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.

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