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 The objectives are out of date and unrealistic.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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Faith is People


As long as a feckless megalomaniac remains at the helm of my country, I don't expect to experience a moment of bliss or joy that's pure. That said, as the week winds down I feel less a hopeless failure and experience flashes of (Trump adjusted...) satisfaction. Since the hurricanes I listen to music instead of CNN while working. Callous indeed but any news that isn't a foreboding of the president's humiliating ouster isn't of a lot of interest. A review of a new Joni Mitchell biography inspires me to revisit more of her oeuvre. Blue is in my Napster library, but in my memory, the earlier stuff is too hippie sugary and the later albums too jazzy. I listen to a compilation of all of her studio albums from 1968 through 1979 and realize, that while there are traces of excessive syrup and jazz, my mind's ear has played tricks on me and with very few exceptions I am in awe of the intelligence and originality so evident in the body of her work. I'm still embarrassed at my lovesick/loveless pathetic self during the era of Joni supremacy. While a lot of her sophistication eluded me, I respect teenage me more for having intuited her genius.

Like the psyches of most women my age, Joni's lyrics are deeply etched on my own. Our dementia addled parents might spark to coherence with a few strains of Moonglow . Perhaps “He gave me back my smile but he kept my camera to sell...” might inspire my own return to the cogent. The Laurel Canyon music scene is memorialized by Graham's Nash's Our House which I would happily never hear again. The first lines of “Ladies of the Canyon” has stayed with me and not in a good way. “Trina wears her wampum beads. She fills her drawing book with line...” There are additional traces of naivete and silliness in those early albums. Other artistic salons, Bloomsbury and the Algonquin Table, come to mind. These artist groups also generated inconsistent product. Like the Laurel Canyon music scene, these movements turned out work flawed perhaps by immaturity and/or the over consumption of mind altering substances. Still, these collectives provide some of the best representations of the zeitgeist of a time and a place. I listen to the Joni compilation a couple of times. There's no word in English. Weltsmertz is close but it is melancholy infused with more sweetness and the remembrance of that warm explosion of hopeful love.

A student complains to the principal that I am ineffectual. She is rude and raises her voice to me during class. After a comedy of errors, she is extracted, via security guard. The other teacher that the unruly woman is transferred to indicates that, after signing a written contract delineating appropriate behavior, the student is passive and cooperative. I have mixed feelings about this. I am glad that the student has a chance of learning some English and that the other teacher doesn't have to contend with such belligerence. But, the student's improved comportment makes me continue to question the validity of her indictment.

Since the incident, teaching becomes sheer dread. I sit on the Pasadena freeway hoping for a bomb scare that necessitates an evacuation. Lesson planning sucks up even more hours. I berate myself for still not remembering all of the students names. The class dwindles to about forty regulars. Still, there is a Wilder, a Wilmer and two Wilsons plus the normal double or triple Juan, Carlos and Teresa. Every night there are memos about looming tests and forms to fill in. The job becomes so odious that I, more than once, consider quitting.

If this were fiction there would be more foreshadowing but it's just a moment and I'm not really sure what confluence leads up to it. The chapter is about food. There is a photo to inspire them to talk about being hungry and what they want to eat. A young man and woman are talking. She's holding her stomach. The conversation is “I'm hungry. Yeah, me too.” I tweak the dialogue. “I'm pregnant. It's yours.” I am delighted that they remember “pregnant” from last week's unit on health. Oh yeah. This is a fun and satisfying thing that I do four nights a week. I know going in that bureaucracy and commitment to mediocrity will make me cranky but in a nonce, I get the classroom back. I love teaching. Not every student gets a lot from the class. My life is a litany of half assed or hearted efforts. I've never given my all, and my best, as ardently as I have to teaching.

My class is split into four groups based on level of ability. In a predominately male class, I thoughtlessly name the second highest group “The Butterflies.” I mention the grumbles last week and receive a personal message from a friend containing a citation for “butterfly” from an urban slang dictionary. The group is renamed Tigers. Their final project is to create an instructional video for the rest of the class to illustrate the physical commands students are expected to master for the speaking test. Usually the students start to discreetly slip out of class about ten minutes before the final bell. The Tigers work on storyboards with such intense focus that I have to kick them out.

The middle of the road Pandas are struggling a bit. Their assignment is to lead the class through a writing assignment similar to one required on the exam. This is a large group and no one has emerged as leader. Octavio has worked late for a week but is now returned to the Pandas and I suspect he'll whip them into shape.

Octavio is my tech man. He diagnoses lose connections on my projector and deletes dropped students from my messaging list. Enrollment is open so new students often drift in. On automatic pilot, Octavio asks for their phones explaining to the befuddled newcomers that “she uses apps so lets get it over with.” Octavio, in his early twenties, is opened face, and has a smile that his eyes tell you is the real McCoy. His speaking and writing ability is only slightly above dead center of the class and this frustrates him. He could probably hack it as a Tiger but he's so well liked that I think that his Panda-hood will bolster his ego and serve the other students well.

We have a messaging app and I communicate with various students throughout the day. If someone does particularly well on a written assignment I'll take a photo of it and transmit it to the whole class. Octavio texts me wistfully for three days in a row, “Teacher, I working late,” and ultimately, “I come tomorrow.” I inform the class (after not being able to get my computer connected one night) that Octavio is returning and there is applause.

A number of students hug him and pat him on the back when he returns. Many offer the seat next to them but after they embrace affectionately he sits next to Carlos H. (as opposed to Carlos R and Carlos M). I am able to differentiate Carlos H from all of his namesakes and the Wilsons and other W boys because the H is for handsome. He's tall and well built. His face is subtly chiseled and he carries himself with easy aplomb. He is a Tiger, nee Butterfly. Octavio and Carlos H. are usually attentive, volunteering to answer questions and prodding other students to remain engaged. On the night of Octavio's return however their heads are together and the hum of whispered conversation and futile attempts to stifle laughter emanates from their table. I approach to castigate them and see how they are looking at each other and let it slide. Later I break everyone into pairs to practice a conversation. I decide to split up Octavio and Carlos H so at least they accomplish something with regard to the acquisition of English. Carlos H protests. “I want with him Teacher.” Nearby students chime in, annoyed that I would consider separating them.

I attend an adult education workshop that addresses lowering effective filters. I get a few really good ideas about making students feel more comfortable. The need to make students feel welcome and at ease is now greater than ever. This orange elephant in the room is addressed obliquely. My instinct that cultivating a comfort zone is first and foremost is confirmed. I don't address this with my students but I assume that most are undocumented. I previously teach before the Republican Convention and Trump is a constant source of comic relief. I assure my former class with certitude that he will never be president.

Now, I am in the classroom for nearly three months and there is no mention whatsoever of the president. One night though, class is over and the room is nearly empty. One of the W's asks me, “Teacher. You like Trump?” One becomes quite adept at pantomime while teaching a low level English course. I simulate vomiting,and really ham it up, adding authentic sound effects. Everyone laughs but then I lock eyes with Wilder (or is it one of the Wilsons?) the coda to his laughter is a look so baleful that it makes me wonder. We have the LAPD on campus, telling the students, firmly and repeatedly in Spanish that they are not immigration agents. Reporting crimes against them, they are assured, will not place the undocumented in jeopardy. Their cops want them to feel safe. I work my own tail off to insure this. But is this folly? I'm not really sure how afraid that they should really be. Does the comfort of feeling needed and respected just make them more vulnerable? I am fearful myself. These are terrifying times. Still, I choose kindness as at least a cushion against things the things that I cannot control.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Danto Disgust

A number of ESL teachers at my school teach a three hour morning course that starts at 8 AM and then return at 6 PM and teach for another three hours. I only teach ten hours a week and perform my day job on automatic pilot. By the time Thursday night rolls around I sit in the parked car for a few minutes before mustering the energy to drag myself into the house. I am on my feet and animated for three hours, four nights a week, having spent nearly twice as long assembling lessons. Often something that I spend hours assembling falls 100% flat and I have to move on and plow through materials meant to last a week. This week we're stuck on adverbs of frequency and what I plan as a one hour review drags on for days.

Student demand the game Kahoot! at the end of class which they play on their phones. I compose multiple choice questions and add illustrations. It takes about an hour to make one but every night they chant “Kahoot! Kahoot! Kahoot!” It would probably be a good idea to tell them that “Kahoot!” is a made up word. I can imagine someone asking on a job interview if there is a pre-employment “Kahoot!” One of my students, a sweet man, seven years older than myself, has loaded the App to his phone and plays along good-naturedly holding his phone inches from his face and gazing through thick glasses. The question flashes for only 20 seconds. Things like, pick the correct sentence:
A. The girls always walks to school.
B. The girls they always walk to school.
  1. The girls walk to school
  1. The girls walking to school.

Students struggle with this stuff in class lessons. But amazingly, there are often a number of them who have difficulty with speaking and writing but zip through the Kahoots!, never missing a question. They input the answers much faster than I'm able to when I try a practice game. A little competitive adrenaline rush and they're geniuses.

Many students attend only sporadically so their language acquisition is catch-as-catch can. For a lot of them it is impossible to attend four nights a week so they show up when they're able. Terminal Level Ones. This is the best that they can do. I try each night to present something self contained, and requiring no scaffolding. One night I explain rent control. Another, I show them Craigslist except for the personals section. We talk the American Labor movement. I tell them about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the Triangle Fire. I explain the star ratings on YELP. We talk about how in other countries people get free medical care and six weeks a year of paid vacation and don't seem to mind paying a lot more in taxes.

Inevitably, either the more sophisticated students are bored or the less advanced ones stare blankly. One night the projector and speakers in my classroom go on the fritz and it's just me and the white board. On the fly, I jot down some simple sentences. “I walk to school every night. He walks to school every night. I am walking to school now. He is walking to school now.” After a stultifying number of repetitions, and switching out verbs and pronouns, it's starting to dawn on them. But, I give them a worksheet to review the following night, a disappointing number of them write “I walks to school now.”

Most teachers prefer to teach the higher levels of English. These students are easier to communicate with and have demonstrated perseverance. The higher levels intimidate me because don't trust myself to explain more complicated grammar and my spelling is bad. I'm good with the simple present and present progressive. I'm nervous that we won't get to the simple past tense because it shows up in a single question on the promotional test.

My students come and go. A handful of them attend religiously and will do well on the promotional exam. There is also a handful of stalwarts who apparently are in level 1B by virtue of social promotion and are hopelessly destined to fail. I will make them fancy attendance certificates. I divide the students into ability groups named after animals. The Lions are the lowest level. I spend the most time with them. We practice conversations. I tell them “My husband washes the dishes every day.” And they tell me that I'm pretty lucky. We copy sentences. “I live in Los Angeles.” I help them form letters and to start a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a period. I use as many cognates as I can with the Lions. The simple present and not the present progressive... “FRE-QUEN-CY, FRE-QUEN-CY,” wild eyed frenzied nodding. The spark! A Lion blurts “Frequencia!” I exhale loudly and pump my fist.

The Pandas is the largest group. All male. It is easiest to elicit conversation from an all female group. There's the ease that women have with each other. In a mixed group some of the guys puff out their chests and speak with bravado. “I drives my motorcycle to school.” The all-male Pandas just sit there. They glower at each other until I screech and wave my arms. “Speak! Speak English! That is why you're here!” When I get really annoyed with them, I remind them that as taxpayers, they pay my salary and it is wasteful not to capitalize on their investment.

The Butterflies are slightly more advanced than the Pandas. For many, their language skills exceed their reading and writing abilities. The Butterflies also lack a female member. They're men in their twenties and thirties. They aren't thrilled being referred to as Butterflies. The Lions are mostly women. I'm not sure how this happened. Note to self: No more cutesy animal names.

The women are divided between the super high and super low groups. The Lions are the students I euphemistically consider “pre-literate.
The Bees are the most sophisticated group, pretty much half men and half women. I toss them their assignment and leave them to it. They have to talk about a picture with a woman holding an overflowing basket of laundry. The floor is littered with toys. She has a kerchief on her head. She grimaces. Her name is Anika. Her husband is Izaak which is maybe Russian because he has on a tacky tracksuit. Izaak is happily walking out the door, waving goodbye. How can Anika revenge herself? Make him do yard-work? Insist that they go out to dinner and drink a lot of expensive wine? Wash all of the clothes in the laundry hamper except his?

After they ponder the fate of Izaak and Anika they are assigned some research. They are to find local restaurants that serve wine, laundromats and marriage counselors. My class is 100% Hispanic and about 60% male. When I glance over at The Bees I notice how the women are conspicuously in charge. The men are almost differential. The lady Bees are very self confident.

Most of the Butterflies and all of the Bees will pass the promotional test and move on to the next level. The Pandas are a crapshoot. I think all of them are capable of passing the battery of tests but regular attendance is going to be the determiner.

I am embarrassed at the first school meeting of the year when I ask where in the textbook I should start for my 1B class. I am told, with officiousness that we “do not follow the textbook, we follow the curriculum.” Nevertheless, the students are required to fork out $36 for a textbook and workbook. I like for them to feel that they're getting their money's worth. Even if the book completely dovetailed with the several single spaced pages of objectives, the list of expected accomplishments is insanely unrealistic.

Beyond the curriculum there are a series of life skills lessons that must be completed each trimester. Our task is health but the objective is very narrow. Students are expected to identify various services offered by health clinics and fill out a very rudimentary medical history form. I spend about a week getting them ready for this test. While this certainly isn't the case for many ESL classes, my students are all Hispanic. Given their largely Spanish speaking alternative universe, information and forms are nearly always available in Spanish. Honing the ability to communicate with a child's teacher, or manage a job interview, I suspect would be of greater value.

It's all about accountability. My students have already been subjected to two different tests. They will take one more test to assess their progress after ten weeks. Then, in order to qualify for promotion they will have to pass a ten-minute speaking test, a listening test and finally, a writing test. I am the first to admit that I'm green and anxious and often don't know what I'm doing. But I am pretty certain that the a number of the objectives are unrealistic, irrelevant and/or obsolete for a class of mostly digital natives. There is too much emphasis on testing. Apparently the objectives are being reconsidered but when I participate in a group tasked with evaluating possible changes, the meeting is commandeered aggressively and with an eye for not staying on campus for one more minute than necessary. I am unable to contribute any input at all.

Ironically, when students first enter the class, we are to question them about their personal goals and motivation for studying English although there's virtually no wiggle room to customize instruction. Perhaps when we leave the stone age we'll have students create digital portfolios to showcase their accomplishments instead of ceaselessly testing them. A pretest indicates that 72% of my students are unable to interpret information from a phone message. 70% are unable to decipher a question pertaining to medical insurance. There is a post-test in a couple of weeks and it is very much to the schools' benefit if scores improve. I am frantically getting them ready for the promotional tests. I don't have the time to present units on phone messages and insurance. Perhaps this information would be of value to my students, but given the paucity of phone messages these days and the fact that very few of them have, or are eligible for, insurance without giving them the exact question I have no choice but to stoop and teach for the test.

While I bristle at the bureaucracy of the district and some of the wheel spinning that takes place on my own campus, the support I get is excellent. Copies are made. I've had a few things laminated. There is a library of materials I can help myself to. When either of the two computers in my room malfunction, tech support responds immediately. At my former school I brought my laptop from home and used my phone to hotspot. I love being able to instantly access an image in response to their questions. A student from Honduras talks about the “dantos” at home. I look up “danto” and get images of tapirs. The Honduran dantos are particularly hideous and I turn up my nose. “We eat them,” he tells me. “Ick!” I scoff. He whips out his cellphone and shows me a picture of his brother standing with a proudly hunted deer being disemboweled. “Oh my God!” I recoil involuntarily and then feel like a venal princess, flaunting the luxury of being fussy about what I will or will not eat.

There are only about five more weeks of actual teaching. I will try to make a bit more headway with the textbook but mostly we'll be preparing for the tests. I'm going to have the Bees make a video to help their fellow students with the commands section of the speaking test. The Butterflies will make a Powerpoint with some conversations and questions. The Pandas will caption some illustrations that we'll post on the walls. I'll sit with the Lions and copy short sentences and ask them simple questions. I hope I can make it genial and meaningful for them to return to me for the next trimester while most of their classmates move on.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Trump Adjustment

The writing that I've not been doing here for about five months accounts for my longest writing-less period for over a decade. And it's the chicken and the egg thing. Am I sad because I'm not writing or not writing because I'm sad? The host of a political podcast, when asked how she is, says “Good. Trump adjusted.”

After graduation Spuds and I drive his beater Toyota back from New York. We spend time with friends and family, eat well, see a lot of art and cruise through Zion and Bryce Canyon. This will matter as one of the great experiences of my life. But when we stop in small towns and gas stations in parts red I feel a tinge of disgust.

I am not hired back at the adult school I worked my butt off for last year. There is no response when I submit my resume there for a newly opened position. With no optimism whatsoever I send a few resumes for other adult ESL teaching positions. I am summoned for an interview. I mention using a few educational apps which are about as complicated as Facebook or Amazon and, ta-da, I am hired because I am a “tech person,” gray hair and all. The word “Technology” is in the school's name. I submit a long term lesson plan and the administrator is in awe that I am able to create a table in a word processing program without using a template. Another teacher informs me that you are considered a “tech person” if you can attach a document to an e-mail.

An early piece of school correspondence via e-mail however has TWO attachments. The body of the e-mail announces a back to school meeting and notes the date and time. The first attachment announces a back to school meeting and notes the date and time. The second attached document contains the agenda for the meeting. Has anyone ever looked at the agenda of meeting beforehand anyway? I guess if you're making a presentation maybe...The rest of us look at an agenda slavishly while the meeting is in progress, praying for expediency and checking items off, one by one.

I like the teaching. I anticipate that the district bureaucracy and Keystone Kop efficiency will chap my hide. It does. I am refused photocopying from a book of copiable worksheets that accompany my textbook because the book itself is copyrighted. My nightly attendance averages 45 for a low level class. There are about twenty students in class last year. Over six weeks in and I still don't know all of their names. There are a couple of boys in their early twenties who are less deferential than any hispanic student I have ever had but I keep them busy. When I check their birthdates on their registration slips most of the women who I think are my age are about fifteen years younger. They all sit together.and read and write at a second grade level. They are shy about speaking. They understand everything. I have to be careful about muttering under my breath.

There is one woman in between the younger and the older in both age and ability. I call her Sourpuss. During the break she holds court in my room and students from other classes come in. There is some sort of commerce quietly in process. One night an administrator pulls me out of class to tell me that a student has complained about me, that she understands nothing and hasn't learned a thing. I am devastated and barely able to get through another two hours of teaching. I express to the boss how upset I am by this remonstrance and also subtly suggest that interrupting a teacher in the middle of class for this might be a crummy idea. The administrator swears me to secrecy and informs me that the complainer is Sourpuss. A change of teacher is not offered but the administrator assures Sourpuss that she will speak to me.

I spend hours deconstructing the lessons I've taught. The other students are learning. They seem to like me. It's a huge class and I don't know all of their names but I manage to exchange at least a sentence or two with each student in the course of a class. I rely on name tags to help me with names. The reverse side has question marks which students flash at me discreetly when they need extra help I also use the tags for breaking the students into groups. I am putting group labels on the students' name tags and Sourpuss's is gone. She enters the room and I greet her and she glares at me silently. I ask her where her name tag is and she sneers and shrugs. I explain that the lanyards are mine and not the school's so if she finds it at home to please return it. I make her a new name tag. She throws it back at me. “Why do I have to wear this?” I explain in Spanish to make certain that I'm understood. She refuses to wear it. The other students are astonished. I let it slide. While I am teaching, her phone rings, she answers it and conducts a conversation in her outdoor voice. During the break, she holds forth close to my desk. A few feet from me, Sourpuss goes on loudly in Spanish about how ineffectual I am and her displeasure at not being transferred to a better teacher. Then she returns to the whisper she uses to sell whatever the hell it is that she sells.

I tell the administrator that Sourpuss must go and there is no argument. She agrees to speak to her but is going to be off campus for a few days. I'm to tell Sourpuss to leave and go speak in the office on Tuesday. Knowing that Sourpuss is a very loose cannon there's no way I'm going to tell her to leave campus for three days. I ask an advisor in the office if I can send her over to him. He agrees to tell her that she had to go. She arrives and I tell her to go to the office. I'm ignored. I tell her again. “Break” she says. I tell her that she must go immediately. She leaves a bunch of bags. I try to call the office and ask that she be escorted back to my room to collect her stuff but my classroom phone is broken. While I am digging for my cellphone, Sourpuss returns, grabs an assignment and takes a seat. I ask the teacher next door to watch my class and rush to the office. I am assured that Sourpuss is informed that she's to return on Tuesday. A few minutes later another administrator and a security guard show up to extract her, without drama fortunately, from my room. As far as I know she hasn't returned to meet with the administrator. I think that when the security guard shows up she figures out that the evening's events are at my behest and not her own. I cannot remember being faced with such overt animosity since junior high. Sourpuss either misconstrues something I say and/or is wounded and unhinged. I tell myself, as I would tell a friend, not to take it personally but an unease lingers. A couple of weeks of peaceful and effective classes will likely set me right. And I'm going to figure out some pretense to take all of their pictures and learn their friggin' names.

One advantage of the four night teaching gig is less CNN. I admit that I resented all those stupid storms because the focus shifted from coverage of the steady drip, drip, drip, that will lead to Trump's inevitable comeuppance. I am addicted to indignation. I wonder how all the pundits and satirists, who've hit pay dirt, will fare when things return to normal. But perhaps, this won't be in my lifetime. Ray Moore of Alabama waffles on whether LGBT people should be executed and is removed from the bench for vociferously refusing to acknowledge marriage equality. He will likely be elected to the U.S. Senate. Nevertheless, I voraciously pour over reputable publications' coverage of Trump and it is hard to imagine that something won't stick.

Spuds' birthday has fallen on Yom Kippur before, as it does this year. As I write this he is on a plane to New York where he will celebrate his 22nd birthday with friends. After four months in L.A. he determines that his heart is in New York and on very short notice, his employer transfers him to Brooklyn. I've checked out the lease for him. It's a done deal. The clippers jam the night before he leaves and for the first time in many years, Himself will have to leave the house and spring for a haircut. I don't cry in front of Spuds. For the first time in many years we are indefinitely without a kid in the house. My business and teaching occupy me. I'm almost finished with an online TESOL certificate program. It is satisfying, in my small way, to assure immigrants that they're welcome, needed and respected. And I appear to be writing again. But there's an undercurrent of sadness and dread. I don't know if it's the likely permanent empty nest or the tragedy that the country I'd always taken for granted as essentially ok, is so essentially not. Maybe it's because now when I look in the mirror I see my mother's face and am reminded of having not having proffered for her adequate compassion. Perhaps a day of fasting and reflection would prove tonic but I'd probably just obsess on coffee and food.   

Friday, April 7, 2017

sixtynothing Episode 25 Scrabble


Hair's good. 

Not too red?

No, it's nice and she did a good job on your eyebrows too.  God, I don't remember the last time my heart went pitty pat with the anticipation of a boyfriend. I'm jealous.

I'm a nervous wreck.  It's so stupid. God, I'm sixty two years old.  But this will be our longest time together and I can't stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.  

Well, we get to meet Matt this time.  You promised.

I can't stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.

Well, Aunt Norma will keep your mind off of it for a few hours.

Yeah, belittling me a Scrabble.  Really Helen.  I don't want to play.

Oh come on Nezzie. It's just a game.

Bull.  You guys are evil.


I brought those Vietnamese sandwiches she likes and I baked the almond cookies for you guys.

What a sweet girl you are.  Listen darling, Hilda is still helping Auntie with her ablutions and I have to make a quick trip to the pharmacy.  Norma will be out in a few minutes so just make yourselves at home for a bit.  


God, I love it here.  It's exquisite but totally lived in.  And man, what a view.

Lemme show you her office.


That's Norma and my mom, and my Uncle Seymour and my Grandma.

You look like your Grandma.  

My mom was always embarrassed by her.  Said she was frumpy and unsophisticated. And Norma, of course, was a disheveled beatnik.

Well, Edie was fancy schmancy.

You know that she and Norma went for decades without speaking.  Something about a nose job.  I never got the straight story. But in the end, just as Edie was starting to lose it, somehow they patched things up. Norma was with her when she died.

INEZ (pointing to a photo of Norma in her WAC uniform)
Norma right?

Yup.  Serving her country.  She was at a base on the British coast.  That's where she met Randolph.

I saw Censor.

Oh, she hated that movie.  They turned it into a romance.  She was furious. I have the book if you ever want to read it.  It's really harrowing.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to read and censor all those letters to and from the soldiers at the front?  She was younger than Hannah.  But she did get her PhD on the G.I. Bill.

It never even occurred to me that women in the service would be eligible for that education stuff.

They had to fight for it and make a lot of fuss.

INEZ (pointing to another photo)
Oh my God!  That's Norma with Eleanor Roosevelt!

Yeah, Norma was an adviser when they started the United Nations.

HELEN (pointing to another picture)
Know who that is?

It's Norma, but who's the other woman?

Hannah Arendt.   Heard of her?

Jeeze.  I may suck at Scrabble but I have been educated.  "The banality of evil..."

They taught together at Wesleyan.  

HELEN (pointing to another picture of three men and Norma on the deck of a sailboat)
Check this out.

Oh my God.  That's David.  And Norma and Randolph.  And that must be Walter.  He was so handsome and David was just gorgeous. God, he's still handsome but what a knock out...  

HELEN (pointing to another photo)
There they are with Christopher Isherwood. Walter was amazing.  He reminded me of Cary Grant. He was the first person I knew who died of AIDS.

What, like 1983?

Maybe '84.  Horrible horrible horrible. Burned in my psyche.  I can still conjure the odor.  David nursed Walter to the end.  And of course Norma would go next door and help out.

Oh, they were neighbors?

Oh, yeah.  That's how they met and became friends.  You don't know the story?


Oh, the weirdest saddest thing you can imagine.  Walter was dying and Norma was helping David. They never said anything explicitly but I think they may have hurried things along a bit.  Norma stayed until the coroner left.  Then she came home and found that Randolph was dead on the kitchen floor. Aneurysm.  

So they both lost their partners on the same day?

Yeah.  They took it as some sort of omen. David moved in here and they rent out the house next door.

NORMA (from outside)
Is there someone snooping around in my office?


She's all ready to slaughter you at Scrabble. I'll see you tomorrow.

Helen was just showing me the photos in your office....

Oh, what a life you've lived old lady...

I didn't mean...

No, it's David.  He put all that stuff up. The little shrine. My grotto.  I know he means well but it feels reductionist.  She was here.  She was there. She met so and so. And there you have Norma Finer.  I'm ninety-six God dammit.  There's a helluva lot more than those pictures on the wall...


Is she blathering on now about her rich and complicated inner life?  The razor sharp mind stuck in the decrepit body? I'm almost twenty five years younger and I take six different medications a day.  Norma takes a vitamin. Usually washed down with gin. We're stuck with the old bat.

Pshaw!  If you're ninety-six and not thinking about the grim reaper, you're a moron.  And you know what pisses me off?

That's a very long list. Shall I begin with "A"?

I'd bore the hell of you if I were a sweet little old lady.  I spoke at Davis Meyer's funeral last month. And with that, there are none of my colleagues left to eulogize me. My books are all out of print.

They'll trot out one of your grad students. And you had that article in The Journal of Social History just over a year ago.

Well Inez, I hope you've been practicing your Scrabble...


Look, she's kept the scores of every game since the fifties.

There's a bunch of them from when your grandma was still alive.

HELEN (looking through the papers)
Here's one of you and Grandma and my Mom. Grandma won.  Oh, here's my mom and dad and you and Randolph.  1954.  Mom won.  God, my dad sure sucked.

That's who!  It's been bothering the life out of me.  I knew that Donald Trump reminded me of someone.  It's your dad!

Yeah.  You sure ain't a sweet little old lady.  But the similarities had occurred to me.

Your dad, well at least as far as I know, wasn't that crooked.  But he sure was hungry for approval.

Actually, pretty crooked. And like Cheeto, 3 wives, two foreign born.

Well, you know. It might be nice not to kick the bucket until the impeachment.  Nixon's was so divine.


It's your turn Inez.

Yeah.  Just a sec.


OK, That's Q on a triple word, two for the D....fifty two points.

QI?  QI is a word?



Oestral?  What's oestral?  Is that a word?

I wouldn't challenge her.

Oestral.  Means fertile.  As in "Inez, since menopause, is no longer oestral and will therefore not require contraception when her boyfriend arrives.

Inez, your turn.


Edie was always attracted to vapid, handsome men...our Helen is much smarter.

You're saying that my dad was vapid?  Inez, are you ever going to move?


Your father could be very charming dear but lord knows, he was no Wittgenstein.



Should we challenge it?

Nah.  Helen knows better than to try anything untoward.


Ian on the other hand, I like very much. If you have to choose between looks, money and brains, I think brains is the most enduring. At least you can have deep conversations when you're too old to screw... 

DAVID (to Norma)
What a vulgar old bat you are. Did you tell Helen about New York?

I'm not going to New York.

The Society of Social Historians wants to give her a life achievement award. I really think we could manage the trip.

I don't want to manage the trip.  Being pushed around the airport in a wheelchair. Everyone talking down to me like I'm three years old.  Or admiring my pluckiness.  I don't need to go anywhere.  I have my friends and my garden.  We have the Netflix.  And Helen showed us how to run those podcasts that we listen to with dinner.  Why should I go anywhere?  I've been everywhere I ever wanted to go.  And to a lot of places I didn't want to go to.  Well, I would have liked to see India...

You'd have gotten diarrhea.  Inez dear, it's your turn.




No, add up the points so we can eat.

Hah!  Inez is the winner.  368 points.


I always think it'll probably be the last time I see her.  Someday it will be.  Soon I imagine.

Glad you brought me.

I made up "beazort."

Daddy's girl.