Saturday, December 10, 2011

Talking to People Under Water

Joyce is snickering. She is passing notes and glaring with rolled eyes. I step toward her and she mumbles under her breath, folds the paper she is scribbling on and stuffs it into her mouth like a cyanide capsule. I want to tell her that I loved her poem, that the part about her father yelling and her brother never listening and her mother not wanting to come home is so true, so real, so tangible, but she rolls her eyes and calls me stupid in Chinese. Stupid and ugly and dumb and boring, she says. I hate you, she screams and stares at the wall. The class has stopped. Everyone is looking at Joyce and their teacher standing in front of her with his hands up in the air, but Joyce is underwater and cannot hear me.
Tony is sitting in the front row making a scene. He is tearing little pieces of paper into balls and tossing them up in the air, watching them fall like snow in the middle of my lecture on ambition in Julius Caesar. He nudges William who pokes Denzel. (Yes, I have a student named Denzel) and suddenly they are laughing. I lean over and whisper in Tony’s ear. I tell him I know his father dying over the summer is the defining moment in his life, that if my father died when I was 13 I would be confused and looking to make someone hurt. I told him I understood, that I sympathized, but that didn’t mean he could act like a twerp. Tony just laughed and said, “Look at the pretty snowflakes.” As I stood back and watched them fall. I would say more, but Tony has drowned and cannot hear me.
The boys at the crosswalk stop to gawk. They are pointing and they are laughing. The one with bangs pushes the other with the glasses and hairy mole toward me. They are cursing out loud, testing me, they are speaking my language in slurs and rough voices, looking for a fight. I turn to them and smile, raise my hand like some false Buddha, whisper back that their phrases are unnecessary but they have moved down stream and cannot hear me.
The boy I’ve slated to play Marc Antony in the spring kicks open my door and says “What!” I am already on my feet moving toward him shaking my head. He will try it again. He will step back into the hallway and move through my door again or he will go to the office and explain why. This does not sit well. He throws down his book. He knocks over the table. He crosses his arms and does not budge. I pull him into the hallway for yet another conversation. I tell him not to listen to the other boys that tease him and call him fat. I tell him not to bother with the girls that hold their noses when he walks by. I tell him he’s a leader. That I see such promise in him. That his drawings show talent, that his writing makes me think, that his jokes are actually funny. But the boy who will play Marc Antony has sunk to the bottom of the pool and cannot hear me.
The man in the park is chewing betel nut. Red globs of spit retch from his lips onto the grass. He is coughing and hacking and punching his chest. When he sees me approaching him, he lays his thumb between his fore and middle fingers in a sign of defiance. I have never met him, never seen him, never spoken to him before, yet he is flipping me off, this old man dying in the park who is swimming away and cannot hear me.
This girl White had brain surgery in the fall. Doctors actually took scalpels and sliced open her frontal lobe. Her homeroom teacher from last year tells me she used to be so vivacious, so lively, used to come to class early and talk about books, now she is sullen, stares at the floor, crosses her arms and tells me she’d rather be in the cram school, that my class is boring, stupid, that she learns nothing. She said she even changed her English name from Sylvia to White so that she would no longer see any color. She says White is the color of death, and then she turns off. Veers away. I speak. There are words in my mouth as I am looking her in the eyes, reaching out and patting her hand. Anybody home? But White is a tide rolled away, and she cannot hear me.
The word polite came up in class today, just sitting there like some mad gleaming lose tooth on the page. I wanted to run over it, glide by it without a mention, but I couldn’t resist. I asked the kids what it meant to be polite. Nothing. I asked again and waited. Two full minutes of silence passed. So I let it ride. I waited. Finally I asked Stanley and he said, “Doing what the teacher says…” I said No. I asked has anyone been rude to you this week, been mean, said something bad… anyone? Anyone? Fifteen faces stare at the floor. Silence. Deafening silence. I stand there, nodding my head, looking down at the faces like a man strolling along the edge of a swimming pool straining his eyes into the water at the bodies floating deep beneath, forever away.

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