Monday, March 28, 2011

Blood on my Hands

Teacher Karen is howling. She is screaming bloody murder like a woman on fire. It comes through the cement walls. It comes in from two classrooms away. It is louder than the passing buses, and the blowing street sweepers, and the roaring helicopters at the rescue training station that fly overhead on the hour every hour, and the hundreds and hundreds of children foraging in the halls. “You lazy pigs. You worthless heaps. You listen to nothing I say. How can I be expected to teach you when you are too stupid to learn?” I listen to her scream and chew my bottom lip. I am at my office desk waiting for her to stop so that I can go into her classroom and teach a lesson on the Rub’ Al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia. I rummaged an old Khalil Gibran book of poems along with an ancient 13th century map of Sinbad’s travels. I am ready to dazzle. I am ready to spark. My lesson today is tinder and flint. There is the bell, time for class to start. I pick up my books and walk to the door. Teacher Karen is still screaming. She is calling the students cockroaches. She is telling them they will amount to nothing. She screams for five more minutes and then slams the door. It is time for me to enter. I am looking through the glass at tired and defeated faces. I try to snap my fingers but nothing. There is nothing but empty air in my hand. Dear Parents, Your little Jenny is a cancer. Yes, that Jenny. Sweet little wall-flower smiling happy go-lucky Jenny is the freaking devil! Perfect little pager turner, little goody-two-shoes complete her essay and smile, sitting in the second row with a Hello Kitty pencil case and a red bow in her hair. It took us two years to find out she was the problem, but now we know the truth. For the past two years, Jenny has been routinely taking girl classmates into the bathroom and locking them in stalls and sticking sewing needles under their fingernails. “You’re fat. I hate you.” -Stick! “You’re ugly. I want to throw-up when I see you.” - Stick! “You have a flat nose. No boy will ever like you.” - Stick! “Now, who do we hate?” “Teacher Greg!!” “And why do we hate him?” “Because he is stinky and old!” “And what do we do when he talks?” “We don’t listen!” “And what do we do when he makes a joke and tries to be nice?” “Turn away and look at the floor!” “That’s good. Now lay out your hands.” - Stick! “If you tell on me I will no longer be your friend.” Two years of this. Until finally a Taiwanese female teacher caught her. Now we are trying to have Jenny removed from the school. It didn’t work. The admin said it was Jenny’s responsibility to change her own personality. It was her duty, and they dropped it. She bowed twice to Director Wang and he let her go. Teacher Greg quit the school and abruptly left the country a month ago. The Taiwan teacher knew about this for three months and said nothing until after Greg had turned in his letter of resignation, and Jenny is back in class smiling. The student assessment records have to be written and logged in a communication book every day and sent home to parents. Believe me, it’s bleak. Columns to be marked and grades to be doled out. Everyday a score. The kids take a history test on Monday, geography test on Tuesday, two math tests on Wednesday, English test on Thursday, and Chinese test on Friday. Then Saturday class review and Sunday cram school without a break and ready for Monday. I complain to school officials. I say, look- there is a reason you have SARS and H1N1 and Entero-viruses in this county and every kid is coughing and sneezing and wearing surgical masks. If you pack young people in petri-dish classrooms and drill them 15 hours a day 140 hours a week without exercise, no sports, no clubs, no time to just talk or dream or relax with friends, it’s no wonder their bodies break down. And the food they serve… all fried and covered in grease… and the candy they give…all teachers giving out sweets to students… it’s just preposterous. I mean, the best advice a doctor can give me in this country is, “Don’t drink cold water.” As if this is some kind of ancient Chinese wisdom that every doctor stuck on auto-pilot can parrot back. By the way, when my daughters leave the doctor’s office what does he put in their hand? Candy! Imagine, a doctor giving out candy to kids. I am telling this through a translator who is explaining, God knows what, probably something completely unrelated like, “Oh, Teacher Brian really thinks there should be more office plants in here,” when Director Wang gets up and walks away. “This is not my job,” he says. “If the teacher cannot control finish his assessment records, we will find someone who can.” Stanley’s got a boner in class. Stanley’s got wood again. It’s none of my business. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. But I am the teacher and I am in charge and something must be done about it. It is during the break between class, I am helping Anne when I look up and see Stanley humping Owen who had been lying in Jason’s lap who had been slapping Michael on the bottom who had been hugging Dave who had been holding hands with Marcus who had been dry humping Benson. The rampant boy-touching that is allowed here in Taiwan is impossible to control. Heterosexual contact is strictly prohibited by the school. Any form of boy-girl contact is shunned. The school monitors any rumor of boyfriend and girlfriend relationship because they believe it is a distraction. Parents are called in to discuss. Homeroom teachers criticize. The girls are always pressured to give up their crushes, but boys… if two boys want to go into the bathroom and cup each other’s genitals, it is considered fine. I’ve been to the administration dozens of times to complain about boys touching each other in class, out of class, in the bathrooms, in the hallways, and each time I am met with bureaucratic red tape. They tell me that I must warn them that I will give a warning. So I do. They tell me that then I must warn them. So I do. They tell me that then I must give an official warning. So I do. Then they tell me to write an official warning that goes in their permanent file. So I do. Now I make a letter to put in their file after having four different documented conversations with students about inappropriate touching. I walk down to Director Wang and hand him the paper which he puts in his desk never to see the light of day, and am ushered out of the main office. Danny is taking his national geography test when the diarrhea comes. He raises his hand and squirms in his seat and there are fifty kids in the room as I walk over and ask, “Yes?” Danny is the face of panic. “I have a stomach ache.” I don’t hesitate. “Go.” I point to the door. But there is no toilet paper in the building. There never is. Students are expected to carry it from home so Danny asks William, but William keeps his head down and he asks Kelly, but Kelly is the pretty girl and won’t admit to carrying toilet paper ever, so Danny asks Mathew, but Mathew is stingy, everyone knows this, so Danny has no choice but to reach into Allen’s desk and take his plastic bag of ass wipe. Allen is weak and shallow and hangs on for dear life. He is falling out of his chair, falling away from his desk in the middle of the geography test in which I am proctoring. Now there is a commotion. Now I have to step in the middle and give Danny some compassion because no one else will. I seize the paper from Allen’s hands and push Danny out the door, who goes running down the hallway one hand holding his queasy stomach, the other covering his leaking butt. Daniel is fifteen years old. Lurch is the new 7th grade math teacher. He is aptly nicknamed and the general consensus is that if he smiled once his whole face would basically crumble into shards of gravel and stone. He’s a stickler. We ask him to have his students stop running in the hall, but Lurch says it is not his job. We ask him to stop having his kids curse in English as we walk by, but Lurch says he does not speak English and so cannot confirm they acted inappropriately. We ask him to stop having kids use their lunch times scrubbing the hallways with toothbrushes, but Lurch says it is not our concern. We ask him to not stand in the back of our classes and take notes about how many times we jump on chairs or have kids play games or close the text books and just tell a story, and then go to Director Wang and complain about our teaching methods, but Lurch just looks away and returns to his desk. Today Lurch has the boys up against the wall for the last forty minutes. He says nothing to them. They say nothing in return. Just faces and noses two inches from the wall. Five boys, standing at attention while he writes in the communication book. I watch him and feel lost. How can this be the world? How is this possible? I feel like giving up. I walk outside and punch a tree, cutting my knuckles to bloody shreds. Caitlyn is waiting for me at my desk as I walk in. She steps to me and puts her un-typed speech in my face. No hello. No thank you for meeting me. Just, “What should I do?” and “Do it for me.” Believe me, I’ve known smart kids. I’ve taught amazing kids. And Caitlyn is the smartest kid in the school. But I can’t imagine the smartest kid back home telling me to write their essays for them or type it when finished or drive to the government office and apply for the national speech for them. Yet here is Caitlyn, the top ranked student in her 10th grade class, expecting me to complete these things. I am ready to explode. I am ready to just unload. There are splinters in my fingers as I tighten my fists. William sits in class and plays with his hair. There is a small pocket-sized mirror on his desk and for thirty minutes he just sits head down and folds and twists and fingers about a centimeter of bangs covering his eyes. He hears nothing of my class. He pays no attention. He has no book. No pencil. No notebook. William is 15 and his parents pay an obscene fortune to send him to this school so he can play with his hair. There are ten other boys in class doing the same thing. “William, put your mirror away.” “William, you’re not a girl, stop touching your hair.” “William, you’re driving me crazy. Put that stupid thing away or I’m going to throw it out the window.” We read two classics in this Naturalism and Realism unit: London’s Two Build a Fire and Crane’s Open Boat. I want to make a point about how setting creates conflict and how it relates to the struggle of life against death. I talk about fishing with my grandfather and carrying buckets of water to feed the horses on my parent’s farm, breaking ice in the water trough with shovels with my younger brother, and all those boys sitting in the back rows playing with their hair and staring into mirrors. I tell them how Crane’s water is symbolic of life, and London’s snow is symbolic of death, and then I bring in a Yeats poem… Right before the bell rings I see Jerry ask Dave what I am talking about and Dave shrugs his shoulders and then… well forget it, because as soon as the bell rings, all the boys bring out their mirrors again and start fixing their hair. During the unit test last week William fell asleep with thirty minutes remaining. He has answered nothing, made a couple of circles and a couple of pleas for help: “Teacher Brian, I do not understand, please give me 60%.” I walk over to look at him. Head slumped on his desk as if dead, the test a pillow. Right under his hair I can see the final essay question. It reads: “How does an author use setting to expand conflict, and what is the importance of relating personal experience to others?” William’s answer, as with all the boys in class, is completely blank, and somehow I feel I am to blame.

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