Mea Culpa, Doctor Chi: Week #17 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On quotidian torture, foreign language instruction, and remorse

Whenever I begin to waver in my lifelong conviction that children are essentially sociopaths, I think about Doctor Chi. Poor Doctor Chi, itinerant teacher of foreign languages, was an unlucky innocent, a hapless naïf, a blameless pedagogical tyro who took on—or perhaps had thrust upon him—the thankless task of cramming elementary French and Spanish into the obdurate skulls of a pack of mostly-privileged, all-white sixth-graders in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the late 1970s. Looking back on the debacle from the distance of over 40 years and with whatever shreds of wisdom I now possess as an educator, I can clearly see the signs of imminent disaster. Like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the war on drugs, or New Coke, the decision to toss this befuddled, well-meaning immigrant to the slavering jaws of Name Redacted Elementary School Class 6V will stand as one of history’s great blunders. 

But let me start at the beginning.

The Academically Talented Program (ATP) of Name Redacted School District in Delaware County, Pennsylvania,1 was a product of its time. Born of post-Sputnik anxieties about lagging American achievement, as well as the utopianist educational programs of the 1960s (I am also an alumna of “open classrooms,” “self-guided science,” and “phonics”), ATP in my school district was launched in 1959 as a full-service, full-immersion affair. The 30-odd intellectually gifted kids in my area were bused daily, beginning in first grade and continuing through to junior high, to a single school where we were taught together all day long in a single classroom. We saw other kids only at lunch and recess—although if I remember correctly, we pretty much kept to ourselves in those environments, at least in the early grades. The white-hot flame of adolescent ostracism forged us into an intensely bonded, quasi-familial unit—rife with intrigues, alliances, petty rivalries, and obscure affections—akin to a military unit under fire or a cadre of reality-show contestants. 

I came to the party late; my family had moved into the area right before I started fourth grade, and I spent two years at my new school staring out the window bored out of my mind before anyone thought to test me or my sister for the program. The only criterion for admission was raw I.Q.—not educational preparation, not emotional maturity, not psychological stability. My classmates, bless their hearts, were an accidentally assembled ragtag crew of unstable geniuses and manic jokesters. There were certainly quite a few middle-of-the-road types sprinkled throughout the mix, but for the most part my class comprised an unruly pack of giddy, misunderstood lunatics intoxicated at being among others of their kind.2

In sixth grade, we became the guinea pigs for a pilot foreign language education program. At the time, immersion programs were rare and most foreign language instruction began in high school—which seems bizarre now, when we have come to understand that new languages are best applied to tender, young, pliable brains. (Presumably we were the beneficiaries of an early attempt to take advantage of this research.) So once a day for one hour, the sealed and sacrosanct space of our classroom—normally overseen by the benevolent and redoutable Mrs. V.—was breached by an outsider whose brief was to instruct us in both French and Spanish, using newfangled educational methods. That interloper was Doctor Chi. 

Whatever cachet his honorific might have conferred—whatever respect it might rightfully have commanded—was completely undermined by its possessor’s extreme youth, all-purpose homeliness, and ultra-short pants. We sized him up on his first day, watching in fascinated horror as he ran his hand through a resplendently greasy forelock that would have reached his left shoulder if not forced to swoop across his forehead to the right side of his head; listening with childish contempt to his hesitant, whispery greeting; tittering at his strong foreign accent. Within minutes we sensed, like hyenas with their noses to the wind, that he lacked the steely resolve needed to face down his pint-sized opponents and bend them to his will. Within minutes we knew he was toast.

The next few months are a blur. Memory is fickle, and tends to soften the rough edges of one’s bad behavior and complicity. Did we torture Doctor Chi for an entire semester or just a few weeks? However long the bloodbath went on, it seemed to last forever to a 10-year-old. It started innocently enough: we would giggle and talk over the pre-taped audio dialogues starring Sylvie, Anne, and their glamorous pals hanging out at the piscine, and instead of parroting back the rote French and Spanish phrases in our workbooks, started shouting sarcastic responses. “Why are you always at the biblioteca, Juan? Get a life!” (This kind of riposte passes for Algonquin Roundtable-level wit among sixth graders.) Doctor Chi would laugh nervously at first—and of course that was his fatal error. When we realized that we could get away with yelling jokes at the tape-recorded Jean-Pierre and Consuela with no reprisals, we began pushing things further. Next we started responding to the dialogues with outrageously exaggerated accents, like a classroom full of Pepe Le Pews and Speedy Gonzalezes, and then dissolving in helpless laughter. From there it was a short step to shouting and cat-calling over Doctor Chi himself. His attempts at controlling us with his non-idiomatic comebacks—“Knock it out!” and “Cut it off!”—were like gasoline on the bonfire of our contemptuous hilarity. Could this man be any more ridiculous? we thought. Look at those pants.

But then things took a turn. Once we came to understand that our daily hour with Doctor Chi was essentially an unsupervised free-for-all, a second recess if you will, we started getting physical. I don’t know who came up with the idea of spitballs—I remember even at the time thinking that they were hilariously retro—but pretty soon the air was thick with phlegm-soaked projectiles during our foreign language teaching block. I don’t think we were aiming them purposely at our instructor, just vaguely in his general direction. Was it our fault if some of them accidentally landed on his person? We were also lobbing them at one another, so we could hardly be accused of persecution. Some of the more enterprising among us started stockpiling pre-moistened spitballs in a makeshift armory inside the radiator, where they could be deployed for immediate use once Doctor Chi stepped in front of the classroom. If there was anything funnier than the tortured neologisms our teacher invented while trying to discipline us in a foreign language, it was watching him concoct them while flapping his hands to ward off flying wads of slimy notebook paper.

It seems amazing to me now that we could have gotten away with this behavior for even a hot minute, but this was an era characterized by a much looser attitude toward all kinds of physical interaction that we would now think of as assault. Many of us had parents who regularly hit us at home, and even our teachers were much more handsy than would be acceptable today. The following year was to bring the memorable incident in which our English teacher, Mrs. Cadwallader,3 would throw a copy of Moll Flanders directly at the head of a student who hadn’t done the reading. It was a paperback, but still. 

Just like the marooned children in Lord of the Flies, we quickly sorted ourselves into phalanges with informal ringleaders, based on preferred method of persecution. The jock types stuck with the spitballs and other airborne objects, while the artier kids started composing limericks and ballads about our instructor, or sketching mocking cartoons in which he was the star. (One of my former classmates recently admitted, during a conversation in our class Facebook group, that he still had in his possession a thick sheaf of poems and drawings nicknamed “The Chi Files.” He refused to show them to us at first, but when we begged a little he scanned and uploaded a single, emblematic drawing. It featured a sketch of our teacher’s head sitting by its lonesome atop a pile of spaghetti, below the caption “Chef Boy-ar-Chi.” I mean, yes, it is kind of funny. I admit it. I am a monster.)

Some of my classmates were appalled, of course—they genuinely wanted to learn French and Spanish, did not approve of thwarting adult authority, and also felt bad for our beleaguered instructor. I am ashamed to admit that I was not among their number. For the first time in my life I had friends—none of my new classmates taunted me with “Egghead” and “Brainiac,” pushed me down on the playground, or made barking noises at me at the bus stop—and I was intoxicated by the unfamiliar feeling of belonging. I looked forward each day to the glorious, freewheeling shenanigans we would get up to during Doctor Chi Time, the laughter and joking and bonding, the sheer cleverness of my new friends’ wisecracks and elaborate schemes for misbehaving. It took me only a few short weeks, and only the slenderest of provocations, to pivot from torturee to torturer. I think this is an important thing to know about oneself.

This essay is probably not going where you think it is. There is no material for a Donna Tartt novel here. Nothing truly violent happened; no one took things way too far and ended up in jail or juvie; there wasn’t a tragic accident, murder, or suicide. There were some mild complaints from parents of the good kids, Mrs. V. gave us some well-deserved tongue-lashings, and we muddled through the rest of the school year, chagrined. I think we eventually got bored as the hijinks lost their novelty, and decided to start learning French and Spanish. I will not lie and say that we came to love Doctor Chi or that he magically turned into a brilliant pedagogue, but something definitely shifted. Maybe we just grew up a little; maybe the difference between being 10 or 11 and being 12 is all that it took. I will say that I now speak fluent French. 

But here’s the part I can’t quite let go of. Why did we so detest Doctor Chi to begin with? When I look back at our sixth-grade photo now, I see a smiling, eager-looking man clearly excited about starting his pedagogical adventure. Above all, I’m struck by how young he looks: he can’t have been 30 years old, which means he earned his doctorate at a tender age. Which means he was probably really freaking smart. At the very least he spoke four languages fluently—and who knows how many more? He was certainly gifted himself, maybe even the product of a program like ours. Maybe he was tortured by his classmates until he found his own smarty-pants cohort who embraced him for his cleverness. Maybe we were re-opening deep wounds that he thought had healed. Maybe his nervous titters were not only about fear of losing control of his classroom, but also about other kinds of fear that we might have recognized had we been paying attention.

Even if none of these speculations is true, I am still filled with sadness and shame when I think of Doctor Chi 40 years later. I’m embarrassed when I imagine what he must have thought of Americans, but above all I’m horrified to think that our treatment of him welled from some deep reserve of racism to which we could not have put a name. I am certain that at age 10, I had never heard any explicit expressions of anti-Asian racism—but of course it was still swirling all around us and absorbed deep into our psyches, however unconscious it might have been. Does the bodiless meatball in the “Chef Boy-ar-Chi” cartoon look like a racist caricature? Did some of our poems and jokes and even taunts trade in ugly stereotypes? It’s impossible to imagine that as children we didn’t grab at whatever low-hanging humor fruit was available to us. It’s how sociopaths are.

Doctor Chi, wherever you are, I am sorry. I would give a lot to have someone take as much care over my pronunciation of the “u”s in “Salut, Luc” as you once did. Not many people get to have that kind of attention and care lavished on them—it doesn’t come often in a person’s life, if it comes at all, and it’s probably best not to greet it with spitballs. I hope you understood that we were just tiny monsters, but that we would get better. I hope you had someone to go home to at night, and that the two of you made merciless fun of us over giant plates of spaghetti.

1

Yes, the very same Delaware County that serves as the setting for “Mare of Easttown”! Ask me to pronounce “water.”

2

Because I am still in touch with a fair number of ATPers, I am now picturing them reading that line and then wondering who belongs to which camp—and then, instantly, realizing that they know exactly who belongs to which camp and there isn’t even any room for debate. It also bears noting here that the vast majority of them are now highly respected, upstanding members of their communities and thoroughly delightful people whom I like a lot.

3

I feel I must include her honest-to-god, real-life name here for any Middlemarch fans reading this post. Unless she’s gunning for a Guinness World Record, the chances are vanishingly small that Mildred Cadwallader, late of the United Kingdom and proud possessor of a perfectly dactylic name, is still alive.