Thursday, December 24, 2009

…and also with you

Of the many Christmas Eve memories I have stored up over the years, the one that brings me the most joy has nothing to do with stuffed stockings or present peeking or Santa appearances—all of which I do remember, but not with much fervor. Of course presents were of superior importance to me, especially back in small-kid days. There was this Barbie Townhouse that I had hounded my parents about from one Christmas to the next, and perhaps after my well-rehearsed begging session, they caved in and allowed me to open the Big Giftie on the Christmas Eve before I turned eight.

Upon shredding the pristinely wrapped box, I beheld the object of my longing. I was eternally overjoyed with this pink palace of Barbie wonderland—unaware that in a few days it would became the SWAT headquarters on my cul-de-sac for the mud-caked GI Joe’s, owned by the all-boy encampment that surrounded my house.

It was after the unveiling of my townhouse that we sipped the traditional hot eggnog, peppered with nutmeg. Then out of nowhere, my mom handed me my warmest coat and told me to get in the car. It was late—close to midnight, and I had no idea what we were doing. Since my mom didn’t drive, my dad navigated us through a thick curtain of California fog, into the heart of Los Alamitos, where he pulled into the parking lot of St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church. My mom and I got out, leaving behind my church-phobic dad to sit in the car, listening to his late-night yuletide radio.

Inside the small church, the dimmed lighting and Gregorian chorus had convinced me that we had entered a place perhaps even more sacred than Disneyland. My mom dipped her hand into a water basin and crossed herself. Oblivious, I followed her lead. We found a seat and took off our coats.

Most of the service made little sense to me, especially since parts of it were delivered in Latin. We stood. We sat. We stood again. We kneeled. My mom nudged me every time I yawned as the priest, Father McCarthy (I think), spoke in monotonic phrases. People surrounding me were repeating his words, and since I loved participating in everything, I kicked in and tried my best to repeat whatever it was he said.

The choir resumed when the incense man entered, waving a smoky metal ball, followed by more standing, sitting, and kneeling. After repeating more verses and whatnot, a gentle guitar began to strum a simple tune. Father McCarthy stepped forward and became wholly human to me when he said, “Peace be with you.” I was about to copy, but the response this time was different.

“…and also with you.”

He said it again. “Peace…be with you.”

We responded, and before I could process the scenario, a woman in front of us had turned to me, took my hand into hers, and said, “Peace be with you.” My mom prompted me to return the blessing, which I did wholeheartedly. With the guitar still strumming, we continued exchanging peace with everyone around us. I soaked up the hugs, the pats, and the words, literally basking in the omnipresence of peace.

The service ended with an a cappella singing of Silent Night. My mom, with her deep raspy voice, sang along softly. I wanted to sing, but the all-encompassing awe kept me silent.

After the service, we found my dad in the car, dozed off in his own heavenly peace, and went home. I don’t remember anything specific about the following morning. Christmas morning. Perhaps my dude neighbor friends came over with their new GI Joe’s to hang with my Barbie in her new lofty dwelling place. Who’s to say?

My mom and I continued to visit St. Hedwig’s and made every effort to attend midnight mass each year. After she died, I only went once more on my own. The “Peace be with you’s” still meant the world to me, and singing Silent Night brought my soul back to life.

And it’s still with me—this peace that passes all understanding.

May it be also with you.

(this is not St. Hedwig's)

(this is)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who Cares?

Almost two years ago, Matthew Higa threw a twenty-three month-old baby off the Miller overpass onto to the H-1 freeway in Honolulu. Twelve years before that, Matthew was a seventh-grader in my homeroom and English class. I have taught over 1,500 students, and Matthew is one that has made a lasting impression on me from the first day I met him.

His mom had died before he started seventh grade, and over the course of that one school year, I observed his thick black hair become streaked with gray. It was obvious that he was distressed, but no one really knew what to do for him. He struggled academically and was a bit on the shy side around teachers, but his peers liked him, especially for his random sense of humor. Because of his large frame, we all referred to him as a big teddy bear of a guy.

Now, after almost two years in prison, Matthew’s case is on trial. I saw him on the news Thursday night and felt the same surge in my gut as I did two years ago when he first appeared on the news, high on crystal meth, shouting at cops and reporters "Thank you for everything!"

The details are complicated, but the bottom line is that the baby died as a result of crystal meth abuse. Little Cyrus had no one sober enough to care for him, and perhaps in Matthew’s crazed mind, he thought there was no hope for a baby surrounded by addicts. It continuously haunts me that maybe I could have done something back in Matthew’s seventh grade year to prevent him from diving into a life that spiraled him out of control.

When I read Peter Høeg’s book Borderliners, I couldn’t help but connect it to my experience with Matthew. Høeg defines a borderliner as “someone who could not finish the tests in time.” His tragic story takes place in a private academy for orphans in Denmark, a place of strict rules and abuse, where a child is not granted the right to speak out against its leaders. While Matthew was not an orphan, and our academy was not abusive, he was still a borderliner, a struggler who had to fend for himself and seemed to lack the emotional support he needed at home.

Høeg claims that when children cry, you talk to them about “tomorrow.” I never saw Matthew cry, but several times I remember seeing an expression on his face that would prompt me to chat with him about whatever was on his mind. He wouldn’t say much, and I wouldn’t prod any deeper than I knew he was comfortable with. Many times I wanted to talk to Matthew about his future to try to divert him from his sadness, but it never felt right to single him out that way. Instead, I tried to help him by simply treating him like I treated everyone else, hoping he might enjoy the feeling of being part of the norm.

I want to believe that Matthew knew I cared—that I worried about his PE clothes getting washed so he wouldn’t get a bad grade in an easy class—that I pinned reminders on his backpack to get forms signed and to do his English homework. It rarely ever paid off. He was always late with everything, and whatever he did turn in was never quite right. I’m sure Matthew has no idea that I cried in my empty classroom several times when the students all went home after school to their families, while I imagined Matthew going home to an unbearable emptiness. Høeg believes that if you have once sensed that someone cares for you, then you will never sink again. Perhaps I could have shown Matthew that I cared more. I could have brought him to my house once in a while so he could hang out with my family and learn how to play Scrabble or chess. It just didn’t seem right to interfere, but now I can only wonder.

“What does it mean to fail a child?” Høeg asks. I have seen over the years that it begins with underestimating and ends with indifference. Our school made it too difficult for Matthew to hang on past the eighth grade, so off he went to a gritty public school, where he got lost in the shuffle and eventually wound up on drugs. The second blow came when he was sixteen, racing on the freeway, which resulted in a crash that killed one of his friends. From that point, I have to believe that Matthew gave up.

I am hoping to visit Matthew when his court hearing is over. He will be detained somewhere for the rest of his life, which is what he deserves, but he should not be left alone, without a support system. Høeg adds, “If a man becomes totally, totally alone, then he is lost,” so I want to make sure that Matthew knows he is not alone, that I have been an absent presence in his life all these years.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Since August, I have been busting moves on the Zumba dance floors in Honolulu. Two to three times a week, for one solid hour of pure sweat, I have samba’d and mamboed and cha-cha-cha’d myself silly—all in an effort to prevent those diabolical blood clots from returning to my thick-blooded arteries.

According to, an hour of Zumba burns approximately 600-1000 calories if done with full-out effort, which is hard not to do if you have an instructor that demands it. My Monday/Friday class is taught by professional dance instructor Chelsey, a ponytail-whipping fireball who makes one hour feel like ten minutes. She cranks out Latino and Middle Eastern moves and winds us down with two of the choreographed dances from Slumdog Millionaire, transforming the large room into a Bollywood production.

My Thursday instructor at 24-hour Fitness is Zumba Maniac, Wendy. She’s 100% Latina, and 100% fun! Wendy takes us from Mexico to Brazil to Spain and beyond. She blends pulsating Regaeton with suave Flamenco, and as soon as the music starts to blast, so do we. When the hour comes to a sweat-drenched end, all of us—young and old, men and women—look as if we have just completed day one of a Cuban boot camp.

At night I find myself in bed, counting out steps…in Spanish. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro--paso a la derecha…cinco, seis, siete, ocho--paso a la izquierda. Hip swivel, little dip, cha-cha-cha!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Happens in the Classroom...

What happens when you turn loose 119 eighth graders during the month of November to write with reckless abandon--free of strict rules and boundaries? 1,784,571 words! And what does an English teacher do on December 1st with over a million collected words? She teaches the art of revision and scouts out novels that show streaks of brilliance that may one day land on an agent's desk, as was the case a few years ago with my noveling golden child, Kyle Jones with his sci-fi drama entitled, "The Dragonboard Conspiracy."

And then there is Keri Kodama, a senior now, who has dillgently worked at not only the novel she started in my class four years ago, but also a second novel--both of which I am sure will find their way onto the best-seller lists of the future.

Now if you do your math right, you will see that this year's students averaged 14,996 words each. Most of them kept their counts as close to the 10,000-word requirement as possible, but three of them not only broke the prestigious 50,000 word "winner" status, but climbed to word counts that exceed most adult NaNo-ers. Here's the scoop on these three literary prodigies:

Mary Yeh's Nearly Departed (100,435 words)
Alex Mai's (81,960 words)
Bri'el Kashiwamura's Bittersweet Melancholy (81,936 words)

What's all the more impressive is that beyond their heavy-weight word counts, these three authors have written complete plot-driven stories that have do-able revision potential.

I guess you could say I have made it my quest as a teacher to never underestimate what a student can do with just a little bit (okay, a lot) of motivation...and perhaps a little bit (okay, a lot) of prayer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo Recap

I feel I have been reduced to a heap of literary rubble now that I am an official “WINNER” of this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For thirty days in a row I have poured out pages upon pages of mostly bad writing—at times so bad that (against NaNoWriMo’s unwritten code of ethics), I actually had to delete parts out of sheer horror that I could, God forbid, die before month’s end and have some morbidly curious critic read my puke-prose and publicize that I was indeed the worst writer of the 21st century. Truth be told, I have roughly 43,000 words of coherent story telling, followed by a 7,000-word hodgepodge of ruminations and stage directions.

The good news? I am well on my way with a story that one month ago had seemed larger than life.

The bad news? The story is larger than life. I have long line to tow before it ever winds up on a winner’s block.

Near the end of the month, I noticed I was walking about in a cross-eyed stupor of sorts, randomly asking random people, let’s say at soccer games or in grocery lines, if they knew anything about Romanian twin-engine bomber planes or what exactly was Turkish Delight. By Thanksgiving weekend, I was obsessing over whether or not there were flushing toilets by 1944 in Ankara, Turkey. And where exactly is Ankara, Turkey? Well, I now know that it’s about an hour and a half from Istanbul, which is a precarious little piece of property that is both Europe and Asia.

The highlight of the month came last week when I was in such a hurry to get my main character, Lucia, out of the Turkish taxi and into the house she had exiled to that I literally forgot her two year-old son, Ioan, in the back seat—after the taxi drove off! I decided to work that into the story, and it not only piqued the tension, but it boosted my word count by an extra thousand.

Tonight I have harvested a sampling of sentences gleaned from a quick scanning over my newest field of words…

1st Place Best:

Ten years ago, Mircika used this workplace to assemble his invention of the machine gun turret—to Lucia, it was a chair basically that could turn in every direction with a vigorous set of bullets all lined up and poised to throw men into their pre-ordained body bags.

2nd Place Best:

Pawns may not sleep, her mind whispered, but queens do.

3rd Place Best:

After all, she reasoned, a secret is no longer a secret, even if told to a husband.

1st Place Worst:

She hadn’t eaten herself and wasn’t planning to either.

2nd Place Worst:

The rain had ceased and the sun was struggling to expose itself.

3rd Place Worst:

The hand flusher was the envy of many of their friends who were still wrestling with the bucket dumper thing.

Dishonorable Mention:

She turned on the hot water and let it pour down onto her head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

So there it is…the best and worst of a month long written marathon. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s statistical post on the 119 novels that I will have collected from my equally exhausted 8th graders!