Friday, October 30, 2009

gods and monsters

Eva’s fingers are in her ears again. She is rocking back and forth in the front row of class hissing to herself. She will not listen to me. She will not listen to a word anyone else has spoken. She has shut down, malfunctioned like a robot spitting paper tape: does not compute, does not compute. I want to tell myself it doesn’t’ matter. She is not my daughter. She is not my friend. She’s only a student in the school who happens to be in a class I teach. It doesn’t matter. It’s as if she isn’t even real, and only random chance we met at all. She might as well be a ghost, a figment of my imagination. I don’t care if she tunes me out. Really, I don’t.
Besides, there are always others.
Tony is a deep thinker. Can you imagine, a thoughtful Asian boy, are you kidding me? One who doesn’t see me on the street and point, “Hey, you guy! ‘Hello.’ ‘Puk Yoo!’” or play hanging brain in the bathroom or shoot spit wads at girl’s hair or knock the books out the arms of the weaker half-lings. He actually takes deep breaths before answering questions. He actually writes more than a couple of words in his journals. He is a thoughtful, young Asian male. Do you know how rare that is?
Then there’s Oscar who has really turned a corner. All it took was time, I guess. Me sitting with him during break time and asking him about books. That’s all it took. Then Michael, the Canadian kid, who’s father asked me to keep an eye out for. We’ve been trading drawings ever since I busted him for mocking me in class, simulating my hand motions, laughing me up behind my back. That was a good conversation. Though I wanted to pop him one in the nose when I caught him, this kid I’ve taken it upon myself to spend extra time with, to help mentor, to listen to, to give just an extra five minutes a day when there isn’t one minute left to squeeze, making me look stupid to others, poking fun at me because it is easy, because I am the foreign speaker in a foreign land. It makes him feel better about himself. I set Michael straight.
I could have made him clean toilets for a month. I could have made him write a speech and read it to the administrators in the office. I could have called in Director Wang who would have taken him to the basement for discipline training and just washed my hands of the situation. But no, I just asked him about his friends in Canada, the ones he left behind, the mother he left there as well. That was all that took.
Well, that and the Greek myths.
The unit started a week ago. We read how Prometheus steals fire for humankind because Epimetheus gives the best skills to animals, how Hades steals Persephone which causes the world to freeze in winter, and how Hercules tricks Atlas into stealing the Three Golden Apples and take the weight of the world back on his shoulders. It’s a lot of stealing for a people famed for bearing gifts. We pause at the tale of Perseus though, because once again I try to reach out to Eva.
Perseus is a boy whose mother marries a king, and he wants so desperately to please this man that he promises to bring back the head of a Gorgon. It is an impossible task. One only a thoughtful boy should aspire to. I have Tony begin reading the textbook story aloud, helping him through the words, how he first stole the eye of the three Gray Women Witches and then was given winged sandals by the Nymphs of the North, who also prepared him with an invisible cap and a sack made of magic that can hide anything inside.
“How nice would that be,” I ask the class, “to have a bag one could put anything in and it would suddenly be invisible to the world?” I stare at Debby in the front row seated next to Eva, “ What would you put inside?” I turn to Oscar whose eyes are like saucers of black soup, “What problems, fears, sacred objects would you hope to conceal?” Then I motion for Tony to continue reading.
We see how Hermes gives Perseus an unbreakable sword and Athena a mirrored shield, and he sets off to find the famed cave of the Gorgons. Out over the wide sea he flies, to Medusa, the snake haired monster whose stare can change men into stone.
It is here I stop. The reading is hard and the students have many questions:
“Why do gods favor one hero over another? I thought gods love all men?”
“Why does the hero have to adventure at all, he’s the king’s son, shouldn’t he just lay by the swimming pool and be happy?"
“Wait, Perseus doesn’t’ kill the Gorgon, Hercules does, I saw it on the Disney movie.”
“No. No. No,” I wave my hands like white flags. “Let me tell you the truth about gods and monsters. For Perseus may be the hero of the tale, but the most important figure is Medusa herself.”
I turn back to the board and begin drawing the figure of a woman with snakes growing out of her head. Lively. Writhing. Twisting and snapping. Asps and mambas, cobras and rattlers, and all around her the statues of men set cold in stone who have tried to slay this beast, looking into her eyes by mistake, and paying the terrible price.
“But do you know how she got that way?” I ask.
“Medusa wasn’t always a monster? Did you know that?”
I walk from the board and stand directly beside Eva in the front row. She still has her fingers in each ear, staring at the floor, willing herself away as if her feet could also sprout wings. Despite this I continue telling the story of Greek mythologies most misunderstood villain.
“Medusa was once a beautiful priestess in the temple of Athena, so rare her beauty in fact, that some suggested she was even more glorious than the goddess herself. She caught the eye of many of the gods, including Poseidon, who disguised himself and raped her in the temple. After this, Athena punished her for desecration and turned her into the terrifying beast, unable to look upon another man again without sending them to their death.”
“But,” Oscar cried, “it wasn’t her fault. She is punished for someone else’s crime?”
“Who said life was fair? A transgression was committed and someone must pay.”
“But she was a good person. She worked in the temple. She prayed.”
“That hardly matters, does it, bad things happen to good people all the time.”
The class is silent. No one wants to speak or think. We can only look at the picture on the chalk board and fear, sorrow, pity, and try to understand. I tell my students that over the years I have known many Medusas. Women turned monstrous victims after an abuse, a mishandling, an aggression. “In fact, if you live long enough, you’ll probably meet one too.”
It is then I notice Eva. For the first time in a week she is staring up at me. The rocking has stopped, but her eyes are welled up with hate, her fingers digging deep in to her ears, hands shaking along the sides of her head in agony. She does her best to cut me to shreds, to turn me to stone, to make me cease speaking, but I will not. Instead I fill up my eyes with compassion for her and smile. “It is not that bad,” I whisper, “Because this monster has a gift for the world.”
It is then I direct the class to keep reading. We see how Perseus slays her, sneaking up with his mirrored shield and lopping off her head. Then the monster is healed, yet out of the blood spraying from her decapitated corpse her children spring fully formed. Then the most magnificent thing happens, Pegasus, the winged horse, flies from her body as well.
“Don’t you see class? Out of this pain, out of this tragic sadness, something beautiful occurs, a creature of profound glory is born and Medusa is monster no more. She is released. Through this myth her pain is gone.”
We discuss figurative language then, just briefly. For the last couple of classes I’ve been ending with hyperboles to prepare us for the Homeric Similes to come:
“Teacher Brian is as mad as Ares.”
“Teacher Brian is as pretty as Aphrodite.”
Okay, I know, I’m just trying to make a bunch of 7th graders laugh, and it ain’t easy. I never see it as a weakness to make myself the punchline of jokes. My colleagues though, see it differently.
“If you don’t respect yourself, how do you expect the students to?” Teacher Carl shakes his head.
“Oh, I would never say anything personal about myself to a class,” adds Teacher Margaret. “Why give them the ammunition?”
I listen, I really do, but I guess it’s just not my style to worry so much about how I am perceived. There are more important matters, like metaphors. I give the class a definition. “Metaphor: A comparison of two unlike things for the purpose of defining something better. What kind of examples can you think of from the story?”
The class looks at me with no expressions. Suddenly they have fallen asleep. They are dead fish dropped in a boat. Motionless. Lifeless. I want to give them a hint.
“Okay class, these monsters and gods… how are they metaphors for the fears we carry inside?”
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Oscar raises his hand.
“Hades is a metaphor for how we fear our desires. It is best to hide them, keep them underground, when they come out they destroy the world.”
“Good, what else?”
Michael in the corner raises a finger, “What about Prometheus, he didn’t have to steal fire for humans, but he was afraid of not making something the right way and then having to watch them suffer.”
“Even better, somebody else?”
The class is quiet. Eileen is playing with her bangs and Melody is drawing a pink pig in her notebook. Kevin is picking his nose and Rex is counting the seconds on his watch until the bell rings. I go back to the board. “Class I want you to look at Medusa’s face, because we are going to create a mural.”
I toss bits of chalk to the students. Red. Yellow. Orange. Blue. I direct them to come to the board, to draw snakes coming out of the serpentine beast , to give each a name of a fear they have inside, to see if we can’t create something beautiful out of the sadness of this story. Suddenly the class is alive again as students rush forward in droves.
Their images are nightmarish: Michael draws the head of a snake as a woman living in a burning house with a smiling family that is not his own. Oscar’s snake head is similarly ghoulish, a body dangling from a tree while other students point and laugh. Eileen draws a graduation cap with tassels. It is angular and in depth, but she crosses it out and writes stupid across the top, and then sits down. It is then I notice Eva.
She has not moved. While the entire class has raced up to the board she continues to sit with her arms crossed staring. I approach her slowly, kneel down beside her, ask her why she won’t draw. Her eyes are swollen and scowling, her voice low and disturbed.
“Because I hate this class. I think it is very boring. I don’t understand anything you say and I think the way you teach is very stupid. You tell stories that are not in the book and hurt my head. I will be glad when you go back to America. I will not miss you at all.”
Her words hang in the air between us. Frozen, my feet won’t step. My arms won’t bend. I just kneel beside her seething. I wish I could give her an unbreakable sword, a magic bag to hide her fears, a mirrored shield to deflect the world and keep it away. Instead I go to the board, start writing the names of students in hyperbole.
“Teacher Brian, what are you doing?” Oscar shouts. But I don’t answer. Instead the class reads:
When Michael speaks about his mother I feel I can swim the whole Pacific Ocean.
When Oscar talks about books I believe I can fly.
When Eileen shows me her poetry I know I can always find happiness.
When I see Tony with his friends I remember there is goodness in the world.
When I see Eva I never want to give up.
The class reads each sentence out loud. There are others. Plenty, really. Then the bell rings and we all move toward lunch. I tell myself, it really does matter what these students think because I want them to see their own beauty. I want them to believe their lives are mythic and full of the possibility of adventure and healing. I promise myself I will never stop. I promise myself it is worth it. It is worth everything to show them this. Really, I know it is.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Life of a Single Father

Let’s face it, times are tough. Yet sometimes it really is as simple as a Dad, his three kids, a thermos full of green tea in his backpocket, a blustery day, and a panda kite at dusk running through a park named in honor of fallen communist comrades. As SungJoo and I move toward an official separation, the one thing we have agreed upon over the last two years without fighting is to put the kids first, and this means staying in Taiwan for their early education. So while she took custody over the summer, I take full responsibility now for the next seven to nine weeks solo while she travels. Believe me, the thought of working full time and raising these kids in a foreign country without any backup or ability to speak the language is daunting. But life is all about these twists and turns, isn't it? Anyway, all I can say is this: today I smiled, and who ever reads this, if you read this, count yourself blessed, laugh wildly, drink deeply, show the ones you love how much they mean, dig deep, live well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Note To Your Inner Jazz Man

The Taichung Jazz Festival kicked off this week in the People's Park right next to my apartment and it was a wonderful event attended by scores. But... note to future English performers, when singing in front of five-thousand native Chinese speakers, don't come to the chorus and excitedly shout, "Come on, sing it!" I mean, come on now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Through the Arbor

Tiffany is tired of getting hit. She groans and rolls her eyes and chatters wildly in Chinese speaking with every part of her body. Arms swinging bamboo canes. Fingers wooden snapping rulers. Feet spanking riding crops. I want her to explain. I ask her to show me what the other teachers do to my class. I want to know.
“Our Chinese teachers expect us to be perfect,” she cries. “She hits us if we leave garbage on the floor. She hits us if our exam scores are low. She hits us if the chalkboard is not perfectly clean. She hits us for everything.”
“Yeah,” Aden admits. “If we spin our pencils and they fall on the floor she hits our face with a rolled up notebook. If we talk in class, she pinches our ears.”
I try to feign shock. I want them to see how outraged I am, but I know the truth. I have seen it before. It is just the Asian school system. All the students have stories. Dave had hot glue dripped on his palm. Jerry had a wire hanger snapped across his thighs. Anne had the top of her head struck by rubber tubing.
I listen. I see their bruises and skin marks, their welts and tears. I don’t shy away.
“You know, I always felt scars meant you have lived?” I say it to the class who has fallen dead silent. “There is wisdom in those jagged lines.”
Tiffany, Aden, and the others drop into an eerie submission as I tell a story of my first born. How last summer we were rolling on the carpet, making forts in the furniture, leaping in somersaults while Shawn Johnson’s floor exercises kept us up late. Then it happened. I left the room for a moment and returned to find Xi’an screaming. She had climbed the sofa and made a backwards flip onto the window sill, crashing her face against the hard wooden edge. Her temple was bleeding, the skin just hanging in a tiny clump. It was midnight when we arrived at St. Vincent’s Emergency Room, and three hours later before a doctor finally stitched her up, assuring me he had daughters of his own, that there would be no mark left. I shook his hand. I believed him. Yet every day since I have looked at that scar above her right eye and it hasn’t gone anywhere.
“She has a story to tell,” I explained to the class. “Her scar is like a map to her life.”
None of my students are listening. They stare out windows. They stare at the floor. They do their best to stare anywhere but the center of my eyes. There is nothing to do but drop it and go on. On the chalkboard is a question left off the schools 9th grade reading test. The one I wrote. The one the other American teacher said was too difficult for her students. She said they can’t do it. She feared their scores will be low and the school reputation will suffer. She stated it will make my class look superior to hers and that will cause a rift. This is the same woman who came to me at the beginning of the year and said there would be no competition between teachers. She was a retired English instructor from Omaha. She’d taught middle school for two decades and she and her husband just wanted to travel, just see the world, she was teaching not for the money but for fun.
I agreed to take the question out but wrote it on the board to read my student’s answers:
Question: What do you feel is the unifying subject and theme so far this year in all of the stories we have read? Cite a quote from each story to defend your answer.
My students quickly went to work. There was borrowed paper passed through the aisles, scribbling pencils, and eraser marks blown off desks. There is silence for the first time all day. I walk to the window and look out over the city. Mid-day. Dilapidated buildings lost in black soot smudges. Tenement housing hanging in industrial smog. Two men crouch beside buses smoking beneath a palm tree. It’s warm, but a cool wind blows from the south. Autumn is coming. Down the hallway in the music room the bamboo flutes play. It is the same song they have been practicing for weeks, a shrill raining of high pitched notes screaming through the school. There is no concert. No performance. Just the test. Student after student must memorize the song and play it perfectly for the teacher. Any flaw. Any squeak or crack in the melody, any forgotten note, and the student must play it again. I know all about this song. It permeates our class and the students lift their weary heads in agony. They will be tested on it this afternoon.
The bell rings. Break time.
The classroom splinters into blurs. Dave and Quintin run out with a bouncing basketball. Anne, Sandy, and Tiffany open Japanese comic books. Katie and Jason pull out computer English dictionaries and polish off an SAT prep test. I scan the groups, looking for shared interest. I am seldom approached by students here. There are no impromptu conversations in the hallways. Students don’t drop by just to chat. Even if they did, I wouldn’t have a place to sit with them. I stand for a moment by the blackboard and think about Betty form 7th grade. She is a new student to the school who arrived this week. Looks normal. Dresses normal. But Betty refuses to speak. Her father said it started in 3rd grade. One day she just stopped talking. There are whispers. Murmurs. But for all intent purpose she has become a mute. She sits in writing class and plays with her bangs, just over and over rubbing the hair in front of her eyes. It creeps her classmates out. No one will partner with her. No one even sits by her. I go to Sophia my boss.
“This girl needs help.”
“I understand your frustration. But in Asia we do not have anyone who serves in the role of counselor.”
“Counselor? That’s a good start, but she needs a psychologist. She…”
Sophia cuts me off. “Brian, yes I agree, but there are no psychologists in our country that treat students unless it is a severe case. Besides, parents would never agree to send their child to see a doctor because of losing face, you know, the shame.”
I catch myself and turn back toward the window. My mind has been wandering a great deal lately and I need reality. In the corner of the class Aden and Aimee are reciting poetry from a book. It is choppy and memorized, sounds like a computer spitting out paper. I ask them about it and they explain it is an ancient Chinese ode written in the 13th century. Excited, I ask them to translate.
“Oh, it is too complex. We don’t even understand what it means.”
“But, why are you learning it?”
“For Chinese language class. Our teacher insists we recite it back to her.”
“But…you don’t know what it means?”
They laugh nervously. “She will beat us if we refuse.”
“I see.” I pick up the book and study the characters. Swerving brushstrokes of precise calligraphy. Curing, arching, swooping lines. Even the casual observer can see the beauty in just the script, let alone the meaning. “Do you ever memorize poetry just for fun?”
They look at me like I am stupid. The bell rings. Break time is over. Time for class to being again.
After students reassemble and pick up their pens, I move to the front of the class. I have been singing a great deal to them and so they sense another burst of music coming. Yet today is different. Today I give them Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled. It is out of memory. A poem I learned my junior year at Colton High, just pacing in the hayloft thinking to myself. I get to the last line, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I… I…”
When I finish Sunny raises her hand. She is hard of hearing and the other students call her “Grandmother.”
“Teacher, are you finished?”
I nod.
“Good.” The class laughs.
Dejected I move to the chalkboard and instruct students to sit quietly and finish answering the question from the previous class.
“Teacher,” Anne asks, “Why are we doing this? We will not be tested on it.”
I survey the class faces. “For my admiration,” I gave what I thought was a warm smile. “Isn’t that worth something?”
All the heads shake. “Teacher,” Aden replies, “You are good, but we need a grade.”
We spend the next forty-five minutes going over their answers. I show them why certain responses are favored over others, how logic can be demonstrated through precise phrasing, how cited sources support an argument’s credibility, how academic language is a practiced form but can also offer creativity. It is good. The kind of class where I am covered in sweat at the end. I check the clock. Ten minutes to go.
In a sudden burst of energy I rally the students. I haven’t pranked another teacher yet, and I’ve been looking for my chance and this is it. The students take little convincing. They assemble their bamboo flutes and we creep through the hallway toward the music teacher’s room. I remember asking them the name of this melody the first time I began hearing the song weeks ago, before it invaded our classroom every day, before it started flooding the hallways of the fourth and fifth floor, and appeared in my sleep.
“It is called ‘Through the Arbor,’” Tiffany replied. “It is a Japanese song. It says, ‘You go your way and I go mine, through the arbor,’” she began to hum.
“But I thought the Japanese were aggressors here. They occupied Taiwan for years. There were brutalities? War crimes?”
“We have forgotten most of that. Now it is just a song we learn for school.”
“I see.”
At the music teacher’s door we begin to play ‘Through the Arbor.’ The students are a bit reluctant at first until they see me get into it. I stand in front conducting, waving my arms like a madman until the door bursts open and their music teacher leaps forward seething. She is raising her hands in anger. Her fists are clenched and her cheeks are bright red. Our eyes lock. It is a moment of unique and subtle understanding. We both bow and smile, and she steps back into her classroom as the bell sounds. I walk back with my class in silence. I stay an extra minute or two to make sure there are no stragglers. The kids are busy chatting and laughing with friends who have rejoined the room. No one speaks to me. It’s as if I don’t exist. I pack my bag, fold a couple of beaten text books under my arm, and bow as the next teacher arrives to take my place. I have another class then lunch. Then four more classes before the bell rings and I can go home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Post Secret

A kid named Rich said "Hi" today unsolicited. It was the first time in two weeks a student said either "Hello," "Thank you," or "Goodbye" to me. I love it here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bamboo Forest Hike... Finally

Driving south to Nantou County in the misty shadows of Fenghuang Mountain, Sitou National Forest finally provided me with some autumn hiking and relief from the city. The site is maintained by the College of Agriculture of National Taiwan University and there are a number of experimental species of trees, evergreen lined paths, and stunning sights. Of course, our favorite was the Bamboo Forest, with sketchy bridge and fun little pagodas next to reflection pools to squat and nibble grapes next to. The Sunday afternoon was drizzly and a little chilly and reminded me of the Oregon Gorge. A nice little slice of home for me and the girls.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Billie's Hands

(9th graders write summary paragraphs and analyze for symbolism)
It was always about Billie’s hands. Looking back now, even in the beginning, her hands were the most marvelous part. Men on the street would disagree. Oh, they came out of the woodwork all right, popping heads out manhole covers, craning necks beneath covered stops as their buses rode off without them. I remember one sad dope actually ran out of a coffee shop to stop her on the street. He didn't usually do this, mind you. In fact, he was married or had a girlfriend or some fiancĂ©, but he just had to tell her, just had to let her know somehow that she had the most remarkable face he'd ever seen. Beyond beautiful, yes. Wide, doelike eyes. Cheekbones on stilts. The kind of skin cocoa butter gazes upon in jealous moans.
Billie’s nose crinkled. A wet cat perturbed by a sneeze that wouldn't come. She shrugged it off. At one point or another, every man she knew had said she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever met.
"If only they knew." She whispered as we boarded a downtown train.
"Maybe it would be easier if they didn't." I replied.
It was here the class stopped me.
"Why is she with you?" Rex, a lanky boy in thick coke bottle glasses asks. Eileen, a pug-nosed girl with a side ponytail agrees. "Yeah, Teacher Brian, if she is so beautiful, why you?"
It was not a rude response, not like those dimwitted boys in text books who ask middle aged women their count in years or obese men their weight in metric tonnage. No, it was just the curiosity of youth. If I were to have any success teaching at the middle school level in Taiwan, it was something I just had to accept and move on.
I explained to my class it was because I was the only man who never said it. That she could tell I wasn't obsessed. I mean, Billie was something. She could tumble out of bed, wrap a bread bag tie around her hair and still be stunning, but what made other men boozy with desire only bored me. I wanted Billie for another reason.
“You see,” I said to the class. “Billie could play the cello like Dagda's harp.
It was her mother that pushed her into it. Inadvertent at first, driving her in minivans for soccer games, laying card table displays outside grocery stores with girl scout cookies, all the while chatting wildly about her daughter's future: First SAT and ACT prep courses and summer mathnasium classes; undergrad at a reasonable state school where she could focus on engineering, either chemical or industrial perhaps, then on to med school where she would shine like some brand new form of currency the world had yet to develop. An engineer slash doctor, one who could design and build the hospital and treat patients too.
The mother used to stand over Billie at the kitchen table pointing a wooden spoon at the calculus book. "You won't be allowed anything until you finish."
"Mom, even the Asian kids take breaks."
"They are not you."
Billie’s fists would tighten like twisted roots.
"And no cello either, not until the math is done."
I stop to make sure the students understand. These are only 8th graders mind you, but very sharp. I explain how after the divorce, Billie’s mom hid the cello her father bought all over the house to keep her daughter from playing. In the closet, behind the shower curtain, once even locking it in the minivan's trunk.
"Why?" Bradly asked. He’s a bug-eyed peculiar kid. The appointed leader from the Chinese homeroom teacher who brings me the ledger to sign as proof of my lectures after every class. He handles the mopping of the fifth floor bathroom and is entrusted with the all important classroom air conditioner. He doesn't understand how a mother could hate her own daughter's beauty. Why parents would pit a child against one other. It was at her father's insistence that she begin music lessons, that she showed real prowess a plus. Yet that it drove a wedge between the daughter and her mother couldn't have brought more delight to the man, who was a gambler and a cheat, a liar and a philanderer of women.
Billie would tell me this as she took out her bow and plucked the strings. "My mother came to despise my playing as she also despised my father." She would rest the bridge head upon her shoulder and twist tune it with her fingers. "When he left, it became my way to enact revenge upon her driving him off."
"And a way to remember him?" I offered.
Billie smiled the radiant way that stopped men dead in their tracks. She began to play feverishly passing the bow upon the strings. A Mendelssohn piece, full of crescendos and sweeping motion. Eyes closed and trancelike, most men might have lunged at her, taken her in their arms like a fiend, but not me. I would only sit back and marvel at the beauteous work of her fingers on the strings and wonder how this glorious sound was spawned by something as barren as hate.
This is about the time in the story I stop and move to the chalkboard. Over the past two weeks we have gone past plot and foreshadowing and now we are on to symbolism. We’ve discussed how one sign can mean so many things, each one deeper than the next: The Olympic Rings. The ying-yang. The yellow smiley faces that read ‘Have a nice Day,’ and corporate logos like Nike and Microsoft. We’ve colored pictures: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and Gauguin’s “Midday Nap.” I’ve even been playing them music to elicit feelings: Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
And this brings me back again to Billie.
Rex raises his hand again. "Teacher Brian, go back to the story. You didn't tell us how you met?"
"Yes. Yes." The students cried out, and so I put down my chalk and began again.
I explained how when I met Billie I was working as a janitor at a theater company downtown. I'd had many jobs before becoming a teacher. I pumped gas, sold clothes, flipped pizzas, and even scrubbed toilets. I said how I liked working these minimum wage jobs surrounded by grizzly transitory men who lived on the fringes of society. The kind of men that never graduated schools but were experts in fields of manual labor. They used to call me names. Poke fun at my education. Make me do the menial work like wiping out urinals and scraping gum off the backs of seats and then smirk to themselves like they were somehow keeping a secret score. I didn't care. The best part of the job was listening to rehearsals. The musicians played for me for free. Singers, famous and local. Big bands. Broadway shows. I would sit to the side of the auditorium and watch, and this is how I first saw Billie. She sat on the stage a long time before playing. Just strumming the music in her head in silence. Her hands moving back and forth in perfect symmetry without making a sound, and as she studied the music I studied her. Knew her intimately. So when she began to play I anticipated her movement, it was like making love from a distance. Sensing our way. Trusting ourselves. Afterwards she was leaving the theater and all these hard men would stop leaning on their brooms in amazement of her beauty and pretend to get back to work, but not me. I walked right up to her.
"That Vivaldi was amazing
“You know that piece?"
"Of course, but not as well as the Mozart."
The men with the brooms froze as something between Billie and I clicked. We became instant friends. I explain to my students how after her concerts I would stand in the back and watch, just grinning, as all the people approached her for autographs outside her dressing room. She would wear a black gown and smile at me from down the hall. After everyone left, and the lights were turned off, and I locked the back door, we would drive to quiet places and drink tea, and talk about the music she had just played. This is when Billie told me, that the reason she plays the cello was to spite the woman that drove her father away, but that no matter how loud or fierce she played, the music would never fill the holes inside her, the deafening pockets of loss.
Then one day her mother began showing signs. It had been going on for some time slowly, forgetting things, her keys, birthdays, now she was driving off to the grocery store and ending up at the beach. Police officers were called to escort her back. Once she even forgot her own sister who came to visit. Then her memory rapidly began to decrease. She would stare at Billie screaming, "Who are you? Get out of my house."
"Mother it's me. Your daughter."
But the woman fell so deep into dementia that after half a year her body was reduced to nothing more than a twisted coil. There was no one to take care of her except Billie’s father who by now was an angry and bitter drunk. He laid the woman's body in a bed in an upstairs room and left her to die. Billie was inconsolable. She stopped touring even and ran through a string of men. All of them after one thing, her body, her beauty, the possession of her, and then would leave her broken and alone. We spoke little during this time, but then one day I got a call. There had been an accident. Billie had been struck by a car while walking home. Both her arms were broken. I rushed to the hospital and found her laughing. "Look at me," she said. "They say I may never play music again. Now you will never want me.”
We drove to her father’s house and laid her in the room next to her mother, and there she sat for two months, just staring at her mother's withering body falling deeper and deeper into itself.
I stop in front of the class then. I had been moving around the room and was now wringing my hands. “Can anyone tell me what the symbolism in the story is?”
Kevin, a handsome boy in the front row raised his hand, checking his notes before answering. "The symbolism in the story is the mother’s body. It means her love is dead.” "Okay, I like that." I pause for a moment. "Anyone think of another?”
The classroom full of students stare back at me shaking their heads.
“What about the music? Pug-nosed Eileen offers. “It is between love and hate.”
"Good. Keep listening."
I described how Billie was in these white arm casts made of white plaster and hard gauze. I mimic her body held captive in traction. How she sat like this staring at her mother for weeks while she healed, speaking to herself, listening to the music in her head, humming it aloud in the room. Then one day she began tearing them from her skin. She went into the kitchen and took out a knife and began slicing away, cutting, ripping the cast off with this blade until she finally could get at it with her nails. Then she dug deep, pulling the last shards of sticky bandage from her arms. Billie found the cello, she didn’t have to look hard, it was laying on the bed in the other room. The bowing of the strings came natural. The movement of her arms and shoulders in rhythm with the music a perfect balance to her memory. She was back. She was alive again. Laughter erupted from her lips, surprising her. She looked at her mother, a twisted and lifeless thorn. Then Billie began to play, speaking to the dead woman for the first time in her life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Rabbit in the Moon

(Official school memo for ‘Moon Festival’ passed to teachers to work into curriculum)
On the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, the moon is round. In Chinese culture, this means families return home for a reunion. This celebration is Moon Festival. Every Chinese know this. This holiday accompanied by some sort of special food. On Moon Festival, people eat moon cakes. This kind of cake filled with sugar, fat, sesame, walnut, the yolk of preserved eggs, ham, or other things. In Chinese fairy tales, the fairy Chang Er, a wood cutter named Wu Gang and a jade rabbit which is Chang Er’s pet, live on the moon. In the old days, people paid respect to the fairy Chang Er and her pet, jade rabbit, which Chinese people believe is the face of the moon. The custom of paying homage to the fairy and rabbit is gone, but the moon cakes are showing improvement every year. There are hundreds of varieties of moon cakes on sale before the arrival of Moon Festival. Some moon cakes are very high quality and very delicious, some are very bad. Cough. Cough. An overseas tourist is advised not to miss it if he or she happens to be in Taiwan during the Moon Festival.

Useful Expressions:
1. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
2. Would you like some moon cakes?
3. Please join us for a Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue
4. Just look at the beautiful full moon

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Little Buddy Rebekah Bidan

You be the Mac and my yummy, yellow cheese
The whispered Gesundheit after my loud sneeze
The microwave that boils my spicy Ramen noodles
The creamy, gooey filling in my sweet German strudels.

I’ll be your scissors, your paper, and rock
The sesamed veggies stir fried up in your wok
The gum drops, the Skittles, your green M&M’s
Your Wizard of Oz Scarecrow, Your Dorothy, and Aunt Em

You be my Apple Jacks, my Coco Puffs, and Cap’n Crunch
The Easter Eggs I gather on the grass in a bunch
My Chiquita bananas and Rice-A-Roni treats
My Mickey Mouse pancakes and Malt-O-Meal sweets.

I’ll be your Nutter Butter, Chips Ahoy, and Keebler Elf
The Chronicles of Narnia and Aesop’s Fables on your shelf
The Aunt Jemima maple syrup, the Animal Crackers in your soup
The Snapple, and Cracker Jack, and Wham-O Hula Hoop.

You be my magic beans, my tart Jelly Roll
My Cherry Garcia, my Ace in the hole
My creamy Jiff sammies, my Lucky Charms in a bowl
My Oscar Mayer Wiener, my World Cup Goal

And I’ll be your croquet set, your bearded garden gnome
Your Easy Bake Oven, your Mr. Bubble foam
Your gondola ride, your road that leads to Rome
And I’ll always be Daddy, and you can forever call me home.