Lessons in the dark – fiction by Daniel Tam-Claiborne


In non-coastal cities in America, area blackouts are about as common as getting struck by lightning or becoming infected by West Nile Virus. They’re so rare even that the simple mention of a date and place can often conjure up memories of an exact moment in a person’s life.

In Taigu, Shanxi province, where I was teaching English for two years, area blackouts occurred about as frequently as trips to the dry cleaners. Rare was it that a few weeks passed without our breakers going haywire and the school losing power to one half of campus or the other. If we were lucky, we were spared the wrath that propelled convenience stores and student dorms on the north side into total darkness, but just as often, it was the paths and streetlamps that lined our locality that turned off and our houses that went dim. Sometimes that loss of power was just for a few hours, and at other times, for a day or more. Blackouts, especially in the evening, found us in one of two situations: either going to sleep early for lack of things to do, or attempting to offset our boredom with what was at our disposal – board games, a few candles, and a case of beer.

It was about 7pm on one of these occasions, still early enough in the spring to be able to sit in the living room with the front door open and the blinds drawn and subsist on the modest amount of light that was coming through the windows. Jerry and Dylan, my co-teachers, came over and the three of us were making small talk in the living room, hoping that the situation wouldn’t last. Eventually, Grant’s laptop gave out and he, too, abandoned the privacy of his dark room and joined us. It was a scene oddly reminiscent of the front stoops outside of brownstones in my neighborhood back home. Sensing that it was getting dark, we began to make preparations.

“Anything new and exciting in class?” Dylan asked, as he cleared off the coffee table.

“We were playing Pictionary yesterday,” Jerry started, “and one of my English majors kept drawing this blank circle with two eyes for the word ‘aunt.’” He mimicked the expression with his own face. “God, it was hilarious.”

“I’ve got them working on adaptations of Greek myths for their final,” said Grant. “Oedipus and Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, that kind of thing.” It was just like Grant to teach Chinese students English by having them learn Greek myths.

With the exception of Jerry who opted to give written final exams, we all decided to administer oral skits as the end of the year grade assessment. Our bosses only really cared that we had some sort of final to close out the year, but never specified exactly what kind. I split my students into groups of four and had them mull over a hypothetical worst-case scenario: You and your group-mates are high up in a hot air balloon and notice that it has begun to leak. What do you do?

Each group would have fifteen minutes to perform their skits in front of the class and I would be meeting individually with each one to check the script for errors and plagiarism. I usually tolerated copying in the first draft so long as they changed it by the time of their performance. But despite my tireless soapboxing, students never seemed to fully grasp the American gravity of plagiarism. Worse still, though, was the handful of students who attended less than one or two classes all year, but who were convinced that they were entitled to a passing grade. In spite of it being an oral English class, most of those students could neither speak nor understand the simplest of phrases.

During my first semester, it was less of a problem: the H1N1 epidemic put the campus on lock-down for two straight months. I forgave students who used it as an excuse for not being able to return to school, whether or not I believed them. But since then, there had been no such calamity. Attendance for all of my classes dropped by almost half, and those who rarely came before stopped coming altogether.

Disheartened and frustrated, I warned my students that those who didn’t start regularly attending class would receive a zero for their final grade. For the first week following my announcement, attendance spiked, but it wasn’t long before it began to fall again. As a last resort, I instituted a cap for attendance: those who had attended less than twenty percent of my classes all year – a remarkably minimal requirement considering that attendance was the crux of my grading rubric – would not be allowed to take the final exam.

I didn’t think there would be much, if any, pushback from my students. Surely those who had never come to class and who had never handed in a single homework assignment knew that they would be failing. I had laid out all of the class guidelines at the beginning of the semester. But I had forgotten an unwritten rule of the Chinese educational system: that passing the final exam means passing the class, regardless of attendance record.

When suddenly I wrenched that single chance from their hands, students were forced to confront a much graver predicament. Begrudgingly, they returned to class, with a mix of shock, embarrassment, hostility, and desperation. Having explained my rationale again and again, each time with another third of the class watching, I thought I had finally put the issue to rest.

But like the blackouts that wreaked unforeseen havoc on my living quarters, so too did that subset of students who, one after the other, appeared uninvited at my house to discuss the matter. Both the blackouts and the student visits seemed to be governed entirely by the tides of chance. Students dropped by at all hours of the day and evening, most bearing gifts, or the promise of future gifts – a lavish dinner, a trip to the massage parlour, beautiful girls at a nightclub. One came with a “translator” –  one of the better students in the same class – and another with a Chinese friend of mine who thought he could use that relationship with me to improve his grade.

I surprised myself by my own lack of sympathy. Without coming to class, there was no way to have learned anything that I taught, so what could they possibly contribute to the exam? I got all kinds of excuses for missing class—full-time jobs in other cities, experiments that lasted for months. I told them that if they could explain to me in English why they thought they deserved the chance to take the exam, I would let them take it. None of them did.

Where it would have been much easier to give in, I stayed firm. I lied at first, saying that it was a rule my boss had imposed, then finally owned up to it myself. I wanted to teach them a lesson that I felt as graduate students they should have learned a long time ago. It wasn’t long before word spread and students in other classes found out. Then even they tried to petition for their struggling classmates—pleading with their own foreign teachers to get me to change my mind. But my decision was final.

My goal as a teacher was to reward effort. It didn’t bother me if a student’s English level was not high so long as he or she made some kind of an effort to improve – coming to class, following the lesson, asking questions if he or she didn’t understand. My only hope was that the student’s English level at the end of a semester was better than where it started. It was clear from current performance, as well as looking at the grades from the past semester, that this wasn’t the case for these students. But all the while, I was beginning to doubt myself.

On the day of the blackout, I had already sunk into my own well of self-pity. Grant caught me shirtless in my room, lying sprawled out on my bed and listening to Habib Koité at the highest volume my speakers could reach, the swoops and crashes of the Malian drum beats washing over my body like waves. I told him that I wanted to cleanse my entire being, as if this otherworldly music could burn off my skin and regenerate it anew.

I was devastated by the belief that I had ruined these students’ lives – that because of the stubbornness of my own principles, their paths could be irreparably changed for the worse. They had grown up in a different culture and with a different education system than I, so perhaps it wasn’t fair that I was subjecting them to something so utterly foreign.

As it got close to the time when we would have to start lighting candles, there came a rap at my screen door. By then the room was filled with a soft pale glow and the objects and the three other faces were hardly distinguishable from one another, accented only by occasional movement. But I immediately recognised the figure at my door as my student, Susan. Unlike my other flunkouts, during the previous semester she had performed at the top of her class, but this spring I had seen her only a few times. Despite my esteem for her as a student, I had an obligation to be fair. I asked her friends in class to tell her that due to her absences, she would not be allowed to take the final exam.

She came to my house alone as a single, hunched silhouette in the doorframe. Like most girls at the university, she wore plain clothes, no make-up, and kept her hair in a simple ponytail. Outside, the sun had set, and already a grainy fog was filling in the sky. She carried a bundle of bananas – a bribe of sorts, but one that somehow felt more genuine than most. Her eyes would hardly meet mine at first – oscillating between her shoes and the horizon in the distance behind my house. Despite my invitation to come in, she preferred to keep her distance.

She began to explain the reasons for her disappearance from class. I was surprised by the degree to which she could still make herself understood in English, despite the long hiatus.

“A few months ago, I found out that I was pregnant,” she said calmly, like she were setting out clothes on a line to dry. Her eyes darted quickly to her enlarged midsection. “But at that time, my boyfriend and I were still single.”

Her boyfriend was the same year and major that she was in school. Susan motioned to Grant still sitting on the couch. “One of his students,” she said, though none of the guys were paying attention. A child out of wedlock in China was cause for scandal, so her parents wanted a marriage, but that still wouldn’t solve the issue of the baby.

“We talked a lot about what we should do,” Susan continued. Her speech started slowly, then grew fast like a confession. On the one hand, abortion was a relatively cheap and easy solution, but with it came a host of moral dilemmas.

“My parents are farmers,” she said, “and are very traditional. So, finally we decided to keep it,” she said. “To bring the baby into the world.” Not long after, her parents made preparations for the wedding. Everyone involved – her boyfriend included – was amazingly obliging throughout, but all the details about the pregnancy were kept private.

Susan and her boyfriend were wedded back in their hometown, a small ceremony with just their closest friends and family. Following that, she returned back to school, and began briefly attending class again – a story that checked out with my own attendance records.

“When I came back, I thought everything would be normal,” Susan went on. “But my classmates didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Everyone noticed my stomach. They said I was like a different person.”

There were other complications from the pregnancy too – waking up feeling sick every morning, wanting to throw up. She turned her body away from the door, like she was ashamed of it.

“My parents wanted me to return home and not come back to school,” she said. Her voice got low and raspy. Not knowing what else to do, she agreed.

By now, the night sky was cascading across her face. Activity along the small bypaths outside my house had slowed to a crawl. I could tell by the creases in her eyes that Susan was on the brink of tears. This was an incredibly embarrassing thing to admit to anyone – particularly a foreign English teacher. She told me she would be taking the next year off from school in order to give birth, and afterward, she might not come back to finish her degree. I speculated that very few people knew the full extent of her predicament.

I could only think of one question: “Why now?”

She explained, “I wanted to tell you earlier. I just didn’t know how.”

As I looked out at the swirl of gray and black behind her, the entire scope of human experience became clear to me for a single instant. Just one year earlier, she was a child. Now standing before me she was a mother-to-be, four-months pregnant, waiting for me to hand down my judgment. She was just barely older than I but looked years younger. I could only think of her in class. Susan in the fourth row. Susan in the stretchy dress, hands clasped around her stomach like a life preserver. She was the first pregnant person my age that I had ever met. Given the right circumstances, it could have happened to any one of us. I took a long breath before responding.

“Okay,” I told her. “You can take the exam.”

Daniel Tam-Claiborne is a freelance writer in Beijing, and Gruber Fellow in Global Justice and Women’s Rights at the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. He also writes for the website Travel Breeds Content

This is a chapter extract from Daniel’s first book of fiction, What Never Leaves, based on his travels and work in Asia, which was published in 2012 by Wilder Voice Press