Teachers, Be the Hero Makers | Haiyun Lu | 13 Min Read

May 9, 2024

I was visiting a friend when his cousin, an EMT, walked in and asked what I do for a living. I told him I was a high school teacher. He immediately responded, “Ohhh, you are a superhero!”

Upon hearing an EMT, who deals with life-saving emergencies, call an ordinary high school teacher a superhero, I immediately replied, “Oh, no! I am not a superhero. I am a superhero maker. I walk into the classroom, get my students motivated and inspired. Then I send them into the world. They kick down the doors, break down the walls, and demand social changes happen. They are the superheroes.” That brief interaction made me think about why and how important it is that all teachers should be hero makers.

I was born in a small mountain village in central China. Actually, I was born in a dirt cave dug into the side of Taihang Mountain. The story I share here started before I was even born. 

One night, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, my father, a well-respected veterinarian, made the fateful decision to save the local mayor from being beaten to death by the Red Guards. The mayor was in the midst of being shamed and ‘re-educated” for his previous status, and his legs were broken by the Red Guards during one of the public humiliation acts. Crippled, he could no longer work in the field, so the Red Guards viewed him as “useless” and plotted to get him killed during another public humiliation act. Therefore, on a dark night, my father snuck into the shed where the mayor was imprisoned, freed him, carried him on his back, walked 11 kilometers on zigzagged mountain trails, crossed over to a neighboring province, hid him in a cave, and made it back home before dawn.

Nobody saw him do it, but the Red Guards suspected him. They interrogated my father for a month. My father kept his jaws clenched and refused to admit anything. As a result, my parents and 10-month-old sister were kicked out of their ancestral home and stripped of everything they were allowed to own. They had to move into a dirt cave dug into the side of a mountain. My two brothers and I were born in that cave. That’s how I grew up: in extreme poverty, surrounded by ridicule, rejection, and discrimination from other villagers and their children. At the same time, I was fiercely protected by the unconditional love of my family.

When I turned 6, my mom took me to the one-room village school which housed a combination class of first through third-grade students. However, the teacher said I was the only one who was born in that year, and I was denied admittance, even though the practice had been to run classes for any student who showed up. I had to wait for an extra year and was enrolled in first grade when I was seven. I was thrilled.

Unfortunately, in this small mountain village’s tiny schoolyard, discrimination, rejection, and ridicule were not uncommon. On the contrary, first grade was one of the most difficult years in my life. I was not allowed to enter the classroom to sit at a desk. I could only stand by the door and peek in. The teacher often carried a stick, and if she spotted any mind wandering, the stick would fall upon me. Many days, my tiny palm was too swollen to close. The worst part was that I was called “stupid” all the time and I was made to believe that I was truly “stupid.” From the doorway, my education was limited, at best. By the end of the first grade, I could not count to 50, nor was I able to recognize the full alphabet.

During the middle of my second-grade year, my father answered Deng Xiaoping’s call for a free economy and launched a business. As a result, we relocated. I was enrolled in a new school and had a new teacher. Upon evaluation, I was asked to retake first grade. My new teacher, Mrs. Wu, was kind, caring, and patient with me. She had unconditional love for every child in the room. Most importantly, she believed in me. Within 3 weeks, I caught up on the three months’ content I had missed. Every time when I raised my hand and answered a question correctly, her eyes beamed with love and joy. She made me feel like a hero who could do anything in class. 

From then on, I remained one of the top students in every class, including earning the highest GPA and graduating with honors from a US university.

Of my two first-grade teachers, one empowered me to become a better version of myself.

Unfortunately, the other tormented me with a sense of never being good enough and a profound fear of being rejected. One instilled a belief that every student is a genius in their own way, the other constantly brought up doubts about that belief. Mrs. Wu inspired me to become a teacher committed to bringing out the best in each student, while the other taught me to set high expectations for every student.

These two teachers continue to impact my life. One believed in me, allowing me to transfer that belief to my own students and inspire them to become superheroes in our society, the other has constantly whispered into my ears: “If you can’t be a hero, you are a failure.”

So, where is the path forward? Where is redemption and salvation?

As a foreign-born Asian woman who came from an extremely disadvantaged place, I have gone through a very challenging journey to acquire English. As we all know, learning is difficult, arduous work. Acquisition is a different story. What were my stories?

On March 31, 2000, I took my first plane ride in my life. It was a HUGE experience. I flew thousands of miles from Beijing to Minneapolis, then Milwaukee. I landed at Mitchell International Airport on a bright sunny day. My American neighbor arranged to pick me up.

I was in my 20s, with many years of schooling and had studied English since middle school. I had tons of vocabulary floating around in my head; I just did not have the ability to string these words together into cohesive sentences. Still, I wanted to impress the neighbor. Inside my head, I kept rehearsing two sentences that I felt confident to handle: “What’s your name? How are you?”

The neighbor was late. I claimed my luggage, found a bench outside, sat down, and waited for him to arrive. As I was busy searching deeply inside my memory for English, suddenly, the neighbor loomed over me and stretched out a big, long arm. Startled, I jumped to my feet. My eyes landed on a 6’7” tall bald giant, with a kind smile. “Hi, my name is Andy. Nice to meet you!” he said, but I froze. First, he stole the line I was preparing to ask. Secondly, he said something new that I had never heard of, “Nice to meet you!”

By then, I had studied English for a minimum of 10 years, but I was not able to handle a simple greeting. I had always been a diligent student, graduated with the highest GPA in class, and belonged to the Cum Laude society. So, why did my studious English learning fail me?

Well, because conventional teaching concentrates on rote memorization, verb conjugation, and grammar drills, operating at the isolated vocabulary level. Therefore, it often yields minimal to no tangible results despite years of dedicated efforts. That was why my learning failed me. Sadly, even today, in many places, many teachers are still holding on to the traditional way of teaching.

Two weeks after I settled in Milwaukee, my eagerness to improve my speaking ability as quickly as possible nudged me in all directions to seek free ESL services. I found one offered through a church, only three blocks away from my apartment. The first time I went there, I had a great experience. A volunteer talked to me slowly and patiently. She held me warmly with her kind gaze. She praised me for anything coming out of my mouth. At the end, she lent me a picture book to read at home. I left there with a tiny internal voice saying, “You can make it.” Because during the one-hour interaction with her, she made me feel like a hero in my limited world.

I eagerly returned there the next Sunday. This time, a different volunteer was there. She asked me whether I liked my homework. I thought she was asking me about “housework.” I told her in my slow and broken English, “No like housework, hate housework.” Immediately, she lost her patience conversing with me. Instead, she took me to a table and asked me to sit down. Then, she handed me an alphabet book and asked me to trace the letters.

I felt so ashamed and humiliated. That moment brought me back to my first-grade teacher’s room, standing outside the door, peeking in, desperately wishing to be inside with everyone else. But I didn’t have the language nor skills to advocate for myself. Also, coming from a culture that values the avoidance of conflicts and a respect for teachers, I sat down and traced the letters for nearly an hour. I was a college graduate and held a degree in teaching. When the time was up, I fled with tears in my eyes and never returned to that church again.

A harsh and sad reality really hit home on that day: As an immigrant, our ability to speak a second language in the US is often wrongly used as a measure of our intelligence, especially by monolinguals.

While the first volunteer gave me confidence that I could become who I desired to be in this country, the second volunteer made me feel I was that unwanted stupid first grader all over again.

Why and how were these two volunteers so different from each other? Were they aware of the impact they were having on people even during a one-hour brief interaction?

Last summer, my 15-year-old nephew failed his entrance exam for high school in China. My family decided to send him to the USA to have a fresh start. I enrolled him in an ESL program at a local college. He signed up for the lowest level of classes.

Being an expert in second language acquisition, I knew that only taking three ESL classes during the day, then rolling back directly to a Mandarin speaking environment at home, was not ideal to boost his proficiency. He had to read daily. I pointed at several boxes of books, told him to look through them, and find the ones at his reading level. “Make sure you choose the ones that are interesting to you. Easy and fun to read, okay?” He nodded his head and agreed.

That evening at dinner, I asked him to show me the books he chose. He handed over a thin book.

At first, I thought it was something easy. Then I saw the title; Immortal Sisters: Secrets of Taoist Women. I stopped completely in my tracks. It was a gift book I received a few years ago, so dry that I couldn’t make it through the first page.

“Is this the book you chose? How is it going for you?” I asked. 

“Well. It’s hard. I spent two hours today checking the dictionary for every word. I am still on the first paragraph.” 

“I think it’s too hard for you. Didn’t you find anything else interesting at your reading level?” 

“Yes, I have.”

Then he showed me Pete the Cat.

Why did my nephew think choosing something hard and incomprehensible would be beneficial? How was choosing something inaccessible a better show of commitment? How had he developed that false concept in learning: harder is better?

Since all the stories I’ve shared so far have something to do with limited English ability, you might think things would be way different with fluency. However, I challenge you to pronounce the word “buffet,” then read on.

About two years ago I was in a local bookstore, in the business session, and hoping to find a book by Warren Buffet. After pacing up and down the aisle countless times, I just couldn’t locate anything fun and easy, and I decided to ask for help.

“Excuse me, can you help me find a book on investment? My son is learning about stocks in his econ class. He just finished reading his first investment book and he’d like to learn more. In particular, by Warren Buffet.”

I had been sick with a bad cold and a cough. I had thick nasal congestion, a coarse voice, an accent, and I was wearing a mask.

The clerk kept blinking her eyes at me. From her reaction, I sensed that she probably had not interacted often with people who weren’t native English speakers. 

“Whose book are you looking for?” she inquired.

“Warren Buffet.” I tried to slow down and pronounce each word clearly, but she still blinked her eyes at me. “Warren Buffet.” 

Finally, she said, “Ohhhh, Warren Buuuuuuffet!”

Apparently, I pronounced “Buffet” as a “buffet”, and that threw her off.

We walked back to the aisle, and she couldn’t find any either. “I can order some for you. Do you have any titles?” She asked. 

I shook my head. We walked to her desk. She typed in a couple keywords, clicked on one description, hesitated for a second, and finally, she asked, “Can you read English?” I froze for a half second, but recovered quickly and nodded “yes”. My mind was chattering inside frantically, “Jeez, I haven’t seen this one for ages! Being Asian equals “otherness”, speaking with an accent has been viewed as unintelligent. But illiterate, really?” I squirmed in my skin, too uncomfortable and self-conscious to say anything more. A few minutes later, I found another book I was looking for, thanked her for her help and fled the bookstore.

Later, I recovered from the “flight” response, and switched into “fight” mode and posted about my experience on FaceBook. The responses I received ranged from an outpouring of empathy, Unacceptable! I love your beautiful accent”, to dead hilarious, “…You should have said, ‘No, I just enjoy looking at the art on the cover’” to borderline confrontational, “You should have answered ‘Yes, I can. Can you read Chinese?’” Oddly, none of the comments brought any comfort to my heart.

 As an Asian woman who has lived here for more than 20 years, if I still struggle with how to stand up for myself, to have courage to claim my right to exist rightfully in this country with pride, I can only imagine the Asian students in your classroom who often have been raised with the conflicts of Western and Eastern cultures. While Western culture encourages folks to claim individuality and be loud and bold, inherited Eastern culture demands students to be quiet, respectful, and invisible.

As a child or even a teenager, this student won’t have the skills nor cognitive functions to help navigate through treacherous social dynamics. So, who is there to help breakthrough the bamboo ceilings? Who is willing to be a hero maker so this learner can unleash innate power?

Generation after generation, we’ve ingrained into our children that learning is a difficult and joyless endeavor. We’ve been preaching to our children that they should make massive effort or possess grit and embody the endurance of relentless suffering if they want to achieve anything meaningful through education. Through this process, we strip away confidence. Instead of instilling joy in our children and igniting the lights from within, we strip away their identity and uniqueness, feeding them self-doubt, fear, trepidation, and anxiety. We squash the fearless nature that every child is born with. It’s an unfair and unjust system that feels so normal, after generations of repetition, that those of us who want something different often wish for magical change, daunted by the scope of the problem.

Teachers, don’t wait for a magic wand. I can assure you, you have the power to make a difference! The second you walk into your classroom, magic is waiting to happen if you simply believe in the genius of your students! And if you firmly believe that you are a hero maker!!

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Haiyun Lu for Intrepid Ed News.

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

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