What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been


This is Raksmey.  Raksmey just earned her high school diploma through the National External Diploma Program.  She hammered her way through it while pregnant with her second child and working full time.

This is Sophi.  Sophi was informed she’d passed the NEDP as well, earning her diploma at the same time as her classmate, Raksmey.  Sophi also works a full time job at a factory, and takes care of her two year old son, Rithy.

This was supposed to be the end of the story, but apparently, it’s not going to be.

Lets jump back a few months.

Our class, which started out with eight or nine Cambodian dropouts from another class, has shrunk and swollen several times since we started.  Sophi was there the first day.  I could count the number of classes she’s missed on the fingers of one hand, but I wouldn’t need all the fingers.  She took time off when Rithy was born, but since Sophi has a magnificent family, it was easy for her to return the moment she felt ready.

Back in April, we dwindled to three people.  Plus a teacher.  I’m not certain a teacher actually qualifies as a “person”, making the headcount slightly puzzling.  I guess it depends on the day.  Sokkeang and two others had to start working more hours, so we experienced a tiny exodus.  But we three plus whatever forged ahead for a few weeks, until one day we found ourselves talking about how small our class had become.

Sophi’s sister, Muni (which means ‘intelligent’ in Khmer) said she felt a little awkward being in a class of three.  Didn’t seem much like a class.  It was feeling more like teatime, but I like teatime.  I like teatime quite a bit more than I like tea.

Few people could be so consistently riveted by my classes as Muni. It surprised me to know she would have preferred more students over more direct attention, but I suppose that urge to be part of something more definable is never too far away.

We started to talk about whether or not to recruit a couple more people to occupy the two empty chairs at the table.  Being April, and anticipating we’d jump off the bus for a summer break in eight or so more weeks, the question whether it was the right time to invite newcomers also came up.

It was one of those slow conversations, where everyone’s thinking about what to say next, working at coming up with the next bright idea.  Unearned diplomas and enjoying the distinction of being a class of dropouts hung palpably in the air, so I had to ask about the one thing I’d been adamant about saying I could never help them do from the very beginning: Were they still concerned about getting their diplomas?

They said yes.  It was one of those quietly low moments in a person’s life.  They’d all given up seats in “real” schools because we liked what we were doing on our own.  I owed them in a big way.  They gave me a kind of trust I never earned, and they very nearly succeeded in turning me into something better than I was before I knew them.  The least I could do was make a couple of mildly bothersome phone calls.

It’s good luck to know an angel or two, and since I had Nancy Fritz in my phone’s directory, I called her for ideas.  Nancy always has a good one.  She put us in touch with Donna Chambers, angel-warrior and director of the NEDP in RI.  Raksmey and Sophi’s names were still knocking around in Donna’s not so recent memory, but after explaining their situation, Donna told them to show up the following Saturday.

After the call, I looked at Raksmey and Sophi and asked them if they really felt ready.  Raksmey said she wanted to get her diploma before her baby was born, which gave us four and a half months.  I told them it was going to be like getting on a roller coaster – no getting off until the end – but if they were ready to climb on, I’d climb on with them.

It meant no new students.  It meant we were going to be more deeply entrenched with each other than ever before.  No room for distractions.  No time for any more guesses.

There were two spots still open in the program, and anyone else would have to wait a few more months before they could be accepted.  That following Saturday, Raksmey and Sophi sat in the waiting area outside Donna’s office along with several other candidates.  When they got to my apartment a couple hours later, they were almost breathless.  They were in.  They said Donna walked out of her office and asked the group, “Who’s here from Jon?”  Apprehensive, Sophi and Raksmey identified themselves, and Donna sent all the others away, telling them they had to wait until August.

Raksmey and Sophi practically felt like celebrities on the red carpet.  They came back acting as if I’d performed some kind of miracle.  They each had a book full of instructions for projects to complete, and we got started right away.

The pony was through the gate and running it’s hind quarters off.

The ensuing four and a half months became an unexpected whirlwind of effort and commitment.  We started meeting at least three times every week, working together over the phone when schedules got dicey – urgent questions and answers by text message, sometimes pretty late into the evening.  The table was covered with take-out and papers every other night.  There were easy victories and a few pitfalls.  We went from the honeymoon to divorce court and back again.  There were tears and sweat.  At one point, Raksmey fell and went through a brief period of fear for her unborn baby’s safety.  She was distraught and in pain, and had to take a few days to follow her doctor’s advice to lay low.

Much of the time, Sophi was nearly convinced she was completely beyond understanding the instructions she was working to follow.  The level of complexity seemed at times to make her feel as if her language skills had regressed, rather than the other way around.  Muni came along to quite a few of our meetings and watched what her friend and sister were going through.  When Sophi or I asked her if she wanted to try the same program next year, she instantly shook her head no.  But there was never one word spoken about stopping or failing.  It wasn’t an option.

There was a period of uneasy calm in the couple weeks after the last of the projects were finally submitted. There were a few loose ends to tie up, but mostly we called each other back and forth on the phone out of habit.  It felt strange there was nothing left to do except wait to hear if there was anything else left to do.

Raksmey’s daughter was born.  The birth was arduous, but intensely anticipated and welcomed.  Then the word came from Francine, Raksmey and Sophi’s exemplary assessor in the program.  There was nothing left to do.  Francine had submitted their names to Central Falls High School to have diplomas printed with their names on them.

I’ve begun working with other candidates for the NEDP, and I have no doubt there will turn out to be people who will spangle my life and imagination with all manner of joy, despair and surprise.  I’m looking forward to it, too, but find it impossible to expect any kind of lightening strike at all akin to the last several months.

Raksmey drops hints now and then about working her way toward college, and I like to encourage such subversive thinking, especially in someone who can get off a plane in the hometown of the Superman building, and in seven years, learn a completely new language and alphabet, become fluent enough in the language to earn a high school diploma, earn promotions at her job and begin a family.

Sophi isn’t interested in college yet.  She just wants to keep studying because she wants to swim more gracefully in this ocean we used to call The Land of the Free and the Brave.  How can anyone tell?  How the hell are you ever supposed to define a country that produced George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Edward Hopper, Barack Obama, Marvin Gaye, Ted Bundy and John Coltrane?

I know a few of us are free, and a few of us are brave, but I couldn’t begin to know if you can be both at the same time.  But because of people like Raksmey and Sophi, I’m holding aside a small piece of faith that maybe a few of us still are.

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Angels and Warriors

Since mentioning Angel, my almost was student at CCRI, I’ve gotten some interesting and poignant comments.  I guess we’ve all encountered our share of heartbreakers.  I ‘m not sure why I even chose to mention her, other than her having a resonant name and being waif-like enough for a Charles Dickens novel.  Then of course there were the waterworks, but  I’ve seen football players who could pick me up by the ankles and shake the change out of my pockets blubber even harder than Angel.  Young men and women with gang ink on their skin who disappeared before they had a chance to fail their first assignment.

What was riding on the education the Angels never got?  What doors never opened, and what dismal habits of calculated failure were too strong to overcome?  At least that time?  Or how do you resist wondering how someone who survived human atrocities of mythic proportions can walk into your classroom and say English is hard?  How much pathological rage has even shed the blood of students of all ages, spectacularly or otherwise, on public school and university campuses?  So when people pass off academia for existing in a protected ivory tower, I tend to get real suspicious.

There was no reason Angel or any of the others had to fail, other than they expected to.  It was neither in the cards nor inevitable.  Most often, it’s as simple as asking “Can I?” or “Could you?”  But those are expectations few people get past sitting in the kind of room designed to make you feel small.  Some of the ugliest rooms I’ve ever been in were classrooms.  It seems we go out of our way to build ugly schools and then cram them full of more students than we can properly tend to.  President after president calls himself “The Education President” and we gas on about the value of education, yet somehow we never seem to have any fresh ideas when it comes to creating schools that function as much more than warehouses.

One of the most interesting responses to Angel came in an email from one of the true angels of my life, my niece, Elena Barrett, who shared her impressions and experience with a few of her own Angels of failure.  Elena has just moved to Finland with her brand, spanking new husband, Rami, and is mired in the shallow end of the ocean of the language he speaks naturally.  I’ve asked Elena to write about her learning curve for this blog when she has the time, although she’s already begun to express some of her impressions here: http://alreadyelena.blogspot.com/

One thing in particular struck me — the thing about the young girl named Angel. Your description of her, her bravado, and her subsequent disappearance really reminded me of many of the middle school girls I used to teach at STRIVE, a New Britain after school program I worked for. They’re mired in a culture of failure, one which regards aggression and feigned confidence to be fundamental precepts. The tragic thing, though, is that it’s through no fault, inability, or flaw inherent in them as individuals, or even in the culture itself; it’s a result of economic and educational disadvantage. It was probably the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced — to see these bright and totally capable young women say they wanted to be lawyers and doctors, only to fall short of basic literacy. Of course, they’d fight with us bitterly when we’d try to help them learn, or encourage them to read more, or to write more, etc. They were deeply afraid of failure, and embarrassed of their skill levels. Plus, their role models had said and done the exact same things, probably with even less pitiful help of the kind we provided in the program.

Even still, I loved that job for the most part. There were a couple of occasions on which I came home to down an entire bottle of wine, like the time I had to call DCF on a girl with a suicidal mother, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done, save what I’m doing now, I guess. I’d had enough after three years due to the program being incredibly understaffed (a few of us got hurt while trying to break up fights and the like) and to some of my own medical issues. I miss those girls all the time.

Aggression and failure.  Which one’s heads and which one’s tails?  Education is supposed to make us think of wise teachers and curious students.  It’s supposed to be Plato sorting out the mess of existence in endless conversations with Aristotle.  Between then and now, there and here, sometimes it feels like education is a war of attitude and suspicion.  When I think of the real warriors, like Elena, or Tyla McCaffrey of Amos House, Donna Chambers of the National External Diploma Program or Nancy Fritz of The East Bay Family Literacy Center, I just want to retreat back to my kitchen table where a small group of patiently determined Cambodians teach me a little more every week about walking on the ground.

It’s only right to mention the above warriors for their inspiration, and because they’ve all helped this group of students in more ways than they understand.  Jumping to what’s happening now, it’s a pleasure to be able to say Sophi and Raksmey, two of the real stalwart Saturday kitchen warriors, have just finished the work required to earn their high school diplomas in the NEDP.  The previous four months has been a new experience in commitment and determination.  Back in April, Raksmey said she wanted to be able to finish the program before her baby was born, and last night, she sent a message from her bed in the hospital to say her 6 pound 10 ounce daughter had been born.

Raksmey once joked that if she could finish her work in the program in time, her baby would be born with a high school diploma.  And now, apparently, she has.

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Everything Changes Everything

The late, great tenor sax player from Chicago, Clifford Jordan, was in Hartford sometime in the late 70s playing a concert in Bushnell Park.  It was around the time his Glass Bead Game album was released, a recording that twisted my ears all ways at once.  Jordan had a hard, massive sound that somehow managed to be serpentine.  He could play like a demon walking out of a burning building, calm, as if nothing in the world could be wrong.

So I had a chance to hang with Jordan a little while, and being in my teens I had foolish questions in good supply.  I asked how he got the tenor to sound that way on the bottom end, all those big, low hard notes to control.  He looked at me like I needed to be hospitalized for stupidity, which probably I did, and said, “Just do it a lot.”

I don’t think I’ve garnered anything more illuminating about learning things than that.  Confucius said it something like this: With repetition, the student becomes one with the material.

When I started teaching as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan University twenty years ago, our coordinator told us not to “teach”, but “to create an environment in which the students can learn.”

Yeah, okay, I thought.  Maybe I can do that.  Now, when this concept of environment crosses my mind, I say, “Yeah, okay.  Maybe…maybe…”

I’m not convinced learning more about teaching will make me a better teacher.  You can go to conferences and discussion groups.  You can read up on the latest pedagogical theories.  As a language teacher, I feel it would be far more useful to take piano lessons, or maybe learn how to read the Persian alphabet.

I don’t want to learn how to teach any more.  I want to learn how to learn.  I want to watch someone like Sokkeang practice in front of me.  I want to understand why a joke can be funny in one language and not another.  I want to eat custard fruit in the shade with someone who never tasted it before.

For most of the last five years, I taught ESL at a school that was indescribably more than a school.  It was a constellation of randomly perfect ingredients swirling together to form an arcane miracle.  It was the right funky old building on the right corner of the right street in the right city with the right combination of people working together.  I’m supposed to say The Genesis Center is an adult education “program”, but that would be a horrible disservice.  A “program” is nothing but a concept at which a government agency or private foundation throws money.  The money generally comes with the kinds of demands that choke the song out of your throat you’ve been asked to sing in the first place.

Until recently, The Genesis Center was the environment my coordinator was trying to tell me about all those years ago.  It was the place where I landed by accident when I made the grievous misjudgment of returning to the US in 06.  It was my playground, and I was an ecstatic tourist among immigrants who were hungry and good natured.  I had an inordinate freedom to play and explore.  My time at Genesis changed me as a teacher almost as much as living in a foreign country had.

Teaching music in Europe, reading books by Hal Crook over and over again with hours commuting on the train reinforced my belief in the value of repetition.  Seven to ten hours a day blowing the same scales and going for that sound Clifford Jordan told me about changed my wisdom forever.  In classes at places like Genesis, we have to learn how to fool our students into not realizing they’re repeating themselves so much.  We’re supposed to keep it lively and interesting so the numbers in our “programs” won’t suffer.

I don’t know if I taught anyone well.  I want to say I care about that, but I’m ultimately too selfish to do so with any honesty.  The embarrassing truth is that I felt like I’d come back to America to witness my own funeral from a hidden corner, same as Tom Sawyer, but the immigrants I met on the playground helped me keep postponing it.

For several years, I commuted by train to a music school in the south of Portugal.  Every week, I passed a town called Mexiloeira Grande.  For years I looked at that sign as the train went by it and tried to pronounce it correctly in my mind.  I couldn’t.  No one could seem to teach me, either.  Then one day there was a woman on the train with a little boy I guessed was her grandson.  The boy looked at the sign and tried to read it, mucking up the sound as kids often do with too many syllables in their mouths.  The grandmother tossed her head back and laughed.  She told the boy slowly: May-sheel-yo-eh-duh.

I had it after that.  I never pronounced it badly again.

The immigrants usually say English is supposed to be easy for those of us who grew up with it, but that’s not always true.

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a remedial writing course at the Community College of RI.  The building I was working in had harsh, antiseptic classrooms that make me think of that sequence near the end of Clockwork Orange, in which the Malcolm McDowell character, Alex, is forced to watch violent films until he becomes too disgusted to ever hurt anyone again.  Talk about environment.

A young woman named Angel joined the class after it started.  She almost looked like a forgotten angel.  Skirting the edges of pretty.  Too thin and jittery.  The few times she came to class she blustered on about how her life was too complicated for studying.  She’d stop and talk after class about how no one in her family had ever gone to college, and even though they all told her she was neither good nor smart enough, she was determined to get through.  Angel never completed an assignment.  I know what she said, but inside, she believed the lies her family and community had been telling her since she was old enough to understand them.  She’d come to class full of piss and vinegar, then miss the next couple, then come back worried she’d never catch up.

Angel shed tears of anguish, that “bag you don’t want to carry”, beside my car in the parking lot.  I don’t think she noticed my car was older than she was, but I did.  And I knew she was begging for something she’d probably never recognize if she got it.  I offered a tiny piece: help and support.  Time.  I offered a silent wish to see her transform into a real angel of this tragic earth, but when her fears finally absorbed her ambitions, she disappeared forever.  I want to believe someone invited Angel to sit at their kitchen table and show her the way to go on without drowning in her own psychic dissonance.

Well, I want to, but I don’t.  And it’s not like people don’t cry in parking lots or classrooms, including me.

Angel?  Where the hell did you go?  You went and broke both our hearts.

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She said everyone’s life was like a mountain.  Then she drew the shape of a mountain on the table with her finger.  “No one can stay at the top all the time.”  Her classmates were in their room watching a movie.  Something rented from a chain store.  It was Friday afternoon, and everyone was up to their necks with mountain climbing.  Except Sokkeang.

I was filling in for a couple of days for the GED teacher at an adult ed. program in Providence, RI, the only city in America that lights fires across the top of a river every few weeks, just a few blocks east of the Superman building, the one George Reeves flew over at the beginning of every episode right up until the year I was born.  From there, if you walk straight across Kennedy Plaza to Burnside Park, there are Civil War era canons, one of which rumor says has a ball and a load of powder inside, even though the barrel’s been plugged with cement.  Then, across from the park is The RI Foundation, where the train station used to be.

That’s how we know our landmarks in Providence – we know everything by what it used to be.  I’m looking for a city that gives you landmarks according to what they’re going to become.

Sokkeang’s classmates were mostly young adults who’d been marginalized, voluntarily or otherwise, by institutions intended to provide them education and a sense of belonging.  I have to resist leaping up to blame our schools or government or society, but the last time I was inside an American high school the entire building gave me the sense of being lost within a vast, maze-like rest room.

Around the middle of my first day with this group, one of the students ask if I liked them.  The question confused me, at first.  I was a temp.  Why would anyone care?  So what else do you do when there’s a sub in your class?  We closed the book and started talking about school, teachers, students, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.  I finally asked if anyone knew what the word anguish means.  Lots of frowns and knit brows, and few pretty close guesses.  So I told the class to come back the next day with a personal definition of anguish.  It wasn’t remotely related to what they were there for, so it wasn’t surprising only one student bothered.  A young Afro-Latino man came in the next day with a torn slip of paper and read the most beautiful definition of anguish I’ve ever heard.  He said anguish was like a bag you don’t want to carry.  I wanted to kneel down in front of the class and weep, but instead – for a change – I decided to do what I was getting paid for and just smiled and nodded my head in approval.

So it was Friday afternoon when the regular teacher routinely allowed the class to kick back and watch a movie.  The students insisted I chill and watch the movie with them.  I was going to love it, they said.  It had Martin Lawrence playing a big, old lady in drag.  I started laughing the minute he appeared when I realized the Martin Lawrence character was the lady who lives on the first floor of my building.

The tall, quiet Asian girl sitting off to the side was ignoring the movie.  She’d been sitting like that for the last couple of days: silent, seemingly aloof, with her head bowed into the open palms of a book.  I was curious and offered to go out in the hall with her and try to answer any questions she had about her reading material.  She read aloud for me a little, and when I made suggestions to her for pronunciation, she seemed to enter this misty zone of concentration and put her mouth silently around the words as if she were rolling hard candies around in her mouth.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking upside down,” she said.  In the couple of days I’d spent with her, she’d barely said much of anything.  She’d gone to the program having heard it was a good place to learn English, and when she was tested, her score was too high to allow placement in an ESL class, so she was placed in GED.  No one bothered to ask her enough questions to find out she’d already had three years of university education in Cambodia.  No one had time.

The practice of kicking back on a Friday afternoon to hang with your classmates and watch a movie was an inconvenience Sokkeang quietly tolerated.  Back in Phnom Penh, six twelve hour days a week is a normal working routine.  She didn’t understand her classmates’ innate sense of tedium with anything academic.  She had this whole new life in America to catapult, while the majority of her classmates were slow dancing their way to the next level of mediocrity.

When Sokkeang brought up the mountain analogy, it brought home that she was quietly power walking up one side while I was pratfalling toward the bottom of the other.  I never wanted to teach anyone where I live before, but when she asked, I started thinking she might help break my fall if I said yes.  So I said yes, and that was almost how I ended up teaching a small group of Cambodians every week in my apartment.  It was entirely how Sokkeang set about becoming a highly valued member of the family.

This was about three and a half years ago, and late this spring, I was an undeservedly honored guest at Sokkeang’s wedding.  This was one of several milestone occasions we’ve celebrated among this little part time community that’s evolved and somehow thrived at my kitchen table because one day, I met this quietly remarkable young woman who just wanted to be able to read and speak a little better.

As a human being, I dislike being a teacher.  As a teacher, I dislike “classes”.  As an inveterately stubborn, unashamedly irresponsible feral child at play in the fields of human aspiration, I only want to experience the joys and anguish of learning, teaching and belonging with people who can show me how to be better than I am.

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