Content 18 + (published as is, blog owner may have different opinion from the author; author expresses his philosophical opinion on the subject and has no intention on insulting anyone) As I was sitting around one early morning slurping down my second transfusion of coffee and draped by the still unfurled curtains of my ‘brown study’ — the birdsong of the Bulgarian village chattering away beyond my balcony — I stared at my computer and it stared back at me. Suddenly it woke up and I was rewarded with a very interesting request from Moscow. It was an invitation to teach English at Summer Camp in Kam Chya, the resort village just up the road from the one where I live.
I leaped at the opportunity. For one thing, the teaching business can run a bit dry in the summer, and so when somebody dangles a carrot before your eyes or drops a nest egg at your feet, you would be a fool to refuse. Or maybe, in my case, it’s something else. The money I have is not limitless, but it would have been enough to keep food on the table during the siege of Leningrad if there had been any food to find (there wasn’t).
Or maybe, in life’s late autumn, even when circled by summer and summer’s apparent promises and assurances, one seeks the shelter of companionship. What better than a squadron of vibrant youth?
Moreover, Bliznatsi Village, for all its natural splendor, is not Moscow. Here, whatever is uncertain unfolds so slowly that by the time it actually happens there is nothing uncertain about it any more. The horses and cows look up at you like “Well, what in the hell did you expect?” Even the people are inclined to take a nap between thoughts.
In Moscow you had to stay alert at all times. Sometimes the sheer number of souls gave me a migraine, and I would dream of banishment to a quiet penal colony where the guards stood around the distant edges of the perimeter and left their ‘prisoners’ alone to gather nuts and berries in the wooded center. In Moscow it seemed that everywhere you ever went — even those dull market halls where Soviet-style drabness lingers like the suicidal grayness of the month of March in most of Russia— it was always full. People of the abyss, I used to think. Put on earth just to piss each other off. So say I, the narcissist.
But hey, how long are you gone from all that before you start to miss it? I came to Moscow first in 2007 with nothing in my pocket and not much to recommend me. I left for the Bulgarian village 10 years later with a wife, car, house, and some beer money left over. The best ten years of all my days. Ah, life anticipated…and it happens, then…life remembered. So, yes, I miss Moscow and all those people. It’s one of the few things I would do all over again from start to finish without changing 75% of it.
And Now! — I would meet a flock of teenagers. Mid-range teens and younger, and all bursting at the seams with the kind of energy that only being chased by a lynch mob could put back into my carcass ! Yeah, I was excited.
Their place of residence would be the huge Yuri Gagarin (the first man in outer space, for you who didn’t know) complex in this resort village which is under Moscow authority. (It’s very impressive, and I have gone there often to use the spacious fitness center in this huge facility which also includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, basketball court, and areas for judo and karate, etc.) They would live — as I came to understand later — in dorm-like rooms, often three or four of them together — and study English (the big theme of the summer camp) and spend a lot of time playing games on the beach and flopping about in the sea. There would be excursions to Varna and other places. Three weeks for the first group, then they would leave, and the second group would arrive. Then the second group would leave. It would be August by then.
Actually, I had been summoned at the last moment because the original guy was involved in an accident or got sick or something. I had the option of living in with the kids and supervisory staff — room and board laid on. I didn’t need that, of course, but lunchtime was between my morning and afternoon classes, and I would pig out.
Not a bad gig for six weeks, and the pay was more than adequate. It also turned out that I would be in charge of the Upper Intermediate group consisting mostly of 14 and 15-year-olds, which seemed serendipitous from my standpoint. Really young kids are OK from a distance, like honey bees and falling stars that shoot across the night — but you don’t want them swarming around you or landing on top of you.
Kids in their mid-teens — kids in general, I should probably say — are characterized by one thing especially: their lack of attention span. This deficit tightens up throughout life, you know — attention span capacity — which explains why sallow-faced, baggy-eyed adults in their 40’s and 50’s can sit staring at rows and rows of figures for 15 hours at a time without blinking. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. With kids you need to be fast on the draw and keep pumping fresh material at them or their minds will dart away quicker than a crowd of villagers running from a tsunami.
The other thing you have to deal with is the smart phones. I teach in Varna during the school year — part-time stuff on Saturdays at a small English language academy — and last year I had two sections of teenagers, mostly young. Again it was the phones.
They won’t leave the damned things alone. I have heard the critics of and apologists for…these gadgets. And of course I encounter many youngish people on Skype (Russians who are usually in the IT and marketing industries) who, while remaining polite and respectful, no doubt have me marked down as an anachronism, a witty, maybe at times rather charmingly eccentric, old boy who, alas ! — just doesn’t get it and so is missing out on this brave new world which is at their command.
They may have a point, but I stick to my guns when I say that for anyone — let alone a 12 year old kid — to spend every waking moment possible worshiping a gadget with a screen (a crack-pipe for the soul in essence) — is not healthy. In fact, it reminds me somewhat of a thing I read about recently. Apparently, there is a new gadget coming soon to a store near you which is called an ‘insertable vibrator’. It’s specially designed — as far as I can tell — for the overworked business woman who has no time or energy for hanky panky with her ‘partner’ after an exhausting day in the board room. Instead, she can simply nestle Mr Twitchins up in there whenever she wants, hit the switch (it has a silencer of course like those pistols the mafia assassins use to whack their victims with and avoid causing a ruckus) and it will start spreading the joy right away.. If you happen to look over at her and find her suddenly grinning like a fool for no apparent reason or shouting ‘Yippee!” like someone who just jumped out of a birthday cake, you won’t be able to tell if she has solved the company’s financial crisis, or is in the shattering midst of an inner Big Bang.
I guess guys could use it for the same purpose, but it would take a ‘special’ kind of fellow.
In my opinion, these so-called smart phones are nothing more than vibrators for the mind. At least a lot of the time. With kids and their smartphones, I am reminded of that old American bumper sticker I used to see everywhere: “I will give up my gun when they peel my cold dead fingers from around it.” That’s what it would take to get these phones away from the kids. You would have better luck extracting a juicy pork chop from the jaws of a hungry pit bull. Of course you could be a real turd and just ban the phones from the classroom, but the administrators are reluctant to do it out of fear of pissing the kids (and thus their parents) off.
You have to remind yourself that you are ‘selling’ English’ language skills to your clients/students. It is not a concentration camp; in this case rather a summer camp. Some teachers have a knack for instilling discipline right from the start, and these are usually NOT the ones who scream at the kids the most. I have never figured out how they do it. My problem is that I try to make friends with my students. I am one of those weak, pathetic people who needs to be loved. Then, failing to receive it, I change into being a defiant son-of-a-bitch which I proudly and incorrectly trumpet as representing my fierce independence from the rest of the herd.
Naturally, I have refined my act over the years, and so the kids think I am kind of cool, but deep-down they are looking for authority figures, role models, and the like. As soon as they realize that I am really not an adult but rather one of them, they just start laughing and doing what they please. This is when I drop the nice guy act and threaten to saw off their arms and legs. It quietens them down for about 20 minutes, then the circus is in town again.
All that to the side, I started looking forward to the arrival of the teenage children. I remember thinking to myself (or was I telling it to my dogs?) that soon I would see 100+ faces which at the moment did not, for all intents and purposes, exist. (Of course they existed.) To see what I mean, try to imagine 100 people (or more) that you haven’t met but will meet sometime in the future. Who might they be, and what on earth will bring all of you together?
Or try imagining you have joined the army and soon will be at boot camp. There will suddenly appear soldiers where before there were no soldiers. Or you will move to another city or country next week. A whole novelty pack of people, just like a shiny new deck of cards. If you are still of an age or inclination to contemplate a future husband or wife, try to guess what they will look like — not as a fantasy but as a real person, this flesh. bone, and blood-endowed creature you will be staring down or up at during fucking sessions for the duration of time preceding the divorce, be it years or months.You can’t do it. Because you don’t know. But you know that they will all look like somebody (Everybody looks like somebody) — and you are anxious to find out.
And it’s exactly what happened with Summer Camp.
Out of a mirage came a cast of humans, their faces cleaving through the air like words and melodies all joining up together to make a batch of new songs — music you never heard before and will gradually forget, though some, as songs will do, might linger in the memory. Maybe find a home there and stay always.
Everybody, counselors and all, dressed for the beach in purely beach gear both day and night. In that sense, it was the most informal ‘business’ situation I have ever been in. I don’t know what American kids are like when they go to camp — if they bully the weak and remain the same spoiled brats they are at other times (certainly when they are on holiday in Europe) — but these Russian kids were different. The ‘beautiful’ ones appeared to bond with those less fortunate in looks. I didn’t see any mental breakdowns nor some Lord of the Flies social hierarchy emerging. It was all just a good romp never to be taken too seriously. A big garden of sorts — not a Garden of Eden, no, no, no, the kids aren’t that innocent any more, but a garden where the apples still tasted sweet, and the snakes had not yet become sovereign in their minds.
They flooded the halls of the huge modern labyrinth (where I got lost the first day trying to travel from the classroom to the cafeteria). Their bodies were willowy and nimble, they reminded me of yellow butterflies flitting in olive shadows — especially the very young — and the others, standing on the doorstep of adulthood and having one of their last summer flings of adolescence, were distinguished by a sexuality as yet mostly unpracticed, I gather, but there, there, like unseen panthers softly growling, and slipping up nearer and nearer on their wonderful, subtle, spreading pads. So yes, there were ‘likely lads’ and pretty, knowing girls of course, summer snowflakes of dancing humanity, and — morbid like I can be — I tried to imagine them years ahead of now, even before they reach my stony status — when they will have defined themselves in life. Who will be the winners and the losers then?
Surmising them, I knew that out of all those kids — statistics tell us this — a couple will never live to see their twenties. Some will turn out badly — alcoholics or drug addicts. But most (these particular kids come from ‘good’ families who can afford to send them to Summer Camp) will be successful according to all the modern definitions. Some will find such happiness as can be had in this life, others great sorrow and disillusionment.
But for now it was a level playing field. They had not disappeared into their destinies, even as I have not disappeared into death — all the action of the decades hence, when every truth will come out.
No, they were like the perennial winds and grasses that lift up heads before your eyes. Utterly vivid, utterly ambiguous. Anything could happen. Anything.
In the first group there were two girls who sat in the front row (left) of my class. They were both tall and pretty and they liked to sort of…recline…arm in arm. Sometimes one would fiddle with the other’s hair. Sometimes one would lie backwards into the other’s lap. You see this among adolescent girls in Europe (and Moscow) and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I would be standing there pretending not to notice, trying to teach the Third Conditional, but in reality imagining them as lovers. I would visualize them giving oral sex to one another and try to guess which of them would scream the loudest during orgasm. Were these ideas right or wrong, moral or immoral?
I think merely inevitable. They were only thoughts. Do NICE people not think such thoughts? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Maybe I am not nice. But I can report that it was tough trying to shut it down, and I might have stuttered once or twice attempting to explain what do with a ‘dangling participle’ while those two mermaids were fondling each other.
When the second group was getting ready to pack up, and during the celebration ceremony, two of the prettiest girls hugged me and said to me — a 70 year old man: “I love you.” Their eyes contained a level of sincerity that people tend to lose with time, when everything becomes more and more tentative. When more and more we feel we need to defend ourselves.
I told them to send me an email if they ever needed help with their English. They said they would write to me. So far not a word.
Well, if there is one thing that defines youth it is ‘ephemeral’.
I was the oldest person I saw during the whole summer camp. I didn’t feel that way, and they didn’t treat me that way. Part of it is that I often still act so much like a kid. They say that everybody gets old, but you can stay immature forever.
Maybe that’s me. But often I was reminded of how I myself — when I was their age — used to look at older people. Some had magic in them, but a lot looked like they were never young, and for the life of me I couldn’t conceive of them as ever having been anything but nasty old farts. 70 years of boiled meat when they came out of the womb, bitching and grumbling about their first bowl of prunes.
To the school ‘children’, I was an old guy; I only hope that somehow my odd and unsinkable buoyancy made them able to imagine me under different circumstances. Selfish of me, I know. But I hope.
Well, kids have a different kind of logic. To an adult, a new day, any new day, is apt to be crowded out, or put under eclipse, by a vindictive mob of yesterdays. Why’d I do this, and why’d I do that? Kids lose their yesterdays the way they might leave their book-bags behind on the school playground. Such resilience. Nothing much in those books anyway.
I, on the other hand, have become my destiny. All the grand old possibilities sharpened by the black teeth of fact and the grinding nail file of time. Now I stand on a narrow road. I see a patch of fog just ahead.
Roaming among the young ones on those recently concluded days, I could never decide who the ghosts were — me or them? Yet in odd moments, I shed my old robes, like one who has been invited to dive into the common stream, a mountain lake no less, and I felt young again. Once again I was callow and unspoiled, just setting forth, my chin barely reaching the edge of the great, massive piano keys that were about to be struck by some accomplished, venerable maestro’s long, lean fingers.
The last evening, when the projects had all been acted out on the stage, we celebrated and said our goodbyes. I had to leave early because my wife was waiting in the car outside (we had agreed on a time).
As part of the ceremony, we fastened blue strings to one another’s wrists and said beautiful things to each other. There was some love in it. It wasn’t false. I do not believe it was false. Nor was it anything, not anything at all, to do with ‘pedophilia,’ inappropriate this or that, or a case of a ‘dirty old codger’ trying to hit on the ripe young fruit. No, I don’t believe any of it was false. None of it was false. None of it…false.
Just hugs and pecks on the cheek. Instantly disappearing kisses, like summer moths. Like spirits dancing together…somewhere. I was 15 years old again.
But, as I said, I haven’t heard from any of those kids. Not a whisper.
Maybe during the school year, one or two of them will remember. Maybe they will need help with an essay. By then they will likely have misplaced my email address. But if they look for it, it will be nice to imagine that they tried to find me again after all.
Among School Children
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?