Saturday, May 21, 2016

Pet Sounds and the Furry

We'd travel more if we had more time off, more money and didn't miss our pets so much. In Venice, based on a cell phone picture, we have a mask painted of our beloved tuxedo cat, Gary. When we return, the cat is ill and a few days later takes the last ride to the vet for the trip to kitty heaven. We adopt two tiny tuxedo litter mates, Jerry and Harry from the Kitty Bungalow. They arrive home and immediately perch, like their predecessor Gary, and his predecessor, Malcolm, on Himself's shoulder and nuzzle close while he works on his laptop. A few weeks after the arrival of the kittens our dear friend Richard dies suddenly. The frolicking cuddly Harry and Jerry are a balm during some very dark days. Harry's third eyelid starts to protrude and the vet diagnoses FIP, a sort of kitty AIDS, very rare, untreatable and fatal. We have the tiny fellow euthanized and watch his outgoing frisky brother Jerry grow.

I notice that Jerry is listless and eating less. I am told that it is extremely unusual for litter mates to both be afflicted with FIP. I contact the Kitty Bungalow and am informed that the other three kittens in the litter have also contracted FIP. A number of veterinarians who specialize in shelter medicine scratch their heads. Jerry is eating although only fresh chicken, torn into tiny bits and fed to him by hand. He moves through the house and jumps up on the counter but, once the most playful cat we have ever owned, he no longer plays. Cold, as the systems apparently start to shut down, he sleeps on top of the cable box all day. I don't know how much longer he has and I don't know what to wish for.

As my students trickle in I have some American music playing. It is the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds so I play that one night. Bob Dylan is turning 75 so the next day I put on Blonde on Blonde. It strikes me how impossibly young these songs are. In the minutes before my students begin to wander in, the old familiar records evoke a brutal reminder of time and mortality,When I first heard this music, Dylan warbling on state-of-the-art monaural Fedco record player, lying in the ballerina bedroom on Fulton Avenue, I never imagined that fifty years later I'd be in a classroom in East Los Angeles, streaming music and thinking about death,

There are only three more weeks of school left. I have no summer assignment. I receive notice that my contract has expired. The e-mails I send inquiring about the possibility of a fall assignment are unanswered. I don't know if this is the end or the beginning. Since starting in March, I have run my little business and prepared lessons and not much else. Statistics show that the biggest predictor of student success, is not class size, but instead the amount of time teachers have outside of class to prepare and consult with other educators. I have tried to compensate for not being up to date on the latest pedagogic technique by throwing every waking hour of free time I have into planning lessons and paying careful attention to what works and what doesn't. I would not trade the experience for anything but for all of the time expended I earn, I believe, far less than the minimum wage. If I didn't have a very flexible day job, I suspect that lack of time for preparation would render me an extremely ineffectual instructor.

This is the week of the CASAS test, which ostensibly provides confirmation to the taxpayers that they are getting their money's worth on the investment in adult education. The test form asks about work and legal status and other measures of “good citizenship.” I have to teach my students to write a check. None of them have checking accounts. My own children wouldn't know how to write a check with a gun to their heads. I only write two or three a year myself. Yet, we practice with payees and writing out dollar amounts.

The difference between gross and net income on a check stub is another lesson. They are all paid in cash. I subtract withheld taxes from the gross on a sample pay-stub. Heidi points out that my math is incorrect. She worked in a bank in El Salvador. I still don't know if she's pregnant. When the students see how much is typically withheld for taxes they realize that maybe it isn't so bad to be reliant on an underground economy. But, when I explain about social security benefits, many of them think again. We practice filling out employment and rental applications. In a city where Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers it is unlikely that any of my students will ever encounter a non-bilingual form. Then, there is a big emphasis on traffic signage. Students who are licensed drivers recognize all of the signs. The pedestrians know what's pertinent to them and are bored and befuddled by “merge” or “yield.”

Some of the required materials are of use. They like restaurant menus, but all of us find the “one size fits all” assumption inherent in standardized testing tedious and wasteful of the short 13 week session that we have. Plus, the materials I am given to use are crappy and filled with typos. I create from scratch power plan lessons, worksheets and games to make the often irrelevant materials more palatable.

Cesar has only been in the class for three weeks. He is newly here from Mexico but confesses to a Netflix addiction to which he attributes his good spoken English. He's a big fan of Etta James and Nina Simone. When I remark that Blonde on Blonde was recorded in 1967, he can't believe it. One night after class he tells me that he is on a visitor's visa. “I really want to work,” he tells me. “I want to learn English and get a job.” He's a licensed physical therapist, from Matamoros, a town on the Texas border. “Everyone else in the class works. How do they do it?” I tell him that I don't know and that I assume that most of the other students are undocumented, but that I avoid delving into this. Boyle Heights, I tell him, is quite politically active and I print out information about a few immigrant rights organizations. As an educated professional he might be able to get a temporary worker visa. It is a mystery to me however that so many unskilled people, with limited education, are able to survive and support themselves completely off the books. I tell Cesar to watch the film “A Day Without a Mexican” in which the Hispanic community suddenly vanishes and the city of Los Angeles comes to a standstill. He doesn't realize that I'm only half kidding when I suggest that he just find an American to marry.

Ricardo's brother Antonio has been absent for about four weeks. He doesn't live with Ricardo and his girlfriend is expecting a baby at any moment. Antonio, reports brother Ricardo, is very stressed out and working a lot of extra hours. Ricardo and Antonio, like my boys are about three years apart and they look the same, but different, in the same way that my boys do. Ricardo struggles with his writing but he shows up nightly and works very hard. He is, at 23, the youngest student to have stuck with the class since March. On the night of the CASAS test, Antonio wanders in. I know that the test will be challenging for him. Younger brother Ricardo is obviously delighted to see him and they sit in the back row cracking each other up. Antonio looks through the test. I know that some of it will be baffling to him. Younger brother Ricardo knows this too. I give Ricardo a dirty look when I see him, rather indiscreetly helping Antonio. Ricardo shrugs and makes cow eyes. “He's my brother.”

After the tension of the CASAS test we play charades. The coat ladies are mortified but rise to the occasion and manage to get the opposing team to guess “flower” and “fat.” It's Eduardo, our class clown's turn. He stands, clears his throat officiously and stomps his foot. The students guess “teacher” instantaneously. Seldom have so many laughed so hard.

I have a dilemma. One student in each class is awarded at the end of the year for outstanding accomplishment and receives free textbooks for the next semester. Older Juan, who works as a custodian in a Vernon factory and has memorized Das Kapital, attends regularly and works very hard. He's just a few years younger than I am and I sympathize with how difficult it can be to learn new things. Estella never misses a class and studies by herself at home. She is patient and helps the less advanced students and perhaps demonstrates the most marked improvement in written and spoken English. Young Ricardo, while still a bit pokey on the written stuff is fearless and speaks intelligibly and has perhaps the best understanding of any of the student. Heidi, has improved her atrocious pronunciation a lot and is a great sport about being corrected. She never misses a night and her written work has improved enormously. The truth is, there are a couple of students who only attend rarely and haven't accomplished much, but I wish I could give each one of the others the prize.

There is an Adult Ed workshop with training to use a new online CASAS preparation program designed for iPad that will be used in the Fall. Even though I have no idea whether the budget will allow for hiring non-tenured teachers and my superiors have ignored my queries about reinstatement, I am curious. We are given iPads. I have never used one but I am able to figure it out. The teacher next to me has subbed at my school. He is about ten years younger than I am and in the school parking lot puts a canvas cover over his car for the duration of his two hour teaching session. He struggles with the iPad and I help him turn it on and get to the correct application. Even though I have a bit of trouble switching between applications, myself, I am successfully able to help him a number of other times. Later I explain FTP sites to another younger male teacher. I feel smug and superior.

The online program is perfect. It would have saved me many hours of preparing my own materials and gives the teacher feedback on the progress and strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. There are carts of iPads now for every campus although enough only for each class to use them for about a week each trimester. But enrolled students will have access to the program themselves to operate on home computers and phones. I know that a strong digital component would result for me in much more effective teaching and that the L.A. Adult's schools ESL instruction is about to take a huge leap.

I return home from the training, sad that there's a good chance I'll never get to work with iPads in a classroom and ready to try to hand feed Jerry, like a baby bird, microscopic pieces of chicken. He eats more enthusiastically than he has in ages, batting my hand away and gobbling from the saucer himself. Later, he finds his favorite pink puff ball and bats it around. He digs his claws, with great gusto, into every piece of upholstered furniture in the house. He chases the dog's tail and then falls asleep on top, straddling her as if atop a little pony.

Sometimes I guess there is a brief rally preceding a rapid decline. Still, it is totally swell to have the pesky thing back in action, even if it's only temporary. After thirteen consummately satisfying weeks I likely will not be asked again to teach. Happiness, like life, is never more than temporary. Too temporary to waste time with old music maudlin. Still, I might never find out if Heidi's pregnant.

1 comment:

Sultasto said...

Beautiful and sad.