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Winter 2009 [Issue No. 15]

ESSAY

 

 

A Job's a Job ▪► Rachel Toliver

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I told him that he was a waste of space. That fire door between teacher and person snapped open, letting my inferno in. It said—I said—Hector, you’re just a waste of space. Maybe it wasn’t so absolute—you’re a waste of space. You breathe, and that air plunges into nothing. The space taken up by your ribcage could be replaced with a nice decorative pot. Your bones should be reconfigured into something useful—a fence, say, or a rocking chair for a young mother. Your twelve-year-old skull is no better than the bowl I eat my oatmeal out of.

I remember it different ways. Perhaps I said, Hector, you’re a waste of space in this classroom. Or—Hector, you’re a waste of space in this school. In this desk, which would be much more appealing without you in it. Whatever it was, it was enough to sop his face with tears. For the sake of the other kids, he said, “At least she can’t hit me.” I watched as he folded his gangly self into himself, collapsing his body like a tent. So I had said, and so he made it so. You’re a waste of space. So he made more room for the space, the innocuous classroom air. The other kids were a collective hush, waiting. He shrunk—a wrung sponge—and dripped out tears. “Can’t do nothing to me,” he murmured into his hard sternum. After that he was quiet, which was what I’d wanted in the first place. I had a classroom to run, state test scores to ensure, and there wasn’t any room in my regimented 90 minutes for Hector’s antics.

But once I said it, I wished myself gone—my bones reduced to sediment of chalkboard-dust. This is you, I thought. You are a person that tells children they’re a waste of space. I’d been a teacher for a while, and had seen all sorts of things. Fathers came up to the school with belts already flailing. Teachers yelled in kids’ faces, pinning  them to walls without touching them. But I didn’t raise my voice or my hand. I said it low, and level, inserting it like a needle into a balloon. You’re a waste of space. And in that moment, I believed the thing I said. Afterward, thinking about it, what bothered me wasn’t that I’d said it, but that I’d meant it.

What had Hector done, to trip the trap of my mouth? I suddenly couldn’t recall. His transgression got sucked into the void of that thing I’d just said. There were so many small and large offenses, mounding and mounding around him. It became difficult to differentiate him from his crimes. He was the perpetual twiddler, tripper, pincher, shuffler, mocker, poker, thrower, picker, peeler, shifter. When he couldn’t do mischief to someone else’s body, he’d do it to his own. Hector’s body was malleable—a pulled caramel toffee. He’d squish his face down and then elongate it, or twine one limb around another. It was almost like he wanted to find out how much of himself there’d be, if he stretched himself all the way out, and then let go.

Maybe what bothered me the most about Hector was the way nothing seemed to affect him. When we teachers—or even the principals—yelled, he’d jiggle a bit, then boing back into his set form. Once, he threw an entire book of lit matches into a vent, which he’d jimmied open in the boys’ bathroom. That time, I figured the punishment would finally put a dent in him. But he returned, after a week’s suspension, bouncy and plastic as ever. Like a splatted cartoon character, he fluffed right up and continued on his way.

After I said it, I turned to him, straining my shoulders straight. The other kids were thwunking notebooks open on their desks; pens itched at paper. It’s typical for seventh-graders to salve discomfort with nervous giggles, but this time, no-one laughed. Fear settled in the room; his classmates were afraid they’d be next. Hector remained curled up, puckering, sucking himself in. Two tears settled at the end of his nose.

“OK, Hector,” I said. “Can I see you outside?” My voice seemed to come from the bottom of a well. He bobbled his head around, lolling it to show that, while he’d concede to my request, he didn’t need anything from me. I propped the door open, and we stood just outside. I could feel the whole class listing toward us. He slouched against the wall, flat as he could make himself. It was almost as if his uniform—the shirt that had been white, but now was jaundiced; the loose, skewed tie — were hanging on the wall with no person inside.

What could I say? What could fill in the chalk outline that was Hector in that moment? What could restore me to the me that I believed in? Myself as a teacher was a backstage system—balancings and counter-balancings, sandbags and pulleys and wires, all straining and creaking against one another. Somewhere in the middle of all that, my heart hung on a hook, straining itself to keep the whole damn thing from falling down. Even this exchange had to be calibrated just right, weighted with just enough—but not too much—genuine feeling. If my heart relaxed too much, the scrim would plunge down, and the whole setup that was me would be exposed. Then I’d never be able to get control of Hector, and I knew how quickly insubordination could spread through the rest of the class.

“Listen, I lost my temper, OK?” I said. “I mean, teachers are people too. Sometimes we just let our emotions get the better of us, like you do.” He still tried to seep into the wall, a study in not-being. He was staring at the floor, and I knew better than to command Look me in the eye. How could he look me in the eye when he wasn’t really there, and when I didn’t want to be, either?

I splintered a bit, saying, “I’m really sorry, Hector. That thing that I just said—I didn’t mean it. No one should ever have to hear that.”

“OK,” he said. I’d like to remember that he stood up straight and made eye contact—a moment of recognition, dark darting into dark—so brief that it could have been my imagination. A look that would confirm someone was looking out, confirm someone was being looked at. But he remained vacant, a long rush of receding.

“Well, go back in,” I sighed. When we walked in, the class righted its slant. Rumor mills rasping in the classroom ground to a halt. Pens stood alert, parallel to paper. By the end of the double period, Hector was chewing off bits of his pencil and flicking flecks onto grossed-out girls. He’d reinflated, but the space he was taking up was air, all air.  

▲ 

I’ve just spent a morbid morning reading all about Comrade Duch. Duch had been a dedicated mathematics teacher before he was head executioner at Tuol Sleng, the secret prison where 15,000 Cambodians were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The prison has been called a precise department of death. Duch kept careful photographs of every person who entered the prison, the way that some teachers in my school collected their students’ school pictures. I’ve seen the photos of those prisoners: whittled-away faces stare in black and white; collar bones strain against skin. The Tuol Sleng prison had previously been a school; they ringed it round with barbed wire and put gallows in the courtyard, maybe where swing sets used to be. Duch posted the rules of the prison on a wall; like every good teacher, he made his consequences clear: If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or five shocks of electric discharge. There are photos of skulls from the killing fields stacked up on shelves, like basketballs in a gymnasium.

Comrade Duch, in photos, purses discipline between his lips. One story is repeated in almost everything I read, perhaps in order to calculate genocide in manageable math. The story is: when sent a report on a group of children showing dissident tendencies, Duch, not unlike Mr. Kurtz, scrawled Kill them all. Duch kept a small, leather-bound book, very organized, similar to a grade book, which documented crude human experiments. I imagine faded blue lines, perhaps cross-hatched graph paper, filigreed with cursive. The writing pitches forward across the page—angled perfectly, model script. The book documents how the Comrade tried this, tried that—what about throat slit and floating in water? what about stomach removed?

When I think of Tuol Sleng, I think of to-do lists and hanging file folders, of short-term and long-term goals, of meeting minutes. Comrade Duch—while pacing a tiled hallway, rushing from appointment to appointment, from blood to blood—might have suddenly thought, This is you; this is what you’re doing. But the days mound and mound, and the chant of a job’s a job’s a job’s a job buzzes electric, and the hours and lives click past like the tapping of typewriter keys. There’s discipline to maintain and there are lessons to be taught. There are undesirables that take up space, and a disappearance apparatus that must be maintained—torqued and tinkered with. Obviously, there are issues of magnitude here; the extermination of 20% of a population can’t really be equated with much of anything, without insult, at least. Still, I wonder—is zero times 15,000 that much different from zero times 1? Did Duch calculate the square footage taken up by the thousands of Cambodian traitors and dissidents, and did he deem them, in his memos, a waste of space? When the Comrade lined the prisoners up against a wall for assassinations, had the torture already evacuated everything that was inside? 

▲ 

Once—one other time—I saw Hector like a blighted star, collapsing in the gape of space. I was at the end of the hall, skittering from photocopy to cigarette, the usual agenda for my prep periods. The first thing I noticed was books gliding toward me across the floor. They’d fallen open, their pages ruffling, coasting with the grace of water-landing herons. It was only then that I looked down to the end of the hall, where Hector’s mother had fistfuls of his neck. She was kneading his neck, pumping and pulling at it. I’d seen her nails before; they were manicured with a clear polish, beige with a sunset of white at the bottom. Now they were digging into her son’s neck. It could have been like Homer Simpson throttling Bart, all eye-google and tongue-waggle, except that it wasn’t. She was yelling, “I’ma kill him, I’ma kill him.”

In phone conversations and conferences, I’d always been impressed with this mother; I knew how to differentiate parents who were run by their kids from parents who ran their kids, and she was the latter. She was tawny and lioness-sleek, poised in her threats; Hector called her ma’am, as in Yes, ma’am. I’d imagined that she probably gave him athletic, growling neck-scruffings—a bat upside the head, a gruff command— but what I saw was different. What I saw was Hector white-eyed and rearing away, his mother raking the blood from his neck.

I ran down the hall as the gym teacher, the principal, and a school counselor wedged themselves between Hector and his mother. The blood was surging in my ears. I noticed that Hector’s trousers, which—despite school regulations—he always wore low, were nearly shaken past his skinny butt. His boxers bloomed white above the falling waist line. His lips—my constant source of agitation—were curled back, revealing gritted teeth. His teeth were the only part of him that was rigid; everything else was loose and flopping with his mother’s shakings. As I came closer, I noticed the spit flying from his mother’s mouth.  The other adults pulled the mother away, her arms waving like a cartoon of a furious person, as she yelled, “I ain’t teach you to mess with other people’s stuff! I ain’t never teach you to act like this!” Hector slumped into the wall, while the principal and gym teacher finally restrained his mother, holding her still until the stillness became her own. Pity rushed up in me, unexpected. Hector was no longer Hector the fierce fidgeter, Hector the impervious imp. Hector was no longer much of anything; his body was hooked into space, but was nothing more than a form of nothing.

 “Please move on, Ms. Toliver,” the principal said. “You can’t help us here.” I looked for one moment at Hector’s face, and it was like looking at a tarp stretched over a pit, or gauze webbing the obliterated features of a burn victim. The social worker had rushed over and was trying to prod him into attention, but Hector furled up his knees and folded his shoulders in.

“Ms. Toliver!” my principal said, “Please go now. We can take care of this better if you’re not here.” I followed my orders, did what I was told to do. Insubordination seemed to be the last thing any of us needed right then. And I had a job to do. I had photocopies waiting for me downstairs, and I really needed that cigarette before my next class, to calm my nerves. There was only time for a few quick pants of smoke, and then the bell would ring, and fifth period would become sixth period and then sixth period would become seventh period, on and on, clicking past like slots in a Rolodex. As I walked away, I looked back, and saw Hector clearing out, making space for space.  

▲ 

Which came first—the time I called Hector a waste of space, or the day I saw his mother shake the inside space out of him? I’d like to believe that, if I’d known what I knew, I never would have said what I said. I’d like to think that the scratches, which were etched on Hector’s neck for weeks, would’ve explained his bizarre behavior. The truth is, though, that the time-line blips are random. Much of my teaching career was a dreary tedium, days and days that don’t congeal into any solid memory, other than a general feeling of sleeplessness and dissatisfaction. Months mounded and mounded, and nothing ever really seemed to happen. The bones of my memory are all mixed-up—shifting, unsure, mute.

Calling Hector a waste of space is one of the few things that I can distinctly remember. When I did that, I might have already seen Hector shrivel into the place where wall crooked with floor, might have already watched as he renounced his right to live in space. It might not have made a difference. I could have called him a waste of space anyway. I had a job to do; I had reports to file, meetings to attend. I had discipline to crank out, and a ballasted, strung-up self to maintain—wire tendons to keep in flex with ratchets and sandbags.

At the end of the year, Hector was expelled from that school; it was a gifted program, and spaces in the school were coveted. There were plenty of better students in the district, eager to fill his place in the school’s roster. In parent conferences, his mother repeatedly said that if Hector got himself kicked out, she’d send him back. Every time I heard that threat, I thought it sounded like Hector was a flawed piece of merchandise, like she still had a warranty for him and would exchange him for a kid that worked. But “back” meant back to Jamaica, back to grandmothers with scorching, religious eyes, back to walls spiked with broken bottles and spiny side roads. Back to a place where, as Hector had once said in a class discussion, You can’t call the cops when your parents beat you, ‘cause the cops will just beat you too. I remember him saying that, mostly because it was one of the few times he’d ever raised his hand in my class. Or do I remember it because it happened after I saw him in his mother’s grip, limp as a sick-joke rubber chicken? I can’t remember, but I remember that the other kids laughed and mmm-hmmed with agreement, and Hector’s smile stretched, gumlike, across his face.

          Hector is one of the kids that mark my dreams, a bruise that won’t fade. Although it’s been a few years since I quit teaching, he still takes up space in the classrooms of my sleep, where I am always wrong in everything I do.  

          After he’d personally executed the last few hundred prisoners of Tuol Sleng, Comrade Duch went into hiding, living anonymously in refugee camps and small villages. All of his papers were found strewn about the prison—unfiled—defiled by other documentation: clumps of hair, inch-deep blood, corpses handcuffed to iron beds. He’d blown efficient craters in the foreheads of those last prisoners, and then he went on to work for the United Nations and World Vision. Duch was polite, and blended in. Both organizations commented on his administrative competency and ability to produce effects; the years mounded and mounded.

Nine years ago, Duch was discovered by a photographer who engaged him in casual conversation by the side of a Cambodian road. By that time, he’d returned to teaching, and was head of education for his district, no doubt because he could produce desirable results in students. In a photo taken on that day, he sits at a table. His skin crinkles like a well-used paper bag, and his open hand extends to the photographer, as if he were proffering an invisible fruit. His eyes scrunch as he smiles, and his grin reveals a jagged mountain range of teeth. When confronted with his role in the Khmer Rouge, he denied nothing. He didn’t say that he couldn’t remember; he didn’t deny all those hidden bones lingering without justice. He simply said, as if he were resigning from a job, I did not get any pleasure from my work

 

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