Monday, January 23, 2006

Do Later
There’s one every semester, the kid that for some reason just rubs me the wrong way. He’s not necessarily the loudest kid, or the laziest, or even the most disrespectful, but there’s something about the guy that’s just completely and utterly unlikable.

This year it’s Ulises Guzman, a squinty-eyed portly little dickhead with a perpetual shit-eating grin plastered on his acne-spotted mug. Every day he walks into my class, screams “Hey! Babylon! No work today!” at the top of his lungs, walks over to the board and changes the words “Do Now” to “Do Later,” then sits down and proceeds to carry on a constant low-murmuring conversation, still smirking the whole time, with no-one in particular.

Every single day.

That “Do Later” joke was funny the first time I heard it in a Level 1 ESL class. Hell, I thought, at least they’re learning something. In an intermediate level class, for the one hundredth day in a row, not so much.

I won’t even go into the myriad disciplinary techniques I’ve tried with this kid, but suffice to say nothing makes a difference, so I’ve taken to simply drawing a deep breath, muttering “serenity now,” and calmly informing Ulises that I fail to see the humor in his repetitive, obnoxious, and disrespectful behavior.

He doesn’t get it.

So at some point in class I end up screaming at the kid to shut up, singling out his beady-eyed face despite the fact that there are plenty of other kids acting up. I feel a little bad about it, especially after he informed me that he’s diabetic.

He didn’t actually tell me he was diabetic, he wrote it in an in-class guided composition on the mid-term (tests being the only work he actually completes.) The kids were supposed to pick a theme that runs through a few of the stories we had read, and some of the options we had discussed (read: I had drilled into their thick skulls) were dishonesty, insanity, and death.

What can I say? I don’t write the stuff.

Anyway, Ulises chose the theme of “death” in his glorified fill-in-the-blank exercise masquerading as an essay, the conclusion of which asked the kids to connect the chosen theme to their own lives.

I have dealt with the theme of dead in my own life when the doctor tell to me I will cause my sugar.

So I feel bad about the way the kid gets under my skin (like a bamboo shoot under a fingernail,) but come on, really, I’m sure plenty of assholes get diseases too. Just because he’s got problems all of a sudden I’m supposed to like him?

The point, such as it is, being, as I’m sure you’ve guessed already, Ulises pissed me off the other day, and I crossed some kind of line.

He walked in and started in on his usual routine and, it being the end of the semester, I was in an unusually chipper mood.

“Ulises,” I sighed, shaking my head and smiling, a last futile attempt at the killing-‘em-with-kindness technique. “I’m gonna kill you… siddown!” So maybe kindness is a strong word, but I said everything good-naturedly and it was pretty obvious I didn’t mean it literally, just that he was, once again, getting on my last good nerve.

Ulises laughed, and continued to write on the board.

“You want I kill him, Mister?” asked Emilio, a hard-working but smart-assed little lambon.

“Please…” I implored exaggeratedly exasperated.

I turned around, went to my desk and began organizing my attendance and handouts and whatever else I had going on over there. I looked up half a minute later and Emilio, ever diligent, had Ulises up against the wall

I ran across the room and broke them up before any real harm had been done. I have to admit, though, for a split second there, I hesitated.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Movie Time
We recently finished reading “The Pearl” in my upper level “transitional” ESL class and I was at a loss as to what to do next. I liked “The Pearl” a lot, and it seemed pretty appropriate as far as vocabulary and themes and whatnot. I loved digging into all the socio-economic status and racial exploitation and pacification of the poor type issues, and was consistently impressed, once we’d talked about things for awhile, with my kids’ ability to wrap their heads around what I considered to be pretty eye-opening ideas.

In lieu of a test or essay, for the big “assessment” I had the kids adapt a scene from the book into play form and set it in modern times right here in the Boogie Down. All in all I considered the experience a moderate success.

The students? Not so much.

“Mista! ‘Da Pearl’ again? Pearl, pearl, pearl. All the day ‘The Pearl.’ I go the bed at night I see ‘Pearl.’ Morning again, ‘Pearl.’”

“Indira, I uhhh…” I tried to interject, but she was on a roll, and I…

“Mista. When your wife wanna go out… Dinner? Movie? Da Club? Naw… you say ‘Da Pearl?’”

Ouch. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and though they managed to do it without humiliating me quite as thoroughly, pretty much all my other students said the same thing. “The Pearl” was boring.

We were supposed to read “Of Mice and Men” next, but I decided maybe that wasn’t the best idea, and I ought to find something that would pique the kids’ interest a little bit more. My options were severely limited, though, by the fact that we don’t exactly have stacks of wildly entertaining books lying around the Shitty basement.

Even the boring old books we do have are in short supply if they’re even accessible at all and not buried in a mildewed box in the back and bottom of an impenetrable stack of mildewed boxes in the converted bathroom that’s serving as a temporary book repository.

What then to do? The solution, of course, was obvious; I’d show the little ingrates a movie.

After an exhaustive perusal of my cinephile upstairs neighbor’s DVD collection I settled on “To Kill A Mockingbird” because it’s a classic I’d been wanting to watch again, and because it was the only movie the guy had that didn’t prominently feature French or Danish subtitles or exclusively star women with enormous breasts (Russ Meyer, holler!).

It took some wrangling to get the DVD player, but get it I did, and we were off. Slowly. Very, very slowly.

“To Kill a Mockingbird’s” opening title sequence may be famous, beautifully shot, and highly influential, but it’s not exactly action packed. I made them watch it anyway, thinking it’s got to be good for them, then wondering when did I become such an old codger, boring kids to tears by forcing them to watch black and white footage of a ball slowly rolling past a bunch of knick-knacks?

The chorus of complaints began right away. Black and white, rather than being a strike against the film, more than an obstacle for these young children of the information age to overcome, was a straight up deal-breaker.

No, my students are not really feeling film-noir. Chiarascura? Forget about it. I might as well have been showing a silent film about Norwegian existentialism.

We persevered through that, though, as we did over the “why she dress like that?” hump and the “they talk weird” setback, and day after day, forty minutes at a time, we watched the story unfold. The kids complained. A lot. And I thought the pacing might be just too damn slow for them. People slowly amble to and from cars (when’s the last time you saw that in a movie?). Scenes of complete silence, reaction shots, go on for minutes. Character traits are revealed through subtle facial expressions and things unsaid.


Right? Not exactly.

They didn’t get everything, of course, especially finer points of plot.

“Who that nigga?”

“That the girl’s dad. That nigga drunk.”

“No, not that nigga. The other nigga. The black nigga!”

But they got the gist. Maybe because my kids don’t speak English as a first language, so the slow pace was actually a benefit, maybe because the movie and the acting is just that good, but the kids really got it. They may not have enjoyed it (or at least to let on as much), but when asked to describe characters, the kids were nails.

Atticus wasn’t just a father but “a good father,” which might seem obvious, but under normal circumstances would have taken some seriously leading questions (and perhaps even some “coaching”) to elicit. So “Atticus good father, lawyer, miss he wife, brave man” isn’t quite, “He is a man of quiet dignity, possessed of subtle strength and deep moral convictions,” but it’s better than the nothing I so often get. Gregory Peck, apparently, is a much greater communicator than I.

So things were rolling along. It was taking a while to get through, though. With 45 minute class periods, and a 129 minute movie, we should have been through the thing in 3 days, but after getting the kids settled and the DVD set up, and with occasional pauses to make sure the kids were following, it took an entire week.

Pushing that giant, unwieldy television cart through the crowded hallways every morning I began to feel like a bit of a slacker.

“Showing a movie again, huh, Babylon?” teachers would ask as they pressed themselves flat against the elevator wall to make room for my giant portable entertainment system their derisive sneers touched with more than a hint of jealousy.

Things took even longer because of an unexpected delay. I decided to buck the system (and avoid the elevator) a little bit one day by leaving the DVD player/TV overnight in the room where I would need it in the morning. I also, in order to prevent myself form leaving the movie at home or something silly like that, decided to leave the DVD itself in the machine. Naturally, in the morning when I came in, it was gone. I scrambled around running up and down stairs and from class room to classroom until I finally found the machine, hustled it back down to my room in the basement, and then discovered that my movie was no longer in the machine.

Without the movie I had a classroom full of increasingly restless kids, a big-ass TV, and no lesson-plan. Ever resourceful, I didn’t panic, I just reached in my bag and grabbed the other DVD I had borrowed from my upstairs neighbor, this one for my own personal edification and enjoyment.

The “Cool Hand Luke” experiment was not completely unsuccessful. The carwash scene, as one might expect, went over huge.

“Damn, son, she know what she doin’?”

“Of course she know what she doin’ nigga! Tsk. Boys be so stupid…”

After that bout of suds-drenched, bazoomaba-filled, inappropriateness, I thought I was prepared for anything, but was caught off-guard again when one of Luke’s fellow prisoners was sent to the box. My Muslim girls all dutifully covered their eyes when I ordered the class to do so at the last minute before the relatively tame obverse male nudity, and disaster was averted.

I fast-forwarded through the part where Luke’s creepy mom sparks a doob while laid out in the back of a pick-up and picked up in time for the fight in which Luke keeps getting knocked down and getting back up. Luke’s gutsy, relentless performance in the ring was a hit, although the general consensus seemed to be that, “that nigga retarded.”

Plus I’ve got about a dozen guys who are convinced they can eat 50 eggs. I was all ready to stage a contest the day before vacation, but after considering the potential for massive- serial-vomiting thought better of it.

So, after that little detour we were back on track to finish up “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’ve mentioned before that I am not one to break down in tears at the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter. I have also mentioned that my one weakness in this department is books, and sporting events (especially if they trot out some badass old-timer for a rousing ovation,) and movies.

Well, it happened. I knew it was coming, the end of that damn trial scene, and I was holding it together pretty well. The verdict came down. The courtroom crowd gasped. The judge stormed out. Terrified, Tom Robinson, was led out the door. Everyone in the downstairs of the courtroom audience left. Slowly, oh so slowly, Atticus gathered up his things, said a word to the court reporter, and began to make his exit. Scout, Jem, Dill and all the black folks in the balcony were still there. They rose to their feet.

It started to get a little dusty down there in the basement of Shitty High, but still I was maintaining most of my composure.

The big one hit, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father’s passing.”

Boom. What a line. What a scene. I swallowed big, and my vision was getting pretty cloudy, but still I maintained.

Then out of nowhere came a second bomb. Somewhere behind me a perfect little female voice called out in a hushed tone, “they showin’ they respect, right, Mista?”

That did it.

Is this thing on?

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