Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I got a pain in my neck

When did I become one of those people who wake up at 6:30 am? There was a time when this is when I would go to bed. For a few minutes, I debate getting out of bed. Today is the showcase showdown with Percy. I am the showcase. Really, I hate this sort of thing but as Doris Day said “Whatever shall be, shall be.”

Fall has arrived. I put on the English-pimp suit I bought in Harlem two springs ago with a floral shirt I bought at Macys last fall and I head to school. I’m only five foot one; I got a pain in my neck. At the gate of the school, the sentry students greet me with “Good Morning Teacher!” I smile and let a string of “Good Mornings” fly. I grab a small carton of milk from the guard. The guards pass out milk to the teachers.

Walking into the school is like walking into a four story aviary. The running of the children like small birds trying to fly, they shriek and caw like crows and seagulls. Suddenly, in my mind, I am walking through the most expansive aviary by the sea.

As I climb the stairs, the students stationed on each floor greet me with ‘Hello Teacher.’ On the third floor, two teachers are standing. I greet them both with a smile. After I pass, I realize one of the teachers is Percy.

Percy is never on this campus. She stays on the high school campus. Maybe we will have our showdown. I bid $21, 000.

Before class, my Prince and the Pauper pal Kevin stops by my desk. He tells me his mother told him guitars are cheap in Shanghai. That is correct I tell him. He is now going to be a guitarist. His mother realized guitar would be better for her ears than drums. I had to laugh.

As a child, I had a drum set and now thirty plus years later, I still wonder how my mom stood the constant racket of my trap set. She never seemed to mind. A selfless mother is a mother who listens to the constant flams and single stroke rolls of a young boy who has primary school dreams of being Ringo Starr, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich.

Today, my first class is my sixth grade literature class. Mary has her math class in the small reading room at the same time. A low shelf of books separates our two groups. At this point, I have learned to ignore Oscar. He and I have come to some sort of stalemate understanding. Today, one of his eyes is swollen shut. This is not funny so I try not to laugh which is really hard. Honestly, I try to be sympathetic. Out of sympathy, I ask if his eye hurts.
He lambastes me.
“Why does everyone have to stare at my eye?”

I tell him I am sorry and the other students smile. He is sitting at an end of the table. Not the end where I usually move him but a part of the table where he is not involved with the class. I tell him to move across from me. He asks me why he has to do that. I tell him I would like him to be where I can talk to him. Is that wrong? He moves across from me and he almost seems to enjoy that I asked him to sit across from me.

A few minutes into the class, Oscar sneezes incredibly loud. I am talking to the class. I ignore him. Mary tells him to say excuse me. They squabble for five minutes. Mary should probably mind her own business but since she is an only child herself, she does not know sibling dynamics. Actually, I am a bit entertained by this so I do not butt in to Mary butting in to my class. She thinks she can win. She cannot. Oscar will argue the fact until it loses any resemblance to logic.

Lilian is the only one who did the homework in the reading class. Oscar tells me that he made bad marks in another class and his father talked to him for hours about it after supper. I feel somewhat sorry for Oscar. Yes, he does make it hard on himself but this is something of which he does not seem to be aware. This is something with which he will constantly contend. As the others work on the undone homework, I look over Lilian’s paper. She tells me an English teacher helped her. Most of her answers are correct. I tell her she did a good job. She is pleased.

Kevin has a glazed look on his face. He is staring at his unfinished homework with despair. I try to help him. I try to explain what is meant by some of the metaphors. He is not listening. This is too much for him to assimilate. I leave him be. Oscar, I leave alone. I know some teachers harp and harp but the harping and harping do not pay off. I leave Oscar to rub his eyes.

Kevin keeps the glazed look the whole class. Finally the bell rings. While I have some free time in between classes, I type up the names of the students in the design classes. I then print the names using a 36 size font. I will hand these to the students to use on the cover of their autobiographies. They can snip them however they please.

My boss tells me she would like to talk to me. Now, I will know whether she has defended me or not. She tells me that she tried to contact the principal but he was in a meeting. When I talk to her, there is always an air of mystery to our conversations because her English is not good which she would readily admit. She wants me to write a letter to Percy detailing my schedule and how busy I am. This will have to wait because I am so busy that I do not have time to write and let Percy know how busy I am. I thank her and I return to my desk to continue cutting out the names.

As I am cutting out the names, my seventh grade readers come in to my office to tell me we have class. This is one of the five additional class hours that was just loaded onto my schedule. I tell them I will be right there. Our added hours are handed to us on little papers twice the size of post-it notes so it is really hard to read the addition. The fact that it is all written in Chinese does not help matters. Sometimes, this is like some strange reality television game show for which I have signed up.

Fortunately, I am prepared. I walk into the reading room. My boss is working on the computer with Xiao Ma. She does not seem to notice that I have strolled into class late. She is very easy going. Thankfully, she is sympathetic to the travails and absurdities that the foreign teachers face. Michelle tells me at some point I will get used to the switch of the class schedule with no warning. Yes, someday I will but at that point I am sure I will be nearing retirement.

We are crawling through Anne Frank. They read it. It is just a book to them. There is no reality. I try to put it into context. How can I put it into context? I try to explain why Anne could not leave with suitcases when she leaves her house with her family to go into hiding.

“If you were sneaking out of your house, would you carry a suitcase in front of your parents?” I ask them. They tell me no. Jacky tells me he would carry a bag. I tell him that was before the days of the all purpose backpack. I mention what happened in Nanjing. Jacky knows about this. These students are very bright.

We talk about how close Anne was to her father. Actually, I ask them if they can tell from the reading that Anne is very close to her father. On the other hand, she often seems to fight with her mother. Her father defends her. To me, since these are children from one child households, I am interested to know to whom they are closer. Venus tells me she is close to both her mother and father. Eric and Jonathan tell me they are close to their mums. Jacky tells me he is close to neither his mother or his father. This is very surprising to me. I thought all privileged Chinese children were close to at least one of their parents. I ask Jacky if he is a rebel, a loner, a bad boy. He does not understand. I do like to entertain myself.

At this point, I give the readers some holocaust survivor interviews to read as their homework. Maybe this will make the holocaust a little clearer for them. As a writing assignment, I tell them to tell me how they would escape or survive if some evil force invaded China. Tomorrow, they are to hand their plans of escape and survival back to me.

At lunch, I come home. First, I go to the store and buy some ham and cheese. There is a new grocery store that opened – which was a surprise - across the street from the back entrance of my apartment complex. They have New Zealand Cheddar which is fine with me and Hormel ham. I toast some bread and have a nice lunch. Never in my life would I have thought I would be thankful to find ham and cheese. I am so thankful for my ham and cheese. Bless this ham and cheese. I have always thought in the back of my mind, ‘Cheese and Onions’.

During lunch, I think over the situation with Percy. I did not hear from her in the morning. I had thought I might. In the email I sent her last night I told her my boss would talk to the principal. I tried to take it out of her hands so she did not have to deal with it. I hate any sort of weirdness with people. If I am to stay here, I do not want enemies within the school.

This afternoon, I will talk to my boss and ask her if she could talk to the principal. To me, this seems like the best idea because if it is coming from her it will not look like I am just complaining. My boss knows how hard I am working at the moment and the sort of load I am carrying. Asking her to handle this is not that much to ask.

All is quiet when I get back to school. Kim sent me a fed-ex art package to use with the students. I pick this up from the guard. He sees my name on the package and he pronounces it. He is older and always smiles. He has a big mole on the side of his nose at the base of the nostril. I try not to stare. He is very kind.

The art package is very exciting. I rush up to the office and rip open the fed-ex box. I glance at the books because I need to prepare for my design class. I am excited to have them. When school is not so crazy, I will be able to truly dissect them and enjoy them. They will provide much inspiration. Some little art student may arise and rule because of Lipski and American found art to which she was exposed thanks to the Blaffer Gallery and the University of Houston.

This little student could be named Vivian. Let me talk for a second about Vivian, my new favorite. She has glasses that fall down her nose constantly. She will probably never be an attractive girl but she will someday be an editor, or run a foundation for the arts. That is what my gut is telling me.

Vivian and I started out on the wrong foot. She whined about another student getting four pieces of color paper which said student grabbed while I was not looking. Vivian only got two pieces. During a quiz, I caught her turned around talking to the person behind her. I took her paper. After the quiz, she came up to me crying. She handled it all wrong. She told me the girl behind her was talking to her. I told her that I caught her turned around, not the girl behind her.

After class she went to talk to Athena. Athena is their homeroom teacher. By watching Athena in action, I have ascertained it is by all means okay to smack the kids. Athena is one of my favorite teachers because she is just such a badass. Athena is Lucy Liu with a long brownish red wavy permanent and a temperament of pure Chinese Tai Kwon Do fire. All of the Chinese teachers at times remind me of Kung Fu bad-girls, Tarantino wet-dreams.

Later, Athena explained what happened but she told me I was the one in charge and if I wanted to give Vivian a zero on the quiz I could. A zero, I asked. I was only going to take points off for one answer. Athena told me that was more than fair. She then told me that Vivian has behavioral problems and that she too has problems with her. At the time, I thought “Oh Good, another problem child.” She told me Vivian was going to talk to me and apologize. I told her that would be good. Later, I graded Vivian’s quiz and I did not have the heart to take off seven additional points because, out of 100%, she scored 34%.

After the drama over the quiz, the next morning Vivian came to my desk and revealed this adorable side that really broke my heart. What she said, I do not remember exactly but it started with “Teacher, I’m sorry…” After she said what she had to say, I told her we would start over which lost its dramatic affect because I had to say it a few times before she understood what I was saying.

That afternoon was the first day we designed the autobiography punk rock cut and paste book covers. Vivian jumped into the project. She was one of the only students who seemed to understand the purpose of the assignment. Some of the other students I encouraged but the more I encouraged Vivian, the better she became. She actually loved anything I would suggest. She wholeheartedly embraced the assignment.

At one point, she told me she wants to design when she grows up which of course was touching. After class, she told me she was going to bring things from home the following day to put into her cover. I told her that was a wonderful idea. I asked her if she would mind telling the rest of the class they should do the same. I quieted the class and told them to listen to Vivian. I thought she would be really shy but she belted out the plan. I told her good job. Afterwards, back in the teachers’ office, I told Athena that Vivian is my new best student. Vivian was in amused shock. I was in amused shock.

Today, Vivian brought all sorts of debris from home. Intently, she worked by herself on her book design which at one point she decided needed to have curtains. She sat at the good girl table with Lilian and the little Indian twin. I helped her cut fabric for the curtains. She told me the fabric was very beautiful. It was not. Vivian is a reason to stay at this school.

Late in the afternoon, my boss tells me she heard from Percy. They have put a language assistant with the lunch group. She tells me Percy wants to talk to me. At one point, this would have frightened me because I hate to be in trouble at work but I know that I have put a lot of effort into this job. If she is going to brow beat me, I won’t allow it. Nevertheless, if she wants to clear up the misunderstanding, that is fine. I would love to just do my job with no hassles.

The cleaning lady is coming today at 4:30. The time is 4:30 as I am leaving the school. Maybe she will be late.

Outside my patio gate, there are a couple of bicycles parked. My patios gate is open. When I walk into my apartment, I am greeted by the Indy 500 pit crew of domesticity. My landlord is the pit crew boss. He shakes my hand and then points to the time on his watch. Yes, I am ten minutes late. There is no way to explain.

When this team of Ajax junkies destroy the dust, they destroy it thoroughly, moving the couch, wiping down all surfaces in the kitchen. This makes me very happy. for a moment, I rest on the couch and admire my beautiful apartment. I am Tyson. I live in Shanghai. Once, I was a pop singer.


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