Saturday, September 26, 2009

Killing Birds

Jackson wants to touch me all the time. He play taps my stomach. He sneaks up behind me in class and rubs my shoulders. This thirteen year old kid wants to hang on me like some kind of lost puppy. It’s not what I think. I know he doesn’t have a father. I know he looks at me like I’m that person, but the groping has got to stop, and I tell him so. I sit him in the chair and explain to him he is not to touch me or any of the students anymore.
“Ohhh, Teacher Brian, why?”
It intensifies at Back to School Night.
I stand with Jackson's mother next to the chalkboard while the boy dances in circles, falls on the floor pretending to cry, leaping onto her back for a ride, then kissess her cheek and pretends to punch her in the face. Then he rubs her belly and tells her she is getting fat.
The grown woman does nothing. The mother of this fatherless boy only forces a smile as we continue to discuss his future as an English speaker and her dream that he become a doctor.
I watch. Cringe. Then can stand it no longer.
"Jackson, you will not treat your mother that way. You are not a child, you are the man of the house. Act like it."
"Ohhh, he groans."
I turn, and his mother is gone.
The next day in class it is the same, but before I can correct Jackson's behavior the bell sounds and the boys are out in the hallways again spinning notebooks, hitting ping pong balls, and playing grab ass tag in and out of the bathroom. The majority of boys gravitate toward the stage area though. They sit in one another’s laps. They rest their heads on each other’s necks. They give piggy back rides and nose nuzzles. It is strange to watch and unnerving. Innocent I know, but it makes me stand all the way beside the window and avoid them.
When the students come back to class we are making posters. There is butcher paper and colored markers and instructions on the chalkboard. Picture drawing is an essential element to teaching ESL, but it is strange working with chalk again. It gets on my hands and under my fingernails. In the heat, the dust sticks to me, sinking into my pores so that afterwards I smell like some relic left in an abandoned basement to rot. It is impossible to avoid, like the crawling garbage trucks rolling through the streets blasting mechanical Beethoven in chimes, or the rain that falls during monsoon season in sheets from the sky, the chalk dust is just alive. It seeks me. It seems to know the hidden crevices between my fingers and laptop keys and the ways into my pockets and socks. It is determined.
Back in class the posters are coming along well. We have taken the story, The Cegua, by Robert D. San Souci, and mapped it out in cartoon narrative fiction. Kids take a plot point, draw an artistic representation on paper, add a quote from the text, then present it in groups to the class and explain the foreshadowing. The Cegua is a Mexican ghost story about a man traveling who encounters a demon dressed as a beautiful senorita. It is to show how our imagination is often worse than reality.
The posters are cool: Dark lonely forests lit up by torches. Ominous branches hanging like forthcoming claws in the obsidian night. I’m impressed by the student’s work ethic, but once again the boys hang over each other in completing the job. Dave sits on Aden’s right knee sketching a creepy mountain cottage while Jerry squats on the other quarreling with the reluctant lead of a mechanical pencil. Aden holds them both. His arms wrapped around their torsos, his chin resting comfortably between Jerry’s shoulders, his eyes closed. He seems to be whispering a song. I want to tell him to wake up, to get these boys off his legs, but before I can move I am confronted by Jackson.
He lunges at me and wraps his arms around my neck, “Teacher Brian, I am so tired.”
This is the last straw. I simply will not allow this to happen. “Jackson, do not touch me. I am your teacher. This is not appropriate.”
His face falls, “Ohhh.” And he returns to his poster. No matter. The class is over and time for me to collect the work.
The next class is 8th grade lit. We are starting the first semester Writing Project I stayed up until 2 a.m. completing. It follows a process: Free Write, Outline, Rough Draft, Peer Edit, Teacher Conference, Final Draft done. Students may write any kind of story they wish as long as it uses descriptive language and focuses on the use of literary terms and devices, and especially has elements that foreshadow a specific resolution. I explain it all on the chalk board in bullet points.
While I am writing though I have this distinct feeling that I have spent my lifetime in front of chalkboards. Giving rules. Writing instructions. Diagramming ideas. What does it mean? Any of it? What do people see and remember? What do they know of me from all this explanation?
I turn to face the class and tell them a story instead. It is on the list of one-hundred Hartenstein Stories that I keep for just this occasion, when I need to show and not tell. The story is called “Killing Birds” and begins when I was a little boy.
“My father is an engineer with magical skills and to earn my mother’s love, he built her a castle in a clearing in the woods.” I draw this picture on the board, showing the yellow hay fields and the green pines beneath the snow covered Goat Mountain. “We had moved there when I was just old enough to run and play by myself, moved from the city of Gladstone to the countryside of Colton. There we had horses and chickens and dogs and cats, and I watched my father lay the foundation, build the walls, fasten the roof, string electrical wire through framed studs, dig a well and carry that water into the taps by laying a thousand feet of pipe.” I drew the enormous thirty room house like a castle with turrets and moat, the presidential pillars in front, and the gazebo out back. “It took years, and living next to a worksite meant the house was constantly surrounded in garbage.”
“Ooooh,” my students grumble. “That’s disgusting.”
I shook them off. “Not true. Because growing up as a boy I loved to play in these piles of junk. For a boy, a garden of trash can be your best friend.”
My students looked at me like I was crazy as I turned and scribbled all kinds of discarded treasures in pictures on the board: busted toilet bowls perfect for spaceships; pole vault length pvc pipe for stilts; plumbing fixtures like ninja throwing stars; and massive cardboard boxes for forts against the onslaught of renegade Indians and scalawag pirates. The pictures were amazing. Vivid. Wild. One crazier than the other.
“Now,” I said to them, “What do you think is going to happen?”
Student necks turn and twist.
“You will build a time machine?”
“You will find buried treasure?”
“You will uncover and befriend a monster?”
“No,” I smile. “But I did make a bow and arrow.”
I explained how I found an old fishing pole and fastened strung wire from top to bottom. Then cut cedar siding into strips with the hand saw and sliced down the end with a knife. “I could shoot them fifty meters,” I explain, and they were perfect for one thing.”
“What is that?” The class all asks at once.
“Perfect for killing birds,” I said.
“Teacher Brian!” the class erupts. “Why would you do that? Why?”
I explain that as my father built the house, the birds built their nests in the cracks. There were chirping birds in the rafters. There were crapping birds in the window sills. They were a nuisance. A pest. I was doing everyone a favor.
“But… they are so beautiful.” Anne, a plain faced girl in the front row said. “Teacher Brian, why do you want to destroy something that is so perfect?”
I pause. “You going to let me finish the story or not?”
She sits back and crosses her arms as I continue, turning back to the board and drawing shapes floating in the sky.”
“It began with me trying to shoot them out of the clouds.” I sketch a little boy in short pants running through yellow grass tall as his shoulders, a quiver of makeshift weapons made from an old insulation tube strung to his back, taking aim at the wide open blue and letting fire.
“Do you know how hard it is to hit a bird in flight?”
The class laughs a little.
“It is impossible.” I quickly mimic myself stringing the bow and missing bird after bird. “After a long time, I just gave up.”
“But what if you hit one?” Oscar, my nemesis in the back row blurts out. “What would happen?”
“Poof!” I explode my hands together, and draw an explosion of feathers falling to the earth. The class laughs again as I move back to the front of the room.
“But then one day I had my chance. One morning as I was hunting I came upon a little red breasted sparrow sitting on a wooden fence.” I sketch the scene on the chalkboard using different colors. “Slowly I approached. Creeping. Sneaking. My bow out, the arrow pointed and ready. Closer. Closer. Closer.”
The girls in the front row brace themselves. The boys surrounding them grin in maniacal laughter and crack knuckles in delight. “Now I was upon the bird, the bow gut drawn. The little creature in my sights. “But then something stopped me.”
I straighten up and stand in front of the class.
“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill the bird.”
“Why?” All the boys in class groan. “But she was as good as dead?”
I explain how I was glad I didn’t do it. How I wouldn’t want that memory in my head, to live with watching that poor little animal suffer at my expense. How it wasn’t worth it. Nothing was.
I go to the board and draw my last picture: The little bird flying away as I write the theme on the bottom. “This story is about how beauty is misunderstood. As children, when we encounter something we don’t understand, something true and perfect, we try to destroy it, but when we age, when we mature, we want to stand back and understand, preserve it, and capture it that way for ourselves.”
Now the students get it. Now they can see. I direct them to open their notebooks and begin, explaining the rules of a Free Write: Don’t think, just write! Keep the pen moving no matter what. Don’t stop! Write whatever is in your head, and whatever you do, don’t talk.
“You mean we can write about anything?” Tiffany, a metal mouthed geeky girl beside the window asks. “What about boy love?’
“Huh?” I turn my head toward her, thinking I didn’t hear correctly.
“You know, Teacher Brian, boys who love boys?”
I shake my head. “You mean… wait, what do you mean?”
The class gathers around her to confer. Katie, the class leader steps forward. “Tiffany wants to write about homosexual boys who fall in love with other boys they cannot have.”
My face must have been a strange question mark because the entire class stopped to mimic it back. These are breaking points for any teacher. You want to be consistent. You don’t want to ever hinder student creativity. If it is okay for one boy to write about zombie war and exploding limbs and flesh eating creatures that stalk the night, then it should be okay for a teenage girl to write about fantasy affection, shouldn’t it? What is the line? Since coming to Taiwan I have been shocked to find so many openly gay couples. Homosexuality is widely accepted here. Girls hold hands and kiss in the cafes. Same sex couples pose in wedding dresses in the park. I stammer and try to make sense of this young girl’s mind.
“Umm, Tiffany, you just write the story you want and we’ll talk about it when you are finished.”
“Great!” she shouts, and opens up her notebook. “Wait,” she suddenly stops. “What if I want to kill them?”
“Tiffany, what?” Now I am totally baffled.
She explains that she is very inspired by horror films and wants to have lovers cut apart and tortured, slashed into shreds and unable to feel anything but pain when they touch one another. I nod. It is a strange request.
“Teacher Brian, don’t you ever think about that?” She points to the spinning ceiling fan overhead. “What if that came loose and fell to the floor? What if it was bouncing and cut open Jason’s neck and blood sprayed everywhere, then it bounced off the floor and tore apart Doug’s chest? What about that, would that be okay to write that story? It could happen you know?”
“Tiffany,” I point to the Free Write rules on the board. “Stop talking and write.”
She does. The class settles down and gets to work. Suddenly it is eerily quiet. All heads facing toward their desks. Pencils scribbling madly. Ink running over green lines and white pages. It is a beautiful thing to see, and I pause a moment to wonder. To think. Did I answer her correctly? Am I doing this job right? Then I turn back to the chalkboard and begin to erase it all: the flying arrows and lines connecting ideas and description, the pictures, the words, all of it. I begin in slow moving circles, just my hand covered in layer after layer of silty granules, until the board is clear and the slate clean, and nothing is left but dust hanging in the air long after the students go home to finish their stories, and I turn out the lights and close the door, and head to my next class.

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