Chapter 4 - Good Morning Class!
Assembled all together in the large communal dining hall, the fall class was excited for it all to begin. The room was buzzing with chatter and anticipation. They looked great in their brand new Air Acolyte outfits, a derivative of children's saffron and orange student clothing from long ago.
Tenzin, Aang, and Katara walked into the room and an instant hush fell. Avatar Aang opened with a hearty welcome, introduced the family and staff, and then Tenzin dedicated the class to the memory of Jinpa and Lhamo. Pema brushed back a tear, but was so very grateful for Tenzin's honor to her family. Pema knew she would grieve for her parents a long time, but Tenzin had, by one small act, given her relief and closure by the lasting memorial to them. She had instant respect for her teacher.
Aang followed Tenzin with a few opening remarks about the Air Acolytes and the Air Nation. Aang looked every bit the classic Major Professor presiding over a college lecture as he walked around the room energetically. He had done this opening over 40 years, never tiring of it.
Aang spoke, "The Air Acolytes – people from all the Nations who are not air benders but believe as air benders do - was an entirely unexpected benefit of the end of the Hundred Year War. Despite the best efforts of Fire Lord Ozai to destroy everything, the beliefs of the Air Nomads appealed to all nations in war-weary world. People started approaching me to learn Air Nomad ways over 40 years ago. And it has never stopped. Thank the spirits."
"Some of you have come here to learn the old ways of the Air Nomads. You will. But that is just ancient history. The Air Nation is forever changed from the Air Nomad ways I learned."
He slowed for emphasis, "We are now 'The Air Nation' for a reason. The term 'Air Nomad' somehow became twisted to revile people that were viewed as too interested in the afterlife to bother about real life, were wanderers, and were only casually committed to each other. Hatred of Air Nomads took root from that perceived lifestyle. The term 'Air Nation' means a place. A real place. A home. I, Avatar Aang, have a home."
He walked to Katara, put his arm around her waist, and drew her close in front of fifty new followers. She blushed and smiled. She always enjoyed this part, because it was his love for her that changed him – and her - forever.
He motioned around the great hall for emphasis, "That home is here. I have traveled across the world my whole life on behalf of unity and peace, but I always come home to Katara and my children. Katara and her family taught me that simple fact. While I have a family, I am no less spiritual than during my time at the Southern Air Temple as an acolyte to my dear mentor Monk Gyatso. In fact, I am more spiritual because of my family. Gyatso was like a father to me, but as the spirits themselves have shown me, nothing is better than a father and mother to teach a son – or daughter – spirituality."
Tenzin looked at his beloved Father for his words of conviction about being a father, and then he looked at Pema. She caught the look, blushed, and looked down. "Why do I like it when he looks at me? He's just my teacher," she thought.
Aang spoke with emphasis, "I will say it now, and say it a hundred times while you are here, that through my love with Master Katara I learned that best friends can be true lovers, and that family and spirituality are inseparable."
"Most of you in this Air Acolyte program will take your new spirituality lessons home and apply it to everyday living. Some of you will want be devoted to our beliefs completely as monks and nuns, serving as missionaries and teachers, or spiritual leaders in your communities. Our beliefs appeal to different people in many different ways."
"Some of you may even start a family here," he grinned.
Several twenty to thirty year old couples smiled at each other, and sat closer together. Some kissed.
"But in the end, it doesn't really matter how you show your faith. It will be what is in your heart, and how you treat your fellow man and your family when you leave here in two years," Aang pointed to his own heart to emphasize.
"Over time, we will all become family. We will share meals and fellowship in this great communal hall, and each of you will be with my family, meeting with us many times in our home."
"With that said, let's start our classes."
A week or so into the curriculum, each group of students got a practical lesson in spirit animals, especially the role that the Sky Bison played in teaching the original Air Nomads how to air bend. Tenzin and Aang taught this class personally, each taking several of the student groups.
A group of eight students gathered around him and Oogie, his young Sky Bison. Oogie was anxious to go on a morning flight, so Tenzin cut the lecture short about his father discovering this herd that escaped Ozai's murderous campaign.
"Are you all ready?" Tenzin asked.
"Yes!" came a lone enthusiastic reply from Pema, who raised her hand in the air.
The rest were reluctant to fly, and their noses were wrinkling from the aroma of the huge smelly beast. Pema was the last to board, but as Tenzin reached out to take her hand, a thrill something like electricity ran up his arm and he blinked with surprise. He noticed Pema experienced it too, as she blushed and looked away. She tried to distract herself by giving Oogie a vigorous petting, which he appreciated by lowing. Tenzin raised an eyebrow at that, as Oogie didn't just take to anyone.
"Yip Yip, Oogie!" called Tenzin.
He gave them a long, slow overhead tour of Air Temple Island. Pema was animated in pointing and commenting on the sights, while most of the others sat huddled in the middle of the saddle. But because of her enthusiasm, the students slowly started to relax and look around. From his perch on Oogie's neck holding the reins, Tenzin had a smile of satisfaction with her effort.
"Now, let's fly over the city!" he said, and everyone this time was more enthusiastic.
"How about a little more speed, Master Tenzin? Aren't Sky Bison faster fliers?" asked Pema.
"Well, yes of course, but this is just your first flight. I thought we'd take it easy at first."
Everyone agreed they wanted to try to go quicker, so he encouraged Oogie to kick it up a notch.
They flew fast enough to create quite a breeze over the passengers. Tenzin heard movement behind him, and turned around. There, standing totally straight and leaning into the wind, holding tightly to the pommel rail of the passenger saddle, was Pema. She was alternatively gazing intently at the sights and closing her eyes, taking in the totality of the experience.
In a sudden flashback, Tenzin had the bad memory that none of his girlfriends had ever liked riding Oogie, or ever stood in the saddle like she was doing. He gazed at her without her noticing. But he shook his head, trying to get that thought out of his mind. She was a student, not someone to date. Especially her at sixteen, and him at 32. People would talk.
One of the older male students yelled, "Master Tenzin. Look out!"
He quickly turned around and saw nothing but the blackness of a huge Police Airship directly in front of him. He swerved hard right to avoid the collision. All the students turned slightly green except for Pema, who smiled, and leaned into the turn with a harder grip on the saddle. What Tenzin didn't know is that Pema did see him look at her. And it was OK that he did. She rationalized it that her teacher was pleased with her embracing flight like Air Nomads of old, and nothing more. At least she tried to tell herself that.
They completed the airborne city tour, and headed back to the stable at Air Temple Island. Because they had flown at much higher speeds, they were done early. Pema noticed that.
"Can we go again, Master Tenzin? The next class isn't due here for another half hour. I want to see want a Sky Bison can really do. My father talked about his experiences all the time flying on Appa with your father."
But Tenzin resisted, trying to slow his eager student down a bit, "Pupil Pema, there will be plenty of other times for that."
She gave him a bit of a pout with her lower lip, and continued her press, "Of course Master Tenzin, but I don't think Oogie is ready to stop yet, are you boy?"
In response, Oogie mooed loudly and drooled.
It was remarkable to see that kind of response in Oogie with a new student. Tenzin sighed and agreed, but asked the class, "Are there any other volunteers for an advanced flight?"
There were none. So the Pema and Tenzin climbed aboard the bison. Tenzin gave the command to launch more aggressively, and with a much lighter load, Oogie blasted from the plaza. Pema cheered at the liftoff.
Once airborne, Pema asked boldly, "Can he do aerobatics?"
Tenzin gave a qualified, "Well…Yes…"
"Then pump those reins Master Tenzin. Let's see what this bison can do!"
He could see Pema was not going to take no for an answer, and thought, "Well OK, let's also see what this new student can take."
With that they were all over the sky, looping, diving, barrel rolling, and turning hard. Pema squealed with delight. Tenzin could not help but smile broadly as his student thoroughly embraced flying. She wanted to go everywhere in the beautiful skies over Yue Bay. It felt like flying with his father.
Then she said, "I want to guide him."
"But Pupil Pema, piloting lessons are weeks away," he stammered.
"Oogie wants me to, I can tell. You do want a woman to fly you, don't you Oogie?"
Oogie groaned happily about as loudly as Tenzin had ever heard him. So he shifted over and showed her how to control Oogie. Only his mother had elicited that kind of reaction from Oogie as a female flier.
Pema was more tentative than the experienced rider that Tenzin was, but gave Oogie a thorough work out. She was a natural. But it was time to return, or so they thought. She 'stuck' the final landing at the stable, with a tender touch that Tenzin never thought a novice could achieve.
They leaped off Oogie's back, stood together by the tired bison, and relived each moment of the flight. The moved their hands and arms excitedly, talking a mile a minute, repeating in pantomime every stunt they did, and laughing heartily.
Suddenly, they heard a 'harrumph' from Avatar Aang, standing with his arms crossed behind them, with the next class looking at them - stunned at Tenzin's school boy behavior. Embarrassed to the core, a beet-red Tenzin stopped smiling, stood erect, and straightened his collar to regain his dignity.
An equally embarrassed Pema bowed ceremoniously before Tenzin and said "Thank you, Master Tenzin for this exciting demonstration of flight on a Sky Bison."
Tenzin bowed back, and answered very formally, "You are most welcome Pupil Pema."
Tenzin looked at the clock. They were 45 minutes into the next class. He bowed in apology to his father, who was teaching the next class on Oogie, and made a quick exit to his next teaching assignment. As he rushed off, Tenzin raised an eyebrow, looked at the pretty sight of Pema running, and thought, "How is it that this young woman is rapidly becoming my star student?"
And dared one other thought, "And where has she been all my life?"
But he caught himself, and corrected, "Your heart is meant for Lin." He tried to keep telling himself that.
Aang bit his lip to suppress a smile as he watched a very embarrassed Pema and Tenzin rush off in opposite directions, trying to pretend they didn't just have the time of their lives in that flight together. Late that night in the privacy of Aang's and Katara's bedroom, Aang told his wife what had happened between Tenzin and Pema. Katara clapped her hands in delight and gave Aang a fierce kiss, which gave Aang other ideas...
Standing against the gate to the practice area was Lin, who witnessed everything, unknown to Tenzin and Pema. While Lin should have been incensed at the very open and obvious flirting and their infatuation with each other, like everyone else had noticed, Lin's famous temper didn't explode.
"Perhaps things might be easier than I thought," she thought as she turned and left the Island.