Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Little Emperor

This was written April 11th, 2007 about one of my most challenging students in China - who was only 4 years old! I just found it in a file and decided to share it.

An authoritative little voice echoing through the halls announces Tommy's* arrival. Floating up the stairs behind him is the patient, indulging voice of his mother, coaxing, pleading, and occasionally giving gentle reprimands which go unheeded by this 4-year-old "little emperor." Tommy's in charge of his little kingdom, and he knows it. As soon as he steps into a room, he surveys his new territory, like a general scoping out the area under his command.

But when Tommy enters my classroom for his evening English lesson, the battle of wills begins in earnest. Because in my classroom, I'm in charge. It's not a democracy. It's a monarchy. And the teacher is the ruling monarch. This little emperor has to learn that he can't rule my classroom as if it's his kingdom. So as soon as I hear his determined footsteps approaching, I take a deep breath and paste on a smile to greet him cheerfully as he marches in the door.

Tommy's always the first to arrive. I could set the clock by his dramatic entrance. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4:40 p.m. he shows up for his English class - a full 20 minutes before class begins. If I'm not in the classroom on the 2nd floor, he'll come marching up to the 3rd floor office or computer room to search for me, with his weary mother always a few steps behind.

The very first time Tommy came to class, it was only the Father's grace that kept me composed and firm as he challenged every instruction, defying me to my face. He refused to participate in the songs and activities, he made faces at me, and he said very rude and disrespectful things to me (I could only understand some of it because it was all in Chinese, but the intention was very clear).

An hour had never seemed so long. As soon as the last student left, I locked the door of the classroom, turned on some music on my CD player, put my head down on my desk, and cried. For a good 5 minutes. Then I had to compose myself and prepare for my next class - which began in another 5 minutes. And I must confess, that night I pr-ed that Tommy would never come back.

At first I thought my pr was being answered. Tommy didn't come back. For 2 weeks. Then he suddenly showed up again, with as much attitude as ever. And the battles began again.

For all his stubbornness and defiance, Tommy is a very smart little boy. His English ability is more on a level with the 6 and 7 year olds than the 4 and 5 year olds. And if he wants to he can work quite diligently on the phonics worksheets or writing activities in class. But if he decides he doesn't want to something, woe to the person who tries to persuade him otherwise.

I insist that the kindergarten students ask for things politely in class, in simple English, saying "Eraser, please," instead of yelling the demand across the room, and saying "Thank you, Teacher," when I give them something. Tommy needs to be reminded of this every time.

Recently, when my Chinese assistant gave him a pencil for the worksheet, I gently prompted Tommy, "Say, 'Thank you, Teacher'." He immediately turned on me with flashing eyes and retorted in Chinese, "I WON'T say thank you! She hasn't given me an ERASER yet!!!"

Other times I repeatedly tell him to apologize to me or to another student for grabbing something or hitting and he stubbornly refuses to apologize, or yells "SORRY!" in my face like a verbal attack.

I've never seen such complete disrespect for authority in such a small package. He's yelled at me, slapped me, and even spit in my face! And the most maddening part of it is seeing his mother (who is always hovering nervously in the background) do nothing about it.

But I rejoice in the small victories. One night I was thrilled to see Tommy working steadily and quietly on his worksheets. He only had to be reprimanded a few times that night during "The Wheels on the Bus" song. And I almost hugged him when he said, unprompted, "Thank you, Teacher," as I handed him a pencil! I was careful to praise him often for his good behavior and I gave his mother a glowing report at the end of class. I was rewarded by a genuinely cheerful, "Goodbye, Teacher!" and a mischievous grin as he left. He can be pretty cute sometimes. I'm actually starting to like the little rascal.

I wonder how often the Father is tempted to give up on us completely. We can be pretty unlovable sometimes. We stubbornly insist on doing things our way, ignoring His instructions, thinking we're running the show. We laugh when He corrects us, we mock His words, and we've even been known to slap Him and spit in His face.

"While we were still sinners, (much worse than little Tommy), Chrst died for us." Did He wonder if we were worth it? Did He lock the door at night, put His head in His arms, and cry over our stubbornness?

My struggles with a willful 4-year-old in an English class in China seem very small comparatively. If the Father could love ME and even die for me when I'm such a sinful mess, I know He can give me the grace to love even little Tommy.

*Not his real name.