Friday, March 11, 2016


I survive my first Oscars without my friend Richard but the dead celebrity thing is way more than an annual event. I never thought I'd cry at Nancy Reagan's death but she was on Richard's LAST GASP list and if I'd been the first to notify him I would have won a dollar. I can hear him saying, “Ohhhh Nancy! That's a big one!” Even though it's only the first quarter of 2016, Nancy would likely be the dead celebrity of the year. As I glance at the most recent top fifty list, published 6-13-15, only a few, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood and Debbie Reynolds might give her a run for the money. For the rest of my life I will feel sad whenever someone famous dies, even if it isn't anyone I particularly admire.

The other huge life transition is that now I am, for the first time in over twenty years, a real teacher. I sub again at a charter middle school near Vernon. Green Dot is a non-profit with some high roller backing that runs a series of charters, mainly for disadvantaged students. The facility is modern, meticulous and beautifully equipped. The kids wear uniforms and for the most part, are polite and cooperative. I have 6th and 7th grade reading and composition classes. The teacher's lesson plan is elusive and when it finally turns up it is a photocopy of the Rudyard Kipling story, “Rikki Tikki Tavi.” I notice that most of the reading materials in the classroom are at about a third or fourth grade level. I hope that the choice of this extremely long story, chock-a-block with arcane language was just hastily thrown together, a temporary lapse in judgment of an otherwise competent teacher. My training emphasizes sticking to the lesson plan provided as closely as possible so I end up just reading the story aloud to all five classes, not even finishing it for a couple of the periods. I don't really get a chance to gauge the kids' level of understanding. I use funny voices for all the animals. They sit still and listen but I'm not sure whether they've been indoctrinated to do this or they actually understand the travails of a mongoose in colonial India. When Rikki Tikki saves the family from the cobra the big man calls it “providence.” I don't even bother to explain. After having read the thing aloud five times in a row I conclude that it is not a very good story. I don't believe that classic literature should be branded inaccessible and banished from the canon and but perhaps it's time to at least rethink the efficacy of Rikki Tikki Tavi.

My adult ESL class is scheduled to begin on Monday. My assignment is at Roosevelt High, in Boyle Heights, where I taught over thirty years ago. There is a rush of joy and nostalgia while I traverse Breed and Fickett and Matthews Streets and find the dowdy Adult School office completely unchanged after three decades. I wonder if my affection for L.A.'s legit Eastside-not Silver Lake or Echo Park--is patronizing or condescending in some fashion, like George Bush referring to “the little brown ones.” But I think there's just a natural cultural affinity. I note to Himself, during our travels, that while I am fond of Ireland, I never feel any particular connection. In Italy, however I feel truly myself. Woody Allen nailed it in Interiors. The expressive and colorful Jewess, Maureen Stapleton, is considered a vulgarian by her boyfriend's Waspy family. I like gaudy colors, spicy food, big emotion and Boyle Heights.

I am not notified that my fingerprints have cleared and I am authorized to teach but the principal says to just hope for the best. I am in the classroom setting up for the first session, which starts at 6 p.m. At 5:55 my phone rings and I am informed that I am fully cleared. Charter schools apparently have eaten into the enrollment at Roosevelt and an entire section of bungalows is now dedicated to the adult school. I have my own classroom, such as it is. The paint is peeling, the floor sticky and the venetian blinds are rusted and tattered. Huge sections of the whiteboards are gouged so there is only a minimum of writing surface. I arrange the desks and tables and put up a few posters.

Based on the detailed curriculum I've been provided and the frequency of testing, I see that the instruction is more formulaic and rigorous than it was thirty years ago. I study the curriculum slavishly and prepare four nights' worth of lessons. The textbooks are a pricy 40 bucks so I decide to give the students a week to purchase them. The computer and projector I've been promised for the classroom are absent so I am relegated to photocopies and the usable section of the white-board. I have been instructed not to photocopy the textbook so I create several lessons of my own and find a few ESL printables on the net. I plan some lessons based on materials the curriculum suggests reviewing. The first night I only have seven students. We review the alphabet and I have prepared a lesson on like/don't like. I've included pictures of Donald Trump and El Chapo which are a huge hit and it's unanimous “”I don't like Donald Trump. I don't like El Chapo.”

The class has been tested and all are deemed prepared for the second part of ESL I. Some of the students meet this criteria, others are actually more advanced and a handful are completely clueless. A lot of the students speak English regularly and comfortably at their jobs but have minimal reading and writing skills. The twenty-somethings pick up on stuff immediately. Those who are around my age struggle to keep up. The enrollment is open so there are new students every night and as this is a working population, many are unable to attend every night of the week.

Teaching adult school was indeed one of the most satisfying experiences of my life but after so many years I'd idealized it. It is an enormous amount of work. The class is two and half hours a night, four nights a week. I feel like a performer having to come up with fresh and engaging materials enough to fill ten full hours every week. If people are dragging their asses there after working a full day it should be worth their while. Some of the lessons I've made are effective and the students like them. Others bomb and are boring or confusing. Certain projects that I expect will take about five minutes take an hour. Lessons that I expect will take up most of the class are milked dry after a few minutes. Tuesday a few more students are added so there are fifteen total. Things go pretty well although it becomes very clear that many of the concepts that I'm expected to review are completely new and require more than a cursory refresher.

Wednesday is a heart breaker. Only eight students show up. Half are way too advanced for what I'm presenting and half are utterly lost. Exhausted, I look at the clock and realize I have another half hour and not much of any substance to fill it with. Temporarily stricken with Tourette's I mutter, “God I suck. What am I going to do now?” Fortunately I don't think many of the students understand this. I stumble on a few materials to review until mercifully it's time to dismiss.

The teacher next door is an old timer. I complain to her about having lost half my class and the widely disparate levels of ability. She invites me into her classroom and shows me the Easter posters her adult students have made by gluing white cotton balls onto pictures of bunnies. I have been trying to get an adult school teaching job for over two years. Many of my students aren't at the point where the curriculum indicates they should be. Others rush through the lessons with ease and look up at me to get on with it. I can't get behind sticking cotton balls on rabbit asses and it seems like I'll never hit my stride.

Maria is about my age. She attends every night, painstakingly copying everything I write on the board into her notebook while having no idea what it means. I know that I should send her back to the more basic class but she is so diligent and sweet natured I'm afraid she'd be crushed. After class she helps me pick up some assignments and we talk. While I diss the teachers I'd observed for translating everything into Spanish I admit that I've been stymied a couple of times and in desperation have resorted to a Spanish translation while telling the students that I shouldn't be doing it. Maria starts to chat with me in Spanish and I work on persuading her to try her English. She resists until after class, realizing the limitations of my Spanish she explains, pretty much in English, that her son, a graduate of Roosevelt High School is about to graduate with a degree in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz. It turns out that her son was born within days of my eldest. She tells me that she comes to school because her kids insist.

Thursday is easier. I have fifteen students. I talk to a young Salvadorean couple, Eduardo and Heidi. They've been here four months. They have a seven year old boy who they say has pretty much mastered English already. Eduardo has a masters degree in business administration. Now he works stocking shelves in a Korean market, happy to have a job, but sorry it offers no opportunity to practice his English. We play a bingo game to review household objects and colors. I teach them some texting abbreviations like TTYL, BFFL and TMI. Maria helps me clean up after class. She tells me that her son has arrived home for spring break. She can't wait to see him but he insists that she not skip class. But that's ok with her she says because, “I love my teacher.”

Number One Son has been offered a permanent position working in audio restoration. I return home from teaching and he is stretched out on the couch playing Grand Theft Auto. He pauses the game to check in with me. I tell him about the lady who can barely read or write whose son is about to graduate from UC Santa Cruz and how proud she must be. “I know how proud I am of you,” I add and (as we both majored in film at the same college) “all you ever did was what I did.” “Yeah,” he agrees, but adds, that unlike me, he has a 401k.

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