Friday, October 21, 2011

Because Hippies do Drugs

October 20, 2011 – Because Hippies do Drugs

He meets me at the front door to the apartment complex and walks with me up the three flights of stairs. He comes up just shy of my shoulder. He has dark hair, dark eyes and that all-knowing self-assuredness of a child.

“What’s your name?” I ask.


“I’m Amanda.”

He nods. We take a flight in silence.

“How old are you?”


“That’s a great age,” I say and I mean it. My tenth year stands out as one of the best years of my life. I remember thinking then that I was really old, really cool, really wise and that all people liked me. I had no self-esteem issues at that age. Sometimes I still think I’m ten.

Joaquin rings the bell at number 301 and his mom eventually lets us in. She and I had spoken on the phone but this is our first meeting. She asks me if I’ve taught any other children who study at the Británico. I can honestly tell her yes since one of the girls I subbed for while Katrina was gone goes to that same school. I may have only taught her for a month, but it’s something. Joaquin even knows Ivonna which validates me a little in their eyes.

I hand Analy the little paper I printed up with my contact information and my teaching rules (made with the help of, and modified from Katrina’s own rules). These include my rate, request for payment for the week on the first day of the teaching week, cancellation practices and tardiness toleration. She glances it over and I pray that it’s not too severe. After a breath-holding moment, she goes for it. She even pays me for the class.

“Do you have other students?” she asks me.

“Yes, I have one other.”

I feel like Sister Simplice in Les Miserables when she tells her first lie in order to save Valjean.
[Jean Valjean: God bless you, sister.
Sister Simplice: I lied!
Jean Valjean: Then may this falsehood be placed to your credit in paradise.]

Only this isn’t my first lie and I won’t get in credit for it in paradise. I just want Analy to feel more secure about me tutoring her son. I have a nagging memory of a story read to me as a youngster called Jimmy and the White Lie. I hope my lie doesn’t grow into some giant blob.
Joaquin and I sit at the table and look over his schoolbooks. His mom explains that they lived out of Lima the last year and that he missed one year of English in his schooling and has a little catching up to do. He’s not getting perfect marks in class and she’s wanting me to help him to advance more in his learning.

“This we can do,” I tell her confidently. After I’ve given the best impromptu inaugural speech I can manage, she has enough trust in me to leave the two of us to start.
Joaquin is not shy about speaking in English. During our getting-to-know-you conversation I find out he has an older sister who is 19 and an older brother who is 12. He used to have a dog named Lola but they had to leave her with a friend when they left the province they’d been living in. The friend later told Joaquin that Lola really missed them and even once made the way from her new home back to her old one to try and find her people. I think the movie was called Homeward Bound.

Joaquin likes to skateboard--Skate, they call it here. He’s good, but he doesn’t know how to do all the tricks yet he tells me.

Thirty minutes of our hour class has passed and I’m learning that my conversational skills are merely passable. I rack my brains for more questions.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I ask him.

He gets serious. “I wanted to be a hippy or rasta. But then I found out what they do.”

“What do they do?” I ask. I need to know. I want to be a hippy too.

“The majority of them do drugs,” he says.

“Not all hippies do drugs,” I assure him.

“They don’t?” he asks incredulously.

“No.” I run through the Teacher’s Handbook in my head and decide to divulge anyway. “I’m a hippy.”

“You are?”

At least according to one of the definitions on the Free Online Dictionary site I am.

Hippy: someone who rejects the established culture; advocates extreme liberalism in politics and lifestyle.

Most (though not all) of the synonyms also seem pretty spot on: hippy, hippie, flowerchild, bohemian, dropout, free spirit, beatnik

I relate all this to my friend Audrey later that night via chat.

you hippy, amanda,” she types back. “did you put in dread locks yet?”

No, no dreadlocks, but one laundry day when I was living at Casa Del Gringo I was wearing an eclectic combination of garb and Walter said, “Amanda, I’ve got to tell you.”

I waited. I was never sure exactly what would come out of his mouth.

“You look like you stepped right out of the sixties.”

Clothes make the hippy, right?

Joaquin and I talk about the dangers of drugs. This naturally leads into a discussion about music. How could it not?

“What kind of music do you like?” he asks me. He leans in. His eyes gleam. This is an important question. “What’s your favorite band?”

“Ooh,” I say. This is always such a hard question for me. “My favorite band? I like a lot of different kinds of music.”

“Like who?”

“Coldplay. The Beatles. Karen Carpenter. Carole King.” I could go on and on with a list of those long past singers and groups I love and whose rock ‘n roll I “cut my teeth on,” as my dad used to say. I could grow my list exponentially with the rappers and singers and bands of today that I also like to jam to. I don’t have one easy answer. So I turn the tables. “What’s your favorite band?”

“Led Zeppelin,” he says without any hesitation. He talks with enthusiasm about Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Stairway to Heaven and Dazed and Confused and the way that Page played his electric guitar using a violin bow. He talks it out and then there’s a moment of silence between us.

I remember I’m the teacher. “Where would you like to live if you could live anywhere?”

“I’d live in the jungle,” he says. “I’d build a house and invite people to come live there. They could live there even if they didn’t have money. I’d have a lot of rooms. Then I’d teach them how to find food and to live in the jungle. I’d teach them about the animals. And I’d have some animals of my own.”

“What kind of animals?”

“Dogs and cats and panthers.”

“And what else would you do in that place?”

“I’d write music and teach the world about peace.”
I’d live there.

The class ends. His mom tells him to be a gentleman and walk me downstairs. So he does.

“Chau,” I say. “See you next class.” I walk home thinking about hippies, rasta, and writing songs to teach the world about peace.

A few days later I go back for our second class. We review his schoolwork and start to go back over the lessons to complete the work he’d never finished. He’s making simple sentences into compound sentences when he looks up.

“I didn’t use to understand this line in Stairway to Heaven until I learned what ‘glitters’ means.”


“There’s a lady who knows all that glitters is gold,” he sings. Then he asks me, “Is everything that glitters gold?”

“No, it’s not. And actually the line is a change of the saying, ‘All that glitters is not gold.’”


When he walks me down the stairs after class he seems meditative. “What’s the name of your other student?”

See, I knew that lying was never good. There’s a part in the movie Spy Game where Robert Redford reprimands Brad Pitt for some white lies he used to get information. “You just gave her four pieces of personal information for one dubious impersonal fact.”  With the moral being if you lie once and the person becomes an asset for a spy mission than you have to remember the lies for the entire time you use that person.

“Matias,” I say, using the name of the four year old I subbed for while Katrina was gone.

“Does he go to Británico too?”

“No, I’m not exactly sure what school he goes to.” At least this is true.

Joaquin processes this information and I wonder when I became such a liar.

“Chau,” we say.

The third class we read his class assigned book The Nutcracker. Joaquin is amazed to learn that I know the story, that I read it when I was a kid in school. The world becomes just a little less large. One of the bolded facts on the side of the page informs us, the readers, that there are some nutcrackers that are the size of children. I tell him about a giant-man-sized nutcracker I once saw at a mall in the States at Christmas time.
“Really?” he asks. “Could it crack a coconut?”

“I don’t think it was a functional nutcracker, but if it were I’m sure it’d crack a coconut.”

We look at the pictures of the nutcrackers, soldiers, and the rats in the book.

“I want to be a soldier in the army,” Joaquin says.

Ah, how quickly are gone the gentle dreams of peace and harmony and hippy living in the changing morph of a young thing.

“And then I’d collect people from the house that I told you that I want to build and I’d train them and then we’d travel around the world and kill all the bad people who hurt the earth and other people.”

Okay. So he didn’t stray too far.

“That sounds very noble,” I say.

“What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin song?” he asks me in an abrupt conversational shift.

“Probably Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t tell him he probably knows more Led Zeppelin songs than I do. I resolve to go home and catch up on English Rock Bands and all their songs.

“I don’t understand all the lyrics,” he says wistfully.

Lawd, son, I don’t think anyone totally understands all the lyrics. “Look,” I say, “how about if during our next class we translate all the lyrics so you understand them?” His eyes light up and I write myself a note so I won’t forget and disappoint him. Kids remember promises. I know because I remember promises too.
The next day I look up the lyrics and find an online translation. I write out the first two stanzas in English and Spanish. I read up on Led Zeppelin history. I scan an analysis of Stairway to Heaven (Far out, man). I began to think that all song writers take drugs. I make my notes. Knowledge is power, right? And soon enough I feel I’m more or less prepared. I figure we’ll take the song piece by piece as a fun class activity around the actual homework and school related learning we’re to cover.

When I arrive for class, our usual table is taken up by the older brother and his math tutor. Joaquin says that the math tutor is supposed to be finished at 6:00 and that we can sit at the table when he leaves. It’s just now 6:00. The tutor doesn’t leave and Joaquin and I sit on the couch. Joaquin’s older sister passes through the room and notices us. She takes charge and helps us get settled in at a smaller table in the same room. “You’ll be more comfortable here.” She adjusts her bag on her shoulder, waves goodbye and leaves the apartment.

“What did your teacher say we should work on?” I ask Joaquin. They’ve just started a new semester of school and Joaquin’s task was to get some insight from his teacher about what he should be focusing on with me.

“My mom has the note the teacher sent home with me and she’s not here.”

“Where are your books?”

“They’re at school. The teacher kept them today.”


“What do you want to do?” he asks as if this is a playdate.

“Well,” I pull out the lyrics papers I’d stuck in my bag. “Let’s translate Stairway to Heaven.”

“You brought it?” He’s excited. We move the computer over to the table and he brings up a You Tube video. “You want to watch it and as it goes I tell you what it means and then if I’m wrong you correct me?”

“Sure.” I hope we don’t disturb the other tutoring class.

The video buffers and Joaquin clicks play. The first stanza isn’t so bad. He’s worked those words over before and has more or less a handle on them, especially since he figured out what glitters means in Spanish. The second stanza takes a little bit of time because we have to clear up the confusion around that sign whose words we’re never told although they can have two meanings. We also have to look up pictures of brooks because he doesn’t believe me that it’s a type of river. When I type ‘brook’ in the search engine box and press enter pictures of a bunch of dark haired women pop on the screen.
“What the heck?” Joaquin says.

I thank my lucky stars that they’re all headshots and or clothed. Sheesh. I rapidly amend my search to say brooks and rivers. The right pictures can definitely be worth more than a thousand words. We talk about the differences between rivers, brooks and lakes and then forge on to “there’s a songbird who sings: Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
The math tutor leaves, but we’re too absorbed to worry about moving to the big table.

Misgiven is tricky. There is no one word Spanish equivalent to the English word misgiven. The closest we get is nos hacen dudar ([our thoughts] make us doubt). That translation eventually makes both him and me more or less happy. I bless the English language for its fantastic subtlety and wish I knew how to play the Spanish words equally well. One day perhaps.

Although the third stanza gets really abstract with rings of smokes and a lot of voices, Joaquin zips right through the lines.  

We’re blazing away through the fourth stanza after we review North, East, South and West until we reach “Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

“I don’t understand this,” Joaquin says.

I pull up an image of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and tell him the story.

“Oh yeah, I know that story,” he says. “Oh yeah?” I ask and have him recap it to me in English.

“The Piper isn’t very good is he?” Joaquin asks.

“No,” I agree. “He’s not completely good. But the town’s people weren’t completely good either, were they?” I get meditative and ethical until The forests echo in laughter. Then, suddenly, my palms get clammy. We’ve reached the fifth stanza.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now

What in heaven’s name were you on when you wrote this, Robert Plant?

I have no idea what this means. I’m thinking bustles like the derriere enhancers that Cinderella’s evil stepsisters had on their ball dresses rather than an ado or to-do. Which is very confusing.
“Now,” I tell Joaquin. “Not all songs mean something complete. Not all songs make total sense. And a lot of songs were written by groups or musicians who used drugs. So don’t expect every song to be perfectly understandable.”

I take a breath to try that daunting fifth stanza and am saved by the bell. The clock chimes 7:00. Class is over.

“We’ll tackle the rest of this later,” I tell him.

His mom has returned and we all ride the claustrophobically small elevator down together. I assure Analy that we’ll get Joaquin up to speed with the semester requirements and kiss her hasta luego. They turn left and I turn right. I zip my jacket up to my chin. Although the sun came out for a while, now that it’s gone the air has a chill nip to it. I tuck my hands into my pockets. The sound of wheels on cement makes a racket behind me. I turn. It’s Joaquin on his skateboard. “I didn’t say goodbye,” he says. I stop myself from tousling his hair. He’d already told me he doesn’t do high fives. We press our cheeks together for the Peruvian goodbye kiss and part ways until the next Tuesday.

I walk the mile home thinking about music, drugs and what Audrey had told me in our chat conversation the week before:

“there's a boy in my class who asked his mom what hippies are, and she told him that hippies are people who don't think they need to do what everyone else does, but follow their heart and live the way that they think is the best even if no one else does it.. so he said WE ARE ALL HIPPIES!!!!!!”


  1. Maybe you should tell Analy the truth!

  2. I always imagine the bustle in the hedgerow to be like elves making noise in a boxwood hedge doing the May Queen's spring cleaning.

  3. PIP, when the time comes to translate that fifth stanza I am going to use your explanation, if that's alright.