Friday, September 29, 2006

Instant Gratification Video Generation

The guitar class seems to always be some demented free for all. Maybe the students sense that I am a bit unorganized when it comes to this class. How do you organize 16 or 17 beginning guitarists who are a bit self-centered for the most part into a cohesive unit? How do you say its okay to an answering machine?

Okay, I need to correct part of the above. All of the students are not self-centered. In the guitar class, half the students actually are in the class because they want to learn. Nevertheless, the other half of the class seems to not particularly care about learning. They are in the class because they look upon the class as two free periods at the end of the day on Thursday. And, they – seemingly - just want to annoy me.

Last week, like some continuing hopeless night soap on American television in which the protagonist keeps doing the same thing over and over, I tried to teach the students the G chord. Needless to say, this was not a success. My students under-whelm me. Sometimes, I am baffled by just how inept they are. By the time, I was their age…Oh, fucking skip it!

Jacky seems to be excited about learning the drums. Before class, I print out the basic rudiments. This is how I learned the drums. This is how I will teach Jacky the drums.
As a child, for the first year of drum lessons, I just had a practice pad. When I was in third grade, I started taking drum lessons from Ike Luther, an 80 year old man. My dream as an eight year old was to be Ringo Starr.

Ike Luther lived in a converted garage apartment. There were no windows in his apartment, no windows that I remember anyway. My mother would sit in a recliner behind the table where Ike and I sat. Ike and I sat side by side. He was hard of hearing. He thought my name was Dodd.

We would rat-a-tat rudiments. Sometimes he would sing as we played. When I messed up he would yell ferociously at me. Now I know, he did not mean to be cruel. He was hard of hearing. His yelling was not meant to be abusive.

One time when he yelled at me, I broke down and cried. I was in third grade. He felt horrible. My mom told him I had a lot of pressure at school. He was really a very kind man who was hard of hearing. Through it all, through my lessons, my mother would sit and read the Reader’s Digest as we flam tapped and rolled on the table.

Always after practice, he would give me a bag of candy. At the time, I did not realize how generous this was. After the novelty of getting my own bag of butterscotch hard candy wore off, I started opening the bags of candy and throwing the candy in the air on the school bus. I loved to see the kids scramble for it. An entrepreneur would have traded it for cool stuff on the playground – Mod Squad trading cards, Emergency Rampart Hotwheels, condoms.

When I was in fourth grade, I got my first trap set, a cheap Torodor my mother bought at Service Merchandise. That same Christmas, I received John Lennon Imagine. By that time, I had been taking drum lessons for over a year.

In the tiny bedroom of his garage apartment, Mr. Luther was in the process of building a miniature motorized amusement park. For Christmas the next year, he gave me a small motorized carousel with small plastic horses. This I was too young to truly appreciate. Eventually, this was put in our shed which led to its rapid deterioration.

Now, I do not remember exactly how old I was when Mr. Luther went into the hospital. He was an old man, in his 80s. He died in the hospital. Maybe he went in because he caught Pneumonia. While he was in the hospital, somehow, he scalded himself while he was bathing. This led to his death.

After Mr. Luther died, my mother started looking for another instructor for me. She contacted Mr. Tanzey (Kermit). Yes, his first name was Kermit. Mr. Tanzey told my mother he was not taking on new students. She told him my teacher had been Ike Luther for three years before he passed away. This impressed Mr. Tanzey. Soon, I was a pupil of his. It is so funny to think about that now over 30 years later. My mother was very proud of this.

Mr. Tanzey was the junior high band director. He played drums in a jazz band. He smoked cigarettes and drank Pepsi during our lessons. The lessons were held in the garage of the small ranch style tract home that he lived in with his wife and son who was a few years younger than me. Within a few feet of our practice pad, his Ludwig trap set stood with all of its Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Neil Smith secrets locked inside its wooden shells.

Back then, the rudiments were taught on the snare or a practice pad for a few years before the trap set was introduced. For the first year, at least, with Mr. Tanzey, we rat-a-tatted side by side on said Remo practice pads. Sometimes, he would watch me play solo as he smoked and drank Pepsi out of a glass. I think he smoked Kools.

Now, I am to teach Jacky the drums. With Jacky, I hope for the best; I expect the worst.

Up until now, I have tried to hold the lessons in the design room. Now that we will add drums to the mix, I tell my boss we need a place where we can spread out. The art teacher that sits next to me in the teachers’ office is teaching 30 students to knit in the auditorium. Maybe she will switch. My boss tells me I need to ask her.

When I go back to my desk, I ask her if we could switch. This is fine with her.

At the designated time, I tell the guitar students who are gathered in the design room that we have switched locations. They follow me to the auditorium which is actually a lecture hall that has been converted into an enormous art studio. The back half of the room is a lecture hall with no chairs or tables. This gives the back of the room a Mormon Tabernacle Choir vacant stage look.

The students come in and spread themselves around the room. Jacky wants me to go get the drum out of the band room on the first floor. I tell him we are getting the snare together. He is carrying the drum. He likes to talk about his muscles.

Jacky and I go down to the band room where the flag corps teacher from earlier is teaching dances and cheers. We ask her if she has seen the snare drum. A few girls are standing in front of it. Jacky grabs it. We walk back to the auditorium.

No American movies come to mind but those French movies that involve orphaned boys and boys from destitute families come to mind. The ambitious drama coach, choir director comes to town and has this vision. The drama coach imagines the boys acting out Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov. The bandleader, he wants them to know the finer things about Wagner, Straus, Ramones.

In the movies, within thirty minutes of the film, the choir director or drama coach sees progress. There seems to always be odd puberty fueled shower scenes in these movies with trips to the country and swims in nameless creeks. Somewhere around the forty five minute mark, the conflict arises – the sadistic headmaster, the choir director’s dark past, the drama coach’s strange habits and infatuations with exotic vegetables. Nevertheless, by the time the film hits the hour mark, the boys’ acting is flawless, the choir director has the young upstart choir singing arias – Puccini, Handel, Gluck. Everyone looks upon them differently. The boys and their leaders are heroes in the town. Usually, these stories are told through one of the boys looking back, one of the boys who was on his way to going wrong until he met this teacher who came at a pivotal moment in his life and changed him. The boy, now a man, is a famous actor, conductor, pornstar.

This does not happen here. I show Jacky how to hold the sticks. I give him a choice between traditional– and matched-grip (my preferred option). With a bit of rust in my bones and cobwebs in my brain, I try to instruct him. I show him para-diddles, flam taps, and rolls. Maybe I am going too fast. I tell him to practice them as I go start the other students on their lesson that I know is hopeless.

During all of this, the lady who drops off the schedule-changes comes in to the room. She has the roster printed in Chinese. I am to put a check by the students’ names that show up for class. Kevin tells me all of this. On the sheet, there is no place to write their English names. Naturally, I am a bit baffled. Maybe I just pass it around and let them mark off their own names which means they could in turn mark off their friends’ names. Kevin then tells me she said I could use two squares to write in their English names.

After I have Kevin pass around the roster, I try to start working with the throng of students. Ten guitars are shoved in my face with the words “Teacher! Teacher! Tune!” The auditorium is on the second floor of the school. If I jumped out the window, I would probably only sprain my ankle. Futility arrives.

At this point, I take some deep breaths. I start tuning the guitars. Most of the guitars are not that out of tune except for when I get to the last one, I am greeted with some sort of Killdozer tuning. There is a really good chance that because of these musical disasters I am getting a facial tic.

While I am tuning the guitars, Jacky comes over to tell me that drumming is too hard. He does not want to be a drummer. His hands are dumb he tells me. This is within the first fifteen minutes of class. The larger part of me wants to explode and be an old man about it. This instant gratification video generation sickens me, these Play Station 2 vegetable drop outs. Did he think within fifteen minutes – or less, he could learn how to play the drums? From what I have seen, we are free to smack students here. I do not. I give him one of those adult looks, one of those looks that involves a slow shaking of the head. Nevertheless, I do really want to smack him.

He wants to sing. He wants to sing Chinese rap. Inside, I cringe. This is not what will happen. I tell him he is not singing because there is nothing to sing at the moment; He is playing drums I tell him. He keeps arguing with me.

Busily, I go about tuning guitars and showing the G chord, as I am swatting Jacky away like a gnat. The first forty minutes of the lesson does not drag like I thought it might. During the break, students from other classes wander in to the auditorium. I tell the class they may take a break. I stay and try to help an interested student with fingering.

After the break, one of the students from the local sector picks up his guitar. While he was out of the room, his high E string broke. Obviously, the string did not break itself. Someone broke it. No one owns up to this. How this could have happened I am not really sure because I was in the room the whole time. This was a stealth maneuver on the part of someone sneaky.

This upsets me because the kid with the broken string is a good kid, a kid who is actually trying to learn. I tell him I am sorry that it happened. This is not a big deal I tell him. This is a common occurrence. He is not as upset as some students would be. As I said, he is a good kid. He asks me if I have any extra strings. No, I don’t, I tell him. Now, he seems like he may be near tears. This is heart wrenching.

A few minutes later, he has an E string. Where did he get it I ask? He doesn’t really know how to tell me in English. Soon, I learn that William (with the Disney animation eyes and eyelashes) gave it to him. He asks me if I will put it on for him. I tell him I will after class. Some guitarists play without their high E I tell him. This seems to momentarily appease him.

Some of the students are very attentive. However, other students are not. The inattentive students distract the attentive ones. At this point, Jacky has become a major annoyance. William actually seems to want to learn how to play, Jacky and Joker keep distracting him.

Rebecca in the international section of the eighth grade knows how to play the guitar to some extent. She brought her guitar the day we went to the music store and played a song with some C chords before we trekked off to the guitar store. As I am making the rounds, going from student to student to see which ones need help fingering the G, I stop and talk to Rebecca briefly. I tell her that maybe since she knows this stuff she could practice scales and such since she is ahead of the pack. She is a very shy girl. Her English seems to be fine. She tells me this is fine. I would hate for her to lose interest because she is ahead of the others in her abilities.
At the end of class, I pass out copies of Leaving on a Jet Plane, not one of my favorite songs but a really easy one – G and C are the main chords with a few stops at D. This does not go smooth. I play the chords. Again, the kids look at me blankly. And, again, I am baffled at how virtually talentless the lot of them are. But then, suddenly, I hear a D, a fairly clear D. This could be that breakthrough moment. I wonder who is playing this. This D is like the glass slipper, like a chord sent down from heaven. Nick Drake smiles.

The player of the chord turns out to be Sean, who, in class, is one of my non-attentive students. If someone took a photo, I know there would be a look of shock on my face. Finally, something good, finally, I am so proud of him. Immediately, I flood him with encouragement and more or less ignore everyone else.This makes him very happy.

Then, I go over to my sad sack with the broken string. With cheap guitars, sometimes, changing strings can be a little tricky. I show him how to do it. After I put it on and get it wound and almost in tune, the sucker snaps. At this point, the kid is about to cry. I do not want some 12 year old crying on my watch. I tell him to take the package to the guitar shop. The guy will sell him another. He asks me how much it will cost. I tell him it should be 8 or 9 yuan. He tells me someone told him strings are 50 yuan. I told him I thought they were probably cheaper, especially for a single string.

How he talks me into this, I do not know, but somehow he tearfully tells me that there are no guitar shops near where he lives. Could I get one for him? He will pay me for it in the morning. I look at his face. He is close to tears. I tell him I will go get the string for him. What the hell, while I am out I will get a movie. Me, Me, Me and my flat panel TV have a date.

I give my complete attention to a very good friend of mine
He's quadraphonic, he's a, he's got more channels…
My T V C one five, he, he just stares back unblinking..

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The nail, the grail; that’s all behind thee.

Today is Thursday; the guitar class is this afternoon. On my arrival to school, the most excited guitar student – a girl in the public sector of the school – greets me on the 4th floor. She has no voice she pantomimes. Her friend tells me she put the voiceless girl’s guitar in my office. I tell the voiceless girl from the public sector that I will see her this afternoon. She smiles. I walk on to my office.

Once I am in my office, the students start shuffling in with their guitars that they have brought to school on bicycles, scooters and busses. Kevin brings in his guitar first. Then William with the animated Disney eyes and eyelashes comes in to show me his new guitar. He is smiling when he shows it to me. His excitement is contagious. He tells me his mother gave it to him this morning.

This chokes me up. This makes me think of those lost days of new Schwinn bicycles, new Premier trap sets and new Micro Seiki turntables. Soon, the area around my desk will be cluttered with guitars. I go to my boss’s office and grab the keys to the copy room. Once we are in the copy room, William with the animated Disney eyes and eyelashes unzips his gig bag and shows me his guitar. I tell him it is really nice. Actually, it isn’t but he is really excited.

My first class is my small group of sixth grade readers. This summer, Jennifer gave me a virtual set of literature text books that I have loaded on to my laptop. I made a copy of some quotes on differences and unconventionality to discuss with them. We have a double period today. The second part of the period, they will read a short story called The Goodness of Matt. This story is about a sixth grader who is a preacher’s son and vows to be bad but of course by the end of the story he is good.

Since it is a nice day, I hold class in the arbor garden next to the sports field. We sit three abreast on benches meant for two. Oscar sits on one side of me. Sooham sits on the other side. Lilian, Sumran and Kevin sit on the bench next to us. Kevin wants to sit by me. Oscar gets up and moves to another bench. He wants to sit by himself. Strangely, I seem to detect a change in Oscar. He is starting to actually listen. He may become a good kid after all. My transparent ulterior motives – yes, I want him to read this the story because in a 1950s Father Knows Best teacher’s way, I thought the story would be a good one for Oscar to read. Yes, I know this is transparent in such an adult way but I thought it was something I had to do.

Nevertheless, before we read The Goodness of Matt, we discuss the quotes. One of the quotes happens – through no fault of my own – to be from Better Midler:

I didn’t belong as a kid, and that always bother me. If only I’d know that one day my differentness would be an asset, then my earlier life would have been much easier.

The students have never heard of Bette Midler. I tell them she is an actress and a singer; she is very famous. Sumran asks me to name one of her movies. The only one that I can think of is Ruthless People. Actually, the only one I can think of that I like is Ruthless People. They ask me if it is an old movie. I start to tell them it is not that old and then I realize it is twenty years old at this point. I tell them yes it is an old movie. At this point, Sooham asks me if it is a black and white movie. I hit him and tell him no it is not in black and white.

The rest of the first period with the seventh graders is spent telling Oscar and Sooham to behave. None of them seem to want to read the story that I have given them. This is from a sixth grade American textbook. However, it is 9 or 10 pages. Up until now, they have been reading short 3 and 4 page stories in class. My goal is to get them to the level of an above average North American sixth grader. That is my goal. Whether this will happen or not, I do not know. Right now, they are just sitting mucking off. To inspire and motivate them, I tell them there will be a test over the reading next period.

Sumran tells me there is too much to read. They cannot take the test. Instead of looking at a little scrap book that she has just pulled out of nowhere, I tell her she needs to start reading. Yes, there will be a test. Right here, I need to insert that I am lying about the test part. I did not plan to give them a test.

There are two minutes left of class. The second part of the class will be held in the library. For some reason, I thought they would enjoy being outside and they would not take advantage of me. They have taken advantage of me. We go back to the library. Within a minute of us sitting down, the bell rings.

Always, I seem to have to make more copies. Even when I think I have made enough, I always have to make more. I go to the copy room during our ten minute break.

Back in class, Oscar is actually engrossed in the story. Here is the thing about Oscar, he is a smart kid, a really smart kid but he is not challenged enough. When he is not challenged he seeks attention. When he is not challenged, he is disruptive. Yes, without a doubt, at times, I want to throttle him because he is so smart and he does not use his intelligence. Smart people who do not think make me angry.

Today, Oscar is behaving. He asks me a ton of questions. He points to the phrase ‘her old man.’ I tell him old man sometimes refers to someone’s father. I do not go into that it could refer to a husband as well. He points to the phrase ‘wilted carnations’. What is this he asks? I tell him dead flowers. The bad kid is going to take the dying man dead flowers.

“Sumran, I promise I will never take you dead flowers when you are dying,” I tell Sumran.
“Teacher, you will die before me.”
“Are you threatening me?” I ask her.
“No, Teacher, I am telling truth,” she tells me matter of factly.
Yes, sometimes, I say this stuff to entertain myself. Sometimes everything is Godard. Maybe I am going through my French New Wave phase.

Sooham asks me what ‘drinking’ means.
“Like water?” he asks
“Here,” I tell him “drinking refers to alcohol, booze, vodka, whiskey, rotgut, moonshine…”
“Oh, like wine?” Oscar interjects.
“No, I’m talking hard stuff,” I say and then add, again, for my own amusement, “Texas T – Black Gold.” By now, I am sure there are flutes and drums and tubas in the background playing something patriotically American.
“Like ginger ale?” Oscar asks. With this comment, you would assume he is being a wiseass but he is not. He tells me ginger ale is an adult drink. Ginger ale, Sumran is now interested in ginger ale. I tell her it is ginger flavored soda. She tells me that sounds awful.
“Ginger stinks!” she adds with the emphasis of sixth grade positive correctness.

While the others are reading, Kevin has a sour look on his face. This is academic tyranny.
“This is hard for me!” Kevin tells me.
“Because you’re so stupid!” Lillian shoots back with the comedic timing of Nipsy Russell, Minnie Pearl or Paul Lynde.
Okay, I know I should not laugh, without a doubt I should not laugh but on the other hand, Lillian is such a goodie-goodie when it comes down to it. She is not a wise acre. This completely caught me off-guard. Spontaneously, I laugh uncontrollably. Matt O calls this the laugh that is not the machine gun laugh, this is the someone just poked himself in the eye laugh, my other laugh, the other white meat. Surprise, sometimes, will come around.

Once again, I tell Kevin to underline the words with which he is not familiar. Less than half-heartedly, he does this. Finally, I decide to put him into a headlock. This is fairly easy. He is just a little guy. This makes him laugh. Sometimes, I wonder if they decide ahead of time who amongst them is going to get under my skin or if this is spontaneous act of juvenile solidarity.

Oscar is still curious. He asks me about the phrase ‘drawn out breaths.’ Naturally, I go into my Olivier rattle of death breath. I start breathing real slow and real hard. Eyes, Oscar’s eyes become wide. I breathe slower and heavier. The students are fixated on my mock death. They love my overdramatic death scenes. This is Mackenzie Phillips of One Day at a Time in some overwrought ABC Television Movie of the Week. When I can breathe no slower, and my breaths are as hard as arithmetic Chinese style, I collapse; I collapse into Kevin’s lap. Everyone laughs.

Later, I explain what open sores are to Oscar. He tells me this is disgusting. Again, this is why I love being a teacher. Not often, did I fall into a co-worker's lap when I was in advertising.

At the urinal, Jackie asks me if the drum is big. I tell him it is 14 inches.

Finally, I am having a really good day. One good day a week, maybe that is enough, maybe that is all that we can hope for, that is more good days than most people have.

In the early afternoon, I hear music. The same music to which I hear the students do their routines in the morning. I go to the library and look out the window. The sports field is vacant. This is a mystery. Maybe the music is coming from some room within the school’s walls.

My guitar is back at my apartment. I meant to grab it when I went back before lunch. I did not. As I am going down the stairway of the school, I look out the window. The music mystery is solved. In a V formation, I see Lillian and two other girls doing something akin to a cheerleader routine - but more like a rifle squad routine sans rifles. Inside the school gates, they do their routine to an audience of sixth graders with the pep squad instructor beaming by the ghetto blaster. The kind guard with the mole at the base of his right nostril is smiling at the gatehouse.

Xiao Ma is videotaping. Today he is wearing a yellow robe with pink silk pajama slacks. His t-shirt says ‘Fight the High.’

This makes me smile. Today is a good day. Patti plays in my head:

Legions of light, virtuous flight. Ignite, excite. And you will see us coming, V formation, through the sky. Film survives. Eyes cry…The nail, the grail; that’s all behind thee. In deed, in creed, the curve of our speed. And we believe that we will raise the sky. We got to fly over the land, over the sea. Fate unwinds and if we die, souls arise.God, do not seize me please, till victory.

Okay, I lied about Xiao Ma. He is not wearing a yellow robe, nor is he wearing pink silk pajama slacks. And, he probably does not even own a shirt that says ‘Fight the High.’

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Metaphysical Ultimatums and Grade-book Student Degradations on a Complex Plane

The scrap of paper - the scrap of paper that I receive in the afternoon sometimes; this scrap of paper which lists the schedule changes – reads my 6th grade English class has been moved to Thursday, my ninth period design class is moved to the first period. This is fine. I am ready for whatever is to come my way. Right? Surprise, sometimes, will come around.

This morning, at 6 am, I woke. I rolled back over and slept for a bit longer. At 6:30 am, I stirred once again. This time, I rose. Time to face the day I thought. Once I was up and dressed, the time was 6:45. What do I do now? Where is my mind? Your head will collapse and there’s nothing in it and you ask yourself…

By the time I finish puttering in the apartment and walk to school and turn on my computer and look at the clock in the corner of my screen, the time is 7:20. Somehow, I am not as early as I thought I would be. The other teachers – the Chinese teachers – and I joke about the milk. The milk was bad on Monday. Now we all ask each other if the milk is okay. And you ask yourself…Where is my mind?

Today, the breakfast is some sort of sponge cake with nuts on the top. It is definitely okay. I drink my iced coffee and eat my sponge cake.

The printer is out of ink. Changing the cartridge seems to not be the option. My boss tells me to take my thumb drive to the 2nd floor office and print my document there. Suddenly, I remember ‘The Document Prints the Room.’ I think of Ed, Tom, Donna, Susan and Sabrina from this summer’s English camp.

Before, if I had to go to a strange office to print my document, I would have been a little intimidated but now I am an old hand (or is that ham?) at maneuvering here in the land of the rising sun. I document-prints-the-room myself down at the computer in this unfamiliar office and stick in the thumb drive. And I stick it deep inside ‘cause I’m loose. With this foreign foreigner’s confidence in the People’s Republic, I print my document. The procedure is flawless. Yes, it is true; the document prints the room.

Xiao Ma walks in to the teachers’ office. He is wearing a green rugby shirt with navy blue and khaki stripes. His pants are color coordinated – khaki. He is the Vanna White of the office. No not really, I’m kidding.

My boss laughs with Athena in another part of the room, the document prints the room. I am on a faraway beach.

Given the chance
I'll die like a baby
On some far away beach
When the season's over.
I'll be remembered
As the tide brushes sand in my eyes
I'll drift away.

The design classes sometimes are nothing but a nightmare. Imagine 20 kids all wanting your attention at once. “Teacher, scissors.” “Teacher, paper.” “Teacher, cut this.” “Teacher, I’m retarded.” “Teacher, I cannot think for myself.”
Now to some extent, I know how the teachers felt when I was in junior high and asked some dumb questions. Whoever said ‘There are no dumb questions,’ was an idiot. There are some real doozies.

Today, the students are continuing on their remake remodel project. I made a crisp tin into a chopstick holder. This assignment was assigned to fire their imaginations. Most of their imaginations are in idle it seems. When I was their age, I would have loved this sort of assignment. They say everything is boring. They do not want to do anything.

They just look at me blankly. They tell me the assignment is too hard. Some of them understand. Sooham made a crisp tin into a miniature British style postal box. Sumran is making a beautiful silk covered pencil holder. Sean who is not one of my more promising students is making peace-sign fingers coming out of a crisp tin from a series of wires and wadded tissue. Yes, there are some diamonds in the rough amongst the spoiled international elite.

The art teacher – I do not know her name – who sits beside me in the teachers’ office comes in to the classroom. I tell her I have told them to clean up but either they do not understand or they are not listening. In chinese, She tells them they need to start cleaning up.

Cleaning up is always a losing proposition, always. Granted, a few students do pitch in and start cleaning. Vivian helps. Another girl sweeps the floor. Paint is smeared all over the table by Sean. At the beginning of the class, I told them to spread newspaper out on the table so this would not happen. Of course, Sean is one of the problem kids. His English is okay; I know he understands me. He just does not listen.

Next period, I teach my small group of seventh grade English speaking readers. This is a very relaxed class. I do not have to worry. Since the printer is on the fritz, I will use the computer monitor to look at the Anne Frank questions that we will be discussing in class. They have copies of them already.

Mary is sitting reading the paper at the table where I would teach the class. This is the better table for a classroom setting. I ask her if she has her math class. She tells me no. I say ‘good’. I then tell her I meant that I am glad because I can have my class in here.

When she has her math class and I have a class at the same time, I take the kids into the conference room which does not have a computer. I do not mind doing this because it is not a big deal usually to go into the other room. If the students are reading, the conference room is okay but it is not good for doing any sort of writing because there are a few coffee tables and no real table for them to sit and write.

Today, if Mary did have her math class at the same time, I would have just had my class sit at the smaller more inconvenient table. With Mary, I try to give her a wide berth. She, as I have said, is difficult but oh well, I know that. She is an only child and she is just accustomed to having things her way. This is not that big of a deal.

The seventh graders arrive. My assumption, Mary would get up and let us have class. She sits in the middle of the table and keeps reading the paper. Another Chinese teacher is sitting at the other end of the table. Why do I assume both of them will get up so that I can have my class? After all, this is a designated classroom for the smaller classes. Yes, I would move to the conference room but I am using one of the computers to look over questions. Finally, when I realize Mary is not moving. I ask the students to move to the other table. I tell them we do not want to disturb anyone. Of course, this does not even faze Mary. “Oh, you were not disturbing me,” she says. Her stories are boring and stuff.

Nevertheless, this is what I love about this job. Yes, she is a mild annoyance, nothing major. I can deal with her. She is not the worse person in the world. Actually, I do like having her around because she does not have much tolerance for bullcrap. It could be worse, much worse. And, after either or both of us leave this job, I will not have to ever see her again. There is something slightly glorious about that. We are all disposable aquaintenances. If I listen to the first Interpol album enough, everything will be okay.

I wish I could eat the salt off of your lost faded lips.
We can cap the old times make playing only logical harm.
We can cap the old lines make playing that nothing else will change.

As I said, Mary is just a mild annoyance, nothing major. Without a doubt, I can deal with her. By now, I know that in any situation we have people we like and people we do not particularly care about. Mary is one of those that I just do not really care about one way or the other. And, as I said, it could be worse, much worse. At least Bird Flu is not about. She is still squawking at Songjiang. Mary is a blessing in comparison.

Although the eighth grade class is a ways down the hall, at my desk, I can hear the drone of Joker’s voice in the eighth grade classroom. He has one of those voices, one of those voices like an actor, a lazy method actor, a male Winona. The document prints the room.
My afternoon class is my design class with the seventh graders. Constantly, there seems to be a race. Which class is the worst behaved? Who is going to push the majority of my buttons? The seventh graders are always in the running. Actually, all of my classes are always in the running as the worst behaved classes ever. At least, there are gun laws here. I would like to shoot about half of the class. I’m joking. I’m joking. (No, I’m not.)

Ten minutes before class, I go into the seventh grade classroom and tell them that the class will be held in the design room. Will says he does not want to go. I tell him he does not have to go; he does not have to do anything. If he wants a grade he better be there is what I imply. He is somewhat adorable but a pain in the ass at the same time.

A few classes use the design room. It is clean when we arrive. The first students to show are Venus, Noam, Laura, Alice, Neisha. Grab what they need for their designs before the rest of the class straggle in, I tell them. Since they are there in a timely manner, they should take advantage of it. These are my sentiments. They grab scissors, newspaper and glue.

For the first five minutes of class, Eric is the only boy in the room. He sits at a table by himself and works. He is probably the youngest in the class and by far the most mature. Sure, he can screw around like any of the guys but he can be serious too. He is a constant.

As I mentioned, someone cleaned the design room. The floor is swept. The trash is cleared away. The shelves have been neatly arranged. Of course, I dread the end of class because the class will be a disaster and most of the students will try to sneak away without cleaning. The ones who do clean, they just bitch and bitch about it. To myself, I vow I will not let it happen this time. Also, I tell myself this may be the end of classes in the design room; and, I tell myself I may start looking for another job.

This is some weird metaphysical ultimatum, my life with the metaphysical ultimatum, living with metaphysical ultimatums. I was a teenage metaphysical ultimatum.

While the girls work on their projects, I entertain myself with wordplay and grade- book student degradation. I think of Mary Byrd. She once dragged me to a math lecture. This has been twenty years ago now, maybe. I remember one thing, one theory that is just a set of words to me - Homo-bifurcations on a complex plane. Maybe someone will explain it to me.

Five to ten minutes late, the boys straggle into the room. They ask me for glue, scissors, paper. Newspaper I have. Everything else has disappeared. At the beginning of the term, we had scissors, glue. Now we do not. I shrug my shoulders and tell them I do not know. I cannot help them. They must share. These are kids who do not share.

Jacky did not bring anything. He does not have a plastic bottle or crisp tin to transform. He does nothing all class. I tell him he must have something. Will wants to make his water bottle into a planter. He wants to go down to the sports field to get dirt. I tell him he can do this after class. He is one of those take a mile after given an inch students. He is not surprised I tell him no.

During class, I take notes. Laura, who is a major pain in the ass, comes up and shows me the piece of crap that she took about five minutes to glue together. She tells me she is finished. I tell her that it sucks. This is probably not in a child psychology manual. I have decided that I have had it with these spoiled children. I tell her to keep working. She asks me what she could do to make it better in that exasperated teenage way. She looks as if she is 14 or 15 years old. She throws things at boys in class when she thinks I am not looking. She is a nightmare. For some strange reason, the Ramones ‘Beat on the Brat’ goes through my head.
I tell her I do not know how she can make it better. That is her decision. Of course, as a retort she says “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” She tells me she doesn’t know. This time, I scrawl ‘Sucks’ onto a stray piece of paper and hand it to her. In between questions, I make notes in my book. Jacky asks me what I am doing. I tell him I am writing that he is not doing his project.

He asks me to feel his arm muscles. I flick him on the elbow. He tells me that he and Will are the only two who have muscles because the rest of the boys are fat. I look around and agree. I tell him yes, the rest of the boys are fat. Momentarily, I forget about Eric. He is not fat.

With about ten minutes left of class, I tell the students they need to start cleaning up. Absolutely no one listens. Some of them are working on their projects. Some of them are talking. None of them are listening. I repeat. No one is listening. I repeat. I then go around from table to table. If they drag their feet, they will not have to do it. Gabba Gabba We accept you we accept you one of us.

Some of them start cleaning. Jacky tells me he did not do anything so he does not have to clean. He did not do anything so he has to sweep since he just admitted that he didn’t do anything. He tells me he does not know where there is a broom. I tell him he best find one. He thinks I am joking. Finally, I icily tell him he is to sweep. He goes to find a broom. When I have hit my last bit of patience and I start yelling and getting into faces and yelling, that is when the students listen. This is sad.

Laura and the other girls disappear. Some of the boys disappear. I go to the classroom where they are hiding. They do not think I am going to come get them. I have had it. I am yelling and fuming. I yell at them to go clean the design room. Yes, I yell. Everyone starts moving. The girls stand around as the boys clean. They tell me their table is clean. At this point, I have no patience. I look at the small scraps of newspaper on the table and tell them to pick them up. They do. After yelling at the spoiled idiots for ten minutes, the room is clean.

Yelling is the only thing that works, yelling and icy stares. Their classroom behavior is appalling absolutely appalling. The nice guy approach with these spoiled imbeciles goes unnoticed. Their parents spoil them and the teachers are left to clean up the mess. Their parents need to beat them…severely.

Back at my desk, Cheap Trick ‘Way of the World’ - felt like a pawn was I dead or alive - soothes me. In a way, these 40 minute bursts of hysteria are like some sort of spiritually cleansing shock treatment, some anti-new-age-anti-depressant storm and fury killer.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

But it’s different now that I’m poor and I’m aging…

At the gatehouse, a package has arrived for me. On my way home from the school, I stop by the gatehouse and grab the fed-ex box that Meg sent. She tells me Omar helped her gather the goodies in said box. Kevin is leaving school at the same time as me. He and I walk down the sidewalk. The Fed-Ex box is the size of a tall, flat baby. Eric is walking to the school bus - a Volkswagen mini-van. Both of the boys ask me what is in the box. I don’t know I tell them, maybe coffee.

Eric leaves us and goes to the school bus. Kevin and I walk on down the block. He is walking to the bus stop. He takes a city bus home. I disappear into the labyrinth of my apartment complex.

At the end of the day, I am always exhausted, always. Back in my apartment, with the last of the day’s energy, I open the fed-ex box. All of the prizes spill out. These gifts from across the sea are unimaginably wonderful. They are like little metaphysical lifeboats…yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to that is all that I can do…

Yes, inside the box is coffee, expensive coffee. Never, do I buy expensive coffee for myself. Expensive coffee is a luxury. This makes me immensely happy. Ground coffee makes me very happy.

This is just the beginning of the spilling of the booty. From there, I pull out a package of M&M Halloween candy, a miniature box of Russell Stover’s chocolates (my favorite chocolates), a new Moleskin journal, 3 sticks of Sure underarm deodorant, a big bag of beef jerky and a set of oil paints. The last item I pull out is a card/photo book which Meg cut and pasted together. This chokes me up. Friends are friends, across the ocean and over time. Friends are friends.

Hungry – and too tired to go to the store – I open the beef jerky, slice some cheese, pour a coke, and tear open some French bread. This is my supper. Unfortunately for my digestive system, I eat the entire large bag of beef jerky in about five minutes. For dessert, I eat all of the Russell Stover’s chocolates. I feel so USMC. Pyle (Gomer) never had it better.


In the evening, while my neighbors play cards and eat sunflower seeds sitting in an assortment of ramshackle stools in the apartment lane, I walk to the apartment entrance to the pure water service station. With me, I carry two one-gallon jugs. For one yuan (approximately 12 cents), I can fill one up and fill the other one to the half way mark. When I first moved into this apartment complex, I just bought a jug of water every day or so at the Quik or at Jiadeli. That was before I discovered the small pure water service station next to the front gate of the apartment complex. Always here in China, there is so much to take in that it is hard to spot the little things like water stations.

On my way back, I pass a young father with a baby in his arms. I say ‘Ni hao’ as I pass. He says something in passing. I laugh. Of course, I have no idea what he said. He follows me to my back gate. He is talking to me trying to make conversation. Over and over, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. This does not discourage him. I am not scared. I am just a little perturbed. I am carrying two jugs of water. I would like to be left alone. He keeps talking. I am fiddling with my keys which I drop while I am trying to unlock my gate. He is still talking.

Everyone here is always nice; I am not threatened. He’s carrying a baby. When a would-be assailant is carrying a baby, fear is not exactly an emotion that hits you. Perturbation is what I feel. The students wear me out during the day. At night, I really like – and I really need – my solitude.

Finally, I open my door and he somewhat looks inside to see my now cluttered patio. The living room furniture that is stored here is not making me so happy. Maybe, I could talk my landlord into putting it into storage. The other day, I saw this really nice patio in a photo - a getaway in Chengdu. Chengdu is supposedly really nice but I thought ‘Oh, I could do that to my patio.’ In the photo, a table was dimly lit with little shrubs growing all around it.

This man carrying a baby seems to want an impromptu tour of my apartment. At the moment, I am not in the mood. I kindly say ‘Wo ting bu dong’ once more and shut the door as he is trying to edge his body through the door.

Surprise, sometimes, will come around.

As I walk to the kitchen, I laugh to myself. Sometimes, the forwardness, the curiosity, the invasion of personal space surprises me and makes me laugh. Yes, I am laughing out of exhaustion, irritation, and the general absurdity.

Once I am in the kitchen, I switch on the light. Outside the window, I hear a voice. I go to the window. Suddenly, my kitchen is like the Laugh-In outro. The man with the baby that I just left at my back gate is standing at my window talking to me. Naturally, he is still talking in Chinese. And, naturally, I still cannot understand him. This reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon when he could not get rid of the penguin. (Or was it a kangaroo?)

By this time, I am laughing as I am telling him I do not understand him. This does not deter him; he keeps gabbing. The baby is smiling. Maybe he is not even talking to me. Maybe my kitchen is a zoo cage and I am the exhibit. My words, my laugh mean the same as the quack of a duck, the scream of a peacock, the roar of a lion, the whinny of a horse.

Yes, as an exhibit, I must entertain him but as a standing aninimal I must go on with my business. With the water that I just got at the pure water station, I fill my ice trays. Occasionally, I look over at the window to see if I am still an exhibit, if I have attracted a bigger crowd, if this crowd is taking snapshots, shooting video. Am I still on Planet Earth? Fortunately, the man and baby have grown tired of watching me putter in my natural habitat. They have went on with their lives. Maybe they are now sitting eating sunflower seeds with neighbors. Maybe the man is talking to the baby about college, the facts of life, Mary Tyler Moore.

But it’s different now that I’m poor and I’m aging...

Sometimes, I drift in and out of here. Andrea and I talked about this. Sometimes, I forget I am in China. When I am walking, I sometimes feel as if I could be in Queens, Brixton, Vancouver, Mustang. Once I am in the classroom, I know undoubtedly that I am in China.

Outside my window, I hear voices. Sometimes, the voices do not sound foreign. I hear a car door followed by a woman’s voice. Distinctly, I seem to hear her say “yeah, but…” However when I listen more closely, the meaning is strangely garbled, lost in the air. The tongue becomes Chinese. Nothing do I understand. My life will soon arrive.

Friday, September 22, 2006

it takes a fast car lady to lead a double life

Last night, I took a walk to the DVD stall. The boy who always smiles rubbed my face when I got there. He did not know how to ask me about my beard. My beard is on holiday. He smiled after he rubbed my face.


There are two Oscars, naughty sixth grade Oscar and polite seventh grade Oscar. Polite seventh grade Oscar comes into the teachers’ office.
“Tyson, where is your beard?”
“It went on holiday.”
“You are young.”
“Thank you, Oscar.”
“Kiss up,” Mary interjects.

Today, we have the International Baccalaureate Organization meeting at 3 pm. These meetings are absolutely maddening. They are conducted in Chinese. We are instructed in Chinese. At the last one, I had an interpreter who knows less than Basic English. This is torturous. Attendance is mandatory. Of course, I am tempted to be rude and bring papers with me to grade while they are conducting the meeting. In the USA, I would never do this because I understand what is going on. Here, they know that I do not understand but yet I am forced to attend these pointless meetings conducted in Chinese.

I’m a fool again. I fell in love with you again.

My eighth graders may be the death of me. Let me set this up. No one, absolutely no one, takes my design class serious. They put no effort into the autobiography cover. Granted, this is a blow off class. Art classes in junior high are fun time yes. Kevin and Jack came in late as did two girls. Nice Tyson has left the building. I march the four of them to my boss’s office. She is their homeroom teacher. I tell her they were all late to class. I do not know what to do about it. She thanks me for bringing them.

it takes a fast car lady to lead a double life
it takes a slow star lady if you want to do it twice

I go to class and hand out the autobiography analysis. My boss brings the girls back and tells me they were talking to a teacher. That is why they are late. They apologize for being late. They take a seat at a table. What she has done with the boys, I do not know.

As a prize, I am giving my extra copy of the Kaiser Chiefs Employment CD. I predict a riot. I play the CD in the ghetto blaster. Everyone is talking. No one is doing the analysis for their autobiography cover. This is very annoying. These students are very spoiled. They are probably the most spoiled of all of my students. They are at that age, that age where they seem to think they do not need to be taught.

A few songs play. A friend of mine he got beaten. He looked the wrong way at a policeman…I predict a riot. After the song finishes, I switch off the ghetto blaster and ask the students if they are done. Everyone stares at me blankly. One of the girls is working on her knitting.

This is when I tell them they have an assignment. Have they done this assignment? None of them have. I tell them to get busy. With this, I go around the room and I explain (again) what we are doing (again). Now, some of them halfheartedly write.

Joker actually takes the assignment serious. He is a smart aleck but he does do his work. His cover is the one cover that looks as if some thought has been put into it. He has put together a 3D cover that includes a made over paste-up man holding a guitar and raising a fist. This is actually pretty cool. He has his name cut out of letters. The J and K are scrawled with green pen. He has a broken game DVD glued to the sheet to represent the moon. I tell him he will win the prize. He is writing and writing. Everyone else continues to talk to each other.

Finally, I decide to award the prize to Joker. At this point, he is really the only one in the running. I ask for everyone’s attention. I start talking. At the far table, Cathy keeps talking to the friend sitting across from her. Cathy is pretty and awful. She reminds me of a pretty girl I knew who was pushed out of a jeep by her boyfriend and ran over. I tell the table to shut up. Nothing happens. A storm builds inside me. Cathy keeps talking as if I am some mild annoyance.

At this point, I do not stay calm. I get up in Cathy’s face and start screaming with the fury of a thousand demons. At first, she looks like she is going to laugh it off. That is what she always does. She laughs it off. She is a little spoiled bitch who is too cool for school. I see her laugh it off when other teachers yell at her. My boss is her homeroom teacher. My boss is very kind. I have seen my boss reprimand her. She laughs it off. Her laughing it off days are over in my book. Now it is time for her to pay the piper.

In my fury, I go on for a few solid minutes; I call her an awful person. This embarrasses her I know because she is used to someone just yelling at her and walking away. I do not walk away. At this point, I know she hates me AND she wants to crawl into a hole. Everything I can think of comes out. Really, I could give half a crap about her. She is a pretty girl who will someday get involved with a bad boy who will treat her badly; maybe he will run over her with his jeep. After I lambaste her, I just stare at her for a good minute. Then for good measure I lambaste her again.

After I am done, I go back to my desk and start putting my stuff away. I look at my watch. Ten minutes of class remains. Everyone is quiet. No one stirs. There is no throat clearing, no chairs moving, no nothing. I stare out at them, these little demons. I am no longer the kind teacher. Now, I feel as if I am Darth Vader, Napoleon, Richard Nixon. Are they all Luke Skywalkers, Alexanders, John Lennons? I stare at them for three minutes. Time this on your watch. This is a long time. They stare back at me like innocents. Is this truly how this has to be? I have been so nice. Sometimes, I get irritated but I never have let loose the shitstorm of fury.

At the end of the three minutes, I give the speech, that teacher speech, that speech that all of us get at one time as students; that speech that we all deserve at one point or another as students or employees. The speech begins with the words “I want this class to be fun but…”

Going into the whole speech is probably beside the point. The main points of the speech are few: I would like to respect them as adults; teaching is not the only thing I can do, once this is not fun, I am gone, nothing is holding me here. These last points I am sure I make for myself not for them. I need to know that I am doing this because I enjoy it and I do not have to do it. For once, no one dares speak while I am speaking.

After class, I am still a little shaken when I return to the teacher’s office. Mary is sitting at her desk. I tell her that I just had a meltdown with the eighth graders and I go on to tell her how I screamed at Cathy. When I was done Cathy was close to crying.

Mary tells me she hates Cathy. She causes Mary problems too. Mary cannot believe I had a meltdown. Mary always says I am so nice. I am not. I am not nice. These are spoiled children who need disciplined. How I became a disciplinarian, I do not know but that is the role that I am now playing. If this persists, I will ask my boss if the students who do not behave can be sentenced to custodial tasks. To me, this seems like a good way to enforce some much needed discipline. God, is this me talking?

Usually, I am easy going. I want to be easy going. However, I have let this build. These students will not take advantage of me.

My boss brings the boys who were late to my office to apologize for being late. Their punishment, they had to stay in the homeroom alone. I wonder what sort of punishment that is. That sounds more like a reward than a punishment.

At this point, I drift away into a dimension filled with music and no students.

Trip down the alleyway, take the back stairs
I know it's good but good isn't fair.
That's what you said, flashbulb in your eye.
How can I hold you when you're waving goodbye

In my own world, I look up. The good Oscar is standing by me. I remove my headphones. Again, he tells me I look young. I thank him. He asks if I am listening to popular music. I tell him yes it was popular at one time. I am blasting the Cars. I ask him if he likes popular music. He tells me he does. He likes it very much. He is a little guy. My guess is that he is 11 years old. I ask him who he likes. Simple Plan, he tells me. They are good I tell him. What a relief that he did not name the Backstreet Boys as a band he likes. He tells me he listens to Simple Plan on his Ipod. That sounds nice I tell him.


Mary and I head to the meeting. This time the meeting is held in the computer room. The computer where I sit will not log on to the internet. I move to another computer. Michelle is the interpreter for Mary and I. She is good. However, she has to go to the Singapore consulate because she is going to Singapore for an IBO workshop. She leaves. A computer tech guy starts to help us. His English is actually not bad. He disappears. We are supposedly learning how to put grades and messages for parents into the computer system.

The drawback for Mary and I is that every command in this system is in Chinese. To make matters worse, the computer where I am now sitting will not let me log on. At this point, I am pretty adept at the computer. I certainly know the basics and more. Before the computer guy left, I think he had the impression that I was a computer moron which I certainly am not. He told me tidbits like where the enter command is on the keyboard. Duh! To entertain myself, I stop paying attention because everything that is being said is in Chinese.

At one point, a nice lady named Wendy who actually has a decent command of the English language tries to help Mary and I. She asks us if we want to learn the Chinese characters. (After all, there are only 5,000.) I tell her I would like to learn how to speak but I think trying to learn the characters may be a bit much.

The thing is, and this is the important point to remember, I would love to do nothing but study Chinese and Chinese characters all day. The truth is I cannot. I have to learn the Chinese grading program so that I can submit my grades. This is just one more thing that I have to do on top of everything else with which I am loaded down. We both explain to Wendy that we would love to learn how to do it but since all of the commands are in Chinese, it might be somewhat impossible for us to do. Wendy is really nice. She is trying to help. Nothing is getting accomplished. I tell Mary that I am leaving. This is what I like about Mary. She does not say we should stay. She agrees that it is ridiculous. On the way out, we tell our boss we would like to learn how to do it but at this point, it is impossible for us. Our boss points to the screen to show us what is important to learn. She then realizes that we are looking at her like, “yeah, sure, but we cannot read the chinese to which you are pointing.” She tells us she will talk to the computer guys. Mary and I walk out of the computer room.

As we are walking back to the teachers’ office to gather our stuff to leave, I tell Mary I am really happy that she and I are alike in that manner. Neither of us sticks around out of politeness when it is doing us absolutely no good. We are happy to help and we are team players but we are not going to just hang out when are not accomplishing or learning something.

when you idle at the stoplight you better get the signal right...and it's all gonna happen to you...

This does not worry me. Without a doubt, I give it my all. it takes a light foot lady to lead a double life... As I am walking home, I get excited. Tomorrow morning, I will have coffee and donuts at Mr. Donut – chocolate and caffeine, my Saturday morning regiment.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground

Why do I do this to myself? The morning comes. I have a hotpot hangover. The spiciness of last night’s hotpot has done some sort of Louisiana hayride (starring Ma and Pa Kettle) to my stomach. Late evening hotpot and early morning English do not mix. This is a song for Carol.

As best as I can, I pull myself together and head to school. At the guardhouse I stop and grab my obligatory milk. The milk is forced on us at this point. When we walk by, we must take it. You can not pass by the guard house without grabbing your milk. By my name, I put a checkmark. I take my milk and head to class.

On the stairs, as I pass, the students – the students who are stationed as greeters - say “Good Morning Teacher.” In turn, as I pass, I smile and greet them.

“Teacher, your face!” Kevin exclaims when he sees me. The absence of my beard immediately causes a stir. In America, Americans have American Idol, the Office, Arrested Development, the Apprentice. Here, the Chinese have the removal of Tyson’s beard as the water cooler topic.

My boss comes into the teachers’ office. She tells me that Kevin is running all over telling everyone. The buzz is undeniable. William - with the Walt Disney animation eyelashes – calls me new teacher. “We have new teacher,” he says. He smiles. He always smiles.

Athena, the badass, and the rest of the teaching staff are quite vocal about the beard. Many of them say I look so much younger. The teachers seem to like it. The students are not as welcoming. The new look shocks them, truly shocks them.

My first class is the sixth grade readers. I Xerox a few stories from the textbook that the Indian mother gave me. Some days we read the Prince and the Pauper. Some days we read the stories from the textbook. All of my copying is finished. I head to class. The conference room where I have been meeting them is locked. We go to the library.

This is when the seventh graders tell me that their English class is now. Keeping low doesn’t make no sense. I tell them I have the sixth graders. I go to Sophie’s office but she is in a conference with Will one of the students who is trouble, adorable trouble but trouble. I ask Athena what to do. I could try to teach both groups but I am done with that business. Everyone is so near.

At this point, I have ten students following me through the halls. We are somewhat like a marching band without the instruments, or disciples without a prophet. We go back to the library. I give the sixth graders their stories to read. Although, I hand them the papers in order – two stories with three pages each, they cannot keep from messing them up. In America, I would have a stapler to staple the papers.

When I have settled the sixth graders, I start to think about what I am doing with the seventh graders. At this point, my boss comes in to tell me they have math. She takes them away.

Soon, the mystery is solved. Mary arrives. Somehow, she does not seem to know what her schedule is. She walks past the reading room into the office like there is nothing wrong. A few minutes later, the seventh graders come back to the reading room from their mystery location. I go get the key to the conference room from my boss and I take the sixth graders to the conference room. Of course, Oscar immediately wanders around the room. Fortunately, when I tell him to sit down and read he does.

Later in the day, Mary tells me she liked me better with the beard. Should I tell her she needs to take a course in courtesy? For some reason she seems to have the false impression that we are these great pals.

The sixth graders will not settle down. I am trying to give my geography, culture history lecture. When I get to the Welcome to Death Valley postcard, I stop the lecture. Some of the girls are turned around talking to the girls sitting behind them. Sooham and Oscar keep running up to the computer. Oscar knocks the cord out of the wall which takes me a minute to realize. This is the straw. Yes, I was wondering when the straw would snap that camel's back like an old 16 and savaged chicken bone. I stop the lecture and just sit.

This is the second time I have done this as a teacher. The other time I did this was with an oral English class at Songjiang. Now, I realize, this freaks out the students. Everyone is quiet. Sumram asks me to please continue. I do not say anything. I stay quiet. No one stirs. Those who do stir get shushed. I was talking to Preachy Preach about Kissy Kiss.

After I sit for a good five or ten minutes, I start the lecture again. Suddenly all of the students are angels. Oscar pops off immediately but is immediately shushed by Sumram. Part of me feels as if the students do not deserve the dying of thirst reenactment. However, by now, I have perfected it and feel as if the presentation is missing something if I do not have my mock death in the midst of my quest for water traveling through Death Valley.

Getting to the scene itself was torturous between Sooham and Oscar constantly asking “Why do they call it Death Valley.” Over and over, I told them I would explain how Death Valley got the name Death Valley. Often, my lectures are like one long Abbot and Costello gag, one long torturous gag.


Today is the first day that I will teach guitar. Last week, we walked to the guitar shop. This morning as I was drinking my iced coffee and eating breakfast dumplings random students came by with their guitars. We put them in the Xerox room. How I am to teach 17 Chinese middle school students guitar, I am still curious myself. As with most problems lately, I will solve it when the time comes. For now, I will prepare my lesson. Today, I am going to teach them how to tune the guitars. This should definitely be interesting.

The guitar lesson, how do I prepare it? I will keep it simple. We will learn how to tune the guitar today I hope. Is it too much to hope that these students will be able to learn a few chords today? Is that too much to ask? The performance in December is looming over my head. If all else fails, if they cannot master the Ramones and John Denver, I will teach them the Cramps.

downtown caveman look man i made a tool caveman ain't no fool we rock good meat caveman rock me caveman say "ooh" caveman say "ooh" caveman say "ooh ooh" caveman say "ahh"

I go into the classroom. Last week we met in the small conference room which was too small. Today, we will meet in the design room. I need some space.

The first students to arrive are Sooham, Sumaram, Kevin and two girls. The two girls have been very excited about the lessons. They often stop me in the hall to ask about the lesson. They seem like the type that will stick with it. Kevin has been very excited about the lessons. I had no idea the Indian twins would be in my class. Sooham is mad about science.

Before class he comes up to me and asks me if it is okay if he gets into the science class instead. Teasing him, I ask him if he doesn’t like me.

“No, Teacher, I do like you. Sumaram has asked my mother for many things and I do not want to make my mother angry so I think I might want to be in the science class.”

I tell him this is okay. If he would like to be in the science class, that is fine. Seventeen students are a lot of students to teach to play the guitar. He hugs me and says “Thank you teacher.” He leaves the room. He is in love with science.

Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision.

Soon, the class is full of students with guitars and a few students who do not have guitars. The students without guitars, I tell them this will not be much fun for them. They may stay or they may leave. The choice is theirs. Joker stays. Jacky stays. Sean stays. Eric stays. Jonathan stays. They all stay.

Sooham comes back to class. He does not want to be in the science class after all. He wants to be in my class. I ask him if he and his sister will share guitars. He tells me no their mother will buy them both a guitar.

I tell them we are going to learn how to play rock guitar. I start to explain how we will do this. Jacky asks me if I will play a song before the lesson begins. He has been bugging me to play a song. Everyone wants me to play a song. I play ‘Feel Like a Drugstore.’ I explain that for many years I made a living in America as a pop singer. Sometimes, I wonder to myself if that life was real or if it was just some dream. As I am playing, students come from other parts of the building to listen. The class quickly fills up.

After I finish my song and the lesson starts the madness ensues. I tell them we must first tune the guitars. Tuning guitars with humanoids who barely know what a guitar is, this is challenging to say the least. There is really no way to describe it. This is a completely foreign concept to them. They cannot understand. Some of the students hold their guitars upside down. Some of them pop the strings instead of strum them. Yes, I have my work cut out for me.

I play my low E. I try to get them to do the same. I hum a low E. I tell them this is the way the string they are playing should sound. The classroom is set up with three big work tables in the middle. The students are scattered about the room. The students in the back I cannot hear at all. I assume they are playing. All I hear is a din of noise.

I then try to show the students how to go from string to string to tune. This they absolutely do not understand. All I hear now is a muffled string, buzzing string racket. This is like one of those movies where the basketball star happens to be stranded in Africa, Jamaica, Haiti and through some loose plot construction, he has to teach the locals how to play basketball or else. A few of the students are petrified to turn the tuning pegs. They seem to think they will break. Tuning, tuning becomes an impasse. They do not understand that any strings that are touched in passing by their hands, these strings become muted. The time passes. All seventeen children want to know if they are right. Most of them are just confused. No one is doing it right. No one. This is maddening and laughable and...well, uh, maddening.

With your head in the air and your feet on the ground,
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
But there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself
Where is my mind.

Some of the students seem to give up. These are not the most motivated young people I have encountered. They want everything to be fun, to be exciting. They do not want to work for anything.

Okay, that is not fair. I am not being fair. Some of the students are really good students. Most of the students today are really trying and they really want to learn. My patience is nearly expunged. Sometimes, I wonder how my mother was able to put up with me and my brothers. How did she keep from beating us senseless? It could be worse, I could be back at my advertising job; I could be working at Wal-mart; I could be managing Chili’s.

I wish life could be Swedish magazines...

Eventually, I realize the A strings will stay un-tuned if I do not spring to action. Therefore, I spring to action. In a flash, I put my guitar down on my teacher’s desk and leap from guitar to guitar and tune each one. To be honest, I am a bit amazed with myself. Without a doubt, I thought I would never win awards with my guitar tuning abilities. Under pressure, sometimes, I guess we can do anything. Why can’t we give love one more chance? Maybe I will enter the guitar tuning competition in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Of course, the last guitar I tune is an exceedingly cheap guitar that makes Woolworth Kay guitars play and sound like Martins. This one I really want to just Townsend-out and break. I don’t. It takes me a few minutes to tune it or at least put it into the vicinity of being in tune. While I am tuning it, I try to put the sound of the cacaphony of guitars around me out of my head. This is not easy.

Once the guitars are in tune, the first thing I do is show them some scales. This keeps them busy for a little bit but they still do not really get the concept. ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ is two chords- G and C with an occasional visit to D. I made copies. This was recommended on a site on the web as a good first song to learn. First, I will teach them a G.

Mastering the G, forget that. Trying to play the G proves to be impossible. All of the guitars simultaneously make the sound of flat tires baboobling down the road. If this was some sort of John Cage, Glenn Branca Ensemble, this would be beautiful, high art, a heady concept piece. This is not beautiful nor is it heady. This is maddening.

I am good with analogies. I am under pressure to think of an analogy to help the students understand. I tell the students to think of their fingers as a bridge and to think of the open strings as water. The bridge cannot touch the water. This makes it somewhat easier. I keep telling them their fingers have to be in the middle of the fret. I try to tell them how to place their fingers. They do not understand. How do I do this? This really is a challenge.

Disney bird eyes William hangs around the class. He is not one of the students who is enrolled. I do not mind that he is here. He is fine. He is a good boy. He always smiles.

After class, he tells me he wants to be in the class. I tell him that is fine. Will his mother buy him a guitar? Yes, she will, he tells me. He then tells me we have to get permission. From what he is saying, I think I have to talk to someone about this. I am not sure if I am supposed to talk to his mother, a teacher, the principal. Joker translates. I need to talk to his math teacher. He wants to ditch math for guitar, who wouldn’t?

I tell them I will talk to the math teacher. I am not sure which math teacher is the right one. Joker tells me he will point her out. We go into the teacher’s office. He shows me where she sits. I cannot place who sits at the desk to which he points. William then comes in and says she is walking down the hall. They both run out into the hall and flag her down like they are teens in America in a broken down car on the side of the road in Mississippi.

She stops. I ask Joker if she knows English. She does not. Joker explains the situation in Chinese. She nods. She seems nice. I am not sure if this is appropriate. I hope this is appropriate. Is this something I should have asked her in private? After a brief consultation, she agrees to let him into my guitar class. This is a strange, tiny, joyous moment. William cannot contain his joy. He is so happy that he will be able to take the guitar class. As I am walking back to the design room to gather my stuff, I hear William in his homeroom class talking to some of the other boys excitedly.

Jonee went to the pawnshop bought himself a guitar now he’s gonna go far. You gotta love ‘em and leave ‘em. Sometimes you deceive ‘em. You made her cry.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

And when I’m sad, I slide.

By now, being observed by another teacher is not the traumatic experience that it was a year ago. In fact, when Michelle, my language link teacher, asked me if she could come to my geography, culture and history lecture class, I told her that would be fine. Actually, this was a good thing because on Sunday, I had prepared a killer slide show on the United States’ West Coast.

The slide show included maps and pictures of beaches, surfers, Hollywood Boulevard’s Hamburger Hamlet, Disneyland, the Hollywood sign, Crater Lake, Nirvana, logging trucks, and a lot of photos of Mexican food.

With the Mexican food, I wanted to stress the importance of Mexican culture Southern California and the Southern Mexican Border States in general. Of course, while I was showing the slides of the Mexican food, at times, I wanted to cry because it has been more than six months since I have had proper Mexican food as in Tex-Mex.

When I talked about San Francisco, I mentioned Chinatown and how people all over the world come to see Chinatown in San Fran. The students loved hearing about this. Michelle’s eyes lit up when I talk about this and the importance of the Chinese building the railroad. At one point, I mentioned Lake Tahoe and the Donner party starving and eating their dead to stay alive. As I was talking, I was really rolling and I believe most of what I said was somewhat close to being historically accurate.

With a map of the United States being projected, I was able to point out cities and landmarks. I asked the students if they could see the words ‘Death Valley.’ Most of them could. Then I went into why it was called Death Valley. The settlers who came to California to hit it rich as gold prospectors, some of them starved on the way.

I explained they did not have cars. There were not petrol stations, no rest stops, no Petro China. The settlers were thirsty. They had no Pepsi, no Suntory, and no water. This is when, I feign starvation and thirst. All I could say was ‘water’ ‘water’ ‘water’. I fell on the floor of the classroom. One of the English speakers in the class at that point said, “Is he dead?”

When I got up, I made no allusion to my Emmy Award worthy – not really Oscar worthy – soap opera star trapped in the desert performance. I know that I was a hit. This was my best observation yet which I was given no warning beforehand. Time ran out before I finished the lecture. As the circus music played, I started talking about grunge and Nirvana and Seattle.

After the class, Michelle told me she wants to go back to school. This has got her interested in studying the US. I am flattered. This is not really my area of expertise.

The next day, I give the eighth graders the same lecture. I bump into Grace another teacher in the hall. She asks if she can observe me. I tell her yes she can. This time, the lecture is not as seamless as when Michelle observed. Nevertheless, I do still feel good about it. The kids love the food photos. This makes them hungry. Can I fix Mexican food they ask? Of course I can is my response. I have had the Taco Bell Grande on Nanjing Road and it is a shameful showing. These kids need the real thing. Later, Grace tells me, she has eaten Taco Bell on Nanjing Road and in San Francisco and I am right about Nanjing Road’s Taco Bell. I do not have the heart to tell her Taco Bell is crap.

When I talk about the Chinese, and San Francisco, and the railroad and Chinatown, Grace smiles in the back of the room. She loves to hear me talk about her brethren. Am I kissing up? Is there anything wrong with kissing up to a culture?

This time when I do the dying of thirst reenactment it is pure Bugs Bunny high drama. I stumble around for a minute at least before I die. As soon as I hit the floor and stay there for twenty or thirty seconds giving my high drama the much needed dramatic pause, the classroom claps. This has got to be worth something for my observer. Do they give teachers any sort of dramatic classroom trophies or awards?

Maybe I was wrong about Percy, maybe. Monday night there was a dinner. My assumption, the dinner was a veiled way to get the English teachers together to lay down the law. From my days in advertising, I am not so keen to Gestapo tactics. During the day, I made a list of all of my grievances so far. After all, I had wowed them in the classroom with my Marlon Brando dying of thirst.

Before the dinner, I got a message from Andrea. We were to have dinner with visiting Australians. There was not a secret agenda. I could rest easy. Relieved, yes, I was relieved. Nevertheless, I was still on guard. In the movies (and in life), when the protagonist is relieved and feels as if he does not need his guard up, this is when he has to beware. This is when Michael Myers rises up from his death to attack yet once more with the butcher knife. This is when Nicholson receives the lobotomy, when he stays to fight instead of escapes out the window. Still, I was and am trying to decide if Percy is my Nurse Ratched. Yes, I was still on guard.

The dinner was nice. The principle and the British Council English language assistant did shots of the harsh Chinese rotgut rice wine together. Again, the old me would have been right there with them. I would have been able to easily drink them under the table. Of course, along the way, I would have no doubt tried to pull the principal’s pants off, but then that would have been what he deserved for unleashing the Tyson booze hound. The old me would have challenged everyone to shots. The new me has decided I do not have to impress anyone with my drinking ability. I know I can drink. I proved that for 15 or 20 years. No longer do I need to drink. These people do not know me. Furthermore, I do not need to prove anything to anyone. To wake up without a hangover, that is a splendid feeling, screw Chinese social convention.

“You don’t drink?!” the former principal (a woman) who was drinking wine said more as an accusation of my character than a question. Here, not drinking is not looked upon as a strength in character but as a weakness. They assume you are not mature enough to understand and appreciate the goodness of refrigerated red wine. I hate to spoil their cheese-less wine and cheese party but the Chinese have no fucking clue about the drinking of red wine, no fucking clue whatsoever.

I was fine with the watermelon juice followed by the sweet corn juice (imagine pureed cream corn and you get the picture).

Midway through the meal, Percy arrives. We were told she was not feeling well. She exchanges pleasantries with everyone as she sits. My boss sat between Percy and me. Her demeanor was completely neutral toward me. After dinner, I had this feeling that she would talk to me. No, that is not true. I had this feeling that the whole thing had blown over and she was not going to even say anything about our riff which was fine with me but I decided I would keep up my guard until I knew what was going on with her.

At one point, she got up and toasted the teachers around the table for the hard work. When we toasted out watermelon juices, she did not look at me in the eye. From this, I could not tell if she was embarrassed or if she still thought I had tried to out maneuver her. All through dinner, I was in a screw it sort of mood. Without a doubt, I have put lots of effort into this job. If it is not appreciated, I will shake my tail feathers somewhere else where said tail feathers will be appreciated.

My boss, who is really nice as I have mentioned, mentioned during dinner how I run from class to class sometimes. The principal told me he appreciates my hard work. I thanked him. Still, I was on my guard. My boss has been very nice. The principal has not gone out of his way to make me feel welcome. I know what I bring to the school and they are damned lucky to have me. Therefore, I will not be bullied by these junior varsity dragon ladies.

In china when dinner is over, dinner is over. Maybe this is because I do not speak the language but at the big dinners, the Chinese seem to just get up abruptly and leave the table at the end. This dinner was no different. I looked at Percy and said, I guess this is it. We both laughed. She walked out with me into the corridor. This is when she apologized. Yes, it was an honest to goodness apology. She told me she did not realize I was teaching 18 hours. I corrected her and told her some weeks I teach between 20 and 23.

She then told me that she hopes that I stay at the school for more than a year and that she knows that I am really working hard. This made me feel much better. At this point, I did let down my guard. I told her I do really like the school. I love the students. If possible, I would love to stay here.

So yes, I do feel much better at present. Now, I know that I am appreciated. They do realize that I am working really hard. The hard work I do not mind, I just it to be acknowledged in some way by the powers that be.

Mary, this is Mary. Mary was invited to eat tonight with some of the school officials and the Australians. In the mid-afternoon, Andrea messaged me. She wants to eat hotpot tonight. Andrea is really easy to be with. I told her I would love to go. Soon, the British Council were on board. Mary heard that we were all going to eat. She told me she thought she might not go out to eat with the school officials now. She may call and cancel, make up an excuse, tell them she is not feeling well.

This was not a spur of the moment arrangement. They asked her two days ago. I was a bit disappointed that I was not asked. Somehow, I thought I was the passionate one. She thinks she’s the passionate one. I was sitting in the teacher’s office when she was asked to go. They rang her up and invited her officially.

When she tells me she may cancel with them, I try to talk her out of it. She tries to tell me she is not feeling that great. Nevertheless, she is feeling healthy enough to go eat hotpot with us. I tell her she should go with the school officials. The woman who invited her comes into the office and tells her what time they are meeting. Mary tells her fine. Offhand, the woman invites me. I would not mind going but I had committed to the hotpot dinner and I think it is a bit rude to invite me as an afterthought. I tell her I have plans. Mary looks at me like she wants to kill me.

I try to put my desk in some sort of order. Mary leaves before me. I do not notice her leave but she is gone. I pass her on the second floor talking to the lady that had invited her to out to eat with the Australians. I hear the lady tell her to go home and rest.

At 7 pm, I show up at the gates to wait for my dining teacher’s. At the gate, Grace (who observed me and my fantastic death scene) comes back to dinner with the Australian. I have this strange feeling that Mary will walk up at any time. She really wanted to go eat with the teachers. At 7:05, Andrea walks out. She and the British Council were kicking around the football. British Council Will is washing his hands. He will be out in a minute.

I thought Mary ditched the other teachers to join us. She does not show. This is wise on her part. If she did join us, she would have arrived as Grace and the Australian were coming back from the restaurant.

The British Council, Andrea, and I walk to the bus. Another Brit meets us at the busstop. Her name is Sarah. We all head to the Little Sheep Hot-pot for dinner. The Hot-pot is delicious. Over dinner, we talk about where we are going for National Holiday, the first week of October. Will has plans to go to Thailand. We tell him with the current situation there, he should perhaps rethink that as a destination. Laura, the other British Council person is going to Beijing with friends. Andrea and I are going to Suzhou and some other places nearby by train. Sarah may go with us. That’s fine. Here, you meet someone and thirty minutes later, you are planning a trip together. This is life at its most lifelike.
This evening before dinner, I shaved. I was tired of dealing with whiskers and chopsticks and whiskers. On the way to dinner, British Council Will told me I look twenty. Now, I love him forever.

I have never never kissed
A car before It's like a door
I have always always
Grown my own before
All schools are strange
And when I'm sad
I slide.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

It’s up to me now…

Did I forget to mention…? On the way to the guitar store, Sooham my little Indian boy attachment kept asking me the name of the national anthem in America.
“Star Spangled Banner.”
“No, Teacher, that is not it,” he said and then again “What is the name of the national anthem?”
“The Star Spangled Banner.”
“No, Teacher, the national anthem?”
“The Star Spangled Banner.”
“No, Teacher, the national anthem?”
“The Star Spangled Banner.”
“No, Teacher, the national anthem?”
“The Star Spangled Banner.”
“No, Teacher, the national anthem?”
Okay, this was turning into the We are the World version of an Abbot and Costello routine. This went on for a city block. Finally, he said:
“The eagle is the national animal.”
“The bald eagle,” I added. Now, I wonder what sort of animal he might think the star spangled banner is. But William is the Spangle Maker with his animated Walt Disney eyes. Radiohead wrote the true National Anthem, the anthem in which I put my trust.

Everyone, Everyone around here, Everyone is so near, What's going on? What's going on?
Everyone, Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear, It's holding on, It's holding on. Turn it off!

Percy does not show. At 5:20 pm, I go home, one more complaint if she tries to browbeat me. She can read. She can read. She can read. She’s bad. Fortunately, I am not angry. Strangely, I am satisfied. If she tries to give me any of that dragon lady attitude, any of those kung fu mind games, any of those leftover Kung Pao chicken liver accusations; I will let her have it. Yes, it is so nice to have options. This is a nice feeling. This is a surprise.

Surprise, sometimes, will come around, surprise, sometimes, will come around, I will surprise you sometime. I'll come around. Oh, I will surprise you sometime. I'll come around when you're down.

I go home to my clean apartment. The students, the walk to the guitar shop, Shanghai, life has worn me, worn me, and worn me. I go home to my new television, my bathtub, my clean apartment. It’s up to me now. Turn on the bright lights.

At my apartment, I toast some bread and pour the last of the orange juice into a cup. I put peanut butter on the bread. I have a quick peanut butter sandwich as my supper. I haven’t the strength to make anything else. We have two hundred couches where you can sleep tonight.

Suddenly energized by the peanut butter, I walk out into the twilight. Frequently, Dairy Queen is on my mind. That is where I go. Every few days I order a chocolate shake. The last time I was there, I met a young man named Keith. He made my shake. He kept staring at me and smiling while I drank it. He is studying marketing, business and English at university. He called me versatile.

On the way to Dairy Queen, this time I do not step off the curb before the light changes. Thus, the traffic cop does not embarrass me. He does not blow his whistle at me. People still stare at me.

At Dairy Queen, I order my chocolate shake. At Dairy Queen, I always order a chocolate shake. I am the chocolate shake man from America. This reminds me of grandstands, stock car races, dugouts, rotting watermelon. As I order, I wonder if there are still dumb songs on the radio, the kind that used to plague or bless AM radio – Telephone Man, The Night Chicago Died, Sweet Pea or Chicka Boom by Daddy Dewdrop.

On the way back, I stop by my pirate movie stall. Yes, I wish they dressed like pirates at the stall but they do not. The boy, my favorite pirate movie stall boy, greets me. He does not stand close to me this evening. One of the other boys hands me an action movie. I smile and say ‘No’. As I am browsing, I spot a Godard film and a Cary Grant film. Neither of these films have I seen. I buy them and head home.

At home, I receive a text from Percy. Her phone was dead; she was in a meeting; she was not able to contact me; she will meet with me tomorrow. Now, I will file her under undependable. As I work on school work, I watch the Cary Grant movie – The Talk of the Town.

Dreaming, waking and sleep, eating, school, school, school, students, design, dragons, scissors, winning a lottery, school, school, school, losing, losing, losing, lost, dreaming, dreaming, waking, waking, waking…The time is 6:30 am. Drift. The time is 7:05 am. I WAKE WITH A START.

Friday, today, I move so much slower, slower than I have moved since school started, maybe slower than when I was drinking maybe slower because suddenly I am older. Weird, to be sober for a year, such a strange feeling, I feel as if that was yet another lifetime. The guy who showed you his watch at a bar in the East Village, the guy who peed on your carpeted stairway in Tulsa, the guy who annihilated toilets, living rooms, stages, dressing rooms, restaurants with vomit; yes that was me, how strange.

Mary seems to be having a nervous break down. She is always in her own world, the one where she talks and talks but really does not listen. Yesterday, on the way to school, I told her I was coming in early because of the surprise classes. Why I thought she might assume that she could also be given a surprise class, I do not know. As usual, I am sure she was not listening. She comes into the office as the first class is about to start.

She gets hit with the surprise class. She is stunned. This is not fair. What the bloody hell she says in succession around ten times. Without a doubt, I will hear about this later.

My first class is my sixth grade readers. Oscar reads the dictionary. He did not bring his homework. Sumran, Sooham’s twin, tells me Mary calls Sooham ‘Mr. Naughty.’

“Hey, don’t call me Mr. Naughty,” Sooham says to us. I tell him I must write that down. I write it into my classroom diary that I have just started. This diary will not lie. This I will keep so that I can show parents if I need to.

Lilian and Sumran behave. Oscar is quiet while he reads the dictionary. He can read the dictionary; I do not mind. Xiao Ma walks by and knocks Oscar’s feet off the desk. Lilian and Sumran have done their work. Lilian asks if she can go and pick out a book to read. I tell her she may. She quietly gets up and gets a book and brings it back to the table. Quietly, she reads.

Yesterday, I told Kevin to make a list of all of the words that he does not understand. He continues the list today. Looking over his shoulder, I try to calculate how many words he does not know. From my purely un-scientific calculations, I calculate that he does not know approximately 125 or so words. This is somewhat alarming. This is from approximately 5 pages of large print text.

When the circus music starts that signals the end of the class, I go to the copy room and make a copy of the list of words that Kevin just wrote. This is something that I feel as if I need to show Athena, his class teacher.

My next class is the eighth grade design class. I have some time to breathe before it starts. For the last two weeks, we have spent the time doing the designs for the autobiography covers. None of the students really understand. Although, I thought this would be super easy, the students have been confused for these last two weeks. The next design we do, I need to give more explicit instructions. At this point, I should not assume anything.

For instance, I should not assume that Percy is going to come and talk to me. She told me she would be over to talk to me during my free period. She is nowhere to be seen. She is starting to hit me as flaky, the flaky dragon lady. If she remembers, she will lop your head off with a sword but she has to remember to do this swordplay. Yes, she seems to think she is a bad motor scooter but I am less than intimidated by her. Maybe some of this is because I no longer drink and the putting up with other people’s shit just does not interest me anymore.

Last week, Athena (the badass) banned us from using the homeroom for our designs. The little scraps of text from ripped up paperbacks drove her nuts. I apologized to her. We must now do our designs in the design room which was what I had originally planned to do except that other teachers held classes in the design room when I thought I was to have my classes in the design room. From now on, all of the design classes will be held in the design room. That actually makes sense to me.

Before class, I put all of my materials together and walk to the design room. I tell the students to come into the design room. They are in their homeroom. Joker tells me they are on break. I tell him that is fine. Come in to the design room when the break is over. He says okay. He overemphasizes it when he says it. I say okay a lot. They all emulate me.

Sometimes in the classroom, ‘Okays’ echo from the students for a good portion of the class. Although I hear these ‘Okays’ flying through the air, the students who repeat my ‘Okays’ never seem to understand. This is a bit maddening. This seems to be the rule. If a Chinese says okay, most seem to think this means they do not understand.

The design class is okay. The students work on their covers. Some of them really put forth some effort. Others do not. Joker puts together a pretty cool picture of a guy playing a guitar. He knows there is a prize involved. The prize may be the extra Kaiser Chief CD that I have, the one that came with an Oasis CD as a double package. In good conscience, I cannot keep anything that contains Oasis in my apartment. “Play some Oasis dude.”

After the design class, I have the seventh grade readers. Since my reading class was split into two different times. This is the new time for the reading class on Friday. We go into the reading room. Mary has her English language math class at the same time. I tell the readers that we will conduct the class in the conference room which they like better. They tell me the conference room is much more comfortable.

In the conference room are three couches that form a U and then two chairs that make the U into an O. For the quiz, I spread the students out. We have a quiz on the vocabulary from the Anne Frank reading. I let them study for the quiz the first half of the class. They are well behaved I have no problem with them. I really do love these guys.

The quiz takes them each about 5 minutes. I did not know it would be that easy. I am a little stunned. The sixth graders struggle and struggle with their quizzes and homework. Is there that much of a leap in the age difference at that age? Now I am a bit puzzled about what to do. They want me to grade their tests. This takes five minutes.

Jacky asks me why there are two ‘a’ answers on question three. I do not tell him that I was in a hurry when I typed it and this is a typo. I tell him that I sometimes put little mistakes like this on my tests and I give the student who notices the mistake an extra 3 points because this is an important part of the editing process in writing to find mistakes. At this point, I launch into the fact that I was a magazine writer and catching mistakes is important. This completely goes over his head.

Jacky missed one of the answers. Eric missed one. He missed ‘boardinghouse.’ When he saw his mistake, he knew it was a stupid one. Jonathon and Venus made a 100%. I draw smiley faces on all of their tests. This class is the best. I love these guys.

We still have ten minutes left of class. I am not sure what to do. A brilliant idea just hits me. Why don’t I just talk to them? I can now find out more about them. We accomplished what we meant to accomplish. I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Venus wants to be a doctor. I tell her that is good. Eric does not know what he wants to be. Jonathan wants to play soccer. Jacky wants to play for the NBA. I tell them this is really cool. It is not my place to shatter dreams.

Something tells me that Jacky and I would be close to an even match on the court. If we are an even match, this means he certainly does not – N-O spells NO – have what it takes to play in the NBA. I hope I am wrong. I would love to see him make it to the NBA. He is 14. He can still dream. It’s up to me now. Turn on the bright lights. We talk a bit more and then the circus music plays. I go back to the office. It’s up to me now. Turn on the bright lights.

When I get back to the office, Athena is sitting at her desk. I take the copy of the words that Kevin wrote to show her. I explain the situation. She tells me he is from Malaysia. His parents want him to be in the Language A group. When I tell her, I make sure she knows how much I care about him. She knows he is a sweet boy too. She tells me we will meet with the parents in a week. At that time, we will be able to discuss their children’s progress. This is a bit unnerving but at the same time exciting.

Instead of going to the cafeteria, I go across the street to the grocer and grab some sushi. I take it back to my apartment and tear into it. It is really good. There is not a huge selection but for a couple of bucks which includes buying a can of Pepsi, I think that is a good deal for a birthday lunch. After I eat, I take a birthday bath. No one knows it’s my birthday. That is okay. I look at birthdays as a way to measure the previous year. I stopped drinking; I stopped poisoning myself so severely. Now I have this coke habit that I can’t kick. Sometimes, I do drink Pepsi though.

Not knowing if Flaky Percy will come in the afternoon, I decide to put on a tie before I go back to school. Putting on a tie will mean more than likely that she will not stop by the school like she said she would do. Oh, Flaky Percy, you spent dragon lady of the forgetfulness.

Back in the office, Mary is at her desk. We chitchat. I continue with my lesson plans and such. I am trying to not be overwhelmed. After I have chained myself to the desk for a few hours, Mary asks me what I am doing. I ask why. She wants to go to the other campus to get the ghetto blasters that were bought for us to use in the classroom. I tell her sure; that is a good idea. Mary really is a good person. She has a really strong personality. She tells me I am too nice constantly. Really, I need to be nicer toward her. She really is an okay person. She has a very strong personality.

As we are leaving the school, a guard stops us. He hands me a package. The package is from my friend Lisa, in Seattle. How it arrived on my actual birthday, I do not know. Lisa has perfect timing. Mary sees the package. I tell Mary that it is my birthday. I did not tell anyone. I then tell her the measuring the year before philosophy. This is good she says. She is a little upset that I did not say anything.

I rip open the package. Lisa burned me two mix CDs which is quite exciting. Also included in the package is a really wonderful stencil of vintage Bowie that says Big Bowie is Watching You on the back. One of her artist friends in Seattle stenciled it. I love it. I desperately need some cool art.

We grab our Phillips portable CD players on the East Campus and head back to the West Campus.

(While I am typing, Sooham comes into ask me a question and reads “My first class is my sixth grade readers.” He wants to read the whole thing. I tell him this is private; he cannot read it.)

At 3:00 pm, Athena escorts the sixth graders in to the teacher's office to sing me happy birthday. Sumran leads. They sing it in English and Chinese. I look over at Mary and ask if she told. She says yes. This is a really nice gift. I am surprised, very surprised.

After they leave, I am just staring at the computer. For some reason, I start agonizing over my lessons. I feel as if the design lessons are not happening. The students’ projects are a mess. It’s up to me now. Turn on the bright lights. I decide to look through Glenda’s files. Glenda was the teacher here before me. I come across a few interesting projects but nothing that inspires me. It’s up to me now. Turn on the bright lights.

I decide to take a walk. Perhaps, I will get some chocolate. Today is my birthday, no big deal but I would like to maybe have some sort of sweets. I do not want to wander to far away from the school. While I am sitting at my desk, I decide I will go across the street to the grocer.

Some of the other teachers are working at their desks. This, I decide, will be a secret mission. I tell no one I am leaving. As I am walking down the stairs, I hear some students coming up the stairs. Once I turn the corner, in between the second and the third floor, I get quite a surprise. Sophie is coming up the stairs with some students in tow. She is carrying a bag that looks suspiciously like it may hold a cake.

The minute I bump into her group all of us start laughing. She is trying to tell me it was to be a surprise. I cannot believe I spoiled it. This is so nice. I tell the group I will go back into the office like nothing happened. This is something I really did not expect. I run back to the office and I feel awful that I ruined their surprise. I cannot believe this. This is the most touching thing ever. But I am surprised, I am. I had no idea they would come in with a cake. I am so happy I stuck around.

Jonathan comes in and asks me how old I am. I tell him with my fingers.
“44,” I say. He has a look of shock on his face.

A few minutes later, my boss brings in the cake with the number 4 and four candles on the top. I am supposed to make a wish but I blow out the candles before I think of a wish. The cake is a rich and delicious mocha. The Chinese English teachers repeat the word ‘mocha’ over and over.

My boss asks me if this is my first birthday in China. I tell her yes. She smiles. This is the best. The funny thing is, I cannot really remember the last time I had a birthday cake. I love birthday cake. I wonder why I never have it.