Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Boy Who Stole My Daughter’s Snow Globe

I always followed the news growing up. While most kids memorized breakfast cereal boxes and Saturday morning cartoons, I was running lists of Russian Czars and Apollo Missions in my head. I knew the American Presidents from Lincoln to Carter forward and back and could name all the capitol cities in Latin America. Essential information for a future leader of the French Underground Resistance / Antarctic Explorer / Stagecoach Driver, but pretty useless for an 8 year old under strict orders from his mother to drink a warm glass of Metamucil each morning. While most boys my age were pummeling each other with dodge balls and trying to stick their tongues on frozen metal light poles, I would stand off to the side and imagine I were talking to Charles Lindberg on the radio during his Trans-Atlantic flight, or that I was an Aztec warrior watching the first white masted ships full of Conquistadors land on my shore. Great events in history were hyper-real to me. The lines of yesterday’s news and today’s fantasy were but a daydream away.
My Christmas lists showed signs of this delusion. Pity my poor mother who had to field boyhood desires for sarcophagus remains or Australopithecus skulls mixed with fantastic hopes for an actual light saber or to be dipped in carbonate like some frozen Han Solo Magic Shell ice cream cone. But gifts meant things back then. They were hope. Yes, childish and improbable, but full of innocent wonder and light.
I’m a high school teacher now, camped out in life under the stars just a few years past where my boyhood innocence ended. Most days I’m very quietly content to just open a beat-up and dog eared paperback and stand in front of confused and befuddled faces of youth and read to them aloud about the wrath of Achilles or the private thoughts of Frederick Douglas. I whisper something different in each kid’s ear. Margaret I tell to keep doodling, they’re good. Miriam I say to share the spotlight, that we’re judged not on our greatness but how great we make others. I ask Wayne to keep raising his hand every time our class discussion reminds him of a story he once read, and for Casey, well for Casey, I just tell her to keep looking out the window and daydream the year away.
These are the gifts I give in my class. I know, sounds corny, huh? But I believe in what I’m doing more than the doubt of others.
It’s hard to speak to young Asian people. The boys grow up wanting to be background dancers. They order hip hop clothes out of catalogues with Justin Beiber on the cover, trucker hats they wear perched sideways on their perfectly coiffed hair, and the girls readily admit that Lady Gaga is the most important person in the world. They see nothing outside of what is pre-packaged and sold to them wholesale.
I ask them who is number 2 and they can’t give me a name, or then one brave student will say Barak Obama or Nelson Mandela and then another will say Taiwanese golfer Yani Tseng or South Korean figure skater Kim Yu Na, and I ask them really? Really, a golfer and a skater, the most important people alive?
Oh… they all gasp, the most important person alive… why didn’t you say so… they all nod and look at each other … that’s Steve Jobs.
This year I’ve done something terribly insane and begun to teach 7th graders. I had no choice really. I thought, I’ll show them wonder… possibility… I’ll read to them about Davy Crocket at the Alamo and give them Paul Bunyan’s swinging ax. I’ll take them outside to plant trees like Johnny Appleseed and play a marathon nine month long Monopoly game. Something to make them love school, to make them see it’s not all cleaning the hallways with toothbrushes and standing with your nose in the corner when you make a mistake.
But it’s been a struggle.
The boys are savages
Jim is this bucktoothed, messy haired gangly scarecrow of a burping, sneezing, sleeve nose blowing, catastrophe. His favorite class antic is to fart loudly when I am mid-sentence and then pretend the explosion in his pants was so great that he has fallen out of his chair.
That’s a tough act to follow, but Paul gives it his best shot. Paul is a pants dropper, a full on “moon-shiner.” The first time he dropped his pants in front of me was right before the bell rang at the end of the day, 5:15 in the evening (we start at 7:00 a.m.) and the kids don’t go home until 9 p.m. I put Paul in a semi-headlock and took him down to the office where he was sufficiently punished: Nose in the corner for twenty minutes and a demerit on his honor card. The second time it happened resulted in a long scolding by me in the hallway. The third time it happened and I spoke very earnestly to his parents in the staff room who assured me it would never happen again.
You see, both Jim and Paul are like a lot of these 7th grade boys, they have excuses. Jim’s father died late last summer and Paul was diagnosed with ADHD. Didn’t I understand? The parents have just decided to give them everything, this would ease their suffering? Eventually their minds would mature, I was told. All boys grow up, they insisted. They will look back on these moments with a great sense of boyhood charm.
Enter into this realm Vincent.
Vincent is like a lot of Taiwanese boys, obsessed with these tiny plastic trays of precise pieces that once assembled make a miniature sized Transformer. Taiwanese boys love Transformers. Breast plates and arm bands and tiny snap-together wings. He pulls them out of his desk during break and flies them through the air and has them climb and fight atop his desk. I watch him making explosion spit sounds with his lips, the white froth collecting in the corners of his puffy mouth, watch his chubby little fingers meticulously rubbing over each interlocking piece in perverse ecstasy.
In fact, the only thing that can detour Vincent’s concentration away from his Transformer toys are images of Japanese girl robots on other student’s PDA’s. Yes, scantily-clad cartoons of big eyed computer animated girls standing in front of weather maps reading temperatures is enough to give young Vincent a panic attack. He rolls on the floor howling. He hops up and down like a hound dog in heat. He takes his pillow out of his desk, the satin cushion with the Sailor Moon girl printed on the cover, and hugs it and kisses it and holds it close to his face.
It’s revolting.
While the other girls in class stare at the floor in despair, Vincent introduces his transformers to his pillow, Jim belches so loudly the pictures on the walls blow away, and Paul drops his pants and dances around the room.
The school’s new principle asks me how the class is going. He’s a sullen ex-homeroom teacher, a few years younger than me, who has a collection of different Cookie Monster t-shirts he wears to work and a collection of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys proudly displayed on his desk.
I just smile and give him the thumbs up, “Going great!”
It’s a lie, of course. It’s not going great. My oldest daughter has been in the hospital for the last three weeks, complications from severe pneumonia which left infected tissue and bacteria on her lung. We’ve been through the ER and PICU and admitted to the General Ward only to return to the ER and PICU for additional treatment. My daughter’s arms look like an outbreak of measles from all the needle holes.
But the saving grace is it’s late December, and that means, can she come home for Christmas?
It also means Christmas parties at school. I play Christmas Carol Karaoke and Pin the Beard on Santa, but my favorite game is the White Elephant Gift Exchange, where each kid brings a wrapped gift, draws a number, and selects a random treasure from the pot. Now, when your number is pulled, you can take a mystery gift, or you can “steal” an awesome gift somebody has already opened.
This year I played it with all my classes, including my 7th graders. It’s a good chance to talk about being a family, about how giving is better than receiving, about the real spirit of Christmas.
And wouldn’t you know it my kids responded. In years past there was disappointment. The first year I got three white tube socks, and last year I got a used Chinese paperback love story. Not really thoughtful gifts. So when this year I noticed that all the students got together and bought a brilliant little snow globe with glowing tree inside that “somehow” they all managed “not” to pick until it was my turn… and then all yelled surprise afterward and told me to give it to my daughter in the hospital… I was very touched. Perhaps, all these little speeches I’ve been giving my students about how to love and live were paying off.
Then it was Vincent’s turn.
And wouldn’t you know it. He chose to take the snow globe. My daughter’s snow globe. Walked right up and snatched it from my hands. What could I say? While all the other students booed and rolled their eyes and cursed at him in Chinese. I smiled and watched him lay the beautiful glass ornament on his desk and turn the music crank while the little Christmas tree spun in circles and the white flakes fell inside the happy sphere.
As the bell sounded I wished the students Merry Christmas, they have Saturday school on Christmas Eve, so most were disappointed, and I grabbed a taxi across town back to the hospital. We’re meeting the doctor tonight and he will decide if we can go home or not.
When I reach the room Xian is waiting, wide eyed and smiling, connected by tubes, one through her wrist, the other through her nose. I get on the bed next to her and begin to whisper. We’re on a magical ship, I explain. Perhaps it is Magellan sailing around the world or Perry’s steamer crashing through the ice.
I hold her tight, hanging on to dear life. I don't tell her I stopped off at the Stationary Store on the way there and have a present in my satchel, an identical snow globe like the one Vincent is now introducing to his pillow. No, we're off on the adventure of a lifetime sailing through the night sky with Kris Kringle, hospital bedsheets to warm us, stacked pillows in the back as gifts, tubes strung around our hands as reins. Onward now! Onward we go together.

1 comment:

  1. The australopithecus (robustus) skull is on my kitchen table. Hominids and eggs go together in the morning.