Monday, August 3, 2009

I Will Fight No More, Forever

I’ve taught ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for years and my favorite unit has always been American Romanticism. I start with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to Thoreau’s Walden: "Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.” Then Emerson’s Essays on Self-Reliance, “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Then to the speeches by Frederick Douglas, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence,” and Abraham Lincoln, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred right - a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.” From there we study Chief Joseph who said, “We live, we die, and like the grass and trees, renew ourselves from the soft earth of the grave.” Then Geronimo, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and Jack Kerouac who wrote, “Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.” Finally we end with the poetry of Bob’s Marley and Dylan and conclude with Tupac Shakur.
I always ask the students at the beginning of the unit what they think of Romanticism and they laugh and high five and make cat calls and whistles, shifting upward in their seats as if now, finally, this class is getting interesting. ESL classrooms are always a funny mix of people. Irma was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and became a mother at sixteen; she is famous for a tv commercial in which she poses with a plate of enchiladas at Mazatlan on NW Cornell. She turns to Hugo, an illegal twenty-year-old from Vera Cruz who crossed the border through a tunnel outside of El Paso and was robbed at rifle point by a Coyote guide who stole his shoes.
“Romanticism, eh?” They smile and rub shoulders.
Alfredo is a new breed of kid: Latino Skater punk with baggy thrasher pants and brand name sweatshirts. He doodles throughout the class and has a crush on Jenny, the quiet Korean girl who sits between Russian brothers Khalil and Seykhan who arrive to class one after the other in perfect stride reeking of Camel lights and Axe body spray. Alfredo pipes in.
“You pick the girl up in your car,” he starts giggling here and looking at his skate buddies for help but they just smirk and point, “then you drive her someplace nice.”
“Like McDonalds?” Maya, a heavy set Latina from Nicaragua shouts. She doesn’t like that Alfredo crushes on Jenny, thinks the Asian girl is too skinny and white skinned.
“Ka-ya-tay!” He shouts back in Spanish. “Then you take her to a movie and do this,” he mimes a yawn and lays his arm around an imaginary girl to his right. “See, the man must make a move.”
The class erupts in gags and laughter. Somebody hits him in the head with a crunched up notebook paper ball. I usually jump in about here.
“No, romanticism is not about kissing or touching. It’s not about canoe rides on lakes beneath the moon or playing guitar beneath someone’s window. No.”
The eyes of the classroom tilt to one side as if I have said the day is night.
“No, romanticism is not about the stirring of the heart,” I clutch my chest. “Romanticism is about what makes us human. It is the action of the soul.”
I know. I get carried away sometimes, and it’s a little heavy at first for ESL kids to handle, but I just love the subject. After reading about famous romantics we watch James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and discuss characters connection to nature which leads us to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn where we write about society verses individual rights. From here we move to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to analyze isolation and violence against the weak, destruction of the land and the loss of broken dreams. This leads to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and a giant end of the semester project where students create a mural that stretches across the entire classroom wall of personal images of their own Romantic search for liberty and truth. It is usually very powerful.
I remember once a librarian at a former school asked me, “Why are you making the ESL kids check out Catcher in the Rye? What do they know about Manhattan prep schools?”
She was completely serious and a bit offended that I was wasting class time pushing this book to kids who were obviously incapable of understanding it.
I’ve also been asked numerous times, “How can you teach ESL, you don’t speak Spanish?”
Again, totally serious.
I just smile and file it away for later, go about my business. I’m not usually swayed by others. In fact, isn’t that the point? I’ve been working on this unit for ten years. Quotes etched on the back of my hand or the tops of diner napkins. It began with a simple reading of the Declaration of Independence. Students had been arguing about acceptance and equality in America. The brown skinned boy who gets followed by store managers every time he shops in Thirftway or the Russian girl who wonders why she can’t get help at Nordstrom, “I ‘ave plastic. I dink dey is da plastic one.”
But nothing works ESL students up more than the seclusion of education.
“Why can’t we sign up for better classes?”
“Why do we only take ones with the same students over and over?”
We would read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But they would balk, scoffing at the Bill of Rights, “They exist, sure, but not if your skin isn’t white.”
My colleages would cry foul.
“A lot of these kids are illegal. They shouldn’t be allowed free education.” But what is the real cost? These people were here anyway, weren’t they? What, should we deport them all? Years ago, when I first returned from teaching in Korea, I worked at a small language school downtown and every week we would take the students on trips around Oregon and SW Washington: Silver Creek Falls, Deschutes River rafting, Mt. Hood sledding at Government Camp, Lincoln City. To see student’s faces marvel at the natural wonder of Oregon. I remember Rui, a red headed Japanese skater boy, laying down on the baseball field grass in the middle of Sauvie’s Island corn maze screaming, “This is America! Finally, I see it.”
Such a cool moment.
I thought about them this weekend as Steve and I headed up the north side of Mt. Hood, past alpine meadows and sliding on glaciers. I remember in the Romanticism unit getting to Chief Joseph and him leading the Nez Perce people through this area from Washington through Idaho into Canada. The students always loved his story because they could touch the clothes and walk around seeing the art work and feel his life. How at the end of the story he said: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed… The old men are all dead… No one knows where they are… Maybe I shall find them among the dead. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad … I will fight no more forever.”
“What? He gave up?” Jose, a shaved-head boy from Ecuador gasped. “But he was their leader?”
“No, he was broken,” Alfredo quipped back. “That’s what the white man does. He breaks you.”
“No esse, he was just old,” Anthony, an L.A. born Chicano who’s father came to parent-teacher night stoned, chimes in. “Chief J. is like my granddad. He just sits at the table and smokes one long all day cigarette.”
I ask them then, what is your breaking point? How much are you willing to take as a person? As a man or woman on this world, how strong are your beliefs, your convictions? As Steve and I trudged up this mountain, past stream and rockslide, through sloping gravel hill and thick dead wooded branches, we both felt like quitting many times. We both felt like turning around and heading back down. Yet it was our Romantic spirits that kept us going. When we finally reached the summit of our bluff we were screaming, howling, mad with life. We lived to fight another day, and may you, dear reader, as well.

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