How Mandarin Class Changed My Life

By Annelie Hyatt

I have always loved my teachers. I don’t think I can explain it any other way. Since middle school, I’ve made it a habit to regularly make cards for my teachers, explaining my affection: and, while most times they never said anything back, I like to believe that they reciprocated my feelings.

That changed last year when I entered my new school. I was determined to get the best grades and study hard. It was a foolish wish. It turned out getting good grades became much harder than before.

Girls, I also found, could be mean. Disturbingly mean. Instead of giving you a steady punch in the face or a weak insult (“hey, squirt!”), they attack you where it hurts most. As a person who thought words were her soldiers, I felt betrayed by my own craft. I was shocked at how casually the word hate was used and how easy it was for them to curse.

Also around this age, girls become obsessed with boys. Romance in seventh grade was, frankly, disgusting. And, since I thought so and refrained from being involved in such matters, I was very lonely. However, there was one person who made my seventh grade easier to bear. That person was my Mandarin teacher, Ms. Shen.

I was slightly disappointed at the beginning of the year when I found out I was taking Mandarin. I was already learning the two other available languages, Spanish and French, but my class was now stuck with a much harder language.

On the first day of Mandarin class, Ms. Shen told us to call her “Shen Lao Shi.” She taught us the characters for the sun and the moon as well as the four different tones in pinyin (the translation of the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin Alphabet) and what they meant. For the first month, I still felt negatively about it. Not only did I have to remember pinyin, but characters too. I often take long to let things go; and this time was no exception. I could tell Ms. Shen was getting exasperated as well.

Our class was the “quiet class.” While this was not true outside of school, it definitely was inside the building. While this might have been a plus for the teachers, for me it turned out to be much more annoying than being in a class that was chatty and loud. I found myself becoming more extroverted because if I didn’t participate, I don’t think anyone else would have, and we would have gotten in trouble.

Ms. Shen tried very hard to help us, to possibly change us. She would always arrive with a happy smile—a smile that, for the longest time, we never returned. Ms. Shen, when she realized that we would not become more talkative in the months following, chose to connect with us in different, more intimate, ways. For every character we learned, she told the story behind it, and for every new lesson she taught us, she had a song to sing.

I probably didn’t seem too thrilled in Mandarin class, but every day when I came home from school, I would boast to my mother, animatedly reciting the stories and singing the songs we had learned. My dad, who was also learning Mandarin, was very impressed. “I’ve been learning for much longer than you, and even I don’t know that much!” he said, and my heart swelled with pride.

As the  months progressed, I began to love Mandarin. My grandmother was from China but had never taught my mother much. Both my sister and I had grown up speaking the Hakka (a dialect of Chinese) phrases my mother had taught us. Our knowledge of the dialect decreased as we got older. I was excited to finally have the opportunity to be able to speak fluently to my grandmother in her first language.

Which was why when I heard that Ms. Shen was retiring, I felt something in me explode. While my friends hadn’t always been there for me during my rough time in seventh grade, my teachers had. And it was Ms. Shen especially who helped me through.

Ms. Shen once said she didn’t hug her students that much. So, when she hugged me for the first time, it was probably one of the best days of my life. I felt I had to repay her—because she had given so much to me. I made her cards, dumplings, and even a book, and I told her how much I loved her.

I don’t think she knows it, but she has changed my life in many ways. The gratitude I feel toward her and the amount of respect and the superfluous love I will always have for her are perhaps too big to express in words. These are things you can only express in a hug, when you realize how close you are to the one you love. Because, at least once, a teacher needs to be told “I love you” by a student.

Ms. Shen is a part of my life that I will never forget. She was one of the reasons I tried so hard in her class—I never wanted to disappoint her, and I always wanted to show her I was smart. I put in more effort than I ever thought I could in her class, and I think she saw that.

In the end, I realized that Ms. Shen would not want us to change. My forced extroversion, which I had emitted under pretense in fear of being judged by my peers, had never been needed in the first place. Some people connect through noise, and some connect through something that arises in the absence of it. Through Ms. Shen, I’ve come to learn that teaching isn’t about what materials you have or how much experience you’ve had. It’s about love—love for your students (no matter how quiet they may be), love for your skill, and love for your world. And Ms. Shen has a lot of it.