Sunday, March 15, 2015

A tea barista is born!

{ A typical tea barista,
hopped up on caffeine and English literature }  
This term, I've become my English students' tea barista. I've shared with them puerh, introduced glorious oolong, and let them get to know beautiful red teas (by which I mean, black teas, but I wanted to avoid the alliteration). I get the kids jazzed up on caffeine and L-theanine, talk poetry and literature, then send them on their merrier way. I'm told their gym classes are livelier with less-lethargic students.

It all started with a student whom I'll call, "Nadia," because that's her first name. She was not feeling well, and she begged for a bit of tea to soothe her aching throat. And, being the accommodating sort, I wanted to help. My schedule was inconvenient, and I couldn't stay away from my classroom to make her tea, so I walked my tea table over and plopped it on the edge of my big teacher's desk at the head of the room.

I made Nadia some flowery stuff I hadn't drunk and didn't want to drink, but which I thought she might enjoy. And enjoy it she did. Then I saw how some other students had procured teacups from somewhere, and they were sharing the rest of her pot. Hm, something I hadn't expected.

Now, the students had heretofore watched me drinking my good tea, and they were interested, but I hadn't really shared the stuff before. It had always been made already in my office, and then I would bring it to class in a pot for serving to myself during class. But now: Tea was right there, in front of them, on a cool bamboo tea tray with a lot of funky accoutrements. And I had a beeng of puerh, which I wanted to try out.

That fateful day, I cracked open the puerh, and a bunch of tea appreciators were born. My friends at Jas-eTea (pronounced, \ˈja-zē ˈtē\, if I'm not mistaken) and at Yunnan Sourcing had recently sent me a pirate's treasure trove, an embarrassment of riches, a veritable Smaug's horde. Puerh in several varieties, and dan cong oolongs, and blacks, and reds, and I don't know what all. I started with a nice, ripe puerh.

"Oh, you won't like this," I shared in an aside to some of the boys, who seemed interested, "because it's manly man tea, and you don't have enough testosterone to drink it." The trap was set.

{ A Burmese tiger trap also serves to catch teens' attention }
"No, really. I mean, you obviously like the flowery tea, but you wouldn't want to drink this puerh, which often reminds people of tobacco, and rubber tires, and smoke, and leather, that kind of thing. It's like nothing you've ever had, and you can't enjoy it."

"No, we can drink it! Please, let us try some." Much sniffing of tea. "It smells great. I'll drink it." Deep basso rumbles from the cool kid in class. "I'm sure I'll like it."

"Fine, you can try it, but if your idea of tea is foofy chocolate-strawberry-souffle tea-like beverage, you're going to be disappointed."

The snare thus set, I pulled a yixing pot from its box, set out the Taiwanese sniffing cup sets, and started heating up the water. With intense focus, the guys—at this point, the girls were still uninterested—watched as I opened up the beeng of puerh, carefully stabbed into it to divide out the leaves without breaking them, and plopped them into the tiny warmed pot. Sniff, sniff. The kids got a whiff of tobacco, of subtle smoky vanilla, and that interesting hay barn aroma that makes you feel like you're in the healthful outdoors.

Pour, pour. I show the guys the whole crazy rigamarole of the sniffing cup inside the drinking cup, the flipping of the cups, catching the aroma of the tea. All the while, I explain where puerh comes from (Yunnan, of course), the way it's double-fermented, the idea of its aging, the puerh boom of the '90s, what gongfu is, and so on. The tea is served.

Flip, flip; Sniff, sniff; drink, drink. Sharp interest. They like it. I give more information. "Did you know . . . " that young men at university are the fastest-growing group of tea drinkers, and they and bond traders like it because it helps them focus without getting jittery? It's a productivity hack, you know. And though lots of people tout puerh for its health and weight benefits, I just drink it for the feeling of elevation, relaxation, and the enjoyment of my senses opening up. And being a tea appreciator involves being observant, which this class is all about. And you might just be the only high school students in Illinois drinking puerh tea with their instructor this afternoon. Interesting, huh? "Did you know . . ."

And that was about four months or so ago. Tea every day. The girls are now equally interested, and the students are collectively the worst bunch of tea beggars I've ever encountered. I should put out a tip jar. They write the "Tea of the Day" on the board when I have something interesting to share. The girls like the greens and the dan cong oolongs, and my original set of puerh drinkers remain fiercely loyal to that compressed tea. And when my students begged me to teach them about tea (in an attempt to get me off track), I gave them a whole lecture on the story of Keemun tea and English Breakfast, a list of the Ten Great Teas of China, and had them take a test on it, for credit.

So what's all this about then? Tea is a metaphor, a means to teach the art of observation and enjoyment. Reading Dostoyevsky, or Wallace, or Faulkner, or cummings, or the Word of God; or listening to piano works by Ravel; or drinking tea. Observing, enjoying, processing, organizing, writing. It all comes together, and I hope my students learn something about how to really enjoy life in the quiet, small things. I know that, through the experience, I certainly have. Being an English teacher–barista and sharing from my tea hoard has become one of my great joys.