As a writer, it pains me to say that at one point in my life I have completely destroyed a book, and not through the virtue of reading it threadbare, or even a scathing silver-tongued review, but through negligence and ignorance on my part.
Yea, I’m building up to something. Hold your horses.
When I came to New York at the age of five, my parents thrust me into the public school system on the rumor that American schooling led to better things than what they had back home. In a way, that’s true. Even before China reclaimed Hong Kong in ’97, the schools there were strict, and taught only the necessary tools to work in the limited fields we had available. Such fields being the service industry, architecture, banking, and some limited technological fields mostly to prepare one as a liasion to large western firms that wanted to build their products in mainland China. Liberal arts were, and still are, considered a waste of time. This is of course a mistake, as even today the Chinese people suffers from a lack of originality you can see in everything they hack off other cultures and repaint a garish, patriotic, hypocritically Communist red. It’s some kind of Pavlovian reflex, I think- the teachers were allowed to hit kids who misbehaved, and that lent a painful aura to activities like comic books, Game Boys and doodling, things that contribute so much to the rich American culture we have today. But I digress.(Seriously though, the lights come on in Hong Kong theaters before the credits finish. It’s monstrous. Saving it for another blog.)
The way in which American schools were both a boon and a curse for me goes back to the Prussian military system. Mostly people bring this up as a derogatory, to imply a jackbooted factory churning out social slaves for grinding into cannon fodder on some godforsaken battlefield. But I have that system to thank for eight years of reading, writing, access to a well-curated NYC library, pogs at recess, watching Labyrinth during teacher meetings, a failed attempt to teach me music and a massive, throbbing ego.
Nothing quite stokes a blaze of intellectual snobbery like having to share a classroom with ESL kids, developmentally challenged people and kids who had much larger problems at home than I did. Because that’s what the Prussian system is, you throw all the kids in one end and see who makes it out the other. Not that I wasn’t given some modicum of sorting, I may have skipped a grade at one point. The nineties was the start of change for New York’s schools, in so far as we had begun to have special education (and DARE. Jesus Christ, DARE.) To be fair I was too preoccupied to really make an effort to distinguish myself.
You see, my parents, well-intentioned though they were, had a very hard time of it those first years in a new country. My mother had gotten us there on the strength of her epic skills at banking, interpersonal connections, and scraping together two coins to make an actual meal for three people. My father had been something of a village sensation, having stood up for a lot of folks, single-handedly brought a family of ten out of poverty without my grandfather and could legitimately be labeled a big shot. He was the local bonesetter, which is basically the guy you go to when you get shot and can’t go to the hospital because you’ll be arrested. In New York, he was a housewife, having little market for his particular skills and saddled with a kid to boot. Unfortunately, his only reference for schooling was his best friend, who had lucked out and landed in a relative oasis of suburban bliss: New Hampshire. At the time he was married to an American, who knew the ins and outs of the place. Close enough to the academic aura of Boston and sparse enough for his kids to get the sorts of after-school activities and extra lessons that tax dollars usually pay for. Not so in New York.
My father wanted me to know Chinese kids, not realizing those kids were from all over China and had as much resemblance to us as Peking duck to ban ju. (My granny’s gooey, mochi-like cakes, unique to Chinese Hakka.) I was shipped off to PS 130, Chinatown’s premier public educational facility, incidentally named after Hernado De Soto, a fucking conquistador, which shows you how much of a damn New Yorkers gave about honoring the Chinese community back then. The only problem? The De Soto school is in Manhattan at Hester and Baxter. Our one-bedroom apartment was in Rego Park, Queens. The first time I saw a subway platform with its painted bars I thought I was going to jail, and I was not really that wrong.
Every morning I would wake up, about 6AM, which in itself was a chore. My father would threaten to scrape me out of bed with a wok spatula, which is as Chinese as you can get. It wouldn’t stop on the weekends, when my father had appointments with friends, and I feel bad for giving him such a hard time those days. He had precious little to look forward to, and he refused to leave a seven year old alone in the house. Sometime in fourth or fifth grade we moved to a basement apartment, where I developed terrible allergies and asthma, and mornings suddenly became episodes from ER. My eyes would stick together, winter was murder (BLIZZARD ’96 SURVIVOR!), and we were five more blocks away from the train.
The R train at Rego Park was cruelly situated next to a Pizza Hut so you had to smell that along with the platform piss and BO of everybody crowding in on every side. Remember, commuters, kids are only ass-high. I had never seen a train before that so the platform and the rattling spaces between cars terrified me every morning. Imagine crossing one of those with a foot-thick pack of books on your back, teetering on inadequate grade-school knees, the gaps as long as your feet.
Oh, did I not mention? Those textbooks were an inch to two inches thick, padded with handouts and permission forms in a regulation Doraemon backpack, and you had about eight of them every year, plus a binder for looseleaf, a composition book for every subject and a box for pencils. At one point I found a baked bun in there that was likely three months old, perfectly preserved by the New York winter. At another point I found fifty dollars from Chinese New Year’s.
Since the school issued you books for both class and homework use, I had to carry that motherfucker back and forth from Queens to Manhattan, every day, ten out of twelve months a year, crossing maybe twenty blocks total on foot every day. In the early years my father literally carried me from the station to breakfast, where I crashed hard, and then to school. He would stick cigarettes in my mouth when I was asleep and if it had been 2016, taken pictures for his Instagram. He was a pretty awesome dad.
It got to the point when I would kick that accursed backpack down the stairs instead of carrying it. Which brings me full circle to the book. The book I ruined.
In addition to the daily carry, my school had the policy of issuing a book for reading classes (what most people would call English, but I guess we had some neophyte American loyalists in the Board of Ed back then.) You signed in for one at the beginning of a lesson series and traded it for another at the end. These books were generally quite thick, like Huckleberry Finn thick, bound in what felt like bulletproof Kevlar. They were oddly shaped, refusing to be jammed in a convenient spot between books without disabling the pack zipper or making a gap big enough to drop the Titanic in. I have to say that while I devoured every book I was given, those covers were a bitch. Every time you got a new one you had to Tetris the shit out of your pack, and if you get it wrong you stick out like a sore thumb, which doesn’t help the self-esteem of a little kid any.
Inevitably I would finish the book before the lesson series was complete. Firstly, I was into reading, I had a large library of my own at this point. My parents were into converting large portions of their health and luxuries into books, so their kid would develop Modok-levels of brain matter. This isn’t a boast, since I had a 90th percentile in almost all of my tests and classes (generally about 97-100. My dad would ask me about the extra point if I got a 99, so I wouldn’t feel full of myself. Asian fail is real.) More importantly, finishing early meant you could leave the book at the bottom of the bag, fishing it out when exchange was called for.
Big. Fucking. Mistake.
I remember it clearly. I was tall, so my seat was at the back of the classroom. My third-grade teacher had a list in her book, and as each row went up she checked off the name neatly. Everything was neat about her, I remember, from her blonde bob to her impeccable stockings. Today we call these people WASPs, but at the time I just thought she was nice, a little exacting, but probably preferable to having Ms Frizzle on a daily basis, which was a secret desire of mine as a bored, sleepy third-grader who was alienated as a know-it-all.
When the first row went up I had already removed about half the contents of my pack, confident the school book I wanted was at the bottom. I had time sitting at the back row, a habit I carried all the way to college. Groping around, I could almost feel its hard edges, the unforgiving snick of its perfectly laminated corners, the cutting edge of its packed pages.
Then my fingers touched soft paper and I froze. All the rushed mornings and hurried exodus of last bells came crashing into my consciousness. The cramming of innumerable textbooks, the desperate shoving as lunch came and went with the jail-warden herding of an underpaid assistant principal. The subway jostling. The uncountable kicks down the stairs. Drooling on the pack as I slept on, unaware of the city all around me.
I stayed in my chair when the teacher called for the book return, hoping to all the gods and buddhas and super robots that I could somehow get away with it. But knowing my meticulous teacher, I was acutely aware I wasn’t going to. And when my row was finally called, I brought my entire pack up, my mouth filling with reasons, with circumstances, with recompense, what teachers and really anybody who can easily slough responsibility off onto another inevitably call excuses.
What she did first was frown. She reached into the pack. I could see the confusion, the challenge to her worldview, the incomprehensibility that anyone could do such a thing. Then she started pulling things out, things I had intimate knowledge of, internal organs I hadn’t the forethought to extract before being bared to the world. Small toys from my Hong Kong relatives, bits of pencils, candy, doodles for short stories. And then she reached all the way to the bottom, and when that prim, neat hand came out it was carrying a gutted Kevlar cover, flapping like a deboned bird, with scraps of pages clinging to it. Compressed, chapters made into accordions. Ripped pages, folded into origami. Scrambled paragraphs like eggs. She reached in and pulled out handfuls of vivisected words, cheap ink running like blood in smears on her fingers. It went on forever, and the carnage stacked up before her, damning evidence. Finally she was done, the bag tipped upside down, and I felt hollow, empty, as if she had unzipped me and ripped out all of my pages.
She crucified me. I was made example of. I stood there for probably ten minutes while she berated me to my face, saying I was careless and a slob and that she expected better. Then she turned to the class and waved the poor dead book around, showing them how not to do it, pointing at the other denizens of my pack as if they had stood by while I massacred their fellow. Then she gave it back and told me she would call my parents, and have them pay for the book. A death sentence, for most Chinese kids. I sometimes think Asian people have flat bottoms because they’ve been pounded that way.
My parents weren’t the kind to punish their kid. They preferred to reason, and lecture, and take steps to stop things from happening. This wasn’t anything a fancy parenting book said they had to do, this was something that came naturally, for whatever reason. I spent the larger part of that night listening to them, and helping to clear my pack of any extraneous matter, so I could show my teacher I was now neat, and organized, and that publicly funded books could sleep safe with me. After a week or two the load creeped back into a messy functionality, so it was a futile effort.
We paid for the book. I didn’t sleep well that night. And I think, probably, not because I felt terrible, which I did. I felt duly shamed, and sad, because my books are my friends. They helped me adjust to a brand new society, in which I was an alien and black people were still scary. Books got me through every day of slogging to school, and they still get me through each day working and scraping together a living for my family. They promised me something better than the life I was living, and they’re still promising me a better life, which I work for as an indie author. I was sad I had killed that book, and I am sad I do not remember what book it was today. It could maybe be A Wrinkle In Time, which is frankly unthinkable. I adore Madeleine L’Engle. And NYC Board of Ed would never assign something as fun and maddeningly scientific as that.
I think, more likely, I didn’t sleep because on a very deep level I knew what had been done to me was somehow wrong. I was, and am still, a person who tries to take responsibility for my actions. So the idea that my prim, proper and frankly beautiful teacher shouldn’t have paraded my shame to the class never occurred to me. I took it as my due, my just punishment. But wriggling though my subconscious was a tiny, burning little ember, which today I recognize as anger. Who was this teacher to judge my mistake without the context of everything I went through every day? Who was she to say I was capable of more, of better, when she knew nothing of my life? And I think, poignantly, who was she to enforce financial sanctions, however small, upon me and my family, when financial pressures were to blame, in part, for this tragic outcome?
Ironically teachers today are subject to the same sort of injustice. All across the country politicians are pulling funding for education based on the “performance” of the school. How stupid is it to judge a teacher for the grades of the students? That’s like blaming the mechanic because you forgot to put gas in the car. That’s just asking teachers to fudge the numbers and pass kids because it makes the school look good. It’s a meaningless metric that is only popular because lots of parents don’t go the route mine did. They can’t believe their child did wrong, and needs help. And teachers happen to be there as a handy scapegoat, too busy handling messy backpacks to fight back politically.
Teachers bear the brunt of social responsibility, and its increasingly difficult to even track where all the problems come from. The kid lives in a city shelter, he’s not going to do as well as the suburban kid who gets dropped off every day. Teachers even have to buy their classroom supplies so poor kids can have them, taking a financial hit even with their meager salaries and the mythical unicorn of tenure. My high school ran rampant with rumors that the principal was shady, which later proved all too accurate.
When I look back on that sordid book-killing, I have to thank my third-grade teacher. She showed me it’s common for people in power to misunderstand, and even exploit, terrible circumstances. Objectively my childhood wasn’t that bad. I had understanding, sacrificing and empowering parents, a mostly comfortable home, and books to call my own. But even with my relatively few problems and high grades, I couldn’t deal with the stresses of society. Why did I have to ferry around books day after day on a commute? Why couldn’t I live near that school, with my own ethnic community? Why was the fucking Pizza Hut my definition of American cuisine for two years? These are questions with no easy answers, but their root lies not in blaming people who make mistakes. They lie in understanding all mistakes come from many factors, and many regrettable choices, sometimes reaching all the way back up the person doing the blaming. Crucifying someone isn’t going to fix anything.
So rest easy, oh nameless tome from my past. Your death was not for nothing.