Column #002 – The Spanish Flu

It’s a Thursday night, and I’m getting over a cold and wondering if some skin maladies I’ve had recently manifested because of vitamin deficiencies – due to some mindless parasite or biologically worthless worm – as I teach a TOEFL class to some kids, all boys, who show the kind of raw intelligence that transcends wealth, maybe even parenting, and makes them extremely curious and easy to bore, so I like them.


The trouble with smart boys is that they often get distracted and sucked into fratricidal war games…. Today, It isn’t until what felels like the third half of no score game with the referees all giving up and the stadium diffracted into chaos, that the mind remembers something about boys, and reverence. Nothing top-shelf cognitive. But, crucial. Immediately crucial, and as far as earning attention goes… lucrative.


“1918.” They looked at me oddly, and waited for me to speak again.


“1918, the year.” I doubted they’d ever heard of H1N1.


One boy, the most gullible, but also the nicest, raised his arm and started to ask a question when the tallest and also broadest of the boys stabbed him with a toothpick under the table. Son-of-a-bitch, I remember thinking. I forgot to grab all the toothpick holders (the school offers food and drinks). The wounded laughed and shouted. He’d been had. Immediately, his eyes darted for a target of his own, no doubt. But, their parents were paying quite a lot of money by Vietnamese standards for the class. So, this had to get reigned in.


“The year of The Spanish Flu.” The biggest kid shrugged and smiled.


“What’s that? We’re not know this.”


“Ah… you say ‘We don’t know this.’ The Spanish Flu infected half a billion people, and killed somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of them. That’s like 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population… at the time.” Hands went up. After walking them through some of the vocabulary around the subject, I noticed something odd about their responses and asked a question.


“How many people are in the world today?” They each looked away and started counting and thinking. Mouths moving silently. Eyes squinting at corners of the ceiling. They looked like turtlish old men aimlessly watching television they’d never again understand.


“Come on,” I said. “Pony up!” The guesses ranged from 100 million to a billion people. I couldn’t remember when I learned the world population, but I decided to tell them, on the grounds that they deserved to know. And, I was relatively sure this wasn’t as controversial a subject as, say, the age of the planet, or whether dinosaur bones were simply injected and layered into the ground like mozzarella in lasagna.


I remember my favorite teachers employed a lot of improvisation when teaching, and so I try to do the same, especially with kids. Kids can be harder to teach because you know when they like you and when they would rather stand in the sun chained to a fence than be in class. So, getting their attention by means of piquing their curiosity is immensely more useful than by yelling at them or make vague physical threats. Plus, most people will stare at pictures of humans with grotesque visual illnesses, and kids are no exception.


The objective was simple: get them to talk about illness. Ask questions. Analyze a little.


“Here, check out these pictures. What do you see?” I held up my phone and showed them pictures, slowly, to let it sink in. Reverence for the dead and dying. Kids after a certain age have it just like adults.


The 1918 flu was terrifying because unlike normal strains of influenza, this flu killed the demographics normally the healthiest along with the very young and elderly. Those with healthier immune systems experienced an overreaction in their bodies – something called a “Cytokine Storm,” which killed them.


“Wow.” Each of them said. I showed them a picture of a soldier (I think he was French) in a hospital bed with that flu. Boys their age have access to the Internet and have seen worse, so their reactions were muted, but each had a change in the face when they saw what a flu outbreak could do to a person.


I walked around with more pictures. As I left each kid I could hear just out of my periphery smacks and stabbings and grunts, and wondered what kind of cows I’d say I own when I go shopping for a low-voltage cattle prod.


This is the take away: Children in Vietnam don’t usually come exploding into a classroom wanting to perfect their pronunciation and learn new vocabulary. In part, because they study every day, and are tested frequently, far more frequently than most Western kids, it’s safe to bet. So, when they’re in the one class during the week in which they can speak in their own language and say whatever they want, they do just that. And I let them, at least for a little bit, because they need to unwind. You can see it in their faces, which I have a bit of reverence for.