Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shush Girl, Shut Your Lips

Teacher Jeffrey thinks he’s Buddha. He sits in his big chair with his big bloated belly at the far corner desk barking at students like they’re some waste of space and he’s got the keys to nirvana. “Marcus, come here now!”
Young boy with sunken shoulders slowly drags his body forward.
“Do you know why I called you here today? It is because you were acting stupid.”
The boy’s shoulders wilt like fallen rose petals.
“You disrupted my class with your incessant yammering. You disrupted the learning of others. You took my time. So I will take yours.” Teacher Jeffrey hands the boy an 8 by 11 paper to copy in his notebook full of long confessions about abusing time and classroom efficiency and apologies for not honoring the teacher. It will take the boy over an hour to finish the job before he turns it back in.
“Now hand me your demerit card.”
“Uhhh… I don’t have it.”
“What do you mean you don’t have it?”
“I don’t have it.”
“So you are underprepared as well as a miscreant?”
Blank face.
“Where is it?”
“My locker.”
“You should always have your demerit card ready if a teacher asks for it. Now go get it.”
The boy returns and hands the small note card to Teacher Jeffrey.
“You get one demerit for not having your card. One demerit for acting out in class. One demerit for wasting my class time. And one more demerit for wasting my break time. How many is that?”
“Uhhh…”
“Speak up, you are a human being. ‘Uhhh…’ is not a word.”
“It is four.”
“Plus the five you already have. One more and a mark will go in your permanent file.”
“Yes, Teacher.”
“Yes, Teacher what?”
The boys face continues in blankness.
“Yes, Teacher Jeffrey. Remember, I allow you to use my first name to remind you I can be your friend as well as your teacher.”
“The boy nods.”
“Now go. I am sick of you.”
“But teacher Jeffrey?”
“Bye Bye!”
The boys droops into the corner of the teacher’s office, slumps down against the wall, and begins to open his pencil bag.
“Quit stalling, Marcus.”
He takes an ink pen and begins copying the detention work.
Teacher Jeffrey then changes moods. “Hey Doug, did you download Office Space yet? I still can’t believe you’ve never heard of that movie. It’s a classic.”
Doug takes his head phones off. He’s a big bear of a man. His body covered in black hairs and rolling flesh, sweating through his Hawaiian shirt. He’s been in Taiwan over ten years, ever since the earth quake in 1998 when the country lost most of its foreign workers and began heavily recruiting in the States. He was a teacher in Maryland, then and came over and never returned. He is married now, couple of kids, runs a school in his off hours. Looking at Doug makes me ponder. He is what I would have become if I’d never left South Korea.
I sit at my desk and try to avoid their conversation, but we are crammed into the English office on top of one another. There is absolutely no room to even breathe. The bell rings and I am up three flights of stairs. 9th grade reading class, just enough time to warm my coffee in the 4th floor Chinese math office, the only microwave in the building.
Ten minutes later and my students begin to trickle in. It is Thursday and they are late due to morning assembly which means the entire Junior High of 6th through 10th grade just sat cross legged on the hard cement court quad to play their reed flutes and receive their public demerits and rewards for almost an hour before returning to my class dragging their feet while I stand in the doorway smiling to greet them. The lesson is completely ready. There are introductory journals, pre-reading questions and hand drawn pictures, vocabulary outlines, and higher-order thinking questions which require true reflection and deep thought already written on the board.
I have been busy.
I want to discuss genre. We have looked at sci-fi, horror, fantasy, romantic, poetry, myth, folklore, diary, and journals, and today we are reading an excerpt from Le Ly Hayslips’ autobiography, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places about growing up in a peasant village in 1950’s era Vietnam. She describes the hardships, the struggle, the conflicts of peasant life amid communist fighters and all the while being stuck in the middle planting rice.
To get students ready I have an activity. I am going to role-play the importance of rice. I have five students come to the front to be my sons, and another five to be my daughters. I am the old woman, the mother. I roll my pant legs up and put on a triangular bamboo hat and wrap a shawl around my shoulders and bend my body like a question mark in front of them.
“Ohh!” I spill the grains of rice on the floor from a clear plastic bag.
“Oh no, our dinner!” I cry. “Who will help me pick them up? Where are my children with the hungry mouths? Where are my children with the rumbling bellies? Who will help us to live?”
The students spend the next ten minutes of class picking up grains of rice off the floor. On their hands and knees under desks, behind the chairs, flicking off the dirt and dust bunnies and putting them back in the clear plastic bag. It is all I can do to watch this and keep myself restrained. I want to scream. I want to howl inside. It is a huge investment of class time, but I have to believe in the importance. It is all I can hope for them to feel. Most students in our school have never worked a day in their lives. Rich parents have seen to that. Daughters covered in the latest fashions. Boys pampered like little princes. But not this moment, bent over on the floor, looking up at me. No, this moment, they are common rice farmers.
“Oh teacher, this is too hard.”
“Oh teacher, we are so tired.”
I look down at them and point. “You missed one my child. How are we to feed the village if you waste even one?”
Afterward their journal answers are astounding. Students write about their families, histories, and legends. Their memories are profound: Anne tells a story of her grandmother who was blinded as a girl of nine and now continues to live in her sixties. How as a little girl she worked in a factory stitching luggage and one day the needle came out too fast and poked her in the eye. Although she was bleeding, she refused to tell her brothers and said nothing for a week. Finally, her mother found out and the infected eyeball was removed from her body. Anne says even though the socket is empty her grandmother is still able to weep.
David tells the story of his parents. They owned a fishing store on the coast before striking it rich and moving to the city. He remembers as a boy collecting starfish and speaking Japanese with his grandfather who was colonized and still held great reverence for Emperor Hirohito. He explained that even though his grandfather was gone they still light candles every year on his birthday, opening the door at midnight to let his ghost come into the house.
This reminds Aden of a personal story. He grew up in Shanghai and the other students tease him about his mainland pronunciation. He is a handsome kid, and very well mannered, laughing off their taunts with the easy self-assurance of the naturally gifted and good-looking. Aden tells the class that while growing up, his grandmother would always take him for ice cream. She was a vain woman and carried a parasol to keep her skin from becoming too dark. Aden recalls taking it out onto the apartment balcony during a rain story and a gust of wind blowing it away. He watched it sail out over the city buildings and thought he was in such trouble. That was the day his parents told him they were moving to Taiwan and so he never forgot because he thought he was to blame. He said his life was like that parasol, this pretty, useless thing that could just blow away at any time.
The class was quiet after that story. Letting his words sink deep into our skin.
These are the moments I have always loved as a teacher.
In America, I want to say there were these moments in every class I ever taught. Magic moments of the profound, where anything could happen. I remember taking Shakespeare students out into the mist of the baseball field to read Lear’s “Blow, winds and crack your cheeks!”, holding relay races in the hallway or impromptu singing conversations just for the sheer joy of it. Once during a late 7th period class, my body weary, I tapped a sophomore student on the arm and said, “Tag, your it!” and I led the entire class on a free for all chase through the cafeteria. All in the name of fun. Just having fun. Just loving this job and the students and the ability to share common experience and joy with one another.
I always felt that was the most important thing I was doing, making school fun. I don’t know where that feeling has gone these past few months. It’s like it has flown away on Aden’s Shanghai wind.
Later that afternoon I grew restless and was wandering the hallways and came upon Teacher Jeffrey's English classroom of 7th graders. He was drilling grammar into their heads and had them at the board writing sentences.
“My name is _______”
“I am twelve years old.”
“My favorite color is _________”
I watched through the window for a spell and then walked away disgusted.
The following day I had the same students for Social Studies. (Yes, stop laughing, it is one of my classes) As students entered the classroom I had instructions on the board: While flying internationally on a school trip, our airplane crash landed on an island. The following students survived, while these other students are wounded. It is over 100 degrees out and there is no water, food, or shelter. The terrain is beach and mountainous jungle and there appears to be a native population on the island that is hostile. What do you do? How will you survive? How will you be rescued? Go.
Of course, I stand in the corner saying nothing, just jotting down notes as the class erupts in crazy conversation. Some students want to elect leaders, others want to hunt animals for food, still others want to invade the native camp for food. It is hilarious. Afterward we read an article about the disastrous Biosphere 2 as we introduce the topic of “What is Culture?”
I tried to explain the class later in the staff room to Teacher Jeffrey but he was baffled by my description.
“You mean you can get them to do that? Real classroom stuff?”
“Sure, they loved it.”
“But, so many of them seem so disengaged. It’s as if they are lost.”
I told him I understood, but that I have always had success when I focus the student work on their intellect and not merely language ability. Students always know so much. They are so multi-faceted. They have seen movies and read so many different things, talked to grandparents who have lived amazing lives and seen their friends struggle and fail. I told him I like to tap into this intellect whenever I can.
He shook his head in disagreement. “I understand, but I don’t think that is always possible. Not with my groups of students anyway.”
I let it go. What was the point in pushing any farther? Besides, I was basking in the glow of a great class. Today's magic moment? The students wounded from the airplane crash huddled in a corner around their iPhones. While the rest of the class argued who would become leader, they were singing aloud: “Shush girl, shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller, and talk with your hips. I said, ‘Shush girl…’” The three girls were cracking up and slapping each other on the backs to my amazement.
It struck me as odd so I had to go over.
“Do you even understand what that song means?” I asked. “It’s terribly offensive.”
The girls giggled. “Yes, but we are destroyed from the crash, our bodies are broken, our mouths and arms and eyes are gone, but somehow we can still dance.”
I liked that. As a rule for my life, I liked that.
That afternoon I had my 9th graders again and I took them outside to play some basketball. We had been talking about taking a study break and the afternoon was perfect before the autumn winds picked up and winter settled in. We played eight on eight and it was fun to run and sweat with the kids. I didn’t take one shot. Instead I tried to set each student up for a basket, even switching teams after my first team won. Most of the time we just laughed though. Tiffany chasing Anne like a maniac and Dave traveling wildly with the ball with his tongue hanging out like a reverse Michael Jordan. Aden was a little water skipper, man, that kid is fast, and even Mary and Shantelle scored, despite screaming bloody murder each time I lightly lobbed them the ball. It was magic, in the fading afternoon light of a Friday. Pure magic. All of us, so different in our abilities and talents. Yet thriving, surviving, loving it. Just magic.

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