At five years old, I dream of being a writer. I use blank print paper to write short stories and draw pictures. Writing brings me much joy. As time goes on, life happens. I start doubting my dream. I listen to people I love telling me I need to find a “stable career”. I will go with teaching because I love youth. I will bury my dream for many years, but living in China waters the writing tree in me. This tree never dies.
Me at 5 years old with one dream I cannot ignore
I originally went to the University of South Carolina-Columbia (USC) to get a degree in Early Childhood. By my junior year, I am taking my core classes and practicum to practice teaching in the classroom. I have difficulty keeping up with my class assignments. I do not do well in the classrooms where students have challenging behaviors. By failing one of my core classes, it causes my removal from the Early Childhood program. I will change my major to English for the spring semester of my junior year.
I have my graduation ceremony in August 2012 for my Bachelor’s in English from USC. I use this degree to teach English in Beijing, China. The first time I share with my parents of me going to another country, my dad tells me he will not let me go. I am a daddy’s girl, but I believe there is more to life than what I comfortably see. I want much more. I will end up traveling to China alone on a 13 hour plane ride.
Lesson 1: TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH REVEALS INNER STRENGTH
Traveling to China by myself teaches me to constantly be aware of my surroundings. I learn the difference between positive and negative vibes. I ask questions and take action. I meet nice people. Some I would rather forget about. When arriving in China, I got the initial “cultural shock”. Most people do not speak English, so I adjust the way I communicate. I am also an African American with naturally, kinky afro hair. I definitely stick out like a sore thumb!
I am given an apartment to live in through the private Chinese kindergarten school I will be teaching at. I live with three young Chinese girls who work at the school. Once I meet the two head Chinese teachers I am to work with, I realize I will be doing more servant work. I have to consult with the two head teachers on how I will teach English to the Chinese children. I clean floors and serve the students three meals throughout the day. The students get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This school schedule goes from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening.
Middle 3 Pre-K Class in Beijing, China (October 2012)
It takes some adjusting for me with the longer school schedule and cultural differences. I wish to come home at first, but my mother makes me stay. I will stay in China for six months because of her. By taking the initial leap of faith, I step outside of my comfort zone. A female friend tells me about a church that is two hours away from my apartment. She shows me how to get there and then I start going alone. Situations like these help me to think outside of the box when teaching younger children.
Lesson 2: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX INFLUENCES PERSPECTIVE
The Private Chinese Kindergarten School I Worked At: August 2012- January 2013
I am not sure how things are now, but when I went to China in 2012, many of the resources I would probably use in America were not accessible. For example, a person living in China could not use YouTube or popular social media found in the United States. I learn how to create quickly. I draw pictures for visual effects in my English lessons. I buy toys for the students to act out in games. I attempt to speak some Chinese at times to help bridge the cultural gap.
Many of the children grasp English. The ones who do not do well tend to have challenging behavior. I will discover how much power words have on people, especially children. I did not learn this concept right away in China. It gives me the foundation to reflect back on, over the next five years, when I return to America. Although I think I will only be teaching younger children, I am able to tutor two older Chinese boys on Saturdays thanks to one of my Chinese co-workers. The boys are her nephews. One is nine. The other is ten.
Surprisingly for me, it is not hard to teach these boys. I am able to teach them English and share American culture. The boys were already taking English classes at their regular school. They did not know much about the culture in America though. In my English lessons, we go over different genres. The boys discover what they like individually. It helps me better understand who they are. The boys love the fact I want to build a relationship with them. Still, I had to demonstrate to their father why this method of teaching is effective.
Lesson3: BUILDING A CONNECTION REACHES THE MISUNDERSTOOD
The two boys I tutored (September 2012- February 2013)
I think older children are extremely misunderstood. I call them the forgotten ones. I see it in college, in China, and when I come back to America. Before I could gain the boys respect, I had to listen to what they had to say. The ten year old boy tells me, “You are my favorite English teacher because you listen.” Words like this always kept me going. Towards the end of me leaving to go back to America, the boys improve tremendously on their English and confidence.
The parents are happy with the progress. In my last week of living in China, the parents gave me another boy to tutor. He is twelve and the cousin of the other two. I teach him the same method I taught them. I build up a trust relationship. The boys’ cousin is not happy I am leaving to go back to America. I had gotten extremely homesick being only 21 years old. There is one last lesson from my travels in China I hold dear before going back to America.
Lesson 4: COMPASSION PLUS ACTION CREATES CHANGE
The look of freedom for finally going after my dream in January 2020
As I go to church, grocery stores, or shopping places in China, I see many homeless people laying in the streets. That is not much different from the United States. The biggest difference I would witness is the lack of resources for these people. Mind you, in my 20’s, I think the world revolves around me. I am selfish, greedy, and prideful. All of this changes when I constantly see this homeless Chinese man right outside my Chinese apartment.
My heart keeps pulling at watching him look for food in trash cans. One day, I can no longer take it. I gave him some yen. At first, he did not want to take it. He finally thanks me and accepts the money. I walk away from this man in tears. I think to myself how could I be so selfish, greedy, and prideful. I did not recognize it then. My writing tree had grown enormously inside of me. China prepares this Pre-K English Aide to dream bigger!
I am not the same person who left and went to China right after undergrad. I start feeling like I can do more and be more. Although I spent another five years trying to be an elementary school teacher in South Carolina for a total of ten years, I did not pass my teacher exam. I would fail the exam ten times. The tenth time is when I reflect back on my dream of writing. I kept writing throughout my life. I wrote as a kid, a college student, a traveler to China, and a worker when I got back to America.
To reveal my inner strength, I take a leap of faith by starting my brand in January 2020. I became my own public relations agent. I book myself for numerous forms of media. I think outside the box to influence my perspective. I began a children’s book series called, Lynn Learns Lessons. The book sales go toward a different nonprofit each month targeting children and teens throughout South Carolina. I build connections to reach the misunderstood through my book series. The books are for children of third to fifth grade. I want them to know they are not alone.
Finally, I know now more than ever before that compassion plus action creates change. I desire to inspire many people. Dreams are so valuable. When a dream is real for the person, the dream will never go away. Only you can stop you. If you are not living your dream, why not? What are you waiting for?
Traci Neal is a Youth Author, Professional Christian Poet, and Certified Youth Speaker. Featured in The New York Times for her letter to the editor, Sheen Magazine, and CNBC Make It. For more information, visit https://www.tracinealspeakerpoet.com/
Image courtesy of Daria Shevtsova.