Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Early Films of Lindsay Lohan

(Hartenstein with his star-studded 7th graders.)

Lately I’ve been hitting on this woman at work and it’s become a school-wide obsession. It started as a lark, really, a student-led practical joke, but it’s become sort of a Mean Girls version of The Parent Trap, and now I’m worried.
We were in class when the subject of teachers came up. Taiwanese students have nicknames for all the educators in the building: “Cabbage Patch,” “Octopus Lips,” “Tomato Bottom,” some stem from facial features like “Soy Sauce Eyes,” others from mannerisms like “Monkey Ticks,” some are just famous movie characters like “Chewbacca Pants” and “Squidward Tentacles.” He’s the cashier at the Krusty Krab where Sponge Bob Squarepants flips burgers. I had to look it up.
Taiwanese kids can be cruel, and they love it as much as stinky tofu wrapped in rice.
That is, until we arrive at the subject of Smeagol.
(Cool poster that reminds me of why art is supposed to make you giggle.)

Smeagol is a math teacher here in the building.
I see her standing very slovenly and solitary, hissing to herself every morning while waiting for the elevator and wearing a different floral patterned polyester house dress like all the other female teachers at the Bilingual International School. Apparently, Taiwanese women don’t like pencil skirts or the stairs.
Yet here is where she differs, Smeagol has nylon ankle stockings that have rolled down into a pair of casual pumps like one of those deliriously old and bewildered bag ladies who carry umbrellas in the park and feed pigeons out of brown paper bags. On most days, to the twisted delight of her students, she adds a thick layer of lime green eye-liner and pink lipstick smeared all over her face like a blow-up sex doll while solemnly speaking into a microphone about quadratic formulas and parabolas to classes packed with queasy and hormonal eighth graders already creeped out enough by their own post-pubescent bodies. Smeagol, whose Chinese name is actually Teacher Mae Lin, is a combination of Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane and Annie’s Miss Hannigan. By no means, a “looker,” she unabashedly loves telling cringing classfulls about fitting her sagging breasts into girdles and the quiet joy of reading Twilight to her cats.
Without a doubt, Smeagol is one hot mess.
This is where I come in.
“Teacher Brian, what would happen if you flirted with her?”
“Or gave her a hug?”
Hold on….
“Yeah, or asked her on a date?”
Now stop…
But it was too late.
Suddenly the question on every student’s lips needed to be answered. Could this woman, unmarried and twenty years my senior, that was loved and feared with reverence and revulsion, actually know that she was being flirted with, and… what if she liked it?
(Awesome student Stella poses after I introduced her to Marlon Brando via You Tube.)

I put up a pathetic fight.
Most teachers will tell you with such dignified nobility that they abhor websites like “Rate My Teacher” out of solidarity for their fellow colleagues, but really it’s about absolute fear. They’re scared to death some pissed-off adolescent is going to snap a picture of them exiting the private staff lavatory with toilet paper stuck to their shoes or another might post some horrendous lie about them that will eventually wind up in some school-wide Burn Book.
“I saw Mr. Johnson eat an entire jar of petroleum jelly.”
“Oh yeah, I heard he sticks fingers in his armpits and smells his own B.O.”
“And then makes out with them.”
“I started that one.”
The only thing worse than stumbling upon these while perusing the internet would be the use of instant message language attached to it.
“Did you know Mrs. Lancaster worships Satan?”
“Really, IDK… LOL… ; )”
And so before I knew it, I’d thrown Smeagol to the wolves and agreed to very publically lay on the charms to the sinister delights of teenagers. It was an act of self-preservation, a distraction of slight-of-hand, I knew that. In high school, as in life, it’s dog eat dog. I immediately regretted it, but decided to give it the old college try. Maybe there was more to Smeagol than meets the eye.
(I returned to my old classroom and found that none of the students cared enough to keep our bulletin board looking clean or adding to it. In fact, they sort of trashed it. It disgusts me to think that things I try so hard to keep can be just junked by someone else. Does anybody care about anything?)

Besides, I was already embroiled in enough controversy.
Since returning from India and Nepal, I was not allowed to teach my old students and was given other classes instead. To their dismay, the kids revolted. These same angelic wunderkinds who put on the Macbeth play six months ago for me, have now turned into devils for my replacement. They throw paper and chalk at his back, curse him in Chinese, ditch his class. One kid named Quentin even tried lighting him on fire. To be fair, the boy is partially mentally handicapped and fighting a two-pack a day nicotine habit, but still.
Burning teachers?
That’s a bit extreme.
So I don’t want to ruffle any more feathers.
I lay in bed all night thinking about what to do. It was like many nights I’ve had over the last decade and a half of teaching when thinking about conversations I need to have with students who are troubled or on the wrong path. What to say? What to show? I abhor the idea of school not being a safe place for students, but what about being a safe place for those sworn to keep it safe? And what if it’s a matter of just not being accepted by the same kids you’re trying to help? I just didn’t know. How do you tell another adult they’re just not cool?
(Awesome sign with a creepy entrance. I saw this while taking a walk through the neighborhood. Abandon All Hope, Ye...)

It’s a judgment call at best.
I don’t know if anyone ever figures it out. In high school, where cliques of cool counted as an actual currency, it meant leatherjackets or peeling out the wheels of your hotrod while blaring Alice Cooper. Looking back, that didn’t sound very appealing then either. In college, being cool was about finding yourself, but that just led to me being broke, greasy, and constantly unshowered. Bong hits gave me migraines and casual sex left me naked and shaking. I tried looking for pop culture heroes. Big Mistake. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or James Dean in East of Eden gave me confidence and vulnerability as the same thing. Literature gave me Kerouac and Keats but also an emptiness and a longing that would never be filled. If I wanted to be cool, I would have to try another way.
(Hartenstein and Rebekah on a nice Sunday afternoon cruising to the Fine Arts Museum.)

The search for cool still dominates much of American culture, from the top earner and performer at work, to the alpha dog among our peers. Yet at any age, the words for cool may change but the meaning stays the same. In your twenties you become famous, in your thirties interesting, in your forties eclectic, in fifties fascinating, sixties infamous, in your seventies redeemed and adored. Yet by your eighties who cares because you’re in diapers, right? So what’s the point in trying to achieve legendary status?
I look at young people today and always ask them, “Who are your heroes? Who do you look up to? What values do you have?” But those are just school assignments. What I really want to know is, “How are you doing in your individual pursuit of becoming cool?”
Because I really want to know.
(A butterfly I saw amid the white flowers outside the school grounds last week.)

Now, I think I’m a cool person, but just saying that makes me cringe in disgust. I still own cargo pants and have a hotmail account. So I am definitely not cool. Yet I feel good about myself. I play the Indiana Jones theme song in my head when climbing stairs and sometimes the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack enters my mind when I’m strutting down the street, but that’s just shamefully painful, huh?
I look at fallen stars. People who once had potential and direction but lost their dignity in the pursuit of cool. Public joke Paris Hilton posing behind sunglasses. Lindsay Lohan slumped over in the backseat of a car. Is that the price of chasing a legendary life? Public scorn and ridicule? I hope not. Lately I’ve been thinking about the early films of Lindsay Lohan a great deal because this summer I will start a unit on Mean Girls in class. Yes, I will be teaching during this summer. Taiwanese students attend year-round. But movies like the Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen are brilliant for their sweet message. A whole generation of young American girls were raised on them, and Mean Girls has risen to be perhaps the most quoted and adored film among women 25 years and under over the last ten years. So what happened to Lilo? Was she a victim of her own success or did the need to be cool just eat her alive.
It’s not enough to say innocence is only lost once. A better thought is, how will you spend your life trying to get innocence back?
(Isn't that statude amazing? Two people caught in free-fall.)

Which brings me to Smeagol.
A week ago during national exams Teacher Mae Lin came into my class and I really watched her. The way she organized her lessons, the way she mothered those kids in her own awkward and oddly caring way. Yes, her hands are sort of clammy, and she does appear to have an issue with drool, but the comments about her hunchback are over exaggerated, and clearly there is no such thing “Quasimodo eye.” That’s just piling on, you know?
In spite of this, I sort of fell for her a little.
All this woman needed was a little make over, a little pep returned to her step, a little bit of jazz in her pizzazz. I could do it. I was the right man for the job. I would show these kids that acceptance comes at all levels of life, and I would start by showing Teacher Mae Lin that she was truly “precious.”
I was going to make Smeagol shine.
(Thank God for English.)

My first attempts at making romantic overtures to Smeagol crashed like gutterballs. I stuck my head into her advanced geometry class and asked for a pencil like some wholesome cup of sugar, but she tripped over a stack of books and fell into the door, slamming my head into the wall.
The class erupted in piteous groans. The following day I stood next to her in the lunch line trying to comment on the freshness of her fruit salad bowl, but she suspected thievery and quickly engulfed it, dripping Jell-O and mayonnaise covered maraschino cherries down the front of her blouse.
An open invitation, certainly, but I needed to stay focused.
My students, on the other hand, were dying a slow death.
As I upped my efforts, complimenting her festive Christmas sweater and hot leather pants ( why there are still holiday decorations like Halloween pumpkins and Santa Clauses still hanging all around the school is beyond me) even commenting how her filthy brown stained microphone head smelled like lilacs. The students sunk their teeth into textbooks and wood desks to keep from bursting out in retching gags.
They could barely contain themselves.
“Teacher Brian, you must stop.”
“I can’t. I’m close.”
“We’re dying.”
“You must endure.”
“We beg you.”
“You asked for this. Besides, Smeagol the flower is almost ready to bloom.”
The next day I made actual physical contact, touching her elbow as she came to relieve my class. The entire collective student body gasped out loud. Smeagol stepped back.
“Why Teacher Mae Lin, that’s such lovely blue eye-shadow you are wearing.”
Smeagol blew her nose with a loud honk into a soiled handkerchief and then returned it inside her brassier. “Why thank you, Teacher Brian, and may I say… how fit you look today?”
I was taken aback. “Fit?”
“Yes,” she looked at the floor and grunted in my direction. “Like a ripe steamed dumpling.
You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom. Thirty sets of Taiwanese student eyeballs were locked onto us.
“Ummm,” She licked her lips in a breathy whisper. “Yum! Yum!”
Before I knew it, I was out in the hallway staggering in a daze. I walked up and down the stairs in delirium. Smeagol had flirted with me right back.
(Certainly, this dude has the Indiana Jones song on repeat.)

The following day I was shocked at how nervous I was entering school, and the thought of seeing her again. I arrived early, set out my lessons, and waited, waited, waited. But when Smeagol finally arrived she looked so… normal.
Gone were the lipstick and eyeliner, and in their place just a normal bland pant suit from the Taiwanese version of SEARS. I tried to hide my disappointment. I wanted my Smeagol back. I wanted her in mismatched heels and flowery blouses with prancing elves on them. Yet when our eyes met, we quickly looked away, and I knew she was feeling something too.
The bell rang and we went off to class in different directions, but afterward I was back at my desk with eyes closed thinking of something a student had said. Very often their comments rock me, and I need time to process. Suddenly I felt a mouth-breathing presence behind me. Smeagol had laid a bean curd filled moon cake on my desk. To be fair, she passed one out to everyone in the office, but mine was the only one with a curly cue of whipped topping.
She knew I noticed.
The rest of the morning we sat back to back saying nothing. The office was filled with her silent wheezing and the comings and goings of staff members. Yet at one point I turned and listened. I watched her every move as she graded geometry quizzes with a leaky red magic marker. She was just a woman after all, with gray hairs popping beneath a black dyed scalp, brown liver spots on her neck, and soft hanging jowls.
In fact, the more I watched, I realized Smeagol was lovely.
Later that afternoon the weather changed and I had a sneezing asthma attack at my desk, just bent over in my chair while it felt like someone was hitting my chest with a sledge hammer. Snot poured from my nose until suddenly I felt a handkerchief come over my shoulder.
“Thank you.” I handed it back.
Smeagol smiled, revealing two rows of brown teeth.
“Keep it. There’s plenty more.” She patted her chest.
“Right,” I laughed, believing I’d just wet my pants.
(Poster on display in my favorite Japanese sushi place.)

By that week’s end, teacher Mae Lin and I were drinking tea together on the black leather sofa of the upstairs teacher lounge and talking every day. Mostly it was about students, our worries, our best teaching moments, and lessons that have worked while others failed.
Students passed by, shocked to see us together in so private a setting.
This seasoned woman, nearing sixty, with so much fire left in her. She was so alive with dreams and a lifetime of knowledge. Once we started talking, I quickly forgot all her physical limitations and literally sat at her feet and marveled. What a joy it was to speak with her.
More students stopped to gawk and wink. I didn’t care. I was lost in conversation. The best kind of attraction. Teacher Mae Lin and I had become friends.
That's when it hit me. I've always known I'll never be cool.
I care too much about the little things. How people feel. What makes them special. I don’t mind seeming foolish if it helps someone smile or realize something about the world. I don’t believe in roasting people or cutting them down to make myself feel good. I don’t want meanness in me. Rather, I just want people to find hope, and maybe fall in love with themselves too through our time together.
At the end of our conversation the other day, Teacher Mae Lin made a bold confession. She said she knew all the teachers were given terrible nicknames by the students, and this meant that the students had accepted them as authorities. She was proud of it. Yet sadly, her own nicknamed remained a mystery. She thought since I was an English teacher, perhaps I might be able to explain.
“Smeagol? What is that?”
I took a drink of tea.
“Ummm…well, Smeagol or Gollum is a character in a very famous book. It’s a story about a very uncommon friendship between two people who are having a very long conversation about one thing. Should they keep it or get rid of it. In the end, Smeagol helps the other to go on and live his life without worry or fear.”
Teacher Mae Lin closed her eyes and smiled in such a dreamy way. I love when people do that.
“I can see why the students like you,” she finally said. “But it’s strange. You know, they respect you, but there is no codeword for you in the building. In the whole school, you are probably the only teacher that doesn’t have a nickname.”
I’d never thought about it before but I suppose she was right.
“No. Everyone just calls you Teacher Brian.” She warmed another cup of tea for us both and sat back to ponder. “That must upset you some, doesn’t it, that students don’t fear or revile or feel threatened by you? Especially since you pour everything into them.”
I thought just a second before answering and then let it fly. “Sad, no.” I smiled. “Rather, for the first time in a long time, it makes me feel… innocent.”


  1. Man, in the time it took to read that (wonderful entry) I relived all the years of being picked on, my one failed attempt to be a bully (thank God I got my clock cleaned and it ended that for good), being cut from every sports team imaginable, and being redeemed somewhat with a modicum of success in probably the dorkiest sport of all.

    The sad thing is that society tries to tell us what is cool, and we spend most of our time trying to pick through all the shit that is thrown at us.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. Incredible story! Thank you. Teach on.