After putting behind the exhaustion from basic training, I was deeply immersed in the self-satisfaction over my personal achievement in the last 16 days. I was fortunate enough to have a four-day holiday to relax before the two-week professional training in Kaohsiung, and all I remembered to do was to squeeze as many tasks as possible into my limited schedule. As I am one of the substitute military service (SMS) soldiers affiliated with the Ministry of Education, I was told by many past attendees to simply relax and see professional training like going on a vacation. With their reassurance and my fond memories of Kaohsiung, I headed south with the belief that it would be a stress-free two-week vacation. However, I was proved to be wrong again.
After a smooth two-hour bus ride, I arrived at the camp on a rainy Monday. As people were dropped off at their dorms, I pictured a comfortable wooden cottage with two to three bunk beds and a private bathroom with shower units. However, my dream was quickly washed away when the bus dropped us off in front of a shabby warehouse. As we were all staring confusingly at the scene, the managing officer rushed us to haul out more than 80 gigantic duffle bags, each weighing at least 10 kg (22 pounds), through the tiny entrance of the warehouse. He then led all of us to the dining hall before we could even catch up with our breath. After a brief lunch break, all 450 of us were gathered in the main hall, rehearsing for the opening ceremony of our professional training. We were asked to repetitively stand up and sit down until everyone moved at the same rate. Suddenly, I felt like this was the flashback of the basic training, with the duty officers commanding us to repeat each move until they were satisfied. I soon realized that while there were less rules forced upon us during the professional training, the nature of military service was basically the same. We had to exemplify the obedience and discipline that they were asking for.
The professional training officially kicked off after a brief orientation, where the duty officer walked us through all the rules, grading criteria and our daily schedule. In order to maintain total fairness during the professional training, the Ministry of Education designed a system that records all of our grades, and the average of all the grades would be used as the source of our ranking at the location-choosing ceremony. The ceremony determines where each of us will end up for the next ten months. While we were repetitively reminded of the importance of our grades, it was frustrating having to personally deal with the pressure from all types of tests again. Since I had always loathed the “test decides everything’s” culture in Taiwan, it was beyond angry when I had to memorize all the materials from TESOL to SMS laws. Suddenly, it felt like being back in high school, where all I did was mindlessly memorize dry material without caring too much about how to apply all that knowledge to real life. Additionally, we were forced to find the balance between fulfilling SMS’s core value of cooperation and constantly reminding ourselves that we were also competing for our ideal locations. The unnecessary competition somehow reduced the sense companionship that was so crucial to military service. For all of us who imagined the professional training to be less brainless, it was another form of torture having to waste time fighting for grades.
As one of the English-teacher-slash-SMS-soldiers, whose primary task was assisting English education at elementary and middle schools, I was fortunate enough to be among a group of 23 others who shared my “anti-test” sentiment. Unlike the others, the 24 of us understood the pain of having to compete with each other, so we created several mock lists after consulting everyone’s preferences. Then we worked out the most ideal list that could satisfy all of us. Instead of worrying about being stabbed in your back, our team was able to maintain a harmonious relationship while satisfying each of our needs. At the location-choosing ceremony, when the other 425 soldiers were worrying about losing their ideal picks, I and my peers were able to peacefully pick our assignments without damaging the companionship developed through the professional training. Due to consideration of location and transportation, I chose a mountainous elementary school in Hsinchu County, which was only 15 minutes’ drive from downtown and two of my aunts’ houses. On top of that, a childhood friend who I’d known for almost 2 decades also happened to be serving at the same school. Suddenly, I felt like being the luckiest guy in the world, and forgot about all the frustrations accumulated from the professional training.
The following Monday, my supervisor at the school picked me up after an orientation and sped me through the crooked mountainous roads leading to the school. As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw several pairs of eyes staring at me with confusion and excitement. The kids, 24 in total, were waiting for my arrival at the hallway, and they walked toward me when I got out of the car. Perhaps they were told beforehand that I came to teach them English, so the younger ones were already trying to greet me with their broken but amusing English. Their reaction surprised me since I was told that several kids had learning disabilities, or came from complicated family situations. My friend warned me about the potential difficulties to deal with the kids, so I was actually relieved when they welcomed me with “hello” and “good afternoon.”
After a brief lunch break, I received my weekly schedule and was all pumped up about starting to work with the kids. Although I knew the learning curve would be steep, thinking about how the kids could benefit from my help in the long run inspired me to embrace my mission in the following ten months. While urban schools are fighting for the best teachers and education resources, rural kids are simply asking for the chance to learn and be educated. As a long-time human rights enthusiast, I knew this experience could benefit my life from multiple aspects. Most importantly, I get to accumulate hands-on experience by helping to better the education environment for these kids. While the effect certainly wouldn’t be visible overnight, I hoped to witness their gradual improvement over the 10-month period.
As I slowly got to know the kids, I realized it took more than just passion and motivation to make this work. Teaching kids with learning disabilities or complicated family backgrounds required extra amount of patience and techniques to succeed. I suddenly became a salmon, slowly searching for my way upstream and learning to deal with unexpected challenges that lies ahead.
To be continued…
(Feature photo of Kaohsiung, Wikicommons CC BY-SA 2.0)
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