urban teaching

One day when I was feeling sick (and I’ve been in extraordinarily ill health for the past two months), I remarked to the one student in the office that I thought I had a fever and pulled out a thermometer and slipped it in my mouth. (You should know that I don’t always carry a thermometer around but had brought it because my fever and other symptoms on the previous day had reminded me of malaria, and it’s always good to track your fever pattern when you have malaria.) My student’s eyes grew huge as she looked at me in utter disbelief. I realized that it might be completely strange to her that I would have my own thermometer. She had told me the week before that there were no scissors at her house.

Every day I get glimpses into lives that are so very different from my own. Sometimes it’s more than glimpses: it’s like they invite me in for an open house. My job turns out to be a lot more counseling than I am qualified to do, I’m afraid.

Here’s a smattering of recent issues:
--uncle’s semi is broken into by his ne’er-do-well brother. Uncle is accused of being an accessory and uncle’s house (where my student is staying) is sealed by the FBI for investigation.
--several hospitalizations of students and family members for asthma
--student’s mom may be going to jail for a little while, so student must drop out of school to work full time
--student’s grandmother doesn’t approve of her butch (“stud” in student’s lingo) look nor lesbian lifestyle
--student’s boyfriend is picked up on a yea- old warrant and locked up. She can’t visit him because she’s a minor and he’s in adult jail.
--botched abortion (on-going issue)
--15-year-old student leaves much-older abusive live-in boyfriend
--student tells me of her neglected childhood with a parent she no longer lives with
--student’s father confiscates her legal papers, threatens to burn them and send her back to Mexico
--student tells me about her gift of sight: she’s dreamed many things that have come true and lately she’s dreamed her own death three times
--parent conferences with families that are clearly highly dysfunctional, if not actually abusive
--several girls who don’t have time for school work because they have to look after younger siblings
--many students are dealing with having lost friends and family members to violence

So…that’s probably why I’m not writing much lately. I feel so inadequate at helping students make sense of their lives. Sometimes I know they just want to be listened to, but sometimes I think they want advice and I just don’t have it. While I am somewhat flattered or honored that they choose to share so much with me, I feel a little resentful too. How can I be given this responsibility without also being given the tools to fulfill it?
Dancing in memory of the dead. Posted by Picasa
A dancer in motion. Around her ankles are seed-pod rattles which make a very agreeable sound! Posted by Picasa
Some dancers between songs. Posted by Picasa

Days of the Dead, etc.

Without making mention of my long absence, I'll just jump right back into this blogging thing.

Last weekend we went to the Dia de los Muertos celebration in Fruitvale, the especially Latino section of Oakland. As soon as we got off BART, we could hear singing and then drumming. The pedestrian mall was lined with altar booths and the intersections were occupied by dancers and other entertainers. International Boulevard was lined with food and sales and information and art booths for a mile in each direction (or so it seemed). It was a gloriously sunny day. The smell of burning sage mixed with the smells of cooking meat and sugary confections (skulls made of colored sugar are a specialty of the holiday). Men and boys pushed ice cream carts through the crowds, ringing small bells to announce their presence, and several vendors were selling large inflatable plastic...things. I always noticed the smell of the fresh plastic (like a new shower curtain liner) and was so put off I forgot to really inspect what they were selling. I did notice that they all had large (2 feet long) inflatable hammers with some sort of cartoon character on them.

I asked a crafts vendor about a price in Spanish and got a flood of Spanish back. My first reaction was to panic (Oh no, I can't understand that, I have to switch to English and apologize), but then I realized that I did actually understand what she had said--at least the main points (she had told me the price and explained that the items were all hand made). So, I said I understood (in Spanish), but obviously didn't look interested enough. She asked me in Spanish what price I was willing/able to pay (again, my first reaction was, "Oh my god, I don't know what she's saying. Now I'm really in trouble" and again I realized that I did know what she had said).

I am grateful for that interaction and my awareness of my reactions. I am convinced that if only I could spend enough time speaking Spanish with native speakers I would get over my panic reactions and actually maybe make progress in my learning!

Last night we went to a film and lecture up on campus (by that I always mean Cal! a.k.a. UCBerkeley) at the Museum of Anthropology where Justin works. It was an anthro film about a Pomo (California Indian) shaman made in the early 1960s. The accompanying lecturer was the son of the woman featured in the film. He explained what she was doing in the healing ceremony and some background on the filming. It was interesting, and it's especially good to see anthro materials being shared by members of the group under inspection, rather than by outsiders. The museum has a cultural attache unit which I find really heartening.

Today is a holiday from school, thanks to our venerable veterans. To celebrate, Justin and I are going to see Borat at a matinee. It is, by the way, another glorious blue-sky-and-sunshine kind of day, so it'll be hard to go inside a movie theater, but my frugality will win out over my urge to soak sunshine at every possible juncture.