Saturday, May 12, 2018

On the Menu

I expect that a legal struggle with a problem tenant at the small cottage that we own will be resolved this week, likely to our great expense. But, at least, over.  The outcome is not what we anticipate and will result in a greater expense than we’d ever dreamed and no possibility of evicting a non-paying tenant who threatens our handyman and leaves a switchblade knife on display when other workers arrive.  There are frustrations at my business and during the last weeks of the semester there are many tests to administer and volumes of paperwork to complete. As I write this, there are 15 teaching nights left of the trimester and a two-month break from teaching.  Throughout the day I count the number of hours until I arrive home to watch Anderson Cooper and Forensic Files re-runs.

The promotional speaking test requires students to sit in pairs with the teacher and look at a picture of a family and another of a school hallway and form statements and questions. Many competent students become so anxious that they fumble, soaked in fear sweat.  Last semester I develop three projects to replace this test and to my surprise, I alone on the ESL faculty am authorized to have students complete projects rather than the odious test.  The projects are designed to generate a bit of real world language.   Students order from a restaurant menu, return something to a store and complete a basic job interview.

This week we begin the restaurant project. One trimester I form groups based on level of ability.  Last trimester is so choppy, split by long Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations that I don’t group them at all.  This semester I mix it up and make sure each group has some high performing, average and struggling students.  I let each of the six groups choose a name.  We have the Tiger Claw, the Libertarians, the Little Group, the Angeles, the Panthers (which is spelled “Panters” no matter how many times I correct it.)  The sixth group only has two women and one is absent the night the groups are created.  They call themselves “The Macho Men and Woman.”  I rebrand them “Macho Men and Smart Women,” the next night when both of the ladies (who are actually exceptionally smart) are present.

Reina sits in the front row.  Like a girl from my former school, I suspect that she’s pregnant but I am afraid to ask. She rushes in and is always sure to get my attention and says “Hi teacher,” in a way that makes me feel every night that she’s genuinely happy to see me.  Her attendance is nearly perfect, and she is dogged, shushing other students when they chatter or a phone rings.  One night she shows up with a black eye.  I don’t ask her about it but she has a couple of friends in the class and I hope that they get the lowdown.   On a cold night, she loiters, texting, after the bell’s rung and the other students are long gone, while I erase the board and collect my stuff.  She leaves hesitantly when she sees that I’m on my way out.  Ten minutes later, I’ve signed out and am heading to my car.  Reina is waiting on the corner, I assume waiting for the ride she’d been trying to arrange.  We are not permitted to have students in our cars.  I flout a lot of other rules but I do not stop and offer Reina a ride. 

Freddy, from Venezuela, is more worldly than most of the other students, although his English isn’t as good as he thinks it is.  While the other students politely say, “Teacher, please help,” when they need assistance, Freddy cocks his head to summon me.  I place Freddy in a group with a couple of advanced, assertive students and a few who are completely clueless. 
Reina is absent the night the groups are formed and ends up in the Little Group.  Seeing her assignment, she complains, and asks to move to another group.  All of the other groups have six or seven students, so I don’t want to move her from the smallest group.  “You’ll be fine,” I assure her.  “Look, Vilma’s in the group.”  “Vilma no me cae bien.”  I hadn’t really thought about it, but Vilma is kind of a cold fish.  She seldom smiles and doesn’t make eye contact.  Fortunately, the other students in the group are warm and smart.  Reina is a good sport and the Little Group does quite well.

The groups are assigned to make a menu for their restaurant.  Most of the menus are a combination of American and Latin American foods.  Chilaquiles.   Steaks.  Hamburgers.  The Macho Men and Women do a Chinese menu.  I help them a bit.  “Chomay” is Chow mein.  “Red ribs” are sweet and sour.  “Rice Begtable” is stir-fry.  In the dessert column “Yelly,” is Jello.  (Orange, Strawberry or Lime)

Freddy commandeers the menu project.  Calamari.  Octopus.  Pasta Alfredo.  Tiramisu.  Broiled salmon.  And everything’s very expensive.  Freddy gets some pushback on his bossiness but they all sort of like the sophisticated menu. I make copies of all the menus and we practice ordering and writing down orders.  I pair the teams and they show each other their menus, practice again and then take and write down orders from each other.  I cruise, checking out which students would survive in a real restaurant.

May 10 is my sister’s 75th birthday.  I’ve spent decades of trying to make sense of her life.  The specific details have faded into a rush of melancholy.  The bell rings and the only a handful of students have trickled in.  The teacher next door peeks in and tells me that none of his students have arrived at all. I don’t realize that in most of Latin America, Mother’s Day is always on May 10, not the second Sunday in May so we expect low attendance.  A half an hour in though, most have shown up.  Reina arrives, dragging one of the biggest flower arrangements I have ever seen.  The students have all chipped in to remember me at Mother’s Day and a number of them bring me individual gifts too.  It is a struggle to get the giant arrangement in my car.  It stands, on pedestal, in my living room over night until I break down and pull out the thorny roses one by one and place them in a single vase and toss the Baby’s Breath.

Mother’s Day has never been a big thing. Himself always jokes “You’re not my mother…”  And when the 3rd Sunday in June rolls around, he’s not my father either. We are not sentimental about holidays.  They’ll likely call on Sunday. Even though they are far away, we stay in contact and feel close. I don’t require perfume or brunch.  Still, the warmth of the students makes me feel guilty for counting down the minutes until summer vacation.

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