Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Jew-Mon Onion

I guess it’s no secret. I’m back in America now taking my summer break solo before the Taiwanese fall semester starts way too early in the middle of August. I made a list of things to accomplish while back in the States though: Sell my house, find a publisher for my book, visit family and friends, but of course I’ve become sidetracked, distracted by whimsy, befuddled by flights of fancy. Since being back I memorized the Edna (her friends drop the St. Vinnie) Millay poem “Recuerdo” and the Tom Wait’s song “Old Shoes.” I’ve re-upped my Multnomah Library card subscription and that to Blockbuster where I rented but did not watch, Wag the Dog. I drank coffee with Erika Nielsen, caught Carly Kavanaugh at Stumptown, saw The Hangover and Brother’s Bloom while trying to skype my daughters everyday at 3:30 p.m. before they head off to school and I run back and forth between the dunes at Pacific City, the wheat fields of Sauvie Island, and hiking trails around Mt. Hood.
My first stop was of course out to Colton to see my family. The air through the open window smelled so clean and they are all so worried about me. What am I doing here alone? Where are my girls? What is going on? They are so suspicious. I tell them bits and pieces, nothing they can’t figure out for themselves. Taiwan was meant to save things. Now they walk on egg shells around me. They try to keep it light. Me too. No need worrying people unnecessarily. We trade stories about things that happened in the past, the regurgitation of inside jokes that keep relationships alive: The time Dad fell off the roof of the gazebo and nearly sliced open his neck; magic shows I used to perform as a kid with cape and wand; how my nephew Trent is obsessed with Star Wars. You know, the ups and downs of American family mythology.
My brother and sister sense I have lost something and are quick to tell me their own stories of despair, things in the past that haunt them still. Forbidden actions. Costly mistakes. The under fabric of lives that pretty pieces of cloth so richly try to conceal by color and design above. The patchwork triage of interconnected stories we hold onto as if legends of creation and afterlife. It’s amazing the family secrets we keep in this life, that we bury inside ourselves, especially those we keep for the sake of others.
I’ve been keeping secrets for years. Yet those close to me would say I’m the one to tell when you want everyone to know, that Brian tells everyone everything, but that’s only half true. I’m also the one to tell when you want the legend to live.
Case in point: the Jew-Mon Onion.
It was an inside job all along. It started with a fellow English teacher across the hall named Shuttleworth. A kindred spirit, actually, Derek used to teach Of Mice and Men through recollections of sailing with his dad. He spoke of Dead Reckoning and Celestial Navigation and how George and Lennie were each other’s polar axis and all the while telling stories of his father at sea. I loved him. We all did. He’d been hired the year before me and he was as fine a teacher as you’d ever hope to meet.
So of course we pranked him.
I had mostly freshmen then. A motley crew of boys that would stand around my desk every morning climbing over one another to be heard. There was Geoffrey Nudelman with his jokes about Cortez and speculations on the Blazers, Shawn Arnt sticking playing cards in the ceiling like throwing stars, Jeremy Hillyer nibbling bland rice cakes and sprouting creepy facial hair, Andrew McCullum looking mournfully at the floor and mumbling World War II trivia, Patrick Harris screaming along to Def Leopard on his iPod, Alex Dubov fiddling with the school’s remote control and giving me the latest on Manny and the Sox, and then Simon Simoncini would arrive flopping his hair off his shoulders and break down the Middle East peace talk in terms of Harry Potter characters and that’s about the time I would step into the hall for a breath of fresh air.
This is also the year I had Max Werner and Chris Tillett in class. Two boys I could never, and will never, forget. Chris was a white Mormon kid going for his Eagle Scout and Black Belt. Max, a brown skinned Jewish boy slash closet writer, who loved wrestling and had no ambition in life except he didn’t want to sell bagels. They’d known each other all their lives. Been on camping trips together, shared the same Tae Kwon Do instructors, loved dressing up in black face paint and terrorizing neighbor kids on Halloween together, basically blood brothers who could finish each other’s sentences. It was a Bromance plain and simple. They even had a nickname: the Jew-Mon Onion. Self-ascribed after an evening of epiphany and entrées at Outback Steak House in which, in their words, “We realized our friendship was layered over and over again with adventures and stories and inside jokes, but at the center were our underlying differences.” Max was a Jew and Chris was a Mormon. Hence, with Australian cuisine to guide them, an unbreakable alliance was formed.
It was Max who missed out on the Shuttleworth prank.
His replacement was Simon Simoncini, a worthy adversary, no doubt, but as you will see, Max Werner did get the final laugh.
The Shuttleworth prank played out like this: One day Chris and Simon dressed up like ninjas in all black. Hoods. Sleeves. Pants. Socks. Only their eyes could be seen. Their mission was to leave my class during all-school advisory, sneak undetected into Shuttleworth’s class full of students, and steal a Hamlet skull off his desk, unnoticed.
Was it a suicidal kamikaze mission?
I don’t know.
Should I have just allowed them to commit ritualistic seppuku instead?
We’re these two young men, these budding warriors, up for this impossible task?
Probably not.
But was it necessary to try?
Since Derek Shuttleworth was a kindred spirit, and since Columbine still played heavily on all of our minds, I tipped him off. Calling his class just as the boys slipped out my window and made their way shimming against the outer wall toward his room dressed in sneaky 13th century Japanese assassin garb, alerting him that indeed, he was about to be attacked by two 9th grade ninjas.
He acted accordingly, meeting the boys at the door with an All League wrestler who just happened to be there that day. A row ensued, and my ninjas put up one heck of a fight. But in the end, Tillett scampered out the window unscathed, while Simoncini played sacrificial lamb, being dragged down the hall by his hide and dumped back in my class. It was amazing hijinks really. Taxpayers always complain that teachers get their summers off, that the only reason they go into this profession is for the long break, you know, the whole, “Those that can’t do anything else… teach” malarkey. But the truth is, that the best of us, the ones that really understand the job, we know to treat school like summer vacation every day. And so when my ninjas returned, battered, beaten, bruised, with carpet burned hands and paper cut lips, unfurling the Hamlet skull from beneath busted ribs, all I could say was, “Well done, lads.”
Their response?
“When can we do it again?”
Of course, what happened next is part of Sunset legend.
Shuttleworth, realizing his highly prized Hamlet skull was missing, planned a counter attack, waiting two weeks later until my advisory was playing kickball against the notorious Kristen Carter’s equally motley 9th grade advisory out on the softball field. He entered my class and systematically stacked every desk, chair, stool, bookshelf, and table, into a massive bonfire type pile in the middle of my room stacked all the way floor to ceiling. We returned hooting and hollering, victorious on the pitch, to absolute shock and chagrin. Our classroom, our den, our home had been hit. It was utter chaos.
What could be done?
Should we retaliate immediately or wait patiently for our revenge?
Should we plot out a course of action or as Hamlet says, “Take arms against a sea of trouble…?” Well, we acted of course.
I chose a skeleton crew. Nimble and spry 9th grade boys with names like Emch and Dolejs, Dubov and Ballard, Fey and Dingler to run to my car in the senior student section. Oh, they broke school rules that day, and it was a dark afternoon indeed, but the Hartenstein reputation was at stake. I gave them my car keys and they scooted past security on their golf carts sipping Starbuck’s lattes to take the jack and tire iron from my trunk. Then they proceeded to Shuttleworth’s Honda Element parked neatly in the faculty area in front of the school.
It was stealth.
It was an amazing feat of ninja prowess.
It required me writing fake late passes and bribing staff members who shall remain nameless.
They hoisted up that Element, ripped off the back tire, rolled it all the way across the campus to hide it in my trunk, and left Shuttleworth’s Honda hiked up and jacked like a stripped down Buick on cinder blocks chopped up and sold for parts.
It was beautiful.
It was the kind of day that every high school kid dreams of having.
A once in a lifetime school day where anything is possible. Better than a snow cancelation, more relaxing than an afternoon assembly, more powerful than a guest lecturer. It was a day in which they won, for doing nothing more than exercising their right as a juvenile to mess with authority and for once, just for once, come out on top.
Thank God for that day, as it was my best day as a teacher ever.
The following morning we were still basking in the glow. Word had passed through the school via MySpace that we were not to be trifled with. It was glorious. Radiant smiles. Boisterous voices. Yet there was one student who seemed out of sorts.
Max Werner should have been there.
He had done nothing wrong. In fact, he’d been exemplary. He had just missed that day, the best day, the one day to dress up as a ninja and take on the world. He would have been perfect for it, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Did he blame me? No. But he took out a revenge nonetheless, pouring orange Fanta into my coffee pot before school and waiting to watch me take that first sip. All the boys knew. They had seen him. Only I was now on the outside, and I was glad, spewing bitter black Joe and sweet orange soda all over the desk.
My classroom full of young 9th grade pirates and scalawags erupted in nervous laughter. These young lost boys, clamoring over one another to get to me, to be seen by me, to have me ask them a question and listen intently, to have someone reach out to them and know them as people, as individuals, to talk to them by name and remember everything they said and wrote and joked about, to reference it for years and keep our conversations and friendships and relationships alive because I would never forget who they were or what they did or what thoughts they had. We had something. We still do. We are forever linked through this time. It was important. It was our secret yes, hidden beneath layers and layers of other stories and events. Yet it was written. It was decided long before any of us knew it would matter. Written longer before we would meet years later and laugh because so much had happened since then and we would forget and have to replay for memories sake. We were on to bigger and better things now. Now, all these years later I need their stories more than ever to keep me going. Chris leaving for his Mormon Mission in Utah. Max returning from a year in Israel to begin pre-med studies at Portland State. Lives of profound truth, humor, and ultimate destruction were now stripped away and clear in our sights.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Hartenstein, I don't know why we never read any of your work in advisory. You write beautifully! But I guess you have to since you're an English teacher. :) Well lets just say you write better than any English teacher I know :)

    I hope you have an amazing trip back home and hopefully I'll run into you somewhere here.

    We miss you!