A tale of teaching toil in a bilingual school in New Mexico.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1991. Central Office, Espanola School District, Espanola, New Mexico. The Director of the district's Title VII bilingual program reads to us five "paraprofessional tutors" from a prepared statement: "At-risk LEP students will participate in an English language development program in which conceptual understanding is enhanced using the interactive instructional media of literary arts, music, drama, visual/media arts and creative writing. Subcomponent objectives: LEP students will gain cognitive/academic language proficiency, English language conceptual development, and content area knowledge by participating in an interactive literary arts instructional program."
She meets our glazed eyes and, realizing that perhaps the statement itself is not English, puts it aside and tells that, to put it simply, our goal is to build the children's "self-esteem" so that they do better on something called the California Test of Basic Skills. California, apparently, is the measure of all things, even in rural New Mexico; California decides which skills are basic. Even the whole idea of "self-esteem" as personal commodity, a measurable quantity that can be added to or subtracted from depending on the presence or absence of the proper therapeutic environment, sounds very California New Age. If this facile idea of self-esteem were in fact true, I can envision a Skinner Box world controlled by professional esteem-builders, in which we all do very well on our "skills" tests and become happy and, above all, highly productive citizens.
Of the five tutors for this twice-weekly after-school program, I am by far the most unqualified. But if someone doesn't fill the "Imaginative Writing" slot, federal funds will remain unspent, and that would be unthinkable. The public schools are collectively the largest employer in Rio Arriba county, which is one of the poorest counties in the second-poorest state in the nation. So the federal pump must be kept primed. The main thing is, the Director has asked me in my interview,do I like children? Well, I say, in a tone that suggests I like them mostly fricasseed with onions on the side, a recipe I learned from the W.C. Fields cookbook, well... Great, says the Director; sign right here.
October 8, 1991. My first day teaching! I have prepared an opening oration worthy of address to the U.N. General Assembly, full of high-flown notions of discovering identity, heritage, roots, through writing and self-expression. The 10 or so 6th grade faces, all mestizo, regard me with a mixture of amusement, boredom, and scorn.
"You talk funny."
"Is the art teacher your..? (giggle)."
"Yeah, do you and her (snicker) get busy?" (Peals).
Welcome to 6th grade, fool. Don't you remember?
October 15. is I'm not ready to give up on my theme yet; hope springs eternal for the new teacher, or at least until mid-fall. Columbus Day, or as it's called in Mexico, Dia de las Razas (Day of the Races), is around the corner, and I would like to get some student reflections on their Hispanicity. What might be their thoughts on the "discovery" and the conquest? The question, which I put to them in various ways, draws a blank. I have expected at least the kind of laconism, no less poignant for its impassivity, expressed on the Mexico City plaque at the site of Cortes' decisive victory over the Aztecs: "Neither good nor bad but the painful birth of the Mexican people." These children, however, appear to have not even a clue as to their racial identity. They have never heard the word mestizo, and they adamantly refuse to recognize their Indian blood. Instead, they call themselves "Spanish." It's as if Juarez and Bolivar and the wars of independence from Spain, which ushered in a proud mestizo identity to the rest of the Americas, had never taken place.
What is to account for this abysmal ignorance? The U.S. educational system, plainly. Detractors of this system, which is practically everybody these days including members of the ruling elite, who cynically enrich themselves from this ignorance while denouncing it, often complain that the system's too "centralized." But let's see what "local control" of education has meant to Rio Arriba county schools. For one thing, the local tax base is so low that these schools get about half the funding, per capita, as compared to richer school districts, such as neighboring Los Alamos county, an enclave of middle-class atomic scientists. For another, the school board consists of five men who, like virtually all Rio Arriba county officials, are pawns of political boss Emilio Naranjo and his Democratic Party machine. Twenty-five years ago, a radical named Reies Lopez Tixerina led a nationalist uprising in Rio Arriba county which was ultimately quashed by the tanks and machine guns of the National Guard. Tixerina had an accurate name for his people, indo-hispanos, and told them their modern history, which is the history of the rip off of their land by the U.S. Government and the land-hungry capitalists it serves following the Mexican-American War. When all the forces of repression came down on Tixerina, he served his prison time and then retired to the village of Coyote to teach his children at home. Meanwhile, Mr. Naranjo and his Democrats tightened their grip on local politics and, by extension, the schools, for the purpose of propagating the ignorance that has served them so well. This year, the Espanola city fathers have commissioned a statue of Juan de Onate, the region's greedy Spanish conquistador. A statue of a conquistador, a stone's throw from two Indian pueblos! Such a thing would be unthinkable in Latin America (except for some very specialized purpose, such as at the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca).
October 29. It's Halloween time, and the children's thoughts are red with gore. The stories they devise are all rehashes of the nightmares on Elm Street and the antics of Freddy Kruger and little Chuckie. Tales of terror in the white suburbs; nothing autochthonous, nothing set in their own rural environment, nothing involving figures from their own traditions, such as La Llorona, the ghostly woman who wanders in search of her drowned children. The children are imbued with television and Hollywood culture.
November 12. After a month of teaching, I can say that nearly all my students are deficient in attention, overstimulated, aggressive. What makes them this way? I have canvassed a few veteran teachers on this, and they all tell me whatever the cause (television gets most of the blame), these things have been getting a lot worse in recent years.
December 10. It's getting near Christmas, presumably a family time, and I would like my students to write something about their families. They are eager to tell me, orally, about an uncle on the lam from the law, a dope-dealing cousin, a brother who stole and pawned the family's log-splitter last week. But they don't wish to commit these confessions to paper; they don't want to get into trouble, they say. So this week we settle for composing obscene poems about Santa Claus, which is the only other writing topic that seems to inspire them today.
January 7. Inauspicious beginning of a new semester. I would like to begin a long-term project, such as keeping a journal, but they find that overwhelming. I try to convince them its easy; I tell them I'm keeping one about this very class. Alarmed, they demand to see it, but I tell them they can't until they begin to write their own. Nah, forget it then. So it's back to the usual daily topics: "The Story of a Dime," "If I Were Invisible," "My Favorite Pet." Clarence, who has rings of weariness under his eyes but is also one of the more hyperactive, as though he is kept up every night and given stimulant pills for breakfast, has a typical opening to "If I Could Fly": "If I could fly, I would fly over the school and piss and shit on all the teachers (except Mr. Ferret)..."
February 15. I can appreciate the children's loathing of teachers and schools; I never cared for them much myself. I am convinced that the schools are part of what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatus, or what Gramsci called hegemony, that finely-tuned combination of police repression and ideological control. And that I, in my capacity as a teacher, am both policeman and administrator of that ideology. But I am also concerned, like Gramsci, that their nearly total incompetence in reading and writing, in either English or Spanish, will leave them wanting in some of the tools and skills they need to overthrow the dominant culture. My situation, then, is extremely awkward.
They are well aware, if not of my particular dilemma, then certainly of the master-slave dialectic that exists between us. If they were a couple of grades younger, I might be able to get them to perform just to please me, like pet dogs. But now they are old enough to be aware that my own identity as a successful teacher depends on their performance. I need them more than they need me. It's my "self-esteem," not theirs, that is at stake. And within the logic of this dialectic of dominance and submission, they are right, of course. So how can I get them to accept that I might possess cultural tools they can use to overthrow the culture I represent?
I don't think, as teacher, I can. Asking them, as I do this day, to do the work "for themselves," that it's "for their own good" sounds so ridiculous that it sticks in my throat.
February 25. These children's threats of violence to each other, which they sometimes carry out, are enough to make you cringe. Particularly disturbing are the boys' threats to rape the girls. At this age, the girls are as big as the boys and are often the aggressors. But what happens when sexual dimorphism sets in and the boys get big enough to overpower the girls? Last week I got fed up with their threats and yelled at them and kicked a chair across the room. That got their attention, and they were very subdued the rest of the day, but I felt ashamed, because it was such a contradictory thing, using violence to assert that violence is wrong.
This week I return humbled by my own conscience, hoping that last week's rage hasn't crushed or alienated them completely. Fat chance. They greet me warmly, if a little smugly. "You lost it last week, huh?" says Tony, our main bully. I have shown that I am human, and this pleases them, and I have shown that they can get to me, and some of them, especially Tony, like that even more.
From what I have gathered from other teachers and from Tony himself, he has a wretched home life, and so he is probably "acting out" a lot of his unhappiness. Most bullies, however, if we are to believe the famous recent Swedish bully study, are not at all the fragile emotional vessels the liberal therapy establishment likes to claim they are, but are in fact well-adjusted little thugs that go on to bully their way to the top of all kinds of businesses and institutions. So when so much anti-social behavior is rewarded by success in present society, what exactly does it mean to build "self-esteem" and "security"? In Tony's case, I guess it means smoothing out a few of the rougher psychotic edges (which would handicap him, however, if he were to be called to serve his nation's military in some far-off land) and controlling his tears of frustration (also a handicap if he were to be called to congress or court to explain why he massacred all those people). Apart from that, it's... Go get 'em, little tiger!
In fact, self-esteem, as I understand it, does not appear to be much lacking in these children, at least to my therapeutically untrained eye. For one thing, they are highly arrogant about their ignorance. Well, maybe there's a basis to this arrogance; it must take a good deal of concentration and willpower to sit through twelve years of school and come out not knowing how to read, as a large percentage of students these days do. In any case, "self-esteem" does not seem to me to be something terribly lacking in the American character. As an example, a graph in Andrew Shapiro's book We're Number One! (New York, 1992) shows 68% of American 13-year-olds saying they are "good at math," and only 23% of South Koreans saying the same. The Americans' average math proficiency score is 473.9, below the mean of 500; the Koreans' is 567.8.
April 7. It's the middle of basketball season, and basketball is all that is on the children's minds. Having given up on getting them to write (save for a couple of pieces on, what else, basketball), I allow them to go out and play it. On the basketball court I see them, for the first time, really work together, without coercion, and have a good time doing it. My presence is scarcely noted or needed. Basketball is the best thing that's happened to this class all year. I decide to let them play basketball as much as they want for the rest of the term; if my superiors call me on it, I will tell them it's all preparation for writing more basketball stories. Besides, my classroom is always locked now: the custodian died of acute alcohol poisoning the other day, and nobody ever seems to have another set of keys.
May 12. The basketball scheme has worked. I haven't been called on this unusual method for teaching writing, and the school year is now slouching toward its end. Part of my superiors' indifference to my method is no doubt owed to the fact that this particular program will probably not be funded next year because of some kind of malfeasance or neglect at the central office (it has been like pulling teeth to get paid and sometimes we weren't paid for months on end, but finally we did get all that was owed us).
May 19. Last week! In sum, what can I say my experience taught me about teaching? Right off, I'd say that we shouldn't even try to "teach" children after a certain age. Teach them the basics when they're young, probably by good old rote methods, and when they get to the age, around fifth grade, when they become aware of school as the prison or factory it is, let all those who want to go play and explore and discover things on their own, but always with academic or didactic resources at their disposal, should they want them. Maybe only by giving them their freedom will they actually learn something worthwhile.
by Salvador Ferret