“Some international students, when they first came, they called me Mr. Skip,” Carl Barnett, or Skip Barnett as most people call him, told me as we slowly walked towards the lobby of Camp Mack Center. “Working with international students, you have to get used to being addressed in unusual ways.”
Barnett is a professor of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and an International Student Advisor at Goshen College. Looking back on his life, there isn’t a straight path that led him to where he currently is. Pieces just spontaneously fell into places — he said.
“After you, ma’am.” He turned sideways, held on to the door and nodded his head, letting me enter the lobby first.
Barnett always talks in an almost whispering voice, addressing women of all ages by “ma’am” and acting in very considerate and polite ways. The semi-formal manners reflects his background. Born and raised in a Methodist family in the sophisticated town of Charlottesville, Virginia, Barnett inherited a somewhat southern white middle-class lifestyle.
Charlottesville is known to be a historical town, and Barnett’s childhood could be said to be a witness of history. Attending elementary school during the Cold War period, the age of fear of the atomic bomb, he remembers practicing ducking under the desk at school in preparation for the worst scenario. Atomic bomb drills were just as frequent as fire drills. Occasionally, the school also required the children to practice walking home, pretending as though an atomic bomb had been dropped and they needed to get home on their own. He recalled walking home with a mix of fear, thinking, “God, if it wasn’t for the nuclear war, I’d be dead getting hit by a car.”
Social chaos continued during his teenage years as the Civil Rights Movement came to a boil in 1966 to 1969. “Out in the street was just craziness,” he said. People were shot and hung. Resistance and riots raged every corner of the street. “As a teenager,” he said. “I’d think of all the questions a 13-year-old could think of: If there’s a God and God is good, why is all this chaos happening?” Chaos invited questions, but provided no answers.
Even if an answer was provided, it wasn’t always a satisfying one. Sitting in class as a history major at Duke University, Barnett was shaken up by his professor’s statement: “God didn’t create men, men created God.” For Barnett, that was just the start of time experiencing the chaos of moral change.
One night in the dorm, his roommate kicked him out of the room to have sex with an attractive young woman that he had just met. In the age of the sexual revolution, sexual encounters outside of the traditional marriage boundaries became more acceptable among young adults. For those who grew up in a tight and conservative Methodist community like Barnett, it was a culture shock. When the girlfriend got pregnant, the couple went around asking and collecting money to get abortion. “Ding dong! Welcome to college!” He said, recalling his shock as his values and beliefs were scattered by the experience.
Soon after he graduated from Duke, the Vietnam War came to an end. For a couple years, Barnett volunteered at his home church to help a couple different families from Vietnam and Cambodia. He helped one family at a time with different tasks such as legal paper work, babysitting and cooking. As much as he helped him with their transitions to a new life, they helped him find a new career path.
During his volunteer service, one Vietnamese woman told him about an open position for teaching English because the teacher of her class had just quit. “I was very nervous and unsure of myself,” Barnett said, “but the lady was very encouraging about me getting the job.”
The first day in class, as other adult students welcomed him with less enthusiasm, she stood up and said in a loud voice, “He ok! He will ok! Just calm down. He do good! Give him a chance!”
Barnett said that he chance they gave him became the best experience of his youth.
“I’ve never encountered people from so many different cultures before. Just getting to know them and seeing them in a foreign country were very fascinating.” He said. “At the same time, I realized how much I loved teaching. I was so much fun.”
It turned out, however, that the experience wasn’t really a start for his career of teaching English as a second language. In fact, he decided to go to graduate school to pursue his Master’s degree in Biblical Studies, but then realized that his view was too liberal to fit in the role of a Bible translator as he wanted.
Replying to my question of how he got into the path of teaching English as a second language, Barnett said he stumbled into it.
In Barnett’s office, on a shelf next to his cluttered desk, stands a small frame with a black and white photo of him and his wife, Rachel, on their wedding day. They weren’t formally posing – both were in the car, quickly posed for a snapshot. Mr. Barnett, with his short, pageboy hairstyle, a dark moustache and a pair of giant glasses, was grinning cheerfully. Peeking out next to his side was Mrs. Barnett, completing the hippie-style wedding with her bubbly curled hair and her lace long-sleeved dress.
The picture was taken not long before the couple threw themselves into volunteer service and a life-long intercultural experience.
“My wife and I decided that we should do something good to the world before settling down and getting old. We were young and wild back then.” He said.
They moved to China in 1986, where Barnett taught English at Szechwan’s Foreign Language Institute.
Unlike these days when new graduates are rushing to China for jobs and volunteer opportunities, going to China in the 1980s – when it was a third-world, strictly communist country – was a big adventure.
In the rural southwest of mainland China where very few foreigners would visit back then, people were eager to learn about the outside world. Barnett, as one of the first few foreigners who came to Szechwan, happened to fulfill people’s curiosity.
Once, when the couple visited a mountain-carved Buddha statue, a lake of people showed up to see them. When they went to a restaurant to have lunch, people followed them in, stood around and watched them eat. “I felt like we were a circus,” he said.
Language boundaries made communication difficult, but also revealed the hospitality of Chinese people. Barnett came to China knowing only a handful of phrases in Mandarin, enough to ask for directions but not enough to comprehend responses. On many occasions, people would take the time to walk him all the way to the places that he needed to go.
According to Barnett, his time in China was the most educational period of his life.
Barnett’s intercultural experience has continued to enrich and inform his current life in Goshen. Working with more than 50 students from all parts of the world, his job, as he concluded, is helping the students by learning about them.
“Everything is educational,” Barnett said. “If you keep your eyes and minds open, you can learn no matter what you’re doing.”