Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Humpty Dumpty

“All the kings horses and all the kings men…”

With core classes the first assignment of the year is always some variation of the Back Pack Speech. Call it what you will, pulling objects out of a paper bag, plastic sack, or from up your sleeve, but kids bring in five things from home, introduce them to the group, and explain what makes them unique. It gets them up in front of others early. It lets me learn their names and skill set. But mostly it makes us begin whole. How individuals can shine, but we’re a class from the start.
I always go first, laying my old canvas rucksack on the podium, army issue green, and covered with country patches stretching from Norway to the Philippines. I tell the students it’s old and dusty and smells like me: musky split wine, ocean surf, train station grease and adventure. It’s my first laugh of the day.
My second object is always about my girls: Pictures of beach picnics and first bike rides, birthday parties, backyard snowmen and swing sets in the fading sun. I’ve always thought of myself as my own family historian, as if by keeping these photographs and souvenirs, the ticket stubs and travel brochures in-tact, that I can somehow preserve our lives together. That my little girls will never grow up, lose contact somehow, splinter away and dissolve from my life.
The third is always a book. My worn children’s Bible given to me the year my grandfather Forest Carlson died, or an illustrated Shakespeare anthology full of “wise saws and modern instances” or perhaps a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics, the one with all the scribbles in the margins. I hold it up and flip the pages as pressed leaves, four leaf clovers and old letters fall out. “I can’t think of anything better to do with one’s life than to read,” I tell students. “Read and talk to others about the life stories they know. I hope that never ends.”
The fourth and fifth objects are whatever I have available from my childhood: a pocketknife with ivory handle, a headless Han Solo action figure with armless Chewbacca, or a big book of nursery rhymes I’ve memorized and now read to my daughters. How “Jack Sprat could eat no fat” and “Four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie,” how the “Little dog laughed to see such sport,” and “Georgie Porgie made the girls cry.” Students understand, it is just the junk of memories that make us who were are, that we all have this baggage, but it is the sharing with others that makes it special.
My students in Taiwan are no different. They arrive on the second day of class with model cars and Rubik’s cubes, rings passed down from grandmothers and mason jars full of sand scooped up from beaches strolled many years since. It is an endless parade of crusty children’s blankets and discarded Gameboy cartridges, picture books and porcelain tea cups.
A girl named Betty holds up a wooden horse from Bali, “My friend Tina gave this to me before she moved away. I hold it when I try to remember her.”
A boy named Jackson talks about his father. He has a hammer and wood nail that can be driven back and forth into a board. “This was the last gift he gave me before he left when I was a boy.” He voice is straight and calm, not quivering like the day before when he asked me what the English word was for when parents are no longer married.
There are lighter moments too. A heavy set girl named Mary with blue contact lenses and brown dyed hair flashes her sequined cell phone, “This is my bling-bling!” She winks at the class, causing all the male students to squirm. Or when a boy named Jason, quiet and unassuming, brings in a mechanical singing toilet with eye balls that pop out of the bowl. “Can you guess the song?” he asks. “It is ‘Slip Sliding Away.’”
Finally it comes to Eva. She sits in the back row despondent most of the class, her white oval face twisted to one side with this crooked mouth like an egg that has just been cracked. She has just given up. On the first day of class she won’t write or read or prepare for work. She just sits and stars at the floor as if in a constant state of pain. She refuses to get up when I call her name.
“I don’t have anything special,” she whispers as I try energetically to enthuse her.
“But what about that necklace you are wearing, who gave you that? And those color markers I saw you doodling with before, does that mean you like to draw?”
Her face has no reaction. “They are not special. Nothing about me is.” She turns and walks away.
The rest of the week she is like this every day. By the middle of the next I call her parents in to talk. I know already what to expect. I have seen this so many times. We meet after hours and cram ourselves down into the little kid sized desks and the father crosses his arms in total silence while the mother throws up her hands in bursts.
“She is good for nothing. We try so hard. We give her everything, but she is lazy and thankless.”
I watch Eva’s eyes drip slowly to the floor like molten lead.
“All she does is eat and sleep and watch television. She is like a fat pig who does nothing.”
I explain the Back Pack Speech assignment but it makes no difference.
“We have taken her to Japan, to America, even to Australia. She can do the work. Her English is good, but she doesn’t care. She is a worthless daughter.”
I stop them there.
“Please do not speak this way about your child. I’m sure that it is not helpful.”
Now all of us sit in the room quietly while the ceiling fan spins and the cracks in the cement walls widen like slow pumping veins. What to do? What to say? I look at this girl and feel like a coward and a failure. After the meeting, the English Department Head scolds me.
“You should not call parents to meetings when there is nothing that can be done. I understand your frustration, but some students cannot be reached.”
I nod sympathetically. “Perhaps if our school had a counselor, someone she could talk to. It’s an important part of education.”
Now it is her turn to nod. “There is no budget for this. Besides, our Taiwanese students would never feel comfortable in that situation. It is simply not done here.”
“I could talk to her. Maybe that would…”
She cuts me off. “No. Male teachers should not talk to female students.”
We sit this way.
“I see. I guess you’re right.”
My boss heads back to her desk and I take a seat at mine. I do not have a classroom, but instead I am crammed Asian style into a white walled, cement floored room with all the other teachers both Chinese and English. We are in rows of desks in a perfect grid. Eleven of us in a 15 by 20 foot room. Students must knock at the door before entering, and even then they bow and speak in whispers. It is forty-two degrees Celsius outside in the hallway and the air is stagnant and stale.
The next day is the 8th Grade National Exam and everywhere, all over the country, 13 and 14 year olds are sitting in numbered desks with their number 2 mechanical pencils marking in bubbles in rows. I proctor. Between tests I seal the answer sheets and booklets and return them to the main office before heading back with another round of test forms. While I am walking up the stairs, a boy rushes past me quickly. He is running, sweating. He must be because I take two stairs at a time. He is on an errand for the teacher, for his class and classmates. It makes me feel so good to watch him hustle, to know that this boy has been brought up to work hard, to think of others before himself, to put the greater good ahead of his own. His words are breathy as he passed.
“Excuse me, Teacher Brian.”
It is nice to hear.
There are two other boys who greet me at the door when I return. They are bouncing ping pong balls and both tickle my ribs with their fingers. It is a common greeting in this culture for boys to touch me, though it makes me very uncomfortable and I move away.
“What is this test, Teacher Brian?” They ask.
I pull the long graphed paper forms out of the envelope. Perfect for blocking out geographically aligned and precise Chinese characters.
“It’s writing,” I say. “Time to show me how brilliant you are.”
The boys groan as the man in the hall rings the test bell, a golden domed brass antique like a Town Crier. He strolls slowly through the outer passageways ringing the knoll with authority. He is an old, boyish looking man, with polo shirt tucked into his trousers and surgical mask covering his lips. He is the same one who takes my temperature with a zapper gun each morning before I enter the building. If anyone is over 38 degrees Celcius they are sent home, if there are two, the school will shut down for a week. The man is proud of his job, and it garners him publicity photos. He keeps the school safe from swine flu and noro virus. Someone told me he is ex-military, and I believe it.
“Come along kids, back to your desks,” I clap.
The boys and girls hurry to their seats in the perfect rows and I distribute the graphed writing exam. Boys and girls are now quiet, and I sit with a book of poems in front looking stern. I keep this poetry book at school, one that is more journal than anything. I read two or three a day and write my thoughts in the margins. That’s where the best stuff is always found, the most profound, the stuff that defines us.
Yet that morning I was distracted. I sat in the room while the students filled in their grid story boards and all I could think about was Eva. How after the meeting with her parents we were left alone in the room together. How I stared at this kid while she threw her books and pencils into a satchel angrily and slammed her fists onto the desk, grunting wildly, staring back at me in defiance, as if to say –What? What will you do? Her eyes welled with tears and she started punching her face over and over in these guttural, bestial wails. I felt my arms come up at first, like a man cautioning one who is walking on dangerous ground. Somewhere too high or coming in too fast on a slippery slope, but we just stood there together in silence.
It was then I decided to play it safe. For the first time in my career, I decided to do exactly what they wanted me to. I wouldn’t reach out to her. I wouldn’t pull her aside and listen. I wouldn’t be the person who helped her in the way she needed. No. The world is a hard place, and we must get used to disappointment. Break kid, I thought. I’ve got nothing for you. Not anymore. We’re both in the system now.


  1. feel sorry for Eva...
    some parents always think,
    give everything is meaning how to raise a child.
    means love...