Yesterday I mentioned that perhaps the only time Thuy is alone is when she is in the toilet. Well, the toilet is the one place I am hardly ever alone at school. And today it really got to me.
I have mentioned this a few times: the security guards live at the school, and so do the cleaning ladies. The cleaning ladies actually live in the bathrooms. They eat, sleep, nap and socialize in the bathrooms. At lunch you may see three or four of them - from their various floor stations - congregating to eat out of styrofoam to-go containers on the floor. Oftentimes, after lunch, they will be laying on the floor - usually with their heads on the hard surface, but sometimes with a roll of toilet paper for a pillow - taking a nap. But when you walk in, their eyes are on you. They watch you enter the stall, watch you come out, watch you wash your hands and check yourself in the mirror. It drives me crazy on so many levels. I'm sure you Americans and Europeans will agree...if you could choose just one place to be alone during the day, you would choose the toilet. And, of course, the sobering fact of their bathroom existence gets me every single day.
Their main job is to keep the bathroom clean and "attended to," so it is a wonder how often the stalls are out of toilet paper. It sits in the cupboard and sometimes you have to get it yourself (as your attendant watches you from the floor). Oh, and by the way, there are no paper towels at this school. You dry your hands with Kleenex.
Their other job is to clean the classrooms after school. At 4:10 (five minutes after the kids leave), a guard will knock on my glass door and ask if the cleaning ladies can come in. When I nod yes, he allows them to enter while he watches from the door. He presides over them as if they cannot be trusted in the rooms alone. They will then get down on their knees and pick up scraps of paper (we have no vacuum), empty the trash and wash the boards. They keep their eyes down the entire time.
I always greet "my" cleaners in the bathroom and after school. They wait until I smile to smile back, but it is usually with averted eyes. I try to have my kids pick up every day so that their floor time is minimal.
Sometimes, at lunch, I will check every floor to find an unattended bathroom, hoping that they will be congregated somewhere else, eating their lunch. Otherwise, I go one story up - if I can -to the fifth floor bathroom because I really like that attendant; she is usually gazing out the window instead of watching the bathroom occupants, and she is usually singing, quite beautifully. And her stalls are always stocked.
Today (Friday) I really hit a wall. Fridays can be the most awful days for teachers. Friday Teacher Tiredness can send me plummeting into depression. I tell Nam to pick me up at four, because in the morning I know it is a Friday Teacher Tired Day for me (you already heard about my long, tiring week) and that I will want to get out and start my weekend as soon as possible.
The bathroom thing drives me especially crazy today: the kids are loud. I'm not well prepared. I feel like a terrible teacher. I want to be alone in the stupid bathroom. At four, I have a student translate between Nam and me; the last thing I want to do is to go to the store, but I must. Thuy is coming to cook on Sunday and she told me that I needed four small bowls for the soup we are making. My Saturday is booked, so I know that the only time I can get to the store to buy the bowls is now. I can't remember the name or the address of this particular store, so I tell Nam I will point the way. I know I am taking him in kind of a circle, but it is the way I walk there. And as I take him that way, I know I am going to get some crap for it, and I also know he will look in my bags when I come out. I am already fuming, just thinking about it. And I never got to be alone in the bathroom today, not even for a second. Plummeting, plummeting, Teacher Tired Friday.
Nam doesn't say anything until I come out of the Co op Mart. Then he makes a circle gesture with his hands and I'm sure he says, "You made me go in a big circle!" He is irritated. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." He does it again. He is such a repeater. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." He checks my bags. "You could have gotten cheaper bowls than these, right in my village," I'm sure he says. He makes another circle gesture with his hands. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." The ride home is tense.
But we aren't going home. We are going to his aunt's house to wake up his nephew so that he can translate the fact that I made him go in a circle. I roll my eyes. Here it comes. I don't get mean very often, but I just don't have the patient tools to deal with MomNam right now (by the way, my mom never nags like this!). Nephew comes down and Nam blabbers to him, accusing.
"My uncle say you take him in a circle. There is a faster way to get to that store."
"Tell him I know. Tell him I didn't know the shortcut. It's how I walk there." I have total attitude.
"My uncle say you should give him the address."
"I didn't know the address," I say. My tone is getting sharper. More blabbering.
"My uncle say you could have bought those bowls at a much cheaper place."
I am right on the verge, so I say, "How much do I owe you?" I want him to know that this conversation is over and that I am going to take my bag of bowls, of which he does not approve, and I am going to walk the three blocks home.
Whenever he takes me someplace extra, I pay him extra. He always has a number in mind. But he finally gets my mood, and I see hurt and fear in his eyes. There is a long pause.
"How much?" I repeat.
Now he feels bad; I have hurt my mother's feelings, and he was only trying to help. He makes a sweeping gesture with his hands. Nothing.
I give him a look that says "please just tell me how much..." when his great aunt, who has never spoken any English to me but who is always hanging around during these special translation times, waves her hand and says, "Souvenir!" I can't believe it; she has probably understood everything she has ever heard us say.
Now I feel bad. But I don't know what to do, so I just say "thank you" and walk away. As I walk down the alley, Nam yells a pathetic, "See you Monday!"
I feel awful.
I go to my big castle, where I am finally all alone.
Especially in the bathroom.