Saturday, November 28, 2009

They Came. They Saw. They Et.

Last Wednesday our school hosted its annual Thanksgiving Feast. This is a traditional event that grows from mere mention in October to trumpet blasts from on high by the fourth week of November. It's a time of great anticipation, and once again to my immense relief we pulled it off. I'd estimate we served 200+ dinners to students and guests.

For reasons of poverty or other social woes, a number of our students always go without the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. However, we see it as our job to normalize kids' experiences as best we can in the short time we connect with them. The Thanksgiving preparation process is ideal for that. Let's face it: everyone can be helpful if given a chance and the encouragement to do so. We just have to devise the ways to elicit their help.

I was this year's Thanksgiving Lady, the person who makes sure the event happens. In my usual circular style, I needed to enlist gobs of helpers. The staff is fine. They sign up to contribute and cook volumes of food: nine turkeys; 50 pounds of corn; 60+ pounds of mashed potatoes; rolls, salad, gravy, dressing. We also asked the students to bring dessert. They really came through. Loads of pies and brownies and cakes, all daubed with whipped cream. A bonus this year was a former parent who has an angel's touch in the community. She scored us three salads from Souplantation, a tray of mashed potatoes, and three more turkeys from Fresh and Easy. This all made for a great presentation. For the students, especially the boys, it's the quantity of food offered that thrills them. In the whole buildup to this day we kind of mythologize the meal. Its bounty addresses cravings that a lot of our kids conceal in daily life.

Even though I find organizing the dinner nerve-wracking, there is a part I like. That part is the metamorphosis. It's a human metamorphosis, wherein the individuals gradually merge to form a single working organism. Even the more obdurate ones can come around (the difficult boy who made me a poster listing the helpers because he could 'bomb' or stylize the heading; the too-cool-for-school kids who brought pies and waited patiently in the buffet line...). The two days prior to the dinner ramp up with activity. Girls who typically apply makeup in class carefully arranged buckets of greens from my yard for our pilgrim tables. Boys who cross their arms and stare when I ask them to start their assignments moved tables and set up chairs. Detail kids wrapped utensils in napkins and tied them smartly and set out placecards and collected leaves for decor.

We showcased this meal at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. It's always a crapshoot in continuation as to who will show up for any event. But sure enough, the line from the science room where the buffet sat steaming snaked down the hall by 10:20. We staff donned our black aprons. The nurse, counselors, teachers, office ladies, even a board member all stood poised with ladles and tongs. The runners angled themselves toward the exit for the refills. For a moment I stood in the empty center of the horseshoe and pretended I was Gustavo Dudamel at Disney Hall. And then on my signal, the organism pulsed and its every function came to life. Dinner was served.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Push for '"Precious"

About a month ago one of the students was explaining his tattoos to me. He showed me his mom's name, his grandma's name, and various curlicues. But I was curious about a delicately scripted PUSH on his wrist. He translated it for me: "Pray Until Something Happens." I thought about that later, because although I recall being taught to pray for God's solution, I just assumed it might not necessarily be my kind of solution. Maybe Pray Until Something Happens is another riff on my childhood theology. I just hadn't looked at it that way.

Then I took myself on a date to see the fine, skin-pricking movie, "Precious:Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire." Talk about praying until something happens. The characters in this film may not overtly pray, but they surely endure until something happens--the somethings that are both expected and unexpected in an abrasive, treacherous cityscape. Precious Jones is an unloved, functionally illiterate, pregnant teen plodding through the dreariest existence imaginable in Harlem, 1987. The opening pulls you right down into gray-black-white grittiness with a slash of red provided by the titles. (You can trace that red throughout the story if you like to look for color motifs.) I admit that I was prepared to find Precious repellent before I ever met her. But I grew intrigued with her stoicism, her carefully tended bangs, the follow-through that I know it takes to enroll in an alternative school. Certainly, Precious has little reason to be resilient. And yet I started to root early on for Precious not to have the tenacity beat out of her. Precious is no angel--she clocks several characters in the course of the film. But she has this life force that will not be extinguished.

There is a great New York Times Magazine article, "The Audacity of Precious," (Lynn Hirschberg, 10/25/09) where director Lee Daniels is profiled. Daniels greeted an audience at the Cannes Film Festival announcing, "I'm a little homo, I'm a little Euro, and I'm a little ghetto," and the crowd roared approval at his precis. Daniels says he likes to cast comedians and singers as film actors, and he really is onto something in "Precious." Mo'Nique tears the roof off in the final soliloquy. That speech has to be the most riveting, profoundly painful, shocking statement in a movie already loaded with human suffering. Lenny Kravitz warmly provides the convincing male anchor of the ensemble. Mariah Carey, at first unrecognizable, is as plain and wryly world-weary as a lot of us are when we labor to make a system beat with a human heart. If you check out the article and its accompanying video, it will enrich your understanding of what went into this film. The film's potency lies in its ability to coax identification from disparate viewers. For example, many's the time in my own teaching job when I think to myself, "Try harder, Jean. This child was once somebody's baby." And then I read Mr. Lee Daniels his own self says, "Even the most evil person was somebody's baby one time..." Yes, he is referring to the character Mary Jones, but for us it's exponentially larger than that. When a monster of a mother can plaintively cry, "Who gonna love ME?", we all need to think about whom we have loved and who may yet need our love in all its myriad forms.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


For the past few weeks I have been doing some weekly volunteer work at Club 21 in Pasadena. This is an organization dedicated to serving families and youngsters who have Down syndrome. It's a clearinghouse, an education resource, a place of comfort for families, and a social nexus. There is a queen bee at the center of this buzzing hive, and her name is Nancy Litteken.

Who doesn't know Nancy? If you don't, you should! Nancy is that person you want to sit beside at a conference because she grasps what's going on intuitively, but she has a deliciously impish sense of humor that keeps you alert at all times. As with many warm,dynamic people, Nancy does not appear to have much reason to be such a crackerjack. She will tell you that she was a hearing child born to deaf parents. Her first language was Sign, and when you converse with her, her hands are still flying today. Nancy once told me her parents would take her to the Hollywood Bowl to listen to music because they thought that was what Hearing People did. Nancy grew up to teach and work with hearing-impaired and special needs families. There is, of course, a pretzel logic to her life's preparation. Eleven years ago her own daughter was born with Down syndrome. As Nancy began to search for therapies and resources to benefit her own family, she discovered that our Los Angeles region was strikingly devoid of comprehensive support. What to do about that?

With no discernible promise of success, Nancy hatched the tiny egg of ingenuity. She would raise a nonprofit organization to aid families with Down syndrome! And why not? She had no previous experience, so she never was rationally nervous about the undertaking. Through the miracle that is Nancy, Pasadena Covenant Church agreed to house an office, classroom space,a baby play area,and a private counseling room. Nancy favors a little p'zazz, so she chose the sporty, insouciant name CLUB 21, in honor of the little chromosome that begs to differ. Nancy and her devoted circle of friends have made both a haven and a cutting-edge lab where schoolwork is adapted, where parent meetings are held, where teachers are trained, and where questions are always welcome. Hugs, tears, and laughter are dispensed at every turn.

Earlier this month, the combined efforts of Flintridge Prep Leo Club, Polytechnic students, friends, families, and volunteers hot-housed a walkathon that earned close to $50,000! Nancy's autumn brainchild, recruiting credentialed teachers to volunteer as reading tutors, is just winding down its first ten-week session. After a December hiatus, we tutors will begin again in January. We plan to offer our services until the end of the school year, drawing in more volunteers and expanding the program. Check out and see what Nancy hath wrought.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Valentine for Jimmy Santiago Baca

Those of you who know me are aware of my challenging and poignant job as a teacher at a continuation high school. My students are mostly boys, not keen on reading, more than disaffected by a whole lot of things in life. But god love them, they are usually fairly tolerant of my attempts to bring academic order to our school lives. (At our school the kids address me by the honorific MISS.) As one fella said, when I was trying to gain his attention, "Oh, go ahead, Miss, teach. Do your little thing."

A couple of years ago I was galvanized by reading a paperback called A PLACE TO STAND, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. This book was the answer to my prayer, because I needed something substantial to read with my kids that would speak to them on a genuine level. The book contains innumerable harsh life experiences, explicit language, and a verity laced with crime and punishment and survival. All this fits my students' milieu. Trouble is, if you are a learner reading at second to fifth grade level, but you are a young adult,even a great book like this might be beyond you. Still, I had to have this book. I wrote a little grant and purchased a class set the first year we tried it.

I have to say that in class I read the entire book out loud, but it is a guided reading. The students read along with me, and we build up our stamina so that we can concentrate on the story for up to 30 minutes a class period. My students may not have experienced that childhood luxury of being read to. In fact, one of them remarked to me, "You know what, Miss? I'm gonna get my diploma and then open an after-school homework center and hire you to read out loud!" I replied that I would dig it and that I might be in the market for some part-time work one of these days. But it is the potency of the narrative that hooks them. How many times have they told me that they have never read a whole book until this one? It's so important to me that they read, that they feel invited to that table of readers and not hang back in the shadows of the excluded. (And it doesn't hurt that A PLACE TO STAND is highly cinematic in spots.)

One of my old teaching chums used to say she reserved time in class for preaching, and I do that too. When I preach, I always tell the kids I am that other mother they never knew they had. This particular book is rife with redemption but never in either a saccharine or lachrymose tone. Instead, this book is about LITERACY--about how we all can release life's pent-up emotion through thinking and reading and writing. I couldn't have asked for better preaching material had I devised it myself.

One small problem is that these books vanish. Everyone asks to take them home and we don't have enough to go around. In fact, I had to order ten more from Amazon for this quarter's go round. But I don't feel like I'm paying fare to Charon to enter the Land of the Dead. Far from it. This is my investment in our vida together.

Walk Therapy

One of my "hobbies" is walking with various pals in Pasadena. Out of serendipity, I have certain routes particular to certain friends. The other night I met one friend on the steps of our beloved City Hall. Pasadena City Hall is majestic at any hour, but come twilight and on into evening, the lighting beckons solely to you. (Go look at this landmark on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve or on your birthday and see if you can feel the connection to something sublime, that you may be folded into the strength of its glowing stateliness. It gives me the shivers, I tell you.) Anyway, from the City Hall steps on Garfield, we walk west on Union into Old Town.

Ladies walking = ladies talking. We are sorting out our work lives, and from there we segue into interpersonal psychology. We'll walk a loop to the fringe of Old Town and then east again along Colorado Blvd. The shopping district isn't exactly teeming, but it's populous enough that you should pay attention, especially at the scramble intersections. I think it is the patterning of walking and talking with a friend in a familiar setting that helps you calm down. Some of my workdays feel so electrifying that I need that kinesthetic logic applied like a patch.

Another walking partner happens to be my neighbor, and we meet predawn twice a week. We are mole people. In fact, until we started volunteering at the same place, I had not seen her in daylight for ages. I go out onto my street at about 5:10 a.m where we will meet. Nothing moves. And then, straight out of Sherlock Holmes, my friend materializes; I always get a kick out of her spontaneous generation. We have a circuit that we walk in about 30 minutes' time. There are topics that reflect our passage of blocks: the greeting; recounting recent past events; upcoming/ongoing projects; maybe some ranting or rending of garments; some possible solutions; the benediction until next time. Again, it's the pattern we inhabit that helps us comb out our tangled brains.

And, I have one more longtime friend with whom I have shared many adventures and even more walks. Our usual walk therapy starts at Cal Tech. You can park your car on Wilson (unless there are filming restrictions) and cross campus by the Broad Building. Cal Tech must be the brainiest place we could ever pick to stroll, but it's benign, it's quiet, and it's welcoming every time. The surrounding camphor-lined neighborhoods feel like you're walking into a Ray Bradbury story (and I mean this in the fondest way). We even make up our own speculations about the lovely homes, their warmly lit windows egging us on. On these walks we discuss our dilemmas, the sad and funny events of life (which are often one and the same), social faux pas we have committed, job challenges, travel goals, you name it. We walk 45 minutes to an hour, depending on whose dog has come along. Really, the exercise is secondary to the solace and laughter that come from these rambles.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Chinese Foot Massage

Awhile ago I took myself on a date in Arcadia. A friend had told me about her visit to Swan Spa on Baldwin Avenue. She cautioned me not to feel ill at ease when I entered a darkened narrow room lined with upholstered chairs, that this was where the treatment took place. The workers were gregarious, even though they spoke mainly Chinese and I all English. Immediately after they placed me in a chair and put my feet into a bucket of water, they gestured for me to move. It turns out the first 30 minutes of massage take place as you sit on an ottoman facing the chair. No disrobing! The masseuse practically assaults you, kneading, pummeling, and slapping you along the shoulders, back, buttocks, and arms. Just lean forward. In fact, it is the just about the most invigoration a stockstill person can experience. During the massage my anxiety gradually quelled and I started to appreciate what this $18 hour might accomplish.

After the back massage I was asked to sit again conventionally. The plasma TV blared steady coverage of local news in China. Now it was time to roll up my pants legs to knee level and get down to business. My masseuse tugged and pressed each toe. I asked him the correlation of toe to body part, and he replied succinctly, "Head." Or "Eye." Or "Ear." He massaged my feet and calves for a good twenty minutes. Another attendant brought me several cups of drinking water during the process. The treatment was bracing, almost utilitarian, but never fawning. I practically felt like marching to the cashier's desk with new resolution borne of improved circulation. My appointment lasted an hour.

On the way home, I decided to stop at SUSHIYA (sushi for less at 2525 E Foothill, #2, Pasadena). This modest cozy spot in a strip mall is indeed teeny, but it is economical. If you are by yourself, you don't have to feel like an odd duck sitting at the bustling counter. The sushi chef will lean right over into you and ask your choices, his tone staccato but good-natured. There is a full offering of sushi and sashimi, but the dish I liked best is the Jasmine Hand Wrap. The chef rapidly constructs a cone from a seeded Japanese tortilla, stuffs it with mild chopped salmon filling, and brandishes it from his hand to yours. It is one of the more expensive items, about $4.50, but it is a must. After all, dating yourself is grounds for a treat.