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I was a substitute teacher at Pendleton, La Paloma, Fallbrook Elementary, Potter Jr. High, and Fallbrook High

The desire to leave hangs like heat

Spring/Fallbrook Union High School

It’s early May, one excruciating month before summer vacation, and most, but not all, of the students have finished the multiple-choice test on Of Mice and Men. I’m the substitute, so I sit at a stranger’s desk beneath a poster that displays a Ferrari in the driveway of a mansion. “The rewards of higher education,” it reads. There are other things in the room meant for inspiration, such as the posters issued by the district’s Character Education Program that read RESPECT and FORGIVENESS and COMMITMENT and COURTESY. The posters contain a definition of each virtue. The door of the portable is propped open for air, and in the heat we hear the thump of metal doors swinging shut as student couriers collect the rolls and deliver messages. Through the open door everything is bright yellow, the air moves, and the possibility of release seems unbearably distant. “Only 22 more days of class, dude,” a boy says. “God, I wish we were done.”

The class is supposed to start reading The Outsiders after the test, and I pass out the books, which sit unopened on the desks like small, glossy packages. “Is this for homework?” a boy asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say. I want to lie and say there will be a quiz on Monday, that 50 pages must be finished before the bell, but there’s no way of enforcing this. Substitutes are entitled to observe, but not to change, the path of education. They are stepmothers, more or less, with two options: to pander or punish. Because English was my subject when I was a real teacher, I choose not to pander today, and I walk the aisles in hopes of enforcing silence.

Four Hispanic boys sit laughing together near the front. A tap on the desk keeps them from talking, but in the far corner, every circle that I make seems to deepen the hatred and impatience. A boy named Eric who was called to the office during the first hour is working on his test and talking to two girls, so after three warnings, I give him detention.

“You bitch!” he shouts across the room. “How come you’re not giving detention to them?” He points to the Hispanic boys and says, “They’ve been talking too.”

I explain that they were willing to be quiet after a warning, while he was not, and they were finished with the test. Beyond this, though, I know there may be another reason, one I cannot explain, even when the hatred escalates and his two female friends chime in with him. What Eric, Cynthia, and Samantha don’t know is that the boys have been abused once already today, and the only dignity I can muster is to refuse to punish them further. Earlier in the class when I asked a blonde girl to move away from her friend and into a seat near the Hispanic boys, she looked at them with revulsion. “Gross,” she said. “I’m not sitting by them. If I catch something, you’re in trouble.” This said, she moved her bookbag to the seat and tried to keep her clothes from touching the chair.

We remain in these positions until the bell rings, I in my seat beneath the Ferrari and the mansion, the Hispanic boys with their legs in the aisles, the books unopened, the light unchanged, the wooden floor already trembling beneath Eric’s feet. On the desk I have a stack of journal entries from another class, in which the students describe a time when they felt misunderstood. In blue ballpoint, the first one, written by a girl in a short black dress, begins, “I feel that no one listens to me. At home, my parents don’t listen, and even my friends at school don’t really like me. I guess I always feel misunderstood.”

The bell will ring, and then another and another, moving me far away from Eric’s rage, this class, this room. When my car leaves the parking lot, the girl in the black dress is standing on the shoulder of Stage Coach Lane, her skin exposed like a confession.

Spring/Mary Fay Pendleton School

The road from Fallbrook to Camp Pendleton is called Ammunition. With the fuchsia school pass on my dashboard I can drive past the guard, past the white wooden storage buildings, and into the light green hills. The live oaks and meadow grass are clean where they meet the road. There’s no litter, just feathered sky, acres of yellow flowers, and hills. The exploding flares, the circling red lights of helicopters, and the munitions that send a subterranean shudder through our house in the evenings are invisible now. There is nothing military or human for a long time, not until I cross Harm Road and then a sign that says Watch for Explosive Trucks Crossing. I do, but I pass only a public bus with a flashing digital sign on its way to Vista. When at last I reach Marine Road, there are Jeeps parked outside corrugated metal buildings and then base housing — plaster apartments with flat little concrete tongues for porches, cubicle hedges here and there, grass clipped down to the nubs. The damp apartments face the road and the school, to which children are streaming with the help of parents and crossing guards, girls and boys in orange day-glo vests.

I’m given the key to Mr. Alder’s fifth grade class, where a pet rat with black and white fur scuttles through pine shavings in a wire cage. The class is in a portable building, so the floor has the characteristic hollow sound, like carpet over a plywood crate. Outside the window above the rat and the sink, a dozen men in fatigues are measuring and digging in the ground that lies beyond the tetherball poles and foursquare grids. In their khaki T-shirts they look like men at ease in an occupied country.

At the back of the room, the rat pushes the steel ball at the tip of its bottle and the steel clicks while he drinks. When the children burst in, the military atmosphere vanishes. They wear purple and pink sweaters, jeans whose seats crumple somewhere near their knees, jackets that wind up twisted on the floor, barrettes and caps and sneakers that come untied. Hey, you the sub? It’s my turn to pass out papers. Make him stop hitting me.

The children stand in turn to report on state capitals, state mottoes, and state flowers. They know other things, too. Terry says “shit” but knows how to pretend he said something else. “Masturbation is next in health class. I heard it,” Myra says on the way to recess. Benny, who is cocky and loud and fast with his math, sews through the tough skin on his palm and the ends of each finger during lunch. He’s using the needle of a girl who watches him with fascination, and when I tell him he shouldn’t poke himself with anyone’s needle, the girl says “AIDS” to me. But they aren’t alarmed, and the thread that he laces through his skin is bloodless.

The rat drinks again during the social studies test. Tip, tip, tip, tip. Barry stares out the window and not at his test, popping out of his seat in frustration. “Can I go to the bathroom?” he asks. “Can I get a drink?” He pulls the rat out of the cage and lets it crawl on his arms a while. He never finishes the test, or begins it; like the six children in the special education class I will teach a few days later, he can barely read or write. In that class, I will teach the state capitals to children who cannot find Utah or Nevada on a map but who look earnestly for them, running their fingers across the photocopied borders and pointing to Wyoming because they cannot pronounce it. In that class, too, I will help Karl sound out the impossible word “menagerie” and tell him what a statue is. He will shorten my name to Miss L, and then he will, when the bell rings, disappear.

Fall / Fallbrook Street Elementary School

The school is a cluster of beige buildings that look as if they could be leveled with a baseball bat, but they sit on a knoll above the town and its palms, its blue-gray clouds, green pepper trees, and pastel surfaces. The sun in autumn is as clean as water on the streets and the empty lots and the yellow grass of the playground. The sign proclaiming the school’s name sits on a mound opposite the post office, a painting of four smiling children of four different races. But when I read Mitzi Cormer’s third grade roll I encounter two Matts, two Daniels, a Heather, a Becky, a Timothy, a Shafina, a boy named Montana — no Robertos, no Marias, no Darians. The Hispanic children are taught separately, in their own language, until desegregation is possible.

Fallbrook is north of Escondido and south of Temecula, the very northern tip of San Diego County. It is still a town of feed stores and avocado groves though the farms are giving way to melon-colored stucco houses on streets named Rodeo Queen and Debra Ann. At every curve of Mission Road there are homemade wooden signs advertising lemons, limes, oranges, tangelos, macadamias, avocados, strawberries, pumpkins, or persimmons, depending on the season. More than 50 nurseries stretch in glistening rows from Bonsall to Rainbow, including some devoted to cactus, palms, orchids, citrus, azaleas, and macadamia trees.

The farming here is done with the help of Mexican labor, legal and illegal. The men who don’t have steady work stand on the corner of Stage Coach and Gum Tree and on the slope in front of St. Peter’s Catholic church and school. The dirt is worn smooth where the men stand every morning and wait for a car to pull up. The border patrol has a station not 15 miles from here, a little to the north on I-15, where traffic is stopped periodically so that officers can check the cars.

People in Fallbrook seem neither to prevent nor discourage this solicitation of work, but there’s a general alarm about the number of Spanish-speaking students in the schools, which are, like most public schools, overcrowded. Before I started subbing, my hairdresser told me her sister’s assigned seat in a class at Fallbrook High was on the floor. She said it was an okay school except for the Indians and the Mexicans. Among the non-Hispanics, there are vague rumors as well about Mexican gangs attacking white athletes on the fields that lie behind the carved wooden sign at the school’s entrance, a handsome Indian headdress bordered by the words “Fallbrook Warriors.”

In Mitzi Cormer’s third grade class, we say the pledge in the morning and sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” land of the pilgrim’s pride, and they write in their journals about the day’s topic, which is birds. Jared, a wide-faced boy with white-blond hair, writes that birds are mean and they crap a lot. Anthony tells me that birds are stupid, an argument he defends by describing how often they slam into windows. He doesn’t want to write about this, though. Anthony and Jared are the class leaders of the week, so they get to walk ahead of us on the way to the playground, the computer lab, the lunchroom, and the bus.

The room is a mass of color and entreaty. There are glossy, pre-printed alphabets, childish sketches of Kachina dolls, charts describing good behavior and class rules, posters encouraging creativity and self-esteem and class unity. The portable with its hollow floor smells like glue and unwashed hands, crayons mashed into carpet, chalk, and perspiration. Papers spill out onto the floor and rip underfoot, pencils roll out of desks, and the covers of books are crushed by the steel disks on the ends of their chairs. It’s hard for third graders to give back rulers, to throw things away, to keep their hair tidy. When they sniffle, they use their hands, and in the course of six hours, two girls break off a baby tooth and grip it in their fingers, rushing up to show me the bloody hole it left behind.

Show and Tell is after lunch. Marina brings a white cat with blue eyes and everyone wants to touch it. They surge around Marina and the long white limbs of the cat, and they put their arms out, stroking the head, the feet, the belly. When the cat has been returned to its cardboard box, we watch Emma hold up a rabbit skin and a ceremonial rain stick, which she turns, with a smile of expectation, upside down so that we can hear the hurtling sound of rain in a stick.

Fall/La Paloma Elementary School

This time I remember to make them remove their baseball caps during the pledge and a boy says, “You’re a good sub, huh.” I can remember the pledge straight through now, stumbling only for an instant when deciding whether “indivisible” or “under God” comes first. The sixth grade room, like all elementary classes, is a personified exclamation point, a life-sized diorama of good penmanship, school spirit, and historic disasters. The earthquake diagram is next to a time line of ancient civilization, and a laminated picture of a wolf that says “La Paloma students strive to be Howling Good!” is squeezed under the glossy new white boards. Near the ceiling, the penmanship display shows P and Q divided by a cartoon policeman and a quiz show host. The Q is, I’m pleased to see, still the antiquated shape of an enormous cursive “2.”

The traditions of elementary school stand still like the figures in a snow globe. The Q shaped like a 2, the white hopscotch squares, the red rubber kickballs, and the silky, meal-colored paper lined with blue dashes remain in childhood, belonging there and only there, like the books of Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder, on whose tattered spines in the corner I can read The Little House in the Big Woods, The House at Silver Lake, and Henry and Ribsy. At silent reading time, the children run their fingers under the words as though the letters were in Braille, and their lips form the letters with a soft whispering sound that makes them seem to be apart from me and each other, all alone in a place where they cannot be harmed.

Fall/La Paloma Elementary School

On the day after the passing of Proposition 187, the fifth graders have dioramas on their desks made of Popsicle sticks and shoeboxes. Construction paper trees stand beside cotton ball bushes that have been sprayed kelly green. A jungle gym made of cotton swabs supports a paper boy colored with crayons. To signify winter, cotton balls are glued to the shoebox like bales of snow.

It’s November, so pilgrims with smiley-face lips hold pies above shoes adorned with the same square yellow buckles they were wearing when I was in fifth grade. I take roll beneath the pilgrims and the Indians, and then, as directed, I pass out an emergency letter to parents from the superintendent. In English and Spanish, parents are informed that a number of junior high and high school students walked out of school on election day and marched through downtown in protest of Proposition 187. The Superintendent states that “Plans are in place to ensure the continuing safety of students” and that students who were truant from school will be assigned the appropriate consequences. Without reading the letters, the children stash them in their notebooks, where they may or may not find them again.

After language arts, I’m assigned to a bilingual class for an hour, where the students are taught in Spanish by Mrs. Losee, a woman in a plaid shirt dress who switches between English and Spanish with the ease of a revolving door. The children are all dark-haired but one, and they turn to look at me, la maestra. They tell each other that I’m tall, and they translate it for me so I won’t feel left out. Then they continue to color with pastel chalk on sandpaper in the style of La Nación de Iroquesas.

Above the chalkboard, the pledge of allegiance has been written by each child in Spanish across a wobbly outline of Los Estados Unidos, where flag becomes bandera, God becomes Dios, and indivisible is spelled the same. A girl with curly hair asks me who I voted for. A smaller boy echoes her. “For governor,” the boy asks. “Who did you vote for?” The girl who interrupts isn’t childlike at all, but a teenager already in looks and demeanor, a foot taller than the girls next to her. “Do you think they’ll send the children home from school now?” she asks. She wants to know what would have happened if Brown had won the election instead and why illegal children can’t just come to school.

I feel compelled to attempt an explanation, and I vaguely explain the cost of teachers and buildings. I use my hands to indicate the amount of space, the number of children, the lack of funds. When I finish my hapless speech, she studies me, makes no response, and turns to the reading comprehension assignment, where she is asked about ficción realistica and fantasia, unicornios and bus transfers. The children are told not just to answer, but to explain why tambien.

Fall/Potter Junior High

Seventh grade reading and eighth grade science are taught in the former home economics room, where Presto deep fryers and Simplicity patterns are stored in the lacquered cupboards of four kitchens. An ancient microwave sits on the back counter by the fondue pots. The Presto fryers and measuring cups have sticky edges, like appliances in a rented room. Beside the microwave, two huge stacks of the Union-Tribune wait for the seventh grade Reading class, who are to leaf through the sections in search of answers to their weekly worksheet, which asks things like, “Find an ad for something you would like to buy and list the page number,” and “Where would you find the weather section?” By the time the first science class comes in to read a chapter about electricity, I have learned that almost anything will do as a distraction in junior high.

“Oh my God,” a student says. “What’s that smell?” The rest of the class trails in, each raising the cry of fish in their midst. I sniff and wonder if they can really smell smoked salmon through the Tupperware and black Gortex of my lunch bag. “It smells like fish,” a girl says, bringing the collar of her shirt up over her nose and mouth. “Can we have class outside?” she asks. “I can’t bear it.”

I find I can’t bear to explain that I’m having smoked salmon pasta for lunch in an hour: since fish is clearly taboo, and I’m in possession of fish, I must hide the fish. Then, perhaps, they will read their science books. In the spirit of cooperation, I promise to empty all the trash cans, and while taking each one outside to the larger can, I spirit my guilty lunch bag to the top of the lockers outside. Today is a pandering day.

A boy whips out a stick of Old Spice deodorant, which he seems to carry routinely in his backpack. He smears it in three bands across sheets of notebook paper and positions them on the table he shares with ten other students. The papers with their glistening bands of Old Spice curl between the opened textbooks and, for a while, the students watch him as they might watch a madman on the street. He prepares another sheet and wears it like a deodorizing bib, the smile on his face turned waxen because no one is watching anymore.

Fall/Potter Junior High

I’m teaching Life Decisions and Drama in a room by the auditorium, where the bulletin boards display black-and-white publicity photos of Shirley Temple, Elvis, and James Dean around a poster of the Hollywood sign. A life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe stands in full color by the chalkboard.

Life Decisions is a required class that students take in alteration with Reading and Literature, so the course takes the place of Reading during one semester of seventh grade. The audiovisual list of videos that may be shown to this class includes “Myths of Shoplifting,” “The Morning After: A Story of Vandalism,” and

“Acne: It’s Not Your Fault.” On the teacher’s desk is a magazine called Listen: Celebrating Positive Choices. The cover shows Maria Sansone, 12-year-old TV sports reporter, behind the headlines “Alcohol: A Wicked Punch,” “My Boyfriend Wants to Have Sex,” and “LSD Is Back, More Dangerous Than Ever.”

October 24 is the beginning of national Drug Awareness Week. Red plastic strips have been wound around the stair rails at the high school and tied in big bows, as though Santa were waiting in the gymnasium. The junior high drama students are performing an anti-drug play in the elementary schools all week, so their instructor will miss her morning classes for five days, and her afternoon classes for three, a fact that causes the students to look at me, sigh, and picture a week of busywork. Red ribbons like those given out at county fairs are brought to the Life Decisions room by a student courier who hands me gold safety pins in a white envelope. While the ribbons are circulating, we discuss the perils and appeal of smoking. I have, as directed, drawn a big grid on the board below the headings “Reasons to Smoke and Reasons Not to Smoke.” The students are supposed to copy it and list ten reasons for both. Right away everyone lists cancer on one side and being cool on the other.

After we talk about emphysema and peer pressure, we move on to the movie, where young people with feathered hair and blue eye shadow bleakly inhale and exhale cigarette smoke. As if this weren’t discouraging enough, an old man who is dying of emphysema rasps, “I smoked for 50 years.” “Let’s find out what makes tobacco so nasty!” the announcer says with considerable excitement, and suddenly tar is poured on a table. “Would you drink a cup of this junk?” he asks.

Across the district, on a pale sunny morning when the air seems to have been filtered through cold, pure water, children dressed in symbolic red pledge to abhor drugs on links of construction paper. The rings are looped together and suspended over their classrooms. Red licorice is distributed, the hands of high school students run over plastic ribbon as they climb and descend the concrete steps, and in fourth period at Potter Junior High, we read aloud a play that resigned students inform me is from a stack that they read only when a substitute comes. “Will you be here tomorrow?” they ask. “No,” I say. “Someone else will.” The bell rings for lunch, and I turn out the lights on Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, whose cigarette is bone white and straight as an arrow beneath his squint.

Fall/ Potter Junior High

In a room with 14 new Macintoshes with full-color monitors, I’m teaching computer science to eighth graders. There are an average of 30 students per class, and by my rough calculations, I estimate that they could do $30,000 worth of damage to this room. I feel like I’m loaning a borrowed Mercedes to 30 13-year-olds, shouting after them, “Be back in 45 minutes!”

It’s my second time in this class. A month earlier, I watched the students make name tags on the computers with colored lines and a palette of complicated, liquefied textures. This time, they do an open-book quiz about computer terms and move on to the computers, where they’re supposed to demonstrate the format of a friendly letter by writing to their absent teacher.

“It has been great being in your class,” begins one. “Hey babe, what’s up?” begins the next, followed by, “Dear, Ms. Watabe, Yesterday I nearly got arrested for skateboarding that was pretty gay.”Most aren’t shy about using the friendly letter to make suggestions. “It really sucks having a sub,” one writes, “‘cause they give us bookwork.” Also: “School’s boring.”

In this class, as in the whole district, the administration is seeking to reward good behavior with privileges, and the privilege students want most is to leave school. At Potter, students receive “Caught Being Good” slips that are vouchers for leaving class five minutes early before lunch or last period. Teachers also award minutes of PAT, or preferred activity time, to their classes, and in the computer classes, the preferred activity is computer games. Ms. Watabe doubles any PAT awarded by a sub, and this class has earned, from Monday to Wednesday, an entire free period on Friday.

“Do you have any games we can play besides Monopoly, Chess, or Lemmings?” a boy types. “We’ve earned a lot of PAT time while you were gone.”

Circling the room to keep them from bringing lemmings to the screen, I remind them to use the spell check program, which catches only a few of their mistakes. The girl at the next terminal writes, “I learn more wend you’re here than wend you leave,” so I intercede on the computer’s behalf and explain how “when” is spelled. The most memorable letter, however, is the most sincere, by a girl with long, straight brown hair who talks to no one and works by herself on the computer. “I wasn’t here Monday and Tuesday,” she types, “because my dad was deployed to Somalia for six months.”

Spring/Fallbrook Union High School

My assignment is Beginning Art. Each class is two hours long, the lesson plans inform me, a fact so alarming I try not to think about it. Perhaps students have more patience and dedication to art than they did when I was in high school. Perhaps they love to draw, and time flies. The assignment looks a little brief to me: the 30 students are to read an article about Frank Lloyd Wright and then design their dream schools.

In Art I, a number of students don’t speak English. Their friends interpret the assignment for them, or so it seems from the murmuring in Spanish that occurs when I stop talking about Frank Lloyd Wright and look expectantly at the tables.

When I pause at a table of Hispanic boys and point to the blank piece of paper where there should be an emerging dream-school blueprint, I ask, “Escuela?” This makes the boys laugh, just as they laughed when I called roll and one name received the reply, “He’s been deported.” The class is more or less evenly divided between Hispanic names and non-Hispanic names, but the teacher’s assistant, a giggling girl who clearly seeks to prepare me for the worst, says that if I think the first class is noisy I should wait until seventh period. “You want to know what I mean?” she asks. “Just take a look at the roll for that class.” She flips open the book and shows me the names: Rosalia, Lizeth, Efrain, Juana, Ubaldo, Darian, Nepocemo, Ximena, Teresa. I pretend I don’t understand what she’s talking about, so she puts her red fingernail under the names. “See what I mean?” she asks.

“It’ll be fine,” I say.

When the last period class arrives, the room is hot. It is nearly always sunny in Fallbrook at two o’clock, when the sky pales and the air smells like eucalyptus and asphalt. The school has been built according to Frank Lloyd Wright’s principle that Form Follows Function. The lockers are outside but within gates at night to prevent theft. The candy machines are likewise within iron gates, a kind of maximum-security prison that raises the price of M&Ms to 75 cents. The two swimming pools glitter in the sun. The athletic facilities are extensive, and the school teaches racquetball, tennis, track, field hockey, gymnastics, soccer, golf, swimming, football, baseball, dance, aerobics, softball, and volleyball. The academic buildings have the look of a county detention center — red brick boxes with sky-blue metal doors and rows of beige portables squeezed in along the edge of campus.

In the assigned reading for the class, Organic architecture is in bold-face type. As directed, I explain that Frank Lloyd Wright invented the picture window, the carport, and the ranch house. All three are so common here that the students stare at me with dull surprise that such ordinary things could require a visionary. Boys and girls alike are dressed in shorts and T-shirts large enough to contain people twice their actual size. Organic is a word they know. Natural is a word they know, but they don’t like to define it out loud. Only jokes and feigned (or actual) ignorance are permitted.

When it’s time to start drawing, most don’t have their sketchbooks. A few trickle out to their lockers and wander back in a while with black notebooks under their arms. Others request paper, and I cut it for them, thick watercolor paper in enormous sheets that are to be divided, I learn from the teaching assistant, into fours.

Pencils are requested, too, as the students carry only pens in their drooping back pockets. At last, some of them start to draw. Others just sit.

The Hispanics I was warned about are neither enthused nor resistant to the assignment. Whether they speak English or not, they’re in this class, perhaps because art is a universal language, or perhaps because Art I is what teachers call a dumping ground for kids needing an elective to fill their schedules. Three boys have projects of their own, which they insist the teacher allows them to complete in lieu of the real assignments. They draw roses and birds with colored pencils in a detailed way. The style seems to be prescribed, as the style of comic book heroes is. Others, mostly females, set to work on sketching buildings, though they clearly think it’s a dumb assignment, one to be gotten through as quickly as possible. They are just like the non-Hispanic girls in this. The girls draw flimsy rectangles and label them. One draws in stores and fast food restaurants all around the perimeter. “The Mall,” she calls part of it. Pizza Hut and McDonald’s are part of the dream school, and this is not so far from fact. At lunch, Subway sandwiches are sold in the quad from a little portable stand. Others, mostly the non-Hispanics, are even more ambitious in the dreaming part. They draw enormous sports facilities that are, in fact, not much bigger than the sports facilities they already have. They add beaches and classes in surfing. The drawings are childish though it is a high school class, with cartoon details and snaky, winding structures. Frank Lloyd Wright has been forgotten, rolled up along with the Scholastic Art magazine that showed the long, bare rooms of Falling Water. The few who seem to have learned the techniques of perspective turn their attention to that instead of dreaming and spend most of the class getting the walls at the right angles. The buildings don’t look especially organic, but the students’ fascination with the disappearance points on the horizon, and the diagonal lines that fade into them, is encouraging, the sign of some interest in art, at least, or the willingness to do what is asked of one in school, a desire almost entirely absent in Art I.

Also encouraging is the blueprint of Efrain, who draws only one school building, but in immense detail: the auto shop.

Then there are those who refuse to draw, those who will not even make a rudimentary box and label it “Science Lab” at my urging. One is a blond boy with a goatee. He looks 27 and remote from this place, this assignment, and the curriculum of Art I. He has his sketchbook opened to a blank page. An hour later, he shuts it. “I’m thinking,” he says when I ask why he hasn’t started. For the entire two hours, he does nothing at all except turn to me, after a slight tremor that I later learn was an earthquake in the San Bernardino mountains, and ask, “Did you feel that?” Another boy, also non-Hispanic, says viciously, “This isn’t an art assignment. I’m not an architect. Why should I have to do this?” In the end, it is useless to explain that school is designed to let you try things you aren’t qualified to do professionally.

He scribbles until the end of the period.

It is useless, too, to say how expensive the paper is and how supplies add up over time, especially when elective courses are dependent on another bond issue. Here, most of them would say, and give the paper back. Let me out of here, then. In the end, the artistic and non-artistic want one thing above all: to get out of high school. The desire to leave hangs over the room like the heat. They shuffle to the door five minutes before the bell.

On Friday, two days later, the dream schools will be graded by their real teacher. What she will say to the detailed auto shop, the beach school, the blank pages, I will never know. When she is collecting the sketches, I will be subbing in PE. In a regulation-size gym with three regulation nets, I will be tossing volleyballs to students who don’t wish to play volleyball. The boys will play keepaway and hackey-sack instead while a few girls ask to be excused to stand on the sidelines. The next period, I will be watching students pop racquetballs into the creek to use up just a little more class time. I will, above all, in every period, be taking roll, calling name after name and filling in little bars with my pencil for electronic attendance computation in the office. I will not pronounce the Hispanic or the non-Hispanic names very well. It will begin to rain again before time is up, a cool, windy rain that darkens the fields and the creek where eucalyptus leaves and small, bright blue rubber balls are stuck between the stones.

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Stop talking about current events to the extent they concern public health in any way shape or form whatsoever

Spring/Fallbrook Union High School

It’s early May, one excruciating month before summer vacation, and most, but not all, of the students have finished the multiple-choice test on Of Mice and Men. I’m the substitute, so I sit at a stranger’s desk beneath a poster that displays a Ferrari in the driveway of a mansion. “The rewards of higher education,” it reads. There are other things in the room meant for inspiration, such as the posters issued by the district’s Character Education Program that read RESPECT and FORGIVENESS and COMMITMENT and COURTESY. The posters contain a definition of each virtue. The door of the portable is propped open for air, and in the heat we hear the thump of metal doors swinging shut as student couriers collect the rolls and deliver messages. Through the open door everything is bright yellow, the air moves, and the possibility of release seems unbearably distant. “Only 22 more days of class, dude,” a boy says. “God, I wish we were done.”

The class is supposed to start reading The Outsiders after the test, and I pass out the books, which sit unopened on the desks like small, glossy packages. “Is this for homework?” a boy asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say. I want to lie and say there will be a quiz on Monday, that 50 pages must be finished before the bell, but there’s no way of enforcing this. Substitutes are entitled to observe, but not to change, the path of education. They are stepmothers, more or less, with two options: to pander or punish. Because English was my subject when I was a real teacher, I choose not to pander today, and I walk the aisles in hopes of enforcing silence.

Four Hispanic boys sit laughing together near the front. A tap on the desk keeps them from talking, but in the far corner, every circle that I make seems to deepen the hatred and impatience. A boy named Eric who was called to the office during the first hour is working on his test and talking to two girls, so after three warnings, I give him detention.

“You bitch!” he shouts across the room. “How come you’re not giving detention to them?” He points to the Hispanic boys and says, “They’ve been talking too.”

I explain that they were willing to be quiet after a warning, while he was not, and they were finished with the test. Beyond this, though, I know there may be another reason, one I cannot explain, even when the hatred escalates and his two female friends chime in with him. What Eric, Cynthia, and Samantha don’t know is that the boys have been abused once already today, and the only dignity I can muster is to refuse to punish them further. Earlier in the class when I asked a blonde girl to move away from her friend and into a seat near the Hispanic boys, she looked at them with revulsion. “Gross,” she said. “I’m not sitting by them. If I catch something, you’re in trouble.” This said, she moved her bookbag to the seat and tried to keep her clothes from touching the chair.

We remain in these positions until the bell rings, I in my seat beneath the Ferrari and the mansion, the Hispanic boys with their legs in the aisles, the books unopened, the light unchanged, the wooden floor already trembling beneath Eric’s feet. On the desk I have a stack of journal entries from another class, in which the students describe a time when they felt misunderstood. In blue ballpoint, the first one, written by a girl in a short black dress, begins, “I feel that no one listens to me. At home, my parents don’t listen, and even my friends at school don’t really like me. I guess I always feel misunderstood.”

The bell will ring, and then another and another, moving me far away from Eric’s rage, this class, this room. When my car leaves the parking lot, the girl in the black dress is standing on the shoulder of Stage Coach Lane, her skin exposed like a confession.

Spring/Mary Fay Pendleton School

The road from Fallbrook to Camp Pendleton is called Ammunition. With the fuchsia school pass on my dashboard I can drive past the guard, past the white wooden storage buildings, and into the light green hills. The live oaks and meadow grass are clean where they meet the road. There’s no litter, just feathered sky, acres of yellow flowers, and hills. The exploding flares, the circling red lights of helicopters, and the munitions that send a subterranean shudder through our house in the evenings are invisible now. There is nothing military or human for a long time, not until I cross Harm Road and then a sign that says Watch for Explosive Trucks Crossing. I do, but I pass only a public bus with a flashing digital sign on its way to Vista. When at last I reach Marine Road, there are Jeeps parked outside corrugated metal buildings and then base housing — plaster apartments with flat little concrete tongues for porches, cubicle hedges here and there, grass clipped down to the nubs. The damp apartments face the road and the school, to which children are streaming with the help of parents and crossing guards, girls and boys in orange day-glo vests.

I’m given the key to Mr. Alder’s fifth grade class, where a pet rat with black and white fur scuttles through pine shavings in a wire cage. The class is in a portable building, so the floor has the characteristic hollow sound, like carpet over a plywood crate. Outside the window above the rat and the sink, a dozen men in fatigues are measuring and digging in the ground that lies beyond the tetherball poles and foursquare grids. In their khaki T-shirts they look like men at ease in an occupied country.

At the back of the room, the rat pushes the steel ball at the tip of its bottle and the steel clicks while he drinks. When the children burst in, the military atmosphere vanishes. They wear purple and pink sweaters, jeans whose seats crumple somewhere near their knees, jackets that wind up twisted on the floor, barrettes and caps and sneakers that come untied. Hey, you the sub? It’s my turn to pass out papers. Make him stop hitting me.

The children stand in turn to report on state capitals, state mottoes, and state flowers. They know other things, too. Terry says “shit” but knows how to pretend he said something else. “Masturbation is next in health class. I heard it,” Myra says on the way to recess. Benny, who is cocky and loud and fast with his math, sews through the tough skin on his palm and the ends of each finger during lunch. He’s using the needle of a girl who watches him with fascination, and when I tell him he shouldn’t poke himself with anyone’s needle, the girl says “AIDS” to me. But they aren’t alarmed, and the thread that he laces through his skin is bloodless.

The rat drinks again during the social studies test. Tip, tip, tip, tip. Barry stares out the window and not at his test, popping out of his seat in frustration. “Can I go to the bathroom?” he asks. “Can I get a drink?” He pulls the rat out of the cage and lets it crawl on his arms a while. He never finishes the test, or begins it; like the six children in the special education class I will teach a few days later, he can barely read or write. In that class, I will teach the state capitals to children who cannot find Utah or Nevada on a map but who look earnestly for them, running their fingers across the photocopied borders and pointing to Wyoming because they cannot pronounce it. In that class, too, I will help Karl sound out the impossible word “menagerie” and tell him what a statue is. He will shorten my name to Miss L, and then he will, when the bell rings, disappear.

Fall / Fallbrook Street Elementary School

The school is a cluster of beige buildings that look as if they could be leveled with a baseball bat, but they sit on a knoll above the town and its palms, its blue-gray clouds, green pepper trees, and pastel surfaces. The sun in autumn is as clean as water on the streets and the empty lots and the yellow grass of the playground. The sign proclaiming the school’s name sits on a mound opposite the post office, a painting of four smiling children of four different races. But when I read Mitzi Cormer’s third grade roll I encounter two Matts, two Daniels, a Heather, a Becky, a Timothy, a Shafina, a boy named Montana — no Robertos, no Marias, no Darians. The Hispanic children are taught separately, in their own language, until desegregation is possible.

Fallbrook is north of Escondido and south of Temecula, the very northern tip of San Diego County. It is still a town of feed stores and avocado groves though the farms are giving way to melon-colored stucco houses on streets named Rodeo Queen and Debra Ann. At every curve of Mission Road there are homemade wooden signs advertising lemons, limes, oranges, tangelos, macadamias, avocados, strawberries, pumpkins, or persimmons, depending on the season. More than 50 nurseries stretch in glistening rows from Bonsall to Rainbow, including some devoted to cactus, palms, orchids, citrus, azaleas, and macadamia trees.

The farming here is done with the help of Mexican labor, legal and illegal. The men who don’t have steady work stand on the corner of Stage Coach and Gum Tree and on the slope in front of St. Peter’s Catholic church and school. The dirt is worn smooth where the men stand every morning and wait for a car to pull up. The border patrol has a station not 15 miles from here, a little to the north on I-15, where traffic is stopped periodically so that officers can check the cars.

People in Fallbrook seem neither to prevent nor discourage this solicitation of work, but there’s a general alarm about the number of Spanish-speaking students in the schools, which are, like most public schools, overcrowded. Before I started subbing, my hairdresser told me her sister’s assigned seat in a class at Fallbrook High was on the floor. She said it was an okay school except for the Indians and the Mexicans. Among the non-Hispanics, there are vague rumors as well about Mexican gangs attacking white athletes on the fields that lie behind the carved wooden sign at the school’s entrance, a handsome Indian headdress bordered by the words “Fallbrook Warriors.”

In Mitzi Cormer’s third grade class, we say the pledge in the morning and sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” land of the pilgrim’s pride, and they write in their journals about the day’s topic, which is birds. Jared, a wide-faced boy with white-blond hair, writes that birds are mean and they crap a lot. Anthony tells me that birds are stupid, an argument he defends by describing how often they slam into windows. He doesn’t want to write about this, though. Anthony and Jared are the class leaders of the week, so they get to walk ahead of us on the way to the playground, the computer lab, the lunchroom, and the bus.

The room is a mass of color and entreaty. There are glossy, pre-printed alphabets, childish sketches of Kachina dolls, charts describing good behavior and class rules, posters encouraging creativity and self-esteem and class unity. The portable with its hollow floor smells like glue and unwashed hands, crayons mashed into carpet, chalk, and perspiration. Papers spill out onto the floor and rip underfoot, pencils roll out of desks, and the covers of books are crushed by the steel disks on the ends of their chairs. It’s hard for third graders to give back rulers, to throw things away, to keep their hair tidy. When they sniffle, they use their hands, and in the course of six hours, two girls break off a baby tooth and grip it in their fingers, rushing up to show me the bloody hole it left behind.

Show and Tell is after lunch. Marina brings a white cat with blue eyes and everyone wants to touch it. They surge around Marina and the long white limbs of the cat, and they put their arms out, stroking the head, the feet, the belly. When the cat has been returned to its cardboard box, we watch Emma hold up a rabbit skin and a ceremonial rain stick, which she turns, with a smile of expectation, upside down so that we can hear the hurtling sound of rain in a stick.

Fall/La Paloma Elementary School

This time I remember to make them remove their baseball caps during the pledge and a boy says, “You’re a good sub, huh.” I can remember the pledge straight through now, stumbling only for an instant when deciding whether “indivisible” or “under God” comes first. The sixth grade room, like all elementary classes, is a personified exclamation point, a life-sized diorama of good penmanship, school spirit, and historic disasters. The earthquake diagram is next to a time line of ancient civilization, and a laminated picture of a wolf that says “La Paloma students strive to be Howling Good!” is squeezed under the glossy new white boards. Near the ceiling, the penmanship display shows P and Q divided by a cartoon policeman and a quiz show host. The Q is, I’m pleased to see, still the antiquated shape of an enormous cursive “2.”

The traditions of elementary school stand still like the figures in a snow globe. The Q shaped like a 2, the white hopscotch squares, the red rubber kickballs, and the silky, meal-colored paper lined with blue dashes remain in childhood, belonging there and only there, like the books of Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder, on whose tattered spines in the corner I can read The Little House in the Big Woods, The House at Silver Lake, and Henry and Ribsy. At silent reading time, the children run their fingers under the words as though the letters were in Braille, and their lips form the letters with a soft whispering sound that makes them seem to be apart from me and each other, all alone in a place where they cannot be harmed.

Fall/La Paloma Elementary School

On the day after the passing of Proposition 187, the fifth graders have dioramas on their desks made of Popsicle sticks and shoeboxes. Construction paper trees stand beside cotton ball bushes that have been sprayed kelly green. A jungle gym made of cotton swabs supports a paper boy colored with crayons. To signify winter, cotton balls are glued to the shoebox like bales of snow.

It’s November, so pilgrims with smiley-face lips hold pies above shoes adorned with the same square yellow buckles they were wearing when I was in fifth grade. I take roll beneath the pilgrims and the Indians, and then, as directed, I pass out an emergency letter to parents from the superintendent. In English and Spanish, parents are informed that a number of junior high and high school students walked out of school on election day and marched through downtown in protest of Proposition 187. The Superintendent states that “Plans are in place to ensure the continuing safety of students” and that students who were truant from school will be assigned the appropriate consequences. Without reading the letters, the children stash them in their notebooks, where they may or may not find them again.

After language arts, I’m assigned to a bilingual class for an hour, where the students are taught in Spanish by Mrs. Losee, a woman in a plaid shirt dress who switches between English and Spanish with the ease of a revolving door. The children are all dark-haired but one, and they turn to look at me, la maestra. They tell each other that I’m tall, and they translate it for me so I won’t feel left out. Then they continue to color with pastel chalk on sandpaper in the style of La Nación de Iroquesas.

Above the chalkboard, the pledge of allegiance has been written by each child in Spanish across a wobbly outline of Los Estados Unidos, where flag becomes bandera, God becomes Dios, and indivisible is spelled the same. A girl with curly hair asks me who I voted for. A smaller boy echoes her. “For governor,” the boy asks. “Who did you vote for?” The girl who interrupts isn’t childlike at all, but a teenager already in looks and demeanor, a foot taller than the girls next to her. “Do you think they’ll send the children home from school now?” she asks. She wants to know what would have happened if Brown had won the election instead and why illegal children can’t just come to school.

I feel compelled to attempt an explanation, and I vaguely explain the cost of teachers and buildings. I use my hands to indicate the amount of space, the number of children, the lack of funds. When I finish my hapless speech, she studies me, makes no response, and turns to the reading comprehension assignment, where she is asked about ficción realistica and fantasia, unicornios and bus transfers. The children are told not just to answer, but to explain why tambien.

Fall/Potter Junior High

Seventh grade reading and eighth grade science are taught in the former home economics room, where Presto deep fryers and Simplicity patterns are stored in the lacquered cupboards of four kitchens. An ancient microwave sits on the back counter by the fondue pots. The Presto fryers and measuring cups have sticky edges, like appliances in a rented room. Beside the microwave, two huge stacks of the Union-Tribune wait for the seventh grade Reading class, who are to leaf through the sections in search of answers to their weekly worksheet, which asks things like, “Find an ad for something you would like to buy and list the page number,” and “Where would you find the weather section?” By the time the first science class comes in to read a chapter about electricity, I have learned that almost anything will do as a distraction in junior high.

“Oh my God,” a student says. “What’s that smell?” The rest of the class trails in, each raising the cry of fish in their midst. I sniff and wonder if they can really smell smoked salmon through the Tupperware and black Gortex of my lunch bag. “It smells like fish,” a girl says, bringing the collar of her shirt up over her nose and mouth. “Can we have class outside?” she asks. “I can’t bear it.”

I find I can’t bear to explain that I’m having smoked salmon pasta for lunch in an hour: since fish is clearly taboo, and I’m in possession of fish, I must hide the fish. Then, perhaps, they will read their science books. In the spirit of cooperation, I promise to empty all the trash cans, and while taking each one outside to the larger can, I spirit my guilty lunch bag to the top of the lockers outside. Today is a pandering day.

A boy whips out a stick of Old Spice deodorant, which he seems to carry routinely in his backpack. He smears it in three bands across sheets of notebook paper and positions them on the table he shares with ten other students. The papers with their glistening bands of Old Spice curl between the opened textbooks and, for a while, the students watch him as they might watch a madman on the street. He prepares another sheet and wears it like a deodorizing bib, the smile on his face turned waxen because no one is watching anymore.

Fall/Potter Junior High

I’m teaching Life Decisions and Drama in a room by the auditorium, where the bulletin boards display black-and-white publicity photos of Shirley Temple, Elvis, and James Dean around a poster of the Hollywood sign. A life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe stands in full color by the chalkboard.

Life Decisions is a required class that students take in alteration with Reading and Literature, so the course takes the place of Reading during one semester of seventh grade. The audiovisual list of videos that may be shown to this class includes “Myths of Shoplifting,” “The Morning After: A Story of Vandalism,” and

“Acne: It’s Not Your Fault.” On the teacher’s desk is a magazine called Listen: Celebrating Positive Choices. The cover shows Maria Sansone, 12-year-old TV sports reporter, behind the headlines “Alcohol: A Wicked Punch,” “My Boyfriend Wants to Have Sex,” and “LSD Is Back, More Dangerous Than Ever.”

October 24 is the beginning of national Drug Awareness Week. Red plastic strips have been wound around the stair rails at the high school and tied in big bows, as though Santa were waiting in the gymnasium. The junior high drama students are performing an anti-drug play in the elementary schools all week, so their instructor will miss her morning classes for five days, and her afternoon classes for three, a fact that causes the students to look at me, sigh, and picture a week of busywork. Red ribbons like those given out at county fairs are brought to the Life Decisions room by a student courier who hands me gold safety pins in a white envelope. While the ribbons are circulating, we discuss the perils and appeal of smoking. I have, as directed, drawn a big grid on the board below the headings “Reasons to Smoke and Reasons Not to Smoke.” The students are supposed to copy it and list ten reasons for both. Right away everyone lists cancer on one side and being cool on the other.

After we talk about emphysema and peer pressure, we move on to the movie, where young people with feathered hair and blue eye shadow bleakly inhale and exhale cigarette smoke. As if this weren’t discouraging enough, an old man who is dying of emphysema rasps, “I smoked for 50 years.” “Let’s find out what makes tobacco so nasty!” the announcer says with considerable excitement, and suddenly tar is poured on a table. “Would you drink a cup of this junk?” he asks.

Across the district, on a pale sunny morning when the air seems to have been filtered through cold, pure water, children dressed in symbolic red pledge to abhor drugs on links of construction paper. The rings are looped together and suspended over their classrooms. Red licorice is distributed, the hands of high school students run over plastic ribbon as they climb and descend the concrete steps, and in fourth period at Potter Junior High, we read aloud a play that resigned students inform me is from a stack that they read only when a substitute comes. “Will you be here tomorrow?” they ask. “No,” I say. “Someone else will.” The bell rings for lunch, and I turn out the lights on Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, whose cigarette is bone white and straight as an arrow beneath his squint.

Fall/ Potter Junior High

In a room with 14 new Macintoshes with full-color monitors, I’m teaching computer science to eighth graders. There are an average of 30 students per class, and by my rough calculations, I estimate that they could do $30,000 worth of damage to this room. I feel like I’m loaning a borrowed Mercedes to 30 13-year-olds, shouting after them, “Be back in 45 minutes!”

It’s my second time in this class. A month earlier, I watched the students make name tags on the computers with colored lines and a palette of complicated, liquefied textures. This time, they do an open-book quiz about computer terms and move on to the computers, where they’re supposed to demonstrate the format of a friendly letter by writing to their absent teacher.

“It has been great being in your class,” begins one. “Hey babe, what’s up?” begins the next, followed by, “Dear, Ms. Watabe, Yesterday I nearly got arrested for skateboarding that was pretty gay.”Most aren’t shy about using the friendly letter to make suggestions. “It really sucks having a sub,” one writes, “‘cause they give us bookwork.” Also: “School’s boring.”

In this class, as in the whole district, the administration is seeking to reward good behavior with privileges, and the privilege students want most is to leave school. At Potter, students receive “Caught Being Good” slips that are vouchers for leaving class five minutes early before lunch or last period. Teachers also award minutes of PAT, or preferred activity time, to their classes, and in the computer classes, the preferred activity is computer games. Ms. Watabe doubles any PAT awarded by a sub, and this class has earned, from Monday to Wednesday, an entire free period on Friday.

“Do you have any games we can play besides Monopoly, Chess, or Lemmings?” a boy types. “We’ve earned a lot of PAT time while you were gone.”

Circling the room to keep them from bringing lemmings to the screen, I remind them to use the spell check program, which catches only a few of their mistakes. The girl at the next terminal writes, “I learn more wend you’re here than wend you leave,” so I intercede on the computer’s behalf and explain how “when” is spelled. The most memorable letter, however, is the most sincere, by a girl with long, straight brown hair who talks to no one and works by herself on the computer. “I wasn’t here Monday and Tuesday,” she types, “because my dad was deployed to Somalia for six months.”

Spring/Fallbrook Union High School

My assignment is Beginning Art. Each class is two hours long, the lesson plans inform me, a fact so alarming I try not to think about it. Perhaps students have more patience and dedication to art than they did when I was in high school. Perhaps they love to draw, and time flies. The assignment looks a little brief to me: the 30 students are to read an article about Frank Lloyd Wright and then design their dream schools.

In Art I, a number of students don’t speak English. Their friends interpret the assignment for them, or so it seems from the murmuring in Spanish that occurs when I stop talking about Frank Lloyd Wright and look expectantly at the tables.

When I pause at a table of Hispanic boys and point to the blank piece of paper where there should be an emerging dream-school blueprint, I ask, “Escuela?” This makes the boys laugh, just as they laughed when I called roll and one name received the reply, “He’s been deported.” The class is more or less evenly divided between Hispanic names and non-Hispanic names, but the teacher’s assistant, a giggling girl who clearly seeks to prepare me for the worst, says that if I think the first class is noisy I should wait until seventh period. “You want to know what I mean?” she asks. “Just take a look at the roll for that class.” She flips open the book and shows me the names: Rosalia, Lizeth, Efrain, Juana, Ubaldo, Darian, Nepocemo, Ximena, Teresa. I pretend I don’t understand what she’s talking about, so she puts her red fingernail under the names. “See what I mean?” she asks.

“It’ll be fine,” I say.

When the last period class arrives, the room is hot. It is nearly always sunny in Fallbrook at two o’clock, when the sky pales and the air smells like eucalyptus and asphalt. The school has been built according to Frank Lloyd Wright’s principle that Form Follows Function. The lockers are outside but within gates at night to prevent theft. The candy machines are likewise within iron gates, a kind of maximum-security prison that raises the price of M&Ms to 75 cents. The two swimming pools glitter in the sun. The athletic facilities are extensive, and the school teaches racquetball, tennis, track, field hockey, gymnastics, soccer, golf, swimming, football, baseball, dance, aerobics, softball, and volleyball. The academic buildings have the look of a county detention center — red brick boxes with sky-blue metal doors and rows of beige portables squeezed in along the edge of campus.

In the assigned reading for the class, Organic architecture is in bold-face type. As directed, I explain that Frank Lloyd Wright invented the picture window, the carport, and the ranch house. All three are so common here that the students stare at me with dull surprise that such ordinary things could require a visionary. Boys and girls alike are dressed in shorts and T-shirts large enough to contain people twice their actual size. Organic is a word they know. Natural is a word they know, but they don’t like to define it out loud. Only jokes and feigned (or actual) ignorance are permitted.

When it’s time to start drawing, most don’t have their sketchbooks. A few trickle out to their lockers and wander back in a while with black notebooks under their arms. Others request paper, and I cut it for them, thick watercolor paper in enormous sheets that are to be divided, I learn from the teaching assistant, into fours.

Pencils are requested, too, as the students carry only pens in their drooping back pockets. At last, some of them start to draw. Others just sit.

The Hispanics I was warned about are neither enthused nor resistant to the assignment. Whether they speak English or not, they’re in this class, perhaps because art is a universal language, or perhaps because Art I is what teachers call a dumping ground for kids needing an elective to fill their schedules. Three boys have projects of their own, which they insist the teacher allows them to complete in lieu of the real assignments. They draw roses and birds with colored pencils in a detailed way. The style seems to be prescribed, as the style of comic book heroes is. Others, mostly females, set to work on sketching buildings, though they clearly think it’s a dumb assignment, one to be gotten through as quickly as possible. They are just like the non-Hispanic girls in this. The girls draw flimsy rectangles and label them. One draws in stores and fast food restaurants all around the perimeter. “The Mall,” she calls part of it. Pizza Hut and McDonald’s are part of the dream school, and this is not so far from fact. At lunch, Subway sandwiches are sold in the quad from a little portable stand. Others, mostly the non-Hispanics, are even more ambitious in the dreaming part. They draw enormous sports facilities that are, in fact, not much bigger than the sports facilities they already have. They add beaches and classes in surfing. The drawings are childish though it is a high school class, with cartoon details and snaky, winding structures. Frank Lloyd Wright has been forgotten, rolled up along with the Scholastic Art magazine that showed the long, bare rooms of Falling Water. The few who seem to have learned the techniques of perspective turn their attention to that instead of dreaming and spend most of the class getting the walls at the right angles. The buildings don’t look especially organic, but the students’ fascination with the disappearance points on the horizon, and the diagonal lines that fade into them, is encouraging, the sign of some interest in art, at least, or the willingness to do what is asked of one in school, a desire almost entirely absent in Art I.

Also encouraging is the blueprint of Efrain, who draws only one school building, but in immense detail: the auto shop.

Then there are those who refuse to draw, those who will not even make a rudimentary box and label it “Science Lab” at my urging. One is a blond boy with a goatee. He looks 27 and remote from this place, this assignment, and the curriculum of Art I. He has his sketchbook opened to a blank page. An hour later, he shuts it. “I’m thinking,” he says when I ask why he hasn’t started. For the entire two hours, he does nothing at all except turn to me, after a slight tremor that I later learn was an earthquake in the San Bernardino mountains, and ask, “Did you feel that?” Another boy, also non-Hispanic, says viciously, “This isn’t an art assignment. I’m not an architect. Why should I have to do this?” In the end, it is useless to explain that school is designed to let you try things you aren’t qualified to do professionally.

He scribbles until the end of the period.

It is useless, too, to say how expensive the paper is and how supplies add up over time, especially when elective courses are dependent on another bond issue. Here, most of them would say, and give the paper back. Let me out of here, then. In the end, the artistic and non-artistic want one thing above all: to get out of high school. The desire to leave hangs over the room like the heat. They shuffle to the door five minutes before the bell.

On Friday, two days later, the dream schools will be graded by their real teacher. What she will say to the detailed auto shop, the beach school, the blank pages, I will never know. When she is collecting the sketches, I will be subbing in PE. In a regulation-size gym with three regulation nets, I will be tossing volleyballs to students who don’t wish to play volleyball. The boys will play keepaway and hackey-sack instead while a few girls ask to be excused to stand on the sidelines. The next period, I will be watching students pop racquetballs into the creek to use up just a little more class time. I will, above all, in every period, be taking roll, calling name after name and filling in little bars with my pencil for electronic attendance computation in the office. I will not pronounce the Hispanic or the non-Hispanic names very well. It will begin to rain again before time is up, a cool, windy rain that darkens the fields and the creek where eucalyptus leaves and small, bright blue rubber balls are stuck between the stones.

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