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Even through a thick layer of smog-laden clouds, I could feel the heat baking my skin. Clouds of dirt rose every time I took a step. Even though sweat rolled down my back and my hair was plastered damply to my face, I felt like a movie star. TangWan Elementary was my Hollywood and the giggling clusters of uniformed students were my fans. Excited whispers followed me as I glided past classroom doors.

I had come here as a sort of guest teacher. The English instructors at TangWan usually spoke English as a second language and thus carried heavy accents. The opportunity to learn from a native English speaker was rare indeed, and my added fluency in Chinese made me nothing short of a celebrity.

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My lesson was less than extraordinary. I read a short story in both languages, but my brain was operating on autopilot; my voice probably sounded like a zombie’s. I stumbled through the class textbook, desperately grasping for something interesting and informative to say. My silent, wide-eyed pleas at the teacher elicited only encouraging smiles. The clock hands crawled at a microscopic pace. I was dying of embarrassment. A house fly could teach more than I could. Any time now someone was going to swat my useless butt out the door.

It was the students who saved me. “Do any of you have questions?” I asked lamely, and as the words left my mouth, a dozen hands shot up. Where was I from? What was America like? Were there a lot of Chinese people there? Was Tennessee close to California? New York City? Had I ever been to Disney World? Do Americans really eat McDonalds every day? Soon I found myself explaining the details of American fast food chains and various aspects of American schooling. Even the teacher chimed in, asking questions about pronunciation and grammar. The chalkboard was soon obscured by a small dictionary of random vocabulary words, occasionally accompanied by a rough illustration. Maybe this whole teaching thing wasn’t so bad after all.

When the class ended, I was perhaps more enthused than my students. As I leaned my head against the plane window at the Shanghai airport, I thought about those kids and their questions. It was the natural curiosity, the intrinsic motivation of absorbing knowledge, that fed these students’ minds. I no longer considered these children underprivileged; the lack of money was insignificant in comparison to the wealth these students held in their heads.

It is possible to learn without a good teacher; the teacher is only the medium of exchange. It isn’t possible, however, to teach without a good student. As I walk the halls of my own school, I see the slumped shoulders and drooling mouths of apathy. Kids sleep during class and cheat during tests. It was highly disappointing.

I guess we all need a trip to China.

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