The sun cuts arcs across the tops of the hills at the end of the day. Checkerboard shadows of window panels stretch out over the grey floor tiles, rising up over his shins, up to his waist as he watches from the stairwell. The top windows bring the blind to his eyes. Wincing a little he watches below him, a group, mostly his students, playing with enthusiasm. The sides of the building, tiered like a dirty concrete cake, drop in steps down three sides of the court. One of the sides he is standing in, five floors up, gazing. The green clay, slashed with white and red lines, clashes with the bleakness of the college floors; of the buildings beyond the open end of the square. The Hopewell Centre protrudes in the background like a naff Doctor Who set. The cheers and halloos and guffawing banter contrast with the grumbles and moans, whispers and snores of five dozen classrooms at the end of the day.
The end is nigh on, the last class is about to finish and tired souls, teachers and students, are glad that they can give up and go home. But down there the basketballers run, dodge, weave, barge, cry foul, laugh, shoot and celebrate. They’ll play sweat and shout til the lights have gone out and the ball passes unseen hands, eyes strain, time to go home; or find another court.
At ground level, the inner city gloom has set in an hour before twilight starts. A few backs can be seen leaning over the first and second floor terraces. Encouraging laughter, a few calls and jeers, rise up.
On his way out from his last lesson, he stopped on the stairs to watch his students play. Two final hours out of six in the classroom today. A tired couple of hours. Last night’s exuberance making this morning’s weariness. By afternoon, head clear but body flagging. Two hours with day-release construction students is a hard thing to drag through, specially when you believe that bounce makes the lesson so much more fun.
He looks on two teams of five players. Half the players bare-chested, unashamed in their young narrow girths. The ball moves from end to end bounced along, thrown and fumbled. Mostly though, it’s worked away from him, up to the basket at the far end. Stephen seems to have little bother working round the others: smaller guys. He bounds around, two wide steps to get past Vincent, arms outstretched. A moments parrying in front of Johnson, dart to the left, under the net and leap – hand stretches up, ball attached, the moment of pause and ball leaves hand. Straight up? No, turning, slight spin off the backboard and drops off rim, through net, back to hands. He spins on a heel and light-toe jogs back facing him. From up there he can see Stephen beaming for an instant, a slap on the back then double-hand passes it in a momentary flick to ah-Fai and the game bangs off again. Tall for a Chinese guy, Stephen is broad as well. He’s athletic and fit. A mad keen basketball player, he must be at it at every opportunity; there’s not an ounce of fat on him, not a moment of weariness in his gait. He shows little interest in anything else. He is good – his English is up with any of the best of the guys in his class. He is good, but he doesn’t care. The lesson is a good opportunity to kick back. There’s always a laugh to be had in the English class, there’s not enough English to learn anymore.
Bounce bounce, he leans into it. Turns and backs sharply round little Chris, twist on the heel and a slow lobbing basketball goes whoomp through the net, no ring. ‘Hey ho yeah, DSENG-a!’ shout the team-mates. Mates, classmates. Team-mates for this ten. Switch round, change around, good guys, all on the same side, all biggin up each other all the time, next time whose side you on; whoever’s we choose. On the court.
In class. In groups. Always the same groups. Good stuff. They’re friends, let them work together. They work well together. Don’t break up the set. But why is it set? Do they always stick like that? Nah. It’s a class map, like any class. He brings in his ideas. Work in groups, discuss the point. Work on it together. Share your ideas, experiences. But it’s still the class map, the routine, the place you sit every Wednesday between 10.30 and 12.30. That’s after Maths starting at 8.30 when I sat behind Vincent. I could still chat to him there, just that every time Leung Sir looked up we had to glance away. Hou mun lah.
Stephen takes the high slaps from his mates, then ducks back cool as, jogging round, knows he can do it again. Knows that the court is his. And the class is his.
He has a broad forehead, and very thick eyebrows. His eyes are quite heavy set and often have a distracted gaze in class. He can’t see his eyes clearly from above, but he can make out the concentrated set of his jaw. Watching down he thinks about this morning’s lesson. Everyone was chatting and some of it was in English. Stephen was the funny dude, joking in English. Physical enough that all of them knew what his joke was. Teacher knew what the joke was too. Let them roll with it, least they’re enjoying it, that’s half of it. Half the battle won.
Half whose battle?
At lunchtime today he sat through a meeting. Precious preparation time sacrificed for boredom that he was steamrolled into. ‘Government Strategies for Education in Hong Kong’. A civil servant with PowerPoint slides. It was well funny watching a lecture theatre full of teachers falling asleep, doodling and chatting at the back. Much more entertaining than listening to a civil servant with PowerPoint slides.
Slide: IT Breakthrough for Future
What in god’s name does that mean? If I could get past his drone maybe I’d find out. Mr Chow has dropped his pencil with a clack on the floor and not noticed as his head bounces on his chest. Bad for your neck that.
Slide: Expanding Visions for Higher Standards
They really shouldn’t treat the English language like that. That nice Winnie siu je from the maths department there, arriving late, running past the desk bent double like she’s trying not to block the screen in a movie. Ha.
Slide: Revolutionising the Workforce Mindset.
Bloody hell, what o what what?
"… its crucially important for educationalists in vocational training like yourselves to realise that you are preparing the future workforce for the greater benefit of Hong Kong. If Hong Kong is to have a real role to play in the Asian marketplace our workforce most not only be given the necessary skills to fill their places in businesses and institutes throughout the city, they must also be motivated and pleased to be filling that role. It is your place to make sure we have the workers this city needs.
He’s often walked past the room where this class has computer lesson. Stephen, Kin and Vincent at the back, keyboards pushed out of the way, sleeping. They don’t realise this is the last they’ve got. From here it’s on to being a clerk, an admin assistant, a drone padding away his days til the family comes. The new clerks will have to be able to typeface to get paid 50 dollars an hour. The workforce for the future, the proles for the factory, the bums on seats, the buttons on the remote control, the money in the pocket
“How much salary?” They asked. And Raymond, pretending to be teacher, said “10,000 a month.” Ten thousand! Expectations. Jeezus, expectations.
He asked, “What do you guys think about your chances of finding work in Hong Kong?”
Blanks. Heads dropping gazes away.
Okay, not a clear question.
“Do you feel that Hong Kong is a good place to find work?”
Sing and ah-Kin are starting to chat at the back of the class. Others stare blankly.
Okay, maybe that’s a sensitive one. Maybe they still don’t really understand.
“Do you want to start working next year?”
Eyes roll away, no one wants to answer. C’mon, someone answer.
“No, I don fink.”
“Don wan work”
I’ll be boss.” He stands up waves his arms over the class–“all my worker.”Laughs.
So they understand. Alright, so then ‘Does anyone think it’s better to keep studying than to start work?’
Rolls and drifts. They know it, they’ve got it, c’mon guys try to answer. C’mon someone. C’mon Stephen, spark, c’mon answer my question, c’mon say something. Arg!
Stephen snatches from Johnson, goes wide round the court, out paces Vincent and from the far left lobs in a long shot, spinning it’s way towards the hoop. Clang, it hits ring, hops off into Sing’s hands, he grabs and bounces, quick towards the other end, down the open left.
The vigour, the eagerness, the camaraderie of the court goes way beyond anything that has ever come out over letters of complaint or participating in a business meeting.
The aims of the lesson: to introduce language for making polite introductions; social expressions for formal business meetings; controlling the speaker techniques to enhance communication; five things to do with a conjugated verb. Why the hell would any of them ever want to leap aggressively towards a functional piece of standard expression the way they are grabbing out for a ball? When would you expect them to block and pass in an argumentative essay the way they are challenging down there on the clay?
Every day, there are three hours of his own preparation where he is thinking about how this will be something to get interest, a bit of zest and zing into the day. Gotta relieve them from the routine, the pounding, the headache of 2 hours of business administration, an hour of maths, a wee break then two hours of vocational English, Geez, that would do anyone’s head in, but you’ve got to think about it, brood on it work on it, try it out and give them something to look forward to. ‘Orright, we’ve got English next, hot dawg, hou cheng’. But when are you gonna make them feel for once, for one moment the joys that are upon them while they are down there, ten minutes, half an hour a day on the basketball court givin it some, jostling pals, jesting and swearing – without the teach saying, ‘Hey, c’mon now, you’re supposed to be practising the different ways you can introduce a new Japanese colleague to your supervisor at work. Why’re you chatting?’ The ten minutes in the day. Five days in the week. 30 weeks in the two terms. 1500 minutes before they’re down there doin it, clerkin and there aint no more ten minutes. Next year there’s gonna be a carpet covered plastic wall between them. And do you think they’ll remember the best topics to discuss with your new Japanese colleague? Hey fuck, gettonit, wouldn’t you?
Keep bouncing the ball keep having that fun.
A couple of weeks ago, a task he handed out in class was to write the first five things you would teach a friend who wanted to learn English but didn’t know any at all. Stephen and his friends, working in a group wrote down, ‘bullshit, foolish, help me, fuck you and no way’. Brilliant! Just brilliant. It is there.
The game’s disintegrating. A bunch of the guys are tackling each other, fannying about, showing off to the girls who’re all crowded round one pal on a mobile phone. Stephen is flicking the ball from outside the circle, going off the backboard through the net, slowly bouncing towards his feet, then flick, backboard, net, bounce, flick.
There’s four hours straight to prepare for tomorrow morning. He catches himself up.
“What’re you doing hanging about here?”
~Andrew Doig (Hong Kong, Scotland)
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