Friday, March 16, 2012

Firme

I taught for over a decade in the Adult Division of L.A. Unified Schools and consider this one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. This entire program is on the chopping block unless a November 2012 ballot measure to approve a property tax passes with 2/3 of the vote. The proposed levy is $268 per parcel. In 2006, a proposition to approve a modest $50 per property assessed, failed. Some politicians feel that we have a community college program and therefore separate adult schools are redundant. The adult school however mostly serves a very different population. These are folks who had nightmarish high school experiences, or work full time and need flexibility or require a lot of remediation. When I taught in the eighties, funds were tight but the program was robust and a large percentage of our students were bettered by it. In the sixties and seventies, when I was in high school myself, California's state school system was a source of pride, one of the best in the country. The passage of Proposition 13 marked the beginning of the end. It seems, as more and more minorities entered the public education system and white kids fled to private schools, there was a shift of attitude with regard to funding public education for the betterment of “others.” The recent recession, and legislation requiring that 2/3 of the vote is required to pass tax increases, have further decimated an already struggling system. It is terrifyingly likely that the adult division will be sacrificed.

I taught English as a Second Language, as well as a variety of different high school English classes myself. I often asked my immigrant students if, given economic parity, they'd prefer to live in Los Angeles or back in their home country. Most were homesick and said they'd rather live where they were born. We don't think much beyond our own borders and seldom ask what we can do to prevent people having no alternative but to travel thousands of miles to struggle to eke out a living in a foreign, unwelcoming land.

The perception is that Adult Ed consists only of teaching ESL to immigrants, which it does and does well. But that's not the whole picture. Many of my former students who were born in other countries and went on to higher education and successfully work at a number of different careers. However, many of my students were native born and for a number of reasons couldn't hack it at large urban high schools. They looked to the program for a second, and given the vulnerability of many, perhaps the very last, chance. The venue is more relaxed and the students are more mature which fosters a real sense of safety and community at most adult schools. I am blessed to have been a part of this. I have never felt more a part of something “firme,” as my Hispanic students would have said, as an adult school graduation ceremony.

Friends who lived on the Westside literally freaked when I bought a house in Echo Park in the late 1970s. Hoity toity folks have most likely never been to East Los Angeles, South Central or the parts of the Valley light-years north of Ventura Blvd. Kids who live in these neighborhoods, some of the most violent in America, suffer post traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate reported for troops returning from combat. A Rand Corp. think-tank worked with researchers from UCLA Health Services in 2000 and studied 1000 kids, from disadvantaged neighborhoods, chosen at random. 90% were victims of or witnesses to violence and between 27-34 percent were diagnosed with PTSD. A larger study, using 48,000 middle-schoolers was conducted in 2004 and confirmed the extent to which huge numbers of local children are being endangered. More than a quarter of inner-city kids suffer from mental illness so debilitating that a veteran with the same malady would be classified as disabled. Services and benefits, albeit frequently inadequate ones, are offered to our returning vets. With programs like adult schools being dismantled it seems the only provision for kids shell shocked by our neighborhoods here at home, is prison.

More than 15 % of Angeleno's live below the federally established poverty line, ironic in a city whose rich are particularly conspicuous. Social and medical programs are being slashed to smithereens while the rich pour money into political PACS to protect their divine right to grow even richer. The folks who have the biggest investment in preserving the status quo fight doggedly to insure that taxes on property and investment income remain low. Perhaps the icing on the cake is when their tax breaks result in school closings is that an educated votership would pose a genuine threat to the oligarchy.

Himself is a former seminarian although he gets tetchy when I mention it. I like the romantic-ish implication that he chose to devote his life to me instead of Jesus. But the truth is he'd become a committed secular long before he met. Although Himself has drifted about as far from the church as a soul can drift, he's never had a bad word to say about Catholic doctrine. I've had plenty. The marginalization of women. The cover up of decades of child abuse and now the big megilla about birth control and accusations that the government is pushing the church to act against core tenants. Funny, the government doesn't offend the Catholic Bishop's sensibility by carrying out the death penalty which also seems to fly in the face of their beliefs. That sort of stuff. But, some really smart people that I know profess to being Catholic. After being lectured by Himself and observing my liberal minded Catholic friends I am reminded not to confuse the faith with the institution. Which brings me almost to my latest spiritual crush on Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest.

Michael Harrington, another Jesuit, albeit former, influenced John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson by bringing the subject of poverty into the American discourse. In Harrington's seminal 1962 “The Other America,” he borrowed the phrase “culture of poverty” from anthropologist Oscar Lewis who himself contributed to the canon with several books about impoverished Mexicans. While Harrington's moral clarity is laudable, analyzing the poor as a separate culture well might shame the affluent into acts of charity but also encourages a rigid sense of“otherness.”

Father Greg Boyle, undoubtedly read Harrington and Lewis's well meaning, albeit condescending, treatises on poverty. The priest was assigned to the East LA Dolores Mission in the late 1980s. The neighborhood was a catalog of poverty's ills. Substance abuse. Absent fathers. High school drop outs and the highest rate of gang violence in the city. I've read twice now Boyle's excellent memoir Tattoos on the Heart and also Celeste Fremon's G-Dog and the Homeboys which chronicles the evolution of Boyle's philosophy. At first Boyle walked the neighborhood at three in the morning trying to prevent violence from escalating and he attempted to negotiate gang peace treaties. Later, it dawned on him that in most cases, gang banging and its attendant camaraderie, compensated frequently for an absent father. Boyle took on the role of father to scores of gang members and through this love, many were able to turn their lives around. The work led to Boyle's revelation that the community itself needs to take on the role of loving father. He founded Homeboy Industries, nationally recognized as the most effective anti-gang program in the country. Job training, tattoo removal, social and legal services are administered, with love, under the Homeboy umbrella.

Perhaps I am more familiar with the poor parts of town than many of my peers but, unlike Greg Boyle who sees God's light shine most brightly in the faces of the poor, it is hard for me to feel the connection the way I really want to. It's difficult for me to shake my own educated white lady superiority. The adult school graduation was an exception because the grace of the students, victorious over unimaginable obstacles, is mind blowing. Another experience, albeit a harrowing one, that makes me feel completely connected in the way Father Greg describes, is visiting prison. I wear black clothes without pockets and a flimsy sports bra. I carry nothing but a bag of quarters and my driver's license. We are searched and metal detected by guards. We are meek and mild and we do what we are told. We board a rickety school bus and ride through acres of concrete where thousands languish behind razor wire. The connection is less illusive but not one bit firme.

2 comments:

FionnchĂș said...

Listening to Fr. Boyle (I remain too respectful to call an ordained Jesuit as "G" given indoctrination) on audio, I hear "I baptized his [Jason, who is turning his life around when he is shot a few days before starting a job] daughter at his funeral mass," summing up the mingled impacts of the parables told taking place 4.6 miles and ten minutes by Google Maps away from CasaMurphy.

As another veteran of adult ed, thanks to you, I commiserate. Today I teach the "relatives" of those adult ed students in South-Central, South Gate, Hollywood. I am not sure if they with thousands in debt from college loans (or the complex alternative of being on a GI Bill when many of them suffer lifetime disability and/or mental strain from combat) will have better prospects given a "jobless recovery" that offers CEOs and FB IPO'ers far more lucrative opportunities than the average Joe or Jose, but they represent the next step up from the adult school some of them might have attended.

I am not sure anymore than where CalGrants will come from how a $6 billion LAUSD budget can balance a $600 million stated deficit, but when we visit our friend in Tehachapi, maybe his "correctional officer" rehabilitators can offer us taxpayers advice. That's one opportunity for those with a diploma. Even our governor had to "compromise" with both prison guard and CTA unions lately, in his own battles to keep Californians as content as his Corgi.

What an imbalanced world, same as it ever was. As Fr. Boyle tells his charges, the violence and pain will stop only when we want it to. We keep, in that Catholic-Jewish-messianic-social welfare vision, seeing the transformation in passionate parables and inspired prose, but reality manages to remind us of cruel competition, the clutch of a few on many resources, and the glitz and bling so many aspire to, poor or otherwise, humble or only once born such. xxx me

amp said...

Great article, Layne - insightful and caring. Our peers might not go so far as you to visit prisons, but they could try going to Homegirl Cafe instead of Urth Cafe, and be doing something to help support growing entreprenuership and learning. It's close enough to MOCA and the Arts District, there's plenty of parking, the food is distinct, tasty and healthy. The girls are bright, cheeky and charming. They also market Homeboy Industries products which make great gifts. And the community center there is swarming with enough young people to get a little closer to the "other."