LEE, Maine — Things were as good as they were going to get at Lee Academy for Karl Varian, and he knew it.
The 22-year-old University of Maine graduate was an education tech, helping the school’s foreign-born students with their core classes, and an assistant to school music director Jeremy Milton.
Varian, who has a bachelor’s degree in music education, was scheduled to leave the academy in June.
Then one day in early March school Headmaster Bruce Lindberg rocked Varian’s world.
“How would you like to go to China?” Lindberg asked.
“My initial reaction was disbelief,” Varian recalled on Thursday. “I said, ‘Are you joking?’”
Lindberg was not joking.
Varian became the first teacher hired at the Lee Academy campus for a post in Shenzhen, a subtropical port city of 12 million in southern China just north of Hong Kong.
The first of seven Lee Academy satellite campuses destined for Southeast Asia, the Shenzhen school is due to open for about 200 foreign-born pupils in first through sixth grades in September, according to Lindberg. Additional grades will be added to the school annually until it is a K-12 facility.
Varian said he still has difficulty processing what he called a fantastic opportunity.
“I am so excited it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I am absolutely thrilled and very scared at the same time.
Lindberg expects to hire about 20 teachers and administrators for the school. Besides Varian, three other educators have been hired so far. Physical education instructor Gary Odom and his wife, third-grade teacher Martha Odom, of Florida have just signed on. Ty Thurlow of Lee, a graduate of University of Maine Farmington, will teach sixth-graders, Lindberg said.
Lindberg is interviewing candidates for the principal’s job and is still accepting other applications.
Shenzhen is the perfect place for the first Chinese Lee Academy, Lindberg said. Among its 12 million residents are about 1 million foreigners, including many Americans. At 30 years old, the city is modern and has many American amenities, including Chili’s and Papa John’s restaurants, malls and movie theaters. Its proximity to Hong Kong adds to its international flavor.
“It is probably the easiest transition city in China,” Lindberg said.
As the school will teach Lee Academy’s American curricula with the goal of acquainting Chinese students with Western ways, Chinese-speaking educators are not an essential requirement, though they are welcome, Lindberg said.
Though uneasy at the thought of being a world away from Maine, Varian said he likes the perks that come with the job: a free apartment and two airplane tickets a year. The earning power of a Maine educator’s salary — $25,000 to $48,000 annually, depending on experience — will go far in China, where the average worker earns $500 a month, Lindberg said.
All of Lee Academy’s Asian schools are expected to have 200 to 500 students and eventually develop exchange programs that will allow Lee students to study in China, Lindberg said.
Lindberg will leave for China this week to investigate the campus, he said. Varian and other school staffers will leave in early August.
“It’s a terrific opportunity to experience a new culture and get a different perspective on things,” Varian said.