Saturday, December 23, 2017

Better People

I read an essay by Ann Patchett about how Trump shock reduces her to compulsive on-line shopping. I spend hours scouring the Internet for signs that the Russia investigation will bring down the administration. When there's no pay dirt I too drift over to Zulily or Etsy just for some eye candy and maybe a couple of cheap garments. I've not only changed my Internet habits but I eat just as compulsively as I look for signs of Trump's demise, so some cheap blousy blouses augment my wardrobe. CNN blares for most of my waking hours except when I'm in the car listening to the political podcast Pod Save America. Teaching snaps me out of it to some extent but as my students present me with a gift card for Christmas I ache thinking that they are constantly being bombarded with immigrant-hateful verbiage. I will remember 2017 as being cloaked in a pall. Even after nearly a year, I see Trump on the tube and become physically ill and there remains too a strong sensation of unreality.

It is inevitable I think that it will be proven that the con-artist in chief is being blackmailed by Putin. Former CIA director Jame Clapper referred to Trump as being Putin's “asset,” Despite Fox labeling the efforts to uncover the relationship between the Trump administration and Russia as a “coup,” I suspect that even the dwindling base will forsake the liar-in-chief when the extent of his corruption becomes clear. My fantasy for 2018 is the Mueller bides his time and digs up more dirt. Pence is discovered to have been fully aware of the Russia thang or caught en flagrante in a men's room. At the beginning of 2019 the House and Senate will have regained a Democrat majority. The first priority is to dump Trump and Pence and then appoint the Dem speaker of the house as president. Then the nation can concentrate on undoing the damage. And I'll win the lottery too.

This I'm sure is too perfect a scenario. It's going to be a lot more messy with lots of palace intrigue. I suspect that soon we'll know if Trump is going to sell out Don Jr. and Jared. Advanced adulthood has diminished revenge fantasies and generally I don't wish anyone unhappiness. For years the exception to this mature compassion has been a palpable hatred for Clarence Thomas, Joe Arpaio and Sheldon Adelson. Since Trump, the list has gotten longer and I've particular animus for the Trump spawn and spawn-in-law. I never thought I'd whoop and holler about a special senatorial election in Alabama. I hope to have another opportunity for celebration with the arrests and indictments of some of the ickiest characters on the political scene since Joe McCarthy.

While my capacity for hatred is way amped up since the election, I am also more engaged than I've ever been. While I disliked Reagan and the Bushes I never sensed grave jeopardy. The current administration makes it impossible for me not to engage. And I am not alone. In January of 2017 I march along side of 20% of my fellow Angelenos and I will march again on January 20, 2018, carrying the same sign. “May these times make us better people.” I will skip teaching summer school and commit these months to working on behalf of ousting Congressmen Steve Knight and Darell Issa.

I wake up every morning and Trump is still president. Spuds graduates from college and we have a few glorious days in the Hudson Valley. John Lewis speaks inspiringly at the ceremony. A few days later Trump bashes Lewis with mean spirited Tweet. Trump has an uncanny way of disrespecting those who've made the biggest sacrifices for our nation Khizr Kahn. John McCain... When called out for this and asked about his own personal sacrifices Trump cites sacrifices made while building his business (with only a measly million dollars of seed money.)

After graduation Spuds and I drive from New York to Los Angeles. Long road trips are one of the great pleasures of my life and I am grateful to have two weeks with my freshly minted college grad. But at every gas station and diner I am aware that unlike in Los Angeles, the midwest is crawling with Trump voters. We will be analyzing their motives for generations. I happen on a quote by Lyndon Johnson that comes pretty close. "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

The kakistocracy will end. As the social safety net erodes and borderline (or maybe not even borderline) treason becomes apparent, Trump voters will regret the decision. The progressive movement becomes more cohesive and active in response to the catastrophe and I hope this steam lasts far beyond Trump being only a bad memory. Perhaps I'm being a Pollyanna but I really do believe that these times will make us better people.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

No Way Out

Like my last class, the current students adore the Kahoot! game. I create questions and they play a game on their phones. There's a group of women who do particularly well. Students play the game with nicknames and recently someone logs on as “Ganjah.” He's giving the girls a run for the money. I ask every time when the game is over, “Who's Ganjah?” and the students explode with laughter but no one cops to owning the moniker. I notice however a marijuana leaf etched onto Daniel's name tag. I'm pretty sure that I've outed “Ganjah.”

I bring in some art supplies and we make Christmas cards. A handful of them haphazardly slap on a few stickers and call it a day but many are rapt, skipping the coffee break to pour over their creations, cutting and glueing and pasting. I hang the finished creations on a rope above the whiteboard and we all admire them. We practice writing possible greetings and some of the more advanced students compose their own. As neither of my children is capable of addressing an envelope, it doesn't surprise me that my students are largely clueless. We do a few practice envelopes. The advanced students are bored and the lower level students manage to write them upside down and confuse the sender with the recipient. We go through a whole box of envelopes. After everyone produces a practice envelope that wouldn't vex the U.S. Postal Service, they draw from a hat and pull the name and address of a fellow student. The envelope is addressed to their secret friend and they choose from my selection of Christmas stamps. I'll mail the cards off right before Christmas. Yolanda, probably my smartest student, sits across from from Pedro. Yolanda is wary and sniffs out irony. My best jokes rate her grudging grin but Pedro cracks her up. I cheat to insure that Pedro will receive Yolanda's card and vice versa.

I tell them that if they're sending a card to someone who might not celebrate Christmas to say “Season's Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” “But everyone celebrates Christmas Teacher.” Given time limitations I don't tell them about the Jew thing but I tell them that there are indeed some people who don't celebrate Christmas. “Really?” “I don't celebrate Christmas,” I tell them. Some are befuddled by this but a few of them look me up and down and nod knowingly.

Caleb, one of the two Ethiopians sometimes gets stuck in traffic and rushes in, late. He performs the high-five/half-hug bro greeting thing with some of the Hispanic guys. The other African immigrant is Zala, a portly attractive woman in her forties. She works at a Burger King. She doesn't like it and sometimes she's assigned overtime causing her to miss class. I make a lesson about Ethiopia. Himself actually writes the copy and finds some art and photos. Caleb delicately points out that there's a spelling error. Himself defensively objects to the correction, as the word is TRANSLITERATED.

The night of the lesson I am sad when Zala texts me that her husband is in the hospital, for the second time in the last few weeks. I hand the yardstick I've taken to using as a pointer over to Caleb and he tells them about his country and writes the Amharic alphabet on the board. Then we watch a glossy short travelogue. Caleb is proud but there's lots of stuff you wouldn't show in a travelogue. Caleb says emphatically that if money were no object he would choose to stay in the U.S. and not return to Ethiopia. When I ask my Hispanic students the same question, many of them indicate that they'd prefer to live in their homelands.

To the astonishment of my fellow teachers, I take my students on a field trip. I arrange a Spanish tour of an exhibit of Martin Ramirez' paintings and drawings at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Ramirez left his family in Jalisco in the early 1930s to find his fortune in California. He worked sometimes for the railroad and bummed around. Finally, apprehended by police and unable to communicate in English, Ramirez is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The diagnosis is schizophrenia but some biographers posit that he suffered mainly from cultural displacement. Ramirez died in 1963, having spent thirty-three years institutionalized.

Field trips apparently aren't the norm at my school but a form exists so I fill it out. Students have to sign a waiver and provide their phone numbers and the name and number of an emergency contact. I resort to explaining the thing in Spanish and a lot of them still don't get it. I attempt to prepare them with a Powerpoint that starts with pictures of 35,000 year old Indonesian cave paintings. I explain that art has existed for just about as long as man. Then I ask them if art is only for the rich and some of them think it is. I ask if someone can be an artist without a formal education in the arts. Most believe that training is essential. I talk about the compulsion to create and project a photo of a jewelry box woven out of Kool Cigarette wrappers made by prisoners. We talk about how satisfying making our little Christmas cards has been for most of them. We finish with a level 1B appropriate biography of Martin Ramirez and a slideshow of paintings.

We all arrive late at the museum, caught in traffic. Everyone's flushed. I've dragged Himself along. The staff greets us warmly, even though we're about 45 minutes late and it's fifteen minutes until closing. The students take to the guide and the art immediately. They hang on Eddie's every word. He's a handsome Chicano whose college internship has led to a permanent job working on community outreach and education. I do my best with the Ethiopians. They get that the art reflects the immigrant experience. We note how similar some of elements of Ramirez' work are to the Ethiopian art we'd looked at the night before.
Most of Ramirez' early drawings are made with scrounged materials. Saliva is the main ingredient of his homemade ink. His work fuses folk-art style elements with wildly modern composition. The artist draws and paints endless railroad tracks, horses, tunnels. Motion and stasis. A psychiatrist with an art degree is struck by Ramirez' work and provides art supplies. The later works are more colorful although mostly painted on paper bags or the brown paper of discarded examining table covers. A collage/painting of Ramirez' hometown Tepatitlan highlights the exhibit. It's been compared to a photograph and Eddie describes how vividly and accurately Ramirez remembers his home, even after decades of absence.

When the tour's over Eddie asks the students to share opinions. Stony silence. “They don't speak for me either,” I assure him. Ice broken, they start saying that they like the paintings. Daniel, the pothead, steps a bit forward. “This is our lives. We leave our families. The railroads...long tunnels you can't get out of. We're not locked up, but our lives are on the edge The paintings show how hard it is to be away from our homelands even though we know that it's much harder back at home. It's important to remember our countries and our cultures, and keep this close in our hearts, even if we can't return.” The museum director and I tear up. Ganjah indeed. But Teacher likely does the same thing that you do after school. Do you need to flaunt it on your chingada name-tag? Just be cool.

After the museum we walk over to Farmer Boys. Eliza, from Cuba, hopes that they have milkshakes. I stupidly leave the coupons I've carefully clipped in my car. Tables are moved and we all sit together. Eliza works packing airline meals and it is a busy travel season so she's missed a lot of school. She's hit it off with a bunch of the girls and they tease each other about their funny accents. I interrogate Eliza about Cuba. The economy suffers since Trump. Everyone expects things to get worse. Most people don't have cellphones. There is scattered Internet service. She tells me how much she misses home. I tell her that I'd like to go see the old two-toned American cars and she laughs. I teach her to say “homesick.” We walk back to our cars, around the corner from the Greyhound station. We navigate around huge piles of reeking trash. The destitute set up camp on the sidewalks. I ask Eliza if there are homeless people huddled on the streets of Cuba. There are not. We both shrug.

Zala doesn't want to eat. We offer to buy her something but she declines. I hope that she was full or on a diet. She sits with Caleb. They laugh and laugh. I realize that they sit on opposite sides of the room and that they've never spoken.

Octavio is the gorgeous boy who does all my tech stuff and installs apps on the students' phones. I've never seen a sweeter, more earnest smile. He's flirtatious, in a shy way, with both boys and girls. He probably could have hacked the next level. I am on the fence and I ask him about it. He asks to stay with me and I admit that his technical prowess likely influence me when I relent. Octavio is twenty two and works at famous chicken stand. He has a five year old daughter in Guatemala. Octavio arrives for our Christmas party hoisting vats of chicken and rice.

A few students show up for the Christmas party with their kids. I'm surprised that some of the young ones are parents. Natalie, a Madonna-like serene beauty, arrives with her three year old son. The boy, like everyone else, is drawn to Octavio. They color pictures together and play with a toy car. Maybe Natalie and Octavio are dating. They seem kind of familiar. I wonder about the mother of Octavio's daughter back in Guatemala. Octavio leaves, beaming, with Natalie's little boy on his shoulders. I don't know how long it's been since he's seen his own little girl.

There is a school dance with a DJ. Some of the students dance gaily and others stand on the sidelines and watch. I shoot a little video and then go back to the room to pack up all of the leftover chicken into little bags for them to take home. Half of the big tray of brownies I've baked remain. After several attempts, I've figured out that Hispanic people, for the most part, aren't interested in brownies, although mine are particularly excellent. Cookies, I'll remember are always a bigger hit, although Himself is happy with the leftover brownies.

I take down the Christmas decorations from the classroom and get stuff set up for returning in January. A file drawer is stuffed with tests, test prep materials, forms and memos, evidence of the ceaseless impediments to the actual instruction of English. I dump a lot of disorganized paperwork into a carton to take home and sort over the holidays. There will be additional testing when we return which I'll have to plan lessons for and hope I'll make up for the instructional time I've wasted making Christmas cards and taking them to the museum.

Donna, from last semester, pops up as I'm getting ready to go and dreading all the crap I'll face when I return in January. Donna's styled out for the dance. She babbles confidently in barely intelligible English. We embrace tightly. “Me missing my teacher. I loves you.” I lock up the room and sign out.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

More Blather about Trump and Teaching

My nose is running and I attribute it to days of smokey air. I take an antihistamine. By the time I get to school I feel a fever coming on and I use up half of the single box of Kleenex that the district allots me for a school year. I go on teaching, attempting to discreetly step out the classroom door to blow my nose and stuffing soggy tissues in my pocket. Recounting this I remember to empty the pockets of my jeans before throwing them into the wash. There are two pain in the ass tests that have to be administered in a single week and one class session is slashed by two hours for a teacher's meeting. It would be too late to get a sub and the deadline for the second test would be blown. I try to handle the test materials as minimally as possible. It's been ages since I've had a cold and I realize how infrequently in my pre-teaching life, that I am crammed into a small room with 40 people who don't get flu shots. I'll stay home next time I'm sick but even with the best sub a setback is inevitable. Like most of my students, I have no sick leave or benefits. But of course, if I miss a few hours of work, there will still be food on the table and my phone will stay connected.

I expect to lose a lot of students after Thanksgiving vacation but most of them come back. I am still smitten with the Ethiopians and am recognizing a handful of the other students with that certain glint. There are always students I particularly like and a few whom I'm a couple degrees below being not crazy about. In a “too many tests and too little time” week I've reacted slightly harshly to a rather churlish young man who is slightly fucking with my administration of tests. Perhaps if I pay him a bit of extra attention when he's not showing off it might satiate his need of attention.

I am being observed by an administrator on Tuesday night which is a cause of slight agitation but otherwise the coming week is light, with only two full nights of instruction, a museum visit on the third night and a school dance to celebrate the holidays and the three week vacation. I am told that it is expected of the teachers to dance and I actually dread this more than having my teaching evaluated.

This phase of my life will be associated with feeling stretched, as my daytime hours are consumed by CNN and clicking from the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, The Guardian, Huffington Post...while I work at my office and prepare lessons. Then at night my world is a group of mostly undocumented students. Housekeepers. Cooks. Gardeners. Custodians. Mechanics.  
There are always a couple of entrepreneurs, in their thirties and forties. Their spoken English is pretty good and they're eager to hone their grammar and learn some basic writing. They run small businesses and have skilled trades. They exude a trustworthy earnestness. The older male students are courtly. They pick up things that I drop and rein in the occasional rambunctious younger student.

While it's a hotbox, I'm with people I admire. I try to make sure they know that here in California, they are welcome. Perhaps the location makes them somewhat less vulnerable than in other parts of the country with regard to being undocumented, nevertheless the atmosphere since the election is changed. The city would come to a halt without the labor of immigrants, largely undocumented. My students get this. Despite being vilified and disrespected, my students know that their cheap labor keeps things humming along. When I'm not with them I obsess on Trump, and delight at every new sign that his demise is inevitable. There is certainly personal gratification as the Russian onion sheds more skin but it is particularly comforting when I look out at my students and know that it won't always be like this.

Yolanda is one my favorites. She has the highest test score in the class and, but for a reticence about speaking, she would be in a much higher level course. Once in a while I pass out a word search at the beginning of the class. I never both to print the key because I don't waste time with them solving the puzzle. I say, “Take it home and finish it.” They hover over the puzzles, rapt and they require no attention from me while they try to solve them. I'll attempt the puzzle myself just to see how hard it is. Yolanda is a machine. She solves the entire puzzle before I've found only a few words. She marks student papers more scrupulously than I do. Her eyebrow arches slyly when she's amused and she's one of a very few who gets all my jokes.

Most of my fellow teachers teach two classes. They grunt at me when we pass and watch the clock and squirm at meetings. My classroom is used in the morning by a friend of a friend. I pick up after him and he helps me navigate the idiosyncratic administration. I attempt to initiate collaboration with others who teach in the low levels but my overtures are largely ignored. The advisor who could potentially be the most helpful is curt and officious. I do appreciate the quick maintenance and repair of classroom technology but I am hobbled by the lack of support and surprised that there is so little sense of community.

I am looking forward to a three week vacation. I still think all the time about quitting. And then some lesson I've slaved over will go right and they'll actually demonstrate that they've learned something. How could I not do this? The verdict now is that I'll soldier on until I'm too burned out to be effective. The bureaucracy is so dispiriting but so many of my students model persistence that will likely buoy me indefinitely. As will witnesses the inevitable downfall of POTUS, his sleazy family and cronies.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The End of the Beginning


John Oliver, speculating about pending indictment, pleads, eyes twinkling, “Let it be Jared! Let it be Jared!”  I scream, “Yessss!” at the TV. The dumb Trump spawn are too easy although Ivanka in Orange is the New Black is a pretty picture. But, Jared's doughy-faced smugness makes me want to slap him around. The next three years will be rough. But I am optimistic that for the nation that elected Obama twice, the pendulum will swing back. Perhaps the shame of being duped by a conman will engender an ultra-scrupulousness and sense of urgency to return dignity and integrity to the highest office. With both parties on life support it is important to get it together and ferret out squeaky clean potential candidates. Let's hope.

It is obvious that Trump is beholden to Russia in a big way. I have no crystal ball but my gut tells me that Flynn's plea deal will lead to revelations of dirt beyond our wildest expectations. As Trump's sheer buffoonery becomes more and more evident, it looks like he's been selected and groomed by Putin and that the process is in play long before the trip down the gilded escalator. I imagine it will also come to light and become commonly accepted that cyber interference absolutely determined the results of the 2016 election.

Plain spoken Lindsey Graham states clearly that the pending tax boondoggle is designed only to appease rich donors. When the hoi polloi lose their health coverage and suffer through other cost cutting measures that this giant Christmas gift to the uber rich will require, anyone one who has anything to do with passing it, and every politician who holds his nose and supports Trump, will be ruined. Let's hope.

These times will be fodder for artistic inspiration for eons. I try to visualize the mini-series. Farce? Arrested Development comes close but the show is anchored by a likable, reasonable hero and there are no likable characters in the White House. Atramentous black comedy? While Walter White in Breaking Bad evolves into a despicable character, his back story of being screwed over, engenders some compassion and, with feelings of guilt, the viewer ends up rooting for him. Political satire? At least the corrupt politicians in Veep and House of Cards are smart and witty.

Perhaps the angle I'd take is to chronicle the debacle through the eyes of one of the children, maybe Barron or that little girl of Ivanka and Jared who's such a hit with the Chinese based on the video of her singing a song she learned from a nanny. Here is the real collateral damage. The underage offspring will inevitably be scarred by the unraveling of the family-wide malfeasance that may even ultimately result in charges of treason. It is only the children that muster an iota of compassion for the folks who brought on one of the greatest con jobs in history.

I am sent a new student. He arrives toting some well worn plastic bags. Pedro is my age. There is an address on his registration form but it looks like he hasn't lived indoors for a very long time. His long, graying hair is matted and dull. His eyes are so bloodshot it's hard to tell the iris from the sclera. Pedro communicates a bit in English with a sandpaper rasp. He sort of keeps up with the class. There are no overt signs of mental illness. He doesn't reek of alcohol. But he reeks. Pedro smells bad. The seats around him are the last to fill. I stand at his desk and help him practice a conversation or check his written work but then, on some pretense, open the classroom door and grab a lungful of fresh air. When we work in groups or with partners the other students are compassionate and good sports. They nod at me, (It's OK Teacher.”) sensing my reluctance to stick them with Pedro. I dream of a social worker swooping into my classroom and getting Pedro sorted out but our social services and safety net are pathetically underfunded and not getting better in the near future of the congress has anything to do with it. For now, Pedro's treated like any other student. Perhaps learning a bit more English will improve his life somehow but inevitably in a much smaller way than I would deem ideal.

There are two Ethiopians in my class. Except for eating on Fairfax I haven't had any contact with Ethiopians. I know it's not right to assess a whole culture based on two students, but both of these students are particularly warm and the other students truly like them. The groups with an Ethiopian member accomplish so much more. The students are all friendly and do their best to communicate in English with their non-Hispanic classmates. They don't fall back to Spanish. The conviviality of being in the same boat makes it less threatening than when I'm grilling them and breathing down their necks. I wonder if I would get in trouble if I requested enough Ethiopians so I could have one in every group.

Once in a while I have to shriek, “Speak English” at them, which breaks them of the habit for a while. Their phones ring sometimes. They have fancy rockin' ringtones. A phone rings and the students grouse. A student, in a shrill mocking voice pipes up, “Donde estas?” The room explodes in laughter. I cannot help myself and there is another round of laughter when the students, except for the Ethiopians, see that I too get the joke.

I use a worksheet from the last trimester. I vaguely remember that there'd been something wrong with it but it looks pretty good so I run it off again. There are three apartment ads from Craigslist and questions. like which apartment has a ceiling fan and which one has a laundry. I've labelled the apartment ads using numbers and the question option using letters. I have a bunch of early birds. It gets dark earlier and it's chilly outside so I open my door a half hour early and they come in and grab a worksheet. Then they finish before class even starts and I have to make up things on the fly for them to do. When I discover the number/letter disaster with my homemade worksheet, one of my students grabs a pen and hand corrects the stack of xeroxes. I am embarrassed by this stupid oversight. “It's OK Teacher.”

I find a great website that has a wonderful collection of short films accompanied by lesson plans for use with ESL students. There is a beautiful little film about colors that actually gives me an opportunity for some vocabulary drilling. I plan a nice little lesson. One night I have to dismiss early to attend a meeting. Another night I have to do a power point presentation for orientation and then have them fill out a very complicated two-sided form with four places they have to initial. Some of it is school rules and one is a release for appearance in photos and video. It is a bitch to get them all filled out properly so I don't get to the movie that night either. Wednesday, there's time for the little movie. I turn off the lights and then notice a strong burning smell. I kick the students out before I can run the film. They still don't know what the cause is, but the room is fine on Thursday. I think they like the movie.

We are on the chapter that describes different rooms and household furnishings. We are working on “There is” and “There isn't.” We all describe our dream houses. The girls say “There is a big kitchen.” “There are big closets.” The boys says, “There is a three car garage.” “There is a gym and a media room.” I ask them whether their dream house is in the USA or their home countries. The Ethiopians don't hesitate. They're here for good. The Hispanic students are split down the middle.

I expect a backlash, the darkest hour before the dawn. Men's attitudes about women are changing. Perhaps, after a dangerous spate of nationalism, women will edge towards political parity. Maybe I'm fooling myself but it seems that female leaders might demonstrate more compassion and remind us that ultimately, we're citizens of the world. Poor Pedro I'm afraid is beyond hope but for the rest of them, I hope they're able to build their dream houses in the land of their choice.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


My eldest leaves on a Friday night redeye to work a Saturday morning shift at a busy Chicago caterer. We are not sure when he will have more time off to spend with us but we make the most of his 48 hours. Spuds is here still until Monday and we have a busy art and food agenda planned. It's been a long time since it's been just the four of us. There are no spats nor gushy professions of familial ardor. We laze on the couch struggling to find TV that no one has seen and that everyone will like. The kids make the vegetables and mashed potatoes and I make an abridged version of the usual stuff.  There is no enthusiasm for yams but otherwise, it's the same menu in dinky portions.


I have a week off from teaching but I spend two days on campus in a workgroup trying to revise promotional testing materials. I am left alone for my own 1B level and am given approval to create a digital version when I assure the powers that be that it is also printable. The previous iteration is created over twenty years ago and assuming that what we're creating will also have a long shelf life it seems a waste not to prepare for classes full of digital natives. But, most of the teachers work weird split shifts. We're all underpaid and mandated to perform tests and teach from outdated materials that are not in the students' best interest. I'm at it for only a couple of months but I imagine that if I'd slogged through a couple of bullshit laden decades I'd be on automatic pilot.  I wouldn't want to be bothered with implementing a big change.

Many of my students from my current and previous class send Thanksgiving greetings. Lesson planning is always at the back of my mind and creates an undercurrent of anxiety. If a lesson fails to make the imprint I'd intended, I chew it around for days and days. I struggle to duplicate things that have worked and fret about keeping forty plus students of wildly varying educational levels engaged. But I miss having dinner at home with Himself and curling up with a book or bingeing on crap TV. I wonder for how much longer I'll have the stamina to keep doing this thing that I love.

The kids and I visit two small museums in Pasadena. An exhibit of Mexican art from the 80s and 90s at The Armory doesn't blow me away but reminds me how I yearn to spend time in Mexico. The Pasadena Museum of California Art has impressionistic landscapes, mainly of the Monterey Bay area and some stunning liturgical pieces by the woman painter, E. Charlton Fortune. There is correspondence referring to the artist as “Mr. Fortune,” as the cagey moniker disguises the artist's gender. I am enchanted by a display of Cuban silkscreen posters made to promote screenings of American films, smuggled in somehow to subvert the U.S. embargo.

Browsing the bookstore we discover a book of photorealistic paintings called 100 Not So Famous Views of L.A. by Barbara Thomason. The Shakespeare Bridge, the old Van DeCamp's building, Western Exterminators...iconic images painted from strangely poignant angles. My eldest thumbs through it tenderly. “I'd like to have this when I'm homesick.” I lived out of Los Angeles briefly as a college student but otherwise, I am a native and I've stayed. Once in a while on a longer trip I feel a strong yearning for home but I know that I can and will return. My children have made their lives far away. They are happy exploring their new surroundings but sometimes wistful in knowing their roots are thousands of miles away.

With girlfriends coming and going and time marching I wonder when again, if ever, it will be just the four of us. I have no desire to sequester my little family from others who love us but there is an ease like no other when it is just four. We manage in our short time together to cobble out times in different permutations. It's been a long time since it was just me and the kids. Or the kids together. Or Himself with one or both of his sons. I guess it would have been a comfort through exhausting childhood and fraught adolescence to know how very much I would like who they would become. I do the dance befitting my age. Mortality. Fatigue. Turning off lights. Berating myself for not filling the car before the gas light comes on. Clipping coupons. There are so many fewer days ahead of me than behind but they are infused with warmth. Perhaps oldness is wasted on the old.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


I have a business event to attend in Studio City. My sojourns to the Valley are infrequent. And weird. I know the streets. Some familiar landmarks remain. The deco DWP building on Laurel Canyon. The Oakwood School on Moorpark with a huge banner touting the annual fund raising drive. Dupar's. But Quigley's Five and Dime, Maxxon's Drugs and Joseph Magnin are long gone. When I grew up, most of the residential streets didn't have sidewalks. Until I was about ten, Fulton Avenue was a rustic country lane. Now all is concrete and crammed with dense traffic. Acres of huge condos with an occasional vestige of low slung Valley ranch houses dotted between them. The confluence of intimate familiarity and eerie strangeness overwhelm me. The fraught Valley reminds me not only that I still frequently feel like a fake adult but also how much closer I am to the end than the beginning.

My dad, as I've remembered here far too many times, held my kids on has lap. He'd tell them about seeing an airplane for the first time and watching as his neighborhood movie theater was converted for sound. Then, he'd ponder how new wonders would change the boys' lives. The bittersweetness of my dad's excitement for what was in store for his grandchildren coupled with the certainty of his own inevitable and encroaching doom wafts around me as I drive these familiar strange streets of my childhood.

My last piece expresses compassion for Louie CK. I can imagine a world without Louie, but Al Franken? Really? I'm sure we're just at the part that is circumcised from the iceberg. I've been thinking about why it's so different with people that I like. Louie CK, Mark Helprin and now Al, come to mind. All three if not entirely full-throatedly, have admitted culpability. But they were just doing what guys do. Young Liberal Arts Spuds is shocked at the lewd comments made by warehouse workers. It is a much bigger deal for him than it is for me. How good that an evil I've just taken in stride is so glaringly unacceptable to the younger generation. The accused who don't deny their actions or impugn their accusers are catalysts for a major moral recalibration that we're witnessing.

Cosby, Weinstein, Roy Moore are black and white cases. Many of the allegations that are breaking news are more nuanced. While sexual abuse is never acceptable, it is only recently that it is being considered as far from the norm. We are all looking at this differently now. Having taken a moment to confront the ramifications, of even the most subtle sex/power move, many of us of a certain age are having an “Aha!” moment. “It was wrong. I see it now so clearly but I didn't get it at the time as this behavior was essentially normalized.” I think that a lot of men are having a very painful “Come to Jesus” moment, even if their victims don't go public. The conversation nevertheless, is an important one, but needs to include the proffer of forgiveness. The flaunting of money and power as an entitlement to hanky panky dates back thousands of years. Given that this is a largely unquestioned norm for generations I believe that 2018 might be a year of amnesty for abusers to take stock of their actions and reach out to victims, acknowledge what it has finally dawned on us is despicable behavior, and make efforts towards atonement.

To be eligible for parole an inmate must behave properly and express contrition. When you do some good time and have thought about the consequences of your behavior and owned your guilt, you're released, having paid a debt to society. Those who don't obfuscate and squirm but accept their role in shaping our cultural destiny should be permitted back into the fold.

The Valley sojourn is for a luncheon of stock footage librarians, an annual event I've attended for nearly half of my life. Most of the people I e-mail with regularly and chat with one the phone once in a while. We see each other age from one year to the next. We're grateful for name tags. And rue, this year, the lack of open bar. Waze takes me, via an interesting city street route, from my Studio City lunch to the other life I lead, my school Workgroup, meeting at Washington and Crenshaw in 42 minutes.

There is a race for assembly in my district and we receive a negative campaign mailer. The candidate, Luis Lopez quotes his opponent Wendy Carillo as saying something to the effect that teachers are mostly behind the times technology-wise and too burned out to be effective. Lopez interprets this as an insult to teachers but it wins this teacher's vote. For the opponent. Fairly, I will note that my classroom is equipped with two laptops and a projector that I can switch back and forth from a computer and an overhead. Having easy access to Google images is a great tool. My classroom has Internet but only for staff. When I play phone games with students it depletes their data plans. I feel bad but they love the games so much and already the new class, having played once, is bugging me to play some more. I've informed the technical person that the bulb on the projector is dim and there has been no replacement. We have to turn off a light. Still, it is a great improvement from my previous teaching situation.

We are working on re-writing competencies and promotional tests. There is a morning group and an evening group and stuff is being cobbled together higglety pigglety. We are replacing a battery created over twenty years ago. There is a paper test taken with a Scantron form. There is no consideration of digital natives which now comprise the lion's share of our population. I fantasize about my own list of competencies, evaluating and promoting students for reaching specific milestones instead of administering six tests within a 13 week trimester. No matter how much I assure them, the tests make students nervous and makes it challenging to lower their affective filter to promote language acquisition. The current curriculum fails to allow any wiggle room. Spanish speaking students rarely encounter forms without Spanish versions yet we work a lot on filling out forms. Many students use digital translators and acquire vocabulary at sonic speed. But ESL is “one size fits all,” and doesn't account for what the students themselves bring to the table. I'd love to teach a curriculum that acknowledges the big digital shake up. Like offering some electives so students can better tailor their own experience.

The tentative new competencies are just an abbreviated version of the old. There is no digital literacy component. We will still teach how to write a note to tell your boss that you need time off instead of how to send a cogent text message. The new promotional tests are being assembled by eliminating particularly bad items on the original. The three part test will remain a three part test and the assessment instrument is largely unchanged. We match up items on a sample test with the numbers from the original competencies which are bad copies of spreadsheets in a five point font. None of my committee mates knows how to print the spreadsheet in a larger font. My kids rag on me consonantly about digital ineptitude. There are actually a handful of teachers at my school who are way more savvy than I am but with the rank and file I still feel pretty Geek Squad. I am in the median age wise on the faculty. A handful of the youngest teachers are in their forties, another, my age plus or minus 5, is like me a new hire. I don't know why there are no younger teachers. One of my coworkers is surprised and skeptical when I indicate that all of the students have Smartphones. Every student in my class for both terms has one. For the most part, lessons with a digital component are better received and enrich the learning process for a thirteen week session where we are most testing on material that we haven't had time to teach. I appreciate the commitment to improving antiquated course outlines and evaluation instruments but I am disappointment that there is little consideration of the present and none for the future.

I'm already in love with the new class which is so large that the custodian has to drag in more chairs every night. There are two Ethiopian students who I use to keep the rest of them from prattling away in Spanish. I give them each a welcome bag with a name tag lanyard, a “Welcome to Layne's ESL class,” pencil, a little booklet about the books and apps we use, some questions to answer and tell me about themselves and a piece of candy. I take photos of all of them and print them out. We mount them in frames on which they neatly write their name, favorite color and birthdate. Most of them don't listen or watch when I demonstrate how to write their favorite color in the same colored ink. I make them erase and find the right gel pen and we tack the final version on my newly installed bulletin board.

The composition of this class is a bit different. In addition to the Ethiopians, there are two recently arrived Cubans. It is interesting to watch them interact with their fellow Spanish speakers. Like the last class,the men are gardeners, construction workers and janitors. There are also a lot more women than last year. A couple of the women are cooks, cashiers and there's a parking attendant. Most of them are housekeepers. There are a bunch of young women that are quick and smart. For the first time, the three top winner's of the online phone game are women. I do a couple of lessons gushing about Thanksgiving. They aren't really enthusiastic. The men will mostly have an unpaid day or probably two, of work. The women will work their butts off assisting their employers.

My sons are returning for Thanksgiving. It is the first time we've had the holiday all together in a number of years. I often lie in bed and think about my dilettantism and the little I have to show for it. Struggling to run one of the last family businesses in a field that's now mostly fully automated and multinational and feeling satisfied when the personal attention, mom and pop vibe pays off. And devastated when a company tells me that they can license the same material for half the price from one of my Walmart-like competitors. Returning to teaching after a 20 year sabbatical provides astounding fulfillment, but also hopelessness at a mire of bureaucracy seemingly designed to hobble students and instructors with a morass of paperwork and meaningless tests. Teacher. Small business owner. It's too late for a reset and I am immersed in two professions that provide satisfying relationships and for the most part bring out the best in me. But there are road blocks at every turn that leave these choices in constant question.

The kids sometimes go days without contacting me. They are making their own lives and perhaps it will be many years again when all four of us are together for Thanksgiving. I speak to both of them for menu consultation and to remind them to allow extra airport arrival time for the most busy travel days of the year. For all the Mom stuff I lay on these two young adults, both are buoyant in anticipation of a few days at home. There's not a lot of certitude about my life's direction and while intellectually I know it's futile and destructive, I do a lot of “If only I'd...” Being with Himself and the two spawn is the only time when the doubt and regret fully subside. And I happily trade all my self recrimination for this one facet of my life that is purely right and for which I am immeasurably thankful.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

All You Can't Eat

Louie CK's last HBO special opens with a bit about abortion that is so repulsive that I turn it off. Yet, CK produces Tig Notaro's One Mississippi and Pamela Adlon's Better Things. Both shows are outstanding and no matter what, his mentorship of these two landmark series boosts Louie's feminist cred. Furthermore, CK's own work is very personal and addresses his own conflicted sexual issues. Whereas Ray Moore preyed on a fourteen year old by taking advantage of a fraught custody battle, CK's accusers, while unnamed, are likely not as vulnerable as Moore's victim. It seems to me that women in CK's orbit are more enlightened as to acceptable behavior. I have no proof but my instinct is that the women accusing CK of misconduct endured it in order to advance their careers.


I think my mother's reaction to this would have been, “So what? That's the way it has always been and always will be.” I was taught to exploit this for advantage. Up until the recent news about Cosby and Trump I don't give it much thought and pretty much accept men flaunting money and power for sexual conquest as the norm. Now however it's “me too” time and we are forced, at last, to confront this often more subtle, but rampant, form of sexual abuse. But the sea change is going to require an enormous reckoning and I think a lot of rich and powerful men are mighty frightened.

Spuds works for the summer in an art storage warehouse and after growing up in a progressive area and attending a liberal arts college he is astonished by his co-workers vulgar and hostile patter about women. “Do they shut up when a woman enters the area?” I ask. When he assures me that indeed they do, I tell him to consider this an improvement over when I first entered the workforce. Still, I wonder about the stubborn endurance of “locker room talk,” and how many men, if blessed with wealth and fame would consider this valid currency for sexual favors.

Remembering the players from Duke University LaCrosse team who were falsely accused falsely of rape, I imagine that there will be women who suffer a deficit of moral character who will lie or exaggerate for five minutes of fame or a tidy settlement. It is likely though that those speaking up will prove more forthright than the rich and powerful men who consider transactional sexuality a normal perquisite of their position. This appears often to be a serial thing and in many cases, there are a number of women with similar stories. And stories that are excruciatingly uncomfortable to recount. This lends the accusations far more credibility.
Louie CK admits now, in lurid detail, to having exploited his status but he refused to address rumors in the past and has chastised one accuser for going public. Roy Moore, when asked if the had sexual contact with minors, replies (and not as cagily as he thinks) that this would be “out of my usual behavior.” Still Moore stands an excellent chance of serving in Washington, along with the Abuser in Chief, and Louie likely faces career ruin. Maybe Louie's brutally honest confession is just a hail-Mary but given given his body of work that mines the black depths of his psyche and his support of two fantastically feminist comedies, he might deserve some slack.

I have not been fired and students are registered now for a new trimester. The groadieness of my classroom has long offended me. Now that I know I'm not a one-term-wonder I decide to take down faded, tattered bulletin boards and empty a cupboard crammed with out-of-date textbooks. I inquire of an administrator about the disposition of the books and am told that I'm welcome to bring some boxes from home. On the penultimate day of class I have the students rip out the raggedy bulletin boards and install new ones. I ask the boys to do the heavy lifting and assign the ladies more delicate tasks, like sorting desk supplies. The women ignore my assignment and start hoisting loads of books. How etched into me is the notion that women are less strong than men. A sense of differentness is perhaps a requisite of sexual frisson. It's for my kids' generation to figure out how this can exist without a power imbalance.

The last week has been fraught with batteries of tests to determine if students are worthy to ascend to the next level. Accommodations are made. Don Gonzalo is promoted. I present him with a certificate of merit for his excellent effort and attendance. I tell him the night before the party not to bring paper cups or plates because there are a bazillion of them in the cupboard I've cleaned out. Level 2 Gonzalo arrives with big trash bag full of Styrofoam cups and paper plates enough to take up another entire shelf in the cupboard.

Donna wafts in, fully made up, in a sleek fire engine red sheath and high heels. She's just bit younger than I am, but the boys sense her heat, and loom in her orbit. We Facetime with her son and baby granddaughter in Guatemala. I wave and they wave back. Back during my first foray at teaching, abuelas were stooped and wore aprons and not stiletto heels. They didn't have boyfriends or move thousands of miles from their children and grandchildren. Donna also gets a merit certificate. Hers is for “fearlessness.” When I present it, her classmates look up the word on their phones and hoot in agreement.

There are about thirty-five students and all chip in for pizza, which I order. They all beg for Hawaiian, which just seems wrong, but it's their money. I order six extra large twelve slice pizzas and six dozen chicken wings, thinking it will be way too much but that they can take the leftovers home. For Spuds' bar mitzvah we have a taco truck in the driveway. We invite our Mexican neighbors, who happen to have cousins visiting. They clean the truck out. My kids have grown up with meals that are always too much. Not having leftovers is considered on my part a personal failure. A student asks how much pizza he can take and I tell him that there's so much that he can take what he wants. Then I notice that the boxes are emptying quickly. Students have plates piled with four or five slices of pizza and mounds of wings. When a couple of latecomers arrive to find empty boxes, students share from their own plates. How strange it seems to me to have to limit portions.

When I interview them for the speaking test, many of my students tell me that they come from families of ten, or twelve or in one case (with two different women, but still...) twenty-one. “All you can eat,” has never been an option. Interestingly, one student has three children herself but none of the others have more than two. Across cultures, the roles of men and women are being redefined. It's a long road but ultimately I think that women will lead better lives and families will be smaller and better fed. While the analogy is hyperbolic, the Germans had an epiphany after the Second World War and reinvented itself as one of the world's most socially progressive nations. Perhaps the times we're enduring now will result in similar enlightened atonement. Still, I'm going to order more pizza next time. Even Hawaiian if that's what they want.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Forgetting and Remembered

The deadline for giving two weeks notice before the start of the new trimester passes and I have not submitted my resignation. There is an earthquake drill that night. We have endured a meeting, the week before, cutting into class time. An administrator stands before us and reads the instruction sheet we've received printed, in our mailboxes and also via e-mail. Our classroom wastebasket can be repurposed as a toilet, in case of lockdown. The students are to duck and cover under their desks for two minutes but I show them a YouTube video about earthquake survival instead. Then, teachers are to carry a flashlight and don yellow hardhats and day-glo safety vests and lead the students across the street to the parking lot to wait for the “all clear.”. Subliminally I guess, flirting with getting fired, I wear neither vest nor hat. I do carry a dim flashlight. A monolingual administrator, using a megaphone, issues inaudible instructions. In the event of a real earthquake, I am legally bound, as an L.A. Unified employee, to act as a disaster point person. Were there a real trembler, I'd get 'em under the desks and I'd wear the hat and the vest. I hope they get the megaphone thing straightened out and designate a Spanish speaker for translation.


Only a few of my students are Dodger fans and, unbidden, they keep showing me their phones with the score. Tomas is perhaps the smartest student in the class and one of a handful I call upon for demonstrations and occasionally, to help settle a rowdy class. Tomas is an Astro fan. During the final game Tomas sticks his phone, with the heartbreaking score, in my face about twenty times and chuckles malevolently. I warn him I'll get him back on the promotional exam. I make a dummy score sheet for him. It indicates that he's failed every test and I've written, in giant blue letters “GO DODGERS!” I'll let him sweat a second before I replace it with his 99% passing score.

There are only four more meetings with my current class as the 13 week trimester winds down. I finally know all of their names and we're finishing up the final tests. For many, the speaking test is particularly onerous. Ordinarily poised and confident, Marina perspires and shakes. “It's just me,” I remind her. She soldiers on. When I ask her about her daughter, a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, her anxiety abates and she passes the test easily. Other students are barely able to open their mouths and I have to prod them to even grunt.

I am teaching a lesson at the whiteboard and I hear the students tittering. “What? What is it?” Finally, Donna grabs a pair of scissors and snips off a price tag from my sweater. Ever confident Donna, despite the remarkably bad (for having lived in the U.S. for fourteen years ) English remains an effective communicator. She tells me about her three adult kids in Guatemala. A boyfriend, with a cat, has moved in with her. Donna hates cats. She is disgusted when I tell her that I have three. Apparently Donna's in ultimatum mode and the boyfriend isn't primo enough for her to endure the cat.

Most of the students settle down once I get them speaking for the promotional exam but the acrid aroma of fear-sweat wafts through the classroom. I like the part of the test where I can get them to talk about themselves. A sweet guy is the oldest of eight with seven sisters. He's twenty-one. The three older sisters, a twenty year old and seventeen year old twins live with him. He supports them. The rest of the family is in Guatemala. One student works at a meatpacking plant. There are a couple truck drivers, a few mechanics and a number of gardeners. Three of my students have domestic positions with incredibly famous Hollywood personae. A couple of the women clean houses and some work in restaurants. Not a single student has reported unemployment. Most of them do physical labor yet manage to drag themselves to school for ten hours a week. A handful have green cards but I assume that most are undocumented. While there are a couple of drips in the class, most of the students are very likable. Some buzzwords used to assess the generation coming up are “lacking grit.” I realize that the segment of population that is so committed to self improvement might not attest to the character of all of the undocumented. But my students coming from where they come from, mostly not highly educated, leaving family and friends and managing to eke out a life in this strange, vast foreignness are grit personified. There is no one else to do the work that they do and the news in Spanish or English blasts constant reminders that by a large swath of the U.S. population and its chosen leader, immigrants are unwelcome.

I have to rush the groups through their presentation as there is so much testing. The Lions are supposed to read some statements about a picture and then ask the class questions. Don Gonzalo, as the students call him, has taken charge. He ignores my instructions. The Lions just read the questions and then answer themselves, losing the participatory element but they hold their heads up and speak loudly and clearly. All of their writing is more legible now and they use capital letters, periods and question marks correctly, more often than not.

The Pandas are to write a story, a conversation and a description. The group is the largest and no matter how much I encourage them to collaborate, they work independently for the most part. Between them they come up with three passable stories and a lot of incoherent crap so we bag the conversation. I flesh out the stories a bit and the Pandas take turns reading them aloud to the class. They sound pretty good and the class is responsive to their questions. Next term, if the class is just as large, I'll divide them into five groups instead of four.

The Tigers are to model some commands like “put, give, take” as preparation for the speaking test. Poor attendance has taken a toll on the Tigers and their plans to make a little movie are shelved. They nicely demonstrate a good variety of imperatives. I ask them, no little avail, to make sure that other students participate, but their demonstration is well executed.

The Bees are the highest level group and require little supervision but, they too are plagued by rampant absence. They take turns as server and receive each other's orders from a restaurant menu. Then they distribute copies of the menu (from the local Masa) and take orders from individual students. They're very enthusiastic about the menu, choosing Echo Park burgers and deep dish pizza. There are complaints about the prices being a bit steep, but the extensive menu abounds with vocabulary opportunities.

The final week is spent on make up tests and ESL computer games. On the final night they will register for new classes and there will be a party. There are a few who are hoping to be promoted to the second level but just aren't ready. I know that they will feel bad but they would be completely at sea in the next level. The hard workers will get little certificates of merit in 99¢ Store frames. Some of them just need a bit more work before moving up and some need so much literacy remediation that they'll likely never make it.

The class of eighteen months ago was small. It's takes me longer to get to know this larger class. But, now that it's only a few days more, I know that I'll feel bad when most of them go. I still don't have a rhythm down and am often ineffectual. Sometimes I happen upon something that really clicks. And there are times when I fall flat and waste an hour or so. The other teachers don't talk much to me. Many of them teach an early morning class and then drudge back with their rolling carts six hours later to teach nights. I suspect that they're just too tired to interact. I imagine that most perk up and teach energetically, but for me, even going for three hours is exhausting. It's no wonder that those who teach ESL 20 or 30 hours a week are too wiped out for small talk.

I know that if I teach a few more classes it will become more automatic, a job and less some grandiose moral atonement. For all my passion, my memories of my class of 2015 are hazy. I struggle to remember names and faces of people who for thirteen weeks are the center of my life. While I pretty much think about nothing else, the current large group too will fade I'm sure. A year from now and three classes later Martina, Don Gonzalo, Donna and all the rest, will likely become memory shadows.

I remember the name and can see the face of every teacher I ever had from kindergarten through college. I recall a few wounds, mostly pertaining to my backwardness at mathematics and handwriting, but mostly it's moments of revelation and epiphany that these instructors proffered that remain remarkably vivid, still in my mind's eye. While I am destined to forget most of my students I suppose that I will be remembered. The onus of this, particularly in these times of Trump, overwhelms me. To the best of my knowledge I've not been fired. The new trimester starts next week. I worry that being effective, even as I have a bit of experience to work with, will require too much of me. I dream about coming home from work, making dinner and tv binging instead of forty five minutes of rush hour traffic and gulping a quick sandwich a few minutes before being on my feet for a three hour class. I may well lack the grit to persevere. Still, the Pandas are speaking and writing much more clearly. The rest will likely thrive in the next level and more and more will better navigate the strange vastness, essential yet reviled.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Carmela in Paris

We're binging on The Sopranos. My second go-round. Himself's first. In the sixth season, Carmela visits Paris. She looks around a bustling restaurant and muses that the crowd exists only because she is present to experience it. Then she flip flops, realizing that in the vastness of time and space her existence is virtually meaningless. Beside the Seine, Carmela talks about her life, now that her kids are grown. “You worry and worry, and then what...?” Carmela hides a cache of weapons before an anticipated raid, she swipes $40K that Tony has hidden in the bird-feeder to play the stock market. Tony is hospitalized and Carmela stashes manilla envelopes stuffed with cash, proffered by his henchmen, into her purse. Conflicted, she is advised by her priest not to divorce but also not to partake of Tony's ill gotten gains. She stays in the marriage but continues to live lavishly. She's one of the most complicated fictional characters that I've encountered. Her face, as she ponders her future as something other than a mother, says more about the last few years of my life than I've written here or will ever write.

Both of my children are far away, living in houses that I've never set foot in. I do not know what they eat or wear or where they go, but for an occasional Facetime call. I understand Carmela's feeling of emptiness and lack of purpose, exacerbated by motherhood induced PTSD. My own mother worried about me constantly. It felt like she expressed this merely to draw attention back to herself. I considered her constant cautionary advice as evidence that she had no faith in my ability to navigate the world. I suppose my own boys feel the same way when I guide and caution. I try to convey my pride but remember too that my own parents expressed pride in me, there was an off-ness to it. They were never proud about what I took pride in myself. Nevertheless, I try my best to let my children know that I like who they've become and be sparing when vocalizing my fears. I know that both thrive and are where they need to be. I still wish that they were here.

Sometimes it feels like I'm just going through the motions of finding purpose. The owner of another archive library, a friend of many years, dies suddenly and mysteriously this week. I look around my own office and wonder who will be burdened with all of this stuff. I am alone in the house for nearly a week while Himself is at a conference. It feels enormous, and like the office, crammed with detritus. I've lived here for more than a quarter century. Bad roof. Peeling paint. Deck on the verge of collapse. My head spins, yet I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

An online course to earn a professional certification for teaching English as a Second Language is nearly complete. Teaching videos are required. The course is largely peer graded and none of the other videos are of actual classrooms, instead students merely film themselves pretending to teach. Unfortunately, many of them speak English poorly but we are instructed again and again that English proficiency has no bearing on the criteria. I can't imagine just filming myself so, I pass a student my cellphone to film when I am teaching a lesson germane to the weeks' topic. I notice that there is a decline in student proficiency for some reason when the camera is on. I present exercises similar to ones they've done again and again and they suddenly become dolts. The videos require a bit of editing. My final video submission is actually pretty good. The students are responsive, verbal and having a good time. I am more effective than in any of the other videos that I've submitted. When I screen it myself I see that my bra strap droops through the entire lesson. I'm going to use the video anyway. At least I'm a native speaker.

Sometimes I drive home from my teaching job blissed out. I also think about quitting a lot. There are only three weeks left of the trimester. I realize, after the fact, that I've signed a two year contract. No one has said anything so I assume I'm returning but if I were let go, my feelings would be crushed but I confess I'd breathe a sigh of great relief. It is just within the last few days that I know all their names. There are three additional tests to administer and I'm trying to keep things interesting and useful but for the most part, I am teaching to, what in my opinion, is a very badly written battery of tests.

I spend all day preparing a quiz called “Kahoot!” which I project from the classroom computer onto the whiteboard. There is a listening component to the looming promotional test so I incorporate video with dialogue and accompanied by comprehension questions. I spend all day on the thing, shooting video of my employees and the dog and creating questions of the sort they'll be subjected to on the test. I check it on a couple of different computers to make sure it plays properly. I tout it throughout the night to keep students awake and excited. They love these games. I start up the game and they all log on with their phones. The Internet crashes. We try again. The game begins but despite being properly logged on to override it, the district firewall blocks the video. I throw candy at them, and despite admonishments from on high to keep students in class until the bell rings, I send them home.

Gonzalo three years older than I am. The other students refer to him as the “old man.” He's Honduran but has been in the U.S. for decades. I let him into the classroom every night about twenty minutes before class begins. Gonzalo has never missed a class. He painstakingly copies, in an old fashioned handwriting, the night's objectives which I've written on the board. It's not necessary but I figure that the writing practice won't kill him. He communicates effectively in spoken English but he struggles very much with understanding instructions and reading. He worries about not ascending to the second level. He's attended level one classes for several years. We're both determined that he succeed although there might be an element of “social promotion.” He holds forth one night and says, in remarkably cogent English, that he loves everyone and that people love him back. “My life is very good. Learning English, it's important.”

I guess that, unlike Carmela, with her Porsche Cayenne and Givenchy bags, as ineffectual as I often feel, what I do is of consequence. I am drained and frustrated more than satisfied lately. My kids are likely gone for good. With every passing year, more of my peers will die and the odds of my own continued survival diminish with the passing of time. Angst and doubt are as familiar as my own aging face in the mirror. But Gonzalo says that I'm important. I'll get to school early on Monday and try to get that friggin' game to work.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who? You.

The telephone in my classroom won't make outgoing calls but unfortunately, incoming are not a problem. I am setting up my classroom and I am summoned to the office. I rush out, expecting the worst. I am presented with a large box of candy bars that I am expected to sell for some fund raiser. “Didn't you get the notice in your mailbox?” I mutter something vaguely affirmative, as I likely did get the flyer, which along with all of the others I receive, I skim and relegate to the recycling box. “I really hate selling stuff. Can I just give you money?” “Yes, of course, give us money. And you have to sell all of these candy bars to your students...” I stick them on a shelf and forget about them. We're on a food and nutrition chapter and we watch a video about how much sugar foods contain. Having made the worst sales pitch in history, I whip out the box of candy bars. The students have a good laugh and buy about half of them. Olivia reads the label and points out that each bar contains 54 grams of sugar. We know that the average adult should consume no more than 25 grams of sugar in a day. Gilberto snaps his bar and holds out half to Olivia. She hesitates but then her resolve diminishes. “I eat no sugar tomorrow Teacher...”


Once a month, we dismiss class two hours early to attend some acronym-I-forget meeting. Students are not informed that class is cut short as we need to register their attendance. Alex often texts me that he's missing class or arriving late due to his erratic work schedule. He is rushing toward the room as I am locking up. I go back to my class and record his attendance. I text the class a homework assignment which makes me feel a bit less guilty about the short class. The students won't complete it. They recognize a bill of goods.

I teach ESL Level 1B. There is a long list of objectives to be fulfilled in a thirteen week trimester. In order to ascend to the next level students must endure four separate tests; reading, listening, writing and speaking. The objectives are out of date and unrealistic. The testing instruments are badly produced and full of questions so tricky that I need to refer to an answer key myself. The good news is that the objectives and testing instruments are being revamped. Alternatives for submission to Downtown are being created by teachers at a number of different adult schools. At our own school, the morning and the evening instructors have different meetings. We meet for 90 minutes once a month. The first meeting is devoted to revising a fifteen page course outline. The second hour and a half is dedicated to re-writing a comprehensive battery of exams. I ask if we are planning a digital or paper test. Paper. Test booklets and Scantron forms. Oh well. It's not like we have the time and resources to create anyway substantive or relevant anyway.

I receive an email with the subject: Celebreate Adult Education and Family Literacy Week with Pearson ELT! They publish my textbook. I happen upon a Pearson rep at an adult ed conference that I attend. I show her how it is impossible, without transparencies or a digital component, to correct exercises in the workbook that accompanies the text, without tearing the pages out of the book. I keep my mouth shut about the clunky layout and cheapo illustration. The rep asks me how I like the digital platform. Apparently the textbook is now sold with a key for a website with exercises and games to augment the text. Our school still sells the version with an accompanying CD which no student ever has removed from the sealed envelope. CDs and Scantrons are about has high tech as we get at the Technology Center.

Some teachers have a real skill at designing educational materials but lots of teacher generated content I've seen on the Internet or my own campus sucks. It is very hard to find material that truly addresses adults. Even adult school teachers use childish crude illustrations and silly fonts. I spend an embarrassing amount of time looking for images to appropriate for writing prompts. I search for things that will suggest a story that students can tell using their limited vocabulary and that reproduces well in greyscale. Dorthea Lange. Nope. Ansel Adams. Nope. Walker Evans. Nope. Thomas Harte Benton illustrations? Nope. Edward Hopper? Nope. Reginald Marsh? David Hockney? Cindy Sherman? Nope. Nope. Nope. The search at least is very entertaining and concludes when I hit the motherlode. Norman Rockwell.

Last night, it's an old litho of Dad, bathrobe over a wife-beater, holding a breakfast tray aloft. A little girl hoists a handmade sign that says “Happy Birthday Mom,” and her two siblings beam. “The family is making breakfast for the mother's birthday. The dad is holding a tray. The children are very happy. They're smiling The family is very happy.”

Most of this week is spent on a dreadful practice test to prepare students for the genuine promotional test to taken in three weeks. The practice test is actually worse than the real test. I am embarrassed to pass the booklets around. For the real test, we've signed a proctoring oath. It is imperative that the test not be leaked. We are to confiscate the students' phones during test time. The threat of a 1B student advancing to 2A by nefarious means is apparently code red.

Donna works at the Fatburger in downtown. She is one of the “older ladies” who are mostly fifteen years younger than I am. Donna's been at the Fatburger for a while. She asks if I'd like a burger. I tell her that I don't eat meat so she offers a veggie burger. If it materializes the burger will have travelled on two rush hour buses and I will have to eat it, every bite. Donna attends erratically as her work hours fluctuate. Most of the young single guys do a lot better on written work than Donna and many of them speak more correctly. Donna, however is delightfully and completely unabashed about speaking English. “Me working late. Me no going to school the Tuesday.” She never speaks Spanish, even to the other students. She has resourcefully communicated to me that there's is a lot of turnover at the Fatburger and that a lot of the other workers are lazy morons. She works a lot of overtime. She's divorced. No kids. Rents a room. I love her so much that I hug her just about every night that she manages to make it to class. Still, I hope that she forgets about the burger.

Martina is put together. Always perfectly coiffed. She looks much more like a proper teacher than I do, with my hippie shirts and jeans and wild hair. Smart and poised, Martina is identified as a class leader right away. Her eldest daughter begins freshman year at the University of Santa Barbara which I make a big deal about. Because it is a big deal but most of her friends don't know what a big deal it is. When I ask the students who should represent them at the student council, Martina is the obvious choice. She attends the first meeting and returns and delivers the report, even using quite a bit of English. Later she takes me aside.
Martina: Why can't one of the young guys do the student council?
Teacher: Who?
Martina: They don't have kids. I do.
Teacher. OK. Who?
Martina: Really, have one of them do it.
Teacher: Who?
Martina: Bho.
Teacher: Owl.
Martina: Owl.

She's agrees to stay on for another meeting and then the trimester is over. There'd be a riot if she quit. We all like that she represents us with dignity and flare.

I have divided the class into four student groups based on level of ability. Each group is charged with teaching a component of material germane to the impending promotional test to their fellow classmates. The Lions are my non-readers. I think that they may be embarrassed by being clustered together but as it turns out they love being with others who also struggle with reading and writing. One of the ladies admits that my school is the first that she's ever attended. I help them pronounce sentences (which they're remarkably good at) and copy questions (which they're remarkably bad at—but getting better). I have a teacher texting app on their phones and I text them little recordings of English conversations to practice and make them handwriting worksheets to take home. They're very nervous about speaking before the whole class but I know they'll be fine.

The Pandas are the middle of the road group, all male and disorganized. They need to write a story about a woman doing housework but daydreaming about riding a horse up to a castle. The Pandas produce a couple of lame sentences. The lady she washing dishes. The lady she do the laundry. “Use your imagination. I-MAG-IN-ATION. It's a cognate.” I suggest that perhaps the woman is pissed off because she knows that her husband is over at his girlfriend's. They're on a roll now.

The high performing Tigers (nee Butterflies) are in full production mode. They've got a good shooting script that will teach the class imperatives. They've declined my offers of assistance, as have the top of the line Bees who busily create a lesson about ordering at a restaurant. I try to make preparing for the onerous and incessant tests as productive as possible but still the relentless testing is an obstacle to students getting what they actually want and need, which for most of them is to speak and understand.

I give them a big lecture about how it's ok to ask for clarification. I explain that even as a native speaker I often don't hear or understand what I am being told, my decrepitude tacit. We write down and practice “Excuse me?” “Please repeat that.” “I don't understand.” “I didn't hear.” “Pardon me.?” Sometimes I know that they're just humoring me and barely able to stay awake. But giving them permission to persist in exercising their right to understand seems to have resonated.

After a week of testing we play a simple speaking game. I have a Powerpoint and everyone has to say one thing about a picture. We're all relaxed and having fun and I manage to get every student to pipe up. Such a tiny thing is so exhilarating. More and more I can compartmentalize the little things that tick me off. It's sort of like a reality show where you're challenged to do your best with what you have. The administration is intimidating but as my jitters subside, my priorities are more shaped by my students and not the bureaucracy on high. With less than a month left, I'm finally getting to know most of my forty-plus students. Many of them are certain to advance to the next level. The Bees and Tigers are definitely going and most of the Pandas will squeak through. I feel bittersweet about the Lions. As a whole, they have the best attendance and work the hardest. They are respectful and appreciative. For most of them, simply being able to write a legible sentence is a huge accomplishment. I hate to tell them that their herculean efforts are inadequate for promotion, but I'm glad to keep them for another term.