Helpful Monsters

8 Aug

While shopping for kitschy antiques, I had a refreshing conversation with a fellow human being. He was an Asian American man who had traveled, by my estimation, thirty-five times around the Sun. “Benny” I will call him, because I never got his name. Benny wore glasses outlined in black that were a touch wider than his slim face.  He appeared to be in charge of the store, but he was an odd type to be working in a place that sold aprons and sewing machines. In my experience, someone else’s elderly aunt works in every antiques store in America. Since he was unfamiliar to me at this location, I was worried he would play the meddling sales clerk, flattering my tastes and laying on the guilt if I left empty-handed. But he kept his distance, and I shopped for a while in blissful silence.

I was pawing at a seashell belt when he asked me about my tattoo–an “omega” symbol on my ankle. Everyone with a tattoo has a rehearsed explanation ready. My line is “it was my grandmother’s name.” Most people say “oh, neat!” and then begin examining other parts of my body (my hairy arms, I sense). But Benny reacted to my tattoo story in a way that most people do not. He nodded his head backwards, as if in shock at the name.

“Wow, what a name. The end. Was your grandmother Greek? Maybe Eastern European?”

“Yeah, something like that.” I lied, hoping to avoid a detailed family tree discussion.  Whenever I am around people of color there is a hesitation to admit that I am descended from lily white European Protestants. You know, the same people who in all likelihood lynched or indentured your ancestors.

I felt the need to be more conclusive about Benny’s question, but could only muster a weak follow-up. “Actually, we’re not quite sure. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, no doubt.” I reminded myself to make up a magical country for my deceased grandmother so all questions about my parentage could be answered decisively.

“Ah, I see. Such a unique name.” Sensing my uncertainty, Benny changed the subject to what he probably thought was a safe topic of conversation for a college town during the summertime. “Are you enjoying your time off from school?”

Excellent, he thinks I’m a student. I love disappointing people. “Actually, no, I teach college. And I’m waiting for students to finish their take-home exam.”

“No way! You look too young to be a teacher!” Benny’s surprise was in earnest.

“I’m 28,” not denying his last statement but trying to hide my pleasure at his surprise. I look young, but not by choice. There are no clothing stores tailored to women in their late twenties. We have few appearance tools to distinguish us from teenagers and the elderly. Hence, I settle for vintage clothing.

“What subject do you teach?” Benny asked, pushing the conversation to the place where the labeling and/or boredom begins. I always dread the “subject” question.

“Sociology,” I said–definition washed, prepped, and ready. Most people need one.

Thankfully Benny did not. “You should let me lecture in your class about Asian stereotypes.”  This was the turning point in what was heretofore a light-hearted chat. I was intrigued that he had not only heard of sociology, he even knew the appropriate material! Yes! Sociologists study stereotypes! Among other things. It’s quite simple, really.

“Oh, you mean the assassin ‘Dragon Lady’ or the asexual Asian male?” I trilled, testing him further.

“Why, yes. In all of his films, Jackie Chan only kissed one girl,” he said, sad notes twinkling in his voice.

“Does he at least get the girl at the end?” I asked, trying not to reveal my secret: that I have never seen a Jackie Chan film.

“No, he goes back to doing laundry.” Desert-dry delivery.

Yes, Benny was funny. We chatted a bit more about the difficulties in finding good films with Asian characters. With the cadence of a Roman senator, his voice charmed me into silence.  I found myself quickening my words just so I could hear him speak again. He was an effortless conversationalist; clearly in some line of work that requires boiling down masses of data (all the Jackie Chan films) into an apt sound bite. He was gifted with a voice primed for public speaking, for going on stage without notes before a skeptical audience. I had a hunch he was more than just a shopkeeper.

After the subject of stereotypes was exhausted, he softly said, “I’m a teacher too.”

I had guessed correctly.

“Oh yeah? What grade?”

“Third. The ‘FCAT grade’,” letting the phrase leak out the side of his mouth.

“Yeah, the FCAT. I kind of skipped over that by teaching college.”

The FCAT is a teacher’s punching bag, also known as Florida’s standardized test for K-12 state schools. It is widely maligned for a whole host of nasty things–the most damning being its creation of a meaningless statistic that politicians can massage for votes. I declined a secondary school teaching career in protest of the FCAT.  But Benny had a refreshing take on the universally despised test.

“I will let you in on a secret,” he said, spooling up his booming back-of-the-classroom voice. “The thing about the FCAT is, its the simplest test in the world. The bar is set so low even a lab rat could pass it. No one ever fails. What are they going to do, kick you out of the third grade? C’mon! Instead, they give it scary teeth and big claws so that kids will take it seriously. They put the fear of failure into them. It’s conditioning, not learning.”

“Oh, that makes so much sense!” I made a mental note that Benny was a teacher, comedian, and a social critic. “But if it only pretends to have teeth, why even bother at all?”

“It’s a test for us. The teachers. To see how well we follow the rules and keep students in line.”

“So true.” Then I offered Benny my own insight after teaching college for a meager three years: “I’ve found that the tragedy of teaching is that you grow older while your students stay the same age.”  I often dispense this world-weary warning to aspiring teachers, who laugh nervously at the stark entropy of the statement. I’m one who tends to look on the dark side.

“For you, maybe. But for me it’s different.” Benny replied. “I have been a teacher for fifteen years. That means I see my students grow from young children into adulthood. One time I was pulled over for speeding. The officer, to my horror, was one of my students from twelve years ago. I recognized him, but I wasn’t sure if he knew me. So I said, ‘I’m Mr. Peterson. Do you remember me? Your third grade teacher?’ I had a small hope that I could get out of the ticket somehow, if he had fond memories of me. But you know what happened? Handing me the ticket, he said ‘No one is above the law, Mr. Peterson. You taught me that.’  And it’s true, I tell my class this all the time. It is my mantra, and this one student learned it particularly well. Little did I know it would cost me $150 dollars.”

“Wow, that came back to bite you in the ass!” I exclaimed, relishing the irony in his story. “Were you angry?”

“No, I was speeding like a motherfucker. I earned that ticket. But I haven’t seen the effects of my teaching so clearly since that incident.”

While we talked, I was fidgeting with the perfect pencil case for my art supplies. I asked him the price.

“Ten. That’s an Avon lady’s make-up kit from the 70’s.”

“Oh that’s a little too much for me. I was just thinking of using it for my colored pencils, not for make-up.” And I returned it to shelf, next to the collection of cocktail stirrers from around the world. This exchange launched a discussion on art.

“Colored pencils? Are you an artist?” he asked.

“Yes. But only to make myself happy, not others. I’m afraid to make a career out of it.” At this point, I am baring my soul to Benny now.

“What kind of art do you make?” A reasonable question. But one that forced me to examine myself in uncomfortable ways.

“I used to do collage,” I said, “but I find myself more into pencil drawing these days.” It was only the partial truth. In fear of being reprimanded, I did not tell him the reason why I made this shift. Short on time, I have to settle for a brief sketch every now and then. One hundred essays take priority over labor-intensive collage because the former comes with a paycheck or a pink slip.

“What kind of art has influenced you?” Without a doubt, Benny knew how to ask a follow-up question to keep the conversation rolling.

“Comic book art,” I blurted out. “I’ve never been trained professionally, but I learned how to draw from animation and comics. Err…what they call ‘graphic novels’ now. All the art teachers tried to stop me from drawing in that style. You know, heavily outlined shapes and all that.”

“That’s a shame. Female comic artists are in big demand right now. They are really wanted in the industry.” And without missing a beat he slapped a comic book down on the counter in front of me. I saw that it was a special issue featuring a cast of the female characters in the Marvel universe, drawn by female artists.

“Well, that’s promising…” I leafed through the book, more intrigued by the idea of Benny reading about female superheroes that Marvel’s ostentatious outpouring of sisterhood. Then Benny said something that clenched my decision on a purchase.

“Now, listen. I will take $5 off the price of that Avon case. But you have got to go home and work on your art.” He tapped his index finger on the comic book, as if I could have drawn the busty superhero on the cover.

“Oh, you’ve got a deal,” I said automatically. Then I looked up and met Benny’s eyes for a full heartbeat. I saw the tilt of his head, the intensity in his gaze. He was most definitely not making a deal. He was giving me an assignment. This was an unusual store clerk indeed.

I grabbed the case and the seashell belt and tossed them on the counter. “I’m ready to check out.” But really, I wasn’t ready at all. I wanted to linger near him a while longer. I craved his guidance. I needed someone to tell me what to do, wanted someone to hold me accountable. Benny would be a helpful monster with claws and teeth that would scare me into submission. Put the fear of failure into me. Hound me until I graduated with something to show for my talent other than priming students for careers in law enforcement.

Benny had stopped talking now, allowing the silence to emphasize the conditions of the sale. He rang me up.

I made for the exit with a belt to hold up my dignity and a case to hold my pencils. “Nice chatting with you!” I said, ashamed that I could think of no better farewell than a meaningless reflex.

“Work your art!” he yelled after me as I fled to my car, his voice twirling through the air like a thrown axe.