Mabel and Cheri take issue with Ms. Lee because she is an Asian person who teaches geography to thirteen-year-olds. At first, they thought she was one of those Asians whose great-great-great-grandparents came to Australia during the Gold Rush, so even though they look like Mabel and Cheri, they’re actually white on the inside. But Ms. Lee isn’t third, fourth, or fifth-generation Aussie. Ms. Lee is like them—born in Australia to immigrant parents—just older. The girls are stumped. What sort of Asian person would subject themselves to teaching high school geography?
The only other Asian teacher at the school is Mr. Vu, who teaches Vietnamese and Chinese because he is Vietnamese-Chinese. This makes sense to Mabel and Cheri, because someone has to do it. All the students like him because he lets them do whatever they want and gives everyone As. He is very quiet and good at being invisible, just like Mabel and Cheri’s parents, and they think he is smart because he gets paid to basically do nothing. They ask him, Asian-to-Asian, “Sir, what’s the deal with Ms. Lee?” He shrugs, as if to say, “What am I, Dr. Asian?” Then he says, “Her parents are from Malaysia.”
The girls make a list of every Malaysian person they know. After a period, they come up with no one.
“What about Andrew?” Cheri says.
“Nah, his family’s from Laos.”
Mabel gives Cheri a look that’s like, “Wow, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” because Thu is clearly a Vietnamese name. Cheri makes a face to admit that she did just say the dumbest thing in the world.
The girls know that Ms. Lee is technically none of their business, but they feel that she is absolutely all of their business. They believe that Ms. Lee is one big mystery, and they are the detectives trying to figure her out. In class, they reluctantly answer all of Ms. Lee’s geography questions, because they are nerds, and because they want to intercept smart-aleck responses from the Central European girls, which they know would throw off Ms. Lee and disrupt their study of the teacher in her natural habitat.
They are not always successful.
“Miiiisss!” Jelena B. says from the back of the classroom.
Jelena B. once wondered aloud whether Turkey was a country, and when Mabel said, “Country,” Jelena B. said “Thanks” in a way that sounded more like “Suck shit you ugly chink-ass nerd,” which made Mabel lose her voice for what felt like forever.
Ms. Lee is grading papers at the front of the classroom and ignores Jelena B., so she tries again. “Miiiissssss! Do they eat dog in China?”
Ms. Lee looks up, scrunches her face, and says, “Why do you ask that?”
Jelena B. shrugs, because she has a way of taking a dump in the middle of the room and pretending it didn’t happen. “Just heard about it.”
“That’s stupid,” Ms. Lee says.
Mabel and Cheri sink into their seats.
“Why are you calling me stupid?” Jelena B. says. She smirks, and now her friends, who are also named Jelena (popular name) are ganging up on Ms. Lee, a peanut gallery of “Yeahs” and “Is it because she’s a wog, Miss? You being racist?”
Ms. Lee points her pen in Jelena’s direction, emphasizing each of her words about unfair stereotypes with aggressive jabs at the air. Mabel, whose desk is right in front of Ms. Lee’s, worries that the pen will slip and travel like a spear into someone’s eye. And now Ms. Lee’s hands are slapping the table, and it shakes under the force of her gestures as she says, almost spitting, “Don’t you dare pull the race card on me, girls.”
Sometimes, other teachers will walk past the classroom, stick in their heads, and ask, “Everything all right, Amy?” The girls think it’s weird that they call her Amy instead of Ms. Lee, because all the teachers call each other Mr. or Ms. Whatever in front of students. Ms. Lee usually dismisses them by flapping a hand in their direction, and the teachers will smile with only their mouths (dead eyes), and Mabel and Cheri will feel like they saw something they weren’t meant to see.
The Jelenas lob their “Whatevers” at Ms. Lee as her chest and neck grow patchy from frustration. Mabel and Cheri wonder if everyone would be nicer to her if she just wore better shoes.
The real reason Ms. Lee bothers Mabel and Cheri is because she sweats too much, even when it’s not hot, and the sweat collects on her upper lip, and Cheri has to make fists with her hands to stop herself from lunging forward and wiping it with her sleeve because she can’t take it anymore.
No, the girls just think it’s wild that she wears socks with orthopedic sandals, and every time she walks into the classroom they want to yell that no one’s allowed to dress like that, that it’s probably against the law, that it’s only a matter of time before someone calls the Triple Zero emergency line to report it.
No, no, the for-real reason is if you went to college and spoke perfect English and could do anything you wanted—if you had a choice to be anywhere but here—why on earth would you choose here?
Tessa turns up at recess looking pale, and when Mabel asks if she wants to trade her pork floss roll for her soy sauce sandwich, Tessa straight up says she can have her lunch because she’s lost her appetite. She says she’s just come from geography, where she learned about Ms. Lee’s personal life. The information has shaken her to her core.
“She said she only eats Burger King. She said she buys Burger King Whopper Burgers in bulk, like, thirty at a time, freezes them, then microwaves them for every meal.”
Mabel calls bullshit, says it can’t be true because Ms. Lee isn’t fat and you’d literally die from eating like that. Tessa, who is always in a terrible mood and is very good at looking wounded, shoots Mabel a look that says, “Listen, Mabel, I didn’t make this up, it’s what she told us.” And then she says, “Listen, Mabel, I didn’t make this up, it’s what she told us.”
The girls sit in silence. Then, remembering more, Tessa continues: “She also said she married a guy, divorced him, then married him again, and now they live in separate houses because they don’t like living together.”
Mabel and Cheri are baffled.
“She is for cereal over-sharing,” Cheri says.
“Yes, totally, for cereal,” says Mabel.
Tessa sighs and looks at Mabel and Cheri like they’re idiots.
“You guys, we’re asking the wrong questions!”
Mabel and Cheri look confused because they didn’t think they’d asked a question. They stare at Tessa. Tessa rolls her eyes.
“Only white people get divorced!” Tessa says. “So isn’t it super weird that she got divorced? Duh!”
Mabel and Cheri: “Oh.”
“And isn’t it super weird that she married the same person twice and they don’t even live together? I mean, that’s weird.”
“Oh yes,” Mabel says. “For cereal.”
The thing is, when Ms. Lee isn’t burping or choke-laughing or saying things that make them cringe, Mabel and Cheri actually like her because she’s a good teacher.
For example, Ms. Lee is the first geography teacher they’ve ever had who helped them remember the definition of an isobar.
When they had Mr. Wilson in year-seven, everyone kept flubbing the topographic mapping part of the end-of-term exams because they couldn’t explain what any of the “iso” words meant. Even Mabel and Cheri, who were smart for twelve-year-olds, had waffled their way through a response, umming and ah-ing and “You know how the earth has bumps and stuff? An isobar shows how bumpy it is?”
Ms. Lee had no patience for waffling.
“Just remember, isobars and isobaths and any of the iso-words are just lines on a map that connect places of equal value,” she said while seated behind her desk, jabbing her pen at the air so aggressively that Mabel and Cheri got sweaty in the armpits because they were scared she’d stab them in the face. “An isobar is a line on a map showing places of equal barometric pressure. An isobath is a line on a map connecting places of equal depth below sea or lake level. That’s it. Stop umming. Stop ending your sentences like you’re asking a question. It’s a line on a map. That’s all.”
Mabel and Cheri love teachers who make things make sense, like Ms. Bourke, who straight-up told them what Othello was about because they sure as heck weren’t going to get it on their own, or Mr. Curtin, who made the history of Roman Empire relatable by telling them how the Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe their butts.
So when the Jelenas make fun of Ms. Lee in the hallways between periods, imitating her by pretending to jab pens in the air and saying, “It’s a line on a map this! It’s a line on the map that!” Mabel and Cheri can’t help but roll their eyes as they pass.
“You see that?” says Norma, a white girl whose parents are from a place that neither Cheri nor Mabel can locate on a map. “You see those nerds roll their squinty eyes at us?”
The Jelenas Ooh.
“Hey, don’t keep walking, nerds! I need to check your eyes. Did you roll them? I couldn’t tell for sure. Come on, come let us see your eyes! Open them up for us!”
Norma, who is at least a head taller than Mabel and Cheri and is so meaty she always makes it to regionals at shot-put and discus throwing, follows the girls and beats her chest with her fists like King Kong. And now she starts making gorilla noises at them, a series of deep “HOO-HOO-HOO.”
Cheri stops, turns to death stare Norma, but her eyes suddenly fill with tears and she’s worried that if she blinks, she’ll cry.
“What the hell is your problem?” Cheri says, her voice breaking.
Cheri’s vision is a blur, but she knows what she feels. A viscous blob of Norma’s spit shoots from her rounded mouth and hits Cheri on the chin. Instinctively, Cheri touches it. The Jelenas laugh. Mabel grabs Cheri by the arm and they run down the hall, across the quadrangle, and into the girl’s toilets, where Cheri scrubs and scrubs with the communal bar of soap that they’d normally never touch.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mabel says, her own eyes pools of tears. “They’re just jealous of us. They’re just butt-hurt because they keep getting Cs and we keep getting As. They’re just mean because if they were smart, they’d be nice. But they’re not. They’re dumb, Cheri. They’re the dumbest people ever. Don’t you worry, it’s not worth crying about. Don’t you worry one bit.”
But Mabel convinces no one, and all Cheri can do is worry, quietly, on the inside, as her face contorts to stop herself from crying.
At home, Cheri’s parents ask her in Vietnamese why she has eaten so little. Everyone has finished their dinner, but Cheri’s rice bowl is still full. They ask her if she’s sick. She says no. They ask her if she snacked on too many Doritos after school and ruined her appetite. She says no. They ask her what is wrong, and when she only shrugs, they lose their patience. Her mother, who has a tight perm, tattooed eyebrows, and the most callused hands Cheri has ever touched reprimands her for being wasteful. Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have food? She goes further: Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have shelter? And further again: Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have every opportunity her parents didn’t have? Doesn’t she know how different her life will be because of all the privileges and advantages of being born in Australia? Doesn’t she know that one day she will grow up to be rich and powerful, and the world will be in the palm of her hands so long as she works hard and remains grateful, and that being grateful starts with finishing her dinner and licking her rice bowl clean?
Cheri shrugs again. She goes to her bedroom, closes the door. She hears her parents complain about her. She sticks her face into her pillow, curls her hands into tight fists, and fights the urge to unhinge her jaw so she can scream.
The seriously-honest-to-god reason that Mabel and Cheri are so fascinated by Ms. Lee is that she wears these rainbow skirts that grown-ups shouldn’t wear. They think she is maybe forty-years old, but it’s hard to tell with Asians.
And she’s so loud. She is even louder than their mums.
And really, it just doesn’t make sense why someone who is clearly smart, and clearly good at their job, can’t act like a normal person.
The girls tell each other that they are only so interested in Ms. Lee because she’s the biggest weirdo who has ever taught at their school. They tell themselves that anyone who wears that hideous a sock and shoe combo deserves close observation. They tell themselves, Whopper Burgers? Seriously?
What they don’t say, because they haven’t yet figured it out, is that they are worried that they have been lied to—that things don’t get better—that you can be smart, hard-working, the first in your family to go to college, speak perfect English with a dinky-di Aussie accent, follow all the rules, pursue your passions in a way your parents never could and, still, nothing changes. At the head of the classroom, in a faculty staffroom, in a hallway full of people, anywhere here—you will always see things, hear things, feel things, that make you lose your voice for what feels like forever.
But right now, they think it’s the orthopedic shoes.
It’s definitely the shoes.
At the start of term three, Ms. Lee is gone. The school replaces her with a rotation of substitute teachers who never learn their names, who make them copy definitions out of the textbook.
The girls can’t stop wondering what happened to Ms. Lee. Mr. Vu won’t tell them; he says it’s none of their business. There are whispers, though, rumors that spread with such certainty that kids preface their speculation with “Swear to God, bro, I swear to God.”
They hear that she was transferred, or fired, because she got into an altercation with another teacher. They hear she finally stabbed someone with her pen, on purpose. They hear that the other teachers disrespected her, and she filed a complaint with the labor board. They hear that too many people complained about her fashion, and she was told she had to get a new wardrobe or lose her job. They hear that she was axed for all of the above reasons, that she was going to sue the school, the district, the entire goddamn state, for discrimination. They don’t know whether any of it is true. But if it is, they cross their fingers and hope she wins.
First published in The Pinch, March 2021.