Saturday, February 26, 2011

Goat Soup

“Dogs, sir? Oh, not just now. I do enjoy a good dog once in a while, sir. You can have a three-course meal from one dog. Start with the canine crudités…” - John Keating

There is this moment in Dead Poets, Keating’s got the boys huddled up on the hardwood and he’s killing. I mean total stitches. There’s Neil who plays Puck in his father’s face and Todd who dreams nightmares of Walt Whitman’s scary toothed madman, and Pitts and Meeks and they are rolling, just roaring with laughter as if anything Keating says is going to put them over the edge. It’s THE teacher film, right? And Keating’s the master, you know? Or that is to say, Robin Williams is the master, don’t worry, I’m not delusional. I know the difference between a character and a real person.
I know it as clear as I know this moment I’ve seen on screen.
Because I’ve lived it.
That moment in class where time stops. Where it’s just me and the kids. Heads leaned forward. Books tossed aside. Eyes wide as saucers. Grinning teeth. I’ve got ‘em. I’m killing. And they’re mine.
Downstairs Teddy is crying. His eyes are welled with tears that run brown streaks of mud down his cheeks. The boys were in class when Johnnie pulled out his chair and Teddy dropped to the floor in a helpless heap. Later Johnnie put Teddy’s binder in the garbage and dropped his pencil case in the toilet. Johnnie is fueled by Tony who throws wet tissue wads at Teddy’s neck when the teacher leaves the class. Tony is egged- on by Dallas, who has no creativity, and just trips Teddy and holds his face to the wooden desk until he cries uncle.
Teacher Karen lines all the boys up in our office and starts screaming. Top of her lungs for twenty minutes in Chinese. I understand nothing. I understand everything. I want to walk over to Johnnie and put my fist through his face. I want to hang Tony by his heels out the fourth floor window. I want to burn Dallas at the stake and stand laughing while Teddy lights the match.
But nothing.
Teacher Karen screams and the boys snicker and then she says, “Get back to class. We have a test in ten minutes.”
The boys leave and as soon as the door closes, Johnnie puts Teddy in a headlock and slams him into the wall.
Very well done. Excellent.
Cameron is late with his second writing project. Two months late. He has no excuse. I talk to him. I plead with him. I tell him he is the only student in all my 8th grade classes that didn’t finish it. I meet with him and show him how. I sit with him and we talk it out. But nothing. He does no work.
Then he goes on vacation. Then there is the lunar holiday. And now he is back and his mother wonders why there is a zero on the report card. She is angry. She is calling the school. She wants to meet. She wants to know why. There is only one answer in her mind. The teacher is to blame.
I am told this while I am walking to class.
"Oh, and by the way," the administrator suddenly smiles, "The Taiwan National Television Network is doing a feature story about bilingual education in the country and your class has been selected to be interviewed. There will be cameras tomorrow in class. Teacher Brian, you are going to be famous.”
That afternoon I spill the beans. I start with John Lennon. I tell my class that we live in a funny world where everyone is now self-aware that they will have 15 minutes of fame at any moment. That camera and news crews and paparazzi are right around everyone’s corner and that anything one does is a potential YouTube soundbyte. We start laughing about how silly it will be to have TV crews in the classroom.
“Can we dress up?” Miley asks.
“Should we rehearse, like in Romeo and Juliet? Franklin ponders
The kids are full of questions.
“No, let’s just be normal.” I tell them. “Our normal is pretty good enough.”
“Hey, you never told us about the goat soup,” Amber says. The Taiwanese eat hot goat soup after new years to freshen up the body, bring good luck in the new year, and revitalize male stamina. It’s been a running joke since the school provided all the teachers with restaurant coupons.
So I start talking about all the disgusting food I’ve eaten: dog, monkey, snake, silk larva, grasshopper. The kids are dying. Rolling. Then Amber asks why I haven’t tried goat?
“Because no one will go with me.”
“I’ll take you.”
“No, I’d just embarrass you by asking too many questions. I’m a hippy Oregonian. I’d want to know if the goat had a name or if it was fed organically. I drive people nuts.”
The kids crack up.
“I don’t care. It’s very fashionable to take a foreigner to a restaurant.”
“Huh?”
The kids are laughing. Guts busting.
“Yes, if we are seen together people will envy me.”
“What?”
“It is true. Ask anyone.”
“So … you want me to be your pet? Like some monkey?”
The students roar with laughter. “Yes, my goat soup eating monkey.”
When I get back to the office after class Teddy is crying again. The boys have taken his metal lunch pail and have hid it outside. Then Johnny threw his white-out tape in the garbage and Dallas took his mechanical pencil and never gave it back. Through shaky sobs, Teddy explains that the boys torment him, that he is helpless to it, that he is so afraid.
Seven boys are lined up with noses to the wall all snickering.
“Silence!"
Teacher Karen yells and strikes each boy’s head with her hand. “You are not to speak!”
Karen is interesting. She is one of the only Taiwan teachers to even acknowledge my existence. She is young, about 26, unmarried and in her 4th year as an educator, her first as a homeroom instructor at our school.
I teach in her classroom once a week. 7th grad social studies. So I know these boys lined up against the wall in punishment very well. On the first day of school last semester, just as the bell was ringing, Karen came in and stood in front of the class screaming. I mean, Mussolini-esque type screaming with folded arms across her chest. “Shut up! Silence! You will not speak. Respect me or I will send demerits home.”
Then she turned to me with these huge red lips and red gums and brown teeth smiling. “You may begin teaching now,” and she left.
I let this go once. Then I stopped her the following Monday at the door. “You cannot do that again, teacher Karen.”
“I am only trying to help.”
I walked her out of the room. Then she stood in the doorway scowling for the first ten minutes of my class. It was absolutely comical to see me talking to the kids and having this woman standing outside the door staring at her students daring them to smile or have a good time.
Again, I let this go once then stopped her. “Karen, it is not my way.”
“But this is Taiwan. These are Taiwanese students.”
“Yes… I understand but… you’re wrong.”
The day with Teddy I watched Karen yell at those boys for bullying for over twenty minutes. She stuck fingers in their faces. She slapped them with sticks. She pushed them against walls. In the end, each boy’s punishment was the same. Turn and bow to Teddy and apologize.
The boys acted as if this were a death sentence.
I watched in disgust as each boy turned to face Teddy. They jogged in place. They turned and twisted their necks. They thumped their chests like prize fighters. Then one by one, with a gallows poll reluctance, they lowered their head and mumbled…. “I’m sorry…” then returned to the back of the line to burst out in laughter.
There is a knock at the door.
It is Thursday's evening class and we are ready for the cameras. The chalkboard is full of diagrams and student scribbles. The wall posters have been newly taped and set straight. Student work hangs proudly. I even made a new seating chart. The students are so excited. We had such strange discussions that day like, “Do you think it is okay if I sit cross-legged on my chair? I don’t want my parents to see it on TV and be angry.” And “Is it okay if we make jokes with you like usual? I don’t want my grandmother to think we never study?”
“Don’t worry, kids.” I tell them. “Just be yourselves.”
Outside in the hall I am told the news. The camera crews will not be coming after all. The principle has been talking to the reporters about his childhood for most of the day and they can’t get away. He still wants to address his political aspirations and his vision for our school to become the richest in the city. To be number one.
“Sorry, teacher Brian,” the administrator tells me, “But the cameras have gone home.”
I step back into class and give my students the news.
I am standing at my desk the following morning talking to another teacher when Cameron walks in and throws his writing project on my desk. No excuse me. No thank you. No I’m sorry. Just throws the papers, turns and walks out. I call after him but he doesn’t stop. I am about to go after him when Cameron's mother appears with an administrator. She wants to talk. She wants to know why I don't frighten her child more. Demand a better performance. She wants to know my classroom rules. She is frothing angry and it is 7:45 a.m. standing at my desk with her jade jewelry and blue eye-shadow. She is actually carry a Harrods paper shopping bag with a neatly shaved poodle in it.
I try to collect myself. I try to keep it cool. I escort the fuming woman to the empty classroom across the hall and begin to call her down from the ledge of insanity. Two hours later as I walk into class and Cameron and I make eye contact and instantly I see it written all over his face. He is not ashamed and it will translate to nothing.
Just before Friday ends I am called to the fourth floor. Teddy has lit a fire in the boy’s washroom and is standing over the flaming pyre of books watching it burn. Geography. History. Algebra. English Comp. All melting into the tiles like rainbow candy. He is shirtless. No emotion on his face. Weightless as he is carried away.
The fire is easy to put out. Water from buckets filled at the tap. Breathless in the smoke we stand. Teachers looking at one another. Dumbfounded. Lost. Hollow. Through the door and into the hallway I see Teddy standing in front of teacher Karen. His head is bowed. She is screaming and hitting. Raining her hand down again and again on the back of his neck and shoulders.
I am empty. There is no more strength in my body, and the next moments are blurs. Suddenly I am holding Teddy’s hand and we are walking down stairs, out of the building, down the street. He puts up no resistance. There is no more fight in either of us. In fact, it’s a couple of blocks before he even speaks.
“Where are you taking me?”
“We’re going to sit down together. You and I are going to talk.”
“What?”
“Don’t worry. I know this place. They serve goat soup. Come on, have a bowl with me.”
Teddy is so light. He takes five steps for each one of my strides. I feel he is floating beside me like some kite I am trying to set in flight.
“Yes. Okay. Goat soup," he murmurs, "That would be nice.”

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