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.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cumulonimbus Adjectives

I saw this passage in a grammar book this past week; I refuse to reduce my literature lessons to a mere pursuit of verb conjugation and punctuation rules, but this caught my eye.

Cumulative Adjectives always go before a noun. They must be in a particular order. For example, you cannot write: black Irish little two hungry dogs setter; you must write: two little hungry black Irish Setter dogs. Do not put commas between cumulative adjectives, but do for adjectives of coordination. (First Steps in Academic Writing, pg 107).

Order of Placement:
1. Articles, demonstrative pronouns, possessives: (an, the, this, these, those, her, their)
2. Quantity: (two, fifty, some, many)
3. Opinion: (poor, beautiful, interesting, cheerful, expensive)
4. Appearance: (big, little, round, square, broken, wet, cold)
5. Age / Color: (black, red, young, blond)
6. Nationality / Religion: Guatemalan, Catholic, European, Protestant)
7. Material / Purpose: (silk, wood, cotton, swimming, hiking)
8. Noun used as an adjective: (“Shoe” store, “Wedding” dress)

I love how there are grammar rules that most of us don’t acknowledge or even think about, like laws of nature or the universe. We exist. We question things that matter personally, but there are guidelines and safety nets all around us. We feel their presence; they surround our inner cores, visit us in dreams like tooth fairies, rain down on us unknowingly like Newton’s gravity’s apples, or cupid’s insipid arrows of self-flagellation, and oh… what’s that other thing called… oh yeah- unyielding affection for others we can't explain.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Water Cooler Talk

It happened again the other day. I try not to get bent out of shape about it. I know it’s just water cooler talk, kind of like someone saying, “Yep, looks like rain,” or “New shoes, huh?” It’s meaningless and actually a sideways compliment. But because it’s about my girls it gets my dander up. The random mom in the park or dude at the counter or student trying to make small talk who says, “Boy, when your daughters get older, are YOU going to be in trouble!”
There’s worse ways to say it too.
“You’re going to need a shotgun.”
“Better lock their windows at night.”
“You’re going to have to fight ‘em off with a stick.”
I shrug it off and smile all neighborly-like.
But I really want to punch you in the face.
What ticks me off is that it could be construed as a backhanded comment about my parenting skills. Do you really think I’m trying to raise hot little sluts that can’t wait to jump into the sack with the first boy that comes along? That I’m not going to teach them to value themselves over the pressures of some idiot, hormone-crazed teenager or sex-starved society? That I’m not trying to empower them to make strong, wise, confident choices about their bodies, their friends, their relationships, their own experience? Really, you random high-school drop-out stoner dude working the graveyard shift at 7-11? Really, you busy-bodied caramel macchiato slurping soccer mom packing your saggy butt into stretch pants? How’s your current sex life treating ya? Thought so.
The simple truth is, I actually look forward to the days when my girls start bringing boys around. I’m not going to embarrass the kid. I’m not going to, “Show him my gun collection and all the mounted deer heads on the den wall,” or pull him aside at the door and explain, “Whatever you do to her, I’m going to do to you.”
No… that’s silly. I’m trusting that after all these years of millions and millions of conversations about protecting themselves and right and wrong and being responsible and putting love in their heart that when they do bring some kid around … he’s actually going to be amazing.
I have to trust, that he will be amazing.
He’ll be the kind of guy that cuts his neighbors wood for free, and carries around a bar of flint in his car’s glove box just in case, and knows his grandmother’s recipe for molasses cookies and… who am I kidding, right? Next thing you know I’m going to say he probably memorizes Shakespeare passages in his free time and gives out Thoreau’s Walden as Christmas gifts, and has taught a couple of years abroad and fills my daughter’s shoe boxes full of love letters even though they talk every day and …. yeah. Those guys don’t exist, do they?
Better just buy a gun instead, huh?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

ep 34 "Chinese Street Market"

Strolling leisurely through the local market in search of apples on a nice Saturday morning... what could possibly go wrong when Hartenstein tries to speak the Chinese word for "apple"? Hmmm...?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Director Wang

Director Wang stands ready at the school gates to take my temperature. He is worried about containment, the spread of viruses, and specifically my personal health. He’s been checking the foreign teacher’s vital statistics for months. Smiling and lifting the electronic barrel of his beeping thermometer gun, he greets me every morning as I enter the building. At first I tried to duck him, sneaking in through back fire escapes, climbing in through first story windows. I even disguised myself as the cleaning lady complete with mop bucket and bamboo rice field hat. But Director Wang caught me.
“Not so fast, Teacher Brian.” He pounced. “We wouldn’t want our prized employee getting sick now would we?”
“Yes, Director Wang,” the words form mysteriously in my mouth as I lower my forehead to be tazed.
“Good, now run along.”
“Yes, I will run along.”
The realization that Director Wang is trying to take over my mind came slow, but now that it has started, his intention is absolutely clear. He’s trying to make me a Chinese Educator-Zombie, and I might be powerless to stop him.
It began innocently enough one morning during my 7th grade reading class. A group of investors in white lab jackets emblazed with school insignia poked their heads in to visit. This was not unexpected, these kinds of intrusions were common: Women with excessive make-up and short cropped hair carrying clipboards, dark faced men with grim expressions, their arms folded behind backs chewing on cigarettes and nodding.
“And this is Teacher Brian. He is our best.”
“Oooh!” They sigh as I leap from desk top to floor telling a story about jumping trains. “Oooh!” They wheeze as I race to the board and diagram the structure of an essay.
“See, if you invest in our school, this is the kind of New Century education you can expect to endorse.”
“And students respond to this?” A tall brooding man in dark jacket asks.
“Oh yes,” Director Wang answers. “Today’s modern student feels a need to be entertained, to be catered to with personal stories and funny hijinks. They want their teachers to be comedians.”
“But he doesn’t use a microphone or sit in front of the podium. It is undignified.”
“Look at all the energy he wastes bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball. Won’t the model break down?”
Director Wang furrows his brow. “If he does, we will just offer him financial incentives like school sponsored trips or gifts of new school blazer or punch cards for free milk tea. Teachers are public servants by nature, they do not require much maintenance long term.”
“Ohhh!” The group sighs and nods their heads collectively.
“You see,” Director Wang continues, “The New Century student needs to be told how special they are at all times. This requires constant positive reinforcement. Look how Teacher Brian has been trained to accomplish this.”
The heads of the group focus on me standing in front of the class, my wide eyes warm and acknowledging.
“Jackson, excellent job remembering to bring your pencil. Give me Five!”
Jackson slaps my hand on cue as all the students clamor for their share.
“Teacher Brian! Give me Five! I want Five!”
Their voices fill the room.
“Melody, did you remember your green tea acne medicine today?”
“I did Teacher Brian.”
“Well, you get Five!” Our hands smack high atop the other students.
“And Rich, did you remember your snake blood vial the fortune teller gave you for good luck on your math and science exams?”
Rich’s eyes drop wearily to the ground. “No, I forgot again.”
“That’s okay, Buddy. I’ll send you a text tonight to remind you and tomorrow I will follow up with a tweet.” I playfully slug his shoulder in a non-predatorial show of affection that clearly keeps our relationship boundaries well defined.
“Thanks, Teacher Brian.”
“No, bud. Thank you.”
The group nods their heads while students quickly assemble for a trust exercise atop the table. One student falls backward into a safety net of reassuring side hugs and non-threatening back rubs.
“Oh, what is he doing now?”
“This is called ‘Breaking Down The Walls.’ Here post-pubescent students learn not to hate one another through asexual physical contact and verbal affirmation. Next Teacher Brian will tell a revealing story about a time he was persuaded into taking drugs but said no. This will naturally lead to an intimate discussion on the importance of abstinence.”
“Talking about drugs and sex in school? Won’t that lead to moral decay and excessive violence?”
“Yes, are you sure he is not a subversive? Did you check his back pack?”
“He is not secretly passing out condoms or methadone is he?”
“Or his laptop, are there violent video games?”
Director Wang put up his hands, “Oh, we’re quite sure. See.” He points to a black orb circling the classroom. “That’s the eye in the sky. We have complete surveillance on our teachers at all time. They are in each classroom, the staff office, bathroom stalls, and in all the corners of the building. There is nothing fishy going on during my watch.”
The group seemed rest assured.
“OK, class, now before we end our lesson, who updated their Facebook page today?”
Hands shoot up in the air.
“Oh, I know. Betty, those pictures were raunchy.”
Betty smiles sheepishly. “I know. I just can’t shake the image of my abusive Dad. Binge drinking is the only way I can forget.”
“That’s great, Betty. Way to take ownership of your personal demons.”
The class collectively nods.
“And Kevin, what’s going on with Debby? I saw she ‘unfriended’ you and your status says you’re no longer in a ‘relationship.’”
“Oh, Teacher Brian, we’re finished.”
“What happened, Pal?”
The students rise to form a circle of trust around the young boy as I get down on one knee and Kevin continues. “Remember how we were reading that one in four women aged 16 through 24 has contracted an STD?”
“Yes, Kevin.”
Rich lowers the lights to help Kevin feel more acknowledged and supported for his ability to speak about his own deficiencies and problems.”
“Well, I wanted to validate her and show her I really cared. So I contracted Chlamydia. I thought she would be happy, help our relationship mature, you know? But she told me she already had genital warts from another boy.”
“Wow, Kevin. That stings!”
Rich turns the lights back on. “I think we all learned a valuable lesson there, didn’t we class?”
The students nod their heads and take their seats.
“Don’t worry Kevin, I’m sure you will meet someone on-line in a couple of years whose profile matches your own. She’ll be an admitted transgendered abused runaway and you can both take ownership in finding someone who won’t judge you despite your age difference of twenty years.”
Kevin's face beams, “Thanks, Teacher Brian.”
“I’m here for you, kimosabe.” I pump a fist across my chest and Kevin returns with a salute in support of our troops in Afghanistan.
“Wow!” One of the women observing in the back of the class says, “He is really good.”
“And now class, in honor of Thanksgiving, Kwanza, the end of Ramadan, Festivus, the upcoming pagan Christmas Tree lighting and the local Mazu pilgrimage, I would like us to all take a moment and give silent thanks to our own individual universal powers that we believe in. Please bow your heads.”
When class is over, Lil’ Wayne’s Party in the Club begins to play over loudspeakers and I meet the students at the door for High Fives and Chest Bumps.
“Why doesn't the school have bells?” One of the women asks.
“Oh no, bells are much too impersonal and institutionalizing. We prefer to signal learning cues by emphasizing ringtones.
"Ooooh," the gasp together in understanding.
Director Wang motions me over. “Teacher Brian, I would like to introduce you to our potential investors. As you know, much money is needed to keep private education afloat. We wouldn’t want to turn into a publically funded institution, would we?”
I bow, introducing myself and speaking in slow robotic English, unable to break free, “Hello, I am Brian Hartenstein. My favorites are pizza and the color blue, and you?” When I get to the end of the line Director Wang raises his temperature gun to my forehead, pulling the trigger and sending electronic shock waves all throughout my body. My arms tingle. My left eye twitches. I have no recollection of the past few seconds. When I come-to, the faces of the investors are standing around me smiling and scribbling in checkbooks. I begin by shaking their hands, “Hello, my name is Brian Hartenstein. I like playing basketball and making homemade ice cream, and you?”
Director Wang holsters his temperature gun, grinning at the investors in complete assurance, scratching me behind the ears.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Personal Pixie Dust

You’re not going to believe this, I mean they actually brought a complaint against the American for standing on chairs in class. Standing on chairs while he mimed out some vocabulary word. The other Chinese teacher said he broke chalk into little pieces. "What is he doing in there?" They all want to know. Now they demand to see the curriculum. They demand it be printed out. They demand to have meetings with the parents because we show movies and take the kids out for basketball and order pizzas we pay from our own pocket and use baseball games to teach reading review and make kites out of homework and fly them out classroom windows. "Stop! You are having too much fun."
China is madness. China has sunk into the sea of madness. Let it drown.
I sit on the bed with Xian and we read The Borrowers by Mary Norton, chapter five where Arrietty has not fallen asleep but instead lays in the cigar box looking at the painted ladies dressed in swirls of chiffon blowing long trumpets. Yesterday Xian stopped me on the stairs and said, “You know, I can walk myself to school. You don’t have to take me to the door anymore.” I shake her off, who does this kid think she's talking to? Really?
The South African wants to be fired. He insulted the pregnant woman and put a cockroach in the Mrs. Lee’s pudding and told Anne they should get an apartment in Texas together. I heard it in the cafeteria over long slimy wet noodles. I thought, Texas? Who screws in Texas? I chat with him outside by the smoker tree. He's got these pills, supposed to stop him from taking drinks. He starts begging me to fill in answer sheets for a second grade unit on bumble bees. I think, he should probably trade in those pills for a magic cow.
Rebekah is curled in my lap in the back seat of a taxi as we sit in traffic. There are lights and rain puddles and the smell of ginseng chewing gum. I haven’t the heart to tell her about the world. About how they come at you in droves. The liars, the beggars, the users, the cheaters, the fiends, the pretenders. They descend upon you like thieves with manicured nails. Rebekah purrs mid-dream. The light changes green. I storke her hair as all my thoughts disappear.
Kinu is a loaf of bread. She’s a pair of pajamas in a laundry basket. She’s my blue sweatshirt all rolled up Sandy uses as a pillow on the couch. She’s less than an American Heritage Dictionary. Less than a box of glazed doughnuts. The old coffee can full of half eaten crayons. She’s light as pixie dust. Twice as magic. Sometimes, she and the other two fairies are the only things keeping me from sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beware the Ides of March

“And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water.” - Leonard Cohen

I don’t think of myself as a quitter. I don’t think of myself as someone who gives up when the going gets tough. But I’ve stopped things I can no longer do, cut out habits that were damaging, dropped friendships, even great ones, that no longer validated me, broke relationships that were unhealthy. Sure, I look back. But when I do there is nothing there. It’s just gone, and like everybody else I find I just don’t care.
(The following photos were taken in Phuket in 2011 about the 2004 tsunami destruction that still exists)

I think there are many times in life we wish to just wipe the slate clean. Erase mistakes. Forget the past. Start fresh. Make a brand new me. I’ve heard people say those words often, and I watch them wondering if they are going to self-combust with a new form suddenly sprouting Phoenix-like from their ashen pyre.
Does that mean you’ll forget about me? Was I a mistake to you? Am I the one you are trying to erase? Quick, I better forget you first. Numb the pain. Ahhh… done! Now numb don’t hurt no more.
When I was a boy I was taught to never turn your back on the ocean. Mom and Dad would drive us out to the Oregon beaches. Tillamook. Seaside. Lincoln City. Mom would wrap us in sweatshirt hoods and call after us as our naked legs raced in and out of the surf tides. Always running, keeping her in view, this little waving black dot on an army blanket that had now become the horizon staring back at us from the shore.
I’d go back to that time now. I would. People weren’t my biggest problems then, as they are now. It’s not that I want to re-live the past or forget it somehow, but if I had the chance, I do it so much better than my first time around.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ep 33 "Chinese Toys R Us"

Oh yes... it takes a strong man to make an improvisational musical montage with his 7 year old at the local Taiwanese Toys R Us. A very strong man indeed. I hope you smile too.

Sue Chun sketching of Beautiful Sadness

(The above awesome sketch was done by former student Sue Chun after seeing a photo I took. Sue, you are beautiful. This is so cool. Your talent is limitless. Thank you. - Hartenstein)

Line up the teachers and flog 'em

(The following are a bunch of old pictures of students. I know they are sort of out dated, but I couldn't resist. Sorry. I hope they bring back good memories.)

I can’t watch the Oscars anymore. My Mom still does and when I call her on Sunday night, my Monday morning, she is sitting on the sofa star-gazing at the red carpet glitz with a front row seat munching popcorn in slippers.
My Mom is the most veracious devourer of literature and cinema I’ve ever met. She’s practically a Gold Member library card carrier and has her handprints enshrined in cement outside the local Cineplex Odeon. She’s seen every movie that came out this year including the wickedly delicate Black Swan and the suicidally love-starved Valentine’s Day. Basically, she knows what’s worth the price of admission, and I inherited, thankfully, my absolute sheer love of teaching stories from her bibliophile DNA.
That being said, I can no longer stand the Academy Awards.
It’s not what you think. It wasn’t the incessant banshee-like howling of host Anne Hathaway (Why doesn’t anyone ever mention her first marriage to William Shakespeare?) anytime an A-list celeb she wished to work with approached the stage, or the insouciant snooze of her co-host James Franco, seriously dude, smoke another bowl. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr. 127 Hours when he wasn’t half-baked, except for in Pineapple Express, oddly enough.)
No, it’s not that.
I just can’t stand the inglorious praise heaped on these vacant and trance-like human beings for doing a job they get paid bazillions for.
“Oh, you’re such a great actor. Let me throw flowers at your feet.”
“Oh, you are such a beautiful pretender. Now bend over and let me pucker up.”
It’s disgusting.
This is why we should boycott the Oscars: How many people do you know that have completely thankless jobs?
“Oh, Rhonda, your spreadsheets are just so awe inspiring. Because of you, I became a Data Entry personnel.”
“Oh, Chuck, that oil change was done with such flair. How did you get that synthetic unleaded into character? And that lavender air-tree freshener. Bravo, Chuck! Bravo!”
Ok. Here’s really the pit of my sour grapes. Sometimes being a teacher sucks!
Not all the time. But sometimes, sure.
Case in point: Parent / Teacher night. Which is just an excuse for parents to rant and rave like pitchfork and torch wielding lunatics. Teaching is one of the only professions where random strangers come in off the street and say what they think of you.
Imagine the Post Office opening their doors from 7 to 10 p.m. so the public could complain.
“You guys are as slow as snails. And what’s with those funky weightlifting belts? Does the price of stamps really need to go up a penny each year? Jeez!”
Or the TV cable company.
“You said you would be at my house between 11 and 4, but you never showed up. Why don’t we just sit here now and you explain your work philosophy to me. I’ve got all the time in the world. Go.”
Or the woman at the Government Records Office.
“I don’t understand how you lost my paperwork… oh, and your cubical stinks.”
Just teachers.
Lock and Load, public. We’re sitting ducks.
“You gave my kid a D-. How dare you. Let me see your curriculum.”
“But, I’ve only seen your son three times this semester, and last time he came to my class he threw a chair at me.”
“You only made five corrections on my child’s worksheet. How is he supposed to get into college if he doesn’t fix his mistakes?”
“Your child is 17 years old.”
“I don’t care. You need to spend less time talking about how my child is an artist and more time drilling him in math.
“I am an English teacher.”
“How are they supposed to get a job and take care of me when I am older… on dreams?”
Believe me, on the usual Parent / Teacher nights, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree shoved up most parent’s butts.
Here are some teacher numbers.
If you take the average teacher with a class full of 30 kids who is with them from 7 to 4, every day, that’s 9 hours a day for five days, 45 hours a week. You make them teach 38 weeks a year, that’s 12 weeks off for summer and two weeks off for Christmas. You pay them 3 dollars an hour for every kid, a fee that the average middle school babysitter would scoff at. That’s 190 school days and 1,710 hours a year for an annual salary of $153,900.
That’s not counting all the extra time grading papers, tests, theorems, or lesson planning.
By the way, the average U.S. national starting teacher salary is $26,000 topping out at about $56,000.
That’s a difference of about one-hundred thousand dollars.
But those are just numbers, aren’t they?
So last night, as I was primping and preparing my feathers to absorb the usual shots of the locked and loaded parents and the snakes-in-a-barrel teachers, I thought about how I should turn my introduction into an acceptance speech. So here goes.
I want to say, “Thanks.”
Thank you to all the teachers that grade papers at 11 p.m. after putting their kids to bed. You make me believe in the goodness of the world. Thank you to all the teachers that turn everyday objects like bookshelves and beanbags into safe havens and nooks of invisibility. You turn kids into dreamers and believers. Thank you to the teachers who breathe art and creativity into every utterance directed at a student. You make passion surge in my veins. Thank you to the teachers who give up their lunch to hang out and talk with kids who otherwise would forever go unheard. Thank you to the teachers who give second chances instead of kicks to the head. Thank you to the teachers who create whole lessons for the student who treats them the worst in hopes they might light a spark.
Thank you, friends.
Accept this award on all of our behalves.
P.S. Last night I finally got a thank you for putting on the two month long Rock & Roll Romeo and Juliet play. It came as a real surprise. I went home and slept soundly.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Leaving Korea, Back to Taiwan

The year of the Bunny has begun….with the rest of us chasing that wascally wabbit in circles. Me too. We leave Korea back to the cement and asphalt and heat and grime of Taiwan. Time to put some money back in my pocket and work.
It was amazing to be in Korea and see all the changes the country has accomplished. I look at my book, Me Gook, and believe even more in its purpose, about a time in that country’s existence that still exists, but is slowly slipping away.
The highlight of the trip, without question, was presenting my daughter’s Korean Great-Grandmother, Wae Halmoni, with a copy of Me Gook during the Lunar New Year party. Of course, her surprise and shock to think that her story was read now by people all over the world was wonderful to see. Me Gook has been purchased and read in Russia, Australia, Iran, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, England, Taiwan, and Spain. A special thanks to all those readers who have emailed me from various parts of the world, and especially back home in the States. Sharing the story with you has brought great peace and joy to many people here in Korea and that is amazing to see.
So… what’s next? Well… as I write this I am currently off to class. My students are planning short films that focus on satire, and this afternoon… Jack London and Mark Twain. Ah….the beautiful life of an English teacher. Still dreaming...