‘Teacher, teacher, look at this!” Samuel says. He is finishing his essay, in two languages, on how he and his family came to live in America.
The room is extremely hot, but we cannot open the doors and most windows because of the flies, and odors from the pigs, goats, chickens. And the smell of fertilizer just outside the bungalow makes it difficult to let in too much “air” from the outside. You see, my room, Bungalow 20, is adjacent to the agricultural class in one of the Los Angeles school district’s Valley high schools.
I’ve just returned to teaching after eight years on the school board, the last two of which I served as president. After being away from the daily rigors of teaching high school for so long, I was hoping that I would still love doing it.
On the first day of classes, I left home a half-hour early, at 6:30 a.m., afraid that I would not get everything together before the students came, and hoping I would not get lost, even though I knew the school’s location.
There were other fears. What if I no longer could handle standing on my feet for hours at a time? What if I couldn’t teach anymore? What if I could not relate to students today as I had for 17 years before joining the Board of Education? And my deep, secret, unspoken fear: What if I missed the attention and prestige of being an elected official? (This latter thought I hardly uttered even to myself.)
On the freeway, I passed the bus carrying my students to the same school I was going to, from the same neighborhood in which I live. There aren’t enough schools in Echo Park, so my students and I travel separately, only to meet in Bungalow 20, at least 15 miles away.
I threw open the door and saw more student desks (45 of them) than I thought could fit in this otherwise bare room.
At precisely 8 a.m., in they came, all 42 students in Grades 9 through 12. They were from Mexico, El Salvador, Chile, Armenia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Peru, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Guatemala, Iran. Because it was the first day, I had no books, and very few other materials. And we were going to spend the next 52 minutes together. But what a charming group. ESL 2--English as a Second Language, Intermediate Reading. They know about as much English as I know Spanish.
(After teaching history and reading for most of my life, this will be my first time teaching ESL. I had applied for the job and had earned a language development specialist’s credential to teach it, after district layoffs meant I couldn’t be hired to teach history and reading again.)
This would be a challenge; I felt like a first-time teacher.
We start with the concrete, like physical exercises. Abstractions will come later. We stand and “reach,” “stretch,” “bend,” “twist,” “pat,” “rub” and “wiggle, wiggle.” They laugh at “wiggle, wiggle,” which we do with our fingers. I know we are going to be all right.
Bungalow 20 is a far cry from my air-conditioned office at the Board of Education. But I love it. I am thrilled to be in the fascinating business of exploring the English language. And even though it is my first (and only fluent) language, I learn more about it every day as I try to help my students enjoy new sounds, vocabulary and syntax. How do I explain that kick the bucket means “died,” or pulling my leg means “kidding someone”? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.
And nothing at the board ever made me feel as good, though pained, as when a Korean student wrote me a note, in English, thanking me for not “hating Koreans” and telling me I was his favorite teacher in all the countries in which he had gone to school.
My teaching, and learning, doesn’t just stop in the classroom.
In the small ESL faculty lounge, out in “bungalow heaven,” I share stories and learn the gossip from colleagues who ask me questions about how the board thinks and why it does the things it does. Frequently, I can explain the board’s actions by telling them why I made the decisions I did.
I cannot believe it when they think that teaching must make me more weary than being a board member. I try to tell them what it is like to fail when trying to get Sacramento to properly fund public schools in this state, or how much agony there is in being powerless to stop the systematic dismantling of public education in Los Angeles because of a lack of funds. But I am not articulate enough to get across my point.
Even though I had good contacts with teachers while serving on the board, I am a bit surprised by my colleagues’ cynicism about the school district and board. It’s become a semi-competitive indoor sport to dump on the L.A. Unified School District. Even the teachers start to question how good the schools are.
I am not an apologist for the school district, and when I went on the board, I had very strong opinions about the system. I still do. But the system is much better than it is given credit for.
Teaching makes me feel more powerful than I ever felt being president of the Board of Education. Here, daily, I am connected to 150-plus students in my four ESL classes. I feel successful and rejuvenated. To be sure, teaching is hard work, but my students are starting to laugh at my jokes in English, which weeks ago they did not understand. I beam with pride and pleasure.
Like when I said goodby to Period 4 class on Friday: I waved, moving my fingers.
Maria-Elena smiled sheepishly, and whispered, “Wiggle, wiggle.”