Friday, November 6, 2009

The Tooth Fairy is Naked

Two afternoons of every week, I work for a taekwondo studio's after-school care program, teaching a group of about thirty kids martial arts and helping them with their homework. As an instructor, I also teach some of the regular evening classes. It's not an easy job- no kid wants to sit in a room for four hours waiting for their parents to come pick them up. Quite a few of them are typical kids with no self-control that their parents think martial arts training will magically transform into model children with superpowers. Nearly all of them are from the upper-class both-parents-have-careers families in this corner of town, and are spoiled rich-kids.

It's a challenging job, and there are days when I want to defenestrate them all, but I do love each and every one of them. As an instructor I have to hold myself to my rank and not be their "friend," especially with the older kids, but with the little ones it's different. I've gotten to know them quite well in the past two months; I love people-watching. Here are the nine most enjoyable ones- most of the other 21 are insufferable, and perhaps I'll describe them at some later point. There are also a few funny ones in the evening classes, but I don't see them regularly enough to get to know them, so these nine are the ones I'll end up mentioning most in later posts.

-Amanda is five. She's Chinese, pale with a very grave face, steady, thoughtful brown eyes, and long black hair that she doesn't like touched. Her head is full of the most outrageously creative ideas, but almost no one listens to her, so she's pinched and reticent and sullen in attitude. She somehow reminds me of a crumpled flower. When I teach her, I have to listen to a little idea from her here and there, and just the joy of having been listened to is enough to make her obey me enthusiastically for the next five minutes. She's cold, unaffectionate, and a little peevish, but fiercely loyal and intellectually engaging. She insists I smell like butterflies.

-Zach and Xandra are siblings, eight and five respectively; they both have the same dimples, freckles, and warm brown eyes, and sensitive natures, but Zach's hair is blond and Xandra's is butternut brown. Both are respectful, cheerful, affectionate, and enthusiastic; Zach likes to read and Xandra likes to draw pictures. I've never had to ask either of them more than once to do something, and I've never had to punish either of them. Zach is usually one of the first people to greet me when I come upstairs. Xandra is effortlessly flexible, and always declares that stretching in a straddle split makes her look like a strawberry cake. This is a mystery that will haunt mankind forever.

Here is Xandra's impression of what I look like. I had a Malacandrian moment, looking at it.


-Seth is seven. He's half Filipino, with short black hair and very bright eyes. He has elfin features and a chipper, piping voice, and reminds me of a little bird. He has a very symmetrical smile and impeccable manners. Seth is a lot like I was, at his age- precocious, but in an enthusiastic and scholarly way, with nothing of the show-off in him. He soaks up information like a little sponge and squeezes it out all over everyone. When he stops to think about something, he places one tiny finger against his chin, tilts his head, and gives a little high-pitched sigh, and then looks up quickly like he's been zapped with the answer. He says he is motivated to work hard so that he can become a plastic surgeon when he grows up, because his grandmother told him plastic surgeons make a lot of money. He's an innocent but calculating little capitalist.

-Logan is nine. He has a very long face and enormous prominent caramel-colored eyes that make him look like a combination of Silas Marner and an insomniac horse. His hair is ash brown and very thick, growing in a coarse, rounded mop. He likes to play marbles, and is impressed that I can flick shooters better than he can. Logan likes birds, especially raptors, and saves all the rough sketches I make for him so that he can color them in. He can be a bit of an instigator, sometimes, but he mostly keeps to himself. He says I am one of the three nicest teachers he's ever had.

-Harrison is five. He's Korean, and one of the hardest of the kids to work with. I suspect he gets made fun of a lot for his heritage, especially since sometimes he seems to understand Korean better than English. He always insists very firmly that his name is Harrison; I wish I knew what his Korean name was. He has very soft black hair and a peach complexion and those eyes that Koreans have, warm brown with lanterns behind them. He's a solemn child, and usually doesn't speak when spoken to unless I kneel down by him and ask him things very gently; he doesn't obey commands. For some reason, I am the only English-speaking instructor he trusts. He likes to draw fish and name them all Kim.

-Jayden is eight. He and Zach are friends. He's African-American, with very light gold-brown skin. He's a good student and usually spends his free time reading. He wants to be a math teacher. He always has a gently concerned expression on his face, and is soft-spoken and considerate. I don't know him very well, since he tends to keep to himself, but he's always more than happy to show me what he's doing, or have me sitting by for quiet companionship.

-Camden is seven. He has pale skin, freckles, alarming blue eyes, a skeletal grin, pale red hair that sticks straight up, and a general appearance of having been violently electrocuted and infatuated with the results. He's like a little stick of dynamite throwing off sparks and waiting to go off, and yet at the same time he's very calm and gentle. He only just started, but his pushups are better than most of the higher-ranking students'. Camden likes to draw, frequently starting out his pictures with a wedge-shaped sun shining out of the top right corner of his page and a quantity of blue water along the bottom, and staring dreamily at it while he tries to decide what to add next.

-George. I really oughtn't to have a favorite, and I'd certainly never betray the fact to the kids themselves, but George is the dearest little monkey in the world. He's five, Chinese, with sparkly dark eyes that disappear in crinkles when he laughs, downy black hair that sticks up all over his head, and what he describes as "a dark skin." Georgie is very earnest and insistent, and his narrow eyes are always fixed on me seriously when he's talking. He's not afraid to show affection, and likes to reach up and hug me around the knees with a blissful little smile on his face. Last week when I was sitting on the floor with Xandra, he came up and jumped on my back and wrapped his little arms around my neck and kissed me. For obvious reasons that kind of behavior is unacceptable, but it touched me deeply. He's so small that he always tugs on my belt to get my attention. Once a couple kids were arguing over which of them had just scribbled on the other's homework, and in my peripheral vision I saw George coloring at the far end of the room and listening attentively, and then he pattered over to inform me that it couldn't've been him because he had been sitting at the far end of the room. I feel extremely maternal toward him, and he responds to it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He looks at my eyes very gravely sometimes, knows I need love, and tries to give it to me in his own endearing little way.

This is a house Georgie designed especially for me.


I think it's the moments when they're with me and able to forget about society and just be little kids, that makes the job worth it- they say the drollest things, sometimes, and give the most fascinatingly outside-the-box answers. A lot of them only want to be listened to. And in a child's eyes, there's a pristine innocence and eternity that is nowhere else in this world.

Amanda: (during my first week, when she couldn't remember my name) Look! It's Long-Hairy!

George: I'm hungry.
Me: You may have some of my pretzels, if you like.
(George proceeds to commandeer the entire bag)
George: (generously noticing now I don't have any) Here. I'll share these two.

Seth: (chattering while playing War) I know I'm going to win this, because I'm a Libra, and Libras are born with good luck.
Me: Is that so.
Seth: (matter-of-factly) Yes. I always have good luck in everything I do, and it helps me through life. That's why I'm glad I'm a WHERE DID YOU GET THAT ACE?

Amanda: My sunflower seeds taste like french fries.
Me: Do you know why?
Amanda: Yes. Because they are made out of french fries, and have bits of salt up and down their bodies.

Me: (Playfully, during meditation) You should all be focusing and centering yourselves right now. Back straight, hands on your knees. Eyes CLOSED. I don't want to see any of you roughhousing before class; it drains your energy and then you turn into dead jellyfish as soon as I ask you to do anything. (Pause) Why do I hear laughing?

Amanda: You can't see the tooth fairy, you know.
Me: Really.
Amanda: Yeah- (whisper) I think it must be naked.