Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Plot Thickens

This kid Oscar is a piece of work, man. I mean he gets under my skin. Usually I’m pretty calm. It takes a lot to get me riled up, but there’s always one kid every year who knows my buttons. Call him the class clown, the merry prankster, the fly in the ointment, the monkey that steals my wrench, but whatever it is, this kid Oscar has got it in spades.
Here’s Oscar in class. Gray t-shirt uniform and matching stripped shorts. Thick black unbreakable glasses. Goofy face. Goofy ears. Goofy unibrow. Goofy untrimmed sort of creepy moustache appearing over his top lip. He’s got this voice that just stands out too, like squeaky wheels scratching fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Teacher Brian, have you ever gone on a killing spree like Rambo?” His voice cracks painfully as his fingers dig deep into a nostril.
“Teacher Brian, don’t you think in the future people will have propellers growing out of their heads?” Oscar tries to follow me through the aisles and trips, spilling hot tea all over this pigtailed girl named Cathy.
“Teacher Brian….”
“Oscar enough.”
“Oh yes.” He smiles like some weird, oily post-pubescent android. “I’m being annoying again, aren't I?”
“Why Oscar, you annoying?” Never.”
“Oh good.” He wipes his disgustingly sweaty upper lip with a pocket handkerchief as if greatly relieved. “Say, Teacher Brian, have you ever played Pokemon?”
See what I mean?
But with Oscar, it’s never just one thing. It’s multilayered. First thing about Oscar that drives me nuts is as soon as class is over, I mean the second the bells rings, he is out the door. He’s got this ping pong paddle stashed in his desk like all the other boys and whether I’m still talking or not Oscar is racing to the table tennis room to play. (Yes, we have a number of table tennis rooms at the school) It’s first come first serve and he is, “not a life spectator but a life participator,” he points out.
I make a point of pulling him back to class and having him sit.
“Oscar, I will tell you when class is finished. You don’t leave when I am in the middle of speaking and just run out and slam the door.”
“Oh”
“That’s rude.”
“Yeah”
“You know, like not respectful.”
I see a lot of teachers talking to Oscar about respect. Funny thing is, they all talk in different ways. The school’s Chinese Purveyor of Discipline, Director Wang (Coolest Name in the Office), talks by making Oscar stand in the corner with a chair above his head for half an hour. The Chinese home room teachers talk by making him clap erasers and clean out the shoe shelf by the class door (that’s real popular here). Teacher Wayne from Seattle, who has an autographed picture of Suzuki Ichiro on his desk talks to Oscar about respect by making him write sentences from the dictionary. A. Obedience: The act of obeying. Dutiful or submissive behavior with respect to another person. B. Tact: Consideration in dealing with others and avoiding giving offense. But I never hear what Oscar has to say about respect though.
That’s another thing that drives me batty. Oscar never admits being wrong. Never accounts for his actions. He just cuts it up, shreds it, and leaves the mess for others. Like today, tripping Paul so that his books fly all over the floor, and yesterday I kick him out of class for calling Roy dog poop and making him cry.
“Why’d you say it?” I meet him out in the hall.
Shoulder shrug, “Because he’s fat.”
“You want I should call you that?”
Bigger shoulder shrug, “He’s also very ugly.”
“Is it good to call people names?”
Oscar ponders before lifting his shoulders again dubiously, “If they are fat and ugly, yes.”
I have him by the scruff of the neck now, leading him downstairs to Sophia. She is my boss. A Chinese speaking woman with English good enough to stare down a room full of native speaking men with comments like, “I realize it is a problem and it is endemic to all of Taiwan.”
I am expecting something. But no. As soon as he is in the office Oscaar bursts out into tears. You’ve never seen such showmanship. The heaving. The wheezing. The snot sniffing. I stand baffled while this kid feigns mea culpa.
That’s another thing I’ve come to learn about Taiwanese boys, they cry their way out of anything. They get away with murder just by sniveling. It is repulsive and I leave him standing there heaving and step out into the hall amid the rush of students. It is cleaning time and the entire school scrubs the floors, bathrooms, desks, and windows top to bottom every day for an hour. Every kid has either a broom, mop, brush or rag. It is an impressive display, and there is no way to avoid it. Especially fascinating is the shoe shelf outside each classroom where students slide off their outside kicks for dingy floor slippers they use inside. It’s amazing to watch them clean it, on their hands and knees with toothbrushes, scraping gunk and snagging dust bunnies, sweeping in-between each shoe as if it makes any difference at all, like stirring a soup that has already been burnt. It is futile. Pointless. As everyday there are more scuff marks to erase. This is confounded even more by who the teachers make do the scrubbing. It is always the problem kids. The ones who fall asleep in class. The ones that can’t sit still. The ones who talk back. I remember once at Sunset an administrator was telling me about their opinion of school discipline, how the ESL classes were the hardest. The person said, “Every kid understands ‘NO!’”
I’m sure they do. I’m sure they understand all the ways we say no.
I head back to class, lock the door and lay my back against the wall. I’m still thinking about Eva, the kid who won’t speak. She has cut marks on her legs, right above the knee. I couldn’t help but notice, slicing herself with the sharp end of a paperclip in class. I mean, it’s like a red felt tip marker for goodness sakes. Her mother called me out of the blue this week, said she needed my help. Asked me to call Eva on Saturday mornings and just talk over the phone. She gave me her child’s number. I want to run. I want to just escape out into the heat, but there is no shelter whatsoever. The student problems are piling up since Back to School Night with the parents last week. Michael grew up in Canada and his father worries he will forget western culture, can I sit with him at lunch and talk. Betty’s mother thinks her daughter will disappear into the walls, can I draw her out of this shell. YoYo’s mother has just died and her father fears she is suicidal. Marcy’s father wants her to be a doctor or lawyer, am I available for private lessons. Andy is often bullied. His father is afraid his son’s mind will be destroyed by hazing. Can I keep an eye on him? Can I make the other boys be his friend? There are so many others. The parents come at me in droves. They wait an hour after the scheduled closing time just to give me their business card and shake my hand, tell me about their child, their fears, their sleepless nights, the years of giving everything for their success. They follow me into the parking lot, offer to drive me home, take me out for drinks, meet me for lunch. Where do I live? What do I need? A new coffee press perhaps? An iPhone? Just name it and it is yours, I mean, help my child and it is yours.
I wrap my palms tight around my skull. The bell is ringing. I unlock the doors and the students take their seats. I have to switch gears. I have to focus. It’s time for class.
The first two to three weeks of school are always dominated by the study of literary terms. While my colleagues here are pounding simple sentence structure into these seventh and eighth grade skulls, “A noun is a person, place, or thing. An adjective modifies a noun.” I hear them repeating in mass unison as I pass in the halls. I opt for using literature to better understand our lives.
“These stories are art, class.” I stand in front wringing my hands. “Your job is to open your eyes to their meanings, to think deeply about your life, to discover yourself.”
We start in order: Character, Conflict, Plot, Foreshadowing, Personification, Subject and Theme, Symbolism, Figurative Language, Genre, and Irony. Students are to know and understand the definitions. They are to read the stories and find examples by locating quotes and analyzing for meaning. Then they are to demonstrate a personal connection. They are to present all of their findings to the class using graphic organizers that will later be turned into essays. The men I work with are wary.
These concepts are too complex for Taiwanese students to understand,” Wayne from Seattle shakes his head. “I’ve been teaching here for ten years, they’re just not capable of doing the work.”
“He’s right,” Peter from North Carolina scratches his black whiskers. “You should stick to the curriculum.”
“You mean the workbook?” I toss the thinly bound colorless copy on to my desk. It is full of page after page of literal questions.
“It keeps them busy all class,” he says. “I know. I wrote it.”
“Yep,” Bill the Canadian decides to pipe in. “I hate to say it but you’re creating extra work for all of us and I’m about my time and my money. If it comes to bringing it up at the next English department meeting, I’m going to fight you tooth and nail.”
I thank them for their concern. We are all crammed in to one office together and everyone goes back to their collective computer screens. But I know I am right. The money, the time, it doesn’t matter. It is what’s best for the students. I’ve never lost sight of that, and I won’t, but the following day in class I begin to have doubts.
“Teacher Brian, what is conflict?” Melody, a wide eyed girl in the front row asks while the class is reading the Fable, “The Dog and His Reflection” in small groups.
“You should know this, we’ve been covering it for two weeks,” I try to remain calm. “Conflict is the problem in the story.” I point to the page. “So, what’s the dog’s problem?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” I point again. “See, the dog has a bone in his mouth. He is crossing a bridge. He looks into the water and sees another dog with an even bigger bone. He wants that bone… so what’s his problem?”
Just as these words exit my mouth Oscar his Kevin in the crouch with his umbrella, and Eileen drops her pencil and yells, “Shit!” The class erupts in laughter. I look back at Melody.
“So the Dog is looking at the other Dog and wanting his bone, what is that called?”
Melody stares at me blankly. Her eyes are glossy screen savers with toasters and fish flying back and forth.
Then from across the room Debby, who is boy crazy, won’t stop blowing kisses at Rex, and Cathy drops her metal water bottle on the cement floor crashing loudly.
“Come on, Melody. I know you know this. You can do it.”
Then Michael, who has been rocking in his chair falls over and Rex gets up and pulls Debby’s hair, sits back in his seat and sticks out his tongue.
“Class!”
I put up my hands. Everyone settle down you are all acting like foolish children. Enough!” I go to the board and draw up the diagram of plot like ascending and descending a mountain. First setting where the conflict and characters are introduced, then rising action which leads to a climax, the most important part of the story where the main character must make a choice, to continue or stop, to fight on or give up, then falling action and resolution, where something is learned. Class we have been over this, you know this, don’t you?”
The faces staring back at me are lifeless and quiet. Next door a rooster crows as the heat seeps through the windows and door cracks and beads of sweat drop from my shoulders down my back. It is then Oscar raises his hand.
“But Teacher Brian, what if there is no conflict?”
“That’s nonsense. There must be conflict in a story.”
“But what if there isn’t?” His words are very confident and strong. The class bites. The entire atmosphere shifts as if Oscar has discovered some larger truth. As if he is the one to tell the teacher he is finally wrong, that all this time they have been teaching the wrong thing, that now the tables will turn, that the students will rise up, that the teachers will be the one on their knees, the ones scrubbing the floors, doing the menial labor, that the students will finally become masters.
“Yeah, what if there is no conflict?”
“Yeah, what about that?”
“What if?”
I hear their voices in unison lift up around the room.
Oscar is now standing. “I tell things all the time and there is no conflict.” He points around the room. “See, Michael is a monkey, and Sam is a pig.” He snickers and continues as the boy’s faces sink to the floor. “And I am smart and handsome, see?” He flashes a toothy smile at me. “Where is the conflict?”
I want to make an example of him. I want to grab him by the ears and box his nose and throw him to his knees with scrub brush and point to the shoe shelf and scream, “There! There is your conflict. Make each of these shoes shine. Make them good as new! Make them clean as the day they were taken from the store. When you finish that I will give you another, and another, there will never be an end to the shoes that must be cleaned. What do you think about that? Wise boy, what do you have to say to that?"
But instead I put out my hand.
“You know what I love about you Oscar?”
He freezes in his tracks.
“I love that you are always asking questions.”
Shocked, Oscar falls backward into his chair as I move to his side and place a hand on his shoulder. “But what you are doing is not development. You have to evolve your mind, describe more, take the reader on a journey. It’s okay to fail. People do that all the time. But you have to see the story to the end.”
Oscar is quiet, looking at the pencil in his hands, he begins to write. From the side of the room I see a raised hand.
“Yes, Melody?”
“The conflict of the story is about wanting something you think you don’t have, but you had it all along. Is that what the plot teaches?”
For a moment I’m stunned. “Yes. Yes. That’s it. Very good.”
Melody lowers her face and smiles as the rest of the class fills in their answer. I stand in front, explaining how in the next level students will write about a time they didn't know how good they had something until it was gone. All of us in perfect rows now scribbling our lives out for others to see. All of us in slippers crinkling our toes, scratching our heels. The bell rings, class is over. The etchings of pencils on paper causing echoes in the hall, and no one moves.

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