The Burping Contest
There is a fine line between maintaining discipline in the classroom, especially a Thai classroom, and becoming a martinet – a strutting Mussolini who has his or her students kowtowing out of fear instead of respect.
I once substituted for an ill teacher in a Thai school in Chantaburi. Matayom 2, if I recall correctly. They were an okay bunch – no better and no worse than the usual gang of giggling whisperers. My improvised lesson plan was sailing along rather smoothly when suddenly one of the boys jumped up with a loud whoop and threw his lesson book right out the window.
I gaped at him, as did the rest of the class, as he slowly sat back down – cringing with embarrassment. I sternly told him he would need to stay after class for a little discussion, to which he humbly acquiesced.
As soon as class was over I told him to sit still while I visited briefly with the principal to discuss his well-merited fate. As always, the principal was in a meeting (or perhaps a coma) and I had to cool my heels for a while. The nerve of that boy, that brat, tossing his lesson book out the window! He was going to catch it, but good . . .
And then my memory, which likes to play these little tricks, took me back to the summer before fourth grade – to what I and my friends labeled The Burping Game. This was a great many years ago, back when women wore long white gloves whenever they went out, men always wore a hat and napkin rings were still set with the cutlery for every meal. It was a very proper era, and I and my wayward friends were determined to destroy it from within. We had already been debauched by our close reading of MAD Magazine, and we decided that developing the ability to belch at will would be an invaluable aid in our struggle against respectability.
An overt belch at the dinner table was out of the question – our fathers were not shy with their hands when it came to disciplining such outrages. As my own dad was fond of saying, when I had committed some faux pas, he would knock me into the middle of next week if I didn’t straighten up and fly right.
So we eructated in the alley amongst the garbage cans and clinkers or, when we wanted to be particularly wicked and bold, we would sit on the curb in front of our houses and burp right at the girls playing jump rope and hop scotch. Inevitably they reported these atrocities to our mothers, who threatened us with dire consequences if we continued with our unrepentant manners. We swaggered around the block (well out of sight of our mothers, of course, who could swing a mean hair brush) and continued our onslaught on Emily Post.
My friend Randy, a tow-headed boy who was buried under an avalanche of freckles, could burp the alphabet, up to “P”. My other pal, Wayne, who had the only “outie” belly button in our neighborhood, and thus was considered something of a mystic, had a particularly deep, basso profundo, timbre when he let loose, sending robins shooting from their nests as if from the crack of a rifle. I, on the other hand, tended to choke on my own attempts. I worked all summer on my watery burps, with little improvement.
By the time school started in September I was still far behind my companions when it came to expelling gas from my stomach. I considered it a terrible disgrace and vowed to do something about it. Our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kausenbaum, was a jovial old soul who had taught since the Civil War apparently. She ran a tight ship, but did it with a smile rather than a ferule. I was about to test her mettle.
One morning before walking the one block to school I sat brooding in the kitchen over my emasculating weakness in the area of belching. Then it struck me. I rummaged in the cupboard until I found the vinegar and a box of baking soda. How many times had I created a fizzing, foaming volcano from these two items? If I mixed them quickly and drank the potion I was sure to be able to deliver a burp heard round the world that would make Randy and Wayne sick with envy! The thought was barely formed before I had tossed off a round glass of the noxious brew. I immediately regretted it. Quick thinking, I now realized, gets more people killed than slow deliberation. Still, I was primed – so I sought out my pals for what I hoped would be a very public exhibition in the playground.
My stomach was swollen to the size of a beach ball, but I discovered I did not have command over the release of even one molecule of gas. I pounded my chest and jumped up and down, all to no effect, except that the kids on the playground thought I had lost my marbles.
The bell rang. We lined up and marched in to class. I could barely squeeze into my seat. Mrs. Kausenbaum was well into our penmanship lesson when I finally, involuntarily, gave vent to a terrific blast – one that rattled the windows and, I believe, caused Mrs. Kausenbaum’s dentures to nearly come loose in her mouth.
She had me by the ear in a trice and led me to her desk, where we had the following brief, and, to her, cryptic, conversation.
“What in the world made you do such a thing, Timmy?”
“I swallowed vinegar and baking soda this morning.”
“Why would you . . . oh, never mind. Are you going to be ill?”
“Then go back to your seat!”
It all made perfect sense to me, but to Mrs. Kausenbaum it never would. So she simply shrugged it off and continued on with our cursive writing.
And I loved her for that. I can still summon a blush when I think of that episode; any punishment she might have added would have been completely superfluous.
And so, when the principal finally came out to ask what I wanted I told her it was nothing, nothing at all. I went back to the classroom and told my puzzled pupil he could go. “May pen rai”. It would not be mentioned again.
To this day I have no idea what caused his outburst. Nor do I care.
As my father was also fond of saying (but not when my mother was around): “Pick your fights.”