Mr. Schnell Feels Red
Mr. Tokarchik tells us to paint our feelings, so I take a cup of red tempera and splash it across the white sheet in front of me. By the time I’m done, the other kids are calling me a painthog because there’s only so much red to go around and I’m keeping most of it to myself. But everyone else just needs it for the same crap they always paint whether Mr. Tokarchik tells us to paint our dreams, our feelings, or our favorite things. Ernest Williams always paints motorcycles; Sophie Pimpinella always paints butterflies; and Faith Greenspan always paints her name in big, puffy letters against a bright-blue sky: FAITH!
Everyone always paints the same thing, except for me, but that’s only because I never know what to paint. My counselor, Ms. Steinback, says that it’s okay that I don’t know what to paint because twelve-year-olds aren’t always sure of themselves. But she also said that I should at least try to paint something when Mr. Tokarchik tells me to because I’m part of the community, and the community cares about what I have to say. Which I would almost believe if not for the fact that Mr. Tokarchik always smiles like I’m an idiot whenever I try to tell him anything.
“It looks like Mr. Schnell feels red today,” Mr. Tokarchik says when he stops in front of my easel.
Everyone laughs when he says this, and I think about first position—legs spread, feet planted firmly on the ground, fists at my hips.
The Wing Chun Master can deflect any attack.
The Wing Chun Master is an army of one.
“At least Mr. Schnell isn’t feeling motorcycle today,” I say. “Or butterfly. Or FAITH!”
Faith Greenspan stops smiling and looks at her feet. One by one, the other kids stop smiling, too, and I imagine them all laying down their paintbrushes and springing into action. They’d be stupid about it, of course—putting up their dukes like boxers in a ring or going for high kicks like the phony ninjas
they’ve seen on TV. I’d pulverize all of them because the Wing Chun Master is spare in his movements, and the Wing Chun Master would no sooner kick an opponent in the face than stoop to punch an opponent in the foot.
“I apologize, Mr. Schnell,” says Mr. Tokarchik. “Can you tell the class how you’re feeling today?”
“Angry,” I say.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Tokarchik says. He’s standing behind me and looking over my shoulder, and I can smell the tuna salad he had for lunch. “I do notice, however, that your strokes are heavier at the top of your painting and lighter towards the bottom. Any thoughts on what that might mean?”
“I was running out of paint,” I say.
Ernest Williams laughs because he knows that this is the wrong answer. He has crooked teeth and gets tripped up when he tries to do long division, but he knows that if I had any brains, I’d play along with Mr. Tokarchik and tell him what he wants to hear. But I do have brains, and that’s the problem. I have more brains than Ms. Steinback and Mr. Tokarchik and Ernest Williams combined. Not that Ernest Williams adds much to the equation, but I’ve been tested, and the test said that I’m as smart as most adults and maybe smarter.
“I think it means he’s not so angry anymore,” Donna Tilson says.
“I think it means he’s working through his issues,” adds Roland Aldred.
“I think it means he’s afraid of terrorists,” Rachel Ludwig says.
“And hurricanes,” Vladimir Dimitri adds. “He’s afraid of flash floods and hurricanes.”
Donna paints rabbits.
Roland paints mermaids with giant breasts.
Rachel paints her fingernails.
Vladimir paints with his fingers because he likes touching things.
We’re all here because our parents don’t know what to do with us and because the government won’t leave any of us behind—not even Ernest Williams, who picks his nose and spits on the floor and set fire to his grandmother’s apartment one night when he tried to build a campfire in the living room. I know so much about Ernest because he’s my roommate. Our room is the size of a refrigerator box, and the walls are covered with photos of sexy girls on motorcycles. Every night, Ernest tells me that as soon as he gets his driver’s license, he’s buying a Harley and joining a motorcycle gang. I used to ask him where he was going to get the money for a Harley, but I stopped when I figured out that the best answer he could ever come up with was a punch in the arm. Ernest always laughed when he punched me, like he thought it was some kind of game, but I never punched back because I knew he’d only punch me again, and harder. So I started reading up on karate, and Ernest stopped punching me when he saw the books on my desk.
The Wing Chun Master never provokes.
The Wing Chun Master only defends.
That’s why no matter how badly I want to break Mr. Tokarchik’s
ribs with a single thrust of my elbow, I stand perfectly
still as he asks me what I think about what everyone else thinks of my painting.
“What about Roland’s idea, Arthur?” Mr. Tokarchik asks. “Do you think you might be working through your issues?”
“I think I was running out of paint.”
“Beyond that, Arthur. What is your painting trying to tell us?”
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s a painting.”
“Then what are you trying to tell us through your painting, Arthur?”
“I already told you. I’m angry.”
“And why are you angry, Arthur?”
If I could say the words, I’d take a cue from Rachel and Vladimir and tell Mr. Tokarchik that I’m angry because of terrorists
or hurricanes or that tsunamis really piss me off or that global warming makes me want to puke or that I hate when people assume I’m retarded because of where I go to school. Then Mr. Tokarchik would thank me for sharing and ask if anyone
had any suggestions to help me get past my anger. Then everyone would tell me to breathe and count to ten and ask myself what Jesus would do. Then Mr. Tokarchik would stroke his beard and ask if any of these suggestions worked for me, and I’d say they all made perfect sense and thank my classmates
for their help, and Mr. Tokarchik would be free to move on and ask Faith why she’s feeling so FAITH! today. But I can’t say any of that stuff, so instead of making up some phony reason for being angry, I unclip my painting from the easel and tear it in half.
“Does this mean you’re not angry anymore, Arthur?”
“No, Mr. Tokarchik. It means you’re at the top of my list.”
In fifth grade, my teacher asked me in front of the whole class how the ancient Sumerians used to write. Her name was Ms. Valderama, and all she wanted to hear was the answer
in our textbook: The ancient Sumerians wrote on clay tablets using long reeds. Then she’d move on to the next kid and ask what this style of writing was called, and the next kid would inform her that the ancient Sumerians wrote in a style called cuneiform. The only problem was that I couldn’t tell Ms. Valderama the answer. I don’t mean that I didn’t know the answer, and I don’t even mean that it was just on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t think of it. What I mean is that I probably
knew the answer even before she asked the question because she was reading the questions right out of the book and I studied them all night with my dad, but even though the answer was right there, right in the center of my brain, something
inside of me wouldn’t let me say it. What I said instead was that the ancient Sumerians dipped sticks in poop and wrote on the walls, and it wasn’t until she nodded and moved onto the next question and the whole class started laughing that Ms. Valderama realized that what I said probably wasn’t the answer she was expecting.
“What did you just say, Arthur?” Ms. Valderama asked before
Tina Randolph could tell her that the style of writing I’d just described was called cuneiform.
“They dipped sticks in poop,” I said. “And wrote on the walls.”
I can’t really say why I was so angry at Ms. Valderama. All I know is that as soon as she asked the question, I felt like someone had reached inside of me and pressed all of the angry buttons in my head, and I hated her for asking such a dumb question.
When I told my mom what happened, her shoulders slumped, and she gave me the look that she always used to give me when I was four years old and would start to cry in the grocery store because she wouldn’t buy me a strainer or a pair of rubber gloves from the housekeeping aisle. It wasn’t a look of frustration so much as a look of heartbreak, as if my mother suddenly realized that I was rotten on the inside like a bad peach.
“I want you to apologize to her,” my mother said. “In front of the class. And I want you to write her a note on good stationery
and in your best handwriting promising Miss Valderama that you’ll never behave like that in her classroom again.”
“Ms.,” I said. “It’s Ms. Valderama.”
My father was still at work. When he got home, I told him what I did and asked if he also thought that I needed to apologize.
“It sounds like a good idea,” my father said. “You don’t want to get a reputation as the class clown.”
He was in his suit and tie. He was sitting on the edge of my bed and eating cold Beef Stroganoff that my mother left out for him. I was sitting at my desk and pretending to write the letter my mother asked me to write.
“But it was a stupid question,” I said. “Everyone knew the answer.”
“Sometimes we need to jump through hoops to get what we want,” my dad said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean you should answer all the questions your teachers ask, even if they’re stupid.”
“My teachers or the questions?” I said.
“Both,” my father said.
It was the kind of thing that my mother would have given him the look for saying, but she was downstairs watching television,
and I knew that my dad would only tell her that we’d talked and that I was going to apologize to Ms. Valderama for saying that the ancient Sumerians wrote with sticks and poop. But I never wrote the note, and when I went to school the next day, I didn’t apologize. Instead, I spelled everything wrong on a spelling test, and when Ms. Valderama handed it back the next day, she had written WHAT HAPPENED? across the top in big red letters.
I DON’T KNOW! I wrote back in even bigger red letters. AND I REALLY DON’T CARE!
That’s when I started meeting with counselors and learning
specialists who would show me pictures of men with ostrich
legs and ask me if I thought anything was wrong with what I was looking at. It’s also when my parents started reading
books on alternatives to traditional schooling methods and calling toll-free numbers for information on programs that specialized in reaching children with unique learning needs. A year later, I was in this place.
Mr. Tokarchik’s class is the last class of the day, and when it’s over, I sneak away from school and go to the strip mall for my karate lesson. The walk is a major pain because there are no sidewalks between where I go to school and the strip mall, and along the way there are two wooden crosses where drunk drivers killed people. On top of that, I have to walk past a regular high school on the way to my karate lesson, and since my school tries pretty hard to be just like any other, they both finish up at the same time, so all the regular high school kids are pouring out of the building whenever I walk by. They don’t say anything to me, but I get mad at them anyway because
the older kids are getting in cars and the younger kids are getting on buses or they’re getting picked up by their parents, and I know they all get to go home every night when all I get to do is go back to my room with Ernest Williams and his endless talk of motorcycles.
At the strip mall, I stand outside the karate dojo, which used to be a greeting card store, and I watch the students inside practice their moves. I know the dojo used to be a greeting
card store because the gold lettering on the door still says Hanson’s Greeting Cards. The lettering for the dojo looks like it’s made of electrical tape, and it spells out Karate and gives a phone number to call if anyone is interested in lessons. I called the number once and spoke with one of the karate instructors
there. His name was Sensei Melvin, and after asking him a few questions, I found out that they don’t teach Wing Chun karate there, which is why I never officially signed up for lessons. I also never officially signed up for lessons because my parents wouldn’t pay for them and because I knew that if I officially signed up, then I’d officially be a student, and I’d stop paying attention, and I’d start goofing off because I really hate school. But the main reason I don’t take lessons is that they don’t teach Wing Chun karate, so I just stand outside the dojo and listen to the kids shouting as they throw punches at the air.
The Wing Chun Master knows his limitations.
The Wing Chun Master works with what he’s given.
When the karate class starts, I walk back and forth in front of the big window and try to blend in with the rest of the shoppers in the strip mall. The problem is that there aren’t that many shoppers in the strip mall, and most of the people who go there are either there to stop at the liquor store at one end of the mall or to go to the post office at the other end, and the dojo is in the middle. Even so, I do what I can to make myself look like I’m there to shop at the vacuum cleaner store or the bookstore or the drugstore next to the dojo. When a woman walks past the dojo, I walk a few feet behind her so I look like I’m a kid who’s out with his mom but wants to look like he isn’t. Then I turn around and try to hide behind a pack of teenagers as I walk past the dojo again. If I had sunglasses, I could look sideways at the dojo and see what everyone is doing, and no one would notice what I’m up to.
I take a lot of mental notes when I walk past the dojo: how the kids stand, how they step forward when they throw their punches, how they shout. Some of these things are hard to figure out just by reading books, even books with illustrations. Even though they’re not studying Wing Chun and I have to look sideways to catch a glimpse of what these kids are doing,
I think I’ve learned a lot from watching their lessons. At night, I’ll usually come back to my room and practice everything I’ve seen. I don’t do the shouting, of course, because the counselors might come in to see what I’m shouting about, but I do all of the other moves while Ernest Williams tells me about the motorcycle he’s going to buy one day and the gang he’s going to join. I can join the gang, too, he usually tells me. A good motorcycle gang always needs a ninja, and if I need to, he’ll let me ride on the back of his motorcycle for a while until I can afford to buy one of my own.
“I’m not a ninja,” I tell him. “I’m a Wing Chun Master.”
“What’s the difference?” Ernest always asks.
“Bruce Lee was a Wing Chun Master,” I say. “And he was the best.”
Ernest thinks about this while I practice shifting from a casual stance to a defensive one. His teeth are so bad that his lips barely cover them. His eyes always look like they’re going to pop out of their sockets. The more he thinks about the difference between a ninja and a Wing Chun Master, the further his mind wanders from the topic.
“Maybe I could get one of those motorcycles with a sidecar,”
he says. “And when you get your own motorcycle, I can get a bulldog to ride with me.”
When the kids at the dojo start practicing their kicks, I try not to watch. Like I said, the Wing Chun Master will no sooner kick his opponent in the face than punch that opponent in the foot, so I go to the drugstore and buy a Zagnut bar. This is a good idea for two reasons. First, it gives me something to do until the kids finish their kicks. Second, it gives me an excuse for hanging out at the strip mall, and when I return to my post in front of the dojo, I make a show of how much I’m enjoying my Zagnut to prove that my main reason for visiting the mall today was to buy a candy bar and not to spy on the karate class. The Wing Chun Master has many faces.
The Wing Chun Master can dissolve into thin air.
Even after I’ve swallowed the last of my Zagnut bar, I pretend
I’m still eating, and I smile with satisfaction like someone who might be in a commercial for Zagnut bars if the Zagnut company ever advertised on television. Despite my best efforts
at blending into my surroundings, however, one of the kids in the class sees me and starts to laugh. My guess is that my smile is too big and goofy, so I try to hide it, but I’m too slow. Soon the karate instructor is asking this little blonde kid who can’t be more than eight years old what’s so funny, and the kid is pointing at me through the big window. The karate instructor says something to his students and bows before leaving them to practice throwing more punches at the air. It takes me a second to realize that he’s on his way out of the dojo to confront me, and by the time he opens the door, it’s too late to run. But that’s okay because the Wing Chun Master is ready for anything.
The karate instructor is a lot taller than his students but only a couple of inches taller than me. He’s an Asian man, and he’s wearing a white karate outfit, and I think about Bruce Lee even though the karate instructor doesn’t look anything like Bruce Lee. He looks more like my dentist back home, but even that isn’t a good description because I don’t think that my dentist could beat the crap out of Mr. Tokarchik as well as the karate instructor could—and definitely would—if Mr. Tokarchik ever told him to paint his feelings.
“Can I help you?” the karate instructor says.
“No,” I say, thinking fast. “I was looking for the greeting-card store.”
“It isn’t here anymore,” the karate instructor says, looking
over his shoulder at the kids inside his dojo. “It’s a karate studio now.”
“Dojo,” I say. “It’s called a dojo.”
I can feel the tension building like a spring inside of me. Any second now, the instructor is going to signal his students, and they’ll come swarming out the door, shouting, punching, and flying through the air. But the body of the Wing Chun Master is like a steel trap, so I’m calm and collected as the karate instructor interrogates me.
“You say dojo, I say studio. Are you interested in lessons?”
“I’m a Wing Chun Master,” I say.
“Ah,” the karate instructor says. “A Bruce Lee fan.”
“He was the best,” I say.
“Some people think so. If you don’t mind me asking, who’s your teacher?”
“Mr. Tokarchik,” I say, fumbling for a name. “I mean, Sensei
“I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”
“He’s new,” I say.
“Fair enough,” the instructor says. “If you ever change your mind about lessons, give me a call.”
He makes a move, and I spring into first position.
“Not bad,” he says. “Here’s my card.”
I take his card and walk away. My ears are burning, and I can feel the red pouring into my face like paint.
I’m walking past the high school again when someone says, “Look out for the ’tard.” ’Tard is short for retard, and it’s one of the kids from the football team who says it. He doesn’t say it like he means to hurt my feelings or make me angry or anything. He says it like no one ever told him that calling someone a ’tard is a rude thing to do. And when he says it, it almost sounds like he’s worried about me, because his friends are still tossing a football around, and he doesn’t want them to knock me off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic. What bothers me, though, is that he must know where I live if he thinks I’m retarded, even though no one at my school is actually retarded. What bothers me even more is that I thought I could blend in with everyone here at the high school, but I obviously can’t. I obviously look like someone who doesn’t belong. But a Wing Chun Master knows how to hold his emotions in check. A Wing Chun Master never lets his emotions get the better of him, so I ignore the kids on the football team and keep walking.
Back at school, a police car is parked in the spot reserved for emergency vehicles, and I wonder if Andrea Martorano has been caught shoplifting again. It isn’t until I get back to my room and Ernest Williams tells me that I’m in big trouble that I realize the police car is there for me. Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik came looking for me after class today, Ernest says, but I wasn’t in the room. Of course I wasn’t in the room, I tell him. I was out on business. When Ernest asks what kind of business I was on, I shake my head as if he wouldn’t understand. Ninja business, he asks, putting down his motorcycle magazine?
“I told you before,” I say. “I’m not a ninja. I’m a Wing Chun Master.”
That’s when I realize that my karate books aren’t on my desk anymore. When I ask where they are, Ernest tells me that Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik took them.
“But they’re mine,” I say. “I bought them with my own money.”
“I said they could take them,” Ernest says. “They asked, and I said you wouldn’t mind.”
I could go into first position right now, but the senses of a Wing Chun Master are unusually sharp, and I can hear Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik coming down the hallway with a third person, who I guess is the police officer. Mr. Tokarchik is telling
Mr. Foley that he didn’t mean to make such a big deal out of it—whatever it is, though it probably has to do with what I said to him in class today—and Mr. Foley is telling the police officer that I couldn’t have gotten far since I know that I’m not allowed off school grounds.
“It’s that stupid painting,” Ernest Williams says. “Why couldn’t you just paint something normal like everyone else?”
I’d say something to this, but I don’t have time. The only way out of the room is through the front door, and that only leads to the hallway, and the voices are getting closer.
“At least you could have told him that you were feeling red because red is your favorite color.”
I go to the window. Our room is on the second floor, and I can probably make the jump down to the ground because of my Wing Chun skills. The important thing is to bend my knees when I land.
“Keep your mouth shut,” I say. “And help me with the window.”
The voices are right outside our room now.
“Don’t be stupid,” Ernest says. “You’ll break your legs.”
“Not if I bend my knees,” I say, forcing the window open without his help.
“Why didn’t you just say you weren’t angry anymore?”
“Shut up,” I say.
“You should have just painted a motorcycle like everyone else.”
“You’re the only one who painted a motorcycle,” I say, sitting
on the windowsill but still facing Ernest.
“I’m just saying that you’re pretty stupid if you think anyone
here really cares about what you’re feeling.”
“I’m not stupid,” I say,
“Then why are you jumping out a window?”
“I’m not stupid,” I say again.
“Whatever,” Ernest says.
There’s a knock at the door, and I swing my legs over the ledge.
The Wing Chun Master is like the wind.
The Wing Chun Master will never die.