Saturday, February 10, 2018

Don't Call Me By My Name

It is the beginning of the end.  As I prepare for my third trimester, a sense of pattern is setting in.  I finally remember all of my students’ names and am getting to know them. We spend about 125 hours together, it ends and then I’ve another intense thirteen weeks with the next group.

I mention, when class begins in November, when we are talking about birthdays, that mine is Feb. 6 and am gobsmacked when they remember and present me with a gigantic cake, flowers and a fistful of cash. There is also pizza.  When I demure, as a non-meat eater, I am told, “Teacher, it’s not meat, it’s pepperoni.” I show number one son a photo of the “Happy Birthday Teacher” cake and he asks, “Don’t they know your name?”  They probably don’t, even though I write it on the board every night.  I prefer being called “Teacher” anyway.  It’s the second favorite thing I’ve ever been called, “Mom,” being the first.

Forty-ish Hilda is perfectly coiffed.  She sports high-end highlights on her freshly blow-dried hair.  Her clothing is elegant and once she wears a silver necklace with jade beads that makes me swoon.  She sips some milky concoction conspicuously from a large silver water bottle.  An enormous “Preguntame sobre Herbalife” button adorns each fancy blazer or silk blouse.  She offers me a catalog on the first night, sensing my lack of enthusiasm, “You no like Herbalife.”  I shrug non-committedly.  Once she begins to proselytize during class.  I shake my head at her and she backs off immediately.  I wouldn’t say that she shirks classwork but it’s not a priority.  The second the bell rings for coffee break, she makes a mad dash outside.  Commerce.  She returns to the room inevitably with an arm around one of the young girl students, chatting amiably.  I want to scream “DON’T DO IT!” 

I think it would be awkward this term, but I’ll prepare a lesson that explains the economic model of multi-level marketing for future generations. I always make sure to explain about rent control.  Most of them are renters but have no idea of their rights.  They don’t understand about the cost of payday loans or buying things on time.   We practice reading food labels and learning that it’s not good to eat too much sugar or fat, as I present myself as a “this is why” example.  We look at Craigslist and talk about how to be safe when selling or buying items.  I print out the list of participants in “Free Museum Sunday.” But I have to be sparing with the useful information detours as there is grammar, reading and writing to master and be tested on.  Ad infinitum.

I am on a textbook committee.  I dislike the text we currently use but it isn’t the worst. The textbook and workbook sell for about $45.  This is expensive.  My head is nearly bitten off when I express this.  “They don’t pay for the classes.  They can afford $45.”  Most of my students work minimum wage jobs in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  A lot of them don’t have steady positions and pick up work when they’re able.  $45 seems like a lot to me. 

Even Pedro, my homeless student, can log on to the school Wi-Fi and take quizzes on his phone.  I browse the web for possible replacement textbooks.  There’s a handsome, well thought out series, created under the aegis of National Geographic, that I like.  I exchange a few notes with the publisher’s rep and discover that the only digital supplement to the textbook is for PCs.  We have IPads at school.  Apparently, the Nat Geo book will have a phone app “sometime in the spring,” which could well mean the spring of 2020.  Or never.  Most textbooks do have digital supplements, but I am unable to locate a single textbook that has a companion phone app at this time. 

At least the Nat Geo is handsome and well designed.  Most textbooks have cheeseball illustrations and dorky conversations. I do my best of liven mine up. There’s a photograph of a young couple, deciding where to eat.  Hungry Elena is holding her stomach.  The students are supposed to guess what they’re talking about.  I improvise.  “I’m pregnant.  It’s yours.”  

Now we’re talking about the weather.  It’s sunny in Tampa.  It’s raining in Dallas.  It’s cold in Green Bay.  There’s a conversation that we practice a million times.  “How’s the weather in Chicago?  It’s snowing.”  I happen to know about the weather in Chicago, having listened to Number One Son bitch about it for about an hour earlier in the day.  I Facetime him and hold the phone, so all of my students can see him and hoping that he isn’t terribly drunk or smoking a joint.  I point to the board and they say in loud unison, “How’s the weather in Chicago?”  “It’s snowing,” he answers.  I hang up.

Maybe some well-meaning high roller will take on the scourge immigrant animus and invest in creating some up-to-date, relevant teaching materials.  If there were a campaign to counter the anti-immigrant wave, the ESL student community would be a great locus for the assuagement of liberal guilt.

I dream of a textbook with a component that can be used on their phones in addition to the classroom.  There are certain things, like basic reading, writing and grammar that can be effectively taught on a digital platform.  I’d love to be freed up to focus on human things like communicating and navigating their communities.  “Immigrants are Welcome Here” is great signage.  There would be no better way to demonstrate this than supporting students in public ESL and Basic Education programs. 

I’d like to show some gratitude for the invisible folks who care for our children, clear the dry brush from steep hillsides, clean bathrooms and then drag their asses to school four nights a week.   If a student successfully completes a course, perhaps the textbook for the next course should be on the house.  Maybe a good incentive for a year of continuous study might be an IPad.  How about some buses for field trips to museums and cultural events?  Why not programs for local businesses to offer discounts to adult school students?  There is so much lip service to supporting our immigrant community, if I weren’t so exhausted by teaching my little class, I’d love to organize towards persuading some well-meaning liberals to pony up and do more to assure immigrants that they’re welcome than merely carry a sign.

But, for the next year or so, I’m on the frontlines, juggling to prepare students for the ceaseless tests and give them something that is meaningful for their lives.  Even the older folk who aren’t digital natives, love the Kahoot! quiz game.  I generate illustrated multiple-choice questions, and as the timer ticks away, they tap answers on their phones.  I spend way too much time on these because I’m fussy about illustrations and refuse to resort to tacky clip art. But, every night, about twenty minutes before the end of class, they start chanting “Kahoot!  Kahoot!” so I try to have them a couple of times a week.

Daniel, the pothead, usually aces the Kahoot!  but women usually place second or third.  Lydia, a doe eyed girl, teeth clad in what I think are intended to be invisible braces, has been sitting next to Daniel.  The other boys continue, nevertheless, to jockey for her attention. Daniel, with a football shaped head and slight acne scars, is not the most handsome boy in the room, but he’s whip smart.  And he has a motorcycle.  

We are top heavy this term with these pretty, smart girls in their early twenties.  When there’s a conversation to practice, I often have the boys read the male parts and the girls, the female.   The men inevitably go down an octave and ratchet up the volume. The room vibrates when they ask the girls, “How many eggs do we have?”  The girls soberly answer, “We have a lot.” And roll their eyes.

Since Lidia’s settled in Daniel as a deskmate, his posture is more erect. He is more likely to volunteer answers to questions.   We end class with a Kahoot!  For the first time that I can remember, Daniel’s nickname “Ganja” doesn’t even show on the leaderboard.  Two girls take second and third place and Lidia is the grand champ.  The boys groan and grumble.  Except Daniel.  He gives Lidia a high five and they walk out together.  I suspect that she’ll show up wearing his leather motorcycle jacket.

My thirteen-week slice of students’ lives will end soon.  There will be more little triumphs and dramas over the next trimester.  I do not know what this country has in store for these people, mostly undocumented.   I walk through my neighborhood in the morning.  Housekeepers and nannies trudge up the hill from the Gold Line.  Construction workers unload building supplies. Painters, on scaffolding, sand and spackle.  Gardeners blow leaves and trim lawns and haul bags of brush trimmings down the hillsides.  On my way to work, dishwashers, car washers and janitors wait for the bus.  They fill evening ESL classes.  There are always a number who are extremely intelligent. Most have arrived as young adults so even the promise of DACA being straightened out is no cause for hope.  I see how quick their minds are and am blown away by their humanity and tenacity.  Maybe the citizenry will return to reason and they’ll be another amnesty program, like there was in the 80s.  So many could be doctors or attorneys or teachers but all I can do is help them get as far as their legal and economic reality permits.   Spread the word the immigrants are rapists and terrorists and that they take our jobs away.  The truth is that if they’re legal they can’t be subjugated and exploited for cheap labor.  I can’t focus though on the tragedy of unfilled potential.  At least if they can speak a little English without freaking out and navigate the daunting city more effectively, their lives aren’t what they could be, but at least they’re a bit better.

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