My middle school was intent on giving us a thorough cultural education. While most of us were already learning an instrument after school, they added a music class to the curriculum. For this they hired Mr. Chan.
Originally from Hong Kong, Mr. Chan resembled a beautiful Asian woman. He had long hair styled in a bob and dramatic cheekbones that retreated up his forehead. It was a distinct possibility that he emphasized these with rouge. His eyes were wide, with eyebrows arched above them like cathedral steeples; he often looked surprised. Mr. Chan seemed to have stepped out of a book on Japanese street style. He would’ve been the girl dressed as David Bowie.
We found him hopelessly weird. Even as eleven-year-old children, we knew that the faculty sympathized with us. When our teacher dropped us off in his room once a week, she would retreat without any of the banter she had with other teachers. Mr. Chan’s reptilian appearance made the fact his classroom was separate from the main buildings seem appropriate, like he was a garden snake kept behind glass.
We preyed on him like a weaker peer. For my part, he sat me beside a pole that I pretended to have a romantic relationship with, threatening him not to defy our love when he attempted to move me. After several weeks of this, he finally managed to break us up by leaving me with my regular teacher for one class. Thus jilted, I reformed my behavior until more subtle devices could be employed.
Then one day, while he was lecturing, I slowly, barely at all, let my tongue move out from my mouth and down my chin. I pushed it with the pace of a dying snail, so that it was hardly noticeable even to me. When it finally reached its maximum length, drool on my chin, I let it lie there briefly, before taking my hand and calmly stuffing it back into my mouth. Then I repeated this, again and again. The third time, Mr. Chan noticed it. Stopping his lecture, he walked over to me, crouched down, tilted his head sideways, and said with a thick lisp, What is wrong with your… tongue?
The trouble with Mr. Chan was his naivety. He believed that something was horribly wrong with my face, like I was having the world’s smallest stroke while he taught us to play the recorder. When I told him I didn’t know, but was gravely concerned, he excused me from any further recorder exercises.
While this seemed fantastic, it soon returned to me with considerable irony.
Mr. Chan felt that I needed to learn the recorder. Not only was it important for its own merits, but I was a gifted trumpeter in the school orchestra, and my talent was not to be overlooked when it came to whistle blowing. Thus, he arranged for me to meet him after school. When I showed up, he told me to take my recorder and follow him. We walked to a dark conference room that smelled of cheap luncheon coffee and burnt Styrofoam. He sat opposite and gave me the most intense stare a man has ever looked at me with.
It was already the subject of some debate whether Mr. Chan was gay. While I’d thenceforth not minded whether he was or wasn’t, suddenly I found myself pondering the nature of this peculiar scenario. It occurred to me that eleven-year-old boys should not find themselves in dark rooms with Chinese men who look like beautiful Asian women pretending to be David Bowie. Marginally alarmed, I also felt there was something gentle and essentially good about Mr. Chan. He didn’t have any malice or menace in him; he suddenly seemed very lonely. I felt an appreciation for what he was trying to do for all of us.
I learned about half a song on the recorder before he let me off.