Sun 9 Mar 2008
awhile back, Julia tagged me for the book meme, where you grab the nearest tome that happens to be lying about and post three sentences from page 123. it’s taken me some time to get around to actually honouring the tag, in part because the last couple of times i looked around all i could find to hand were books like Baby Duck and the Fuzzy Blanket, and Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, neither of which can boast a page 123…but over the weekend i actually picked up a couple of the serious, heady pieces of non-fiction from our dusty bookshelf and started – gasp – reading. i’m not sure why i suddenly felt like i had the time, let alone the brainspace, to tackle scholarly fare…and i secretly suspect i don’t and have simply forgotten something very important that normally sucks up all my spare hours and i will shortly be catapulted back into the reality of my drudgery, but in the meantime, i’m reading.
what i’m reading – or at the nearest selection of what i’m reading, because i have a habit of starting three books at once and finishing none – is the Edward Said Reader. and page 123, specifically, in terms of the tag, comes from an – ahem – provocatively titled and controversial little essay called Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims, with the fifth sentence on the page reading:
“On the one hand, it is associated with debauched and paupered conquerors, an arena lent by the Turk to fighting beasts, a part of the despotic East: on the other, with “the brightness of Western freedom,” with nations like England and America, with the idea of neutrality (like Belgium).”
light stuff. of course, as i’m reading the essay entitled Orientalism and not the one above, at the moment, i can glean that what Said’s talking about above is Israel and the discourse surrounding it, but am uncertain about the era, the context. and wonder if perhaps i ought to have stuck with Baby Duck and the Fuzzy Blanket, at least for public consumption.
the hangover, of course, of a weekend spent reading Said and Derrida in small interrupted increments, is that i cannot quite shake the pull to speak what cannot be tidily spoken, to inscribe it here and thus make space for it, give it shape in all its ambiguity.
the story happened three years ago, to the day. if i were making a conventional narrative, i suppose i would call it the beginning of the end. it foreshadowed tragedy, certainly…but i did not know it as tragedy at the time, was utterly oblivious, like the character in a silent movie who is unable to see the piano careening down from the fifth-floor window towards her head. it felt more like debacle in the moment, grandiose in its awfulness, but not tragic, not truly. later, i thought – and looked forward to reshaping it as – comedy. reclamation in humour. only when i discovered too late that it was not a part of my story but someone else’s, did it become too sad to ever speak of again.
when Dave and i moved home from Korea i was three months pregnant and it was January and there was a hiring freeze going on in government in my little economically-unimpressive hometown and so i took a lowly part-time job at the local university to get my foot in the door at a third the hourly rate i’d been accustomed to and started substitute teaching the rest of the time, taking all the calls i could. because in Canada, the government, bless it, offers a year of moderately-waged maternity leave to parents who have worked 600 hours in the year before their child is born, and i figured six months was more than enough time to get 600 hours in and pride be damned and i would make it happen. and so it came to pass that on a Wednesday morning, the 9th of March, i found myself (nineteen-week belly still half-hidden under an ugly polyester blazer that declared little about my maternal status but screamed “i’m pudgy”) staring down a class of
rabid bears grade 10 French immersion students.
there is a trick to successful substitute teaching. it is, i imagine, a profession rather akin to that of the lion tamer, who must enter the den of the animals fearlessly, always fully believing in his or her own control…except that for the substitute, the illusion of control must be relinquished. power is what a substitute cultivates. not blind power, either, accorded by mere status…if you walk into a class of students expecting that you will be automatically treated as powerful, or attached to the idea of your own power, you will be eaten up and spit out and burped on before you ever get to the roll call. but if you can walk in with your own personal wattage turned up as high as it will go, and demand just by that presence a moment of the students’ attention, then you have a chance by which to establish real (momentary) power, if you offer respect and a fair exchange. eye contact helps. humour helps. sarcasm, if they’re old enough for it…though not unkindness. substitute teaching is above all else relational, and if you go in clear that you are, after all, the sub and not a doormat or a dragoon, most classes will allow you to be a reasonable version of your better teaching self.
but they can smell fear. and on March 9th, 2005, i was fearful, because the class i was teaching were not only the first class i’d had at this particular school, meaning that i had no reputation to precede me, but they were a French class. and i do not speak French. barely at all. Dave had actually gotten the call for this class but was already booked at another school – we were both subbing, then, an awful whirlwind of disconnected days as we tried desparately to get on our feet in a new country that we’d almost forgotten how to live in – so he’d handed the phone to me. i’d been clear with the teacher that i really didn’t speak French. he’d been clear that he had absolutely no one else to ask. Dave had had the class a month or so before and declared them a wild bunch, used to eating subs for breakfast. i was clear in my own mind that we needed the money and the hours towards my mat leave. and that was how, on that morning, i found myself in front of 30 sixteen-year olds trying to stand as tall as i possibly could.
it started well. i opened in rehearsed French, introducing myself, checking out the room, pausing, waiting for the inevitable parries and heckles of kids trying to exert a little control over the institution around them…then surprised them, switched into English, got them on board with the idea of it being a “translation” day and was actually riding a rising tide of what in adolescents counts almost as enthusiasm when it happened.
five minutes into a day teaching a language i don’t speak, standing directly in front of 30 teenagers with no desk or door within ten feet of me and with absolutely no warning, i felt a distinct, warm surge of wetness down my leg, like i had peed myself. not a gush, but no trickle either. enough that i knew my underwear were soaked and very possibly, visibly, my pants.
i did not look. my first instinct was to grab at my crotch in horror and prance to the door like it was grade 1 all over again and i’d just had an accident, but…my self-preservation instinct caught on to the fact that no students appeared – as of yet – to be staring at my nether regions and howling and pointing. so i stopped my fluttering hand as it crept to my ass and i pulled down my best teacher mask over what must have been my momentary look of horror and i kept on speaking and i stood there without moving, legs slightly apart like a boxer’s. and when i thought they had a reasonable understanding of the task they’d been set i asked if there were questions and then, as their heads dropped to work or stare or doodle, i verrrry slowly crab-walked the fifteen feet across the front of the room to the door and said i’d be in the office for a minute and backed out and ran like hell to find a bathroom in that utterly unfamiliar school.
and i thought, thank jesus i’m wearing black pants. and i thought, my god, isn’t it early to lose bladder control? and for a second i thought, could it be my water broke but it wasn’t that much, see, maybe a half-cup and no blood, no mucus, no nothing, and i thought i vaguely smelled pee and was mortified sitting there on that strange toilet, trying to wring out my panties so i could get back to class because i was still only eight minutes into what was looking like a very long day.
so back i went, to French class. i called my doctor’s office at recess but she was on call at the hospital and so they could only fit me in for the next day, unless anything further happened or it looked like an emergency, which, except for my pride, it didn’t.
and the next day i had a scheduled ultrasound in the morning and the tech was unconcerned and uncommunicative and apparently saw nothing wrong, and i saw my doctor in the afternoon and she was concerned but swabbed for fluid and found no sign of any, and so i swallowed my shame and the sheer awfulness of that moment in front of 30 kids, torn between childhood nightmares and very adult fears, and i accepted that my bladder must just have gone on me and decided, this is going to be a funny story someday and i was proud of myself, see, proud of myself for handling it and not running screaming from that room like a little girl and never going back.
and just for a minute, for the briefest span, i finally had it, the perfect narrative, the Most Embarassing Moment to beat all embarrassing moments, just suitably humiliating but due to the excuse-all of pregnancy utterly safe for work and with the perspective of distance, funny as hell, to be trucked out at all slightly drunken events with a “yeh, well, i peed myself flat out in front of an entire class of grade ten students in my first five minutes as a substitute teacher in a language i don’t even SPEAK!” and yep, i swear, it’s all true and i know, wouldn’t you just die?
except we were all wrong, the ultrasound tech most of all, and it was not my bladder but fluid after all, and that early loss of fluid was what compromised Finn’s lungs enough that even though he was plenty big to survive when he was born seven weeks later he did not, and that was, to me, a tragedy even if the start of it all felt like it had to be comedy because what else could it be, standing there wet-pantsed in front of all those staring eyes?
of course, they are a false dichotomy, tragedy and comedy, the seeds of the other always inherent in either.
and it feels almost like sacrilege to even lay this story out here, a story whose narrative reads like it ought to have a punch line, and yet on a subject so sacrosanct, so recoiled from, that the discourse does not allow for funny stories. but i have no other way to tell you what day it is, how it marks the beginning of a fifty-day personal Lenten journey that does not end, my friends, in resurrection…at least not for the character whose voice the story silenced, the one i still miss, the one i bear witness to.
you can carry a baby for twenty-six weeks and laugh at all the wrong things and not know. and years later, maybe, you will mark the date and realize that there is no room in the language to say what you want to say. and maybe you say it anyway, because even if it is unspeakable, it is yours to tell and there is perhaps more harm in the silence.