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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Siblings

The first siblings I taught in Taipei were twins. This was when I was still teaching after school classes, and these twins were about five years old. For some reason, when I think of them, the names Jack and Diane come into my mind, but I am fairly sure that this is not right. John Cougar Mellencamp, as far as I am aware, is not known here, and besides, I can’t imagine a Taiwanese not naming their twins with rhyming names, or at the very least names that begin with the same letter. There is always the cute factor to consider.

The girl was a bit overweight while the boy was a bit hyper-active on the physical side and slow on the mental side. However, they were both full of love for me, and I have to admit, I enjoyed them as well. There was just one slight problem – communication. They were just learning English, and knew only basic sentence patterns and words. When I saw them in the hallway then, after class, or on nights when I was not teaching them, a typical conversation might go something like this:

“Teacher Alan!”
“Hello Jack! Hello Diane! How are you?”
“I am fine thank you. And you?”
Except that this last you would be long and drawn out and have an exaggerated rise at the end so it came out youuuueeeew?
“I am fine thank you.” The kids would then look at me with manic grins, wondering what to say next.
“My name is Diane. I am five years old. I am from Taipei, Taiwan.”
“My name is Jack. I am five years old. I am from Taipei, Taiwan.”
“Good job, guys.”
“Teacher Alan!”
“Hello Jack. Hello Diane. How are you?”
“I am fine thank you, and youeeeew?”

This would go on and on until I could not take it any more. I would tell them I had to leave, words they did not understand. When I began to walk away, they would run after me to hug me, invariably clocking me in the balls in the process.

“I am fine thank you, and youeeew?” They called after me as I hobbled off in pain.
“Just great, you little bastards.” Not that they would understand.

There is something fascinating about teaching siblings. It amazes how two different children from, in theory, the same parents can be. Take for example, the case of Jimmy and Jason. I taught Jimmy last year, and of all the children I taught, he may have been the one to blossom the most. When he came to school, he was quiet and his English was suspect. As the year went on, though, Jimmy began to express himself more and more. He picked up on the differences in the grammar of Chinese and English better than most of the other kids, and he began to read. He has a thoughtful way of speaking that expresses his great desire to say exactly what he wants to say and to say it the way it should be said. For all of this, though, Jimmy is remembered as the fat kid.

I teach his younger brother Jason now. Where Jimmy is a large round ball of a boy, Jason is slim and short. In our class now, a year after Jimmy left, the kids of my class remember him, and when the word fat comes up, they all look at Jason, and Jason shouts “Just like my Jimmy!” Where Jimmy is thoughtful and retains vocabulary words after hearing them once or twice, Jason must be reminded over and over as his attention tends to wonder all over the classroom. Jason’s knowledge must be drawn out of him piece by piece. He knows things, but he forgets that he knows them. He is a sweet, sweet boy, but the kind who makes his teachers and parents pull their hair out from frustration.

Then there is the case of Annie and Amy. If Jimmy and Jason are nearly unrecognizable as siblings in the physical sense, then Annie and Amy are completely unrecognizable as such. Annie comes by the pre-school every day after school to take the school bus home with her sister. It seems like she grows an inch or two every day, and now she comes up to just below my chest. She is about double the size of her sister, both in height and weight. Annie was always quiet in class, expressing herself only in small doses. Even her smile is somewhat reserved. Amy, on the other hand, is always ready to say something and her smile is wildly expressive. There is nothing about one sister to hint at the other (except that their names both begin with A).

I can not help but wonder what teachers thought about my brother and me. David is four years older than me, so teachers would not have had us in succession. However, we went to the same schools and we did share some teachers. If I were to extract myself from our relationship (something I tried to do on a near daily basis as a child) and view us from afar, I would certainly question the relation. While our faces share physical features, little else is the same. He is short, with a bit of an early thirties paunch, and a wild collection of hair sprouting from his chest (and in random batches his back as well). He is not all that athletic and cares little for sports. His talent is in music and art, and in these areas he is very talented. I am tall and thin and, with the exception of about eight or nine hairs circulating around my nipples, devoid of hair on my upper body. While I am not a great athlete, I am not a bad one either. While he is an accomplished musician, I am not accomplished at anything, and my talents are questionable at best. The long-running comment between us is that he got the brains and the talent, and I got the looks. I did not get a fair deal.

David excelled in school. As far as I know he got straight A’s on every report card he ever had, with perhaps a random B thrown in for poor P.E. performance here or there. When it came time for high school, he graduated with the highest scores ever (at the time) at our well-known and highly respected Jesuit high school. I think he got letters from every school in America. For some reason, whether a real memory or not, I remember him talking with my family about going to Harvard.

“They are offering me $20,000 a year to go there,” he says.
“And where are we going to get the other $30,000 a year?” my mom answers. As it was, he was rewarded with a full scholarship to Saint Louis University.

I followed in his wake. In elementary and junior high school I would post A’s in most of the important subjects, but struggle with things like music and handwriting. My freshman year of high school, I worked very hard and posted decent grades. I realized I would never get close to David’s though, and so I stopped trying. The next three years I spent doing as little homework as possible, opting to cram for tests during my free periods instead of studying at home. My mom and dad suggested I try to graduate with first honors, and that is what I did, by about .08 of a point.

The mantra of my youth was “Aren’t you David Brinker’s brother.” For awhile I almost thought of this as my name.
“Hello, I am David Brinker’s Brother Brinker, nice to meet you.”
I never heard this as a curious sort of inquiry. Rather, I heard it as something of an accusation, a pre-emptive exclamation of disappointment for when I inevitably failed to live up to his legacy. No wonder I was such a bitter child.

If we had been in any way similar, perhaps it would not have been so bad, the dislike I accumulated for him and all his many accomplishments. As it was, though, every difference about him aggravated my feelings, built up my anger, and led to one temper tantrum after another.

Perhaps a tour of our bedroom walls might give you some idea of the impossibility of our situation. Mine: covered wall to wall, ceiling to floor with Michael Jordan posters and Sports Illustrated clippings. His: Star Trek posters, a poster for each actor who played Dr. Who, and an occasional art print. How well I remember those nights when a Bulls game was on TV and David came into the room to turn the channel to watch one of his God-awful science fiction shows. How well I remember the terrible screech of his flute rising above the sound of Johnny “Red” Kerr describing Michael’s latest amazing feat.

“Mom, tell him to stop!” I yelled.
“Tell him yourself.”
“David, shut up!”
“Don’t tell him to shut up.”
“You just told me to ask him to stop.”
“I didn’t say to tell him to shut up.”
“David, please stop making that horrible noise. It’s the fourth quarter of a one point game.”
“Ask him nicely.”
“Pleeeeaaassee stop playing the flute. For five minutes. I beg you.”
“I’ll be done in five minutes.” David said.
“Come on, please.”
“How can you hear the game over your yelling?” David asked in his reasonable voice.
“I wouldn’t be yelling if you weren’t playing.”
“But I’m not playing.”
“You would be if I wasn’t talking to you.”

And then I would hear, in the silence while waiting for him to answer, the sound of a horn, and I would look up to see the Bulls running of the court in jubilation and wonder what I missed. Then I would get even angrier. I hated that my brother always reasoned with me. What kind of twelve year old tries to reason with an eight year old? Especially an eight year old who was as obviously unreasonable as I was.

Once David went away to college, our relationship began to improve. When he decided to live in Saint Louis year round following his sophomore year, it improved even more. By the time I left home to go to school in Indiana, you could almost say we were friends. And now that we live on opposite sides of the world, we share that kind of relationship that brothers should share. We talk about our lives and our relationships. We talk about our parents and their never-ending arguments. We can even look back on being kids and laugh about the people we were, or rather, that I was, wondering what relation that little brat has to the person I am now.

There is a picture of the two of us on the mantle above the fireplace at my folks’ home. My brother and I are wearing terrible late seventies outfits, tailored for young kids. I can not picture the outfits exactly now, but I know rainbow colored stripes and a horrible combination of red and orange feature prominently. David has his right arm draped over my shoulder in almost a protective way, as if he sees already the way we are going to split apart for the next several years, and he wants to hold onto me before I get away. My hair is wild and curly, and though I search my face for a trace of unhappiness, I see none. We look to all the world like brothers united, with nothing but love for each other. It is a picture to erase a thousand memories of anger and all my dreams of inferiority.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Natalia said...

I'm sure David will love to read this. (If he ever finds time to do so!)

3:12 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Alan,

You might not want to know this, but I have a link from my blog to yours, under the title, "Brinker's Brother Alan."

Sorry...

Julie

http://home.mindspring.com/~juliedill

1:42 AM  
Blogger Alan Brinker said...

Julie - I saw that the other night and I laughed. Even now, I can't shake the shadow...but hey, its a link to my page so I dont care. Thanks!

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Cousin Mike said...

Ouch! But my brother and I went through pretty much the same thing (though I'm the older one).

6:30 AM  

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