The new principal in his most expensive white Armani suit strode out from his office with his chin pointing upward, like a white peacock’s strutting its way out of a cage, slowly spreading its gigantic fan of its exotically gauzy-netting white feathers, to greet the crowd of other principals and teachers, who veiled their faces with excessive admiration yet concealed derision and contempt underneath. As expected by the two rows of his teachers in their uniforms waving sharp colored flags, queuing in long winding snakes from the door of his room, along a corridor, through a foyer, down two flights of stairs and reaching back to the school entrance, he had never nodded more ardently, more earnestly to the educational officers, surely the first ones leading others to step inside the school. The principal wore his well-practiced smile and fixed his eyes on the officials, ready to open his mouth to deliver his cautiously formulated speech which he had tirelessly, unrelentingly recited in front of the mirror every day since last week. He had long been waiting for this chance.
Occasionally glancing at the crowd around him with the same heartfelt smile, flashing his porcelain white teeth polished by his dentist the day before, he knew he was different as he always was. He knew he was going to be the top of the top. To climb up to the present position, he had defeated many people, some of whom were his closest friends. It was his third year to be the principal here. A few years later, he had to retire. He could not waste time. Nor would he allow any mistakes to stop him from shining like those fireworks high up in the sky. Yet right before his first brilliant word, right after he cleared his thirsty throat, the head of the officers extended his hand, clutched the principal’s hand tightly, shook vigorously and pulled him close to blow words into his ear, the Fountain Tree.
Those syllables sounded so light and tiny, like wind chimes. Perhaps it was an illusion. The principal tilted his head towards the officer, his ear almost cupping the officer’s mouth, a signal for repetition. A surge of annoyance rose from the officer’s heart which amplified the sound of these three words close to a shriek. The Fountain Tree. Rubbing his ear hastily, the principal nodded again, and snapped his fingers loudly a few times. A teacher hurried his way forward, carelessly dropping his flag on the floor and mistakenly tripping over it. The principal frowned a bit but hid it the next second and ordered the teacher to lead the janitor in, who had been abandoned from such a large-scale function instead assigned what he wished to do, his daily routine work, sweeping the fallen leaves in the garden on this important day. Now he was summoned to show the honorable guests the way.
The menacing sensation of jealousy like bugs crawled along the principal’s rising veins, ready to crack open his skin when he eyed the shadow of the janitor accompanying the guests to the tree. He could hear them chat happily about gardening, about planting the tree and decorating the garden. He did not understand why they were first interested in the tree rather than what he had done. All the records of improvements he had spent many sleepless nights preparing for the display; all the learning facilities he had forced his subordinates to set up could not be compared to theFountain Tree. They just wanted the tree. Something was totally wrong.
The teachers knew the principal was in a bad mood. They knew the event had not turned out as he had expected. The next day, their first task when they were back to their staff rooms was to check if there were egg tarts on the top of the closet where, normally after a big function, to celebrate the success, piled dozens and dozens of egg tarts bought by the principal for all the staff members for their effort and of course, they were normally displayed with a huge piece of paper printed with cold, formulaic thank-you words in bold fonts describing how successful the event was. These words were always ignored. Shit! Each of them swore under their breath when they discovered, there were no egg tarts.
The egg tarts had long been the traditional ceremonial cakes for the staff. The younger teachers usually with more ambition believed that those tarts were from the reputable bakery where no customers could avoid having eye contact with the photo magnified at the centre of the wall: the last governor, Chris Pattern enjoying an egg tart and holding a plate of tarts with his free hand. Preventing others from stealing their chance to move up, some of the younger teachers even secretly took a tart, took a Blue Mountain coffee to the principal’s room and sang praises to him, which was indeed a highlight of the principal’s day as he desperately restrained his laugh from being too loud to spread the joy to others. All the older teachers knew well that those tarts were the much lower-priced ones from the anonymous bakery which eternally posted an advertisement outside to recruit a full-time experienced baker and a part-time cleaner in the shabby mall nearby. More than one of them realized this at the very moment, few hours after ingesting an egg tart, that they were compelled to the washroom to puke or poo.
Yet, having the stale egg tarts was better than having none. Or indeed having something that you clearly did not want. At that moment, staring at the empty space at the top of the closet, the older teachers could sense the omen encroaching, spreading and then soon burying the staff rooms under its suffocating black cloak. They could hear the pounding of their hearts and feel the aching of their heads. They could not help hurrying back to their seats, pouring a glass of icy cold water and swallowing some Panadol.
Maybe it had been more than a week after the visit by the officials. Perhaps even more than a month. No one at the school knew how to count days then, not even those Mathematics teachers. It was the nth night of 8 pm. From 8 am to 8pm. A formidable cycle. A week, two weeks, a month…How long would it last? If it was a cycle, where in it were they? When would they reach the finishing point? Or would it be just the end of the beginning? These questions, instead of those stuffed into them during the meetings—what activities? What programs? What events can you and your panel and your committee and your department hold?—had burnt the teachers’ minds ferociously, blurred their eyesight and become the spots of blood filling the whites of their eyes. They were possessed. In meetings, the principal kept proclaiming, The grains of sand can build a tower and you are the sand. Yes, they were the sand, the sand on the beach being stomped on, being pressed, being pushed, being molded into different shapes and then being destroyed, being disposed of, finally, for the most noble purpose of entertaining. After 8 pm, they were released to the street. They were then the over-blown balloons, the skins of which were stretched to their maximum, so thin that they could explode into a million firing bits with a tiny touch, shooting the people nearby, causing unpredictable collateral damage. Indeed, there were one or two unfortunate passers-by, coincidentally heading the opposite direction and unavoidably, causing a little pause to their ways, receiving the most atrocious glare with the foulest words beyond what the victims could imagine.
What kept the teachers holding on each day, besides the radiant faces of their families, whose eyes glittered in joy and eagerness when they came home, might be the blooming flowers on their desks stabilizing or even hypnotizing their tense nerves with their delicious fragrance, the vibrant colors permeating the morning dews which rolled from petal to petal, and leaf to leaf and dripped to their hearts, melting the anguish and agony away. They knew they were from the school garden, the gift from the good-natured janitor. They knew they were wild and they could survive.
It would be the gospel to the staff, passers-by and those who lived in the estate nearby when finally, perhaps, after the nth night of 8pm, a dreadfully long list of new events and improvements was drafted. Indeed, no more new ideas could possibly come out from the teachers’ brains, those brains having been pushed up and up to the mountain top to catch crabs as the Cantonese saying went. The list was then confirmed unanimously. It was regarded as the Schindler’s List by the principal, not a list of people saved but a list of events which could save the school, elevating its position to where no others could reach.
The students screamed in joy when the new schedule was released. They were the trained actors, some of whom might be a bit innocent initially, thinking all the new changes were for their sake, but when they saw the officers and teachers from other schools appearing at each new function, the pressurized faces of their own teachers with trepidation in their eyes and never-before-seen humble yet stiff gestures when interacting with those guests, they realized it was not that simple. They gradually figured out their parts and acted professionally. Indeed, it might not be acting. They were keen on all these functions and they were also fond of the treats their teachers prepared for them after each show. The long-trapped wildness inside was finally granted a chance to burst out from its eggshell to reach the outside world. The insatiable desire spread, mushrooming the whole school from top to bottom.
Of all the new functions, what did students love most? If you interviewed any 10 students from the school, nine of them would tell you the new sports days. Sports days, which sounded ordinary, were in fact extraordinary. Interestingly that was not because of the sports but rather because of the opening ceremony. It was the first item, the pivotal item, the essential one to be discussed on the first day of school. Starting from that busy first day, the students of all forms kept themselves hardworking like bees, buzzing which outfit they should wear that day, which theme and which music they should choose whenever they were together. They handmade the props in class from the morning reading period till the moment they were allowed to leave but then they went to the Ladies’ Market to further explore possible accessories, to sharpen their chance to win.
Meanwhile, each class’ bar, in the bar chart of students failing to submit assignments grew longer and longer like the nose of Pinocchio, bringing grimaces to the teachers-in-charge of Academic Affairs. They ducked their heads and quickened their tip-toes when they passed by the window of the principal’s office, fearing his sudden appearance and cruel demand for the statistics. It was a hide-and-seek game but no games could last forever. The one and only solution they could think of was to not give assignments. No tasks. No teaching then. They wiped away their sweat and let out a sign of relief
After the first two months of the school year, the opening ceremony of the new sports days, of course highly anticipated by the principal, students and some teachers excluding the older ones, eventually began. Usually it went like this: the girls in their princess dresses with layers of lace and gauzy netting flew out and danced along the tracks in the sportsground. The boys in their army outfits raised their toy rifles, aiming at the bewildered guests in the spectator stand, and shooting multi-color strips. Other classes of boys held toy swords, toy pitch forks, toy knives and fought with one another, bits and pieces from their props showering all over the tracks, while the girls in evening gowns, wedding dresses, silky robes, held hands, formed circles, and drilled the ground with their 5-inch-heel glass slippers.
Horrified by the messy ground with numerous tiny holes full of multicolored ribbons from the toy guns, the cleaners and guards of the sportsground, chins almost reaching their chests, kept locking their eyebrows, spraying bullets of complaints to the PE teacher who nodded like a bobble head figure. Then the teachers leapt out in monster outfits, sweating in buckets and panting hard to pretend to assault the kids, who soon realized and knocked them down with dozens of single kicks. At the end of each performance, the students shrieked in unison, their earth-shattering voice further shaking the sportsground. The officers were amused. They gave the principal a nod and a smile and they left.
The kids spat out their last breath of energy and slumped into sleep on the spectators’ stand once they reached there. Only a few students could manage to join the scheduled sports events after their morning’s exertions, resulting in the cancellation of many events while the remaining ones dragged painfully along starting with pre-pre-preliminary rounds to the post-post-post final rounds to fill the day. No one remembered who the best athlete was but everyone could recall every bit of the opening ceremony, which had lasted forever. Because of the nods of the officers, who attended only the opening ceremony, an egg tart day was guaranteed to follow.
The sports days were only one example and also the first one of the new events. The teachers secretly called all these new functions, the shows of lion dances, Dai Lung Fung, a Cantonese term but perhaps not difficult to find its equivalent in other dialects and languages. For each following function, the principal lit the fire-crackers, releasing the deafening sound to signify the show was about to begin. The teachers emerged in the outfits of Big Head Buddha, fanatically fanning big fans in their hands and dancing around ridiculously. They needed the fixed smile of the masks though their heads were already big enough. In fact, not just their heads, their bellies were bulging in size. They felt the fat inside like the custard in the trays and trays of flaky puffy pastry of egg tarts. They could not help burping whenever they thought of it. Of course, the lions were students released from their cages, triumphantly performing their wildness in different moves. Sometimes they dressed themselves in phoenixes and dragons, conceitedly showing everyone, particularly the most respectable, honorable officers, that they reigned over the rest of the school; that they were the centre of all kinds of attention. The names of all these events were fascinating yet baffling. No matter which levels these events were at, intra-school, inter-school, regional level, and international level; no matter what kinds of events they were, a class demonstration, an open day, a drama show, a talk, a talent night, a charity show and blah blah blah, what all of them shared in common was the lion dance at the beginning. It was not until the very moment the event started that one might figure out what it really was. But it was not important. What were important were the nods by the officers. More importantly, more and more egg tart days followed.
Trophies and medals were flooding in every day. They were piled up at the school entrance, the most eye-catching spot, soon becoming a tower glistening in the sun. It was then necessary for anyone who came near the school to shelter their eyes with their hands to stop the laser-like light scorching their eye sockets. The principal ordered all the janitors to polish those toys and arrange them every morning, afternoon and night. The gardening janitor was no exception. Though he tried really hard to squeeze some time to take care of the garden, the Fountain Tree and all its other flowers and herbs, the tree started to lose its aura at a fast speed with cracks of different sizes along its trunk and branches graying with disease and adorning with layers of big flat mushroom caps exponentially growing to leech its very life. Every time he looked at the Fountain Tree, the janitor was apprehensive.
In the meantime, there were fewer and fewer teachers and students joining him and the pastor (delete and him) to have the devotion under the tree every morning, which they used to have to start their days with blessings. The teachers and students were fully occupied with all the big functions. Despite all these adversities, the janitor insisted on picking the most artistic and aromatic flowers from the garden and putting them lightly into vases or pots for the teachers. Sometimes, if time allowed, mostly with the help of his first-form son, who loved to work with him, the janitor even used the herbs in the garden to make some sweet green bean soup for the teachers, who enjoyed it more than anything else and regarded it as some kind of medicine to cleanse the layers of grease and fat stubbornly stuck on the walls of their intestines due to those egg tarts. They were his most treasured tasks before being ordered to clean the Babel tower with others almost the whole day.
Was there a school day without any big functions? Yes, there were times when all the guests departed; when the teachers picked up the chalk and scribbled on the board; when the students were required to demonstrate their learning on paper, they were all deflated balloons. With the possible exception of those public examination classes, most students slept on their desks, casually letting their saliva drip from the corners of their mouths, streams forming to allow them to set little boats and rubber ducks to reach the far end of their dreams. They ate and drank and chatted with one another, sent emoji or played online games. To ignite the students’ burnt passion for learning, the teachers raised white flags over their own heads, giving students the iPads designated only for use in the class demonstration arranged for guests. At first glance, a few students appeared to use the iPads to take notes and do the tasks required. But pathetically, the teachers’ last hope extinguished. It turned out that students were into some apps, having fun with the games installed inside. “Flipping” the classroom, the new term adopted to be the package of one of the student-centered learning activities, was ironically but fully achieved.
Now the teachers were farmers, trying to catch the chickens to bring them back to their coops, but it was useless. It was exactly as the Cantonese proverb said: the classes were gateless chicken coops. Chickens were caught in and then came out one by one cockily, shaking their plump bodies while the farmers were busy chasing the others, threatening them back to the coops to receive the orders. One chicken stumbled; another chicken moaned. When another chicken stumbled, the first one crowed again. It was a never-ending story.
Though they knew what his answer would be, the teachers had no choice but report such a chaotic situation to the principal with a slight hope that he might respond usefully. The principal frowned, uttering words briskly in his peevish voice, You teach and discipline, and then continued to appreciate the trophy in his hand, dabbing it and wiping away his fingerprints with his warm, humid breath and a piece of velvet cloth. He checked his distorted reflection in the trophy, incredibly large eyes glowing in wits he thought, his nose bigger and more hooked than ever, and his double chins becoming sharp and pointed. He smiled contentedly. The teachers drooped their heads dishearteningly. Their feelings shifted: first fatigue, then grievance with disappointment and then splashes of irritation poured in, rolling into a snowball then exploding into a riot of animosity which grabbed away all their appetite for those ceremonial cakes, egg tarts.
Those egg tarts were an eyesore, were targets of hatred and pain. They were no longer on the top of their closet. Nor were they in the teachers’ already blown bellies. Initially, those tarts were removed one by one to the fridge. Then they were moved into the fridge’s cavity box by box within a few hours as though they were all eaten up. Sarcastically, when the principal passed by, he saw the empty tops of the closets, he swore under his breath, greedy swine and ordered the janitors to buy more and more egg tarts to proudly but mistakenly exhibit his generosity.
Days passed without the teachers noticing how many had gone but obviously enough, their own faces were changing and the school tree was fading. Indeed, some people, particularly those living nearby, wondered if the school should be still named for the school tree. The officials began to see that as well and they visited the school less often. The tree had finally became a dying patient, its bulbs shrinking in size, not blooming any more, its leaves turning into dry yellow and then lifeless brown, shedding off dozens a day, paving the ground and lying there hopelessly for one to step on to let out their final cry of life and its bole and branches peeling off, some of which even fell down after a hurricane, fortunately not premeditatedly seeking something to hit to release its exasperation. But the tree was not what the residents nearby worried most. The tower was. The shining tilting tower of trophies already hurt their eyes, stopping them from gazing up at the sky and more severely, it seemed it might collapse any time and drop on their children’s heads. Soon the children of the estate were prohibited to come close to the school by their parents, who even filled sheets of complaint forms to the housing authority to urge the principal to deal with the issues.
Then how was the principal? The principal had a big headache, which he had never had before. The pain accelerated day by day, spinning entangled knots on the nerves and arteries of his brain. He was scared that it would spread like a rash and then soon he would be paralyzed someday. The increasing cases of complaints. The surging number of sick leaves his colleagues applied for. The skyrocket turnover rate. The plummeting number of the officers’ visits. The dropping grades of students in their public exams, perfectly contrasted to their brilliant misbehavior records. He was perplexed. He gave his students what they wanted. He gave their parents what they wanted. All these were not for himself. It is for the school development. We fight for the school. It will be the most elite school in the district, his standard line in every meeting. Perhaps he thought it might be time for him to have an early retirement. He did not know why he thought of this frequently, yet it was the only thought which cheered him up a bit and lessened the stinging pain in his head.
Through his office window, he saw the janitor sweeping the leaves of the Fountain Tree. Besides the tree, did the janitor want more? The principal was dazed and he was suddenly overwhelmed by the smoldering anger and annoyance, which intensified the pain. What’s the problem with wanting more? What’s the problem with being top in everything? He directed his gaze to the green. He looked at the tree trunk and followed it to its branches and leaves and bulbs. He had never thought of destroying it but now it looked withering, pleading for more nutrients or maybe waiting for the moment. What moment? Will it die? Why? I’m not a murderer, he muttered, shaking his head, attempting to shake off the pain as well. Invalid. Patting his head gently and lightly, he walked out of his room and planned to get something cold to drink from the fridge in the corner of the general office to calm his severe headache.
Before anyone in the office could stop him, he opened the door of the fridge which was ready to vomit its contents. A landslide of egg tarts struck him without warning. He found himself drowned in the flood of smelly and moldy custard and hard pebbles of broken pastry. He lifted both of his hands up in the air, searching for one nearby to rescue him from the swamp. The teachers witnessed the whole scenario, with their mouths cracked open and hands reaching out, trying to help, but instantly halted by the emanating rays of the wicked, nauseating odor. On impulse, their stretched-out hands retreated faster than their rationality to cover their noses to save themselves from the natural response of vomiting. Unfortunately, some teaching staff, especially those young and loved ones, failed but submitted to their own nature, reaching close enough to puke. Just in a blink, the principal had become the first one in the school history buried in the sea of the decaying yellowish and brownish mixture of everything including the half-digested meals of the younger staff with one of his lifted hands feebly exposing in the air like a little light tower which lamentably, was not high enough to reach the sky.