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The Mushroom Report

March 24, 2013

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The year was 1986. I had just begun a new teaching position in the small suburban town of Rutherford. It had been a difficult decision to leave the school in Newark where I had taught for the previous thirteen years. However, the move had been necessary, and trepidation and uncertainty filled my heart. I felt as though I was starting over, a task that is never easy. But I met a young man that school year that taught me just how formidable starting over can sometimes be.

Ji Hwon Kwon had just arrived in America. The surprise decision to move here had been his parents, and Ji Hwon was disconsolate. At the age of thirteen when such drastic change is fraught with anxiety, he had been uprooted suddenly from all that he knew and held dear — his home, his friends, his school, his life. Everything he’d grown accustomed to disappeared. He had been plunged into a strange new reality of an unknown town filled with unfamiliar people. He heard the strange gibberish that is English and couldn’t understand. Alien food, curious music, foreign customs ranging from the peculiar to the bizarre — his existence now a swirling madhouse of the unexpected and uncomfortable. Even his name had been altered. He was now Michael.

I had empathy for this somber and angry young man. I too had once felt this crazy shift in my existence when I arrived for my life in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. My experience, as turbulent as it may have been, was at least tempered by the fact that I was older and had made the choice willingly, and I had some preparation for life in a mystifying new culture during my training. Michael had none of these advantages.

Michael’s transition into the school environment in Rutherford bore the burden of his indignation and resentment at having been torn from all to which he had been accustomed. His facial expression and body language reflected this. He made little attempt to make friends. Not that he behaved poorly; that was not in his nature. He simply refused to willingly embrace this new life that had been thrust upon him. Learning this new language and culture became an onerous task, and he approached it with reluctance and disdain. I remember him sitting in class, arms folded against his chest with a look of bewilderment and dismay on his face. He stewed in helpless frustration.

Teaching him English proved challenging. So much of one’s progress in the acquisition of a new language is determined by one’s attitude toward that which was to be learned, and this looked like an uphill battle. I took a gentle approach, fearing that pushing too hard too fast would be both counterproductive and harmful.

Little by little Michael began to pick up some necessary vocabulary and phrases. He slowly made a few friends after communication became possible. He excelled in math class — the world of numbers is a language unto itself — taking comfort in the recognizable material and the satisfaction that comes with success. The other classes must have seemed like torture for him though, sitting for hours on end amidst the indecipherable babble.

In the spring of the eighth grade year, a major assignment in my class, the required nine hundred word minimum term paper, loomed ominously. This monumental task struck fear even in the English-speaking students. How in the world would Michael be able to get through this? His lack of vocabulary and limited syntax could pose an insurmountable obstacle. How would he react to this challenge?

Students could select their own topic, and I encouraged them to choose subject matter they had an interest in. I sat down next to Michael to help him make this first decision.

“So, Michael, do you understand what we are doing?”

“Think so,” he replied in his husky voice.

“Well, first you must pick a topic to write about. Do you have any ideas?”

“No,” he replied in his normal terse manner.

“Well, what do you like? Maybe you can write about that,” I told him in my most encouraging tone.

He paused for a moment in thought and then simply said, “Mushrooms.”

“Mushrooms? So you like mushrooms? Well, that just might be a good thing to write about. Let’s get you started.”

We set about finding sources on mushrooms. The school library had an elementary picture book about mushrooms that seemed perfect. We supplemented this with an encyclopedia article or two. The next step would be the note taking followed by the writing of a rough draft. At this point Michael had a working vocabulary of maybe a hundred words or so; writing a nine hundred word paper seemed a Herculean task. To Michael’s credit, he did not seem deterred.

“Okay, Michael, now you need to get facts about mushrooms. Look in the books and write the information down. It’s very important to use your own words, though. Do you understand?”

“Understand.”

Michael began to examine the material about mushrooms with great intensity as though the future of the world as we know it was at stake. I moved on to help other students, glancing over as often as possible to make sure he didn’t begin to flounder. His focus never once wavered.

As the work continued over the following days, the students converted the notes they had taken on the index cards into a rough draft as they became ready, applying the citation method they had just learned. I circulated to check on their progress and troubleshoot any problems that emerged.  When I got to Michael, I asked to see what he had written, nervous about what I’d find given his limited ability in English. He gave me his paper, and I saw the following:

‘One mushroom is Black Trumpet mushroom. It grow in France. Black Trumpet mushroom is brown. Black Trumpet mushroom is ugly. Black Trumpet mushroom very good to eat.

Next mushroom is Fly Agaric mushroom. It grow many places. It very pretty mushroom. It round on top and red and white. Fly Agaric mushroom not good to eat. It kill you.

Another mushroom is Shiitake mushroom. It grow in my country Korea. Shiitake mushroom is round and pretty. Shiitake mushroom is good to eat. Shiitake mushroom is medicine too.’

And so it continued, paragraph after paragraph, each one simple and precise and, to be sure, in his own words. I never imagined so many kinds of mushrooms existed, but Michael had them all, with names both exotic and descriptive — Death Cap, Pig’s Ear, Shaggy Mane, Pom-Pom, Enoki, Blewit.

He had accomplished the improbable, completing his nine hundred word term paper despite his limited vocabulary. He handed it in on time with no sign of jubilation (something some of his classmates couldn’t resist). The grades for this assignment included content, mechanics, and effort. I gave some leeway for Michael’s deficiencies in grammar, but none was needed in the other areas, especially effort. Though Michael didn’t have any visible reaction upon getting his project back, I know that I was brimming with pride. I wondered if the magnitude of his accomplishment fazed him at all.

The school year ended in the usual flurry of activities for the eighth graders — class trip, dinner dance, award ceremonies. Michael graduated from eighth grade and four years later high school. I saw him only rarely during this time, and not at all after he finished high school.

One June day years later I stopped into the local barber shop for a trim before that year’s graduation. Both barbers were busy, so I sat in one of the chairs with a newspaper. I became absorbed in an article and hardly paid attention when someone sat beside me to wait for their haircut. Then I heard a deep voice coming from next to me.

“Mr. Daborn?”

I looked over to see a young man who I did not recognize.

“Yes, I am Mr. Daborn. I’m sorry, do I know you?” My mind raced trying to place his face.

“Yes, you do. I’m Michael Kwang. Do you remember me from Pierrepont School?”

My mouth must have dropped open so total was my surprise.

“Michael! Of course I remember you! How are you? What are you doing now?”

He told me — in near perfect English — that he was an engineering student at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He was doing well. He asked me how I was and about the other teachers he’d had, and we had a pleasant chat. The transformation from the reticent boy I knew into this articulate and confident young man filled me with joy, and I couldn’t help but think back to the triumph of his mushroom report all those years ago. I remember feeling even at that time that perhaps it may have been a turning point in his metamorphosis. The barber summoned me to his chair, so we had to discontinue our conversation, and by the time I was done, the other barber had taken Michael. I caught his attention and said goodbye.

As I walked out of the shop, I reflected on the wonderful journey this young man had made. I thought about the obstacles — placed in his path first by fate and then himself — and the determination it must have taken to overcome them. The brightness of the late afternoon sun that day was no match for the glow that emanated from my heart.

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