Trapped in a Forest of Little Chairs

[In spring 2006 – back when I was Helen Newman – I worked for a semester as an English teacher at a Korean cram school in Bayside, Queens. This is a record of a moment from that spring.]

Trapped in a forest of little chairs, I turn gingerly from Salina to Seule. I monitor my movements as I maneuver between the two rows of students, so as to avoid collision with heads or eyes or desktops, which all lurk far below eye level. The seven ten-year-olds in my Monday-afternoon English class insist on cramming their desks into the front half of the drab but spacious classroom. Which means that I must practice grace and agility, as I sidle from one desk to the next, checking written answers on worksheets.

As I pivot from Salina’s desk to Seule’s. Henry twists back and upwards to catch my attention.

“Miss Newman, what do you call animals who eat plants?”

Henry is a quiet, thoughtful child, with a slow but twinkling sense of humor and, often, a hint of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He plods through worksheets, while others gallop; he deliberates over his responses, printing them in careful, crooked letters. If Salina and Seule are racing ponies, Henry is a good-natured draft horse—accepting of the plow he’s harnessed to, and determined to turn over every square inch of the field he pulls it through.

“Herbivores,” I tell him, and then spell the word out, at his request.

“And carnivores are the ones who eat other animals, right?” he asks.

“That’s right, carnivores eat animals.”

My students’ task, at the moment, is to come up with an example of how plants and animals help each other. Salina says that sometimes animals carry seeds stuck in their fur, then drop them on nourishing patches of ground. Seule says that insects pollinate flowers. I move on to Catherine, who’s in the back row with the other two girls. Again, Henry twists back towards me:

“Miss Newman, you didn’t check my answer yet.”

“I know, I’ll be there in a minute.”

My response is automatic. It’s what I would say to any child importuning my attention when I am involved with someone else. But the moment slows…. I pause a beat longer on that sweetly serious face, alight with the luminous glow of ten-year-old childhood, before zits and adolescent truculence have taken hold. I note the straight black hair, the dark brown eyes, the smooth beige skin on this little human who is literally looking up to me. An intelligence close to my own slips into me, bearing the certainty that soon I’ll be gone; once the semester ends I’ll move on. Cherish these children, it says. Treasure them now, for their lilting exuberance, for their truths that surprise you, for their shrill, frank squeals of complaint. Give them your loving attention, while you’re here with them.

* * *

After I finish with Catherine, I head back to Henry. I am delighted to find that he has encompassed the entire cycle of life in his answer:

“Herbivores eat plants. Carnivores eat herbivores. Carnivores feed insects and bacteria when they die.”

“That’s a great answer, Henry,” I say. “Good job.”

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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