Saturday, June 25, 2016

Billion Year Old Carbon

We marry and purchase our first personal computer the year of the Rodney King beating. Our 25th anniversary is celebrated with tacos, fish and chips and ice cream at the Grand Central Market. I am lucky to get out at all. To his own delight, Himself has located a meme that says—“Staying home. Going to Bed Early. Not Going to Parties. All of my childhood punishments are what I aspire to as an adult.” I'm sure his pulse is racing as he rushes to share this on Facebook. The giant hall reverberates with people, mostly younger than ourselves. The Market is open nights now and the kids are sick of me noting that in my day the only time anyone went downtown at night was to go to the Music Center or bail someone out of jail.

I remember the certainty of my early 20s that my life would have gravitas and that all of my wheel spinning would inevitably result in success. It was urgent to ferret out the best movies and films, wear the right clothes, visit cool places and affiliate with the right causes. We were the only trendsetters who would ever matter and it was our destiny to usher civilization into a magnificent golden era. Now the kids, besotted with their own good taste, all want to “curate” something or other.

My golden era is over and all around me buzzes young humanity who feel no connection to me, or actually for about the last decade or so, take no notice of me at all. There is a relief that comes with knowing that the topsy turvy world is truly is out of my hands. The right wing hovers now towards fascism but a socialist receives just about as many votes as the presumptive Republican nominee. There is a black president and marriage equality. Who'd have thunk? But the Voting Rights Acts is eviscerated and many states sanction discrimination against the LGBT community. There's a swath of states where it is nearly impossible, despite a constitutional right, to get an abortion.

Social media makes it easy to find our own peeps. The conundrum is that the more we, proudly and ardently, identify ourselves with a race, culture, nationality or gender, the more we separate ourselves from the family of man. I am old enough to shrug off “family of man” and know that in this case “man” means “men and women,” but the sexism of language rankles many. We attend a college graduation and most of the student speakers substitute “they” in place of “he” and “she.” I am more English teacher than feminist so this is excruciating but I see the need for non-gender specific language. At some point, the rest of the alphabet will be added to LGBT and gender will evolve to be more fluid than binary.

I watch OJ: Made in America and the episode of In Their Own Words—Muhammad Ali, both of which I recommend. Ali confronts racism head on, although given his fortune and fame, he needn't have. OJ, on the other hand, takes pride in having obliterated every shred of blackness until his defense team hails Mary and evokes Rodney King and the L.A, riots. We have a black president but one in fifteen black men is incarcerated and African Americans have the highest (about 28%) rate of poverty of any ethnic group in the country.

I feel the Bern. I get it about Hilary and will undoubtedly feel a twinge of pride when I vote for her but I have a few friends who are old school feminists and apoplectic that I would consider any candidate other than the woman. It is traitorous to suggest that Bernie will better represent all people INCLUDING WOMEN . On the long list of things that Himself and I know to leave moot is the efficacy of voting ones conscious or opting for a lesser of evils. I am of the latter persuasion but still, Margaret Thatcher haunts my daydreams. The former persuasion opts for Jill Stein.

The Supreme Court rules that Obama oversteps his reach in what I consider a fair and compassionate immigration plan. Between this and Brexit this week is almost as grim as the last when 49 club revelers are gunned down. My hopes, after Occupy L.A., are dashed. It feels at the time like something larger than what ultimately pans out. And then there is Bernie. There was a moment when it seems like it could happen and then it becomes clear that it won't. Broken record I know but reminding myself that just about as many Americans voted for Bernie as did for Trump keeps me from opening a vein.

After the disappointments of Occupy and Bernie I'm afraid about getting suckered in by the sit-In on the floor of the House but I can't help myself. I weep and watch the grainy Periscope feeds for hours. My fingers are crossed that these tactics, which worked in the 60s, are effective and that NRA machinations don't sap this budding movement of civil disobedience of its momentum.

In my twenties I earnestly believed I'd change the world. I struggled so to be noticed and now I find comfort in invisibility and accept that my mark is ultimately much smaller than I'd expected. I am saddened and disappointed that fear and hatred still weigh on the political landscape, despite the fantastic strides achieved in my lifetime. I have trouble filling in a lot of the time between the Rodney King beating and my 25th anniversary but we have two adult sons to show for it. They are curatorial and have high hopes. And my hope is that after some dreams come true and some are brutally dashed they'll end up like their mom. Angry and frustrated by the world's capacity for malice and stupidity but actually finding solace in the acceptance of their own smallness.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Early Summer Haiku

Little aches and pains
when searched on the Internet
will prove terminal.

A little action
but my kid swims for Stanford
and boys will be boys.

Steal a candy bar
elsewhere in America
kiss your life goodbye.

Radical Jihad!
Ban all Muslims, forgetting,
Christian Dylann Roof.

Primaries kaput.
13 million vote Bernie.
Same number for Trump.

Pressed coffee and juice.
Is it worth twelve bucks to have
your drinks wrinkle free?

New in Silver Lake
First Whole Foods 365
Dystopic shopping.

And just what we need
one more twee and overpriced
vegan restaurant.

Spell checking haiku
It's “dystopian.”
Extra syllable.

Vegan survival
depends very much it seems
on gallons of beer.

Repulsed yet relieved
when sneaky dog helps herself
to cat box morsels.

Half Irish, half Jew
like my kids, but still can't help
but loathe Ben Stiller.

Fingers crossed here that
Stairway to Heaven trial means
hearing it never.

Finally at least
no more moments of silence
but filibusters.

The NRA buys
a ton of legislators.
Can't we outbid them?

Like Walter Cronkite,
we trust Anderson Cooper
who is much cuter.

is not about God's comfort.
It's mental illness.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Unbearable Heaviness of Meaning

Three of my fifteen students pass the promotional test. I agonize about telling the others that they are to be retained in Level 1B. I share my this with Tim, one of the long time tenured teachers. Apparently, Penny next door, who has been helpful to me, is a bit doctrinaire and perhaps a little disapproving as I haven't been slavishly obedient to her instructions. Tim assures me that I have more discretion than Penny's let on and I end up promoting most of my students to Level 2.

I make a Jeopardy! Game with categories like “colors,” “The U.S.” and “food.” We challenge the other Level IB class to a game. I am informed however at the last minute that we have to report to the auditorium to rehearse the promotional ceremony. Students are seated by levels and those being promoted walk onto the stage in alphabetical order to receive their certificates. None of us are sure why this requires any sort of rehearsal. After, the other class begs off the Jeopardy! competition as the teacher says that he needs the last hour of the evening for his students to practice lining up in alphabetical order. We just play by ourselves. I am surprised that they are confused by which animals bark and meow and that the potatoes that come with a McDonald's hamburger are called “fries.” They do know that the American flag is red, white and blue, that there are 50 states and that when you have a migraine it's your head that hurts.

The night of the big ESL ceremony, the students I'm promoting line up in alphabetical order despite not having rehearsed. This isn't even necessary as the names are simply called as I hand the certificates to the announcer so the order really doesn't matter. The students who aren't being promoted are great sports and applaud and whoop enthusiastically for their friends who are moving on. After a lot of soul searching, I decide to give the $35 textbook scholarship to Estella. She scores nearly perfectly on the promotional test and her attendance is practically flawless. I regret not giving it to Juan, who, despite not qualifying for promotion, works his tail off, asks tons of questions and is usually the first to arrive. A handful of students from the highest level class have finished Level 6, the end of ESL. They will begin the high school program in August. These students give speeches. Most have some pronunciation and grammar issues and this reinforces my decision to promote a bunch of students who fall a bit short on the exams.

Penny next door informs me that Peter, the other new, non-tenured teacher has already been offered a position for the fall. I like Peter, an intellectual and rabid Bernie Sanders supporter very much. I know that he needs the job. Nevertheless, I am devastated. It might just be an administrative thing and have nothing to do with the quality of my teaching. But, perhaps I am too green or maybe perceived as being self important and not knowing my place. Peter, while having an MA and Tesol certificate comes from a university teaching background and takes a long time finding his stride with our population. I spend a week designing an elaborate scavenger hunt for the whole school and it's a quite a hit. Peter's choice for a big group activity is merely a crossword puzzle printed from the Internet and way too advanced even for the highest level students. While I am the first to arrive and the last to leave every night, Peter arrives on campus just in time to teach and is the first to sign out every night. Still, he is smart and experienced and an asset to the faculty as a learns the ropes of dealing with a different level of student ability. I congratulate Peter and he is very surprised that I haven't been asked back, proffering that he thinks that I've worked a hundred times harder than he has.

Students are supposed to register for the August session but the necessary forms don't arrive so they'll have to wait in long lines to register with all of the new students. Furthermore, as no registration forms are available there is no indication of the fall enrollment, which would have a bearing on whether non-tenured teachers are to be hired back. So, if I am asked to return it will likely be after school has commenced and for a different level than I've taught. There is a new textbook. If I knew I was returning I would spend some time in the summer preparing myself. Now, if I am called back last minute I'll totally have to fake it.

Ricardo is studying for the written DMV test and I show him the Spanish practice questions on the web. We struggle through the tests together and between my familiarity with driving and his understanding of Spanish, we do pretty well. Students arrive bringing tons of Coke Zero, which they notice I drink in copious amounts throughout the class, chicken, salads and chips. We crank up the music and play a few games. A food related “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” game reveals that Estella is the only student who recognizes a bagel.

Heidi and Eduardo bring their son for the final night party. He is 6 years old, completely bilingual and borderline obnoxious. He is however quite helpful to the students as we play Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Heidi's been laid off from her job making jewelry. While she (like her teacher) has added a bit of belly flesh, after 13 weeks, I finally conclude that she's not pregnant. Eduardo looks ashen and exhausted. He is crushed when I show him his less than stellar test results. I decide to meet any of the students who are interested at a park once a week to practice conversation. When I assure Eduardo that this should be helpful to him, he gestures towards his wife, of the unintelligible pronunciation and mutters, “Especially her.”

Most of the regulars are being promoted but I feel bad for the others. Eugenia, one of the coat ladies, only completed 3rd grade in her country. Her verbal skills are pretty good and she makes enormous progress on listening and reading but her scores on the tests are abysmal. Juan, who hardly misses a session, is required to work late the week we spend preparing for the test and his scores are so low that I just can't justify passing him. For the last night, I prepare certificates and small gifts for both to commend their dedication and progress. The class applauds wildly when I present them.
Lydia arrives done up like a schoolmarm, ankle length skirt, sensible shoes, blouse with a high lace trimmed collar and hair in a tight bun. She presents to me, on behalf of the class, a shockingly expensive Macy's gift card.

I am asked if I will be teaching 1B again in the fall and I tell them that I don't know if I'll be teaching at all. When they ask why, I don't betray my own confusion and simply respond that it has to do with funding. They leave unregistered. I leave not knowing if I'll be back and wondering too about my stamina in the event that I am asked to return. Since beginning to teach I have carried, in addition to my briefcase, a large tote bag full of books and lessons. Palpable, when I leave the giant bag at home today is a strange lightness. It is a relief not to have the heavy thing cutting into my arm. There are no more lessons to plan or games to invent. Still, I'll be waiting for a call to return in August. I already feel a bit empty without that heavy bag to schlep around.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

O Canada!

I have yet to tell the brunt of my students that they are not being promoted and will have to repeat ESL 1B when they return to class in August. I feel partially responsible for this, not having recognized that often the nods and gestures that indicate understanding are offered in politeness. The students take note of how hard I work and some feel obligated to acknowledge this even if the teaching is ineffectual. Another reason that many will not be promoted is that their class attendance has been erratic. This is often attributable to work obligations or fatigue but as I ponder my own lack of “stick-to-it-edness” I imagine that sometimes absence is due only to laziness.

Nevertheless, for the most part my students and I have given it our all. Certain obstacles have been, except for a handful of well educated students who enter the class with a higher degree of English mastery, insurmountable. The school district is remarkably dysfunctional. The adult school budget was gutted for many years and the division is just starting to get back on track but the lack of communication is extraordinary. I do not see the four promotional tests I am to administer until about a week before testing. The other new teacher is issued the complicated tests on the night he is expected to administer them. It is immediately apparent that the test itself has little correlation with the materials in the textbook. Even if the promotional exams were based strictly on the content of the text, a lot of my class time is devoted to teaching and testing a civics component . I frequently dismiss early for mandatory meetings with instructions that could be effectively imparted in a two-sentence e-mail.

I receive a call from a clerical worker at the main campus requesting my e-mail address. As a member of the staff it is astounding to me that this is not on file. Penny next door tells me that a form to record promotions and retentions is being e-mailed to me. I do not receive it. I email the clerk and administrator in charge of these reportings and receive no response. Apparently the operations administrator of the school sites is unfamiliar with the process of e-mail and other teachers advise me to communicate with him by phone or fax.

Even though the promotional testing is a done deal there are still two weeks of class. I soldier on with the awful textbook, trying to liven things up with games and taking video of them acting out job interview conversations. Juan is usually arrives first. Often he walks in full of determination and goes to the white board and writes down something he doesn't understand like the difference between “job” and “employment” or “whole” and “hole.” He marches in and scrawls “Vive La Casa.” I suggest maybe he means “Causa” but he shakes me off and says “Buffalo.” A Google search reveals that this is an agency in New York that assists the undocumented in relocating to Canada. Juan has a brother in Ottawa. “Are you moving?” I ask. “Trump,” he responds.

Cesar, a physical therapist, newly arrived from Mexico announces that he's returning home. He plans to perfect his English online and apply for schools in Canada and settle there. I think about how ludicrous it must have seemed to the assimilated Jews of 1930s Germany to consider packing it up and going in search of a more hospitable country.

We are advised that there are no classes on Thursday as the high school graduation for the East L.A. skills and vocational programs is being held on our Roosevelt campus. Teachers are expected to work at the ceremony and I sign up to man the volunteer table. There is no list of volunteer duties, just fancy badges that say “volunteer” so I try to make myself useful distributing programs. I am informed by another teacher that as it's not the students' fault they're not in school we are expected to submit our on-line attendance. This can be done only by using the district modem from the laptop in my classroom. Not submitting attendance on time is about as verboten as dropping acid with underage students. I have to track down the office manager to get a key to my room, wait for the dial up connection and falsely report that my students are there in the classroom pouring over their lousy textbooks.

The auditorium is jam packed with friends and families bearing babies and huge bouquets. Some of the graduates have decorated their caps with flowers and glitter. One spells out “Better Late Than Never.” A professional singer belts out the national anthem and a troop of mariachis serenade. Huge floral arrangements cover the stage and outdoor tables and a giant garland of balloons billows. There are mortar-board cookies and huge baskets of pan dulce for the grads and buttonaires for all of the VIPs. It's wonderful to make this occasion special for the graduates but given the financial realities of the division it seems excessive. I doubt if any of the grads would feel slighted if there were a single floral arrangement rather than the whole shop.

School Board president Steve Zimmer is the first speaker. Himself grumbles about how Trump is inculcated into just about every conversation of late. But having spent considerable time in an immigrant community, dare I say “the belly of the beast,” I understand the genuine fear and sadness the candidate's ascendancy has created. Zimmer eloquently posits that education is the anecdote for this ignorance and xenophobia. He recalls that his grandmother, a single mother who worked as a seamstress in New York's Lower Eastside, marched into an adult school to complete her diploma on the day that she retired. City Council member Gil Cedillo is the next speaker. He is a graduate of Roosevelt High. He doesn't understand that the celebration is for adult students from a variety of locations throughout the Eastside. He thinks that it's the high school and stops sporadically during his rambling self-promoting speech to shout “Go Riders!” (as in “The Theodore Roosevelt High School Roughriders”) to the utter befuddlement of all the assembled.

A handsome young man confidently takes the mike. At age thirteen he sells drugs to help his single mom pay the rent. Breaking a cardinal Dealer 101 rule, he samples his own wares and is expelled from middle school after OD'ing on campus. At 16 he enrolls in the AEWC credit recovery program, under the aegis of the adult school division. He earns a high school diploma, attends East L.A. College, and transfers to Cal State L.A. Recently he completes an MSW program at USC where he is elected student body president and graduates with highest honors.

One graduate drops out of high school at age 15, after her father is deported and she has help support her family. She has four children who she states are conceived when she is drug dependent, supporting her habit in ways she describes as “shameful. High School diploma now in hand, she wins a college scholarship. Other scholarship recipients plan to complete vocational programs or attend community college or university.

Half of the other ESL teachers attend the ceremony with me although most duck out early. The others, having performed their required duties, huddle in the office until it's time to sign out. 

The last adult school graduation I attend, over 30 years ago, is also at Roosevelt. I employ and befriend a former student. After about eight years of night coursework he completes his diploma and the whole office staff attends the ceremony in a rented van. He has three daughters and a bunch of of grandchildren now. His daughters all serve in the armed forces. He owns a home and to his wife's chagrin about a dozen cars that he tinkers with.

The road from ESL Level 1 though to high school diploma is a long slog for an adult. Perhaps the other ESL teachers feel so far removed from this accomplishment that they have no burning desire to observe the ceremony. Maybe they're just weary of it all. Even for an experienced teacher there is a large amount of preparation for each lesson, particularly at the lower levels, ESL. The tests we are required to use are illegible, illogical and impractical. My salary is $3 an hour more than it was in 1993.

While I have to augment the requirements of my supposedly lifetime teaching credential by verifying some college transcripts I don't actually think it qualifies me to teach. Because I am into it, I bone up on current techniques and scour the web and public library for teaching materials. But this is only because I am able to commit the time. There is however little motivation for the old-timers who teach in stifling classrooms with crappy textbooks and stagnant wages to put in one more second than necessary.

Classroom technology was very primitive when I quit teaching in the 90s. Unfortunately, although there are a limited number of iPads to be available on campus next year, the availability of classroom technology this term has been a huge disappointment. So much rote learning can be done at the student's own pace freeing up the teacher to focus on conversation and addressing subjects that are important to the students. It's way past time to abandon Scan-trons and dog-eared, badly photocopied test booklets. I suspect that the expenditures for the graduation ceremony could have purchased a few dozen iPads.

In a number of the countries that outrank the U.S. in quality of education, teacher salaries are commensurate with other professionals, physicians, attorneys and high level management. Educator schedules allow for preparation and professional development. I often regret having chosen the business over the classroom years ago. As ineffectual a teacher as I am now I wonder that the results of toiling away for the district for twenty five years would have been. Would I too hide out in the office during graduation?

I do not believe that Donald Trump will be president although I'm gobsmacked by how far he's gotten. Trump, I hope will eventually be a blip on the radar but that a con man is able to make so many Americans swallow that much bullshit telling. This epidemic of ignorance is an indictment of a nation that, for the most part, spends more on prisons than public colleges. The country is teeming with short attention-spanned, reality tv loving morons. Much on this can be blamed on a society that ceased to value education and failed to instill values or model critical thinking. A lot of people thought that the (in hindsight comparatively mild and harmless) Reagan would never be president so my prediction might well be wrong. If indeed our country buys into hateful invective and snake oil, I guess at least it will be Canada's gain.