Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Present Continuous

For the last couple of weeks, every night, I open the door between classrooms to announce to the teacher I’ve grown close to, our proximity to summer vacation.  “Only nine more nights Ramon!”  “Hey Ramon, only three more nights!”  When I arrive for the last night of teaching, the teacher who uses my room during the day and never bothers to erase the whiteboard has written only, in giant letters, “I am weary.”   Zero nights now and I will have, until mid-August, my weeknights to myself.  The last week is all make up tests and tons of paperwork.  We do a few exercises in the textbook but we mostly play games.  There’s a sentence auction.  I issue teams play money and a sheet of sentences.  Some of them are correct and some have grammatical errors.  One team pays a staggering $120 for “We goes to the movies.” The men bid wildly and aggressively.  They increase their own team’s bids, ignoring the women who admonish them not to bid against their own teammates and in their competitive frenzy, overlook obvious errors. 

There is an “essay” contest, which for my low-level students is five sentences about “Why I Study English.”  I am to submit the three best efforts.  Freddy, from Venezuela writes about the opportunities he wants to avail himself of and with sadness about what Maduro is wreaking in his beloved homeland.  It is a good effort, but I find the sweet sincerity of Diego’s essay about wanting to feel connected and make friends the more effective piece.  Nevertheless, Freddy wins the prize, which is presented in a ceremony in front of the entire ESL student body.  A former student makes a speech about starting off as a hotel maid and bettering her English sufficiently to advance to a front desk position.  She delights in being able to communicate with guests, from all over the world, in English.

I always provide a worksheet for students to embark on when they arrive.  This week I compile some review sheets with exercises about the present continuous.  You drop the “e” so “hope” is hoping.  If a verb ends “consonant, vowel, consonant” you double the consonant, so “run” is “running.”  If a verb ends “vowel, vowel, consonant,” you don’t double the consonant, so “shoot” is shooting.”  And if a word ends with “x,” “y,” and “w,” you don’t double the consonant. “fixing, studying, allowing.”  In two syllable verbs, if the stress is on the first syllable, like “listen,” you don’t double the consonant so it’s “listening.”  But if the stress is on the second syllable, like in “refer” you do double the consonant in the continuous, so it’s “referring.” They copy my diagrams, scratching their heads.  I tell them that there aren’t that many two syllable verbs to worry about and remind them that they pretty much use “spellcheck” when they’re writing anyway.

I make a scavenger hunt and create teams with the more advanced students next door.  They need to take pictures of a phone directory (there are actually payphones and phonebooks on the campus) someone wearing blue shoes, a Christmas stocking (Ramon next door still hasn’t taken down his decorations) and all sorts of other items they’ll find by poking around the campus. Our rooms are small and cramped.  It is impossible to form groups or move around.  There is so much hot breath that even on chilly nights we keep the air conditioning in blast mode. Given their scavenger hunt lists, students prance around the campus like children, running and laughing.  There is a mural outside my classroom that depicts a woman crouching and washing clothes in a river and then chronicles the long road she travels to wear a mortarboard and gown, proudly hoisting her diploma.  Most of the students remember that the mural shows a woman doing laundry to tick off from their list, but a couple of groups rush down Washington Blvd. and barge into a laundromat, photographing strangers. The final item on the list is a video of the whole group singing “Happy Birthday,” which they all sing with great gusto.  The winning team gets books of word-search puzzles from the Dollar Tree.  There are mini candy bars for the other competitors.

The final night is a party.  Candelaria is one of the sweet girls who brings me little gifts and hugs me before she goes home at night.  She’s done quite poorly on the exams.  She speaks confidently but makes some pretty basic errors.  I think she’d be better off repeating 1B, particularly after a two-month vacation, and tell her so.  As, her scores are borderline, I tell her that she can think about it and let me know.  She decides that she’s ready for 2A and I assign her to the higher-level class.  She takes charge of collecting money for the final night pizza party.  I tell her a couple of times to make sure that one is vegetarian.  Fifteen Domino’s pizzas arrive, oozing pepperoni.  I should have left her in 1B maybe, but I have no business eating pizza anyway.

Teresa is in my first class, a year ago.  She’s in her fifties and attended only a couple of years of elementary school in Mexico.  She works doggedly on shaping letters and painstakingly reading aloud. I make her a framed certificate for “best progress and hard work” at the end of the last term.  She is not ready for 2A and I send her back to 1B with another teacher.  This semester, she’s in my class a second time.  She’s more confident now.  She’s able to write sentences on the board.  Her scores on the reading and grammar test are low but I’m not going to ask her to repeat level 1B a third time.  I tweak her test scores and make a note on her registration materials that she has literacy issues but has accomplished all that can be expected in Level 1B and is ready, with a bit of extra support, to move up.  She weeps when I show her the registration for Level 2A.  On the last night of class, she brings me a Chinese elephant planter with lucky bamboo.  May it bring luck to us both.

For a decade when the kids are still home, much of my life revolves around the Children’s Theater and I still have many friendships that are forged there. I attend one of the productions.  I’d always managed the concessions stand, which is tantamount to setting up a small business for two weekends.  I note that the current administration is less organized.  There is no price list.  The presentation of the food is sort of slapdash.  A volunteer calls around, frantic for change.  But the experience is palpably surreal. The Silver Lake crowd. Quirky eyeglasses.  Vintage clothes. Camper shoes. Different people but essentially the same.  It’s the life I lived for many years.  The same setting. The same characters, simply recast. I did a lot of complaining.  Lazy parents.  Stage moms.  Entitled kids.  But, entering the theater, I’m also reminded that the children’s theater was an anchor for ten years of my life.

Broken record time, but it is another week of business problems and asshole lawyers.  There is no end in sight.  At least, I tell myself, I won’t have the burden of preparing lessons and spending four nights a week at school.  A summer free of the petty bureaucracy and busy work.  We’re down to the last night.  I pack up the empty pizza boxes into a trash bag.  At the beginning of the semester we make name lanyards.  Every night students attend I give them a colored paperclip to attach to their lanyards.  On the last night of class I have baskets of cheap crap from the Dollar Store and Daiso.  Pencil holders.  Water bottles.  Shopping totes. Manicure tools.  Keychains.  Puzzlebooks.  Pens.  They happily exchange their clips for the junky prizes.

My students file out.  They thank me and most hug me.  Hermoberto arrives a few weeks into the semester.  In his early twenties, he sports an odd, punky sort of haircut.  Our museum trip is scheduled for the day after he enrolls.  He doesn’t want to go. He thinks I’m weird and doesn’t make eye contact.  After the museum we make collages memorializing a dead loved one.  He digs in his heels.  No one in his family has died.  I tell him to make a tribute to someone living who’s important to him.  He makes a sweet collage about his parents.  When we do the more regular school-y stuff, like listening exercises and grammar, he’s at the top of the class.  I have him help other students and do a lot of writing on the board.  He sheepishly asks me if I’m promoting him to level 2A.  “Do you even have to ask? Of course, you are.”  He is one of the last to file out.  Shyly, he reaches out to hug me.  “You didn’t like me at first, but now you do, right?”  “Yes, teacher.  I like you.  I like the class.”

The bell rings at 8:45. Instead of the exaltation I’ve imagined for weeks, there is a wistfulness.  I load bunches of flowers and plants and a little embroidered bag that says “Guatemala” into my car.  I log my class off on the computer, turn in my keys and textbooks.  I’d been so looking forward to not doing this, but I realize that as tiring as it is to teach four nights a week, like the Children’s Theater, the camaraderie and esprit de corps energizes me and gives me purpose.  Class is over now.  I’ve counted the days.  No more rush hour traffic.  No inane meetings and disheartening officiousness.  There is more time to focus on resolving legal and business issues.  While I welcome the rest, the thought of not having ten hours a week with warm, receptive people, who trust me to help me navigate the strange place that my county has become, leaves me feeling rudderless and lonely.  But summer will fly by.  There are places to go and people to see.  The middle of August will arrive quickly with team building meetings to attend and lessons to plan.  Fifty or so more students will invest in me the trust that I can make their lives a little better.  I hope that I’m as rested and ready as they deserve.

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