Minji Ryang’s Dream:
A for Effort
My mother calls me lazy. When I am at working on my homework at the restaurant and there are no customers at the counter, sometimes I close my eyes for a few seconds. Then my mother comes behind me with a wok and hits me on the top of my head. She does not hit me hard, but just enough to make a bong sound, and then she says to me in Korean, “Wake up, you lazy bones!” If anyone is in the restaurant, they laugh at the sound of the wok hitting my head; they laugh when I suddenly open my eyes. Then she and my father yell, “Who do you think you are, a lazy American teenager? Do you catch us falling asleep on the job?” They go on and on, but the lecture is so old that I just keep working without paying attention. The people in the restaurant who know Korean are regulars, so they have their conversations a little louder; they’ve heard the lecture before, too. The customers who don’t know Korean, of course, don’t pay attention because it’s just a bunch of noise like the clattering pots and the chopping knives.
I try. I try very hard. I pay close attention in all of my classes. I go into the school early every day and I stay late every day, asking questions, except for in American History. That class is quite easy for me because the teacher posts all of his notes on his website, and the tests follow the notes exactly. The answer to the worksheet questions are in the textbook. I know how to get a perfect score on the worksheets and on the tests. Mr. Draper especially loves that my handwriting is very easy for him to read. He asks me if that is something that is taught in Korea, my good handwriting. I tell him that I moved here when I was four, so I didn’t have much schooling in Korea. He must forget my answer because he asks me the same question many times. I like American History, though, because I know exactly what to do to get a high grade.
I am a disappointment to my math teachers because, since I am Oriental, I am supposed to be very good at math. I have Geometry this semester, with Mr. Bluthen . He is very patient and answers my questions every day. He often says to me, “Minji, we covered this last week. I’m worried that you’re getting behind on these concepts.” I worry about that, too. Besides asking Mr. Bluthen questions, I go on Youtube and watch videos about what we are covering in class. Sometimes, if he is not too busy, I ask my uncle, who was a college math professor in Korea but now he works with us in the restaurant. My brain, with math and science, is like a wall that needs painting, but the paint won’t cover. The teacher brushes on the ideas; the Youtube videos are a different brush; my uncle is still a different brush. Finally, after all these different brushes and layers of paint, the idea sticks. I do understand, eventually, but it takes many more brush strokes than it does for others. They have moved on to paint the entire room, sometimes the entire house, while I am still working on the first wall.
My mind works best with poetry. You would think, then, that I would be very good at English class, but Korean poetry makes the most sense to me, not English poetry. In addition, much of our English lessons are about grammar--prepositional phrases and conjunctive adverbs and when to use semi-colons versus commas. To me, this is turning language into math, and I am back with my small, thin brushes trying to paint another wall. I know, also, that my English vocabulary is limited since we only speak Korean at home, so often the poetry we read in school confuses me. The words cannot flow very well when I must look them up so often.
Grades closed today. I have done all of the extra credit I can; I have retaken every test I am allowed to. I know that I will be getting a high grade in American History. In math, I will be lucky if I get a B-. Art and gym will be fine, but those are not real classes, my parents say. In English, I do not know what I will be getting because the teacher does not post many grades until after the quarter is over. I am afraid the report card I bring home will again be a disappointment to my family.
I hear a strange announcement, half-way through band, the last period of the day. The announcement tells us all to go to the gym for a special, mandatory test, no exceptions. A test? My heart beats rapidly as we all go toward the gym. What sort of test? I check all of my notes. That is one thing I am generally very good at--keeping track of my homework and my calendar. I find no test scheduled for today. What will be the topic? I never miss studying for a test, but how can I study for one that I did not know about?
In the gym, the teachers have signs: A-F, G-K, and so on through the alphabet. I ask my classmate, Cassie Crispin, if she knows what the test will be about. She shakes her head. Mr. Draper is holding the sign for this part of the alphabet, O-S, and I ask him. He says, “Not to worry. It’s nothing you could have studied for.”
“Will it count on this marking period?”
“Actually, yes, Minji. It will count for your full grade.”
“My full grade? And it is nothing I could have studied for?” My heart beats even faster.
“You’ll be fine,” says Mr. Draper. I do not understand at all how I will be fine if I have to take a test I have not studied for, and the test is going to count for my full grade! By the time it is my turn to enter the cubicle set up for those in my alphabetical group to enter, one at a time, I feel as if I might pass out.
When I walk into the space, a woman I have never met before kindly asks me to sit down. Another woman dressed like a nurse says she is going to attach some wires to the temples of my head and to my wrists. While she does this, the first woman sits down opposite from me and says, “Now, this will only take a few seconds.”
“This is a test?”
Both of the women smile. The nurse puts a comforting hand on the top of my head (I think of the sound of the wok when it taps me there) and the other woman says, “No need to be concerned. You’ve already done the work.” The nurse steps away. The wires she has attached hook to a small, black box. The only other thing in the cubicle is a printer. “Now,” the first woman says, “I’m going to ask you a few quick questions. Answer honestly, and then we’ll be done. What is your name?”
“I am Minji Ryang. I am Korean.”
“Minji. Good. Just answer one question at a time. Now, all of the other questions I want you to rank on a scale of one to ten, one being a low score, ten being a high score. Do you understand?” I nod. “Minji, how important do you think education is?”
“Ten,” I answer quickly.
“How seriously do you take your education?”
I hesitate. Do I answer as I think I should or as my parents would believe? Because I would say nine, but they would say four or even three.
“Six. I should do better.”
“All right, then, Minji, final question: How would you rate your effort level?” Again, the voice of my parents speaks in my mind. This time, I give myself a little more credit. I do try!
“Excellent,” says the first woman. The nurse takes electrodes off, and a paper is comes out of the printer.
“When do I start the test?” I ask, and both women laugh gently.
The first woman says, “You just did.” She glances at the paper she has taken from the printer. “Oh, my,” she says, and then hands it to me. “Congratulations.”
Once outside, I see many other students looking at their papers. Some shrug, others shout in dismay. I read what is in my hand:
“Dear Minji and Minji’s Family:
Studies show that the greatest indicator of overall life success is not achievement but effort. In accordance with these studies, this school has decided to have student grades reflect that crucial life component. Using teacher feedback as well as computer-collected student self-evaluation, Minji’s grades for the second quarter are as follows:
American History: 100%
Physical Science: 100%
Congratulations on an excellent quarter, Minji! We applaud your effort and anticipate great success for your future.”
I blink. I read the letter again. Then I do something that no one has ever seen me do at this school: I yell and jump all the way out of the gym and all the way to my locker. Even when I stop, I feel the wonderful energy inside me and think I am like a stone of promise in a slingshot of opportunity, pulled back and ready to fly to the moon!
Reality Check: Dream 62
ü Minji Ryang’s Report Card:
English: 78%. More effort needed.
Band: 90%. Conscientious. Practice time seems to have dropped off a bit.
Art: 98%. Talented art student!
American History: 96%. A pleasure to have in class.
Geometry: 77%. Minji works very hard, but the concepts do not come easily for her.
Physical Science: 83%. Good work.
Cassie Crispin’s Dream:
A Small Helping
I wish the school didn’t make all the ninth and tenth graders come to the cafeteria for lunch. Actually, I don’t mind if all the other ninth and tenth graders have to go; I just wish they wouldn’t make me. It’s not that I don’t have any friends. I just don’t have...many. It’s sort of like in biology, when Mr. Gunderman talked about the two models of propagation: either you’re like a guppy and you pop out hundreds of babies in hopes that a few will survive, or you’re like a gorilla and you have just a small number of babies and watch them really closely to make sure they survive. When it comes to friends, I’m more on the gorilla side, I guess. I have about four friends, but I hold them close. But none of them are in my lunch period.
I have a seat, a place to eat. It’s not like one of those movies where I wander pitifully from table to table and no one will let me sit down. Nobody’s mean like that. You’ll find me, third lunch, sitting four tables back, on the end. Three seats separate me from five freshmen boys who buy their lunches, eat them in five minutes, then spend the rest of the time trading some sort of cards that I guess have to do with an on-line game. I bring a book. Or I finish my homework. It’s fine.
I just don’t like this feeling I’m having right now. It happens every time I walk into the cafeteria. I don’t hurry to lunch, you know, because...why would I? So I get here after most people have sat down. I mean, I don’t really have to tell you about the scene--it’s a school cafeteria: pockets of people gathered together, eating, talking. Some groups are big, like the volleyball girls two tables back; some are small, like Matt and Sarah who can’t keep their hands off each other. They’re over there in the corner. And I’m not the only one who sits alone. That boy over there, Don Brooks, he’s sitting by him…well, no, not anymore.
It’s not a big deal, how I feel. I guess it’s just not very good when you’re about to eat, to have an emptiness in your stomach that’s not just hunger. It’s silly, really, how every day I walk in here and stop by the door for a second, scanning the place. What do I think I’m going to see? I should just walk in and go to my spot. Eat my lunch, read my book, get on with my…
Wait a second. That’s weird. A girl is sitting in the chair across from my place, fourth table back. I’ve seen her before, but not in any of my classes. Study hall, maybe, last year?
I walk over and sit down. She’s reading a book. She looks up for a second, gives me a quick smile. I smile back. She lowers her head to keep reading. I bring out my book and my sandwich. After a few seconds, the girl says, “Um, is it okay if I sit here?” Sure, I tell her. She says, “I just switched my schedule so now I have lunch this period. I don’t really know anybody during this lunch.” I tell her I don’t either. She says, “I’m Becca.” I tell her my name. She asks me what I’m reading. I ask her what she’s reading. We eat and talk a little. When the bell rings, she says it was nice to meet me, and I tell her it was nice to meet her. As we leave the cafeteria, Becca turns left out the door. I turn right. She says, over her shoulder, “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” I say okay back.
Life, at least the lunch part, just got better.
Reality Check: Dream 63
ü Facebook status post for Cassie Crispin: It’s the little things. Got a new friend for lunch. Thanks for switching your schedule, Lilly Chester!
Donald Brooks’s Dream:
A Funny Thing Happened
Houston, we’re about to have a problem. Tests on the Civil War coming back, the usual suspects with the usual reactions: Melissa smugly looking at her A, Peter glumly receiving his C, Gavin clenching his jaw as he looks at whatever he got--probably something in the B+ range--but strategizing how he’s going to come in after school and argue his way up at least a half a grade.
Mr. Draper is proceeding down the rows, the stack of tests getting shorter with each flick of his hand. Fate, face down, delivered to our desks. Here’s your B. You may live another day. Here’s your D. Death awaits you. Here’s your A. Retain your place at the top of the food chain. Here’s your C. Struggle on, poor soul. The plague to the losers, the crown to the winners, and I am three desk-lengths from my doom.
But no, what’s this? The stack is gone. Mr. Draper seems to have dispensed his judgments, handed down his sentences, and now he walks back to his desk, striding away without a word. I took the test. Or, perhaps a tad more accurately, I interacted with the questions dispensed on the given day.
Surely, everyone has felt it--that push toward rebellion, that anarchic nudge, that oh-who-gives-a-crap impulse? Truth is, I get those…impulses a bit more often than the average citizen, but I suffer for them. Oh, I definitely suffer. Like today. Like a few seconds from now when Mr. Draper, no doubt, finds my test on his desk, a pitiful orphan left behind, and brings it back to me wearing its lovely F and its equally attractive, highly-familiar comment about how I need to take my studies more seriously and leave the jokes for another time. That will be just the beginning, for the grade will not just lie like a blood-gorged tick feeding on my test. No, it will spread to the portal and eventually to the eyes of my parents, particularly to those of my father and then…. I did mention doom before, didn’t I? Mr. Draper pronounces the verdict. My father will hand down the sentence. With Principal Connelly as solemn witness, Dad will sharpen the axe, don the executioner’s hood, and deliver the killing slice. Tomorrow, adorning the foyer of our lovely home, will be a basket in which will rest my severed head. My tongue may even stick out.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Draper says, “I have a treat for you today.” A treat? On the very day he’s handing back a soul-sucking, grade-destroying test? If his brand of sadism is the order of the day, then I assume a treat might mean something like, “Hey, kids, everybody line up for a happy dose of waterboarding!”
But no; he’s picking up a paper, and, unless everybody had the same trouble finding a writing utensil as I did last Friday and ended up having to write in bright purple, that piece of paper he’s holding up and is about to read from is my disaster of a Civil War test. I understand the treat now: complete humiliation. Let’s all have a blast demonstrating just what a total screw-up Donald Brooks really is.
“This past week-end, I had the task of grading your tests. I tend to eat to get through my grading, and the worse your results, the more I want to indulge. Your set of tests was threatening to push me right into a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, ladies and gentlemen, until I came across this.” Mr. Draper holds up my test like it’s exhibit A, but I’m getting a little puzzled. He almost sounds happy. He begins to read.
“Name three major causes of the Civil War and give a brief explanation of each,” he starts. Here we go. I don’t remember what I wrote, but it wasn’t exactly on-topic.
“Number one: The first cause of the Civil War was people not liking pineapples. Arguments involving fruit can easily escalate into war. Number two: The second cause of the Civil War involved hemorrhoids. They are a pain in the butt. War happens because of them. Number three: The Civil War came about because the Northerners hated when the Southerners always said, ‘Y’all.’ Northerners like to take shots at people who say ‘y’all.’ Likewise, Southerners think Northerners who don’t say ‘y’all’ are just being rude, and Southerners can’t stand rudeness, so they shoot back. Hence, the not-so-Civil War.”
Now, here’s the thing: Draper can barely read, he’s laughing so hard. The class, of course, between what I actually wrote and the fact that Mr. Draper keeps cracking up, is finding the whole thing pretty hilarious too. They’re laughing like crazy and some of them reach over and pat me on the back. I don’t mind telling you it all feels pretty good. Better than a sharp stick in the eye, as my grandfather used to say. Mr. Draper continues.
“Describe two major battles of the Civil War and how they contributed to the outcome of the war ”: ‘Little-known fact: Gerbils were a big part of the Civil War, and when generals and other people disagreed and couldn’t come to some sort of settlement, they unleashed the gerbils to do battle. One of the major battles of the Civil War was between Fluffy and Creampuff, both female gerbils. They went at each other like only female gerbils can. The fur flew that day, I can tell you, and when it was over, the Northern gerbil Creampuff was victorious. Fluffy’s last words were, “I hate you, Creampuff; I really do,” to which Creampuff replied, “Frankly, Fluffy, I don’t give a damn.” These words inspired a very important film. The other major battle was known as the Norman the Janitor Takes on the Toilet. Nobody knows how this turned out, but everybody is sure the toilet won. This matters a lot because it’s hard to imagine being without toilets today.”
Mr. Draper is practically passing out from trying to read through his. He gets himself under control enough to say, “I can’t. Suffice to say, this test saved me from a very tedious weekend. I can’t even read you the final essay.”
The class boos and kids yell he has to. Mr. Draper says, “Honestly, I can’t do it. But I wonder if we might urge the actual author to come forward and do the honors?” Everyone cheers and turns to me. The next thing I know, I’m in front of the room, reading my final joke essay from last Friday’s test. And I don’t mind saying this, but I’m killing up there. The question asked about the lasting effects of the Civil War on our country today.
“The Civil War did a lot of things to the development of our country. As a matter of fact, I was just saying to my friend the other day, while we were destroying our brain cells playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, ‘Dude, how ‘bout that Civil War, huh?’ And he said back to me, ‘Dude, what the hell are you talking about?’ So that conversation right there just goes to show you exactly how much The Civil War has impacted me in my daily life.
Another thing that The Civil War has done for us is help us come to a much better appreciation of snack foods. Back in Civil War times, the packaging for things like Doritos and other crunchy snacks was a disaster. Often, they were kept in socks. Soldiers were forced to endure many hardships like not being sure if toilets would survive the war and eating soggy sour cream and chive potato chip.
A man named Jebediah Obediah Diarrhea, from Missouri, was fighting during the Civil War. When he was heading into a battle he discovered, too late, that his rifle had been fashioned from beef jerky. Jebediah Diarrhea (J.D., for short) said to his friend who also happened to be his sister posing as a man so she could fight in the war, ‘Jezebela Diarrhea (also J.D. for short--it was a confusing family), pass me some of them sour cream and onion chips.’
She said, ‘J.D., I ain’t passing you none of them chips; they’s mine.’
J.D. said to J.D., ‘You make a awful man, I just have to tell you, ‘cause yer petticoats are showing under yer britches, plus you oughter give me them chips since I’m about to die. My rifle’s made of beef jerky.’
So J.D. gave J.D. the chips, but J.D. ate one and it was soggy as a Lousiana swamp in a rain storm. J.D. yelled at J.D., ‘Where’d y’all have these, yer socks?’
A Yankee who was spying on the whole conversation from behind a nearby tree heard J.D. say ‘y’all’ and got so mad he jumped out and shot at J.D. (Jeremiah, not Jezebela--it was a confusing war) and hit him in the head but didn’t kill him. J.D.’s sister shot the Yankee and ran to her brother and said, ‘Don’t y’all die on me.’ He said, “All right, but I can’t guarantee I won’t die beside you.” But he didn’t. Instead, he lived and came out of the war so disgusted by his soggy chips on his almost final battle that he spent the rest of his life improving snack packaging. Every time we crunch, we should be thankful to the Civil War and to Jeremiah Obediah Diarrhea. Amen.”
When I’m done and when the laughing and the applause dies down, which takes a nice, long time, Mr. Draper comes over and puts one hand on my shoulder while the other wipes the laugh-tears from his eye. He says, “For giving me and my wife the biggest laugh we’ve had in years, I am awarding you, Donald, a one-time-only, purely-humor-motivated A+ on this exam.” I raise my arms in triumph as the class erupts in cheers. Mr. Draper shouts something like, “Don’t try it again!” but I can barely hear him over the sound of the class and the ringing in my brain that says that I, for once, have been appreciated!
Reality Check: Dream 64
ü On Mr. Draper’s blog: “I failed this kid on his test, but I thought this answer was pretty priceless. The question was, ‘What are the lasting effects of the Civil War on our country today?’” He posted Donald Brooks’s answer.
ü Number of times Donald Brooks’s failing answer was shared on-line: 7,856.