I arrive at the school. A classroom has been converted for the event. A speaker is turned outward to maximize the noise pollution. With each step the music becomes more potent. The noise penetrates my body. Deeper and deeper it goes. I feel it throbbing within me. Assaulting me with an aural wall of scrunching electronic bumps and bass.
Just outside the makeshift disco, the boom is deafening. Inside it’s not much better. When I walk in I find about ten children. All boys. All under the age of twelve. Half of them are shirtless. Most of them are shoeless. They bump and grind with imaginary partners. The deejays sit in front of an old CRT computer monitor. They fiddle with some dials. They look bored. It is something of a massive letdown.
I exit. I grab a chair near Elvis’ office, which allows me to supervise from a relatively safe distance. There is a chirping above my head. A momma bird flies out of a small hole in the ceiling joints of the building. A student comes over to me. His name is Montfort. His attitude is positive. His English is serviceable. We chat. He asks me about the staple foods and climate in America. I rattle off my well-rehearsed answers.
“Malawi has many problems,” he says. I agree, but make a point to mention that many problems is a global problem. “How do we solve these problems?” he asks. His earnestness is admirable, but his chosen oracle is lacking. The momma bird returns with some food for her children. I stall for time, trying to come up with an acceptable string of phonemes. I mumble something about hard work, determination, staying in school, and doing your homework. There also might have been something in there about not giving into peer pressure, driving the speed limit and choosing a good multivitamin. I say it all very fast, hoping he won’t notice that my word salad is just empty calories.
Another student approaches. He wears a multi-colored stocking cap that is cocked at a jaunty angle on his skull. His overly colorful t-shirt reads “No Car, No House, No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend, OH SHIT!” He calls Montfort away. I contemplate my failure to come up with meaningful solutions to the complex socio-economic issues affecting an impoverished Third World nation. I set a goal of solving everything by the first of January. Then I realize how silly that is. Valentine’s Day. That’s much more realistic.
Mr Z arrives. He sits next to me. He asks how it is going so far. I tell him it’s ok. There aren’t many students. But it sure is LOUD. He tells me that the embryonic turnout is to be expected. “We tell them 1PM, but they usually don’t show up until after three.”
Mr Z usually comes off as a man of compact slickness. But now, that slickness has an oily sheen. He looks clammy. He is rumpled. His shirt is untucked. He has spent a good portion of the morning and afternoon coming and going, making preparations for this event. I might chalk his appearance up to exhaustion if it weren’t for the cologne of alcohol he is wearing; a clear indication that his activities of the past few hours were not entirely school related.
We sit. We chat. He asks if we have the discos in America. I reply that we have, but usually they are not in broad daylight.
He rubs his face with his hands. “You are very professional,” he says. I downplay the compliment by pointing out the scuff marks on my shoes and the cheapness of my tie. “You are always so professional. Why are you always so professional?” This is another question to which I do not possess an answer. It was my assumption that slacks, collared shirt and tie were the required uniform.
“Let’s get a drink,” he says. I do not wish to offend a colleague, but drinking a litre or two of gritty, gruel-like beer holds little appeal to me at this moment. I decline as tactfully as I can. He insists. I decline again, but tell him to go ahead and enjoy himself.
He rubs his face with his hands. “You are very professional,” he says. I try to diffuse the accusation by pointing out the scuff marks on my shoes and the cheapness of my tie. “You are always so professional. Why are you always so professional?” There is an edge in his voice. Sharpness. Resentment. “You know I probably have more education than anyone at this school,” he says. “I definitely have more education than that one,” he points to Elvis’ office and chuckles derisively, “our so-called Head Master.”
The conversation is taking a dark turn. I look skyward and wonder where that momma bird is. “Do you want to see my degrees? I can show you my degrees. I went to Chancellor College. I was two points away from distinction.” He closes his eyes and sighs. “Two points. I should show you my degrees.”
He rubs his face with his hands. “So frustrating.” His tone has shifted again. The thing sitting next to me is no longer a human. It has transformed. It is weather vane. And the winds are blowing towards self-pity. “Two points. I did better than the head master.” His mood swings again. This time towards paranoia. “I shouldn’t have told you that.” Now there is a fear in his voice. “Are you going to tell anyone? Are you going to tell him I said that? You are, aren’t you?” I assure him, with great conviction, that I wouldn’t tell a soul. The wind blows. The weather vane swings again. “Let’s get a drink,” he says, all friendship and courtesy. He is smiling. I decline. He insists, still smiling. I decline stronger. The smile vanishes and the weather vane swings back to resentment.
A woman walks by wearing a University of Minnesota Athletics sweatshirt. It is the deus ex machina I have been waiting for. I excuse myself and walk over to the woman. “Hey!” I over-emote. “I know that place! That’s where I…and…” I trail off. She cannot understand a word of what I am saying. She has no idea why I am so interested in her clothing. I try to think of something to say. The words are not there. She walks away.
I turn back. The rumpled weather vane is gone.
The sun is shining. It is nearly 3PM. Students are beginning to arrive in larger numbers. The massive disco is about to start.