by Sara Marchant
“But what do you live for, Teacher?” Dawn asked me at the commencement dinner, gesticulating with her fork. Noodles slithered down my leg. “What is the purpose of your life?”
Dawn was one of my problem students—starting her sentence with that “but” being a prime example. She wasn’t ever absent or obstinate or rude (I had those students, too), but neither was she usually conscious. She came to class, sat at her desk, pillowed her head on her arms, and slept. Dawn slept for two hours, four days a week. If ever I woke her up, like maybe to participate in conversational drills or to conjugate verbs on the board, she’d whine so vociferously in her high-pitched baby voice that her classmates begged that she be allowed to return to her slumbers. Everyone was happier if Dawn was asleep. Even me. Especially me.
Awake, Dawn took phone calls in the middle of a lecture (okay, I guess that is rude). “But Teacher! My father is calling from China! I have to answer!” She’d hand me oranges or hard-boiled eggs, and ask me to peel them for her. Once when I waited for questions at the end of a lesson about adverbs, Dawn raised her hand and asked if I thought she was fat. When I answered, “You are the perfect Dawn-size,” she gave me half of her orange segments.
Dawn repeatedly asked questions that she would know the answer to had she been awake in previous classes. One day she insisted ad nauseam that she’d never heard the story of Jonah and the whale until the entire class was ready to tear her limb from limb. Finally she admitted that maybe the story sounded familiar, but “Teacher” pronounced the name Jonah wrong—probably because I hadn’t accepted Jesus as my personal savior. Dawn was pretty insistent that this was my major problem.
When I took the position teaching English as a Second Language at an evangelical university I worried my Jewishness might be an issue. I didn’t know I’d have to stop my students when they started proselytizing to me. At first I was confused by the many instances in which students asked me if I’d heard their good news, only to not tell me any news at all but instead another Jesus story. Finally, my dean explained that Jesus was the good news the students—all except one from mainland China—were trying to share with me.
When I explained that I was born a Jew and will die a Jew, the proselytizing stopped. Turns out evangelicals believe that in order for the Rapture to start, all us Jews need to remain Jews and return to Israel. So when Dawn engaged in trying to “save” me, her classmates got angry. Dawn slept through more than just my class, it would appear. She didn’t get the memo about leaving the Jews alone.
It wasn’t just me that Dawn tried to save. My students, enclosed on a campus deep in rural Southern California’s high desert, hadn’t seen a grandmother since they’d left home. Nor were they given a chance to practice their English with anyone who was not me or a local Wal-Mart employee. So I took my elderly mother to work with me occasionally. The students adored her. They helped her to a seat, brought her cups of tea, and complimented her on her straight back and unlined skin. They asked her how many children she had and how many grandchildren, and whether she’d stayed with them when young or if she’d had to work outside the home.
They called her “American Grandmother” until I told them she wasn’t a Green Day album and to shorten it to Grandma. They lined up to hug her goodbye at the end of class, and after that I was “Teacher, the daughter of American Grandma.” Whenever she came to visit they brought their babies to show her, or little treats they’d baked for her, and asked her advice about life. For my mother, accustomed to American society where the elderly are ignored or patronized at best, visiting the students was, well, heaven.
Then Dawn cornered my mother at an art show. From across the room I heard Dawn’s baby voice plaintively asking, “Grandma, why don’t you love Jesus?”
My mother, born during the Holocaust and raised in Denver’s Little Italy by a mother who insisted for her children’s own protection that they claim to be Catholics outside the house, didn’t even blink. “I do love Jesus, Dawn.” My mother took Dawn’s tiny hand, waving around as usual when asking inappropriate questions, and held it in both of her own. “Jesus is one of my own. What’s not to love?”
Dawn was then bum-rushed by her classmates, enraged that she was accosting American Grandmother in public and possibly preventing the Rapture as well. The next day in class we discussed Dawn’s behavior, my mother’s prevarication, and the cultural meanings behind them both. Dawn was the catalyst for many teachable moments. Dawn, for whom being the center of attention was a great motivator, sometimes stayed awake for these moments. But mostly she didn’t.
All of the students were a little too interested in my personal life. I thought this was because I was the only American woman with whom they had contact. My fellow ESL teachers were men, young men who possibly lived at home (they weren’t saying and the fact that they weren’t saying made me suspicious). Neither of my co-teachers were married or had children or even girlfriends. Many of our students, married with children themselves, found these teachers emotionally retarded. Honestly, sometimes I did too.
None of the students had girlfriends or boyfriends, however. Such relationships were not allowed. There was a special dean, the Dean of Family Services, and if a student found someone attractive, he or she informed the dean, and the dean informed the other student. If the attraction was mutual a letter campaign began, followed by supervised “dates” and then marriage. If there was no mutual attraction, if the interest was unwelcome, one student would disappear from campus, never to be seen again (at least, not by me). When I learned about the Dean of Family Services and her duties, I realized I was working for a cult. Perhaps I should have been shocked or second-guessed my decision to work there, as some friends suggested, but I wasn’t and I didn’t. I loved my cultists. They were the kindest people I’d ever met.
I did understand a little better, though, why the students came to me with questions about American family life. Or married life, anyway. I couldn’t help them with questions of child-rearing as I don’t have children. Only Dawn wouldn’t leave the subject of my childlessness alone. All the other students—at the time I had eighty of them—avoided the topic, sensing from my tone or demeanor that I preferred not to talk about it.
“But don’t you like babies, Teacher?” Dawn asked me one day, having just woken up at the end of class. She was delaying my prep-time for the next class, preventing me from running to the restroom, interrupting the question Paul was asking about the importance of word root meanings. She was being Dawn, in other words. As irritating as hell.
Dawn knew I liked babies; they all knew. Students brought their babies to class if they needed to, and I cared for them while their parents took quizzes or worked at the board. Sometimes the whole class took “baby breaks” where, in the fifteen minutes we had between class hours, we’d accost the childcare workers and hug their charges. By asking if I didn’t like babies, Dawn was being disingenuous.
“I can’t have babies, Dawn.” I told her that day, my annoyance and my full bladder causing me to be less than reticent. “Not everyone can.”
“If you love Jesus, you can,” she replied, her little hand twisting through the air at shoulder height. “If you pray to Jesus, you have babies.”
The other student, Paul, took a step back. Dawn, less astute to the murderous vibes developing in the room, stood staring at me. Her hand was still up, questioning my ignorance. Only her sweet baby-doll face prevented me from smacking her.
“No, Dawn,” I finally said. “I’m afraid real life doesn’t work that way.” And I excused myself to the restroom.
I avoided Dawn the rest of the quarter. I encouraged her to sleep through class, even to the point of bringing in my car blanket for her comfort. A warm Dawn was a sleepy Dawn and the school’s heating system didn’t work. Winter quarter ended and Dawn passed my class. I had her write extra papers to make up for her lack of participation in class; my Dean laughed when I told her what I’d done. I wasn’t the only one who found Dawn a trial.
In spring, Dawn was no longer in my classes, but she was still in my life. She’d come and get me if she felt her male teachers weren’t understanding her or her needs. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of my class or my lunch or a meeting with another student. “But Teacher! I need you!”
Another female teacher was hired, also named Sarah. “Teacher! Are all lady teachers named Sara?” Dawn was quite serious. The new teacher tried to make Dawn stay awake. Dawn came to my classroom.
“Teacher! Explain to New Sarah! She doesn’t understand me!”
I went with her to New Sarah’s classroom where I explained that Dawn slept through class; that’s what she did. The new teacher stared at me.
“She isn’t going to learn anything,” New Sarah said. “I’ve told her.”
Curiously enough, Dawn was one of our highest performing students. Maybe she absorbed the lesson through osmosis, in her sleep. Her speech was high-pitched, whiny, close to baby-talk in its tone and usage, but grammatically correct (aside from her tendency to begin every sentence with ‘but!’—which I think had more to do with her personality than her skill level). Her writing was decent, no doubt due to all the extra essays she wrote (and that I graded). Perhaps Dawn was just good at languages. I explained all this to New Sarah, in front of Dawn.
The other Sarah looked unconvinced, and as if she might be judging me as a bad, unmotivated teacher, but Dawn patted my arm.
“Thank you, Teacher,” she said. “You may go now.”
I think instead of sleeping in New Sarah’s class, Dawn stopped going, because whenever I ran out during class time for a restroom visit or an emergency cup of coffee, Dawn would be in the swimming pool. One day she yelled for my attention and I stopped and clung to the chain link fence to answer her.
“Hi! Teacher!” Dawn was wearing a patriotic (American patriotic, that is) swimsuit of red, white and blue stars, a swim cap, goggles, and a nose plug. “Do you know how to swim?”
She briefly let go of the edge of the swimming pool in order to raise her open hand to ear level. I admitted that I did know how to swim.
“Could you teach me?” Her little hand returned to the pool curb in a death grip.
“Dawn, if you can’t swim, what are doing in the water?”
“Learning?” She didn’t sound certain.
“Dawn! I have to teach class—and why aren’t you in class?—get out of the pool before you drown!”
“Oh, Teacher,” Dawn shook her plastic-cap covered head sadly as she attempted to tread water. “You don’t understand me.”
She was right. I didn’t, and I walked on.
The next time I saw her I was standing in the parking lot with Jason, one of the other teachers, laughing over who knows what. When Dawn walked by she looked at us woefully, before entering Jason’s classroom. She almost immediately walked back out to join us.
“You’re laughing because you hate me.” Dawn’s voice was extra babyish for Jason’s benefit. He had a large following of fan-girls who frequently asked me, “Do Americans find Jason handsome? Or is he only handsome in Chinese?”
Jason was struck silent by Dawn’s statement. This was the male teachers’ usual reaction to Dawn’s brand of weird.
“We don’t hate you, Dawn,” I said, feeling like I had sand between my teeth. “We are laughing because life is ridiculous and funny.”
“You hate me,” she said.
“We love you, but you are not the center of the universe.”
“You love me?” Her hand came up, palm facing us, fingers pointing down.
“Yes,” I said. “We love you. Now go away.”
The dean insisted the ESL teachers attend commencement although none of our students were graduating. I took my mom. It was two hours of sermonizing about Jesus and how college was preparation for a life serving Him. I mostly talked to the one-year-old baby, Dodo, who sat nearby. My mother sang along with the hymns displayed on the teleprompter. “Try to blend in,” she leaned over to whisper. “It’s safer.”
We ducked out early to visit the restroom, where we ran into Dawn. She insisted on walking Grandma to the dining hall and sitting with her while I returned for the official photographs. The school was very big on photographs. Photograph phobic myself, I tried to tell them that Jews are like vampires and we don’t show up in images. They only laughed before informing me that I shouldn’t joke about the demons of Hell.
In the dining hall, after the photos, I found my mother at a table full of students, along with Jason, the dean, and Dawn. Dawn had saved me a seat right next to her.
“Grandma,” Ludavine was asking. “Are you going to get married again?”
“Goodness, no,” my mother replied. “I’ve raised my children; I’m retired. I enjoy my life on my own. Why would I want a man around?”
Everyone nodded in agreement, even Jason. Dawn twirled her hand in the air right above the tabletop to end in the habitual gesture of her fingers pointing down, palm open in supplication.
“Grandma is married to Jesus,” she said.
Jason and I laughed hysterically. The other students began yelling at Dawn in Chinese, and the Dean, a Korean lady who doesn’t speak Chinese, ate serenely, pretending to be elsewhere, no doubt.
“Grandma understands me!” Dawn was shrieking. “She does!”
“Yes, yes,” my mother said, kicking me under the table. “I do, sweetheart. I do.”
Everyone quieted and my mother turned to answer a question from Crystal, who sat on her other side. Dawn’s cold little hand clutched my arm briefly before she let go to pick up her fork and begin eating again. This is when she asked me the purpose of my life and tossed noodles down my bare leg.
“The purpose of my life,” I said while cleaning up her mess, “is to take care of my mother, and my husband, and the other people I love—and to teach you English, Dawn.”
“But that is…” Dawn stopped in thought. “That is very good, Teacher. That is a good purpose. And I am sorry I spilled food on you.”
“That’s okay, Dawn. I’ll still love you even if you spill your whole plate down my leg.”
“Oh, Teacher,” Dawn said. “You are the only one who understands me.”
Sara Marchant received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert and her Bachelors of Arts in History from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has been published by The Manifest-Station, Every Writer’s Resource, Full Grown People, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: All the Women in my Family Sing. She is the prose editor for the literary magazine Writers Resist.