Phyllis Edgerly Ring: author, editor, writing tutor
twenty years, perseverence and plenty of words
 

In the months that followed the upheaval of 9/11 in 2001, I found myself unexpectedly transported to Shanghai, China, where I had the opportunity to teach English- and virtues-training to 1,000 of that city's kindergartners. While I lived and worked there with my daughter for four lovely months, I learned more about children, China, life, communication, cross-cultural understanding, and the human heart than I had in the whole 45 years leading up to that time.

A Language That Needs No Translation

In the fall of 2001, life heard how much I missed the back-to-school bustle as our family’s nest emptied out. In September, I suddenly received the opportunity to travel to Shanghai, China, to help teach English to schoolchildren.

Phyllis Ring and her daughter, Vanessa, on a visit to Suzhou, a Chinese city known for its canals, its poets, and its embroidered silk.
 
As I got to know 300 Chinese kindergartners through the program for which our 22-year-old daughter also worked, I lost track of how many things I did that I never dreamed I would, not the least of which was teaching children whose language I don’t speak.

Called "teacher," I was definitely doing most of the learning, and my teachers were China’s youngest citizens. I rediscovered how children between the ages of three and five are truly like new clay. As a young mother, I sometimes lost sight of this, but every preschool teacher knows it’s true. Children this age are like small mirrors that reflect what surrounds them. My daughter calls them "two-way mirrors," because they also radiate the light of their own character, if we bother to look. The impression we have the potential to make on them goes very deep and lasts a lifetime.

By the time they’re four or five, you can already see that "clay" of their nature becoming less impressionable, and by five to six, it dries and hardens even more. It is an amazing mystery how fully formed the nature of a person truly is by this age.

This clay can still be shaped by benevolent forces like love and kindness, however, even in some of worst of circumstances. I saw this in the efforts of wonderful classroom teachers who I know have their counterparts in my hometown, too.

Phyllis Ring with one of the Shanghai kindergarten students to whom she taught English.
 
Beyond being the children’s first encounter with English, the program I taught also introduced a more universal language that I believe all children are pre-programmed to speak—the language of virtues. Living in a country where you can’t speak the language, as I did, you gain new appreciation for virtues as a means of relationship and communication. A smile, a kind look, an encouraging gesture, are all something we can recognize wherever we go, whatever our mother tongue. Actions inspired by virtues have a great and long-lasting effect, as I had the opportunity to experience many times when Chinese children showed what we called their VQ or "Virtues Quotient."

One afternoon, I was suddenly hit by illness on my way to a kindergarten and prayed urgently for help. I arrived at the school feeling very weak, and was greeted at the door by a five-year-old boy who then helped me as I began to set up my things. When he saw me cough, he disappeared into the next room and returned with water in a beautiful clay teacup. He presented this to me with great kindness, good manners, and concern.

I felt myself flooded with warmth that actually made me feel stronger, as though the symptoms I’d been feeling had abruptly disappeared. I also experienced a surge of energy that lifted me through that class, and I feel that same warm strength every time I remember his kindness.

On another day, I arrived at a school to discover that I would have neither a Chinese partner to help me translate, nor the recorded music on which I depended to give lessons. I felt rather frightened, and also very worried about how we’d have a good class that day.

Shanghai kindergarten students in their New Beat English-training class.
 
As I simply tried to do my best, I began to notice that the children and their classroom teacher were all working even harder than usual to be cooperative and helpful, and the atmosphere in the room became very happy. I think that, in addition to English, what all of us practiced that day was the power of working together and helping each other, a vital part of virtues’ universal language.

Since that terrible day in September of 2001, people worldwide have recognized more than ever how much human behavior is at the heart of all the troubling, dangerous things on our shared planet. My days in those Shanghai schools reminded me that we want to begin cultivating what is highest and best in human beings as early as we can.
When world affairs grow dark, we can work together, no matter what our age or where we come from, to learn and use this powerful, life-giving language that God has made available to each of us. If we do this with patience and faith, an unfailing light begins to dispel darkness at the most lasting pace—little by little, day by day—and heart by heart.

 
 
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