Friday, March 4, 2016

True Grit

I get through my first Oscars in decades without Richard's notes, predictions and ballots. Instead of sitting down for our traditional lengthy Monday morning recap I am sent to a nearby charter middle school to sub for a reading teacher. The campus is modern and well equipped. The kids, about 90% Hispanic, wear uniforms. I scrawl my name and “Happy Monday!” on the whiteboard and am reminded that I've never had that nice teacher handwriting.

The teacher has left a lesson. Not a scintillating one but a lesson nevertheless. The students are referred to as “cohorts” which conjures to me “partners in crime” and I assume she's being a little jokey. There is a story to read about a child, a Mexican migrant and his precious pennies and tiny reading book. After completing the story via silent reading, there is a worksheet. A couple of the boys are dicks but with a bit of calm firmness I manage to get them on task. At around 9 a woman comes in and leaves a large insulated shopping bag. The kids tell me it's their breakfast. There are pints of milk, cereal bars and apples. Some of the kids eat a bit but most aren't interested in any of the offerings. The delivery lady returns about an hour later and dumps all of the untouched, uneaten food, dozens of milk pints, cereal bars and apples into the trash.

I get through three periods unscathed and feel that this is something I can handle. I have a half hour lunch break during which I must attend to business at the office. The salad I've brought from home spills all over the floor and I wish I'd grabbed an apple and a few cereal bars before they were disposed of. I am complacent and relaxed, albeit hungry, having survived the morning. I lose it however with the class after lunch. There are about six boys who never settle down. They are rude and belligerent and mock me and it requires a Herculean effort not to lose my cool with these thirteen-year-olds. One girl is unsteady. Her eyes are blood red and her pupils huge. She finally passes out at her desk. I consider calling the office but am frightened to bring further drama to a classroom so teetering on chaos so I just let her sit hunched over and drooling on the desk until dismissal time.

When I was in my twenties I worked at a Compton middle school but a lifetime later, I am rusty. In retrospect I realize I should not have been lulled into submission by three very manageable classes. As soon as I sense that all hell could break loose it is time to either bag or rework the lesson plan to make sure that there is something more than silent reading to engage the kids. And if there's another disaster I will change my preference to only high school.

My battle with L.A. Unified to be instated in an Adult E.S.L. position continues.
The processing person who henceforth I will refer to as Bitch Lady (although I have actually referred to her in even stronger language that I don't recall ever having used in my life.) is officious and snide. Initially the confusion begins when the school neglects to inform me that I've been hired. When I am finally notified I must arrange to be processed into the district. Bitch Lady is impossible to reach. The few emails she does actually respond to instruct me to call her. She is very busy. I should not waste her time with e-mail. She says that she can talk faster than type. When I do call there is usually no voice mail. On about the tenth try there is a voice mail greeting and it is about a week until she responds to my message. One delay is that she fails to tell me that I need a physical. After I've submitted results of the physical exam and TB Test to the district she finally returns my call only to inform me that my life credential to teach English is no longer valid to teach English and that I must document 40 undergraduate units of English coursework. At no small expense I arrange to have my forty year old transcripts sent by Fed Ex.

Figuring that eventually I may be processed I keep an appointment to observe an adult ESL class in East L.A. to get up to speed. The assistant principal who arranges the visit informs me that these are two of their most experienced teachers. Both of the instructors are about my age and incredibly welcoming. They offer me a lot of materials and course outlines. I observe both of them teaching. One has written the date on the board and spelled out “nineth.” The other does a grammar lessons on plurals and teaches the rule of adding “es” to a word that ends with “o.” She gives tomatoes and potatoes as examples. Unfortunately, avocado is also on the list. Both of the teachers spend most of the teaching session sitting in a chair. Also, they translate all of the material into Spanish, despite a smattering of Asian students. I've been out of the classroom forever but I still think you're supposed to teach standing up and moving around the room and that it doesn't really help folks to become reliant on Spanish translation. And,if the new method of teaching beginning ESL emphasizes the memorization of grammar rules instead of just practical communication I will be a renegade.

After not reaching Bitch Lady's voice mail after about ten attempts I send a very nice note to the principal apologizing for the delay which I attribute to Bitch Lady's apparently enormous workload. I will disclose that I am hired for this job, after not having been in the classroom for over twenty years, due to nothing other than name-dropping, adding that those whose names I drop know that I am actually a very competent teacher. The principal phones me seconds after I send the e-mail. “You're all processed,” she informs me. I explain that this is impossible because I haven't even been fingerprinted or had my credential registered. She notices that my name is listed as Lynne Murphy and not Layne Murphy although my address and telephone number is correct. I am instructed to call one of the big adult division honchos. He takes my call immediately and informs me that Bitch Lady's schedule is absolutely open the next day and he writes me in on her calendar for nine a.m.

After waiting an hour, Bitch Lady saunters out and asks for my paperwork. Although she has to verify the validity of my credential online herself she demands that I print a copy at the waiting room computer. Staff scurry around trying to find the computer passwords and when they do, I am unable to get online. When I finally connect and am able to locate my credential at the Office of Teacher Credentialing she marches out before I am able to push print, irritated that I've taken so long. and pushes me away in order to print it herself.

Then she has difficulty with my transcripts. There are no grades or units. “I can't prove that you have forty units of English.” I explain that it's clear that more than 25% of my coursework was in English and in that I was issued a bachelor's degree I must have accomplished the equivalent of 40 units. This just irritates her. Unless I can get the school to confirm that each course is worth 4 units she will not process me. She agrees that if she can reach someone at the college by phone she will validate my credential. She proceeds to photocopy all 80 pages of my transcript. Fortunately Number One Son is a recent graduate. He provides me with direct phone numbers for the college director and registrar. I attempt to offer these number to Bitch Lady to save her the time of going through the switchboard, as she photocopies. She informs me curtly that she will speak to me when she is ready and that I am to return to my seat. I leave messages, trying to give the director and registrar a heads up and wait. Bitch Lady has already informed me that she is off work on Friday so unless I can get confirmation about the unit equivalency I will be unable to start my class on Monday.

By this time I have waited over four hours. I suspect that my principal has made a bit of a stink about Bitch Lady processing the wrong teacher. One of the higher ups in the adult division comes looking for me in the waiting room. She says she just wants to make sure that everything is going fine. I am near tears when I report to her about how truly not fine things are going. Within minutes, her boss, the nice man I'd spoken to the day before, comes out. Being familiar with Santa Cruz and other alternative colleges he has no problem with the transcripts. He says that it would be good to have something from the school but that I'm fine to start teaching as soon as my fingerprints clear.

He walks me over to the mandatory child abuse reporting video. By the time that's done, the fingerprint person has left for lunch so I wait an hour for her to return. Despite having filled out about thirty forms, apparently Bitch Lady hasn't given me the correct ones for the fingerprinting processes. Fingerprint lady is beyond annoyed as she must traverse twenty five feet to get the correct forms. In that I have forms to complete I lose my place in line and have to wait about another hour. Fingerprint lady has a big sign that says “22 Days to Go!” and a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt that says “Straight Outta Beaudry” (The enormous administrative complex is on Beaudry Street). She is very fussy about where I stand and how I hold my hands while she records my fingerprints. Several weeks ago I undergo another Live Scan for my sub job and it's explained that the older you are, the more lined your hands become and it is harder to get good prints. The computer beeps “reject” again and again. If I weren't so exhausted and she weren't so rough about moving my hands over the screen I probably would have been tickled to fuck with her a bit.

I am cautiously optimistic that I will become an official LAUSD instructor but after the demeaning processing I'm too low and disgusted by the bureaucracy and mean-spiritedness to be really stoked. Nevertheless, I try to get as many errands taken care of to free me up to lesson plan and teach. Kitten Harry, who, with his litter-mate Jerry, has been such an enormous comfort during these months of nearly unbearable loss, has been treated for a fever and eye condition. He seems improved but his eyes still look funny and he isn't playful. I take him back to the vet for a recheck. Despite moving around and eating normally, he is running a high fever and his labs indicate leukemia. The vet feels that he cannot be cured and will shortly begin to waste and suffer. He is euthanized. Himself and I are devastated, having lost Gary the cat, not to mention a dear lifetime friend within the last months.

The ESL coordinator for my school asks me to attend an orientation session. Between the day of processing and the loss of sweet Harry I am weary. Nevertheless, I head over to Roosevelt High, where I taught about thirty years ago. The Adult School office, except for a couple of computers is completely unchanged and I remember things I haven't thought about in years. The coordinator is earnest and whip smart. There is another new teacher too and we are loaded up with materials. I notice that the word “cohort” is used on a lot of the schedules so I guess that's a new buzzword and that the teacher I subbed for wasn't being ironic. Also, there seems to be a big thing about “binders.” The district office requires me to complete about forty different forms. Stacks and stacks of file boxes line the halls. Teachers and students are supposed to have binders for everything. The teaching methods and emphasis really does seem progressive but the system seems light years away from being forest friendly.

The emphasis has changed and ESL is now treated as the first step towards either an academic or vocational trajectory rather than just a genial couple hours to learn a bit of English. I never much liked the materials we were provided with and usually made my own. Now, the books and worksheet I've been given are terrific, focusing on real life skills like filling out forms, ordering a pizza or navigating the DMV. I will have my own classroom with a computer, projector and any other materials I need are readily at hand.

We are taken on a tour of the campus. It is the last week of the trimester. If my fingerprints clear I will be teaching the first night of the next session. Most of the students are in the cafeteria. They are eating and celebrating and getting certificates for having completed coursework. I remember how happy I was in this place so many years ago and tear up. There are indeed assholes and nincompoops and old school teachers locked into speaking Spanish and teaching grammar but the students are awesome. Most come to class after working a full day. English is a hard language. I realize this particularly when I hear what many native speakers do to it. ESL students often haven't gone beyond grade school in their home countries. Many come from rural communities. I can't begin to fathom how daunting and weird Los Angeles must be. Even signing up to take an English class must pose a challenge. Lately studies measure not only student's intelligence but also “grit” as a determiner for success. After a trying week I am comforted knowing that in a small way I will be able to make this overwhelming city a bit easier to navigate for people who are eager to learn and possess an abundance of grit.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

WOW, what an ordeal they put you through getting your credentials finalized!! Sounds like Bitch Lady hates her job with a passion or just sucks at her job or has early frontal lobe dementia.

So sorry about little Harry. What a shock. Indeed too much loss in a short period. Thinking of you. Love, Rosemary XX