Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Plant Story

I have a memory of a relief teacher when I was twelve. He was around only one term. He disappeared when my English teacher came back from maternity leave. I think I saw him again one time, later that same year. I thought - from the corner of my eye - I might almost whirl upon him, see him, remember him. I hesitated. Then I looked back and never knew if it was. He was gone.
And in this one term there was no homework to do, and no notes to take in class, and no tests. All he ever did was talk the local politics of the day unbridled, unloading his gripes and angry tempests into the classroom. None of my classmates liked him much. They wondered aloud if he would begin something constructive, something enriching, something that would allow them to paint their eyes with glowing-flying-colours to report home about. He used to ignore them, even when they started to rant at him to stop. He paid them no heed, regularly coming to class to unfold his monologue about the way-things-were, and how-they-should-be, his critique spiralling out of control until the bell rang and it was time for him to go.
My classmates were resourceful by mid-term, securing information about him, hoping to use it against him, to unleash some deep dark secret to sew his mouth shut, and to break him down. I wondered what it would look like, this middle-aged man, skinny and plainly but formally dressed, with the very severely parted hair, and the simple plastic framed spectacles, with the chopping motions of his hands and his uncomfortable grimace-snarl whenever he railed about the government. It was always a new topic, but always an old theme. The day that my classmates planned to crack him open, he started on a new topic, predictably, something about constituency boundaries and elections and the fairness of representative government. I remembered that I needed to write down all these, suddenly fastidious about it, like I was recording something significant and important - an event. And it was an event, it was to be the destruction of this man, not yet near the end of his life, but surely far enough from its beginning to have made some deal of his existence; it was to be the destruction of a man wrought by children.
One classmate stands up to begin a chant, and I realise immediately that I am not part of the conspiracy. I do not know the mantra. Someone didn't tell it to me. This is the tip of the iceberg. More and more of my classmates stand up and begin the mantra, they are all honed and ready for this moment. They seem to have practiced it no end. We don't need no education, no thought control. The voices are a mixed bag of voices that have broken, and those that haven't, still high-pitched, like girls. It is a chorus: "We know you were a plant! We know you were a plant! We know you were a plant!"
It makes absolutely no sense at all, but it is a wall of sound and it marches up to the relief teacher and breaks him in half. He doesn't weep, nor tear, but his face is ashen, and his voice cuts off midsentence. I don't know what it means, and I am casting about the faces of my classmates, virtually all on their feet (though it is clear that some, like me, were left out of the loop and the circle of trust, and the junior pyramid of powers and elite knowledge), chanting away, and no one gives me any clue about what this is about, or why the relief teacher is starting to crumple into less than a human. He seems to shrivel, like despair is a cancer growing too fast, rapidly consuming his whole person - he seems bent and out of shape, all jutting angles and crashed haphazardly into a nest of shattered-ness.
My classmates have won, I think to myself. They have unearthed some magick to annihilate the relief teacher. Their insensible and arcane words have done him in. I do not expect it when the relief teacher shouts them down: "How dare you?" It is so loud that my classmates are stunned. Some fall backwards and trip over their chairs behind them. Another cowers. Another squeals like a stuck pig. And another and another and another. And I look between the faces of the once confident and chanting boys, and I see their animals in their eyes, noses, twisted mouths and craggy teeth.
"How dare you?" he shouts again, and my classmates are squating behind their tables, hands to heads to stop them from being blown apart.
"You do not know what it means! You do not understand what it means!" the relief teacher storms around the room. He is hunched, perspiring, withering and dying every second, yet belting out all his words, casting them like stones at all the cowardice that shiver-quivers in corners, hoping to remain out of sight-mind.
"When they first asked me to run against the Great Leader, it seemed like a joke. I was nobody. I was a lowly English teacher in a middle-range, mixed-ability school. I had an ordinary academic career, and nothing to crow about in my curriculum viTAE!" he shouted the last, spittle flying. "I thought they were joking. I thought they were the Opposition, desperate and pathetic, pleading for anyone with nothing to lose, to just run against the Great Leader in the election. Run against him and give him all you've got..." he paused, wiping his brow, gritting his teeth, fixing me in his gaze it seemed, and then never looking away from then on, boring into me, drilling home, screaming-etching his story into my life. "They said what I expected they would. They said 'go ahead and do your best! We're willing to back you! We've looked high and low for a person like you. The Great Leader is one of those elegant-eloquents. He is too much for us, with our awkward punctuation, faltering grammar, sad-sorry-vocabulary, and unclever soundbites. We knew we needed an English teacher. We found you!' I said to them that there was some mistake. I had nothing to offer. I was ordinary, mediocre. A simple man, with simple ambitions and nothing more. I only wanted to teach. I sought only to do my lessons in peace, and come the close of the school session, to retire with the remains of my day into some gentle oblivion. But they stole me from my facile comforts! They taunted me with designs of boldness and greatness! I was seduced by my possibilities, the whispered maybes and perhapses... oh I was so enamoured of the opportunities! I said 'Yes' with little resistance. I lost my mediocrity that day. I traded it for infamy. I traded it for this person I am now. I traded it for nothing.
"So the election came trundling along into our world, in sepia tones I remember it so well. I worked my speeches hard. I did my research. I was going to run as an independent against the Great Leader. Those who'd invited me to run against him; they said: 'Better that we cover our tracks in this one. The greater your effort! The more David-Goliath-like your campaign! The more epic is your fight! You run as an independent, and when we all meet in parliament, we will make our coalition, create a bloc, a united front, a sea-change, a different face to this government!' I was inspired, I tell you. You don't know what that means. You have every single outside chance in the universe, and it means nothing and everything all at once. And you think the hand of heaven is on your shoulder. You think you have your place in the sun. And you think that fortune has held the world still for a moment, and in this still point in the turning earth, you are going to be the man-of-the-hour.
"So I remember that rally speech, the first and last of my career. The constituency was a large one, and before the walkabouts and the hand-shaking, I was to make an introductory speech of myself to the constituents. I heard such buzz in the media about me. People were interested in finding out who I was. There were going to be people there! Listening to me! Imagine my nervousness and my fear! Imagine my hope and my desire for it to be upon me!
"And I took to the rostrum, and I looked into the sea of faces, and the lights were blinding in that evening, and the photographers were blasting at me, and the world was all hushed, and I was so sure I could read every single face watching-listening for me. I looked to my speech. I looked out to the crowd. And I saw those men who had invited me to run against the Great Leader. And I saw them in the colours of the Great Leader's party. I saw them hold aloft flags of the Great Leader's party. I saw them punch the air when they saw me, and they gave me a knowing grin, a pact with my own devil, in my own soul, blackened with grained spots, rank with its own stupid ambition, taken by its own suggestions. I was a plant. That is what they had wanted me to be. They had put me up for this. They wanted me to do some clownish dumb-show, mime my way to oblivion in public, collapse, die, and send the message clearly. No one in their right mind would oppose the Great Leader, only a Fool. A technical foil for the protagonist. Discarded before the final act. Not worth being present at the denouement.
"I died that day. I was a plant. I died. And true to my mediocrity, I abandoned my speech. I embraced what they had fashioned for me. I became their fiction, inhabited it, consumed it and was consumed by it. I rambled senselessly on stage for some minutes. I said the incomprehensible. I did not topple into a rant. I disintegrated for them all to see, and my heart told me this was right. I was not meant to be there, and I should have accepted my fate. And so there, in the night, in the lights, I was the plant. And the Great Leader strode clear over me in the election, thundering home to a clanging sound of my emptiness-the sound of his victory.
"And you know... not a day goes by that I don't wish I had done it all different... changed my life! And... yet every evening wrapping around the earth makes me wish I had truly perished that night, and not lived to watch myself lasting in this world, on and on and on, to remember, to know, to understand in my heart of hearts, that truly I was the plant they wished me to be - that I possessed that potential after all, and they found me, with true sight, true accuracy, and I became their true lie, such a bright and shining lie, so glaring it pierces my eyes and blinds me, and yet into that darkness it still steals in, washing my world with its white, searing pain. It is worse than blindness, it is a stain in my heart that will not wash away. It is just a spot you know, just a spot that will not go away - it will not go away - it will not go away, and from its endlessness come scorpions to my mind, and I cannot sleep with these memories hounding me, and yet I still live! Yet I cannot rest, and I don't sleep. Oh, I have murdered sleep! I have murdered myself! And yet, I still... live."

It was only midterm, and already our order was torn to shreds. There was no more speaking when the relief teacher came to class for the weeks still left. He would enter, and then stand to one side, or sometimes sit at the teacher's table, or perhaps stare out the window, silently. He never tried to catch my eye again, and never spoke to us as a class or shared any further petty grouse with the government. And we, twelve, would do nothing, no more chanting-taunting, no more listening to stories, no extension of welcome to him, nothing. We waited each time for the bell to ring, and for him to exit the classroom. Yet still, there were so many weeks left to end of term, so many that it sometimes seemed everlasting.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sister Dissident

My parents are afraid for my sister. They are afraid of my sister. They cannot argue a word into her world, edge in their platitudes or advice. They cannot convince-coerce her into the paralysis I drown in. She will not be drawn in, resists vigorously and shouts them down. She refuses to be inscribed with their insecurities and annoyance and paranoia, insists she will be her own person. So, predictably, when unable to speak to one child,they whisper instead to me their uncertainties and made-up memories of this-person-that-one-they-once-knew, how he/she was 'disappeared' altogether, ripped out of the world. They knew he/she must have been detained by the system, the invisible-palpable big brother (some gruff beefy number, manhandling and all grappling, gnarled hands, dragging, tearing you away), absorbed into those walls (with the eyes and silences) that came alive, lurched forwards, engulfing and ingesting the angry voice.
They can't tell her to stop her ways, so they ask me to plead with her (I am a conduit). They think she will listen to me, and that I am more the reasonable one, the sensible head fitted (screwed) on right, with feet (cold) on the ground, and eyes always on the level (and closed to everyone and everything, embarrassed by the apathy that's slowly swarming me).
Yesterday oh yesterday (parents are circling-gesticulating) She was at that Speaking Corner. She fraternised (did you hear that, son? She was fraternizing) with some members of the Opposition. (that poor woeful tearfully sad Opposition) She told us that many of them are educated people (lucid, she said, lucid and clever and their ideas well-thought-through) but their rebellions are quite makeshift (half-baked, non-strategic, bound for failure) We tried to explain that she mustn't be there (mustn't be seen there - mustn't be seen - the walls have eyes - ears - they can sense you have stepped away from the straight and narrow) She frowned at us and stopped talking (she stopped listening) stormed off, went away, we've lost her (she's in her room a lot, bashing out some speech on the computer) we've lost her. You need to speak to her (you need to bring her back to us) She's in her room (please advise her, she'll listen to you) She won't listen to us. If they catch her. If they listen to what she's saying. We had a friend there (I have a friend in the Police force, and he told me they are keeping an eye on her). She is our only daughter. You need to speak to her before it's too late (she is our only daughter). Circulate-gesticulate, and it almost drives me mad.
I will try, I say. (there is no try - why do I feel like you're going to be the death of me?)

So I take her aside one morning. The exams are at last over for her, and she's thinking of what next to do, whether to head for some of the discussions with opinion-makers and mover-shakers of ideas-dissent-analytical-criticals. She's planning for some trips to the Speaking Corner, and she's made a series of separate speeches already. I can see how much effort she has put in. The bold parts, the highlighter (red, yellow, blue fluorescent in streaks). She is ready, my sister the dissident. She is ready to take on the world - talk about speech, about being able to voice one's heart without fear of repercussion, and about the oft-time lack of consultation that our government roils and spoils in, spilling over its mandate into the everyday, explaining it away with their monopoly of swaying, unspecific rhetoric. She will critique all these things. I see that in the pages of her speeches, and the articles she hopes will be published by our seemingly adventurous and easily-censured newspapers. On her desk are also invitations to be at public forms, as a panellist, to make her voice heard. She notices I am looking over her war-plan, and smiles, hoping I will be proud of her. I keep finding this all-too-familiar, and can't shake the sudden pain in my mind. I want to say something (no words), but can't. She's still smiling and starting to point at things to draw my attention to them: a newspaper cutting about how her blog entries have gained so much attention that the bigwigs in the universe of the senior administration have grown agitated and responded, an interview in a magazine where the senior editor has explored the undead youthful voice of idealism and its greenhorn (green. sick. youth) boiling towards dialogue/discussion, unafraid and enthusiastic, bruising for a fight, challenging the status quo. She wants me to be proud of her (I'm silent, attentive, and I wish I had something to say). She begins to explain that I should not be afraid. She says I shouldn't be troubled, and that she is old enough to know what to do, and how to handle the pressure. She says that I should trust her. She elaborates that she sees (the fear in the eyes that tears the heart) the awkwardness of the Opposition members who've approached her, hoping to consume her abilities and her energy, and those who are desperate and weak and devoid of resources want to plug her into their massive network of doomed, sinking ships. She can see that, she says. She is not blind. She wishes my parents could understand. She doesn't want them to be frightened anymore (we cannot be afraid. we cannot be afraid. if we are, then they win. if we have better ideas, then we have to say them, we have to do them justice. if we have the better ideas, then people need to hear them, people need to know something is better, that somewhere there is a chance that there is more to life, that there is more than just the narrative of only the one-party, that there is a different definition of honour, a different meaning of a citizen, a purpose to dissent, a hope and a purpose and a heart behind what we say - and if our heart speaks, and we have the better ideas - oh my brother - if we have the better ideas, then... we... win. we win.).
I'm nodding absent-mindedly, reeling from her. (she is dangerous, and she is too strong, and she is too ferociously independent, too violently convinced, dangerous and threatening and too difficult to subsume, adopt, usurp and co-opt)
When I open my mouth to speak, it is with words that come from another world, the kind that I never expected, the type that I didn't think I cared for, and each one ripping a part of me out, and killing me in her eyes (sister, oh my dearest sister, this is all pretty words and big ideas that in the end mean nothing - your idealism is today, but apathy is forever... if you are apathetic you will survive, and if you stay out of the battle (choosing some, or really choosing none) you will live, and if you don't speak up you won't be noticed, and if you stay anonymous they won't accuse you of anything because you're slippery like a wraith- unknowable, unfathomable, non-existent and ... (don't say that don't say that, I can't believe you're saying that) nowhere to be found - sister, there is no (please stop! please!) use being pinned to an opinion (I don't want to hear this! After all you've seen, after all you know about me) - there is no use being filled with all this youthful idealism when in the end, you know that older and wiser, years from now, you will look back on all of this and laugh (damn you! damn you!), mock your assumptions about the brittle ripple you are making in the big pond that is society - but it isn't a pond, sister, it is an ocean, and you are a bleeding-heart-pointlessly-vociferous teardrop in that ocean. (I thought that you -) Stop now. Idealism is Today, Apathy is Forever.)
I think she will cry, and at first it seems certain. But she never does. There will be no tears to end this. She smiles wanly, as if her youth is twisting away and she can feel it. (I know you are one of them. I know now. But I'm different from you, my brother. I'm different from you. I won't be made to lie down-let myself die.
I won't. I'm better than you.
I will be better.
And you'll see.