The ten-dollar beer cans had labels with tigers. In the Beijing Hilton I was starting something new, so I got ready the proper way, no rushing, waiting ten minutes with shaving cream on my face for the pores to open up. For now I was open to doing things without shortcuts. Thankfully the tiny liquor bottles had familiar shapes and colors. I took a swig of Johnnie Walker Red while I waited. Bear Grylls was surviving on an island on TV. The sky in Beijing was murky and my lungs would hurt if I went outside. After shaving I put on a tie even though I probably didn’t need one and went downstairs. People coming inside through the motorized revolving door coughed. Everything is wrong, I thought. I no longer felt like exploring the city, didn’t feel like stumbling around and talking with my hands, so I asked the concierge where I could buy bottled water and a mask. Her English wasn’t perfect, but she produced two bottles of water from behind her desk. She said something long and apologetic about the breathing mask—I heard 7Eleven—but I didn’t even have to go outside now that I had water, so I waited until it sounded like she’d come to a conclusion and I nodded. The concierge was very pretty, but I didn’t address that in an ungentlemanly way. I almost complemented her lipstick color. She smiled when I said thank you and it felt like I’d done the right thing by doing nothing. Now maybe something might happen later. I undid my tie in the elevator going upstairs and I remembered doing the same thing in Patton’s office the day he fired me. There were mirrors on all four sides of the elevator, so now I knew exactly what I looked like on the day I got fired.
I didn’t look that bad.
Kind of cool.
“This isn’t the end for you,” Patton had said.
He’d been the headmaster of Portland Academy for three years. Unlike certain colleagues, I had never doubted his qualifications, nor had I mentioned diversity hiring in a negative way.
When he fired me I defended myself with my nativeness. “I’m from here,” I protested, “the only one on staff.” Patton had a pad of paper with three years of hand-written evidence: too many shortcuts, losing focus and poor connections with students, native speaker or not, native to Portland or not.
“You’re concerned about the harassment complaints,” I said.
He shook his head as he reviewed his notes. His little pad of paper had no reference to the really bad things in my file. I’d been bold and kissed a colleague on the cheek a little too close to her mouth. It took a disciplinary panel three weeks to determine I’d committed no crime.
“No,” he said, addressing my defensive suspicions and then going a step further to say what I was obviously thinking. “I do not think you’re a misogynist. I do not think you’re a racist. And I do not think you’re untalented.”
So then it was about pure teaching.
No, I wasn’t like the other teachers. No, I had no advanced degree. No, I didn’t go to conferences. No, I didn’t change when it was suggested that I change. But how had this resulted in my professional death? What Patton had called not the end was most definitely THE END. One could think of moving on as a restarting of your life, sure, but I experienced this conflict as a soul-crushing endgame. I couldn’t explain it very well, but, yes, I loved teaching. I loved that school. Sitting there in front of Patton I suddenly realized I had nowhere to eat lunch that day, and my little mind went to pills and ropes and a shotgun from the barn I could dust off and fire with my big toe.
Now, in Beijing, in my four-star hotel room, I looked over the city and thought I’d still probably jump off of something tall. Portland didn’t have skyscrapers. Could I have done anything differently? Did all roads lead to this international Hilton where one could stir the contents of the mini bar in lethal combination with any number of unregulated pharmaceuticals sold at the nearby 7Eleven?
Of course I could have.
I wasn’t fired fired until I’d botched the Chinese class.
And Patton had told me it was an honor.
“Really,” said Patton. “There’s nobody else I thought of.”
“Nobody else free this summer.”
“No. No one else. No one as talented. No one as…you know. This is your way to maintain pace with your colleagues and help your department and help the school and help me.” All things I hadn’t done in a while. “The truth,” he said. “Okay. The numbers for French are down. Way down. We don’t need French teachers. In a few years, the Academy won’t be able to carry any. The others will move on.” It was understood that I wouldn’t; my immoveable roots extended down the hill and ended at the wharf.
“You’re fighting obsolescence,” said my director.
And then Patton made a call to his secretary while I was still in the room. “Send her in.” The Chinese counterpart entered and began talking at me a million miles an hour about her happiness—to be in America, to work with our school, to work with an expert, like me.
She was very pretty and I thought this was a trap, like a three-strikes-you’re-out type of deal.
But, no, it wasn’t.
This was Julia.
My first instinct was to act like a gentleman and compliment her dress.
“Very pleased to meet you,” I said. And I glanced at Patton as though to say: Look, I’ve taken feedback—I’m not an issue around women—I’ve improved!
He shook his head in a negative way as though upset, but more tired. I would teach this summer class, English as a foreign language, and if all went well we’d have a body of foreign students the next fall to keep me employed for many years.
It didn’t, of course; it went poorly.
The Chinese students arrived on a Thursday. Who knows what they did until class started on Monday. Portland didn’t have a Chinatown. All the classrooms were taken with real summer session courses, so my class was in the Humboldt room, the austere greeting space for rich potential donors. The chairs in there were all leather. It was meant to look like a rich person’s living room, where one might smoke a pipe after hunting foxes, if that were still a thing.
A full-bodied painting of the school’s founder hung over the fireplace. He wore a long coat that would have been good and warm for fighting the British. His eyes followed you wherever you went. I hadn’t been in this room since the old school head, Philip Devereau, used to have the full faculty in there for Friday cocktails after last bell, 3:30. I looked up at that painting of the founder and remembered how everyone used to laugh that the founder looked just like me. The likeness was in the nose. And now I was in the room again, invited inside for the first time in three years. Patton was sitting there in one of the tall-backed leather chairs looking over a class roster. He didn’t say I was late because it wasn’t a problem. The Chinese were late, too. “It’s funny,” he said. “That painting looks just like you.” And the way he said it, it didn’t seem like a joke about families rising and falling, but a comment on us both being white.
Julia knocked on the door to the Humboldt room and eight Chinese pupils entered after Patton said come in. These kids were supposed to be in middle school, but this was clearly a lie, since one of the kids had five o’clock shadow.
“Please sit,” I said, and then I pulled one of the giant sofa chairs to the center of the room and motioned for the others to do the same. Patton stood to leave, but he stayed a second longer just to see how things would get started. I don’t think the Chinese students had ever worked in a circle. They tiered the chairs, alpha kids inside the weaker ones. “No,” I said, “everyone must be equal.” And I was pleased with myself for saying something indirectly against communism. I’d keep a running list in my mind. Maybe we’d play Monopoly later. There were drag marks on the carpet. Patton didn’t look super-pleased, but he wished us well and closed the door behind him.
I breathed a little better just then.
“So,” I said. “Welcome to American Culture and English Language.”
They didn’t clap or anything. I introduced myself, speaking slowly like a good foreign language teacher. They went one by one like machines. The students couldn’t speak in what I’d call complete thoughts—that was the bottom line. They had prepared statements—my name is/I’m from/my favorite _______ is—but any follow up was met with awkward smiles on boys and tiny fanned palms covering the mouths of girls. One girl was really good at drawing cats. She kept a sketchbook in her lap at all times. The one boy who could speak well, Liu, only wanted to talk about Calvinism. Every sentence included a reference to Calvinist ideology and what Calvinism you could see in American architecture and restaurant menus. He’d read a state-approved book on American culture or something. This boy must have said something witty because the other kids laughed in a kind of way that made me think they’d selected him as their leader. I wanted them to laugh at me like that. I said, “Very Good, Lou.” And the other Chinese kids started laughing, like, full-belly, who-cares-if-this-leads-to-torture laughter. “No, no,” said, Liu. “LI-U. Not Loo.” I repeated Lou, but I said it with a W, like Lew, thinking that might be closer. One of the boys—who was really kind of dumb, based on his responses in English—fell right to the floor. Liu motioned with his arm, shaking like a piston. “You’re saying this,” he said. “My name is not this.” And he kept motioning his fist up and down in a masturbatory fashion until I realized that’s all it could be. I’d called this kid jerk-off or ejaculator or something of the ilk that would be difficult to recover from.
That’s a new record, I thought. Five minutes and I’ve already lost them.
Next, I had them write paragraphs about first impressions. And while they did that I pulled out my laptop and went to YouTube. They didn’t have YouTube in China, I was pretty sure, so that could’ve been a lesson. But then I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, like: Behold—YouTube! I didn’t care about learning what they had in China instead. That wasn’t a discussion that could lead itself. An Aerosmith song was in my search history so I decided we’d talk about music.
I played Dream On.
I could have cut it off short for discussion, but I really liked this song and its implied underdog and whatnot, so I let it play. After the song finished and I opened my eyes I opened the class for discussion. No one said anything, even Mr. Calvinism, which is now what I was calling him—Calvin.
“Okay,” I said. “What words did you recognize?”
“Dream on,” I corrected. “Yes very good.” And now a leading question. “What is the word dream talking about here?”
“What do you dream about?”
“What does a person dream about in America?” I interrupted.
“American Dream!” said Calvin.
“Bingo,” I said. And that was their new word for all-is-good, everything-correct, earned-pride-is-obvious-to-all.
“Bingo,” repeated Calvin.
“And what is the American dream?”
“No,” I said. “Happiness.” I spoke slowly. “Family.” I found the right girl and looked her in the eye. “Cats.”
The group made good learning noises like ahhh and ooooh.
Damn right, I thought. Easy.
I wanted to play bluegrass next but I couldn’t find anything quickly enough, not while they were looking at me, so I went for the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The song about constant sorrow.
I had to define sorrow as sadness, and then I could ask: What are these men sad about? Are they talking with funny accents? Do their clothes look new or old? How old? What happened in America a long time ago? Further then the depression. Yes, depression means sadness, very good—bingo—but, even further back. What’s the saddest thing for a country? Yes! A war. Bingo. And what war was the saddest? Vietnam, yes. But no. No bingo. The CIVIL War. So these men are sad because they’ve lost the civil war.
And next I played B.B. King.
Yes, very sad as well. Very sorrowFULL. But why is he sad? Did Mr. B.B. lose the Civil War? No. No he didn’t. Black people didn’t lose the Civil War. But bad feelings don’t go away overnight. Mr. B.B. is from the south. The south of America. Slavery, yes. Does China have a south? No? Taiwan? No? Okay, well Mr. BB is from the south, and he is black, and still things aren’t great for people in the south. Especially black people. The American Dream is hard to get down there. And, yes, he’s also singing about love. Bad love. Sad love. The blues.
“Excuse me, Teacher.”
“Is black a bad adjective, I think.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes, well.” I thought of a narrative. “It’s not bad, but it can be considered bad. I understand your confusion. An appropriate term is African-American, which is generally preferred, but it can sometimes sound like you’re being evasive from the word black, and, really, such adjective use is about sincerity and intention. And tone. I know you understand tone. But this is called cultural intelligence. And I can tell you about it, but you won’t know anything with certainty until you’ve experienced the culture for an extended time. Movies don’t help, because you’re not part of the culture depicted in the movie. Same for songs—especially hip-hop. And this is why you’ll go to University in America and learn about culture.”
The Chinese students were pleased I’d mentioned future study in America.
“But really, colors aren’t good for describing people. Unless the person calls himself black, then it’s okay. No, white is always fine. No, yellow is never fine. Never. How astute! But there are pretty much negative people associations for all colors—no, grey isn’t a thing, but there are other words like zebra, which is REALLY bad, seriously, and, yeah, let’s move on with jazz.”
YouTube came up with John Coltrane. Blue Train.
There wasn’t a live music video for this one, just a picture of the album cover. The students listened but were staring at the motionless screen with unnatural intensity, so I told them to close their eyes. The saxophone made their eyes move behind their eyelids. I was impressed. For one of those kids this might have been like an epiphany.
“So, yes. The majority of jazz musicians are African-American. But are they sad? Does this music sound sad, like blues? No. No it doesn’t. It’s free. Not like money, but like freeDOM. There is no sheet music. The musician does what he wants. And what does this freedom mean? When does the word freedom appear in American history? Bingo—after the Civil War. And these men are from the north. SO what does that tell us? Yes, people are happier in the north. Well, not always. But interesting.”
Things were going well.
“Is American music always sad?”
I explored for happy American music and the search pulled up some Native American rain dance crap, so I clearly wasn’t going to talk about that. I typed in country music and played a song called American Kids.
Good God, it was happy. I’d never heard the song before, but a narrative was easy. “Most people detest this music,” I stated. “Detest means hate. Write that down.”
The students took notes.
“A little messed up, but we’re all right.” (I was quoting here.) “Does anybody know what this line means? It means we’re ignoring reality. It means the people who are happy here, in this song, are ignoring reality. Yes, Calvin, the song is called American Kids. No, Calvin, I don’t think it’s a commentary on American indifference. That’s why people don’t like this music, think it’s stupid, think it’s unintelligent. It isn’t supposed to mean anything.”
I liked the song, to be honest. Seriously. I made a mental note to search more of this Kenny Chesney. It just didn’t fit the narrative. I thought about Simon and Garfunkel representing people from New York, and Freebird representing proud South—but how could I bring up a proud south when I’d explained everyone else associated with the Civil War was sad? That would be difficult. The Grateful Dead represented the need to move. But that was it. Time was up. I could waste the next thirty minutes with another essay about “What I’ve learned today” and that would be it. But pretty cool, I thought. I’d taught most of American culture in four YouTube clips.
“Take out your notebooks,” I said. “Okay, then a fresh page of paper. Fresh means new.”
After they finished their essays I showed them the pool, the fencing room, and walked them through the path out back leading to the lake. The school had seventy acres back there. They wished to kayak and I said another day. Maine is beautiful. I miss it. The grounds were amazing then because the graduating seniors had just completed their mandatory community service in trail maintenance.
On TV in Beijing the Discovery channel played a loop of survivor shows. Bear Grylls was done and now it was some other guy, also British, who dropped himself naked into Romania and was talking about bears. I’m like, you need fire, and he’s like, bears, bears, and then, I’m cold. No shit. He made it through ten days. By then he’d constructed a shelter from pine remains, brewed tea and stuff, and had even caught a deer. So he was good to go.
Beijing didn’t look so survivable. The color outside wasn’t natural for planet Earth. I thought about Patton. I wouldn’t be here in Beijing, calculating survivable heights, if I hadn’t botched his little assignment. I put on a mask to go outside. Julia picked me up in a cab, so I was officially outside in the mucky air for only a few seconds. My breathing made the inside of the facemask warm and moist. My nose was running. Julia was yelling at the driver in an aggressive way I hadn’t seen her exhibit before. In America she’d been docile and said sorry after every sentence she spoke in English. “The driver doesn’t know where the school is,” she explained now. “So sorry.” She couldn’t see my facial expression behind the mask—I was amused that Beijing was so new and sprawling that a driver couldn’t find a place even using GPS—but my eyes probably looked weepy from the hell clouds and she must have thought she was disappointing me greatly.
Julia was not just a teacher, but also a public relations woman for her school. I think she made the brochures and stuff.
When she came inside the Humboldt room to great me on the second day at Portland Academy I thought I was in trouble. A cameraman followed the pack of Chinese kids inside the room, like he was filming an exposé about bad teaching or something, and he didn’t greet me because he was filming. Julia wanted to get an introduction on film. She had Calvin introduce me as though we’d never met: “Teacher, this is Jijia—Julia.” And then he reversed the order of the words for Julia. I thought she had one of those two-part first names, or like she was using a Chinese name alongside her American one. She bowed deeply just when I stuck out my hand for shaking and I karate chopped her face a little bit. So that was awkward. Normal kids would have laughed.
She called me Joshee—like Joey, but Joshee—and I said, “That’s not my name.” No, of course, she stuttered (even stuttering, her English wasn’t bad) and she explained Joshee was the word for teacher and what should she call me? She repeated for the kids, “Mr. Bergeron,” and the kids ah-haed.
She asked me to ignore the cameraman. He was just her partner for the report.
The students demonstrated the circle style of American learning for the camera. They were already in their seats from the previous day. Then I really messed with their minds and asked them to break into four groups. When they didn’t move I gave them numbers and said where the ones would sit, where the twos should go, etc.
Julia smiled, not like an oh-how-cute smile, but a grin for witnessing history.
I’d done a little research into what motivates a Chinese student. Google helped.
“This is a contest,” I said.
A few fists pumped excitedly. One girl’s eyes got really wide and she held her stomach.
“Each group will make a formal presentation.”
I waited for an interruption, for a student to shriek “about what!” but nothing came. The students were all trying to face forward to prove their attention even though they were in little circles.
“Each group will present on a figure—yes, a figure is a person—or an event of extreme importance to the Chinese identity. Confusing? Okay, well, we talked about the Civil War yesterday, right? Okay, so everything in America now can go back to the Civil War—that makes it important to our identity. I want something like that for China. You have thirty minutes. And, yeah, I want a poster, too. There’s some big paper and markers in the back.”
Team one decided to present on an emperor who brought order to ancient China. I approved that pretty quickly and the other teams shrugged, made audible disappointment sounds, and put there heads back together. Team three decided to present on some guy named Deng who introduced the metric system and other types of order to modern China. Fine. The last two groups struggled to think of a topic.
“Really?” I said. “Mao?”
Group two jumped real quick at the idea of good Mao and then group four was stuck. One of the boys in the group said something in Chinese, and I could tell it was a joke, they giggled, and then the tone of another kid said, Why the heck not? If this had been a real class, I’d have been upset they weren’t speaking in the target language. But this looked intense and interesting. The kids addressed Julia, who was observing from a couch in the back, and instead of letting her answer, the cameraman answered back to them, not angrily, but forcefully, and then Julia explained it to me.
“May they present on the Great Stride,” said Julia. “This is their question.”
I shrugged, said, “Of course.” Whatever that was.
“No,” said Julia, “They are not concerned about your permission. They seek mine. This is controversial. And I have told them they are in America and may present as they wish. But they are concerned about the camera. And the cameraman is also in agreement with me. He won’t film them with sound.”
Sweet, I thought. Educational controversy. Communism. Dissent.
I sat next to Julia on the couch and she asked why I wasn’t teaching.
“I am,” I said. “This is student-centered education. Very American.”
The cameraman quick-talked in Chinese to Julia and she translated his question. “Why are they presenting ideas about China and not about America?”
“Well,” I explained. “When they come to America, nobody wants to hear about America. They’ll want to hear about what these kids know about, not what they’ve learned about, but how they live in the world as Chinese people. People want to learn about other cultures in America. They don’t want to hear the interpretations of America from people from other cultures.”
I’d never put those thoughts together in my head, but that answer made sense to the cameraman. He nodded and began walking around, taking film over the shoulders of the students, reminding them every few moments not to look at the camera.
“You are an expert,” said Julia.
I nodded, and it was meant to be a humble, oh-gosh movement of my head, but I think Julia took it to mean I was confirming her impression. I don’t think people are humble in China, nor do they brag. Body movements indicate statements of fact.
Expert educator or not, I zoned out during the presentations. These kids were trying really hard for the camera, but their English was 5 out of 10 at best. Calvin attempted too many big words and asked to start over three times. I said no each time, at last demonstrating a sternness I assumed he’d recognize from a Chinese teacher.
The final presentation finished and I realized it was a critique of Mao. Holy shit, I thought. They just said the Great Leap Forward was a bad thing.
Teacher mode: “Let’s explore this idea,” I said.
The presenters looked at the cameraman, who then put down his camera.
“Is this controversial?” I asked. “Is it normal to say the Great Stride is bad?”
“Yes,” said Calvin, in agreement with the rest. “Very normal.”
I wasn’t expecting this response. Of course it wasn’t normal—you couldn’t just say whatever you pleased in communist China. I thought we were breaking ground on freedoms of speech, here, in the Humboldt room.
“You talk about this in school?” I probed, hoping for what I wanted to hear.
“Oh, no,” said the cameraman. Everyone looked at him. Until then, I was certain he didn’t speak English. “This is something everyone talks about. But maybe at home. Maybe with grandparents who want you to feel guilty.” (This grandparent thing must have been an inside Chinese joke, because everyone giggled complicity.) “But not at schools. Not even with the new generation. Not yet.”
“Not yet?” I repeated.
I paused, hoping one of the students would begin and sustain a conversation.
“Not yet.” I had nowhere to go. I thought about comparing this to the Civil War. But nothing. No narrative. So class was over.
“Okay,” I said. “Take out your notebooks.”
During lunch in the Portland Academy cafeteria, while the Chinese kids haggled with the summer lunch ladies about their food vouchers and the lack of cooked vegetable options, I thought of how to best follow up the presentations on Mao and the Great Stride.
“What don’t we talk about in the classroom here?” I pondered.
The answer was simple.
Once back in the Humboldt room, the school founder’s painting overlooking our proceedings, I asked the students to share examples of diversity in their lives. They couldn’t do it. Bingo. They mentioned Chinese people from different regions, different food, colors of the rainbow. But sitting in a classroom with diversity was foreign to them.
“Field trip,” I said. And they thought we were going outside. But, no, we were staying in the corridors and killing the next hour with a scavenger hunt I could make up on the fly.
First black student, first girl, first Asian of any kind, and first French person.
The entrance corridor to the auditorium displayed two-inch photos, grouped by year, of every student to have graduated since photography became a thing. The portrait collections didn’t really represent America, but it wasn’t far off. Whereas the original pupils of the Academy were poor, they were almost all Protestants whose parents were looking for a British education. There weren’t yearbook photos back then, but those students probably had their own oil paintings in other places like museums and law firms. I imagined those portraits had dogs and guns. After the Civil War things got lean, evidently, and the school started educating the French—the sons of Canadian mill workers, mostly, and also some Italians. The pictures start up with this group in the nineteen forties. But even though the names are all different, some ending with vowels versus others terminating in consonant blends, the faces are identically white. Then came the sixties, when you would think things would change, but the faces are all still white, just with longer hair. And then you get into the decades after progress took place, and you finally see the echoes in our student body. The first black student was in the seventies. The school went coed in 1977.
Before I set the Chinese students free we looked at the class of 1981—the year I started teaching.
“Joseph Marconi,” I pointed out.
“White,” said Calvin.
“Yes, but what kind? Italian, you see? Look at the name. Ends in a vowel, see?”
Then I pointed out Patrick Michaud, a kid who played basketball and died of a heroin overdose. “French,” I said. “Still white, but French.”
And then, like a bonus question, I pointed out poor Francesca Horvath. And I only say poor because she wouldn’t receive her nose job for another decade.
“Italian, correct,” I said. “Her first name gives it away. Bingo. But anything else special about her? Horvath? An Italian name? Of course not. Her father was Polish, I think. So, yes, she was mixed. And mixed is not bad. No, not at all.”
Patton came out of his office to investigate the commotion in the corridor. Students weren’t allowed to be in the hallways without proper supervision. I choked a little bit. As he approached the Chinese students with a stern look I raised my hand (as if I were the student!) to get his attention. He caught my wave and saw what must have been a proper look of panic and he said: “Everything okay out here?”
“Oh, yes. You’re just in time for our lesson on diversity.”
The school director joined our group.
“It’s amazing,” I said. “These kids don’t understand diversity one little bit!”
“I found the first black man!” shouted Calvin.
Patton turned to the boy with an amused look as if this Chinese kid were claiming to be the most special boy in the world. But then our school’s esteemed headmaster looked to the boy’s teacher, me, to see what I would do—almost like a test.
“Okay,” I said to the group. “Calvin has found Portland Academy’s first AFRICAN-AMERICAN student. Let’s gather in a circle.”
We looked at the boy’s picture. His hair was trimmed close to his head. He smiled wide with perfect dentistry. He wore a tie when collared shirts appeared sufficient for the dress code. The year was 1974.
“Okay,” I said. “What do we know about this Marcus? Nothing? Okay, really? Yes he’s African-American. Exactly. Bingo. That’s it? Okay, so what do we know about Portland Academy based on this year? Is this normal? Is this the year that America changed? No. Okay. What year did America change? Civil Rights? Anybody? Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes! DOCTOR, Martin Luther King, Jr. So what year was Civil Rights passed?”
It struck me then that I had no idea what year Civil Rights legislation had gone through congress. Had it even gone through congress? Was it a presidential thing? Was the Supreme Court involved? Plessy v. Ferguson? Brown v. the Board of Education? The students called out years that were in the right ballpark, the 60s, and I kept saying wrong, wrong, without really knowing. And then Calvin said: 1965.
“Correct,” I said.
Patton shook his head no.
The students saw him shake his head and began asking him questions, which was a nightmare. They asked one or two uncultured things. I kind of zoned out until Patton, not really mad, but losing patience, finally asked: “What else have you learned in class?”
Calvin took the lead, narrating what we’d done—the presentations, the deep discussions, etc. (he was actually making me look pretty good)—but then Patton did the responsible teacher thing and said: “Excellent, young man. Now let’s give someone else the chance to speak.” And this I knew was trouble. He called on a boy that looked young enough to actually be in the seventh grade. I couldn’t recall the boy’s presentation. I couldn’t recall any moment when I’d heard this boy speak. “What have you learned about America in this class?” Patton asked.
I tried to interject, to explain how they’d actually been learning how to understand their own country, but Patton shot me a glance as though to say enough.
“There are many, many black people in America,” said the boy. He looked at me for praise. “And things would be a lot better today if America never fought the Civil War.”
Patton was done asking questions. He didn’t look angry. His face just didn’t have that patient, educator’s look anymore. He was ready to step out of a line that hadn’t moved in years. He smiled and wished everyone a pleasant conclusion to his or her Portland Academy experience. Julia was present, I realized, as was the cameraman. He’d been rolling away the whole time. For all I knew the exchange would soon be featured in a propaganda video. Julia gave me the thumbs up when Patton walked away. She thought my soon to be ex-employer had been impressed by the profundity of the boy’s answer.
After class I drove myself a little crazy waiting for a call from Patton. If I lost my job I wouldn’t find another one in Maine. I’d have to move, and that would be terrible. I was too old for any other work. I had no experience. My only skill was fluency in French; and the UN didn’t have a Portland chapter. I saw no narrative in which my immovable roots could be transplanted. But I might not have a future in Portland, I realized, and I brainstormed the various death scenes I’d recently seen in film. I refreshed my email every ten seconds. Instead of a disciplinary letter from school, I got one of encouragement from Julia—actually a forwarded message from Julia’s boss: he’d heard impressive things; he was looking for a foreign expert. Patton called before a reasonable person would sit down for dinner. I said hello and he asked if I’d been drinking. “Am I fired?” I asked. The phone was silent long enough for me to know the answer, and that he’d never done this before, that he felt badly. I was certain my life would be over if he didn’t answer the next question the way I wanted.
“Let’s meet tomorrow,” he said.
“But tell me first,” I begged. “Can you do that for me?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can do that.” My heart restarted. “I’ll write you a recommendation.”
Now I was in Beijing because of my foreignness and expertness. Julia talked to me about roads as rings and then we were parked on a highway. The taxi driver actually turned the car off and I thought Julia might bring out her big voice again, but, no, she was cool with it. Traffic must always be bad. Beijing felt less like an American Chinatown than I’d expected because there were ads and stuff in English. An IKEA was to our right off the highway. I looked at that for twenty minutes—the only thing blue and yellow in the whole cityscape—until the driver turned the key again and we were at the school a few minutes later.
Beijing Global Academy.
The welcome sign was a cartoon picture of a boy and a rooster.
Portland Academy’s mascot was the Hilltopper, which I still don’t approve of because it doesn’t mean anything. Yes, the old mascot was racist to Native Americans; but still, at least it was a thing.
Beijing Global Academy didn’t have a pool or a fencing room, but they did have a message parlor on site. It seemed important to Julia that I put my name down for a weekly appointment. My physical health was connected to everything and message here was evidently considered exercise. So that was okay. The receptionist talked to Julia with the deference of tone that I used for people above me. When we moved into a tiny office the deference switched to where it was Julia subjugated to this new man sitting behind a desk. All this hierarchy was pretty easy to follow—I just didn’t know where I fit in. The man stood as I entered. He was Chinese and spoke English and was the type of powerful person who tried to make you feel less inferior during first interactions by pointing out a personal character flaw.
“My English is poor,” he said.
He shook my hand while Julia, I think, explained how I wasn’t up to speed on social customs. I hadn’t addressed him correctly as Headmaster. That was probably her job, but this guy didn’t make her feel bad about it. He was all smiles.
Julia translated: I was esteemed, honored and quite welcomed. I would begin soon, once I inspected my classroom and ordered any missing supplies. The current American culture expert would, shortly, be subjugated to me, once I was brought up to speed with the social customs of the school. My apartment would be ready by the end of the week. I was greatly thanked for my patience (who likes living in a luxurious hotel?) and, again, the school was honored that I’d sacrificed so much in relocating to China to instruct the BGA pupils.
The Headmaster walked out of the office and Julia motioned for me to follow him. Pupils in the corridors greeted the headmaster and scurried past without really looking at Julia or me. The Headmaster pushed open the teacher’s lounge door where a long boardroom table was empty expect for two individuals standing at the far end, both hunched over a single piece of paper placed equidistant between them.
They took a break from arguing to look up.
“Lyudmilla,” said the Headmaster, again trying English. “Your colleague has arrived.”
This was like a formal presentation. He presented me with framed hands like he’d just performed a magic trick and I was the special, improbable, payoff. The woman he’d addressed smiled. Before acknowledging me she said: “I’m correct, Vice Principal Huang. Trust me. I’m very good at this.” She looked up. “And, yes, very pleased to meet you Mr. Bergeron.”
This Vice Principal Huang fast-talked in Chinese to the Headmaster and Julia said: “Of course Mr. Bergeron will review the document. This will be easy now that he’s here.”
Lyudmilla wasn’t a fan of that statement.
The Headmaster began addressing Lyudmilla in English and she said fine and walked out. Nobody in the room seemed tense or upset by that display. The Headmaster was still smiling, so this was probably another custom to learn. Wherever Lyudmilla was from, walking out on your boss wasn’t a big deal. I tried to place her accent and couldn’t. Europe? Russia? But I felt freedom in not being the negative center of attention.
Julia looked at me and I smiled. Then her eyes went big, like I was missing something, and she said, “You will now go consult with your colleague.”
The Vice Principal handed me the sheet of paper. It was a speech the headmaster would be giving to potential donors. These donors spoke English. The circled phrase in red ink, the point of contention, was the following:
“Thank you for investing through your child’s future.”
Through had been circled. Someone had scribbled “in” above.
“In,” I said. “Is correct.”
The Vice Principal fast-talked.
“Lyudmilla was correct,” said Julia.
Julia walked me outside and I thought my classroom might be in another building. Lyudmilla was there in the courtyard smoking. “There she is,” said Julia. And she pointed in case I didn’t see.
Outside I fought against a new instinct to wear a mask. I thought it would be rude to have a conversation where my new colleague couldn’t see my lips. Lyudmilla dug into a bag, like a purse but bigger, like something a mother would carry to the beach, and produced a box of cigarettes. “Here,” she said.
I declined, but tried to impart that I had no moral objection by saying, “Not today.” Grey clouds were at eye level. I couldn’t believe she was smoking. I coughed like a sick person.
“America?” she said, as in—You’re an American?
I nodded, not wanting to open my mouth more than I had to.
“Romania,” she said.
The conversation didn’t go farther. She smoked her cigarette and I stood there, thinking it rude to leave. This was probably polite in Romania. She seemed to calm. She looked at my shoes. “Room 210,” she said, pointing back into the building. “I’ll meet you when I’m finished.” She took out another cigarette.
Inside the lobby I coughed freely. The receptionist looked concerned, as if the American were dying and she’d receive the blame. I calmed my chest and asked the woman for room 210. I pointed up the stairs. The receptionist spoke no English, and looked even more concerned than when I was possibly dying of coughing, and I realized it was going to be an awkward transition to this school. Who spoke English and who didn’t? Who felt victimized by whom? How powerful was Julia? And would she lose face if I washed out? And what if I threw myself down the stairs, neck first, right here at school? Who would receive the blame? Just a few minutes before, I’d been happy starting a new job. (The school’s mascot was a thing!) But now, as I walked up the staircase in the direction of classrooms, I felt guilty about stepping on this Romanian expert on America and about leading this school on. How long could I really last?
Room 210 was at the end of the hall.
The chalkboard had been erased without real effort; it was dirty with dust partially forming a list of states on one side and capitals on the other. “So easy,” I thought. It was the end of their school year. This is what they did at the end. So easy.
The bulletin boards were filled with pamphlets and brochures and menus from establishments in Pensacola, Florida. Everything in the room, in fact, had a Florida beach theme. Either Lyudmilla had been a foreign exchange student there or she’d gone on Spring Break. Roller Derby. Lifeguard buoy. Italian Family Restaurant. Water Park. Library hours. Bowling Alley. Chuck-e-cheese. The room was a microcosm of one little American experience magnified to approximate the whole. Perhaps Lyudmilla had studied English language. Perhaps she was really good at grammar. But I could see something missing in her eye. I could identify her shortcomings and that felt good.
If this room became mine, I could change how it looked. I could change how America looked. And for a second, this room represented everything I ever wanted to do. Inside this room, America could be as I wished, nothing more, and no one would be expert enough to say otherwise. Here I wasn’t fighting obsolescence. At Beijing Global Academy I was the best and the brightest.
In the fall this room would be filled with students like Calvin and the cat girl. We’d talk about freedoms and discrimination and happiness. There would be a Civil War unit. We’d dissect films like literature.
Lyudmilla entered the room.
She closed the door and pulled the shade.
I sensed danger.
“You are a problem for me,” she said.
I looked around for cameras. Classrooms in America had cameras.
“No problem,” I said, trying to sound strong while taking a step back.
She was then up close, speaking only a couple inches from my face. This distance was probably fine in Romania, nothing inappropriate, nothing uncollegial. She placed a cupped palm over the front of my pants. She rubbed and squeezed. I smelled smoke. My pants got tight on one side and I shifted my hips as I got hard.
“Okay,” she said. “No. You are not a problem.”
She removed her palm. My front followed in the direction of her hand’s missing warmth.
“Such actions reduce you,” I said.
She turned and said, “We’re not in America.” Then she left the room.
In the corner there was an American flag on a pole. I wondered if Lyudmilla taught the pledge of allegiance. I didn’t feel badly about my situation. Everything indicated opportunity.