Monday, May 21, 2012

A Simple Question of Humaneness--a short story

Confucius: A human is one who acts with humaneness

Eliza was waiting at the edge of the cafeteria with the other lunch ladies.  She fidgeted with the spray bottle in her gloved hands, thinking about the way her hair net seemed to pull her hair so that her white roots showed.  She decided that she’d give herself a dye job at the end of this work day.  And then she’d watch her favorite television show and eat the delicious scalloped potatoes she’d gotten into the habit of making.  If she was lucky, Ralph would spend the evening at the bar and she could have the house to herself for a while.

She stared at the clock that hung on the wall, wishing the workday was over so she could relax a little. 

The table on the end emptied first.  These were the fifth grade boys who sat together and made the most noise.  There was a flurry of activity around the large trash bins as they smacked the edges of the can with their trays and stacked them in a pile.  Elisa saw one boy throw his entire tray away.  He was the leader of these boys.  He’d done this before.  Elisa felt a flash of anger. 

“Hey you!” she called out. 

He turned to face her. 

“You got a problem old woman?” he said.  He started to walk toward her and all of his friends turned as well.

“You’re not supposed to throw the whole tray away.  Pick it up and put it where it belongs.”  She tried to speak in an authoritative voice, but to her shame, her voice shook.

The boys laughed at her and the leader repeated her words in a falsetto.  This made the other boys laugh.  Eliza flushed.  With his friends flanking him on either side, he swept out of the cafeteria.  Eliza stooped and fished the tray out of the trash.  Another lunch lady, Cindy, had started to clean the table they’d vacated, so Eliza resumed her place on the wall with as much dignity as she could muster. 

Eliza tried to remember her scalloped potatoes and how pretty she was going to feel after she fixed her hair, but the mockery had shamed her so much that she could think of nothing else.  The minutes dragged on.

The table closest to the door was always the last one to be vacated.  Second graders sat here, and they were cute for the most part.  But there was one foreign looking girl who spent at least a half hour pulling her string cheese apart.  Elisa grit her teeth as she watched the girl pull the string cheese out of her brown paper bag just as the last of her classmates got up and filed outside for recess.

“Look at that,” Eliza said to Cindy.  “There she goes again with the string cheese.” 

The girl didn’t look at them, but Eliza liked the way she flinched. 

“These kids don’t give a damn about their elders,” Eliza said.  “She does this just to piss us off.  I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“Tell me about it,” Cindy said. 

Eliza straightened her shoulders.  “She does this every single day and I don’t know what she expects us to do about it.  Are we supposed to wait around while she picks at her food?  Who does she think we are?  Slaves?  Look at her.  She can hear us, but she still keeps doing it.  I don’t know, maybe that’s how they treat their elders in her country.”

The cafeteria was empty except for the lunch ladies and the girl with the cheese.

“Hey, girl!  We have jobs to do you know.  We can’t just wait around while you pick at your cheese,” Eliza snapped. 

The girl didn’t answer her.

“Look at how disrespectful she is!  I’m sorry, but I can’t just wait around for her.  I’ve got to clear this table out before the next round of kids comes in here.”

Someone had spilled their helping of corn onto the table, and Eliza swept the food toward the girl who gasped as the corn hit her.  Eliza hadn’t expected the food to hit her so hard.  One of the corn pieces stuck to the teddy bear on her multicolored sweater.  The girl dusted herself off, but still didn’t look up at them.

“I’m sorry.  I told you to move.  I don’t know what you expect me to do.  I’m just trying to do my job.  It’s not like the whole world is here to wait on you.”

“Come on Eliza,” Cindy said in a disapproving tone.  “Maybe it’s part of her religion or something.”

“I don’t even know what she is.  Hey, what country are you from?” Eliza asked, pitching her voice louder and talking very slowly.  “Is that way you eat part of your religion?  Do know the word religion?”

The girl nodded. 

“Now that’s a weird religion.  I can’t imagine why they do things like that, but I guess that’s not PC to say,” Eliza said.  “She’s not even eating, she’s pretending to eat.  I’m the one who’s going to get blamed if the tables aren’t cleaned.  You should just eat your food.  Why are you picking at it?  Wait, do you understand English?”

“She doesn’t understand you,” Cindy said.

“She understood me before, didn’t you see her nod?  I don’t know why they let people like that into the country if they can’t even speak English.”

The girl was watching them. “I can speak English,” she said in an unaccented voice. 

“Look at that, she does speak English.  Why did you try to trick us?” Eliza demanded.

“I didn’t.  I-I just wanted to make the slivers really tiny,” she said. 

“The slivers?  What are you talking about?” Eliza said, looking at Cindy as if the girl had lost her mind. 

“The slivers of cheese, see?” she said, holding up a filament of cheese so thin that Eliza could barely see it.

“Well hurry up and get out,” Eliza said.  “It’s not healthy to sit inside while all your classmates are out there playing.  In this country we play at recess.” 

“Come on Eliza, don’t be mean,” Cindy said.

“I’m not the bad guy here,” Eliza said.  But Eliza felt like it. 

“Ask her what her religion is,” Cindy instructed.

“What is your religion?” Eliza asked slowly, shouting.

“I’m a Sikh,” she said.

“You’re sick?  No wonder.  I thought you said this was a religious ritual,” Eliza laughed.  “Gosh and here I was giving her a hard time about this.”

“No I’m a Sikh,” the girl said. 

“Oh, so it is religious,” Eliza said.  Instantly, she was suspicious again.    

“No I told you, I just want to eat the cheese like this.”

The girl was starting to turn red.  Eliza felt a stab of annoyance and pity.  “So what do you believe in?  I’m not trying to pick on you. I’m just trying to be friendly.”  The girl just stared at her and Eliza felt her pity evaporate.  “What do you believe in?” she asked again.

“I don’t know,” she said. 

“How could you be part of the religion and not know?  You must have some kind of beliefs like in Christianity.  Do you know what Christianity is?” Eliza said, saying the word slowly for her benefit.

“I know what that is,” the girl said.  She started to cry. 

 “Oh look at that,” Eliza said.  “I didn’t mean to make her…it cry,” she said to Cindy.  “Oh my God, is it a boy or a girl?”  She looked at Cindy, and held her hand in front of her face.  “I just insulted him by calling him a girl.”

“No, don’t worry, it’s a girl.  I’m pretty sure I heard the teacher say so.  Ask for its name,” Cindy instructed.  “We’ll be able to tell by the name.”

“What’s your name?” Eliza asked. 

The girl mumbled something unpronounceable into her hand. 

“You’re going to have to speak louder honey, I can’t hear you.”

She said the name again, but it was so foreign sounding that Eliza couldn’t remember it. 

“Say it again I still didn’t get it,” Eliza said.

“Never mind,” Cindy hissed.  “We still can’t tell if she’s a boy or a girl with that foreign name.”

“I’m just going to ask her.  I’m sorry to have to ask, but are you a girl?”

The child rolled its eyes.  “I’m a girl!” she practically shouted.

“Okay, sorry, my mistake.  We’re just trying to learn about other cultures.  I’m very open minded.  This is instructive for me.  I hope you don’t mind.  Okay, let’s get back to what you believe in.  What are the basic ideas in your religion?  Just give me a quick summary.”

The girl shrugged, staring at her string cheese.  “I know my religion. It’s just hard to explain.”

“Let’s just leave her alone,” Cindy whispered. 

“I’m not trying to be mean.  Do you think I’m being mean?” Eliza asked the girl.

“Everyone asks me the same questions.  Every day, all the time.  I’m scared to go outside,” the girl said.

“Because of the questions?” Eliza said. 

“No,” the girl said.

“Then why?” Eliza said.

The girl turned her attention back to the string cheese and started picking again.  She shook her head, but didn’t speak.  Eliza realized that for the second time that day she had been manipulated by a bratty kid.

“She’s been playing games with us this whole time,” Eliza said.  She felt her anger and shame at her own ignorance bubble over.  “I don’t know if you’re sick or religious, but you shouldn’t be here.  Eat your food and go outside to play.  Maybe if you hung around some American kids you’d learn how to be a little normal.”

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