Friday, September 23, 2011

Roll Models

My elementary school best friend and I connect on Facebook. I haven't seen her in nearly 40 years. She lives on the Westside, which is like Katmandu to me but we have surprisingly common interests and plan on meeting in person, midway, in the near future. I later happen on the Facebook page for my class at Grant High School. I left after eleventh grade to attend college and the administrator of the group is suspicious because I hadn't graduated but finally condescends to let me join. I scan the list of members and look at some reunion photos of remarkably old people, none of whom bear even the slightest resemblance to my former classmates. There are birthday greetings and Jethro Tull tickets being sold. I am friended by a couple old pals but make no connection other than a few messages back and forth. I find a thick stack of letters from an old high school friend while cleaning out the garage a few weeks ago and remember how sustaining this relationship had been at a pretty crappy time. I send a friendly note, of the type I would be thrilled to receive, and there is no response. There are a couple of other people in the group who I wouldn't mind catching up with but I guess not enough to take the initiative. Similarly, I've kept only a handful of college friends and while the Johnston College Facebook discourse isn't as banal as the Grant pages I suspect I've drifted away from more high school and college friends than a lot of other people.

I was however close to a number of high school teachers and college professors and have remained in touch with a number, including Rosemary, my International Affairs professor at Johnston. The truth is I don't remember what class I took with her but that she let me crash in her office when I was too wasted to make the ride to the cabin I rented off campus in Forest Falls. I took her shopping once in Century City and was gobsmacked, this must have been 1975, when she spent $125 on a pair of jeans but the message that being smart didn't preclude dressing cute was more important probably than the content of the course I can't remember. Once my mom went off at me particularly viciously and I was sobbing in the passenger seat as my boyfriend drove back to Redlands. Rosemary rode in the backseat but she leaned forward and kept her hand on my shoulder all the way home.

Rosemary's lived in England now for decades but is here on a whirlwind tour. In e-mails she described herself as having aged and being less mobile so I am astounded when I pick her up at the airport and she looks exactly the same as when I saw her about eight years ago when we met up in Hungary. Despite living quietly alone and toiling at research for long hours at the Oxford Library she is a good sport about our hubbub, incorrigible dogs and the basement futon she's been relegated to. We decide on mass at our Lady of Angels, the downtown cathedral that replaced St. Vibiana's. I still refer to it as “the new cathedral” although it's almost a decade old and mass with Rosemary is my first visit. Not too long ago Rosemary's preoccupation with free parking would have gotten on my nerves but now I am just as ardent as she is about making sure we are validated.

Because I am perhaps the last Angeleno not to have visited, it is probably unnecessary to note the beauty of cathedral which is even graced with “The Jerusalem Fountain,”donated by the Jewish community to celebrate the ties between Judaism and Catholicism. The wall of donors is filled with the names of powerful players like Doheny, Hilton, Murdoch, Riordan and former centenarians Bob and Dolores Hope, too good an opportunity for the Jews to pass up I suppose. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also listed on the high roller board which, now faced with contentious divorce, he may rue.

We've chosen a Spanish mass and Rosemary races to a front row seat where I am relieved that there is no prie dieu so my not kneeling is inconspicuous. The man seated next to us sports several heavy jeweled rings on each stubby finger and thumb. He wears iridescent gold shoes with taps. I can't help looking at his hands during the boring parts, drawn like a magpie I suppose to shiny objects. There are a few other characters but it's mostly families and I guess it's good they feel comfortable in church. I am always struck by the casualness of Catholic worship attire and even at the Cathedral short shorts, wife beaters and a type of footwear the slang for which is so vulgar that I cannot bring myself to use it in a paragraph discussing the church, are de rigueur.

The only revelation gleaned from the Spanish homily is that while I was pretty fluent during college, my Spanish now totally sucks and I could only make out a few words. I've been to mass enough times to know that it is time for us to go in peace and then clear out but the priest takes the mike and explains about the Cathedral's outreach to the poor and then presents an Asian priest who reads from a script. Spuds completed one year of Spanish on-line and admits he felt stupid completing the oral practice with the computer so he skipped a lot of it. I was trying to help him with his homework and made him read aloud which he did phonetically like he was just deciphering gibberish. The Asian priest reads similarly and pretty much repeating what the other priest just said. This is followed by a second offering which I think it is safe to say is expected from many people for whom it was a struggle to make even the first. But still there are crumpled bills and coins in the basket when it comes around the second time. The Catholic Church is too easy a target and the stance on birth control and the failure to deal with widespread child abuse are well trodden territory. Nevertheless, the things that are wrong about the Church are human in origin and partaking of the ancient liturgy in a sacred space is ineffable.

Spuds has transferred from the airy fairy charter school in far flung Pasadena to the gigantic Marshall High School which is closer to my office. At the charter Spuds completed AP classes via independent study and has heard great things about the School of Advanced Studies at Marshall and now that his chauffeur is off at college not having to make the drive to Pasadena certainly is a factor when I encourage him to apply there. He has his sights on Columbia or NYU and knows that Marshall grads have a great track record with admission to these schools. There were fifty kids in most of the classes and for the first time in his life, he is so intimidated by the harried teachers that he doesn't dare ask for help. He does connect with a lot of kids he knows and indicates that the social scene is a big improvement. We decide to give Marshall five weeks, after which, if necessary, he could return to the charter school and recover from any less than stellar grades.

On the way to school I see a Volkswagen wrapped around a lamp post so completely that it is unlikely that a driver or any passengers could possibly have survived. I gasp and when Spuds turns to look I cover his eyes and tell him that there will be plenty of horrible things for him to see in his life and that he shouldn't go out of his way looking for them. The Glendale Blvd. off ramp of the Golden State freeway has always given me the heebie jeebies because a curve obstructs the view of oncoming traffic. I pull out very hesitantly and have twice before been spooked by an oncoming car and braked suddenly to be rear-ended. The picture of the Volkswagen remains vivid when I creep into the intersection, see a car coming at me and slam on the brakes. I am hit hard by a little car which follows me for a few blocks until we can pull over safely. I bolt from the car as does a frantic young woman. “I'm sorry!” we both wail simultaneously. I know that the rear-ender is always the guilty party but I feel that I had braked so abruptly it was impossible for her to anticipate it. We look at my car and then hers. We are both holding back tears but we agree that there is no damage to either vehicle. I notice an infant in a car-seat in the back of her tiny Prism and he smiles when I wave at him. We stand there for a moment, and while I am far from being a touchy feely type, I find myself in a tight embrace with her and we both sob. Our boys are safe. This time.

Spuds calls and says he doesn't feel well and isn't going to his tutoring job. I pick him up from school and ask if he's having allergies but he reports having failed three tests and goes on that he's concluded now that he's not very smart at all and has no hope of getting into college. I remind him that he passed the college level advanced placement English Literature test completely on his own but he is inconsolable and more beaten down than I'd ever seen him. I ask if he wants to return to the charter school right way rather than sticking with the five week plan and he agrees immediately. I am able to reach the principal by phone instantly and before I am able to finish the question he tells me emphatically that Spuds is welcome to return. When he hears, Spuds transforms almost magically and sits breathing in deeply the air of his liberation from the overwhelming school. For the first time since his enrollment at Marshall there isn't four hours of homework so we go see “Contagion” which features Anna Jacoby Herron, a good friend of the boys, playing Matt Damon's daughter and we marvel at how good she is and the size of her role. After, we go out for dinner Spuds even eats fish without complaint and I wonder if ever again I'll be able to make a single phone call that will transport my boy from deep despair to elation.

One of Spud's six teachers at Marshall High calls him by his middle name, Gabriel, once but other than that, in three weeks he has not heard his name except during roll call when he doesn't even bother to correct the mispronunciation. Spuds indicates through that if the classes weren't so crowded the teachers may have been more accessible. He says that if he'd started, like most kids, as a ninth grader, instead of a junior, he might have acclimated. We go to check out and Spuds has to go to from class to class and have his teachers sign a form. One teacher wishes him well, the others barely speak. He leaves his books with the teachers, returns to the office, and is told that the books must be returned to the book room. He has to circumnavigate the giant campus again to collect the books, astonished that no one had bothered to apprise him of the checkout procedure. We arrive at the charter school and the gym teacher calls him the “prodigal son” and he is welcomed back with gusto and hugged by students and teachers alike. The English instructor who lives in Silver Lake volunteers to drive Spuds to his tutoring job after school and Spuds passes on to me many of the teacher's excellent music suggestions.

Before Spuds starts Marshall he accompanies me to Redlands for his brother's enrollment at Johnston. We drop his sibling and walk the graceful old quad at magic hour. I think Mr. Columbia or NYU might appreciate the beauty of the small campus and begin to ask him if he might consider it but he cuts me off mid-sentence and says firmly, “No way.” Rosemary stays with us a couple days and I think our incessant yapping gets on everyone's nerves but I've explained how grateful I am to her and the family recognize her as one of a couple teachers who helped propel me forward and how indebted I feel. Spuds is asked if he, like his sibling, will attend Johnston College. “No,” he says, “but only because my brother is there. I definitely want to go some place small.”

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I hope Spuds finds his own small space where he can be as nurtured and encouraged as you were by Rosemary and Leo will be by...? This is a moving tribute to the power of mentors over generations. But watch the driving in Silver Lake, ok? xxx me