. One of the other participants came over to me and asked me if I were on the foreign languages faculty at BNU. "Didn't you come here right after graduating from college?" he asked. "I remember you. I was in your class. You've hardly changed at all."

Once I had got over my initial flutter of pleased surprise, something else captured my attention. My former student told me that he was now a professor of history at a university in Shandong province and asked if I had been all this time at BNU. Well, he has only made a few trips back to campus since graduating; I suppose for all he knew I could have been a fixture here for the last dozen years.

I think one reason returning to an old school can be so fraught with emotion is that schools seem so unchanging. Some faculty do come and go, of course, but many of them stay for whole lifetimes -- or whole careers, anyway. We are the ones who change.

It gave me quite a start, thinking that I might have assumed the character of an institution -- temporarily, at any rate -- for this professor from Shandong. I found myself spending a long moment wondering how he felt about coming back to BNU.

I felt a little sad on the bus ride home, but not as sad as I might have felt, and not as numb as I had been feeling. I had spent a little time thinking of someone else, and of course that is almost always the answer.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"The Tongues of Men and Angels"

A couple of weeks ago I started tacking a Latin phrase, proverb or quotation on to the end of each English lesson. We began with ad astra per aspera, which went over very well indeed; China's maiden spacewalk is still a reasonably recent memory even by a third-grader's reckoning. The next day we did omnia vincit amor. Then we did mirabile dictu and the next day its cousin mirabile visu. We've done Deo volente, my old high school's motto "non sibi" and ab ovo usque mala. In honor of the US general election, we did e pluribus unum and vox populi, vox Dei. Then, in honor of the holiday mood attending the results of the election, we did nunc est bibendum.

Now they want me to teach them Greek.

I just don't get it. For the most part, they have not, in the two months that I have been teaching them, shown the slightest interest in language for its own sake. They learn English because it is their parents' wish that they should. When they work hard at it (which is rare, not that I blame them for this -- they are seven years old and already overworked) it has always seemed to be because they wish to do well, not because they have any real love for what they are learning.

So here I am scratching my head. What is it about Latin that captures their enthusiasm? How did I happen to stumble on to something that works?

Because it really was a stumble. I'd planned to introduce my students to Latin because I thought that the almost mathematical symmetry of its grammatical structure would seem friendly and familiar to them. (I mean, hey, this is China. I haven't seen their syllabus for this year but as they're in the third grade I assume they're doing calculus.) I also thought that learning Latin would help them with the some of the rough patches native Chinese speakers often experience learning English at a more advanced level. In particular, I thought they would benefit from an extra perspective on the use of the subjunctive mood, especially in conditional expressions, which many Chinese students of English never really master.

The thing is, my students can't even begin to cope with conceptual grammar. Not in Chinese, not in English, and certainly not in Latin. (I mean, come on. What was I thinking? They're seven. Even if they are doing calculus in math class, their native language is practically grammar-free.) Occasionally they are able to differentiate between nouns and verbs. They can also sometimes spot subjects, but not predicates. That's about it. Objects, whether direct or indirect, might as well be written in Welsh.

When I discovered this I pretty much gave up on the idea of teaching them Latin. I'm not qualified to teach them through immersion, even if I agreed with that approach (it seems to be increasingly popular, and I don't disapprove of it, exactly -- I don't know enough about it to judge -- but I am not sure I want to hop on board either), and so since an abstract, grammar-based approach appreared to be off the table as well, I just shelved the whole project.

I came up with the "phrase, proverb or quotation" approach when I saw my students being drilled in a list of chengyu 成语, or four-character fixed expressions, which they had memorized for their Chinese class at school. Chengyu are a special characteristic of the Chinese language: there are hundreds and hundreds of them and it is impossible to speak or write really good, literate Chinese without them. It is not that the Chinese expressive tradition does not value originality, but its originality operates within a framework of highly articulated convention. Thus it is said of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu -- widely regarded as the greatest poet in Chinese history -- that every line of his poems has its roots in antiquity; his corpus is one vast network of cultural, historical and literary allusion.

Perhaps because chengyu represent a substantial difference between Chinese and English models of self-expression, many English speakers underestimate their importance and most Chinese language programs tend to neglect them. Oddly enough, until I saw my students practicing their homework, it had never really occurred to me that Chinese children didn't just come by them naturally.

Anyway, that's how I came up with the Latin proverb project. I wasn't surprised when ad astra per aspera was such a hit, since it was so topical, and I figued omnnia vincit amor would produce a few giggles. I also reckoned to succeed with both mirabiles, since they are exclamatory: apostrophe and all its rhetorical ilk seem to be very popular with seven-year-olds. ("Oh, my God!" was evidently one of the first English expressions they acquired -- they were certainly using it freely by the time I arrived on the scene -- and they were very pleased to add "Wow" and "Whoa" and "Gosh" to their repertoire later on.) But I had kind of expected them to start losing interest after that. Nope. Now they want Greek.

They also want to write a letter to President-Elect Obama, congratulating him on his landslide victory and expressing their best wishes for his success in office. If I am not mistaken, they are also hoping to throw in "dum spiro, spero" -- a friendly nod between fellow linguists, half a world apart.

That being the case, I guess tomorrow we'd better do ex animo.