The Unwilling Student

Lulu:”Aberration is not a difficult word to learn, Di. It’s like the word abnormal, meaning something that is not normal. We just learned abnormal last week, didn’t we?”

Di:”So, why not just use the word abnormal?”

Di is a 12-year-old boy, about to start middle school at Plainsboro, New Jersey. Lulu drives 25 miles once every week to give him advanced vocabulary lessons for a whole afternoon. Di’s mother dictates the terms that it has to be advanced lessons so that Di can gain some advantage.

Lulu:”Because native English speakers love to create new words. And we non-native speakers have to humor them.”

Lulu speaks with her sweetest voice, but in her mind she really wants to knock some motivations into Di. In the old days, she can use a bamboo stick and the image of herself holding a bamboo stick gives Lulu a sense of power and some strange pleasure. Of course she can’t really use it. Other private tutors may use a psychological bamboo stick instead, but Lulu doesn’t know how. The only thing she can do is to coddle and humor and even bribe Di.

Di, his sister Dana, and their mother moved to New Jersey last September. Their father, Mr. Leung, a businessman stayed in Penang, Malaysia to continue to run his business. He used to do scrap metal business, but ten years ago he branched into marine salvage projects. In and around Malaysia, with the spice sea routes since time immemorial, lie the ancient shipwrecks of treasures; during the WWII, many military ships and planes sank around there too. The good thing is the surrounding sea is not deep at all. Mr. Leung, a man of scarce words and many actions, didn’t attend school much, but it is important that his son Di is educated. The problem is that Di has no interest in school and in the relentless competitiveness of the school system in Penang, Di was falling behind. It looked, in all likelihood that Di was not going to get in a decent middle school, which is a ticket to get in a decent high school, which is a ticket to get into a decent university in Malaysia. The system is rigid and inflexible. If one loses one’s grip in one step, one is doomed. Di’s teachers suggest that Di is sent to America, which has a different education system. Di, who fails to thrive in the Asian system, may find his way in American schools.

Di:”I can’t remember so many words.”

Lulu:”It’s quite easy. Remember normal? If you can remember normal, of course you can remember its opposite abnormal. And abnormality is the noun of the abnormal. Aberration is like an abnormality. If you remember aberration, of course you can remember aberrant, the adjective. Wow, suddenly, you add five words into your vocabulary without any difficulty–normal, abnormal, abnormality, aberration, aberrant.”

Lulu says. She doesn’t even know how to spin this but she has tried. And Di’s response is not encouraging. Probably he can see through her charade.

Di:”I still can’t remember. I believe I will forget it tomorrow.”

Lulu:”How about write it down fifty times? I used this method when I was your age.”

That was forty years ago. How time flies. Lulu thinks and sighs.

Di:”No way. My teacher at Plainsboro school says he wouldn’t encourage rote memory. I’ll become a robot if I do that.”

Lulu brightens up suddenly, happy that she grabs something to talk about.

Lulu:”So you do have a good memory, otherwise you wouldn’t have remembered your teacher’s words so clearly. Now apply your good memory on aberration.”

Di:”I can’t. It’s so boring. Can we take a break?”

Lulu wandered to the kitchen where Di’s mother, Mrs. Leung is busy cooking. Lulu doesn’t really enjoy talking with Mrs. Leung, who is polite but very self absorbed. However after the session with the unwilling and sulky Di, any conversation is a relaxation.

Mrs. Leung grabs Lulu’s hand and starts to talk about how she’s not allowed to bring more than one maid into America, how lonely she feels even with all the video chats, how much she dislikes Plainsboro, how the pandemic has spoiled their chance of getting a house in Princeton because Mr. Leung’s business is down.

Suddenly the alarm screams. Mrs. Leung has forgotten the wok, the oil in which is so hot that it’s on fire. The iron wok is so hot that Mrs. Leung burned her hand when she tries to grab the bare handle. The maid comes running, with first aid ointment; Lulu fans away the smoke to quiet the smoke detector. When Mrs. Leung’s hand is cared for and the all steel wok is thrown into the sink, replaced by a ceramic coated pan with a plastic handle, they all come to the living room to take a rest.

Mrs. Leung:”Didi, what are you doing? Watching TV? Didn’t you hear the alarm?”

Di:”Yes, I did. Well, I guess if I get burned, I can skip the vocabulary study.”

Mrs. Leung:”Didi, what are you saying? You’d rather get burned than study vocab? Lulu, did you see what I have to deal with every day?”

Di:”I hate vocabulary. I am not going to do it anymore.”

Mrs. Leung:”Didi, that’s it? You just stop doing something when you don’t feel like it? Lulu, what did you teach him this morning?”

Lulu:”Just a word like ‘aberration’, which Di feels a little upset. Wait a second. I suddenly realize. It is easy to remember. Di, aberration is a combination of absence and rational, right? So in the absence of being rational, it becomes not normal. Thus aberration. See, isn’t that easy to remember?”

Lulu smiles as if she just discovered a new continent.

Di:”OK, right.”

He grins a little, but Lulu see the flickers of comprehension in his eyes. She starts to hope again.

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