Where to Find Me
Several nights ago, I dreamed I was back on the Indian reservation teaching my former students. I was a better teacher—I was the teacher I am now, but they were unchanged. They were still in the seventh grade. The ones who are now dead were alive again; the ones who are in prison were free. They were not disruptive. They didn’t hate me. They did not burp in my face or insinuate things about my sexuality—or they did, but I knew how to handle them. And we had a good time. I laughed at their jokes and they laughed at mine. We played musical instruments, and I taught them how to work together to make an improvised song—something the entire class collaborated on—all fifteen of us, and everyone had a role to play, and their music was beautiful.
And then I woke up in my overheated, tiny apartment—parched, sweating through my pillow, the past so close I could almost reach out and touch it and by doing so reverse the harm I had done to my students all those years ago.
Here is a hard truth: we send educated, good hearted and completely unskilled young people into the worst schools in America when we ought to be sending our best and most seasoned teachers. No one is born an effective teacher. You have to learn it somewhere, so we use the worst schools in America as a training ground. And these bright 22-year-olds learn how to teach at the expense of their students. We think we are doing some kind of good thing with these teaching programs, but in fact, it is quite the opposite.
The school where I taught, for example, they should never have hired me. I did not possess the necessary experience or skill to be of any use to my students—thirteen-year-olds, behind their grade level in every subject and powerfully angry, already getting into trouble with the police, already beyond the control of their parents. I could not maintain order in the classroom without yelling and lecturing and handing out humiliations and punishments. For some reason, my students seemed to crave my anger, and since they didn’t want anything else from me, I obliged. Sometimes I would become so angry that I would black out in the middle of class. And as a consequence, my students learned to hate me, even though I only had good intentions and I only wanted to help them. My students failed their end-of-year exams, but then, no one really expected them to pass. They were so far behind from the beginning. The principal told me it wasn’t my fault. And I put the job on my CV, which wasn’t the point, but then it became the point. It was the silver lining of the bad year where I learned how not to teach.
Last night, my friend and I were walking through the area where the homeless people congregate, and some kid offered to sell us lean, which is what they call promethazine cough syrup. The kid was a braggadocious guy—talking about his money and his women and clothes. We smoked one of his blunts and he put in a call for the lean. It came in a car driven by a young woman, and when she saw us she shook her head and said she didn’t sell to cops, but we gave the guy our money anyway and he went running after her car—chasing her down the block, calling her vicious names.
We waited a while for the guy to come back, since he had the last of our money and we didn’t have anything else to do. We shared a bottle of strawberry-kiwi flavored bum wine. Eventually he came back with the prescription bottle of lean and two styrofoam cups from Dunkin Donuts. He apologized for the inconvenience, and there was some hint of familiarity in the way he looked at me, something I hadn’t detected before. I tried to get a better look at him, but he saw what I was doing and averted his eyes. I said something like hey don’t I know you? But he just poured the lean and walked away into the darkness. And I held the cups while my friend went into 7-Eleven to get some ice and a bottle of Sprite.
And the cough syrup was so thick that it sunk to the bottom of our cups, and even though we swirled the mixture furiously for the next hour we couldn’t get the medicine to incorporate properly. But then, time didn’t seem to work either; everything took forever. You are supposed to pour it directly into the Sprite bottle, my friend said, which made sense. And the air turned liquid, and the soft pinprick sensation of drugs arrived like it always does—there—like no other sensation has ever existed and no other sensation will ever exist. And in the void there is nothing to do, and drug time is always drug time and it never begins or ends no matter how old you are, and it never changes, which is probably why some people cling to drugs so desperately. Getting high is one of the most permanent things in this world.
The last time I went to the reservation, I saw one of my former students at a pow-wow. He came to me in the darkness, and I didn’t recognize him because he was a grown man. He had tattooed his sister’s name on his forearm. I shouldn’t have said anything, but I did. We’ll never really be happy again, he said, not like when you were our teacher. And I didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter because he was so stoned that he just stood there, the firelight moving across our faces, the drummers singing, the women dancing, regalia blurring their outlines, competition numbers emblazoned on their chests, their arms swirling around their bodies like smoke.
And I knew it didn’t matter how long we stood there because my student was somewhere else. He was standing there, but he wasn’t. Then he told me he was going to Harvard in the fall, which we both knew was a lie. All the same, I told him to look me up in Boston. I pulled out my phone and I friended him on Facebook so he’d know where to find me.
And I was there, back then, and I am here, now, and none of this makes sense. No reasonable person should be able to accept the way our bodies occupy space, the way a person can age even though hardly any time has passed—the way someone you know can die, even though she was only a child. The simple facts of physics only fail to surprise us because we are so accustomed to them—think of the way toddlers are so disoriented by time. Five minutes is an hour, going away is going away forever. But then, time travel only goes forward. There is no way to repair the past—there is hardly a way to conceptualize it. See how much trouble I’m having?
I used to draw the floor plan of every room where I spent the night because it was just impossible for me to believe how many there were. I filled up notebooks with those floor plans and then I threw those notebooks away one day when I moved because I was throwing away everything, and now I miss them—I miss all of the things I ever threw away, even though they were only things and I shouldn’t miss them. And each one of those places where I slept was a lifetime ago, and each one of those things I threw away was a symbol for something I will never fully understand, and I will never fully understand anything, and there is no help, and we all die alone, and pretty soon I am going to quit writing stories entirely.
About the Author: Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, The Master’s Review, New South and Midwestern Gothic. He is the nonfiction editor at BULL Magazine.