Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Dead Bird Story

The following is a short story.

It was 2004, I was 17, and at the time I was going to Gilbert East High School in Anaheim, this was a continuing education school. If you’ve never heard of what a continuing education school is — well, for the most part — the school that I was going to, most of my school mates were in gangs, drugs, pregnant, or just failing in their high school career and trying to get their high school diploma. Now, I don’t do drugs, I was never pregnant, nor was I ever in a gang. I was only there because prior to my schooling in here in America, I was in the Philippines, and in the Philippines we don’t have Jr. High, without Jr. High, I was missing two grade levels worth of school credits to be in a “normal” school. I was a pretty average student, but for the school, to have an average kid meant that they actually had a kid who stood out from the rest, which is somewhat ironic to me, because I was a lousy student. I didn’t like homework, nor did I do it, I fell asleep in most of my classes … come to think of it, maybe I did belong in that school.

So, that year before the summer break, I was told that the assistant principal wanted to meet with me about an upcoming opportunity. I walked into her office, which was a room surrounded by movable walls, the whole school was like this. The facility seemed to be a warehouse that was converted into a multipurpose conference facility, then converted into a school, all the walls were movable, the ceiling was painted black, fluorescent lights illuminated every room, stale air circulated the dusty vents, it was quite a depressing place. I sit down and the assistant principal asks me, “how are you?” I replied quickly, “I’m doing well; I’m glad you asked to meet with me because I wouldn’t have to be in class.” I smiled, then she smiled back and proceeded, “… well, the reason why I wanted to meet with you was because I was wondering if you’d like to be in a summer program?” I replied, “Sure, I don’t have any summer plans. What’s this (summer program) about?” “… oh, its called The Summer Leadership Academy, we’d like for you to represent our school …”

The Summer Leadership Academy was an Anaheim Union High School District program created to inspire higher education in the arts for students who were already achiving academically in so many other subjects. The program was crafted to teach and mentor students to become leaders and use art appreciation as a way to articulate beauty. Since I was going to a continuing ed school, the school district and I played the "underpriveledged troubled kid" card to get me into the program.

So the spring semester had ended, summer rolled around and I was on my way to the first day of the summer program. The school district decided that the continuing ed facility would make the perfect place to hold the summer program. It didn’t really change my daily commute. I take two busses, one off Ball Rd. and State College Blvd., then the next is the stop off Euclid, then take a bus from Euclid to Lincoln. On a typical commute to school, I see familiar faces on the bus, look out the window and just spend time in thought. While waiting at a bus stop, I usually just sit there, maybe sketch or think about the schoolwork I choose not to do. But that first day, something was different.

I finally arrived at the school, I saw parents dropping off their kids. Many of whom were Asian. I thought nothing of it until I walked into the facility and felt like I was tricked into some sort of “Young Asian Leadership Conference.” But the sprinkle of white and latino kids, and the single token black kid eased my mind and made me think otherwise. I was surrounded by a diverse group smart kids, all from different backgrounds. A hundred or so of us sat in a room, with the class desks formed in a semi-circle. There was an opening speech for the overview of the program… then they opened the floor for any student to speak.

The point of opening the floor to students in the beginning was to encourage students to share an idea, or an experience. They would use that time for those who were so inclined, to be known by the group. That morning, I was preoccupied by the memory of my commute just fourty minutes ago. It felt like an experience that would have such an impact on my life, and change my perception about mortality; you know, typical morning thoughts. I zoned out for a moment when they opened the floor for one of us to share. It was quiet … I have no idea what came over me, but, I took it upon myself to break the silence; I felt confident about what was on my mind, I was about to break the ice. Inside of me, it felt a ship in my chest that nothing was going to stop. Little did I know, I was the Titanic, on its maiden voyage.

So, I raised my hand and said, “I have something to share.” Everyone looked over at me, the captain. One of the teachers asked me to stand infront of the whole group. As I was walking toward the front of the group, I realized I was about to share an experience so fresh, so raw, I could only but serve it to them on a silver platter, rare, knife and fork, with a garnish of parsley on the side. I thought to myself, “Oh man, I hope I don’t make anyone cry.” I finally reach the front of the room, standing there with a whiteboard behind me, a hundred or so strangers looking at me, anticipating my speech in boredom. The carpet was rough under me, and the air was as stale as my prior semesters there; I look into the crowd, I see one kid writing in their calendar, a few others were looking through the packets of paper that were handed out earlier. I started speaking …

“… So, this morning, on my way here, I was sitting at the bus stop thinking about the last time I sat there, there was a breakfast place behind me, I heard a rustling and looked back and saw a rat run from the trashcan behind the restaurant then into the restaurant through the rain gutter…”

I heard a few chuckles in the crowd. I continued to tell my story,

“… so I’m sitting there at the bus stop today and I noticed something in front of me, it was a bird.”

A few smiles awknowledged some interest in the case of the bird…

“… but it wasn’t directly in front of me where I was sitting, it was on the street.”

I hear a sound of concern from the group, even one voice exclaiming, “Oh no.”

“… I’m staring at this tiny little bird’s body and I think about how sad it is. The bird could have had a little bird family, maybe it was out gathering little bird food for its tiny bird kids then got hit by a car mid flight swooping to capture a tiny flying insect. So I started sketching it.”

Laughter. I was a little confused by that response, I guess people don’t normally just pull out their sketch book and start drawing a dead bird — I continued,

“… so I’m observing the corpse of this little bird, and I notice that its little bird body was breathing very faintly, then its eyes opened. I realized that this bird is alive and I was in a situation where I needed to save this little bird’s life! There was no question about that, but I didn’t know what to do… the first thing to come into mind was that I needed to get this little bird out of the street. How terrible would it be to be run over by a car changing lanes, already gasping for air, facing my impending mortality. So I grabbed a sheet of paper from my binder…”

Loud laughter…

“… but the avian flu was going around or something, so I didn’t want to touch it …”

Louder laughter, I really still don’t understand what’s funny, so I continue …

“… so I grabbed another sheet of paper and I scooped the little bird up; then I was faced with another issue, which was, ‘what do I do next?’ I’m headed here to the Summer Leadership Academy, if I called Animal Services, I’d be late …”

Laughter, and I think I know why, no one wants to be late for the first day of the Summer Leadership Academy because of a bird.

“… and it was a very conflicting moment in my life thus far. There I was, bird in hand, I mean, paper — standing there. I didn’t know what to do, so I made a little box for the bird and I placed it in the safest place I could think of at that moment — under the bench. The bus arrived, I got on and tried telling the bus driver, but all that could come out of my mouth was, ‘DEAD BIRD!’ The driver looked at me with confusion, I swiped my pass and sat down. I stared at the bird as we drove away. Then I thought to myself, would it have been better for the bird if I left it on the street? Have I just prolonged the pain and misery this little bird was experiencing?! What have I done?!”

At this point of the story, a few people were crying in laughter.

“… I guess I just wanted to share my experience this morning with this little bird and mortality.”

A few more bits of laughter and chuckles continued as I proceeded back to my seat. One of the other teachers said emphatically while smiling awkwardly, “Oh, wow, thanks for sharing Aaron.” I sat down thinking about what had just happened, their reaction to the story, whether or not it was wrong what I did that morning or if it was really at all humerous. My worries about making someone cry became a real concern as I looked at the kids who were wiping away their tears of laughter. The steak I served was apparently raw and delicious, it brought some happiness as fleeting as life itself. I was both the Titanic and the captain, and I took these kids on a proverbial voyage, colliding with mortality and ethics, sinking the ship with joy filled laughter.

To this day, I have no idea what was funny about the story. Maybe as kids, we don’t know what to do death, so laughter could be the only response. But maybe I’m wrong, although I can imagine my colleagues and I going to that little bird’s funeral, surrounded by the little bird’s family, with silence and boredom as our solice, the bird’s casket made of the flimsy lined paper box. I come up to give a eulogy, speak of this little bird’s love for his family, his final breaths, what he tought me about death … then the laughter from my colleagues, but instead of continuing the eulogy, I stop. I stop and raise my voice and say, “How dare you laugh about this poor bird’s plight.” Then I start laughing. We’re all going to hell.

Perhaps hindsight is 20/20, I look back at that program. The friends I’ve made there, and one particular good friend who didn’t laugh at the story. She and I are friends to this day; and in the end, most everyone who was there remembers the bird story and how they laughed. I still like to think that after I had placed the bird there, under the bench, that it would have regained its strength, flown home to its family. Its little bird wife chirping at him, “You look terrible, what happened?“ His chirping reply, “… I almost died today.“

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