In Ashley Zhou’s words:

When I return from Beijing, tanner and probably thinner and most definitely disoriented, I will inevitably have to field questions about what I did over the summer. My answer will probably be “oh, I taught English in Beijing with DukeEngage” or something to that effect, elaboration contingent upon the asker’s conveyed interest. After all, I attend a university where summers are not squandered and answers of this nature are fairly common. But so much of that statement implies a sort of fierce independence that isn’t quite representative of the full truth. Working at Dandelion Middle School means working with and within communities, from the community of DukeEngage in Beijing volunteers to our classroom communities to the communities we form with our homeroom and English teachers.

On the first day I arrived at Dandelion, nervous and excited and uncertain about what awaited, my homeroom teacher welcomed me with aplomb, confiding that she hoped to improve her own English through our interactions. She proudly showed me the classroom that was essentially her home and would quickly become mine, pointing out the students’ artwork and contributions. Of particular interest to both of us was the map of China, on which colorful push-pins were placed, with strings connecting them to pictures of the students. Our students had come from all over this expansive country, drawn towards the vibrancy and opportunity present in the lodestones of Beijing and Dandelion Middle. My homeroom teacher is also a migrant, from the Henan province, like many of our students. She has been here for almost a year now, but she tells me that since this is her first year, she is new, like me. We can help each other, she says. We can be partners, friends.

And immediately, she treats me like a friend, anywhere from inviting me along on bathroom trips to approaching me during meals for casual conversations. She peers up at me through her bangs, smiling quizzically as she tests out her English or typing away at her phone as she seeks to explain idiomatic phrases I might not know.

She used to like reading, she tells me, but she has since developed a passion for music and—here, she glances at me and broadens her smile—learning English. Her greatest love, however, is being with her students. She understands that she can be strict, but this strictness comes out of love—she wants these students to maximize their potential. Becoming a teacher had been a childhood dream for her, inspired by a wonderful homeroom teacher. I can see that she could easily be that inspirational homeroom teacher for her own students.

I feel honored to work with the teachers of Dandelion. For the past two weeks, the volunteers have been giving everything our best effort, but we cannot help but feel the constraints of exhaustion and the limited number of hours in a day. But the teachers at Dandelion do all we do and more day in and day out. To associate with them as with peers is an incredible privilege; to call them friends, even more so.

I’m happy to call my homeroom teacher my friend.


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