Of the Dead
My utmost ambition in life used to be to understand my brother. I could never have explained this to my mother—I think she gave up on trying to understand anyone or anything years ago, when she followed our father from a Korean village with dirt roads to a thin-walled apartment in New Jersey, and put away her carefully worn teachers’ dresses to join him at the corner grocery store. Once, while fastening the heavy apron around her, she told me that the roads in Korea would mumble with mud in the rain, and spit dust against every footstep in the summer, but it was still easier to keep a dress clean there than here.
She never understood how it was that my brother and I learned English so quickly. To the end it was a struggle for her to extract words, much less meaning, from the rounded, slurred shapes of the language that bombarded her daily. My father never managed to shake off his accent completely, but he learned to join sentence fragments with nods and smiles. My mother silently took over the non-verbal jobs around the store, preferring to mop the floor and strip the skin from her hands in prying crates open to stammering through customer interaction.
Since then, I’ve studied how and why children pick up languages more quickly, and I remember my mother’s polite smile as she silently asked me to talk to customers she could not understand. I try to think of how I learned English—the smiling, brightly dressed teachers at school? The curious children, told to be kind and speak slowly to the new girl? The cracked black-and-white television that had come with the store? The customers? I could explain how English came to dye my mind, soon overpowering the Korean entirely, but my brother, who never spoke Korean at all, is a different story. One day, he responded dutifully to the coaxing overtures of customers with little more than vague smiles. The next day, he informed a lady, in perfectly precise diction, that the package of crackers she was scrutinizing was “on sale, two for the price of one.” His first words in any language—and as a matter of fact, they were not true. He was only trying to persuade her to put them in her shopping basket.
At the age of five, he announced that he would never go to the dentist again. “The electric chair was invented by a dentist, you know,” he explained to me, as if that were all-conclusive. I was twelve then, old enough to be taken aback and to ask where he had learned that and since when did he know what an electric chair was, and he was young enough to blink sweetly at me and run back for another turn on the slide.
And I thought, He’s going to be a writer. To this day, I could not say how I came to that conclusion. But his teacher that year later wrote as much in his progress report, praising his “exponentially growing vocabulary” and “precise grasp of the art of language.” I could not say if my mother made any attempt at decoding this. By then, it was our father’s job to praise good work, to scold poor work, to say that we could or could not visit that friend’s house, to pull out dollar bills after laudatory parent-teacher conferences. My mother never cared much for our teachers. By this point, she was mechanically signing notices, politely refusing invitations to talk to the class during multicultural week, and smiling silently, even disdainfully, throughout conferences.
My brother spent his years in the public schools as a puzzle. He easily collected the high grades popularly associated with Asian students, and for him to look at something once through his thick glasses was to know it by heart. And yet, it was so obvious that he never quite—cared. Teachers first looked approvingly upon him as he scribbled intensely throughout class in thick blank books, and handed back flawless test papers. They soon found out, however, that he was not taking notes, and that he completed their assignments as favors.
His writing was intense and fragmented, filled with dashes and italics. He hated ellipses and semicolons with a passion. We had long since graduated into a blue-shuttered house, my father had dutifully arranged for men to re-sod the lawn, and I was a year into college and commuting from home. Memories of term papers, lipstick hurriedly applied in the bus, and hours sipping sour coffee at the university coffee-house intermingled with the editing the drafts of his self-declared masterpiece. It was the four-hundred page narrative of a girl who mocked her college roommate’s Internet romance as being poorly founded and inherently impossible, and then fell in love with the boy herself when he came to visit.
He said that he was possessed by the power of irony, and devoted the better part of the year to it. If I felt that the characters—notably the hazel-eyed protagonist—fell a little flat, I never said so, and my praise for the descriptive passages, most of the dialogue, and plot structure were sincere, if clumsily expressed. What I could not find words for was the story’s naivety. He blithely wallowed in archaic phrases, devoted maudlin paragraphs to waxing aimlessly about complex emotional turmoil, and in short, produced a story that would have earned snickers from his peers. He wrote without so much as a thought for his audience. He was never restrained, as I was, by worries of what the reader would think and criticize.
Apparently on a whim, he submitted it to a district fiction-writing competition. I was unsurprised when it was not given so much as an honorable mention (most of those went to wispy-haired, round-eyed girls whose works showed a great promise in the careers of supermarket romance fiction). The winning story was a carefully symbolic criticism of pollution. With its self-conscious structure, clear message, and blatant allegory, it would have been a wonderfully illustrative teaching aid to any correspondence course on fiction-writing. My brother airily said that he was just as glad that his submission went unnoticed, as he had not known that winning entries would be published in local newspapers. “That is an insult I couldn’t have borne.”
I wondered if this nonchalance were rehearsed, remembered who he was, and dismissed the possibility. Then it was final examination time at the university, and for a while I existed only in snatched moments between highlighting textbooks and another cup of coffee. In that time, he began work on what he described as a tragedy about an elderly couple in despair because they knew they would not survive to see their state’s commemorative quarter issued. He had forgotten about an English assignment and handed in a first draft of this tragedy in its stead.
. I understand that his teacher had praised its strong grammar and originality, but had felt that it could align better with the prompt she had assigned. “This was a journalism assignment, you know. Now, these aren’t real people you interviewed, are they? And it doesn’t really follow an article format.” She offered him a chance to re-do the assignment for a lesser grade, and he apologized.
He interviewed one of the cashiers at our parents’ store (by now they could employ help, and my mother could go days without speaking a word of English to anyone). The woman alternated simpering accounts of her childhood with newscaster-style enunciations of her later life experiences. He wrote it up and gave her a copy, which she assured him would go on her refrigerator, right next to her “littlest’s art” and her “biggests’ report cards.”
She later praised him lavishly to my parents, archly describing his “politeness—how did you raise him to be such a lovely boy? He could give my biggest some lessons in respecting elders!” My mother stretched her mouth in some semblance of a grateful smile, my father thanked her (and I think he, at least, was sincere), and my brother got an A on his new article, and an Excellent work. I admire how you saw the human-interest component in a story that many people might not consider newsworthy.
He then decided to venture along the lines of romance, preferably transcending in nature. “I may borrow a bit from Romeo and Juliet—maybe more from Cyrano de Bergerac.”
I ventured that it seemed a rather uncharacteristic choice of genres.
He looked over me and spoke deeply and impressively—for a teenager. “He who looks for consistency in life is doomed.”
“Did you know,” he said one sleeting day, “a hurricane can unleash more energy in ten minutes than all the world’s nuclear weapons put together?”
“You see, though we delude ourselves into thinking that we possess power, and that intellect alone can give us a fighting chance against nature, mankind is truly helpless.”
As she usually did when our father was away, my mother misted into the room and quietly told us to order a pizza for dinner. Without waiting for an answer, she slipped back upstairs.
Our house overlooked a fairly busy road. “It’s terrible for driving,” I commented, gesturing vaguely towards the window even while I reached for the telephone.
“All the more reason to order,” said my brother, looking at the staircase with a strangely stoic expression. “Delivery boys don’t make much as it is, and they must have next to no business at all during snowstorms like this. We’ll call and order a couple of pizzas that must be hot on delivery, and should the boy die in a car crash, we can reflect on the irony that while we only intended to give him something to live on, we took his life away entirely.”
It only occurs to me now to wonder what my mother did on those days. She was always quiet, even with my father, but I know the difference between quiet and silence.
I decided to become a teacher. My most vivid memories of my student-teaching practicum consisted of eavesdropping on the hushed scraps of conversation my mentor teacher shared with her colleagues at odd moments. One day I wandered about the room in a vaguely professional-looking manner while the children were practicing their spelling words, pretending to jot notes in my observation notebook, listening to her discuss a theory about the periodic renewal of the human body. “They say every cell renews itself in seven-year cycles,” she whispered to the teacher down the hall. “Don’t you love that kind of thing? My sister-in-law calls it the butterfly theory, and she’s really into that stuff—she actually goes to a camp every seven years to renew herself in these beautiful ceremonies, you must let me show you some of the things she makes there—“
Despite the lack of consistency in life, my brother soon abandoned his quest for the transcending romance. Sadly, he took up one for science fiction. The results were surprisingly unremarkable, and I found myself oddly disappointed when I glanced through his work between long stares at textbooks and case studies and—in those days, how-to books for writing resumes.
He described his latest effort while I was proof-reading a cover letter.
“So this man figures out how to time-travel, right?”
“Sure.” I wondered idly if this plot would be more reminiscent of H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov.
“Well, he learns that he can’t die when he’s in another time period. I haven’t quite figured out all the details of how or why that is, but I’ll get to it eventually. So he keeps going back in time and throwing himself in front of cars—”
Never mind. Orson Scott Card.
“—and this is because his friend got hit by a car, and he lived, and he ended up marrying the girl who was driving the car. And his recently fired father got hit by a car, and the driver in that car ended up giving him a new and better job. So this man is wondering, are these people fated to meet like this? Like, is there some greater force at work that makes sure they meet, one way or another? Or is it just random that these car accidents happen, and later they make meaning out of it?”
“Yeah. So he goes back in time and he keeps throwing himself in front of cars, and every time, something meaningful happens with each person who hits him. He may end up having several romances, and maybe one or two revelations about life. What do you think?”
He was looking at me with only a half-disguised plea in his eyes—and ultimately, I decided to keep my opinion to myself. I said something encouraging.
“And it gave me an idea for another story I might start afterwards. This may even become a book.”
“Yeah. Lynn gave me the idea.”
“Lynn?” The one other Korean girl at his school. I tried to think of someone whose opinion he had less respect for, and failed.
“Yeah. She was arguing that people who tested on animals were heartless or something like that. Teacher pointed out that the information we get from them is worth a lot more than the temporary discomfort of some rats, which are bred for experimental purposes, anyway. Then she shut up.”
“So what about this idea?”
“I got to thinking. What if someone up there is doing all these experiments on us? What if we’re just rats in the great scheme of things, being bred so some creatures so big we can’t even imagine them are putting us in different experimental conditions? And observing us so they don’t make our mistakes?”
“I know. It blows your mind, doesn’t it?”
“Something like that.”
“Just think. Disease, natural disasters, all that stuff—it could just be experimental variables!”
I can’t remember if he ever put that idea on paper or not—he had stopped asking me to read his drafts a long time ago. The science fiction phase ran its course, and I found a job teaching at a nearby elementary school. It was one of the two schools that accepted the application of a waif-like twenty-two-year-old with lackluster reviews for her student-teaching performance, and who could only sound half-enthusiastic during interviews. I chose this school because it was large enough for me to be anonymous at staff meetings, and close enough for me to stay at home.
He comes in every now and then to volunteer on class projects, and the children love him. I am big on class projects. I make everything colorful, photogenic, and easy for children to write and talk about. I shepherded my children through a Leo Lionni unit culminating in a character parade, complete with grocery-bag costumes that left a trail of paper scraps and dyed cotton balls in the hallway. I’ve made the classroom an underwater grotto, a space station, and a Native American village. One of the mothers is a photographer, and she compiles professional-looking posters for me to display, crowded with brightly colored photographs and cloyingly alliterated captions. I hang them on the doorway as a talisman to ward people off. <i>There, I’m a good teacher, see. They’re having fun. They’re being productive. Leave me alone.</i>
To my surprise, the children did excellently on the ESPA exams, and the principal called me in to congratulate me. I got a nomination for some district award for first-year teachers—didn’t win it, of course, as I must have lost points on the relationship-with-colleagues section. Still, I photocopied the letter of nomination and sent it to my mentor teacher, adding a syrupy note about how my success was all due to her encouragement and wonderful example. I almost meant it.
For a while, the other teachers tried to make casual conversation on the rare occasions I had to retrieve something from the teacher’s lounge and couldn’t send a student. I hated them for it.
My brother dabbled for a while in historical fiction, and actually won a state-wide contest for the most “engaging and academically accurate” story based on the early history of New Jersey. He decided to pursue this in greater depth. “I think people tend to like this kind of thing,” he explained. “They can look back and get misty-eyed with nostalgia for how wonderful everything was in the past. Guilty pleasure.”
It hurt. I almost wished he’d return to science fiction.
Her progress is slow, but unbroken. I watch her as she bends protectively over her paper. The other students have, in typical second-grade fashion, rushed through at least a page or two--there has been an outbreak of unofficial speed and length competitions in journal-writing lately. I know I should stop it, and I would—if I cared enough.
My lesson plans would read beautifully in a professional teacher's manual. Everything I say and how I say it could be cited as an example of the ideal classroom in one of those horribly sweet videos inflicted upon student-teachers all across the country—I know I watched my share. My classroom is blinding with violent splashes of primary color--nearly every square foot of wall-space is covered with some form of student work, and I take care that the colors are undiluted, that the strokes are broad--that the room assaults the viewer and forces him to gasp something about the vitality of the environment.
The twenty-seven children grouped around the room in cooperative clusters will do what I say, because to do otherwise is unthinkable. So much have I taught them. They have learned to accept my elaborate explanations, straight from teaching manuals, littered with terms like "reading explorers" and “math detectives.” They obediently squint at rocks under chipped magnifying glasses and mess up the rug with counting chips and read bland little booklets with flat illustrations and repeated use of consonant blends and take part in dizzying projects that I make sure to conclude near dismissal time, so they can race out into their parents’ humming cars, insisting that they can’t wait to come back again and finish their paper-mâche mammals for the forest unit. . . .
I am afraid. I let the classroom volume rise—higher and higher. Now and then a student from another class will duck in and tell me Mrs. Vaughn’s class is asking their fellow second-graders to do them a favor and keep it down just a little—but I fulfill these requests reluctantly and sometimes not at all.
They trust me. They believe me when I say that they are scientists, that they have done a wonderful job cleaning up after snack, that their self-portraits are beautiful, that I love them. Their parents believe me when I tell them that I cherish their child’s imagination and personality, that I look at him or her and see the product of meaningful lives. My mother believes me when I tell her that I love teaching. There was a time when she might have questioned me further, but she has been fading into the air for years now, and she cannot summon up the substance to voice any real concern. I even doubt that she will do more than mouth the scripted words of disbelief when my brother tells her that he is going. My father will have more to say, perhaps, but it will not mean enough.
My brother has begun to talk about writing my mother’s memoirs for her—but I know him well enough to be sure that he would never dare to suggest it.