The Teacher Who Told Stories
By Bill Pruitt
They were about a dozen teenagers newly arrived in America, they were from Honduras, Ukraine, Mexico, Moldova, Vietnam, Poland. As he stood before them, feeling the way they moved at their tables (they sat at tables rather than desks), the way their eyes moved, how they held their heads, he noticed something unusual. The students were nearly all at the same level of understanding English: mostly they didn’t.
There was usually a wide range of English fluency among any group of students from other countries, even when they were all classed “beginners.” But these kids, he saw, were beginners.
If you were observing this group and had never seen an ESL class, you might have thought they were learning-impaired; everything moving so slowly, the teacher constantly repeating, using his body, his hands to express, writing words on the board to illustrate what he was saying; so shadowy and tentative was everything, broken up only by the teacher’s modulation in tone, his funny self-dramatization and storytelling impulses—for that is what he was, a storyteller—constantly sending out little life jackets and inner tubes to rescue them from drowning in language.
At one time in his life, his only goal had been to achieve enlightenment, which he had conceived in terms of stillness and silence and solitude. When that didn’t work— things kept moving and making sounds whether he wanted them to or not— he made a compensating discovery: he could be among people if he had something to do. If he couldn’t force them to just stop and stay where they were forever and save them from death, at least he could divert them. But he had to keep his eye on them.
Often it was difficult if they mostly spoke the same language and used that language with each other to understand. But this class couldn’t do that so much; their origins were too disparate, except for two pairs of siblings, a Ukrainian sister and brother, and two Moldovan sisters, all of whom spoke Ukrainian.
There was something else about this class. They were smart. Especially in the girls’ cases, (the class was mostly girls), the relaxed way they looked at him while they listened, the way they turned their pages and wrote in their journals in their native language, he could tell they had enough self-esteem to understand that this was a job, a task they had to accomplish, not a punishment for some failure of their own; and that they had enough intelligent energy to keep listening when almost everything they heard was noise.
Most of them, that is. The brother-and-sister siblings were Alexander and Sofia, and Alexander, at fifteen mostly elbows and legs, was affixed by the idea that he had to understand everything to understand anything. As the teacher spoke and watched, he could feel the boy getting a headache. Finally Alexander buried his face in his hands, and when he looked up, his expression showed dull stupefaction, even when the teacher knew that he was giving him everything he needed to understand.
Amalia, the older of the other pair of siblings was the opposite. Amalia was slim, with light smooth skin, dark hair and vivacious eyes, and a background expression of thoughtful presence. It didn’t take long from her responses before the teacher understood that she was using the very few words or phrases she could comprehend to link to new words, all the while disregarding what she didn’t understand, thus rapidly extending her grasp of English so that, after just a few weeks, she was having meaningful, if slow, conversations with the teacher, and with others.
He noticed how singular was her visible cerebration, her elegant, self-effacing composure in the face of uncertainty; how this effect rippled outward: to Amalia’s sister, Crina, light-haired and genial, quicker to speak than Amalia, but smiling and frowning at the same time, as if she could not believe the strange sounds coming out of her mouth; to Sofia, Alexander’s sister, seventeen, but with a receptive playfulness in her eyes that told the teacher how he believed she must have exactly looked ten years before; to Nguyet, quieter and more of a beginner than the others, if that was possible, whose shades of feeling would mystify him as they crossed her face; to Maribel, from Honduras, who sat in the back, with oval face, large eyes and knowing smile, beautiful, unflappable, wise and kind; to Eberto, from Mexico, tall and comically excitable, who would turn his head and squint his eyes as if what he wanted to say was too bright to look at directly; to Pascuala, from a migrant family from Mexico; and the rest.
Alexander and Sofia and Crina and Amalia all belonged to the Slavic Pentecostal Church, a large and growing congregation in a new building. The teacher was impressed by how quickly the girls learned to communicate with each other in English and how easily they took in Maribel, the outsider, the non-Pentecost.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said on the first day, going outside as they learned not only the English names of the cardinal directions, but where they were here in this new place they had come to, and this would be a precursor to the Social Studies curriculum he was also certified to teach.
“Let’s have interviews,” the teacher said on the fourth day of class, when they were all there for the first time. He paired Amalia with Pascuala and Crina with Nguyet and Alexander with Maribel and Eberto with Sofia. “What would you like to know about your classmates?” He wrote questions on the board. Date of birth place of birth how many siblings birth-order. When where how? What’s the last movie you saw What kind of music do you like Why did you come here? He called in Vickie, a secretary from the office to model interviewing. When Vickie asked him how many brothers and sisters he had, and he replied “none,” it was the first time that the entire class looked at him with utter incomprehension.
It was the day they did interviews that planes struck the Towers and the Pentagon.
As the year went on, he noticed how this class to a great extent could teach itself, which meant that he had to rely less than ever on discipline, which was exactly as he liked. He preferred to treat his students with informal respect, affection and gruff but purposeful humor. It didn’t always work. Teenagers mostly got his gentle needling and deadpan sarcasm, but once when Crina expressed an opinion and he said “Nobody cares,” intending a joke, what he got were Crina’s tears. “Why would you say such a thing?” she broke down, and he understood he had stepped on a sore place which hurt more than it could be explained away.
As months went by, he taught them poetry, so they could experience when sound and meaning did converge, smoothing the path to understanding: “I Hear America Singing.” The Songs of Experience. “Little fly thy summer’s play/My thoughtless hand has brushed away.” He gave them proverbs, aphorisms and idioms to enlarge their working vocabulary and to introduce them to metaphor. When they read the fable “The Fox and the Grapes,” they learned there was an idiom, sour grapes. Once when Alexander came back from a test he had been studying especially hard for, and the teacher asked him how he did, he said, “I failed. But I don’t care.” And immediately the teacher pointed at him, and said, “Sour grapes!” and Alexander smiled.
One winter morning he asked them if they believed in evolution, and why or why not. Maribel said she did because it was a fact of science. Alexander and Sofia were shaking their heads. Crina said, “I…don’t think… people come from monkeys…God make humans.”
The teacher said, “Well, evolution says people and monkeys are like cousins, come from an ANCESTOR,” writing the word on the board. “But does that make God… gone? Can there be evolution and God? What do you think, Amalia?”
Everyone looked at her. She looked to the floor, between the seats, up at the ceiling, pondering without straining, turning her head at different angles, craning her neck as if she were trying to see if something was there or not. “I don’t think…ummm…evolution means…no God.”
It may have been in that exchange the teacher developed a crush on Amalia. There was something impeccable about her, something casually immaculate. He didn’t have to worry about behaving inappropriately with her. He didn’t long for her. She appeared to him as an ikon, a swinging pendulum, engaged but unattached, and in her engagement was compassion, curiosity, intelligence, pity, perhaps love. As she listened and thought, her expression made him think she was waiting for the silence after the last sound uttered, for the door to close, the meaning to click, for the whole story of the sentence to be told. He took comfort in looking at her as from afar: in another life, she would be a queen, and he would be her knowing and devoted servant.
He taught them about haiku. Once he read a poem by Issa to them:
Cold rain on the roof. I think
of my childhood: was it only a dream?
Was I really young once?
He looked up. They were all looking at him. Nobody said a word. Finally Eberto said, “Oh, teacher. You shouldn’t read us that one.”
What happened to this class? People scattered, as they will. Nguyet went to graduate school. Alexander and Sofia’s family moved to North Carolina. Eberto went back to Mexico, and taught Technical English. Maribel had a baby. Then she had another. Pascuala went to Florida and came back in the spring. Crina got married and became very agitated with the teacher when he could not come to her wedding, even though he explained that he had taken on a summer job out of town, and could not get back. He heard that Amalia was sick and missed a lot of school; he thought of her with concern. He knew she did not get married, and guessed it was related to health issues, as Pentecostal girls always got married.
The Slavic Pentecostal Church kept growing, and this led to more students for the teacher, and a more complicated life. For as his classes grew larger, and more predominantly Ukrainian, he had to alter his way of teaching. For one thing, he could not as easily teach them English by appealing to their curiosity about the world, since their church had taught them about it already. This seemed to affect their ability to associate. It was as if he would point to the moon, and they could only look at his finger instead of the moon.
The Slavic Pentecostals were peacefully invading the U.S. in the same wave of fundamentalism with which terrorists were trying to grip the world, the same wave that evangelicals in America rode to prominence reinforcing Biblically inspired belief; everywhere, truth was becoming more dependent on the Word.
Even education became more literal. Research indicated that what students most needed was to learn to think, to reflect, to examine their values and explore meaning, but schools in fact did just the opposite: as they became more centralized, they framed the absolute factuality of the curriculum. Testing became ubiquitous, the only true form of assessment. The most important feature of the student to the school was the test score, and of the teacher to the school was the evaluation score, which was dependent on the test score. Teaching the Socratic method, modeling values and exploring meaning, were left to families and the church, along with field trips and movies. The most valued quality became that which could be measured.
Through it all, the teacher continued his way, telling stories whenever the opportunity arose: at Halloween, when fundamentalist churches insisted schools couldn’t celebrate it, but some did anyway; at seasonal assemblies, though these diminished as testing took over the organization of the school schedule; and especially in his own Social Studies class, which he taught as a series of stories, such as the sinking of the Lusitania. “There is always more than one cause for anything,” he said in class, “but still it was true that the captain of the Lusitania had been warned that the ship would probably be a target for torpedoes, and that he should run a zig-zag pattern to avoid them.” He drew the pattern on the board, and told his students how the captain wouldn’t do that because he thought it might make the passengers fearful; eleven hundred ninety-eight people died.
He told them how in Germany the Hawks of 1914 who wanted war and held power almost until the end, handed it to the moderates only when they saw they were going to lose; and how these moderates were the ones forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, and were consequently blamed, along with the Jews, for giving Germany away. He wanted them to know that history was comprehensible, even as fundamentalists championed facts only, which removed all meaning. Then the state got rid of the controversy by demonstrating that history wasn’t about anything except history.
Sometimes he enjoyed the notion that he was just apparently an ESL teacher, but secretly and subversively teaching “values,” which he couldn’t do so blatantly if he were not teaching English as a Second Language. But he did love the elements of language: the vocabulary and grammar and syntax that created meaning. Like the fairy godmother, he knew they had to see the whole process: the impulse, the pain, the loss; the garden, the mice, the pumpkin. The grammar! But he was careful not to stop before the story was told, complete: and it had to end by midnight. How many stories had he told, how many mice passed under the eye of the sleeping cat, how many midnights flashed in a whirl!
In the spring of his last year of teaching, with only a month to go, he noticed on the morning attendance email, a familiar name among the list of substitutes: teaching home ec (a.m. only): Amalia Bucșă! He caught her in the lobby on her way out, suggested they drive their cars to a coffee shop down the street.
As he drove to meet her, he reveled in his good fortune. To find an old student at this time, at the end of his teaching career. And that it should be Amalia! And that there should be time and place for them to sit down and talk. As she sat opposite him in the coffee shop, (she had declined food, saying she didn’t eat lunch, so he ordered tea for her and coffee for him), he was amazed to hear her chatter to him, just as women do, in the rush of catching up, a kind of breathy confiding, as if skipping over things because there was so much to say. It was a treat to be confided in with such apparent frankness, to hear her being chatty, even ordinary, so rarefied a niche he had positioned her in. She was speaking of having fibromyalgia, of having to miss a lot of school, of having gotten her degree in education, of just now finding work.
He noticed her skin was coarser; she had a scar below her right cheekbone, and he wondered if that was possibly related to fever. She was slightly heavier, and she moved stiffly, so the weight gave the appearance of constraining her. She seemed to have a slight limp. Her eyes had dulled, though she smiled at him. She assured him that she was all right now. “I was worn out. I had to stop everything. Now I tell everyone, my mom, my dad, we mustn’t work so hard.” It surprised him a little when she said that, and the way she said it, with such dramatic emphasis. When she repeated it a few sentences later, there was a slow, vertiginous dawning.
After he had told her briefly about his teaching career winding down, she said, “Do you believe in God?” and he caught the faintest hint that this was a question on which the rest of their relationship would depend.
“Yes,” he said, “But I don’t like it when people talk about him, or claim to know what he thinks.” This was true, but he still felt guilty for asserting and qualifying it under pressure. She nodded to show understanding, and continued to talk about how important it was that people experience God through themselves, and not through what other people say, or worse, pretend.
But he wasn’t attending too closely to what she was saying, partly because he could tell that it was intended for a more general audience than for him directly; but he also caught something in her way of speaking. Although she still had her Slavic tones and sibilance, she had improved as an English speaker enough for him to recognize that she had eased into a role beyond language, a role he had never imagined her playing.
He heard the voice of prudent constraint, the unmarried aunt, not just an older sister. She had passed him in the act of aging. He saw that the sickness that had set her apart from her community and made her different to them, now made her different in her own eyes too.
When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
She was no longer the girl whose bright thought scanned the darkness of her mind for what things meant, for how she felt. There was a shadow now, a check, that had turned this sitting down together, this rich exchange, into a role play in an echo chamber: everything will be okay if we don’t work so hard was her answer to every question. In the moment between contingency and learned response, the whole world had disappeared. This was Amalia she was showing him.
They exchanged various numbers. He remained the Teacher, encouraged her to use him as a reference for jobs. He left with the feeling he had absorbed an invisible blow.
He went home, looked out his window, and saw the world had opened. It was full spring, and it was the day of garbage pick up. Most of the magnolia blossoms had gently fallen on yellow crates with empty wine bottles and pickle jars askew, and a cardboard tube sticking out. Across the street, maple trees showed a breeze in the most subtle flickering of leaves which were not there last week.