In China, my college sophomores are a difficult lot.
When they were freshmen, I was adored as their first American foreign-language teacher. Every English lesson and activity we did was joyfully embraced as new, exciting, and wonderfully different.
But as sophomores, everything becomes old hat. They slump in their seats. They doze on their desktops. They play with their cellphones. I especially struggle around Christmastime. No matter how I tweak or change the lessons, our Christmas unit always loses something the second time around.
Last year, I changed all that. We needed a new experience. Forget the tree decorating, party, and gift exchange. This time there would be campus Christmas caroling.
I had always wanted to do Christmas caroling with my students at Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. Each year, I taught the freshmen a variety of winter holiday songs. "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" were among their favorites.
Yet with my busy teaching schedule, a full evening of caroling was never at the top of my priority list. The custom, too, is so alien in China. Our trek across campus might be seen as an unwanted musical invasion rather than a welcoming holiday serenade.
Despite my reservations, last year I gathered my sophomore classes to pitch the caroling proposal. I detailed our possible outing together and waited for a response.
A hand went up.
"So ... we miss evening study hours?" one student asked with great hope.
"Right," I affirmed. "No evening study hours."
Unanimously, the Christmas caroling was approved.
On the appointed evening, I scheduled a precaroling practice session one hour before we embarked on our campus parade. More than 100 students crammed into the small lecture hall to await my instructions.
I went over the walking route on the blackboard. I handed out candles and song sheets. We practiced the carols we'd sing. Then, at my signal, we headed out into the chilly night air.
Our first stop was the school cafeteria, where workers were cleaning up after dinner. The students gathered around for our opening number, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." Candles were lit. Song sheets were held high. The opening note was given.
Stage fright had set in.
"Come on, everyone!" I rallied. "On the count of three!"
The 100-plus sophomore choir weakly made it through several carols before "Jingle Bells" ignited a holiday spark. I was thankful the group had at least mustered a perky finale.
Although the workers didn't have a clue what we were singing about or why, they gave us an encouraging round of applause. The students beamed.
Moving onward, we arrived at the women's dormitories. This second stop incited a bit more confidence and enthusiasm, especially from the boys. When the female students began lining the outer dorm balconies to listen, the young men put forth an impressive effort to win them over.
The male singers bobbed and swayed while gustily belting out our selected songs. They were off-key and their English words were unrecognizable, but no one seemed to care. The girls' laughter and waves only further boosted their masculine pride.
In a spontaneous moment, the male sophomores shouted a parting, "Women ai nimen (We love you)!" Their adoring fans responded in kind.
By the time we reached the male dorms, everyone was getting a true feeling for the caroling custom. Here the women rose to the occasion when seven floors of good-looking guys crowded the building's open-air areas. The women's vibrant, cheerful energy brought down the house. Wild cheers and whistles followed every carol.
Only "Silent Night" hushed the attentive audience. The choir's diverse voices finally unified. Their gentle song drifted upward into the night sky and enfolded us all in a calming embrace.
The next day, the buzz around campus was all about the surprise English-language choir that sang to workers and students. Teachers and administrators even praised the activity as an innovative approach to learning English and bringing about cultural understanding.
But my sophomores had a different take on their evening of caroling. Always before, the spirit of Christmas had been explained to them. This time around, it had been felt and shared by them.
In China, December has again arrived. Last year's freshmen now sit in my classroom as bored, disinterested sophomores. They slump in their seats. They doze on their desktops. They play with their cellphones. They are expecting a Christmas unit much like the one the year before.
And I? I am secretly smiling because I know they are in for an unforgettable surprise.