Turtle Logic

It was the coldest winter on record in Wisconsin.  David was glad to be back home in Hawai‘i for winter break.  Grad school at the University of Wisconsin had been an icier experience than he expected.  The sun felt good.

The day after he arrived, with only two days to acomplish the task, David had hoped to finish his Christmas shopping.  Once he reached Ala Moana Shopping Center, however, he was tired.  Very tired.  It was school, it was the plane ride, it was everything.  All adding up.  Or all subtracting down.

He sat on a bench outside of Sears.  Looking at his very white legs, the pale color that in his youth he’d referred to as “shark bait,” David had a feeling that if he sat here for too long, he’d begin to burn.  His haole half told him to get his ass inside, but his Asian half said he could stand a few more minutes sitting there.

Lighting a cigarette, he leaned back against the wall behind the bench.  He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing.

Gradually, David became aware of people shouting and laughing.  He opened his eyes and saw a crowd of boys dancing around out in the parking lot.  One of the bigger ones held up a paper bag and was shouting some inaudible words.  The smallest kid was jumping up for the bag.  The bigger kid held just out of his reach.  The other boys, all of them definitely older than the little boy, were taunting him, laughing.  The little boy was screaming and crying out.  The others laughed more, and two of them began pushing the kid.

“Eh!” David shouted at the group, stamping out his cigarette.  “Leave him alone!”

They all stopped and stood still, looking at him.

“Leave him alone already,” David said, standing up and making a move in their direction.

“Fuck you!” the big kid yelled at him, then threw the bag at the little kid.  They all ran off, except the little one.  He stood there crying, then sat down on the ground and looked in the bag.

David went over and knelt beside him.  The kid couldn’t have been more than ten years old.  He glanced over at the man, his crying slowly subsiding to small gasps, then to normal breathing.

“What have you got there?” David asked.

The little boy ran his sleeve across his nose, then reached in the paper bag and pulled out a plastic bag with a little green turtle in it.

“Oh wow,” David said.  “I hope they didn’t hurt it.”

The boy held the turtle bag up and turned it slowly, inspecting it.  “I no think so,” he said.

“Hey, come on, let’s go sit on the bench.  We could get run over out here,” said David.

They sat down and little boy pulled the turtle in the inflated plastic bag out again to look at it.  “Yeah, he looks okay.”

“Okay,” David said.  “That’s good.  How about you?”

“Me?” he looked up at David.  “Okay, I guess.  Fuckahs.  Always make trouble to me.  One a dese days.  Shit.”

The boy stopped.

“Okay,” David said, “that’s good you’re okay.”

“I gotta go, Mister,” said the boy.

And with that he up and walked off.

Christmas break came to an end and he returned to Madison.  David survived the winter, and another two as well.  His decision to move back to Hawai‘i was a mix of reasons, but return he did.  Now that he’d graduated, there was nothing to do but face the cruel world and get a job.

Through a series of chance happenings, he finally found himself sitting in the principal’s office at his old high school.  His inquiry about a job teaching English there had brought this about.  He waited for her entrance.

When Dorothy Irvine arrived, they hugged and then sat, she on her side of the desk, and he on the bad student side of the desk.  He’d sat there only once before, a long time ago.  For the most part, he’d been a good student, not a big problem for her, which he hoped would be a good thing in terms of employment.

“Well, David,” she said, “I’m glad to hear that you finished school.  Welcome home.”

He thanked her, told her that Wisconsin weather had been worse than he anticipated, how he was so glad to be back home.

“Of course,” she said, “I can definitely relate to your love of the warm weather.  I grew up in Kansas, you know, and there’s no place like Hawai‘i for me.”

They laughed.  Two sun worshippers.

“So,” Dorothy said, “I understand you’re looking to teach English.”

“Yes,” said David.  “Hopefully here.  Is there any possibility of a job?”

“Ah, no, I’m sorry, David, but by a strange coincidence, I do know of a job that you might be interested in.  I just this moment came back from lunch with a dear old friend of mine.  He’s the principal over at Kalihi Intermediate School.  He’s all excited because they’ve been selected as the first public school in the State to introduce computers into the curriculum.  He asked me if I knew anyone who could teach computer literacy classes.”

David nodded.  Kalihi Intermediate was a tough school, with tough kids.  Most of them were second generation Pacific Islanders, along with a large population of Filipinos.  One of the toughest things about these kids was that most of them came from low-income families and lived in low-income housing.  It was encouraging to hear that they would have first crack at learning with computers.  They deserved all the breaks they could get.

“So,” Dorothy said, bringing him back to the conversation.  “Do you know anything about computers?”

“I do, in fact,” David said.  “I’ve been experimenting with a word processor called Bank Street Writer.  You can type papers on that.  The computer I’m using is a Commodore sixty-four.  I’ve also learned a little programming using what’s called BASIC computer language, and there are some good games, too.  But the most fun I’ve had is with a program called Logo.  What it is, is you steer this little turtle around the screen using commands for it to move.  you can learn basic math skills, geometry too.  I love it.”

“Well well well,” she said.  “I’d say you sound like a good person for the job.”

Dorothy gave him the contact information for the principal at Kalihi Elementary School.  David called that afternoon and made an appointment to meet with him the following day.

“So,” said the principal, Mr. Sakamoto, “Dorothy tells me you’re an English major and that you also know something about computers.”

David told Mr. Sakamoto about his experience with the Commodore 64.

“Oh, that’s excellent,” said the principal, “the computers we’ll have are all Commodore 64s.  David, if Dorothy says you’re good, that’s good enough for me.  You’re hired.”

And just like that, David had found a job.  Kalihi Intermediate included grades seven, eight, and nine.  In each of those grades, students were placed in groups numbered one through ten, according to their standardized English test results.  Those in group one had scored the highest, and so on down to group nine where the students with the lowest scores were placed.

Group ten was a different story.  These were the hardcore delinquents and students who either did not qualify, but just barely, for special education, or those whose parents refused to have them enrolled in the special education track because they refused to believe their children were in need of special education.

David had actually never taught any courses to anyone, and to suddenly be teaching five periods a day, 30 students per period, was a challenge.  Some days he’d have trouble remembering if what he was saying was something he’d already said to that particular section.

The goal was to expose all of the students at Kalihi Intermediate to four weeks of computer education.  The job was split between David and one other teacher.

David loved the job, all grade levels, and all groups from one to ten in those grades.  The kids enjoyed being able to produce the printout result “Hello World” using BASIC language, and they were very interested in how word processing could help them with things like messy handwriting and speeding up the act of writing.  But what they liked most of all was the Logo language.

Driving that little turtle around the screen was not only a good way to learn math without it feeling like learning math, but some of the kids were producing extraordinary works of art as they mastered the skills of making the turtle go where they directed.

At the end of each four week session, the students were always instructed by their English teachers to write the other computer teacher and David thank-you notes.  Some gave David actual greeting cards, and a few brought him little presents like candy bars and crackseed.

On one of the final days, the line of students saying goodbye to David had come down the last one, a big kid, Andres, some mix of Filipino and Samoan or Tongan.  He was already playing football on Kalihi High School’s varsity first team, even though he was only a ninth-grader.  A bright kid, his English scores had him placed in Group 5, right in the middle.  His English was good, his writing pretty strong, he had a sharp mind, and it looked as if he had potential to be a good artist.  He’d loved using Logo.

“Mr. Chan,” he said, “I wanted to show you something.”

He unzipped his bag and produced a large brown paper bag.  Placing it carefully on the desk, he reached in and pulled out a round clear plastic container with a small plastic island that had a plastic brown palm tree with green fronds on it.  There was maybe a half inch of water in the container, and sitting on the little plastic island was a small green turtle.

“Wow, that’s cool.  Does this have something to do with Logo?” David asked.

“No, Mr. Chan, it has to do with you and me.”

David looked at him.  “Sorry, Andres, I don’t understand.”

“Mr. Chan, it’s me.  I never got to thank you for saving my ass that day at Ala Moana.  Don’t you remember me with the turtle?”

And then it came back to David.  The incident at the shopping center.

“Is this the same turtle?” David asked.

“Yes, it is.  I named him Al.  And now I’m gonna call him Al Logo.”

They both laughed, and David patted Andres on the shoulder.

“Andres, I can’t believe it’s you.  What are the chances?  This is great.”

“I know, yeah?  Anyways, thanks again, Mr. Chan, and thanks for being a great teacher.”

At the end of the school year, Principal Sakamoto asked David if he’d like to come back again in the fall.

“Ah, I’m sorry, Mr. Sakamoto, but Dorothy offered me a job teaching back at my high school.  I have to do that.  I’ve wanted to teach there since I came home.”

Mr. Sakamoto said he understood, but asked David one last time if he was sure he was sure that nothing could convince him to stay.

“I love the students here,” David said, “but I really want to go teach at my alma mater.”

And so he did.  David enjoyed every moment of teaching that fall.  He felt a special connection with the students because they were experiencing exactly what he’d experienced when he was a student there.

A week before Christmas break, David picked up his morning mail in the office.  Sorting through it, he saw that there was a letter from Mr. Sakamoto.  He smiled, thinking about the principal trying to convince him to stay, and wondering about all the students he’d taught at Kalihi Intermediate.

Sitting down in his office, he opened the letter:

“David, aloha, I hope you’re enjoying your new teaching job.  I can tell you that the students here miss you, and some of them have asked me if you’re ever coming back.  Of course I always explain to them how you had the opportunity to teach at your old school.

“The main reason I’m writing this note is to let you know about a student you taught last year.  He was a ninth-grader, and this year he moved on to the high school.  His name was Andres Tua.  I remember that you both thought highly of each other.  I don’t know if you’d heard, but he was killed a few weeks ago.  They found him up in the valley, on the side of Likelike Highway.  He’d been shot.  They think it was gang-related.  I’m really sorry to have to bring you this news, but I thought you would want to know if you hadn’t already heard.

“It’s so terrible that’s how it goes for the kids in this area.  It’s a hard life, and too many are killed in this sort of needless way.  It’s a tragedy.

“Again, David, I’m sorry to have to tell you about this.  Please take good care of yourself and give my regards to Dorothy.”

David sat there looking at the letter.  Read it again.  Then one more time.

The warning bell rung.  It was five minutes to class time.  He finally put the letter down and picked up his book and papers for class.

Walking in the hallway, all he could think about was Andres.  Andres the little boy, and then the big, bright young man.  And his turtle.  So horrible.  Who, David wondered, would be good enough, kind enough, to take care of Al Logo now? 

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