Saturday, February 27, 2016
Saturday, February 20, 2016
The recruiter for the agency that's hired me to substitute teach in local charter schools warns me that the other participants in the training I'm to attend will be inexperienced. I sign in at the big Woodland Hills office complex and am issued a name tag and sent to a big conference room. There are about fifteen of us. With the exception of a woman whom I will refer to as Stacy, who is either close to me in age or has had a hard life, the other perspective subs are in their twenties. Colored markers and paper are passed out. We are to make five drawings. The first is to represent a saying that is meaningful, the second is to portray our own unique gift to the world, the third is a symbol that would best represent us, the fourth is to illustrate our retirement plans and finally, we are to make a picture of how we spend our spare time.
My petulance is equal to the groups' enthusiasm. I can't draw (or sing.) I don't get the point of illustrating a meaningful adage or asking anyone younger than myself about retirement plans but I get it that he's showing us that some sort of creative, introspective activity might distract a class for a few minutes from terrorizing a sub. My colleagues however are into it and most go on at length describing their artwork. I note that, except for one very loud and weird guy who I can't imagine lasting for more than a minute in a high school class, whose saying is in German, most of the quotes are derived from Dr. Seuss and Disney films. I riff on William Golding and say that as a citizen of the world I am an optimist and by virtue of having a brain I am a pessimist. I am many years removed from Cat in the Hat and Disney princesses. For my gift to the world, I draw a smiling picture of myself. Instead of going on about running a bible camp for handicapped children I simply state that I'm chill, which counterproductive towards my aim of just getting the damn thing over with, elicits a big laugh. My symbol of an apron for my mom-ishness also amuses. This is an easy crowd.
Even more odious than sharing, for the next project we are divided into groups and given an article to read. Our article describes setting up an efficient classroom. It is not really germane to a day to day sub except for the over arching notion that order prevents chaos. We are assigned to create a poster to represent the article. I am grouped with Stacy and two very young girls. Two large shopping bags are under Stacy's desk. She exudes body odor and foul breath. Her blouse is short enough to reveal a stretch marked gut stuffed into safety pinned jeans. When I say “kids” she corrects me. “students!” The facilitator gives me a nod when I reiterate what is expected of us for the poster thing. Stacy has her own agenda though and grabs the Sharpies. She starts in on the poster, disregarding the instructions. The two young girls are passive and unless their miens magically transform it will take thirty seconds for thirty kids to induce barrels of tears. Stacy is determined to spell out RESPECT and have each letter represent something that the article stressed. The article is actually about collecting lunch money and organizing a cloak room but Stacy soldiers on. The C gets “cooperation” but then she changes it to “control.” T gets “time management.” S is for “schedule.” P is for “patience.” The R is for respect and I just let it slide, not giving a rat's ass about the doubling of respect. Stacy still hasn't figured out either of the Es when time is called. The other two girls beg me to make the presentation to the group and I do a Bartleby the Scrivener “I would prefer not to.” Stacy is chosen by default and blathers on, revealing that she's already working in classrooms, until the facilitator cuts her off to move on a task even more repugnant than sharing our drawings or working in a group. We are to role play.
The only solace is that I am not grouped this time with Stacy. I am elected immediately to play the teacher. Having stood my ground on the poster and not wanting to seem totally bad assed, I agree. We are to demonstrate an example of how to diffuse a potentially volatile classroom situation. My group decides that our scenario should consist of a student ,who as been sent to the office for disciplinary reasons, returning to the classroom. I don't feel particularly genius for figuring out that whatever was happening that led to the kid, er, student, to be deported wasn't working. I suggest that the returning student be presented with a choice of alternative activities to occupy him or herself. I simply smile and offer up a magazine, crossword puzzle or computer time and I am that bastard child of Einstein and Gandhi.
Stacy's group opts for a teacher trying to get the attention of two girls engaged in gossip. Playing one of the girls, Stacy is dead on, ignoring the teacher and going on about a boy in the cafeteria. Her depiction of a teenage girl, body language and all, is flawless. Unfortunately, the girl playing the teacher doesn't stand a chance and again, the facilitator has to step in. Too bad. It is a captivating performance.
A number of the young ones will last only a few days as a sub and others will figure it out. I assume that some of my fellows will become full time teachers. The German speaking guy however is so obnoxious I rather enjoy thinking about his inevitable Lord of the Flies outcome. Most of the potential subs are around the same age I was when I began to teach. I didn't even have a five hour training session like this one but eventually I made it work. Even Stacy, if she does an hour of improv will likely survive. The preparation course demonstrates a few ways to keep a class occupied and quite helpfully, provides some practical suggests for avoiding bedlam. I suspect that a lot of the practical instruction will serve adequately until instinct kicks in.
The agency is private and for profit but lacks the efficiency I'd expect from a real business. I've submitted all of the required documents but I continue to receive e-mails indicating that they aren't on file. My references, I am notified have not responded to e-mail but according to my references they've yet to be contacted. Eventually I assume they'll get it together and I'll be called to sub one or two days a week.
LAUSD is another story. I was told back in early December that I'd be processed. I leave a number of messages for the assistant principal who's made the offer and my calls aren't returned. I discover that I've been offered a regular evening job at a different school but they've forgotten to notify me. An hour is spent with the school secretary trying to arrange my processing. Everything is done by telephone, not e-mail. Finally she reaches someone who indicates the woman who processes new teachers is “too busy” and that I shouldn't contact her for two weeks. I send her an email. The response is terse. No salutation or signature. Just “call the office.” I make a number of attempts to call. There is no voice mail. Finally I am able to leave a message. My call is returned. The woman is brusque and asks me if I'd completed a physical exam. She is particularly ticked off when I admit that I'd had not idea this was required. When I was originally processed nearly thirty years ago, the physical was performed at LAUSD. Unfortunately, I can't schedule an exam for another week so it might well be months before I'm actually able to teach in an adult classroom.
I have started collecting teaching materials and planning lessons in my head. There's this endorphin rush that kicks in when a class is going well and a feeling of hopeless desperation when it is not. A teacher, after all, is a performer and I look forward to keeping the class engaged and working the room.
The lag time between applying to teach and actually entering a classroom though reminds me of other facets the educational system that I have no patience with. While the sub agency is a private business, I've had indicators that there are some efficiency issues. I'll be working in charter schools, and having been the parent of charter school students my experience has been that administratively they tend not to function as well oiled machines. My biggest concern though is the behemoth LAUSD. After having run a business for decades, the communication breakdown and lack of urgency is maddening. Undoubtedly the decidedly unbusinesslike way of doing things will continue to incense me, but still, I can't wait to shut up and teach.
Friday, February 12, 2016
When I was in my early twenties I bottomed out. I'd had a depressing job at a methadone clinic and was desperately trying to salvage a relationship which provided no satisfaction, save being able to say that I had a relationship. I cracked and bridges were decimated. I spent a summer getting provisional teaching credentials and in the fall began as a day-to-day sub at a Compton middle school and an evening ESL teacher for L.A. Unified Schools. I remember the exhaustion and Sundays collapsed on the couch drinking tea and watching Masterpiece Theater while my mother helped me grade papers. Drifting off there on the sofa was the most satisfying sleep I've ever had. I started in Compton as a sub and by the year's end I was department chair. This was the first year that all teachers were required to pass the Cbest test, which at the time was written at about a 5th grade level. Teachers were given three opportunities to pass the test and after three failures, were removed from the classroom. I showed up to teach in Compton on a Monday morning and two-thirds of the other teachers were gone. They never returned. The few remaining teachers and I tried to keep some semblance of learning going in the auditorium but mostly we just ran movies, which fortunately I was able to provide.
One year in Compton was enough, although they called and begged me to return for several years after I quit. I loved the adult school teaching job and ended up working for my dad during the day and teaching at night. As I began to really take over the business, Number One Son was born. I taught for about another year and then retired. A number of my former students worked for me and many remain in touch. This was something I loved doing and seemed to have an aptitude for.
For over two years I send out resumes all over trying to get an adult school gig. I really love the classroom and a bit of extra income could make a dent in some student loans. I get a ton of form rejection letters. There is one interview which I think goes well but I never hear a word. In early January I send out another stack of resumes. Again, there is a stack of “thanks but no thanks” letters. I am called in for an interview at the same school where I've interviewed before. Again, I have what I think is a good interview and am even introduced to the principal who is very impressed by my stellar letters of recommendation. This second interview also results in radio silence and I accept that I am simply not destined to return to adult education.
There is sub work in charter schools, which I am also credentialed for. I submit an application and am surprised, but not optimistic, when I'm called in for an interview. The morning before the interview I rush over to Richard's cottage for a pick up from Out of the Closet. Except for the few pieces of furniture designated for donation the place is bare. I survey the pile. Desk. Dresser, Nightstand. The chair that he died in. This is all that is left. He's been gone now nearly two months and I'd expect to be less raw but his presence is etched on my psyche for nearly forty years. Now that I don't have the memorial to fuss over there seems like there is nothing left to feel but his absence. I stand waiting for the funky furniture to be hauled away. I don't think I've ever felt more bereft.
I rush home and use nearly a whole bottle of Visine to make myself presentable for the interview. I drive all the way to Woodland Hills although I know myself that I would unlikely hire someone who hasn't taught since mimeograph machines and chalkboards. I'm 59, the kids are grown, my best friend is dead and I have no more clue about what to do with my life than I did when I was in my twenties.
The interview is conducted by a former teacher. He asks me a lot of questions about handling discipline. I respond pretty consistently that if a teacher is engaging students, discipline shouldn't be an issue. I describe a couple of teaching activities I'd have up my sleeve in the event there is no lesson plan. His list of questions is complete and he notes that I am one of the most pedagogically qualified candidates he's interviewed. Plus, impressed by my usage of the words “genial” an “verboten” he digs my vocabulary. We keep talking. I ask about how the classroom has changed and how cell phones are managed and lessons are presented. We segue into educational philosophy and the politics of charter schools. I am hired on the spot, provided that I am not incubating tuberculosis and there is no Interpol match on my fingerprints. There is a training session next week. I will likely know way more than the facilitators and the other newly hired teachers, I am warned, might seem extremely green but perhaps I will benefit at least by the discussion about the classroom in the digital age. Plus there's free food.
The interview's emphasis on discipline makes me wonder if I'm getting in over my head. I know that kids are practically hardwired to act like assholes in the presence of a sub. But I do have a decade, albeit not recent, of experience and perhaps more salient is that I survived my two teenage sons. Plus, I genuinely like kids and I'm banking that this goes a long way. No matter, it's been a long time since I felt any sort of success so even if the subbing is unbearable, after all those resumes, it's nice to get a bit of good feedback.
I am buoyant after the successful interview. I am enormously grateful for this one good thing. I pick up my friend and neighbor Laura. While I'm sure that I will never go a day without thinking about Richard, as I begin to crawl out of my hole, and socialize a bit, I am reminded that there are other committed friends who advocate for me and comfort me when my spirits are low. Laura is thrilled to hear about the substitute teaching job. While I am gushing about it, the phone rings. The call is from the adult school that blew me off after two interviews.
The caller asks if I'd been processed yet and I am totally befuddled and blather inanely for a few seconds. It turns out though that I did get exactly the adult school job that I wanted, teaching ESL at Roosevelt High. I taught there twenty five years ago and it was one of the best teaching experiences that I had. The principal has requested that the district process me for employment, but as is typical of LAUSD, that ball is dropped and I am never contacted. I stop by the school this morning and after making about twenty phone calls trying to get me processed I am finally given the number of someone I can call in two weeks to arrange to start the hiring procedure.
I know that there have been other sub-optimal times in my life but the year before I started teaching when everything blew up and the last few months are periods I will likely remember as the lowest of the low. When I was in my twenties, teaching gave me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Now, over thirty years later, the prospect of the classroom feels like another karmic life preserver.
Friday, February 5, 2016
I am asked to make a presentation about stock footage licensing for a group of black Documentary Filmmakers. I want to screen some samples of material from my library and decide to provide something other than the usual Jim Crow/lunch counter/fire hose materials that are generally associated with projects created by black filmmakers. I have a lot of home movies and other historical footage that represents the African American community in a state of normalcy rather than strife. There are birthday parties, executive managers in boardrooms, teachers,physicians military officers and other wonderful lifestyle footage from the twenties through the sixties. I think that this will be a refreshing change from the usual focus on racism and civil rights. Wednesday I am working on assembling the more unusual footage and I receive a note to remind me about the presentation. I'd noted the day incorrectly in my diary. The presentation is scheduled in five hours so I have to go with material that's already at hand. We have a reel that has not only African American civil rights materials but feminist, gay and Mexican American rallies and leaders as well. We also have some unusual footage about the black music industry which I throw on too.
The event is at the Writer's Guild. I leave home about two hours before it's scheduled to begin, thinking I'll be able to grab a bite first. The traffic is so dense however that I arrive at the guild with only about ten minutes to spare. As I approach, I see an upper floor conference room that is jammed black people. The lot is crowded and black people are parking and boarding the elevator. I've packed some swag and am expecting a dozen people or fewer. It looks however that there might be over a hundred in attendance and my heart starts to pound. I can forgo my meager promotional items but freak out at the prospect of facing a huge audience without a formal, carefully prepared presentation.
The Guild is buzzing. Starving, I am grateful when I see a huge cart of catered food being wheeled into the elevator. It becomes apparent quickly though that there are a number of activities scheduled at the Guild. There's a writing workshop for military veterans and an NAACP event. The good thing is that it turns out that only a dozen or so of the black people are documentarians. The bad thing is that there's no food.
My presentation is preceded by a professor from the Pan-African Studies Dept. at Cal State L.A. discussing the history of black documentary production. Apparently she's already addressed the group about early history. This evening is devoted to more modern works and the gist of her discussion is that for the most part, black filmmakers are largely ignored by distributors of high production value content. HBO President in Charge of Documentaries, Sheila Nevins is criticized for ordering a documentary about the Black Lives Matter Movement. The group notes that most documentaries about black issues are produced by white people. I know that I'm expected to be a fly on the wall so I don't pipe up and mention two black filmmakers Henry Hampton and Marlon Riggs who both created seminal documentaries about the black American experience. Someone mentions Spike Lee but he is quickly dismissed for reasons that elude me. The sentiment is that the white hegemony attempts to demonstrate to black people how they are supposed to feel about themselves. As far as I can ascertain, a director for the Black Lives Matter project has yet to be named. I wonder that if a person of color is selected to direct the documentary if this group will still take umbrage because it is still coming to fruition under the aegis of a white woman.
There were some good points in the discussion about documentaries and I agree very much that to a large extent, black American filmmakers (particularly women) are underrepresented. Despite the Oscar brouhaha I think that black people have made giant inroads in other television genres and certainly theatrical films. A fascinating digression was a conversation about reality shows. The lion's share of the black reality shows are indeed the spawn of white creators. The participants are egged on to behave in a fashion that's truly repulsive. There aren't, to my knowledge, any reality shows about Jews. If there were one that exploited all of the stereotypical attributes of my people it would piss me off. Off course I'd watch it and laugh my head off but it wouldn't be anything I'd want non-Jews to enjoy.
Jews in America generally have had a better shake than African Americans. Still, while we have actually voted in a black president, sorry Bernie, but I would be very surprised if a Jew was elected to the highest office. I wonder, if by some miracle, there is actually a President Sanders, how this will bode for the Jews. No one predicted that Obama's election would complicate, and to some extent prove a setback, to the America's conversation about race.
Being the only white person in the room is an unusual experience. I have often been the only woman or the only Jew with little self consciousness but meeting with the filmmakers makes me anxious. Jewish discourse frequently has a different tone when there are no gentiles around. Women often speak far more candidly when there are no men present. I feel I am privy to a lot of resentments that I'd never even considered but I also feel, just by the simple virtue of being white, complicit in the co-opting and exploitation of black culture.
Then it's my turn. “Hi, here's the white lady to screen for you a bunch of images to show you what you're supposed to think of yourselves.” I do note that it is the birthday of filmmaker Marlon Riggs and that he was born in the same year that I was. I think I score some points with my mention of Riggs. The year of my own birth, not so much. I show my hastily thrown together demo. They patiently watch Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X. Cesar Chavez. Gloria Steinem. As there's a nod to other marginalized groups besides African Americans it's not 100% pandering but there is a disproportionate amount of 60s southern civil rights materials. The demo finishes and I steel myself to be confronted about profiteering on black history.
The lights go on and there are a flurry of questions about licensing and fair use. I make suggestions about negotiating favorable deals with footage libraries. I explain the ramifications of fair use and provide some clues for determining public domain. There are so many eager questions we run way over the schedule. Despite the earlier portion of the evening's theme of white people keeping black documentarians down, there is no confrontation. After, we pose, arm in arm for pictures. It is a handsome crowd. The women sport elaborate braids and interesting fades. Plus and maybe it's wrong in some way to make such a blanket statement, black women dress way better than white women. My swag is well received. A girl with spectacular bronze braids whispers, “I love your hair.” I wish though that I'd dressed a little better.