Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Come You Don't Write About Kinu?

(Little Lauren Kinu just moments after the scene of the crime. Guilty as charged)
Made a drastic mistake this week and took all three girls swimming in the pool beneath the apartment. Xi’an is an otter and leaps from my legs like some amphibian cartoon character, shimmering under the water like a fishing lure back and forth from the ladder to my legs and back again. Rebekah wears a life jacket and likes to be thrown into the deep end like a medicine ball for over an hour and she never once stops singing the Mama Mia soundtrack. Egads! Little Lauren Kinu is still a baby and I hold her the whole time. Bobbing up and down. Her little smile and giggles bouncing off the tile walls. Joyous, right? Being a dad is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced, right?
Then it happened.
Rebekah was about three feet away when her legs got tangled in the ropes of a floating life preserver and went face down. I got to her soon enough but she swallowed enough water to make her puke. An entire lunch of orange crab cakes and miso soup with rice came burping up onto the water like some heinous, float-attacking amoeba stain, lurking upon the water. It was then I noticed Kinu was not wearing a diaper under her baggy suit and the yellow spray of diarrhea shooting out in the other direction across the water. There was nothing I could do. Standing there, shirtless, in the middle of the pool, with a hysterical, vomitous, half drowned child in one arm, a shrieking, scat geysering toddler in another, and my eldest, in goggles, swimming innocently right in the middle of it.
There is nothing for a poor father to do but flee.
So we did, leaving a disgusting trail of water, puke, runny poop and disgusting stares across the pool, through the lobby, into the elevator, and all the way past my front door right into the tub. And people ask me all the time, why don’t you ever write about your youngest? Kinu…? Kinu who? Standing over the three girls, drying them with towels while they laugh at me, “Daddy, you so funny. Why are you crying?”
“Oh, nothing girls. I just remembered I have to go clean it up.

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.”
“Huh?”
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.

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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dead Rat in the Office

I saw you that morning ten years ago as I awoke with full bladder. It was pre-dawn and blue like the early Picassos and I was standing at the bowl when I glimpsed your butt-end waddle from behind the washer and slip down the drain hole in the middle of the floor of that little apartment off Kwang-An Beach that faced the Sea of Japan. Oh no. No that couldn’t be, could it? I rubbed my eyes like rinsing stains on a dress shirt and stumbled back to warm sheets.
It would be a week before you reappeared. I was sitting on the bowl this time in the way one does when the New Yorker is calling and I felt you walk over my naked toes all hissing with wet black fur and pink eyes and seething fangs and I almost flushed myself trying to flee. Later I went into the garden, which was not easy to find in that city of cement and dust, and hoisted the biggest stone I could find, all jagged and ominous and placed it over that hole and for the rest of the year I slept in relative peace.
I’ve seen you before that though, scampering across the rooftops of that buffet joint with a couple of your pals on my first visit to Pusan and I thought of you the next morning when the food poisoning kicked in and I puked all over that city bus. All down the seats and aisles and out the sides and the taxis hurrying to roll up their windows and scowling, "Oh that big nosed foreigner must be drunk, they always are.” But I wasn’t.
I remember you most from the gutters of ChonJu. The school director made me take the city bus ten miles out of town and walk the last two up to the Hansol Paper Mill where the engineers waited in gray and green uniforms to conjugate verbs and drone on about their love of bowling. You were there on the side of the road watching me, turning an apple in your hands, an apple imagine it, up on your hind legs big as a monkey. Eyes glossy silver dollars. Claws like the backs of hammers. I thought you were the devil. Silly, I know. Devil wouldn’t bother with fruit, would he?
You were there that night in Penang, just a week before those street boys mugged me with the broken coke bottles. That was you, wasn’t it? Coming in through the window sill and hiding behind wooden shudders. I couldn’t sleep that night for fear I’d awaken with you ripping my scalp and so I tied my boot laces into a sling and shot rocks at you behind garbage cans. Bastards.
I liked you most in the fields of Colton though. Little scurries of rustling hay next to my feet. I’d watch the hawks circling and knew you were toast. But then you got smart and found the inside of my mother’s pantry cupboard all warm and full of sour dough and Hershey’s kisses. Dad set out traps for you and Snap! We’d be watching Jeopardy and Snap! I’d be screaming out answers at Alex Trebek and Snap!
I saw you this afternoon too. Some weird odor coming out of the teacher’s room nobody could figure. Just a bunch of American / Canadian men crushed into this small room like the hull of a fishing vessel. Rocking in waves. Bumping into one another. Cursing under our breath about the girth of our chests and the sanctity of solitude we crave and have lost in this Asian island of packed buildings and streets and motor scooters and jungle and garbage and rotting filth and hands and legs and faces and sweat and deafening sound and blistering humidity and uninterrupted commotion.
These are rough and tumble men I teach with, standing and delivering in front of boys and girls who are trying to speak and act like a world citizens. We found you in this room. After enduring nauseous reeking death most of the day, you were lying behind the unplugged refrigerator curled around a McDonald’s hamburger bun. Flesh rotting. Straight as cardboard. Your teeth still barred and growling. We scooped you in newspaper and threw you into the outside trash. But I wanted to ask, did you ever think, when I lifted the rock off that hole, you remember that day I moved out of the little apartment by the sea, did you ever think you would end up like this. Alone. Forgotten. Stashed in a heap of dust behind some household appliance? Did you think that's what happens to us all? Nah, me neither. Nothing is written, and I still love the unknown.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Humpty Dumpty

“All the kings horses and all the kings men…”

With core classes the first assignment of the year is always some variation of the Back Pack Speech. Call it what you will, pulling objects out of a paper bag, plastic sack, or from up your sleeve, but kids bring in five things from home, introduce them to the group, and explain what makes them unique. It gets them up in front of others early. It lets me learn their names and skill set. But mostly it makes us begin whole. How individuals can shine, but we’re a class from the start.
I always go first, laying my old canvas rucksack on the podium, army issue green, and covered with country patches stretching from Norway to the Philippines. I tell the students it’s old and dusty and smells like me: musky split wine, ocean surf, train station grease and adventure. It’s my first laugh of the day.
My second object is always about my girls: Pictures of beach picnics and first bike rides, birthday parties, backyard snowmen and swing sets in the fading sun. I’ve always thought of myself as my own family historian, as if by keeping these photographs and souvenirs, the ticket stubs and travel brochures in-tact, that I can somehow preserve our lives together. That my little girls will never grow up, lose contact somehow, splinter away and dissolve from my life.
The third is always a book. My worn children’s Bible given to me the year my grandfather Forest Carlson died, or an illustrated Shakespeare anthology full of “wise saws and modern instances” or perhaps a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics, the one with all the scribbles in the margins. I hold it up and flip the pages as pressed leaves, four leaf clovers and old letters fall out. “I can’t think of anything better to do with one’s life than to read,” I tell students. “Read and talk to others about the life stories they know. I hope that never ends.”
The fourth and fifth objects are whatever I have available from my childhood: a pocketknife with ivory handle, a headless Han Solo action figure with armless Chewbacca, or a big book of nursery rhymes I’ve memorized and now read to my daughters. How “Jack Sprat could eat no fat” and “Four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie,” how the “Little dog laughed to see such sport,” and “Georgie Porgie made the girls cry.” Students understand, it is just the junk of memories that make us who were are, that we all have this baggage, but it is the sharing with others that makes it special.
My students in Taiwan are no different. They arrive on the second day of class with model cars and Rubik’s cubes, rings passed down from grandmothers and mason jars full of sand scooped up from beaches strolled many years since. It is an endless parade of crusty children’s blankets and discarded Gameboy cartridges, picture books and porcelain tea cups.
A girl named Betty holds up a wooden horse from Bali, “My friend Tina gave this to me before she moved away. I hold it when I try to remember her.”
A boy named Jackson talks about his father. He has a hammer and wood nail that can be driven back and forth into a board. “This was the last gift he gave me before he left when I was a boy.” He voice is straight and calm, not quivering like the day before when he asked me what the English word was for when parents are no longer married.
There are lighter moments too. A heavy set girl named Mary with blue contact lenses and brown dyed hair flashes her sequined cell phone, “This is my bling-bling!” She winks at the class, causing all the male students to squirm. Or when a boy named Jason, quiet and unassuming, brings in a mechanical singing toilet with eye balls that pop out of the bowl. “Can you guess the song?” he asks. “It is ‘Slip Sliding Away.’”
Finally it comes to Eva. She sits in the back row despondent most of the class, her white oval face twisted to one side with this crooked mouth like an egg that has just been cracked. She has just given up. On the first day of class she won’t write or read or prepare for work. She just sits and stars at the floor as if in a constant state of pain. She refuses to get up when I call her name.
“I don’t have anything special,” she whispers as I try energetically to enthuse her.
“But what about that necklace you are wearing, who gave you that? And those color markers I saw you doodling with before, does that mean you like to draw?”
Her face has no reaction. “They are not special. Nothing about me is.” She turns and walks away.
The rest of the week she is like this every day. By the middle of the next I call her parents in to talk. I know already what to expect. I have seen this so many times. We meet after hours and cram ourselves down into the little kid sized desks and the father crosses his arms in total silence while the mother throws up her hands in bursts.
“She is good for nothing. We try so hard. We give her everything, but she is lazy and thankless.”
I watch Eva’s eyes drip slowly to the floor like molten lead.
“All she does is eat and sleep and watch television. She is like a fat pig who does nothing.”
I explain the Back Pack Speech assignment but it makes no difference.
“We have taken her to Japan, to America, even to Australia. She can do the work. Her English is good, but she doesn’t care. She is a worthless daughter.”
I stop them there.
“Please do not speak this way about your child. I’m sure that it is not helpful.”
Now all of us sit in the room quietly while the ceiling fan spins and the cracks in the cement walls widen like slow pumping veins. What to do? What to say? I look at this girl and feel like a coward and a failure. After the meeting, the English Department Head scolds me.
“You should not call parents to meetings when there is nothing that can be done. I understand your frustration, but some students cannot be reached.”
I nod sympathetically. “Perhaps if our school had a counselor, someone she could talk to. It’s an important part of education.”
Now it is her turn to nod. “There is no budget for this. Besides, our Taiwanese students would never feel comfortable in that situation. It is simply not done here.”
“I could talk to her. Maybe that would…”
She cuts me off. “No. Male teachers should not talk to female students.”
We sit this way.
“I see. I guess you’re right.”
My boss heads back to her desk and I take a seat at mine. I do not have a classroom, but instead I am crammed Asian style into a white walled, cement floored room with all the other teachers both Chinese and English. We are in rows of desks in a perfect grid. Eleven of us in a 15 by 20 foot room. Students must knock at the door before entering, and even then they bow and speak in whispers. It is forty-two degrees Celsius outside in the hallway and the air is stagnant and stale.
The next day is the 8th Grade National Exam and everywhere, all over the country, 13 and 14 year olds are sitting in numbered desks with their number 2 mechanical pencils marking in bubbles in rows. I proctor. Between tests I seal the answer sheets and booklets and return them to the main office before heading back with another round of test forms. While I am walking up the stairs, a boy rushes past me quickly. He is running, sweating. He must be because I take two stairs at a time. He is on an errand for the teacher, for his class and classmates. It makes me feel so good to watch him hustle, to know that this boy has been brought up to work hard, to think of others before himself, to put the greater good ahead of his own. His words are breathy as he passed.
“Excuse me, Teacher Brian.”
It is nice to hear.
There are two other boys who greet me at the door when I return. They are bouncing ping pong balls and both tickle my ribs with their fingers. It is a common greeting in this culture for boys to touch me, though it makes me very uncomfortable and I move away.
“What is this test, Teacher Brian?” They ask.
I pull the long graphed paper forms out of the envelope. Perfect for blocking out geographically aligned and precise Chinese characters.
“It’s writing,” I say. “Time to show me how brilliant you are.”
The boys groan as the man in the hall rings the test bell, a golden domed brass antique like a Town Crier. He strolls slowly through the outer passageways ringing the knoll with authority. He is an old, boyish looking man, with polo shirt tucked into his trousers and surgical mask covering his lips. He is the same one who takes my temperature with a zapper gun each morning before I enter the building. If anyone is over 38 degrees Celcius they are sent home, if there are two, the school will shut down for a week. The man is proud of his job, and it garners him publicity photos. He keeps the school safe from swine flu and noro virus. Someone told me he is ex-military, and I believe it.
“Come along kids, back to your desks,” I clap.
The boys and girls hurry to their seats in the perfect rows and I distribute the graphed writing exam. Boys and girls are now quiet, and I sit with a book of poems in front looking stern. I keep this poetry book at school, one that is more journal than anything. I read two or three a day and write my thoughts in the margins. That’s where the best stuff is always found, the most profound, the stuff that defines us.
Yet that morning I was distracted. I sat in the room while the students filled in their grid story boards and all I could think about was Eva. How after the meeting with her parents we were left alone in the room together. How I stared at this kid while she threw her books and pencils into a satchel angrily and slammed her fists onto the desk, grunting wildly, staring back at me in defiance, as if to say –What? What will you do? Her eyes welled with tears and she started punching her face over and over in these guttural, bestial wails. I felt my arms come up at first, like a man cautioning one who is walking on dangerous ground. Somewhere too high or coming in too fast on a slippery slope, but we just stood there together in silence.
It was then I decided to play it safe. For the first time in my career, I decided to do exactly what they wanted me to. I wouldn’t reach out to her. I wouldn’t pull her aside and listen. I wouldn’t be the person who helped her in the way she needed. No. The world is a hard place, and we must get used to disappointment. Break kid, I thought. I’ve got nothing for you. Not anymore. We’re both in the system now.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Xi'an Gets New Passport

Took the day off Friday to travel to Taipei's U.S. Embassy to renew Xi'an's passport, then spent the next two days touring the massive capital city of Taiwan. Hit the Ximen shopping area and was assaulted by "Mondopop" culture complete with trucker hats, tattooed hipsters, and statuesque models in 8 inch heels dressed like the Bride of Frankenstein passing out coupons for mango tea. Sat on a dirty street corner rocking Rebekah to sleep for an hour while passersby thought I was a begger and dropped coins at my feet. Then we hit Longshan Taoist Temple at dusk in the rain where I danced barefoot in puddles with my five year old. That night we wandered Huaxi Street's "Snake Alley" where I was first introduced to Asian culture twenty years ago. On Saturday we strolled the amazing National Palace Museum grounds, but let's face it, Japanese tourists are much more interesting to gawk at than 5th century celadon vases, and so we spent the afternoon twenty kilometers outside the capital at Danshui, riding ferries to Bali village beach, lugging two toddlers around in search of public toilets, and reading funny t-shirt slogans in markets crammed to the armpits with smelly silk worm stalls, rancid grilled octopus stands, and men with megaphones selling inflatable Sponge Bob hammers. At night we taxied to Shinlin Market for street eats, but grew claustophobic, and ended up fine dining at the Riviera Hotel upon smooth white table clothes and violin music. The whole time I kept thinking, look at these awesome kids of mine. Little World Travelers. I couldn't be prouder. (See travel pics on flickr account to right.)