Morning is such a small adventure. Sometimes, just being alive and walking to the Quik for some packaged muffins is the happiest little excursion. At the counter, I throw down a pocket full of change. And, the cashier, she laughs, as I count out 2 yuan, 2.50 yuan, 3 yuan, 3.50 yuan, 4 yuan. I count 1 2 3 4 5. Now, I have 4.50 yuan for the muffins. She nods her head yes. I say ‘xie xie.’ I leave.
As I am walking down the lane to my apartment in the apartment complex, I pass a middle aged woman. She starts talking to me. The conversation is obviously one sided. Maybe she is talking about tea, coffee, sweets, the price of eggs, the state of sugar, Maoist reform. We both laugh when she takes a breath and she waits for my response to what might or might not be a question and I respond with ‘Wo ting bu dong.’
The morning, I spend researching poisonous snakes in Oklahoma. With my Oklahoma twang upbringing, I questioned what the water moccasin is truly called the other day when I was talking about snakes.
Last night, Andrea and I trekked to the bookstore. The Foreign Language Bookstore was closed. The one, with less of a selection, across the street was open. The imported books are on the seventh floor. Really, I went there to find a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. Nevertheless, once I was there and there was no Anne Frank book to be found, I decided to look for a book to assign to the sixth graders. This is my literary albatross, this and the unfinished Moby Dick which I have now had to put away because I have a somewhat overwhelming amount of schoolwork staring at me everyday.
While I was looking for the Anne Frank book, a young woman started talking to me. She told me that the book I was looking for was on the fourth floor. I told her no it would not be on the fourth floor. She assured me if it was a book I assigned to students, the book would be on the fourth floor. Politely, I tried to tell her this book is not a text book. This book is a piece of literature, a diary. Granted, this woman just started talking to me. I did not ask for her help. Here, people offer help because they assume you probably always need help which is true 90% of the time.
Here, English speakers, or the Chinese who like to practice speaking English, mill around in the English language sections of the foreign bookstores. She was very nice but I am at a high octane sort of stress level at the moment. Not to mention, I am still a bit gunshy from strange women talking to me in public places now simply because of the women who approached me this summer and I realized were hookers. Of course, the thought of hookers hooking in the bookstore is a bit perverse; a little too Henry Miller; much too, Daphne Du Maurier does Dallas.
After not finding The Diary of Anne Frank, I did find a section of books for middle schoolers. Some of the titles were trite and Beatrix Potter-like, but a few of the titles were fine. Andrea and I debated about Frankenstein. She told me she thought the parents might find books about monsters objectionable. Not wanting to take any chances in that area, I kept looking. Finally, I found something that I thought would work, not my first choice if I had a more of a selection but something that would be fine.
On the metro home, Andrea and I talked about our upbringing. We both were 17 when our parents divorced which I thought was unusual. She told me her parents tried to wait until she was 18 to divorce but they could not wait that long. I told her the same was true with my parents. My mother wanted to wait until I graduated from high school to leave my dad but she could not wait that long.
Maybe, Andrea is still in her twenties. That is my assumption. She has not told me her age. I told her my age. She was surprised. She thought I was much younger which is always nice to hear. I told her when I do not have a grey beard I look even younger, from what I have been told that is.
Sometimes, I think I may be too lenient. Today, I took The Prince and the Pauper – the book I picked for the sixth graders, the adapted for young readers version – to class. This morning, I typed up questions and vocabulary for the first chapter. The little Indian boy tells me he does not want to read this book, he wants to read another. This is fine, he may read another book. He does not have to read this book. However, if he does not read The Prince and the Pauper, he will not pass the class because this is the book that I have assigned. He then starts reading the book and answering the questions. Yes, sometimes, I think I am too lenient.
Of course, at the beginning of class, after I settle the sixth graders into reading, while I discuss Anne Frank with the seventh graders – who are so well behaved; I hear a commotion at the sixth grade table. Kevin, the sweet boy who may have a bit of an ornery streak, tells me that the boy who I have had so much trouble with is on the computer. The little fat idiot tells me he is not on the computer. The computer is turned on and he is sitting in front of it. If this was a jury trial, the jury would take less than a minute to decide he is guilty. The computer was not booted up when I went to over to the seventh grade side. Now it is on. I separate the two boys.
The little fat idiot keeps arguing with me about it. I tell him he is already in trouble if he wants to be in more trouble he can argue about it more. At this point, I tell him, I have no reason to trust him or to respect him because he does not behave and he seems to like to cause trouble. He tells me to prove that he was on the computer. The computer must have turned itself on I tell him. I am, in fact, being strangely patient with the little dumb-ass.
Sadly, I know that more than likely, he gets this from one of his parents. One of his parents, I assume is a fat argumentative imbecile. I would put my wager on the father being a obnoxious blowhard. This makes me sad for him because most of the time, to me, it seems that these sorts of traits are learned. Most of the time, yes, I do want to throttle him because he is so obnoxious but then I start to feel sorry for him because if this is what he is going to be like the rest of his life, he will always be one of those people that other people always use for the butt of their jokes. Of course, once I do start feeling sorry for him, he always does something idiotic and I am back to the point where I would like to throttle him or at least swiftly kick him.
The seventh graders study for the quiz that I will give them tomorrow. They quiz each other. Jacky tells me that Jonathan only missed one when he was quizzed. I tell him that is very good. I tell Eric when they win Pulitzer Prizes many years from now; please invite me to the ceremony. Music plays. Class is over.
In my lecture to the sixth graders, I try not to blow a gasket. Athena, their homeroom teacher did not know they had a lecture. When I come into the classroom, several of the students come up to me and tell me I do not lecture them. Here, I should have just walked out and said okay, I do not lecture you today. But, I had spent the morning downloading photos of snakes – various rattlers and copperheads and a few pictures of water moccasin. And, I am trying so hard to do everything by the book this semester. Yes, it would have been a sanity preserver to not lecture them but I that is what I am assigned to do. That is what I must do. This is literally the school of hard knocks, the school of confusing Chinese hard knocks.
I go back into the teachers’ office to ask Athena if I am to lecture them. She tells me she saw that there was a lecture period in the schedule but she did not realize there was someone to lecture. She then goes back into the classroom and tells them that I will lecture them. They very audibly moan in dissatisfaction which makes me feel as if I am a lame local band opening for the Tom Tom Club, Tom T. Hall or Tom Jones.
To Athena, the students then go into detail how they do not understand me. I hear them say ‘ting bu dong’ while they are talking to Athena. Most of them barely speak English at this point. It is a bit ridiculous, even with a ton of pictures, for me lecture them without a translator. Athena points out the students in the class who can help translate to the others. As she leaves the room, she tells me I need to talk slower.
I thank her but I know talking slower will not help. It is much like if I was attending a class that was conducted in Chinese, Russian, or Polish and the person in charge told the speaker to talk slower. No matter how slowly they spoke, I would still not know what the speaker was saying. These students are in that same position with the added feature that they do not have to be polite; they do not give a crap; they have no sibling so they are used to getting full attention all of the time. I am just the foreign teacher who does not grade them for this class.
On the board, I write snakes, tornados, cowboys. This sparks a little bit of interest. The little Indian boy asks if I will talk about tornado alley. I tell him yes though I am not completely sure to which tornado alley he is referring. Maybe he is referring to some strange Bangalore tornado alley. He then asks if we can talk about snakes first. I tell him okay.
Some of the students pay attention. Some of them do not. The little Indian boy asks me if I have ever been bitten by a snake. I tell him yes. The whole class begins to listen. I tell them that part of my ankle is wooden because a surgeon had to remove the place where the snake bit me. This really sparks their interest.
Now the whole class is paying attention. One of the troublemakers wants to feel my ankle. He thinks that it might not actually be wooden. When he bends down to feel it, I grab his shoulder as if he is being attacked by a snake. He jumps in the air. The whole class laughs. From then on, anyone who is not paying attention gets a snake bite or a desk pound. Another student wants to feel it and he is wiser, he does not fall for my scare tactics.
From there, we talk about tornados. I show them pictures of tornado damage. A few of the students cannot seem to stay seated including the little fat idiot. Occasionally, I have to stop the lecture and shoo all of the rowdy boys back to their seats. Sometimes I ask myself how shooing students back to seats has turned into me life.
Again, someone brings up the snakebite. All of the students are curious. Have I been bitten by a snake? Yes, I tell them. After I tell them yes, I pull up my sleeve and reveal two vampire-bite-like imprints on my right wrist. All of the students are in awe. I tell them that is where the snake bit me. The little Indian boy says that he would like to be bitten by a snake too. I go around the room and show them the scar on my wrist. Instantly, this adds a bit of mystique and Indiana Jones-like adventure to the foreign teacher.
We then talk about cowboys and rodeos. At this point, I show a slideshow of bull-riding. The little fat idiot says the animal on the screen is a sheep. I tell him the animal on the screen is a bull. He then tells me the next one is a cow. Yes, of course, this would be the perfect opportunity for me to take an easy shot and call him a cow but I am a teacher after all. Supposedly, I am the mature one - I know you are but what am I? Instead, I tell him that a bull is a male cow. He keeps calling it a cow. He is trying to be funny.
Out of nowhere, a student asks me how old I am. Without missing a beat, I tell them I am 92. Of course, this again, gets the classroom’s full attention. The students who were working on their homework for other classes look up and appraise the situation.
Some of the students tell me to take out my teeth to prove that I am 92. I tell them the teeth do not come out. If I was 92, I would not have my teeth they respond. They tell me I look too young to be 92. I tell them the snakebite preserved me. They tell me I would have a longer beard if I was 92. How they came to this conclusion escapes me. Sticking to the snakebite logic works, or at least, this keeps them thinking.
Isn’t this one of the services I provide as a teacher? Am I or am I not supposed to make the students think? Yes, they are thinking. They are trying to dispel this, disprove this. Suddenly, this becomes a science lecture with a room full of Einsteins. They talk amongst themselves. They tell me my skin is too white. I point to one of the boys in his white uniform and I tell them as I grow older my skin will become whiter, as white as his dirty white uniform.
Then, one of the rowdy boys asks what year I was born. This is a good one. He moves to the front of the class. I quickly attempt the math in my head.
“1918,” I tell him.
He and a few other boys rush up to the chalkboard and subtract 2006 from 1918 which I think is very industrious of them. This deserves applause. They tell me, I am only 88 if I was born in 1918. I tell them I am old; I do not remember such things as dates.I am too old to remember. Leave me alone, I am an old man. Maybe, I should tell them I am putting them on but I am enjoying this too much.
The strange happy - though somewhat macabre - circus music plays. Class is over. I tell them class is dismissed, please leave. The little Indian boy comes up to the front. He is still curious. He wants to know more about the snake, more about the snakebite, more about my age, my preservation. I am a sage.
"Teacher, how old were you when the snake bit you? Did you go to the hospital? Did the doctor remove the venom?" he asks in rapid fire.
“Can you keep a secret?” I ask him
“Oh, yes, Teacher! I can keep a secret” he says in that prank phone call Indian accent.
“Are you sure?” With this question, he extends his pinky. I extend my pinky. We cross pinkys.
“Okay, I will tell you but you cannot tell anyone.Promise."
"Oh, I promise Teacher, I promise. I will tell no one. I will not tell my sister."
“Okay.This is not a snakebite.” I pause in that dramatic way that the psycho-analyst pauses at the end of Psycho, the way Cher would pause before she fired off her comeback at Sonny, the way Russel Mael pauses and takes a breath before the guitar solo in <em>Something for the Girl with Everything. “This is from a cat bite.”
I then add, “I have never been bitten by a snake.”
“So you are not 92?” he asks in that little Indian voice of his.
“How old are you?”
“Oh, I would say somewhere in the 60s or 70s”
Okay, of course, this completely, devastates me.
“What?! My 60s or 70s?!” I say nearly blowing that gasket that I was trying so hard not to blow all through class. I do not even know how to respond. How is it that I look like I could be in my 60s or 70s? I am dumbfounded, stunned, unnerved, shocked, dazed, and totally and completely annihilated.
“Oh, yes, with the beard, your age, I cannot tell with the beard,” he explains seeing the look on my face and the tears in my eyes.