Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Middle school drama

I’ve worked a whole two days at my new job, and now it’s fall break. Good thing, too; I think I need a vacation. After only two days, you’re wondering? Well. Take a little walk down memory lane to your own preteen years. Let yourself really remember how it felt. I’ve met very few people who actually enjoyed middle school, and I know for me it was pretty agonizing.

I remember how miserable I felt some days, how self-conscious, how excluded. I was mortally embarrassed that I didn’t shave my legs, didn’t wear deodorant, brought my soccer gear to school in a plastic grocery bag. That I got stuck walking down the bus aisle with my violin case. That I hated the way jeans felt and wore sweat pants and animal T-shirts. That I wasn’t a Christian. That I was terrified if any boy liked me. That kids in my music class made fun of my song when we had to bring one in to share. That I hadn’t gotten my period. That I didn’t know how to dance. That I hated dances. That I didn’t have anyone to dress up with for twin day. Even, heaven forbid, that I was smart.

How did I ever survive those traumatic years? And the thing is, I know I had a whole lot going for me that a lot of middle schoolers can’t count on. A supportive family. Enough money. A safe neighborhood. A quiet place to study. No serious peer pressure to try drugs or alcohol or sex. An elementary education that prepared me well for the academic expectations of middle school. Teachers who perceived me as someone who would succeed.

I can’t imagine having any or all of those advantages taken away from me. I can’t imagine trying to make it through those years in a language I barely understood, in a foreign culture, in a school full of strangers...yet that’s what the kids I work with are doing every day. Sometimes I just have to step back and admire their courage, their strength, the pure grit that gets them through. And then it’s back to the grindstone of trying to help them understand what’s going on in class.

My official title is "ELA-S Para," or "English Language Acquisition—Spanish Paraprofessional." Essentially, it means I go around to different classes with students who need extra support in English. In this school, that would actually be most of the kids, but I’m only working with the ones who have the most minimal language proficiency. I don’t have a fixed schedule yet, but I’ve been shadowing the two other ELA paras and learning the ropes. I sit with my kids, I clarify directions, I answer questions. I check to see how much they’ve understood and explain whatever they haven’t in simpler English or in Spanish, depending on their current level of English. I translate vocabulary. I reteach concepts that were missed. I do simultaneous English-Spanish interpretations of various class lectures, including one yesterday on Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift. How do you say plate tectonics in Spanish? Pangaea? Fossil? Mesosaurus? Crust, mantle, inner and outer core? Lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere? Needless to say, my Spanish has been getting a good workout.

And there’s so much more drama apart from the academic aspects of the day. A girl gets in a fight, falls, and cracks her head open on the corner of a desk. A boy is strangled in the bathroom during the Halloween social. Kids fall out of their chairs, stand on their desks, tear up their books, yell out, talk back, smack each other around. And they politely raise their hands, give each other compliments, beam from ear to ear when they answer a question correctly. Like the school social worker told me yesterday, I might get frustrated with this job, and I might get a little crazy, but I will never get bored. And that’s the way I like it.

*In case you were wondering, we just chatted in the lunchroom. I didn’t seek her out of my own accord. Yet.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


As I was cruising down the bike path on my way home from work the other day, past three traffic lights' worth of cars bumper to bumper in rush hour traffic, I was reminded of how happy I am to be a bicycle commuter. It's not just the voice of environmental consciousness in me that makes me feel good about biking; I've been coming up with more and more practical reasons why it's a viable mode of transportation.

Like I mentioned, traffic is certainly a big factor. Denver has made some serious efforts to become a bike-friendly city, with bike paths and bike routes on less-traveled streets that let you bypass most of the congestion and, at certain times of day, make biking just as speedy as driving. Public buses have bike racks on their fronts, and you can even carry bikes right onto the Light Rail with you.

Parking is another nightmare you don't have to deal with on a bike. I hadn't realized the significance of this until I borrowed a car and drove to work at the community college one day. I spent a good fifteen minutes driving around trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot, with all of downtown's one-way streets and no-turn lanes, only to find out that the college lots have meters with two-hour time limits that cost 25 cents for every 8 minutes. I could spend a full hour's pay on parking for one day. Ridiculous. Back to the bike.

And it's not just in parking that a bike saves money; think about no gas, no insurance, no inspection costs. Then there's the exercise factor. I'm not necessarily in the mood to go out running after a day's work, but after biking thirty-some minutes each way, I feel like I've at least gotten some physical activity. And there's the exhilaration of flying down the hill from our house onto the main drag as the sun rises. Who needs coffee?

Of course, there are some downsides to not having a car. It gets pretty chilly in the early mornings, and it's only October. (I shouldn't complain; at least I'm not drenched in sweat by the time I get to work like I was in Cambodia.) It's also a little silly to change into work clothes in a bathroom stall and have to find a place to keep socks, sneakers, spandex, sweats, fleece, hat, gloves, jacket, and helmet until it's time to go home. At least rain is infrequent in Denver, so I don't usually have to deal with rain gear on top of all that.

Biking in the dark is also tricky, even with lights. A couple nights ago, I set out on my bike for a friend's house to practice some quartet music. Despite the awkward violin case on my back, everything went perfectly smoothly until I arrived at my supposed destination, only to realize that the house didn't exist. After making a phone call, I found out that I had copied and pasted all but the first number of the address into Google maps and was actually supposed to be 40 blocks further north. Fabulous. I continued on my way in the dark on a busy street, hitting a poor innocent telephone pole with my violin in the process, until my sympathetic fellow violinist saved the day and showed up in a station wagon to give me and the bicycle a ride.

In spite of potential disasters like that one, I've enjoyed the adventures of pedaling around. I feel so much more connected to the world around me when I'm not shielded from it inside a car. So much more alive. Winter weather may change my attitude toward long morning commutes, but I guess that's a small price to pay for all the big ones I don't have to.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A community college education

So. Last time I wrote, it was about being unemployed. No longer. In fact, since then, I have gotten not one job, but two. I actually had to give my two weeks' notice before I was even officially hired. Why do these things all happen at once?

My first job (apart from some Spanish tutoring a few hours a week) has been as a part-time tutor at the Community College of Denver's ESL writing lab. I've been working there for two weeks now, and I'm loving it. The students I work with are mostly immigrants and refugees, rather than international students who would go back to their countries after graduating. I started keeping a list of the countries my students were from: Eritrea, Mali, Ethiopia, Morocco, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, China, Mexico, and the list goes on. I've read their essays on fatherhood, politics, education, religion, poverty. On their lives in their homelands, their families they've left behind, their first days in America. Their frustration, their pain, their incredibly tenacious hope. I often just want to sit and digest these pieces for awhile, to ask questions, to listen to their remarkable stories, but they want me to "fix" it, correct the grammar, take away the errors, and please hurry and sign it, class starts in five minutes...sigh. It seems so trivial, scratching away at the mechanics of a paper when there's so much emotion just under the surface. They've been learning about outlines, commas, thesis sentences, and verb tense consistency, but I hope they're also learning that they have valuable stories to share. I'll have a hard time leaving this job at the end of next week.

There won't be much time to ponder that, though, because there's more adventure to come: on the 27th, I'll start a full-time job as an ELA (English Language Acquisition) paraprofessional at a public middle school a couple blocks from my house. 97% Latino, 90% free and reduced lunch, 70% ESL, 17% proficient in reading by standardized test scores. A different kind of challege than my college students, but one I'm still pretty excited about. I'll keep you posted on that one. Until then, happy Friday, and happy fall.