Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Carpe Diem in the Classroom

Memories of American teacher's legacy live on a decade after his death

Dec. 7, 2012

By Tom Fearon

Peter Froning taught English at the North China University of Technology in 2001-02.  Photo: Courtesy of Mary Froning

Peter Froning only taught in Beijing for one year, but passed on lessons to his Chinese students that will serve them a lifetime. The American accountant and entrepreneur taught English at the North China University of Technology (NCUT) in Shijingshan district during 2001, chronicling his experiences in weekly e-mails to friends and family members that would later be published in a book titled Letter from China

Froning's teaching methods were unorthodox by Chinese university standards; he shocked students in one of his first lessons by throwing a textbook into a trash bin, a move met with an enthusiastic round of applause. Another day he came to class in his dressing gown and slippers, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a copy of USA Today in the other, to teach students about American culture. 

Much like the fictional English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society (1989), Froning sought to connect with his students on a personal level that transcended the curriculum. 

'Adventure' in China

After an awkward fish-out-of-water initiation, he embraced his surrounds and quickly grew fond of China. Granted modest accommodation at the university's designated hotel for foreigners and earning 3,000 yuan ($482) per month, many of his observations of Beijing 11 years ago detailed in his book ring true today, from sporadic hot water supply in winter to choking year-round smog. 

In his book he writes of enjoying taking the "dilapidated yet beloved" No.503 bus, which today is no longer in service, to a supermarket near campus to buy teaching supplies. He even grew accustomed to waking each morning to the sound of a cleaner he dubbed "Madam Hawker," so named for her vocal throat clearing. 

Froning endeared his students with a sense of humor rarely exhibited by their regular Chinese professors. His generosity extended outside the classroom, too, seeing him regularly attend an on campus "English Corner" and even surrender his TV to students eager to watch Forrest Gump (1994) and other pirated movies. 

He bridged cultural gaps by learning basic Chinese and sharing American customs with his students, helping them carve pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween and even acquiring a turkey leg to serve for Thanksgiving - no small feat over a decade ago, when Beijing lacked the abundant supermarkets stocked with imported products it enjoys today. 

After finishing his year teaching in Beijing, Froning returned to the US where his story took a tragic turn. He died of congestive heart failure aged 48 on October 22, 2002. 

A decade after his untimely death, Metro Beijing spoke to some of the people who knew him well to share their stories of a man who unwittingly discovered a new lease on life from his time in China. 

"He was young in spirit," Mary Froning, Peter's sister, recalled from her home in Washington DC, where she works as a psychologist. "He always enjoyed being around young people. I think he just wanted an adventure. He was looking online and [advertisements] kept popping up to teach English in China, so he did." 

Peter Froning (third from left) with a visiting American friend and his Chinese students. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Froning

Peter Froning (third from left) with a visiting American friend and his Chinese students. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Froning

Breaking the mold 

Born and raised in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Froning demonstrated a keen sense of adventure at an early age when he participated in an American Field Service student exchange program in Uganda. Aged just 16, he spent a year teaching English to locals living under the rule of Idi Amin. 

He studied at the University of New Mexico and worked for many years as an accountant in Albuquerque. His two true passions - baseball and music - were both eagerly shared with students at NCUT, although he had more success coaching the college's baseball team than convincing students to give up listening to Mandopop for his favorite band, 1960s British rock group Procol Harum. 

One of his former students, Tang Jie, remembers an "easygoing" teacher who forged "many friendships among all students, not just English majors." 

"Peter was totally different from our Chinese teachers. They were more concerned about textbooks and exams, whereas Peter was more interested in students themselves. What he taught us you can't really learn from any textbook," Tang, 31, told Metro Beijing from her London home. 

Tang, who is originally from Hefei, Anhui Province, was one of Froning's students during her sophomore year at NCUT. After graduating in 2003, she studied in Germany and later worked as a project manager for the organizing committees of both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympic Games. 

"My memories of him aren't so much what I learned from him, but who he was as a person. To me, he was more of a friend than a teacher," she said. 

Accustomed to strict Chinese professors, Froning's students quickly came to enjoy his classes for far more than the opportunity to learn English from a native speaker. 

"It was so unusual for his students to receive praise, which really struck him. He was such a positive-reinforcement person. He realized from talking to administrators that it was uncommon and that there was not a lot of praise from parents and teachers," Mary Froning said of her brother's teaching method. 

"People reach their heights if you give them positive reinforcement as opposed to constant criticism and holding them to standards in a negative way." 

Xiong Jiaquan, associate director of NCUT's center of international cooperation and exchanges, remembers Froning as a teacher renowned for leading classes "very colorful in content." 

"I know a lot of students shared a close relationship with Peter. From my point of view, it benefited students because they were able to learn more about American culture," he said. "What he lacked in teaching experience, he made up for in preparation for classes and enthusiasm." 

Tributes flow in

After learning of his death, Xiong noted the entire university was "extremely shocked," with students united in grief. 

"He called me a week or so before he was to have surgery and I assumed it wouldn't be a big issue because it wasn't complicated, but he didn't make it to the surgery," Tang said. "I still think about him sometimes. It's been 10 years, [but] it doesn't seem so long to me." 

Shortly after his death, Froning's family - his mother, two brothers and two sisters - realized the impact of Peter's role as a teacher when a large package containing around 50 handwritten letters by students arrived expressing their condolences. 

Tang, who this week moved to Chicago, said she hoped to visit Froning's grave in Wilmington, Delaware, and meet Mary, who she has kept in close touch with over the past decade. 

Asked about his legacy, Mary said the Froning family remembers Peter best for his trademark humor that won over his students. 

"He had a way of always looking at the bright side of life. When we're talking to each other as a family, that's how we remember him - by what joke would he make. He was witty, sarcastic and full of humor," she said.

See the original article here and listen to the audio podcast of Letter from China here.