Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chapter Three: Having Class

When Compass stood in front of her class, the sea of faces seemed like some kind of code. She had every variety of skin color, every shape of eye and lip and nose, a language from every continent, a representative of each major religion and some of the minor ones, heads wrapped in turbans and hair hidden under scarves, some faces scarred from rituals, violence, disease or plain bad luck, others smooth and untouched by time or life. If she could only read them, the ups and downs of tall heads, short heads, bowed heads, if she could only unravel the code, she would be able to make sense of what the universe was trying to tell her. Usually this idea amused her; today it seemed urgently necessary.

There was a reason to the way the students assembled themselves that went beyond politics – here, Kurds sat next to Turks, Afghans next to Russians, Ethiopians cheek-by-jowl with Somalis – or religion. It wasn’t just that the “good” students sat up front, closest to the teacher, the “bad” ones in back, slouching and eyeing the door. There were really no “bad” students in ESL. They were all adults, all here willingly, even eagerly, and in all their home countries teachers were treated with respect that bordered on reverence. No, there was a greater plan at work here. Their seating arrangement had meaning, it was fluid from day to day, students shifting a seat here, a row there, all seeking out their place in the grand design like a marching band that had been let loose on a football field with no direction, unsure of what they were spelling.

“So. Perfect tenses. Present perfect is the verb 'to have' plus another verb in the past participle form. So, I have been to Safeway three times this month. Or I have never seen the Grand Canyon.” She wrote on the ancient chalkboard as she spoke, a board so old its pores sucked up chalk and would not let it go. You could see the ghosts of former teachings, dating back weeks, maybe years, a palimpsest of grammar, spelling, pedagogy, pedantry.

It was tempting to treat as children these students who spoke like children. It was easy to assume that their thoughts were as limited as their ability to speak them, and Compass fought against that assumption every day. Many of her students were refugees from war, from hate, from intolerance, from violence, from persecution. She was an educated, middle-class white woman whose closest brush with violence was a slapfest with an older brother when they were teenagers. Today a bomb had landed in her lap, but it still did less violence than the one that landed on the Eritrean woman’s schoolyard when she was a child.

“Tee-cha,” said the tiny Vietnamese girl who spoke rarely but at startling volume. “You pale.”

Discussions of personal appearance were only taboo in America, it seemed. She frequently had students discussing, for example, how to solve a student’s bad acne. Where Americans would politely pretend the woman’s face wasn’t covered in angry sores, there was no such hypocrisy in much of the world. One Nigerian recipe had helped; a good argument for airing your problems out loud.

“I have a headache,” Compass told them, reticent American to the hilt. “So today, you must do all of the talking. What are some remedies that you have used to cure headaches? Saisombat, how about you?”

Sometimes the best lesson plans were born of desperation.

Somehow, she staggered through the class without dissolving into tears. She would forget, for a moment, when the class got into a discussion of interesting cultural differences, but then the knowledge of her paternity would blindside her again, knocking the breath from her lungs and the color from her face.

She decided to call her mom on the long drive home. She knew that talking on her cell phone while driving was dangerous, but she liked the idea of having easy access to bridges to drive off of or walls to drive into if the conversation got too horrible.


“Why do you answer the phone like that?”

“Because it shows interest without unattractive enthusiasm. I hate people who fawn.”

“Saying ‘hello’ is fawning?” They were three questions and one answer into the conversation and already Compass was eyeing possible road hazards to aim at.

“It’s not the word, really, so much as the way people say it. So hopeful, like they think the person on the other end is going to save them or fix them or something.”

Compass heard a familiar rattle of ice cubes in a glass. For Mina Jones, cocktail hour was any hour that had 60 minutes in it. She spoke in italics when she was lit, which was nearly always. You could hear the italics in her voice, just as you could hear the ironic quotation marks and occasionally, the parentheses.

“I need to talk to you about something.”

Must we? Are we going to spend the next 30 minutes with you telling me what a terrible mother I am and me using the mute button so I can bad-mouth you to the dog?”

“You don’t have a dog.”

“Really? Then what is this furry thing curled up on my couch?”

“Probably a frat boy. Nudge it and see if a beer bottle falls out.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Beer bottles drop out of the potted plants in this house.”

“ 'Potted.' Interesting word choice.”

“I got a dog. I’ve always wanted one, so I finally went and got one.”

“What kind?”

“A Pomeranian. So slimming.”

“You got a dog to make you look thinner?”

“Ah, there’s the judgmental tone I was waiting for. Now I know it’s you. I did not buy a dog, don’t worry. As per your warnings, I have no living things in my house.”

Mina's lack of nurturing skills had been a frequent topic of conversation between the two of them. Everything you touch comes back stamped ‘failure to thrive,’ Mom, Compass often thought but did not say. And you know I mean me.

"I need to talk to you. Can you make time for me or not?"

"Fine. Come now. Bring appropriate liquor: white wine for light conversation, boubon for the heavy stuff. Mixers. Lots of mixers. Little plastic swords for olives, onions and duelling. Gauntlets to throw down and gimlets to throw back."

"Yes, you're very clever. I'm on my way."

Compass turned south with resolution. She turned north with trepidation, then forced herself to turn south again. Indecision on foot looked stupid; indecision behind the wheel of a car was dangerous and invited police attention. She stopped, briefly, at a liquor store and bought supplies, including a set of glass skewers in case things turned ugly.

As Mina herself might say, things always turned ugly.

1 comment:

Ash said...

I love the crazy mom!