Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Substitute-Part Two


I told Evelyn we could leave school as soon as the the sign-out sheets came out and the students left campus. It was too dangerous to hang around in this part of town after work.
I stated something else, with great conviction. "I stopped taking work home long ago. I'm not assigning homework either."
  “I have a had a hard time correcting all the essays I assign. Usually, I fall asleep with papers still in my hands. My  husband comes to be way after I do. He can’t understand how tire I get from teaching.”
  NO, I wanted to say, don’t get into that habit.  Nothing good comes out of that. I had a lifetime of experiences I could pass down to this young wife and mother. I wasn’t sure it was my role. 
She asked me about the police alerts, the gang presence, the graffiti on books, walls, blackboards.
I told her that graffiti were misunderstood. They were revelations in scripts, small acts of courage that looked like accidents, appearing here and there.  It took time for patterns to appear all over the city, in big bold lettering, pachucos, low-rider cars, religious symbols,  mixtures of anger, pride . old mythology. 
Diego Rivera did not know what he was starting.  I was not ashamed to tell her about my background, my childhood. 
          "I remember how it was when I was a kid in this neighborhood, when Anthony Quinn and I went to school here, had first communion at the same church, before freeway overheads crisscrossed and divided our neighborhoods, creating invisible walls.   Then, street names were not synonymous with gang names."
I had not told anybody else that I had grown up in East L.A.
          “Does he support this school?” Evelyn’s question startled me.  People expect that, I guess. 
          “Nobody wants to remember this place. I am ready to get a quiet place with a flowing stream where I can go back to my paintbrushes." I wanted to leave L. A., find adventure.      
 “Gina, the history I see here is like a dragon breathing violent air.”
 “You’re just what they need here.  Just slow down homework.”
“Look, don’t expect to follow the standard curriculum.  These kids are not prepared.  Homework is frustrating.
“It makes no sense.”
“Well, you fail them, and they’ll take that as racism.”
“Gina, homework reinforces what they learn in school.”
“We draw. If I gave homework I would have more frustrating situations.  Thank God I have an aide; she does everything.” 
“How can I get an aide?”
“Tell the counselors.”
“What about manuals? I have no Teacher's Manual. ”
“I have not seen manuals for years.”
“I just want to do a decent job; I’m hoping for a permanent position.”
“Good luck. We have fought with the district to get regular contracts for years.  They save by keeping substitutes." 
“Gina, how did you end up so far from your neighborhood?”
" It's part of a court order to integrate the schools. My folks are buried in the cemetery up the street.”
“Before Chicanos , there were Jews and Italians and Irish and the rest of the world living on these hills, and buried in the cemeteries.  After elementary, we attended Garfield or Roosevelt.  There, we pledged allegiance to our hood.  These changes are incubating all over L.A.  You can see them on every face, on every graffiti wall.  These young twelve and thirteen year old are recruited, socialized and kept in line at school.  By the time they go to high school, they have chosen their group and the group had chosen them. Their street might be their gang name.  Students wear T shirts with names of dead relatives and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They look at killing and being killed as a way of life. They call this La Vida Loca.”

By Halloween, as she reviewed the organization of various pages in the Yearbook she was producing, before she approved and send it to the printer, Evelyn noticed that some pictures had been scratched.She confronted the Yearbook staff:
“Who did this?  Why did these pictures get all scratched up?”
“Miss, these people are no longer here. They are not liked.”
“What?  Who?”
“Well, those  kids left our school.”
“That’s not what you were telling me.  You said they are not liked.”
“Those boys were from Evergreen.  They’re gone.  That’s all.”
 She went to the counselor and was told  not to take herself too seriously.
I wanted to warn her that these things happened often. Instead, I asked if she spoke any Spanish.
 “Yes. My husband's family is from Cuba."
“Well, just let them think you are too.”
“I am just here to teach.  Kids are the same everywhere.”
“You’re wrong. These kids are not Anglos, nor Mexicans; they are Chicanos. They will accept you more if they think you are Latina.”
Evelyn smiled, returning to the conversation she had with the counselor.
“We have two thousand students here.  We do not have enough desks if everyone shows up.  Have you known them all to be in class at the same time?  They go back to Mexico during the holidays and never come back.  We drop them.”
I told her we were the most crowded school in East L.A.
“I saw somebody’s picture on a T shirt, a recuerdo." 
“We hear  Maravilla is busting Arizona  Gang,  drugs.Kids disappear.”

On the way home, I took a  detour  to show her the murals on
Brooklyn Avenue
,  Madonnas, mariachi’s, campesinos, bright and supersized, dwarfing everything around them.
“This is like a foreign land!” Evelyn was overwhelmed.

 I should have told her about the drive-by shootings and the locked downs. But I just added:
“These pictures appear all over this area.  Now though, they are on big murals for everybody to see as they rush by.  If you take time to study them you recognize the hopes and concerns of these people.”
“Why so much violence?  What are they angry about?”
“I guess you have not kept up with the problems of the campesinos ?”
“Campesinos?  Who are they?”

Before Christmas, Evelyn got a notice that she was getting an assistant.  The administration had received federal grants to test students and develop  appropriate  bilingual programs for them.
 She told me her graduate work was in second language acquisition.
 “Go tell the administration”, I said.  “They could use an expert.”
 She confessed that she was hoping to get an assignment closer to her house.  Then, all her credentials could be revealed.
 It made sense, I guessed.
 “We’re drowning, mortgage payments and child care.  My husband and I hardly see each other.  I need a permanent position close to home.”
 “Things have a way...”
“Yeah, like this weather! We’d planned a visit to the snow; not with this warm spell; we have to do something else for Christmas!”

I called her during the holidays.  I wanted to meet the children and give them something. I had decided that the little girl would love my international doll collection. I treated them to lunch at McDonald.
Evelyn had some news of her own: “I mentioned  to my husband that we could save money if the kids could get themselves to and from school.  He said he trusted that the kids could get home on their own.  He did at their age.  And he could work longer hours and not have to rush home most days. Brianna  doesn’t like to watch Jimmy, but I promised her that she can take a dance class at the park at the same time as  Jimmy’s soccer practice on Fridays.  Steve has volunteered to be assistant coach.  It’s just one day a week. And we might be able to get a television. Brianna thinks that’s  better than snow.”
She beamed.  The kids looked smaller than I had imagined.  This must not be easy for Evelyn, I thought, trusting that the children get in and out of the house on their own, every day.  Something else to worry about.  Another precise dance.

Our school hired new aides after the holidays. Evelyn mentioned that Eduardo was getting along fine with the kids, talked to them about  the land of their ancestors, Azatlan, and then confessed that she did not know that Mexico had included California, Arizona, and most of the southwest.
After a week, Eduardo asked for a change of assignment and Evelyn was flustered.  
“He said he is not utilized properly.I want him to wait until I'm finished with the lesson, so students continue to pay attention.”
I recommended she talk to Yolanda.  So, after school, we both went to see the vice-principal, my best friend from college, Yolanda Gonzalez, who was supervising students. Evelyn got right to the problem.
“He's is a bit too eager to help.  Does anyone train the aides?”
“We used to.
“Well, I would love to talk to you at length on how to train for best practices.  Meanwhile, I need  Eduardo to know that I want him back if he's willing to go through the training.
“You’re in charge.”
“I'm trained in second language acquisition. I want all aides to be trained."

That evening, Evelyn called me at home after supper. I thought one of her children was ill, and she wasn't able to drive the next day. 
“I got a call from the dispatch. The school released me.  I no longer have the job.”
“Why?  What did they say?”
“Just that,  a phone message.”
She hung up before I could say anything. She hadn’t even finished one semester.
          When my husband Mark came home, worn out after a long court session, and settled in to catch the late news, I was dying to share Evelyn's story with him.Before I could join him, he had already fallen asleep. I woke him to go to bed and reminded him about the medical tests he was having the next day. I told him I'd get a sub and go with him. I called my friend Yolanda at home.
          “Yolanda, Mark is having some tests tomorrow. I need a sub, but..." 
          “Is he o.k.?”
          “Just tests.  I want Evelyn Castro.  I understand she was released.”
          “You know that after so many days…’’

          “She told me. I still want to request her.”
          “We can request her  after a few days.”
          “I don’t think so. She'll take another assignment and we will lose a good one."
          “ Look, I can’t make the assignment directly.  The procedure is…”
          “Yolanda. We don’t want to lose her. She is the expert we need at that place."
          “O.K tell her to cover for you.  I’ll straighten this out.”
          “Thanks Yolanda.”
          “I hardly see you, even though we are at the same place everyday.  What’s wrong with Mark?
          “Nothing.  Well, just some discomforts. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”
          It was late. But I called Evelyn.
          “Evelyn, I was wondering if you could substitute for the rest of the week.  My husband is going in for some tests and I want to be with him and take care of other stuff.”
          “I think so. Is he O.K.?”
          “Oh. Routine stuff.  Don’t worry about the class.  My aide runs the show." 
Mark did have some tests and I went with him.   Something I had not really planned, but was happy to do.  Later, Yolanda called to check on Mark and told me she had figured out a way to keep Evelyn working.  

A couple of weeks later, Mark suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. I took a taxi from work and left a message for Evelyn. 
        She met me at the hospital a few hours later. I do not remember when they came to tell me that Mark never pulled through.When they finally let me see him, I did not recognize him. 
 Evelyn drove me home. The next morning, she was there at sixtyforty.
          I don’t know how everything got arranged, but she helped me with all the arrangements. I saw people I had not seen in decades.    
Three weeks later, I still could not return to work. It dawned on me that I was totally alone. The dreams we had made, Mark’s and mine, had no meaning any more.  I just remember how in the middle of something, I would start calling him to come and help me with a task, as though he was still in the next room, watching television.  
Evelyn stopped in every day and brought food. I pretended to be interested; but I was just content to stay home now, get reacquainted with soap operas. Besides, I had months of sick leave I could use. And I was happy Evelyn could fill in for me. 
          I applied for early retirement and put my house for sale.
          She helped me sort things out, and pack for a trip to Europe the way Mark and I had planned.  I moved, hundreds of miles away, on the Oregon coast, planning to travel to all the places Mark and I had intended to go.

That was a year ago. An article about a school shooting happened to appear at the studio.  I had been so busy creating my new life that I had not given a thought to the life I had left behind. The school shooting had occurred at lunch time in the quad of a High School, between two rival groups. Two teachers and fifty students were killed.Suddenly, I wanted to reconnect with Evelyn, find out how things were going with her and her family. I tried to call them at the old number. No luck. For a few months our lives had crossed, making us family. Death has a way of reminding us of what's important. 

(C) rosaria williams
February, 2011



  1. Most of what happens in this story is true.

  2. Oh my. I had wondered on that, Rosaria, as the intricacies were all there, the statements about identity and even grafitti, a new language in understanding drawn out.

    Again, I want more. I am a lazy reader but Rosaria, there is a whole culture, many cultures, to be drawn out. I see a book in each of your stories. I want to know what it is for Evelynn after you/the protagonist hangs up the phone with her. Every detail. It is startling to me how hungry you make me for it. I want to know more of Mark and their dreams together. Such great potential lies inside of each of these. Do you have the fortitude to stay inside a story long enough to draw it out? I'm not sure I do. But if you did, I would read.

    LOVED the grafitti part especially.


  3. Oh Erin, how I crave this feedback.

    I want to tell you more, about each family, each lady, the younger one especially, the one starting out in life.Do I have the fortitude and the patience?

    I don't know that I have the patience.
    I tend to rush into and out of a story.
    I feel drained and disappointed after I'm done. So much of the meat is still missing.

    In the last few years (since I retired) the only thing I finished was the memoir, as a blog.
    I'm thinking that as a blog, ff I can draw things out, a bit at a time, perhaps I will write completely.

    Thanks so much for your visit, your reading (ouch, I hate reading long pieces in a blog!)
    and most of all, your feedback.

    I don't expect you to do this all the time.

  4. interesting commentary on a teacher's experience. . .