Monday, August 11, 2014

Percy and Eric

by Eric Mader

I’ll always remember Percy and Eric. I taught them beginning English back in 2003 or ’04 here in Taiwan. In the class they attended, around twenty-five students, they were one of two pairs of brothers. The average age of the kids was 8 or 9, and I was to teach them the very rudiments, ABCs and phonics.

I remember telling them the first day, as I learned their names, that the older brother Eric must be smart “because all Erics are smart”.

Boy was I wrong. Percy and Eric proved to be by far the slowest kids in the class, showing all the usual signs of slowness. I can still see them seated each in a different part of the room complacently picking their noses while the other kids were busy tracing out the shapes of the letters.

“Percy, what are you doing?”

And he’d blush and quickly wipe the remaining snot onto the desktop. Right in front of me. As if that was what protocol demanded. "If caught picking snot, wipe on the nearest item of furniture."

I’d get a tissue and Percy would return to messing up the letter “g” in his notebook.

Correcting their homework was a nightmare, because not only would the mistakes be legion, but the paper itself would by grimy and crumpled, bits of snot stuck randomly here and there.

When Percy didn’t know an answer, he had a habit of screwing up his face and staring at the ceiling with an expression so idiotic it looked like it had been practiced for a movie role. Eric did it sometimes, but Percy was the poster boy for this look. I’d been watching them stare at the ceiling this way for months, amused, when finally before class one day the boys’ father showed up. He wanted to sit at the back of the room to observe and see how his sons were doing.

“Sure, no problem,” I said, giving him a copy of the material so he could follow along.

Then, twenty minutes into class, when I’d asked some simple question or other and was waiting for someone to raise a hand, I saw the father in the back staring up at the ceiling, his face twisted in deep concentration trying to think of the answer.

It was the same rapt, hopeless look Percy and Eric had been giving me for months.

I couldn’t control myself, I burst out laughing. I put down my textbook and paced a bit in front of the room, trying to get back my composure. Nobody knew what I was laughing at.

“Teacher is crazy,” said one of the girls.

That class, I argued to coworkers, was a sad demonstration of the fatal power of genetic inheritance. For the whole of the first year, the other pair of brothers, Tom and Brian, always came out first and second on exams. Always. And Percy and Eric always came out last and second last.

Though always scoring lowest, it’s true Percy and Eric didn’t actually fail. To fail one of our exams would be something of a feat. One time, however, there was a substitute teacher taking the class for me, and as there had been an exam the week before, she had the scores in her folder. She told the class that this time a lot of them hadn’t done well and that one student even failed.

“Who?” everyone wanted to know. “Who failed?”

“I can’t tell you,” she said, as per school rules.

But they kept pestering: “Who who who?” And Percy, I was told, stood up and was pounding on his desk: “Who failed? Who failed?” He refused to give up.

“Well,” the substitute said, giving him a meaningful look. “You really want to know, Percy?”

He didn’t get the hint.

“Who?” he yelled. “Tell us!”

“Well--you failed.”

I’m told he blushed all over, then hung his head and began bawling, so that he had to leave the classroom for awhile.

Of course Eric was laughing gleefully. He wasn’t the idiot.

These tales about Percy and Eric, and Brian and Tom, were bantered about the office, if only because it was all so predictable. I did my best to encourage Percy and Eric and occasionally bring the Ace brothers down a peg, but it was no use. The former never got their fingers unstuck from their noses; the latter were invariably sharp as razors.

Percy and Eric’s father didn’t seem to mind his sons’ slowness, but their mother often came in looking worried and frazzled, trying to figure out ways to get her boys out of the last slots. She wanted extra help for them, extra homework. She’d oversee their homework herself. And she did. Sometimes worksheets were handed in without snot all over them, and with certain of the answers written in a different, more precise hand.

In fact I’ve experienced a few iterations of this scenario over the years, a son or pair of brothers who are seriously slow (always nose pickers), a father who seems content with the world, and a mother meanwhile worried sick, unwilling to accept that her boys are what they seem. My first encounter with this syndrome came in my first year teaching in the form of a hand-wringing woman who desperately wanted me to tutor her teenage son Tom. She’d pay me extra to come to their house and tutor him once a week, but I repeatedly said I was too busy (a lie) for the simple reason that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle sitting next to a kid with snot stuck on his clothes, on his chair, on his homework. Yes, I could have dealt with the slowness, I'd have worked hard at breaking through, but I just couldn't handle the snot.

It was some months after Percy failed that exam. I noticed I hadn’t seen the boys’ mother around the school and was told Percy and Eric wouldn’t be continuing.

“Why not?” I asked in surprise.

“Their mother passed away during the weekend,” the secretary told me. “She had cancer of some kind--it was just discovered a few months ago. The family is in mourning.”

I was really affected by the news. I sat for awhile on the sofa in the office in a kind of funk. I’d just talked to the mother a couple months earlier. And now the boys had only their none-too-sharp father to look after them.

"It's sad," the secretary said. "But you didn't really like teaching them, did you?"

Some weeks later I saw the father, thinner, in the park near the school. My Chinese wasn’t very good then, but I told him as best I could that I was very sorry to hear the news and hoped his family was doing alright. And to say hello to Percy and Eric. He had tears in his eyes by the time I finished my few sentences.

And then a couple years ago I saw Percy again, standing in a doorway off a Taipei lane with a classmate. The two were wearing the uniforms of some Taipei high school, their uniforms were filthy, and Percy was smoking and complaining loudly about something, using the usual teenage exaggerations and vulgar words. His appearance was almost identical to what it was in childhood, the same weirdly curly lightish-brown hair, odd for a Taiwanese, the same buck teeth. He didn’t see me there, but I know if I’d gone to say hello to him that he’d have blushed to be caught with the cigarette.

And it's true I didn't really like teaching them. Which says something about me, and something about the unfairness of the world.

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