Day Twenty-One, Road Trip 2015

all ages love boats,
 skyline tower views, no waves,
 island tree climbing
 
 parks make cities nice
 waterfront, shady, crowd free
 not these skyscrapers
 
 multicolored ride
 subway, tunnel underground
 (to hide from winter)
 
 what about fresh air?
 facing the snowy cold day?
 not in Toronto
 
 for now, sun shines through
 we see commerce’s belly
 windows heaven down
 
 it’s hard to picture
 winter’s isolating freeze
 (even fruit hides here)
 
 that’s what it’s like now
 just before our trek back home
 (last time i’ll see her)
 
 in tunnels, hiding
 just like friendships wax and wane
 waiting to come back
 
 

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The Buck that Burns Across My Back

It is 14:52 on the eve of ESL summer school. We have spent an entire day, AN ENTIRE DAY, planning for a sixty-five-minute lesson from curriculum that we first laid our eyes on this morning after a completely different and unrelated ENTIRE DAY presentation of curriculum yesterday. And at this moment, he announces that tomorrow, for the first day, the schedule will be “different.” That all our lesson planning has just been flushed down the toilet that has become our society.

I cried on my two-mile walk this morning. Not because it was too hot, or the views of the Perfect Denver Neighborhood weren’t impeccable. Or because I had to teach summer school for four weeks to pay for summer camp for my girls for ONE. But because of an article I read about the University of Phoenix, of all things. About how, in five years, their enrollment has decreased by fifty percent. And starting July 1st, a new law will require that they prove that their graduates make enough money to pay back the loans that their for-profit greed has forced them to take.

I was thinking these things as I made my way across town to the locale of this year’s grant-funded summer school, the University of Denver, a NONprofit institution with gorgeous grounds and transgender bathrooms and air conditioning and classes that start at $1200 a CREDIT.

And how screwed I am. Not because I think that the University of Phoenix is so damn amazing that it could grind up the 100-year-old trees of Denver’s “Ivy League of the West.” But because I have to do this. I have to do this damn summer school and have a part time job as an adjunct-but-never-real professor, that I have to bend my will to the beck and call of disorganized, incapable-of-communicating administrators, all for the buck that burns across my back.

That the measly $600 that I sometimes earn in a month at the University of Phoenix is sometimes all that keeps us from bowing down to debt.

And when he comes in at 13:33 and tells me that they haven’t been able to contact more than 11 students for our summer school, I ask him if it will be cancelled, if I will be shit out of luck on all counts this Tuesday. “No worries… it’s already accounted for… a grant. No pasa nada.” And his blue eyes and Argentinian accent are slappable. “And who paid for it?” I demand, the third time in two months I’ve asked, a question he’s dodged until this moment. “Well… you have. The taxpayers. The READ Act.”

And it all circles back to me. The University of Denver grounds I stand on that have been manicured by professional gardeners. The school I could never afford to attend, nor will any of my children even think of applying to. The public education that is filled and funded with so many holes, twenty-seven gorgeous textbooks, full-color photos and activities galore, a slew of classroom supplies including an electric pencil sharpener, that 11 students will take advantage of … all the rest? To waste.

The “for-profit” evil University of Phoenix that has allowed my family to break free of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle that is a teacher’s salary, that allowed us to live on a pittance in Spain, that has allowed me to… breathe.

What is an education worth? Why won’t parents commit to a forty-five minute bus ride for free materials, expert teachers, individualized classes, and free breakfast and lunch? Why won’t the University of Denver be asked to publish data on how many students graduate with a super-fancy psychology degree and start their salaries at $22,000? Why won’t our government ever just see that EDUCATION SHOULD BE FREE??

This is my Tuesday. Let the games begin. The Hunger Games, real world style.

Substitution

There are no substitute teachers in Spain. When teachers have to miss school, another teacher in the building must cover their classes. Since they have to do this, then they are not required to actually teach, as it is technically their planning time. Because they are not required to teach, the students automatically feel that this period is then free time. Their behavior and attitude change tremendously, so that they think they should do nothing in these circumstances.

While this does discourage absenteeism on the part of teachers, what a pain in the ass! What a loss! I know many good teachers back in the States who reiterate the importance of quality behavior for substitutes, leave behind valuable lesson plans, and make sure that their students don’t miss an entire day of learning when their teachers are absent. Not only that, but think of all the people on the substitute list who are at least partially gainfully employed. There are so many unemployed people in Spain who could qualify as substitutes. They could kill three birds with one stone.

Sometimes the logic here seems backwards. They sacrifice so many things because they think they don’t have the money, when it is obvious that the majority of the government’s money comes from sales tax. The more people who have jobs, the more things they buy… it seems like a simple formula to me. I know it’s more complicated than that, but they could really change their educational system just a bit. Substitute teachers can continue on with the much-needed education, and students would then benefit, teachers would feel less stressed, and others would be employed.

Just another reason for me to be grateful for what I have… back home.

After a Year in Spain…

My teeth will be coffee stained. There is no remorse for this, no trip to the dentist, one of the few medical services wholly uncovered, whose riches I see once a week in the mid-city mansion where I tutor three students and transverse to the third story of their home.

I’ll be fluent. Mostly anyway, enough to pick up on street conversations, meal requests, payment inquiries, everything related to school. Everything that I will need to know.

I will wake up each day and be ever so grateful for the socialistic society that provides us with a computer, texts, projectors, document cameras, copies, and everything else we could possibly need to function as educators.

I will only be me, the person you know so well, just slightly different. I might confuse this store for the microcosm of Spanish society, or forget that everything’s open relentlessly, or remember that I can hop in a car and drive across the country on a whim and a prayer.

Yes, a whim and a prayer… the same two words that carried my family 5000 miles, penniless and filled with hope, to become the people we would be after a year in Spain.

Beautiful Little Boxes

I have a schedule posted on the board in the English department’s office. It pretty much lists the twelve classes I will attend each week, all different levels of students ranging from ages 12-18, with correlating levels of English (seventh graders being the lowest level, twelfth graders the highest). However, since Spain has a different way of labeling students and grades, I haven’t quite memorized the various levels, nor knew, during my first week, what ages I would encounter until I entered the classrooms and asked students how old they were.

On my schedule in the English department are beautiful little boxes where the teachers can write the topic of the day. Beneath my schedule is a plastic funda, (I don’t know this word in English), where teachers can put photocopies of activities or, in most cases, of the textbooks that they make the poor students purchase, that we will be discussing that day.

This is how it should work: the day before the lesson, my beautiful little boxes should be filled with notes, copies should be underneath in the funda, and I can enter each of my twelve different subjects prepared to teach.

But let me review the teachers’ day in Spain. Yesterday I think it was 98 degrees (haven’t quite learned Centigrade yet, but I’m guessing over 40). Please note: no air conditioning. Students remain in the same room, together, all day, waiting for various teachers to filter in from all over the building, a pile of books and chalk in hand. Each teacher has at least three preps, usually five, and the schedule for all varies from day to day. There is not one moment of consistency. You cannot expect to go in and teach level one English during period two, five days a week. It will be three times a week, and the time changes depending on the day. Hopefully you can appear in the correct classroom at the correct time with the correct materials. So far, I have not succeeded in doing so.

I have not a qualm in the world then, when I return home and tell Bruce about my day, and he replies with, They are taking advantage of you because you showed them that you’re too good in the beginning, and I shoot back with, You have no idea what it’s like for them.

Today I had a plan for one of three classes, as one teacher put her copies in the funda and wrote her topic in my beautiful little box. I attended the bilingual meeting, where I was again reminded that I do not speak nor understand Spanish, other than when the music teacher (my new favorite person) spoke in a clear, slow, perfectly-understandable accent. I heard bits and pieces of conversations, and one somewhat heated debate involving menus, prices, and places to eat, having to do with, perhaps, everyone getting together on November 9? My goal for the end of the year: to know what happens during these weekly meetings!

I attended the first, prepared-for class. The teacher wanted me to run the entire show, beginning to end, and I felt confident that I at last understood my job. I am the only one who speaks English with perfect authority, and I only have these students once per week. They need to hear the native speaker. No matter what it is I have to say. But more importantly, the teachers? God do they need a break!!! We learned about multiculturalism in Britain after a brief lecture by me (while the teacher ran an errand) about the letters being the same in the words SILENT and LISTEN… high schoolers… ugh…

Moving on to the next class, I appeared on time, before the teacher, of course. She came in and saw the math scribbles on the board and asked me if I needed chalk, holding up the two tiny stubs of chalk that remained below the chalkboard. (Might I remind everyone that there are no overhead projectors, not even the transparency type??) Sure… I replied… what might we be doing today? (She hadn’t filled my beautiful little box, so I hadn’t the slightest idea, though I was immediately relieved to see a group of middle-school-aged kids, my home). All About Britain, she replied, and when I asked if they’d already started to read the book, she didn’t understand me. We switched to Spanish, but let me tell you. I may have trouble understanding Spanish, but at least I don’t claim to be a Spanish teacher, God forbid!

Luckily for me, this appeared the be the same lesson that was minutes-before thrust on me on Monday with a different teacher, so I perfected it quite nicely today, thank you very much! (I decided to omit his absurd terminating requirement of having one student at a time read aloud a sentence in English and translate, for the whole class, the Spanish equivalent… translation truly just doesn’t work most of the time). The teacher today? She sat in the back of the room fanning herself and not saying a word. Total trust after less than a week? I’ll take it.

On to lesson three, where I received the most beautiful gift of all time. First, there’s a fifteen-minute break for everyone in the school before the last period of the day! Second, I’d made questions for this particular text one day while sitting on the beach, and had printed them for the teacher, who, surprise surprise, never had time to make copies. I guess you will have to write them on the board then she told me… I stared at my palms, whose chalk dust I had just washed off in the bathroom. I suppose so… I admitted, crestfallen. But when we walked down to her room, voila! Smartboard, projector, computer. Do you have this room every week, for this class? I asked, more excited than a kid just arriving at Disney World. It was about the best gift I could imagine receiving. I pulled out my flash drive, asked the tallest boy in the class (high schoolers again??) to reach up to the ceiling and turn on the projector, and I felt like a real teacher again! I could type! Change fonts! Add colors!! Use a pointer, highlight, underline, everything I feel like every student needs, but ESPECIALLY second language students. How lucky the teacher is, in a room that has such a beautiful gift, one whose description would never fit into a beautiful little box, because words could never fit the gratitude that filled every moment of that oh-so-perfect American lesson.

Before I left for the day, I checked my schedule again. Someone had scribbled in, All About Britain, in the box for today (a little after the fact, I think). I also had a note on my desk from a teacher saying he wouldn’t be in the class I share with him tomorrow, but could I do the same lesson as Monday? (Well, the cultural liaison explained, Since everyone realized right away that you are an actual teacher, not like these teacher assistants we’ve had in the past, we have great trust in you…It’s up to you, though, if you want to do that…)

I couldn’t explain to her, in English or Spanish, what I do, what I have done, for the past seven years. I couldn’t explain it this morning in the meeting when the history teacher asked me if I knew anything about American history and I tried to say, in front of all, in my broken Spanish, that I co-taught that subject for seven years. I couldn’t explain to my colleagues back home what it is like to be a teacher in Spain. All I can do is be the best teacher I know how to be, to fit myself into a beautiful little box, and hope that when the box is opened, the students on the other side will see the world in a different way.