Friday, August 20, 2010

Works in Progress


My kids are pestering me to meet up with their friend Gustavo who they say needs to “just practice” a presentation he is learning for his job. The boys deny that he will be trying to sell me something and even though I suspect otherwise, he’s a nice kid, so I relent. Gustavo lives in Santa Barbara and he visits on the weekends. He has no car and while his family lives nearby, it is a steep walk up the hill to our house on a warm day. He graduated high school last year and had aspired to attend, with his girlfriend since the 6th grade, UC Santa Barbara. The girlfriend is admitted and he is not. He is offered generous scholarships at several prestigious universities on the East Coast and also for UC Merced but he declines them. He moves with Santa Barbara with his girlfriend, ostensibly to attend community college there and transfer to UCSB as a junior but, in one of the most expensive cities in the country, earning a living takes precedence.

As I expected, Gustavo is selling Cutco Knives. Poking around food websites I discover that these are actually pretty good knives, albeit grossly overpriced, but there is an icky sales scheme and the firm particularly preys on college students. Cutco uses boiler room tactics to pressure sales kids to invest in an expensive set of demo knives and then requires them to collect names and addresses of friends and relations for a “memory exercise.” I tell Gustavo from the get-go that we are vegetarians but he has been so conditioned not to vary even a syllable from the Cutco script that he spends a long time talking about boning chickens and steak knives. Most knife sets run around $800.00. I make the smallest possible purchase, a spatula, for $50.00. Gustavo asks me for the names and phone numbers of my friends and I turn him down. Part of me wants to tell him to ditch the Cutco gig pronto but I know he has spent a lot of time attending training sessions and has paid a lot of money out of pocket for a set of demo knives.

I drive Gustavo to his mom’s. Some cholos are being arrested in front of his building. I wonder how many knives he will be able to sell. The Cutco exposés on the web say that most of the students are able to sell a set or two to family members who purchase them out of guilt. Eventually the kids realize the impossibility of selling such high roller items and are left with a set of pricey knives and little financial remuneration when they give up. I go full throttle into guilty white lady mode and worry that Gustavo’s relatives will be buying, on time, expensive knives they don’t need and can’t afford. I know that my control over my kids is on the wane but I cannot imagine that they would turn down college scholarships or get caught up in a sales scam without me going all banshee on them.

My friend Lito has worked for us for over twenty years. He has three daughters in their twenties. Two are in the service and one lives on a base with her Marine husband. I tell him that a friend of the kids is driving them to the Rock the Bells concert in San Bernardino and he asks if I know the driver’s parents. I say that I don’t but that the kid is attending UCLA. He raises an eyebrow and I realize how stupid it is to confer good character on a kid based on which college takes him. He sees my seventeen year old come into the office, ostensibly to complete an online Spanish course and archive some films, spend most of his time asleep or on Facebook. Lito asks me if any of the seventeen year old’s friends are enlisting in the military which I read between the lines to mean “this might be a good solution for that lazy assed kid.” I know one boy who is trying to enlist but this is pretty much an anomaly and most of the seventeen year old’s friends are college bound. I am embarrassed and frustrated by the seventeen year old’s laziness but unlike my friend Lito I don’t consider the military as a possible antidote.

Ana cleaned my mother’s house and has been cleaning mine for over thirty years. Her son Hairo is six months older than our seventeen year old and had planned himself to enter the military after completing high school. He is like a brother to my children and they spend more time with him than any of their other friends. Hairo has difficulty at regular school and transfers to a continuation high. He’s had a girlfriend for about 6 months and since hooking up hasn’t been attending school and has had no luck with finding a job.

Ana understands a lot of English but except for saying “scuse me” when she accidently kicks one of the dogs, is too embarrassed to speak it. She is unable to read and can write only her name and numbers. We often find little scraps of papers on which she has written a phone number in a kindergartenish scrawl. Oddly she has savant like spatial and mechanical abilities and is able to dismantle and repair a faucet using only a kitchen knife. When the kids were little we had an extremely complicated three dimensional dinosaur skeleton to assemble. We were all stymied by it but came home to find the thing fully assembled by Ana. She has three sons and until Hairo rented an apartment this week with his girlfriend, they all live together with a dog they keep hidden from the landlord in a ramshackle apartment in Frogtown. My kids spend a lot of time there lounging about on all of our cast off furniture.

I am haunted by a scene in the 1980s film Racing with the Moon. Elizabeth McGovern plays a girl whose mom works as a maid for a wealthy family. The housekeeper’s girl is best friends with the rich folk’s daughter. The dad returns from a trip and presents the maid’s girl with a sweater and his own daughter with a dazzling pearl necklace. There are a few frames of McGovern that capture her appreciation at being remembered combined with a tiny wistfulness at the enormous disparity. I know that Ana and her kids consider us kind and generous but I often wonder how the disparity registers.

Ana’s sons have been translating for her since they were able to speak. The two with driver’s licenses drive her all over. Ana’s kids floundered in school and I am aware that ours excel partially because they live in a house full of books with two educated parents who keep up a pretty sophisticated level of discourse. But Ana’s kids have navigated the real world in a way that ours never have.

Ana’s middle son attended for profit college to train as a parole officer. He now owes about 20k in student loans but is now unable to qualify for a job because, due to the loans, he has a poor credit rating. We assume that our children will attend university and perhaps their admission to a good school will make some other parent feel comfortable about our kid driving their kid to a rock concert. Higher education, particularly in the liberal arts, to which I suspect both of my children will gravitate, no longer guarantees economic security but unless they tell me point blank that they are not interested, I will do what I can to help them get admitted to the colleges of their choice. There is a lot of press lately about college, based upon graduate’s employment statistics, being a poor value. I hope whatever path my kids take after high school that it nurtures their inspiration for a lifetime of learning, even if they end up crashing, jobless, back at Casamurphy at certain junctures.

The Los Angeles Times is on the verge of printing the test results for the students of every teacher in the school district. My friend Kim is known throughout the neighborhood to be the best teacher in the best elementary school in the city. She agrees that teaching to the test doesn’t better most kids. Kim also gives an example of how unfair it is to evaluate teacher performance based on scores. She examines the test results of one of her fifth graders and discovers that the student didn’t miss any problems on the test in fourth grade and in fifth grade missed only a single problem, but one that happened to be weighted very heavily and stastistically registers as a 30% decline from 4th to 5th grade. There is indeed a lot of ineffectual teaching but the union often puts the needs of its membership above the needs of the students they serve. UTLA has been wishy washy for years with regard to getting lousy teachers out of the classroom.

Unfortunately neither test scores, nor parent, administrative or peer evaluation really accurately measures a good teacher. I know teachers who charm parents and administrators and even students but are pedagogically clueless. I think back about the teachers who mattered to me and the only commonality is a sparkle in the eye that says, “I really love this subject and I want you to love it too.” I wish there was a measurement for eye sparkle.

The driver’s license thing has gone on now for nearly two years and is remarkably fraught for both of us. The seventeen year old and I spend a lot of time at a number of different DMVs. The bureaucracy is impossible to navigate and it surprises me that so many people are able to negotiate the system to become licensed drivers. I finally throw in the towel and hire a driving school to practice a bit with the seventeen year old and take him for the behind the wheel test. He drives me to the office and not very artfully, making a few not particularly smooth stops. The teacher comes to fetch him and I send him off, secretly relieved that if he fails the test again the instructor will be stuck in the car with him on the ride home instead of me. I plan a number of errands to take my mind off of the testing in progress but am insufficiently distracted and too sick to my stomach to enjoy samples at either Costco or Trader Joes. The seventeen year old calls, very agitated, reporting that the DMV has no record of the appointment I waited for over an hour on the phone to make for him. He screams. I scream. The instructor takes the phone and calmly promises to take care of it.

The phone rings about a half hour later and the 17 Year Old reports that he’s passed the test. I whoop so loudly that when I go to announce it to my officemates, they’ve already figured it out. The seventeen year old returns and I send him on the first of many errands I have been looking forward to him running. He gets me books instead of books on tape for my library list and manages to get a concrete parking slab wedged between the front tires of the car. I send him to the market by himself and he calls and I panic. It is only a question about items on my list but it is a “be careful what you wish for” moment, enhanced by his unconcealed resentment at having been imposed upon to run an errand.

Himself is crazy for the Droid. We even text message back and forth. From inside the house. From the same room. “I’m going to bed.” “So am I.” I try to call him while he is on an errand though and he doesn’t answer. I mention that he hadn’t answered the phone and he confesses to having forgotten it.

I try to attach a leash to a skinny but otherwise recovered puppy Oprah to take her for a walk but she is too wild so I leave her home. I am taking my driver’s licensed high school senior elder son on a tour of colleges. Maybe he’ll find a good fit but if nothing else, we will hone his driving skills a bit as we head to Portland. I hope the other kids we know whose parents don’t do college tours find opportunities to affirm and nurture their own abilities. Our public schools are so lacking that sometimes the only hope seems to start over but there are at least some teachers who, no matter how rotten the system is, light up the classroom. Himself will start to remember to carry and answer his cell phone. We will work on Oprah’s manners. The summer is almost over and I think of all that I’d planned to accomplish and didn’t get to. But I am thankful to have a son with a driver’s license, a puppy who’s returned from the dead, and a husband willing to operate a cell phone. We begin our eldest’s senior year. He has a driver’s license. There is more to worry about but I still wouldn’t want to be anyone but me.
Shabat Shalom.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

I tried to post using only the Droid accompanied by Gary close by upstairs. Finally getting on, I commented with Swype simply. I pressed enter but the swirling browser indicator never stopped. At least I could read this nice post, whereas neither work nor home e-mail could be retrieved. So much for technology; I sometimes prefer the pastoral dreamscapes of this lovely illustration from the Tate. I bet it's cooler there too. xxx me