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.

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