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.’