Friday, January 13, 2012


     The school is a low cement building with railroad car rooms, one classroom after another, palm-sized spiders on the walls, geckos behind the tattered hand-me-down books. In my memory of this moment, I'm teaching sixth grade. What are we studying? Was it the English words for animals?      
     “Bird,” I say, pointing to a drawing of a bluebird.
      “Bird,” the class repeats. But that's too convenient.
      There's a commotion. The kids jump up and run to the open-air windows, crowd at the door to see. I stand in their way, keeping them inside.
      Outside, on the clay basketball court, a group of students cluster around something. They throw it into the sky, a blur of white, and it falls, spiraling. What is it? I wonder, squinting.
It's a bird, a sea-faring bird with sharply angled wings made for gliding, pure white feathers marred by a red gash. One of the boys, skipping class, had knocked it out of the sky with a single, well-placed rock and ran back to school to show off his fine work.
      Everyone takes advantage of this unexpected distraction. The teachers lean against the wall in the shade making small talk, and I watch in horror as the children take turns grabbing the tropicbird by its one intact wing, swinging it and flinging it high into the air. Where it belongs. But it comes spiraling down to the earth again and again, a white body streaked with red. It lands hard on the concrete, still alive.
      My sixth grade students are indignant that I won't let them join in the fun. They mutter as they file back to their desks.

      Do I get used to the violence, after six months on this island? Do I get used to the sight of a sea turtle tied to a palm tree, bleeding and gasping soundlessly in the sand, flies landing on its eyes, children poking it with sticks? The sight of a dog getting kicked?
    Maybe I do. My skin becomes leathery, calloused. But one afternoon, Junior walks up to me with his own tough brown hands held out, closed like a flower in bud. When he opens them, a tiny brown bird is revealed, cupped in his palms.
      No heavier than a ping-pong ball, it was robbed from its precarious nest in a swaying palm tree, eighty feet up but not high enough to be safe from the curiosity of eight-year-old boys who could climb a greased pole. Stolen, this weightless bird with shiny black eyes and a long curved beak is a thing to be treasured.
      Two hours later I peek in the box I've left it in.
      I walk outside, puzzled, apprehensive. And there is two-year-old Capital, a feathered neck clenched in his sticky fist, while his mother praises him in a cooing tone for wringing the neck of a baby bird.
      I pry his fingers open, cradle the bird. Capital and his mother watch in surprise. The bird's head hangs from its little body like it's attached with a rubber band; a rubber band that snaps and recoils as I bring a machete down swiftly, blood spurting across the table where we'll eat dinner.
      No, I'm not used to this.

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