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.


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