He answered all these questions with great care. He praised Taiwan and its national heroes, stated prudently that the situation in the Mainland was unfortunate. All the personal questions he answered truthfully, with the exception of those concerning his invented sister, Gloria, and his monthly salary. This he reduced to half its amount so the students would not think him too money-minded.
Before they left, he outlined a seating chart and worked his way down the long rows writing their names in the square grids. They all insisted on English names, which ranged from the customary, Sally and Christina, to the unconventional, Cookie and Snoopy. Violet proved to be a highly sought-after name. Three girls claimed it as their own, and when none of the three would accept another name, Vincent dubbed them Violet One, Violet Two, and Violet Three. At the end of the third row, a slim girl with large, sleepy eyes peered into his chart and said, "My Chinese name is Ch'iu Yüeh, which means 'Autumn Moon,' but I choose the English name Trudy because it is a lovely name and because it is a true name." Vincent penciled this in and when he lifted his eyes from the paper, she was tilting her head up toward him with a fondly amused grin.
During the course of succeeding lessons, Vincent learned that the girls were all third-year students, all either sixteen or seventeen years old. Evidently their high school had chosen a British English curriculum. Thus, their vocabulary was sprinkled with phrases such as waiting in the queue, my auntie from Taipei, and my bright red jumper. They used the word lovely to describe everything from fried rice to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They shared a troublesome habit of lifting large, powerfully charged words from their Chinese-English dictionaries and inserting them clumsily into otherwise plain sentences: My plan to go to the department store was demolished by my father.
As proficient as they were in their English speaking, there remained long, uncomfortable pauses during class conversation. They understood his questions and knew the answers, and yet when asked to stand and speak, many became paralyzed with shyness. Collectively, they put forth a restrained, virginal sense of propriety that caused them to blush over the most minor mistakes and incidents. The word kiss discovered in a long list of English vocabulary made their faces redden and their hands fly up and cover their mouths. Most extraordinary of all was their ability to witness a single event -- a joke, a mispronounced word -- and react in a strikingly similar way, often mirroring one another's exact expressions. Vincent could enter the class and cunningly pretend to trip over the lectern's wooden base and send every girl reeling with laughter. How easily amused they were, and how beautiful, too. Their hair was dark and thick; their school did not allow them to wear it long, but even short it was full and clean and, he imagined, softly textured. Their bodies were slender with delicate, narrow waists, and they were shapely and tender in a way Vincent decided he was best off not thinking about.
On one particular Tuesday afternoon, Vincent turned from writing on the chalkboard and spied a hand in the back row bouncing fervently above his dark-haired audience. He glanced at his seating chart, called out the student's name, Trudy, and she stood.
"Teacher Vincent, do you have a girlfriend?" Trudy asked.
Because many people in Toulio knew he was a single male teacher, and an enigmatic foreigner as well, this had been another common question, one he consistently responded to with a good-natured no.
"No, I don't have a girlfriend." He shrugged amiably.
"Would you say," Trudy continued, "that I have a chance to become your girlfriend?"
The other students gasped in astonishment. A few girls raised tremulous hands to their lips. Trudy's question, it seemed, was not just an off-color remark. It was a stunner, an unexpected showstopper that bore down upon the class -- the girls sank visibly in their seats -- and produced a blunt, unbridgeable silence. Trudy herself was absolutely beaming; she had straightened her pose, widened her already large eyes in anticipation of his reply.
Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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