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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.

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