Here is the first group of freshmen’s literature circle materials on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Kindergarten.”
Summarizers: Rey and Angela
The story begins with Shaona, a little girl of around 5 or 6, who is living at a kindergarten with her classmates and her Teacher Shen, who overhears a conversation between her teacher and an unknown person, discussing the painful aftermath of an abortion she recently had. After the call is over, Teacher Shen gathered the children and led them outside, where she told them that they would be picking purslanes, a herb that grew in the schoolyard. After a while of collecting the herbs, Shaona got into a fight with her classmate Dabin, who insulted her for the number of purslanes she had picked. He was taken away by the teachers, and the children continued searching the fields, excited for the purslanes that Teacher Shen had promised they would get for dinner. At mealtime that night, Shaona noticed that their food is what it always was, and gets angry because they did not get to taste the purslanes. After dinner, Dabin was released by the teacher, and in order to keep him from messing with her, she gave him some peanuts she had gotten from her father, who she hasn’t seen for 2 weeks. At recess the next day the children play instead of collecting herbs but continue their labor the day after. While the class is picking purslanes, a wild rabbit runs out into the field, and all the children run after it trying to catch it for their dinner that night. During the rabbit chase, Shaona leaves the class behind and pees on the collected purslanes. She is so satisfied with her attempt to sabotage whoever would be getting the herbs instead, that she doesn’t even get upset when they have the same foods for dinner that evening.
Discussion Directors: James and Elissa
What is the significance of Teacher Shen’s pregnancy?
Did she give Dabin the peanuts to placate him? I doubt he would have gotten away with much with all the teachers around
Why are the Kindergarten children cussing?
Where do you think the story takes place?
Was she selling the purslanes or was she eating them?
In the story “In the Kindergarten”, we (being Elissa and James, students at HSPVA) believe that the story takes place somewhere in Asia, specifically China. The author, Ha Jin, includes tiny small little details about the characters, the food, and the surrounding area that clue the reader in to where the setting may be. For example, the names of the characters are Chinese, Shaona, Dabin, Teacher Chen, Uncle Cheng, Weilan, Luwan, Aili, and Aunt Chef. While ‘Aunt Chef’ may not be explicitly Chinese, I think it’s an Asian thing to call older adults that you know “aunt” or “uncle” because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was able to talk. We have reason to think that this story specifically takes place in rural China, due to the amount of farming that the main characters do. Furthermore, Teacher Shen seems extremely concered about her pregnancy, and even talks about perhaps getting an abortion, which alludes to the one child law in China, which while may or may not still be in affect, was most likely in affect at the time that this was written. Finally, the food that was mentioned also gives helpful clues to the fact that this is in China, specifically the purslanes and fried eggplant which is a very japanese/chinese type food.
Lit Connectors: Edlyn and Quentin
Suffer the Little Children
Ms. Interrupter (Gabi’s workshop piece)
The Wolf and the Cherries (Christian’s workshop piece)
We can connect In the Kindergarten to The Wolf and the Cherries because both stories are about a small child facing a challenge. In Christian’s workshop piece it is about a boy taking on a wolf and in In the Kindergarten a girl is struggling in Kindergarten. Both use food to try and win the conflict they are experiencing. The girl uses peanuts, which are then taken from her. The boy uses cherry pits, which were taken from him by the wolf. In both stories the character ends up triumphant, the girl because she got the edge on her teacher who wasn’t giving them the sprouts she promised, and the boy saved his village from a wolf.
Illustrators: Christian and Chanice
The first image relates to the story because it depicts a young girl who is (probably) the same age as the girl in the story. Many have assigned the role of protagonist to the little girl and the climax would be when she pees on the parsnips while the rest of the children are chasing a rabbit. The images a whole represent the story and the arc of the story. The story describes children at a boarding school and their life on the daily. The main setting of the story is the schoolhouse. The readers are introduced to the teacher and a conflict with another man. He goes on a tangent about the teacher paying him because her rent is due. She is hysterical. This adds to the tension when the reader finds out that the teacher has used the money she worked for an abortion. The images like the sack of harvest show the fruit that the children picked.
Literary Luminaries: Natalie and Heather
“She felt that from now on she would not cry like a baby at night again.”
“ ‘Say that again, bitch!’ ”
“‘I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live . . . And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperate. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”
“Soon Shaona couldn’t stand playing queen anymore, because she felt silly calling him ‘Your Majesty’ and hated having to obey his orders.”
We chose the third quote to elaborate on. This quote introduces the teacher’s conflict, which is the chronic tension of the story. She recently had an abortion and is now struggling to deal with the finaces and resulting health issues because of it. She remarks about how much blood she lost and needs more nutrients. During this quote, she is on the phone, asking her boss for a raise in order to be able to buy more food, but he continues to refuse. The student, Shaona, who is the main character hears this conversation and is confused about what she is talking about. This leads her to desperate measures where she leads the kids outside to pick the purslanes. Shaona, our narrator and voice of the story, is one of her students who is picking them. She doesn’t understand why she is picking the plants and comes up with her own theories; she initially thinks that they are going to eat them at dinner or some other meal, but is confused why they don’t. This is the acute tension of the story as the younger and innocent mind tries to comprehend the intense and mature situation of the teacher’s abortion.
Craft Terms Experts: Benjy, Lakshmi, Caroline W
“Oh please!” the teacher blubbered on the phone. “I’ll pay you the money in three months. You’ve already helped me so much, why can’t you help me out?’…
“Have mercy on me, Dr. ·Niu. I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live. … And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperare. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”
“Big asshole,” Weilan said, and made a face at him, sticking out her tongue.
“Say that again, bitch!” He went up to her, grabbed her shoulder, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks. She burst out crying.
“Aunt Chef couldn’t cook those we got yesterday because we turned them in too late, but she’ll cook them for us today. So everybody must be a good child and work hard. Understood?”
He turned away to talk to other children, telling them that purslanes tasted awful. He claimed he had once eaten a bowl of purslane stew when he had diarrhea. He would never have touched that stuff if his parents hadn’t forced him. “It tastes like crap, more bitter than sweet potato vines,” he assured them.
We chose the first set of quotes. These quotes are present towards the beginning of the story. In this dialogue, Teacher Shen is having a conversation with someone on the phone. It’s in this small portion of dialogue that we understand Teacher Shen’s chronic tension and intentions. Even though the main character, Shaona, is unaware of what an abortion is or how a baby is born, the readers know what is happening. The craft element of dialogue in this case is used to reveal Teacher Shen’s backstory, the fact that she got an abortion and couldn’t afford it because she has to support herself and her mother. It’s this backstory that allows the readers to know what exactly is driving the story. Without understanding that Teacher Shen can’t afford food using this piece of dialogue, we wouldn’t know why the kindergarteners were picking purslanes if they weren’t being cooked, which is what drives the story. There are many different ways to define the chronic tension of a character. In Shaona’s case, her chronic tension is defined through direct narration. That makes sense because she is the main character. The use of dialogue to define Teacher Shen’s backstory, chronic tension, and motives as a character makes sense as a choice of the author because the main character is overhearing this dialogue.