Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ninja Skills

I’ve got this standing offer with my students that if they ever catch me outside of class it’s go time. Anytime. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter, it’s on. I could be standing at the fish counter at New Seasons or sunk between book shelves at Powells, and like Cato, the closet leaping, knife throwing, bow staff wielding, bed canopy splitting man servant of the original Inspector Clouseau, I not only encourage but expect my students to try and kill me.
If they dare.
Over the years this has caused some very strange encounters. Sam Richards domed me with a Twinkie once at OMSI in front of my Korean in-laws, and Taylor Pellman announced over the PA system at Target that, “Mr. Brian Hartenstein, the Adult Diapers you seek are on aisle number 18.”
Well played, boys. Well played indeed.
But I’ve had my moments too. I swiped Kim JunHo’s corndog right off his plate at the Rose Festival once and almost gave a heart attack to Alaina Hodges when I jumped from a tree at Laurelhurst in front of her baby stroller. I like to think it keeps my skills sharp, walking around on the verge of sudden death, living in the moment.
You know what skills I’m talking about. That’s right, Ninja Skills.
Valerie Chia knows this score. She’s in Taiwan with her mother to visit friends post graduation and they swing through Taichung on their way to Tainan. I catch her darting behind the ticket counter at the train station as I approach and know instantly what’s coming.
“Gotcha!” She leaps deft-like over a newspaper stand and catches me by the shoulders. I’m defenseless. Overpowered. Overmatched. She takes mercy on me though, just a couple of minor slaps across the face. Thank God, and we drive into the city for oolong at the amazing Wuwei Tea House and catch up on everything that’s passed over the last six months.
Valerie has skills of her own. Her name is sort of synonymous with greatness: perfect score on math SAT, Key Club keynote speaker in Dallas next month, off to M.I.T. She even IB tested with stomach flu and had to be quarantined after entering class with a ziploc bag of puke. Talk about grit! Valerie even translated the passage, “Excuse me, but my infant daughter has spilled miso soup onto my keyboard and now my computer doesn’t work. Would you please clean this for me," into Chinese. Believe me, that’s a pretty good friend to have, even if she does try to assassinate me now and then.
We talked and time flew by. Listening to her I realized just how much I missed Sunset and all the memories there. Valerie brought a yearbook for me to sign and so many of the faces popped off the page. Kids I haven’t seen in so long like a steady stream of sneak attacks. Over the years I was allowed to meet so many gifted people and hear their stories of success. Yet for me, it's always the stories of heartache that stick. I’ll keep their names anonymous but, the student who spent six months living in a car while his mom searched for work. Another with a two year old son. Another who was institutionalized for a semester strapped to a bed. Another who came to this country as a two-year-old stuffed in a suitcase. Another who battles meth and heroin addiction. Another who works forty-hours a week while maintaining a full course load. Another who used to sleep in the closet for fear of an alcoholic father. Another who keeps their homosexuality hidden from judgmental parents. The list is never ending. Not just impressive students, but impressive people, and all graduating this June.
It also made me think of the hundreds of overseas students I’ve had over the years. Too many to list, but some stand out, and I’ll give some names here, which I hope they don’t mind: Annette Harding sitting on her fire escape in Vienna; Tess Chullunbatar riding horses in Mongolia; Mae Ching Wa driving a motor scooter in Guillin, Neil Ballard changing guitar strings in Dublin; Yoshiteru Kaneko serving Sapporo in his late father’s restaurant; Mitch Withers riding bicycles through the Peruvian mountainside; Thu Dang returning to Vietnam after her last surgery; Dilshan Mendes watching cricket matches in Sri Lanka; Max Werner reading signs in Hebrew along the West Bank; Yasuko Ueska staring up at Harajuku lights in Tokyo; Chang Shin Rae mixing music for TV shows in Seoul; Rahel Adeala changing sheets at the Marriott and thinking about her dirt floor school house in Ethiopia; and so many more. Just so many amazing people. All of them leaving their mark on me. I suppose they were my students. At least, I sat on one side of the desk, they the other, but I always felt I was learning more from them, from their lives, gathering from their natural abilities, their skills, and resiliency.
I thought about that while sipping tea with Valerie today. How the world gives us so much, especially the things we least expect. That our lives are vast but made singular and tangible by the unique relationships we have with one another.
At parting we wished one another well. It was incredible to see Valerie again, this gifted kid going off to take on the world. Then I went upstairs to my apartment to hug Kinu and sit with her the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes when it is just me and the baby looking out the window over the city, I close my eyes and I slowly spin a globe in my head. Across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and just pin point students I’ve had over the last fifteen years that I know are spread out across the planet. Constellations of people. Heat beating rhythms. Knowing they are out there keeps me going. Keeps me sharp. Makes me think, when life kicks me in the head unexpectedly, that it’s not so bad. I’ll live to fight again. We all will.

1 comment:

  1. Would this be a standing offer for fellow Coltonites? My skills are sharp, senses sharper, and my location is about to be very, very close to you. Watch your back, Grasshopper. Watch closely...