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Studying for Finals with Bao Phi

bao phi -

Wherein I learn that writer Bao Phi, six years my junior, isn’t very young and that my grasp on American history is sketchy at best.

I’ve been helping my teenage mentee study for her final exams. We grabbed a table at Starbucks and started with a close reading of scenes from The Great Gatsby. I’d forgotten how hysterical the drunk people are in that book. Sure, they’re hollow and careless, and Nick, the book’s narrator, says Gatsby’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” but man those people are funny. One drunk guy tries to drive his car away from the scene of a serious accident he has caused even though his car is now missing a steering wheel. All kinds of awesome.

After we finished with The Great Gatsby, we moved on to a poem called “Goodbye” by a Vietnamese-American named Bao Phi. It’s a one-pager, five or six stanzas, simple, straightforward language. After three reads I still had no idea what to make of the thing.

Mentee: I need to describe what the poem’s saying about life.

C: What do you think it’s saying?

Mentee: I don’t know.

C: See, when I throw a question back at you, you’re supposed to magically come up with an answer. That’s how that’s supposed to work.

Mentee: Can you help me or not?

C: The whole answering a question with a question thing worked in mentor training.

Mentee: So you don’t know what the poem means?

C: Um, hello, I totally know what the poem means.

[Time passes. I read the poem a fourth time, then a fifth.]

Mentee: Well?

C: I think the poet’s saying goodbye to his life. I think perhaps he’s old and dying.

Mentee: He’s not dying. We read his bio. He’s healthy. And he’s your age.

C: Oh, so he’s really young, then?

[Long pause. Mentee plays with her empty Starbucks coffee cup.]

C: Really young? Super youthful?

Mentee: Yes. He’s very young. Anyhow, maybe every time the poet says goodbye to Vietnam he has a chance to reflect upon his connections to his homeland?

C: Yes. Good job. I was hoping you’d figure it out on your own without my help.

Mentee: Uh huh.

Next, we took a 30-minute multiple-choice practice test on the Revolutionary War. I’m not trying to brag, but my knowledge of American History sort of rocks. We took the test, stopped periodically to discuss mercantilism and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Boston Tea Party and the war of attrition. Then we got our score. 77%.

C: 77%? How is that possible?

Mentee: I got a 92% when I took the test by myself yesterday.

C: Isn’t there some scientific theory about combined knowledge making people dumber?

[Mentee plays with her empty cup and stares longingly at the door.]

C: Want to study some more?

Mentee: Nope, I think I’m good.

As we wrapped up for the night, I reminded my mentee that I’m also available to help her with math and science so long as her goal is to significantly lower her grades in both subjects.

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