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.

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