Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Land of Scent-Free Flowers

Three weeks of a four-week summer school session are history. I leave the house at 6:30, to arrive at school at 7 to get my lessons in order.  I teach ESL for five hours straight, with only one 15-minute break to check in with the office, submit attendance reports and usually deal with a student or two.  I return home for a couple of hours of office work, and then for a change, except for the night that Himself teaches, we have dinner together.  Five more days to go, and then there are two weeks of vacation.  When I return to school, I will teach an early morning class, return home for a couple of hours of office work, and then return to school to teach at night, leaving Himself at home once again for a solitary dinner.  I also have a five-hour Saturday course.  This is a typical adult school schedule.  There are very few students enrolled in afternoon classes, so most instructors teach a split shift of early morning, and then an evening class.  While I’m teaching more hours, I’m hoping that the Fall’s gap between classes will prove less exhausting than the intense summer school program.

This summer, I have a conversation class, the first time I’ve taught advanced students.  And as my classes are cobbled together at the last minute, they are small.  I average about ten students per class, as opposed to around fifty during the rest of the year.  in the regular school year, there are always a handful of students whose names, even after thirteen weeks of nightly classes, I don’t know.  Now, I’ve arranged the desks in my classroom so students can sit in a little circle.  I know their names.  I can create little conversations on the fly.  I type a grid, with all of their names, so they can practice conversation.  We are practicing the past tense.  They have to ask each of their fellow students, “Blanca, who bought groceries at your house last week?”  “Chang, who made the beds?”  “Ahmed, who swept the floor?”

When the students ask me “Who bought the groceries?” or “Who did the laundry,” it’s “I did.”  “She did,” they write down next to my name.  The exception is, “Who emptied the trash?”  “My husband did,” I state, and they dutifully record “Her husband did.”  For the most part, most of the chores listed are performed by females, the men, like Himself, relegated pretty much to emptying trash.

An observation, that seems to fit here, is that yesterday, Spuds treated me to a morning screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the Cinerama Dome.  I have a lot to say about the film but that will have to come later as there are lessons to plan and food to prepare.  Pertinent though, perhaps to the consideration of the “long way we’ve come (Baby!)” is the experience of the somewhat narrow rows at the Dome.  Spuds and I were on the aisle which required us to stand for people with seating in the middle.  There were about five men.  All stood expectantly in violation of personal space, or muttered, “I need to get in there.”  An equal number of women required access and each of them said, “Excuse me.” And “I’m sorry.”
Should we feel guilty for expecting the fulfillment of a necessary accommodation?  Or is it just a nicer world when any little gesture made on the behalf of another human is acknowledged?  But, while the control group is a tiny one, it certainly does seem to be a male/female thing.

The questions my students ask each other parallel the grammar worksheets we’ve been using but I suspect that there are a few who sleep on couches or not in a situation where there are floors to sweep or kitchens to stock.  Still, most of my students can describe something that happened in the past, even using irregular verbs.  The opportunity for me to converse with each individually on a daily basis has yielded measurable progress for each and every student.

Edvin joins the class a week late and struggles to keep us with our grammar exercises.  I notice that he carries a biography of Neruda and print a couple of poems for him, in Spanish, with English translations.  He shows me a notebook that he’s filled with original poems.  I am able to get through one, limited by time and my middling Spanish fluency.  It is remembrance of his family and his discomfiture at the thousands of miles that separate them.  The next day, he sheepishly asks me after class, to borrow $2 for the bus. Perhaps, Edvin, despite his ability to clearly state, “I made the bed at my house last week,” might not actually sleep in a bed.

Kristy, the missionary from Korea, commandeers my advanced Conversation class if I let her. She is proudly married into a family of third generation evangelists and high muckety-mucks in the Korean Christian community.  And is not a fan of Buddhists. Kristy explains, apropos of what I can’t remember, that white ladies are typically unable to determine the age of Asian ladies.  “I can always tell,” she notes.  “They’re usually old.” Kristy brings Youngsu, another Korean lady, in Jackie O sunglasses, and of indeterminate age, to class. Kristy hovers over her, and despite not being reliably intelligible herself, coaches Youngsu in English.  I am able to make out that Youngsu’s husband is Korea’s top nuclear physicist and she was able to obtain a green card within five days of arrival in the U.S. Kristy basks in her friend’s renown. She attempts to explain to the class what a PhD means.  Kristy has miffed her other morning teacher after advising another student that she should seek out Botox treatments.

 I try to set up projects for pairs or small groups, to rein in Kristy and give everyone an opportunity to practice.  We work in pairs to describe our lives at age six and then report about our partner’s childhood back to the class. There is an odd number of students so Grace, half Korean/half Chinese is stuck with me as a partner.  She grew up in rural China.  He dad sold, whatever he could get his hands on, in an open-air market.  Her mom was a farmer.  She draws a diagram of her one room house, and the coal fire pit.  In the winter they’d sleep right near the fire and in the summer, behind a rice paper screen.  I surprise Grace by admitting that I always had my own bedroom, remembering the ugly white, gilt edged furniture and the ballerina wallpaper.

When Grace was a young teen, they moved to the city.  She made new friends but remembers fondly a trip she took with her city friends to visit her friends in the country. Her mom keeps track of her childhood friends now.  All of them are married, have kids and still live in a China, now unrecognizable from the land of Grace’s childhood.  One of the questions on the list I’ve given them is, “What frightened you at age six?”  When it’s Grace’s turn to interrogate me, I answer honestly, that it was mostly my parents fighting—they were acrimoniously divorced the following year. Grace reports that her father was an alcoholic and she was terrified of his rages. 

When the interviews are finished the students select two interesting things about their partner to report back to the class.  What is most interesting about my childhood, to Grace is that we weren’t allowed to wear pants to school until I was in junior high and I there was a huge walnut tree in my front yard and my dad would bring in bushels of walnuts that, with great difficulty, we’d shell.

I ask the class, “Who grew up with an outdoor toilet?”  They all raise their hands.  I teach them the word “outhouse.” The older ladies talk about having to dress conservatively.  I’m not the only one who was forbidden to wear pants.  The younger girls find this extraordinary.   All of them recall the jarring transition from birthplaces to our sprawling megalopolis. 

Sulma, from Ethiopia is absent for a couple of days for asylum hearings.  She is from an untouchable caste and her life in Ethiopia, where she leaves four children and a husband, became untenable.  I do not know how the new restrictions on asylum might play out with regard to Sulma, as the leader of the free world doesn’t want America to offer safe harbor to imperiled folks from Shithole countries.   And if she does prevail, will it be possible for her to reunite with her family?

Another day we talk about the pros and cons of marriage.  Maria Elena, in her late seventies, has been a widow for nearly 30 years.  She shows us a picture of a commendation her daughter just received for twenty years of service, employed by the County of Los Angeles.  We talk about the common phenomena of men and less frequently, but still a thing, women, who have families back in their homelands and also partners and children here in the U.S. One of the Latina ladies, gives a loose translation of a saying about the U.S.  “In America, the flowers have no aroma.  The food has no flavor.  And the men are all assholes.”