Friday, July 14, 2006

The best one wins the last vacuum sealed pack of Oreos…

Ed hugs me first. When the other students see that he does not turn into a pillar of salt, a line forms to hug me. The girls do not get into this line, only the boys – James, Tom, Bob, Billy, Peter. I break a little inside as I am doing this. We are saying our goodbyes. The ten days I have spent here, in some ways, feels like a lifetime. Tiffany, whom I named, has been following me around the room as I look at the cards. She is smiling the whole time. She is one of the happy ones. This whole class of kids has touched me in the way only innocence can. A part of me remembers being that age. “Now I know I have a heart because it’s breaking.”

The day before, we watched ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I feel as if I am the Tinman daily now. They call him the Robot. I guess he is a robot. I had never thought of that.


When I get to school, I tell Jennie the dilemma. The principal wants me to go to the lake to a hotel with him and his son and some friends. She asks what I want her to do. I let her read the emails and text messages that confirm the camp is cancelled in Inner Mongolia. I ask her to tell the principal this. She tells me to email Ms. Chen. I do.

The first thing we do in class is give the two awards for the best drawings. I ask Jennie which she thinks is the better prize. She tells me the penny. Fortunately, Jennie has a strong personality which helps me make the decision which is the best prize and who deserves them. She tells me that Bob drew the best picture and he drew it in class. The picture is of a boy ice skating. I give the penny to Bob. All of the other students want to see it.

I then pull out the frog gun bubble maker. Everyone squeals. They squeal like it is a pony or a trip to Disneyland. I had assumed these children were a bit more jaded when it came to toys. It only cost 50 cents at the grocer next door to the hotel. Jennie and I both agree on who should get this prize. We award the prize to Donna.

She is very ladylike about receiving it. She is full of grace. She treats it as if it is some fragile flower, an expensive jewel. She does not open it. She studies it carefully and then she puts it – still packaged - into her desk. This was a wise decision on our part. Some of the other students - especially the boys, James in particular - would have ripped the sucker open and started dowsing everyone with frog bubbles. Sometimes our decisions are wise decisions.

As I am awarding the frog gun bubble maker to Donna, I see the look on Veronica’s face. Veronica sits right behind Donna. She thought that she might win. I can see the look of disappointment in her eyes. She is on the verge of tears. I feel awful. I have no other prizes. I do not know what to do. This is the worst feeling when you have hurt a child and you do not mean it.

Today, we talk about emotions – happy, sad, excited, disappointed, guilty. I write a whole list on the board. I act them out as I write them. The students do not understand. I am a bad actor.

Jennie is no longer the nightmare that she has been the last few days. She tells me I am very kind. I tell her she is a good teacher.

The principal talked to Ms Chen. I am to have supper tonight with him and his son in Huzhou. Jennie tells me we are not going to the lake to stay at a hotel. I am confused. Last night, Pesci and the gang were excited about going to the lake. I am not sure what we are doing. I will go with it. Since the camp in Inner Mongolia is cancelled, I have some free time.

After lunch, we watch a Chainsaw Kittens’ video that I found on the computer, the one that Spike Jonze shot. It was his first time to shoot film. Beez showed him how to load the 16mm.

The whole class is hooting and hollering. Jennie loves it. She asks me if the principal knows that I am a singer. I tell her no. She asks me if his son knows. I tell her no. She has a new understanding of me. I am no longer who she thought I was. I have sprouted a new dimension.

She points to the screen and asks if I miss that. I wonder what aspect of ‘that’ she means - the chronic hangovers, the 36 hour van stretches, the sort throats, the unexplainable mood swings of everyone including myself. I tell her no. She tells me it is a pity. ‘Pity’ is a word that Chinese people like to use. I tell her it is a difficult life. She does not understand. She tells me she does not like most rock music but she likes my voice. I tell her thank you. She tells me I should still sing. Again, she says it is a pity.

After we watch the video – and having nothing to do with the video, I talk about different sorts of greeting cards – Birthday, Friendship, Thank You, Graduation, Christmas. The students are to spend the afternoon of the last class making a greeting card. I tell the students the best one wins the last vacuum sealed pack of Oreos. They cheer Yaay!

If I would have known how much of an incentive prizes were to make them do the work, I would have done this the whole time. The whole class busily sets to work on their greeting cards. Some of the class does Christmas cards. Hands down, birthday cards seem to be the most popular card. This is what most of the class are doing. A few students ask me when my birthday is. I tell them September 15th. This satisfies them. They ask me to spell my name.

I take a walk around the room to see what sort of progress the students are making with their work. I am impressed. Most of them cut shapes into their cards. Some of them shape their cards into hearts, windows, apples. Some of them cut doors with pictures behind the doors. The Oreo prize is metaphorically dangled before them like a carrot.

I walk around to a class full of ‘Happy Birthday to You Tyson’ cards. No one writes September 15th on their card. Maybe I will get an avalanche of cards later.

David has me write my name on his. This opens a floodgate. The next thing I know, I have 33 hands with pieces of paper thrusting them in my face. I start signing my name and writing a little note to each student on whatever scrap of paper is set before me. ‘Bob, You are very clever.’ ‘Tom, You are a bright student.’ ‘Donna, You are nice.’ ‘Ed, you are smart.’ ‘Daphne, you are sweet.’ This takes what seems like forever. This is a happy forever.

While I am writing on the papers, Bob throws down his hand. I write on his hand. This inspires Tom, James, Ed, and John to do the same. This does not work that well because their hands are greasy and the pens clog after I get past the ‘y’ in my name.

At this point, Ed hugs me. I hug him. I cannot tell him I will miss him because he does not understand. They really still only understand a few words and phrases. As soon as Ed hugs me, all of the boys get in line to hug me. Next to hug me is Bob and then James who is a big kid. When Tom hugs me, he doesn’t want to let me go. This especially tears at my heart. At this point, I have cards thrust at me, all of the hand done Happy Birthday cards I could ever want. Simultaneously, I am receiving cards, signing flesh and paper, and hugging boys.

Now, the wave ends as soon as it begins. The students have forgotten me. They are now busy cleaning the room. I walk over to Veronica and hand her the pack of cookies. I tell her, her card is the best. She says ‘Thank you’ very sweetly. For a moment, she is happy. I know that she really wanted the bubble maker but this seems to suffice. I do not feel as guilty now.

I lose track of time. It must be 2:45. The students start leaving. They tell me goodbye as they leave as if this is another day. I want to run up to each of them and give them one more hug. I do not. I just smile and repeat ‘bye, bye, bye, bye’ as they go out the door into their summertime childhoods.

Jennie realizes I need a ride back to the hotel. She has not called the rickshaw chauffeur. She calls him. She tells me he is at home. It may take him awhile to get here. I wonder if a while is 10 minutes or an hour. There is nothing I can do either way; I sit and wait.

Jennie tells me she is going to go with us. She needs to pay the driver. She is going to have him drop her at the bus station. She is going into the city to shop with some friends. Although I know I will miss the students, I am fairly sure I will not miss Jennie. Jennie sits by the air conditioner in the back of the classroom and whines about the heat. I tell her I am going down to the driveway to wait for the driver. Complaining, she follows me down the stairs.

On the second floor, she has to stop and get something. I go on down to the driveway. Fortunately, I do not wait long. The driver pulls up within a few moments. He smiles and waves at me. I point to the second floor. In understanding, he nods his head.

This morning, I handed him my booty of cigarettes from the night before. I put them in a napkin container from the coffee shop the other night. Both of these items are nice gifts for a rickshaw driver. Until he opened it and saw the stockpile of expensive Chinese cigarettes, he thought I was just giving him some napkins from a nice restaurant. He looked around for a place to stow them. He rolled them up and put them into a cup holder. He has his rickshaw pimped out with horns, rearview mirrors, a cup holder and all of the other things that a respectable rickshaw needs.

We wait for ten minutes for the return of Jennie. She finally shows. She and he talk about his fee. He pulls out a piece of scrap paper that has the tally of rides, taking me back and forth to school for ten days and a few miscellaneous trips to supper or whatever. The total is 120 RMB ($15). To ride in luxury, pedaled by a rickshaw driver; I figure that costs fifty cents a ride.

He pedals me back to the hotel with Jennie riding beside me. At the hotel, Jennie and I say our goodbyes. I do not tell her what a pain in the ass she has been. I tell her I will email her or text message her. I won’t.

The principal’s friend is picking me up at 5 pm. This should be interesting. I assume Pesci is the friend picking me up. He knows as much English as I know Chinese.

Back at the hotel, I decide to go get a snack. I have learned to not go to dinner famished. Here in China, this is not wise. At the grocer next to the hotel, I get rib flavored barbeque Lay’s potato chips and a can of coke. I quickly eat them and have a rest. I fade in and out of consciousness. I do not know what day it is.

At 5 pm, I hear my doorbell ring. I go to open the door. I expect to see Pesci standing there. Pesci is not at the door. Mylar Graduate is at the door (as he will not be referred). He tells me that I am riding with him and his father to the restaurant. We ride down to the lobby in the elevator. The staff calls my name as I walk through. I wave to them as if I am Miss America, Art Linkletter, Jimmy Carter.

Mylar Graduate tells me we are on our way to Huzhou City. This is where I ate the first night I was in town with an assortment of principals and teachers. We talk in the back seat. His father and his father’s friend are in the front. His father is driving.

As we are driving, he tells me we are eating at a restaurant on the lake. The lake is the same lake that I went to when I visited Wuxi when I first got to China, Taihu Lake. Last night, when Pesci was talking about going to a hotel or what I thought was a hotel. He was talking about going to a restaurant on a boat. When Eric told me this, I thought he said hotel. He must have said boat. We are on our way to eat on a boat.

While we are driving I stare out the window and look at the scenery and the Chinese oddities or at least what I see as oddities. Pigs packed in a three wheeler going to market; a couple dozen chickens in cages stacked like oversized saddle bags on a 125 cc cycle also going to market. Yes, this is China. I don’t know why but I suddenly want to cry.


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