Excerpt of Heaven Lake by John Dalton
(Page 1 of 8)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
Part One: The Volunteer
Part Two: Sister Gloria, Sister Moon
Part Three: Best Intentions
Part Four: The Goat Herder
Part Five: The Other Half
Without chagrin or even a trace of contradiction, Jonathan Hwang informed Vincent that his new class at the Ming-da Academy would be comprised of forty-two teenaged girls. "The contest and the judging were both fair," Hwang said, and then wiggled his bony fingers to suggest the fickle nature of chance. "They're meeting with the principal now. I'll send them over as soon as they finish." He made an aloof, stiff-shouldered bow and left Vincent with a key to the language laboratory.
Once inside, Vincent found the room's consoles and chairs in pristine order. He practiced writing on the glossy board with erasable markers, forming loops and squiggled lines and words, and then wiping away everything but the word welcome, which he underlined in red and blue. Standing at the head of the class, before a waist-high lectern, he imagined himself in a white lab coat shuffling beakers and test tubes, and with a sudden smoky fizzle, distilling verbs, nouns, adjectives.
A sparkling panel of windows ran along the laboratory's south wall, and through them he could see the sweeping Ming-da courtyard. Soon a tidy column of students advanced from the east wing, swung left, and crossed under the spindly shadow of Chiang Kai-shek. They made a procession-like turn into the main building and moments later reappeared in two parallel lines outside the laboratory door. They all wore deep maroon uniforms with gold crests sewn to their lapels, and as they waited to enter, they shifted about, eagerly straightening one another's collars and shirtsleeves.
They carried this same air of regimented discipline into the classroom, where they paired off in four long rows and took their seats while a delegated student, the class secretary, called out attendance. She then held out the attendance booklet for Vincent to sign. The class president and vice president stepped forward and presented a typed letter in English from their school principal. It stated that their class had competed in and won a school-wide English competition. The letter went on to declare them an able and worthy class that had been given the distinct privilege of studying English conversation on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with a highly honored, foreign-born master of English.
Vincent smiled at the tone of the letter. He already suspected -- from a brief but polite exchange of words with the class president -- that their language ability might outrival the simple lessons he had developed for his Bible study class. He began with his now standard model sentence: Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. The class repeated this in an eager, melodic singsong, their pronunciation exceptionally clear.
He pointed to a girl in the first seat of the first row. "Where did Mark go?" he asked.
The girl rose to her feet. She stood taller than most of her classmates and wore wire-rimmed glasses. "To the park," she replied.
"Good answer," Vincent said. "But I would like you to answer in a complete sentence. Do you understand what I mean, complete sentence?"
"Yes," she said. She gazed timidly about the room, looking to her classmates for encouragement. "Well," she began. "As you told us, Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. But I think that maybe he went to one or two other areas. Perhaps he went to the cinema to see a foreign movie or perhaps he went to the zoo to see the lovely panda bears."
Vincent could hardly contain his delight. He made a great show of wadding up his lesson plan and throwing it in the waste bin. "You're too clever for that," he told the class. They applauded the announcement and favored him with bright, self-satisfied smiles. Now lessonless, he resorted to drawing a map of America on the board and then described the state of Illinois and his hometown of Red Bud. He rounded out the hour-long lesson by having each student ask him a question. They began with the standard inquiries, familiar questions that had been put to Vincent both by students in other classes and by complete strangers on trains and buses. How old are you? Are you married? How many people are in your family? Then questions of finance, which the Taiwanese considered perfectly acceptable topics of conversation. How much money do you make each month? How much is a car in America? And last, several odd queries, ones, Vincent suspected, the girls had simply translated into English from their homework assignments. Why is Taiwan the true China? How does the color red affect your mood? A student in the back row asked him to please describe the heroic natures of Chiang Kai-shek and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton