Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Boy Who Couldn't Read

He came though the door angry. Right away she could see the annoyance, not hidden at all behind his brown eyes. He didn’t make eye contact with her and he sat down with 18 years worth of sleep in his bones. While she had waited for him in the small, windowless room, she looked at the inspirational quotes and life suggestions taped to the wall. Probably hung there by another person who was a shadow of their own truth, a shadow of what they had allowed to die decades before. The quotes were truths and good advice, like “never give up,” but they had the mark of store-bought supplies, simple institutional decoration that came without the faintest hint at how to achieve such a noble goal.
The room in which they now sat was just slightly bigger than a closet, able to accommodate a small rectangular table and three plastic chairs, the hard chairs found in institutions. Each day she sat in there, the room always seemed too small and dirty, always smelling like old banana peels and wrappers stained with ketchup and a place whose standards were close to the floor. This was an institution, a school hidden in the far corner of an industrial park, where teenagers came, after failing out of every other public school. Its rooms were filled with people one fight away from juvenile hall. They were kids who screamed “Fuck you, man!” down the hall as they walked to the bathroom, kids who acted like they were being wronged by every teacher and administrator there. They came with attitudes and chips that had knocked over their shoulders and the assumption that they already knew everything, that this was just a place that they had to endure. The spark of curiosity had vanished, long ago, it had laid down and submitted to more simple plans. The guys wore large white shirts and baggy pants with the price tags still hanging from the seams, the girls sat on benches next to the basketball net and watched the boys play. They could hardly walk in their high heels and tight pants and looked like they were just waiting to be fucked, as though their only benefit to humanity was the hole between their legs which was waiting to be filled.
The small room had a student-painted mural of the golden gate bridge on one wall. It had smears of dirt and speckles of an undistinguishable substance covering its lower half. High above, close to the ceiling, were pictures of the cursive alphabet and more inspirational advice. She wondered if anyone ever looked up and read them. Did they resonate with anyone for a moment before being quickly forgotten?
The boy next to her certainly did not resonate with the message. He was just over eighteen and still struggling to read words like “was” and “should” and “through.” He had a medical condition which caused both his eyes to twitch, they moved like little ping pong balls stuck in his head, and because of this, he had a hard time reading. And even though he couldn’t read and even though he needed all the help he could get with his vision, he refused to bring his glasses. Each day he would arrive at his tutoring session and say he forgot them, just as he forgot his entire backpack and little notebook. He held the books an inch from his face and he would still mix up letters. She wondered what motivated him to come at all. Why did he get on the train and ride for twenty minutes each early morning?
He struggled with almost every word of the first sentence of the short story. Four words into the first paragraph, he had already uttered “I don’t know” and thrown up his hands in an expression of annoyance more than a handful of times. The words he couldn’t read were ones they had begun practicing months ago when she got him a small notebook of flashcards so he could study the sight words at home. Since the day she brought it, he never remembered to bring it again.
After trying unsuccessfully to sound out the fourth word, he excused himself without looking at her. He left for a couple minutes and she drew a small curving doodle with her pencil as she waited, it looked like the inner frond of a fern. When he came back, he brought a small Styrofoam cup of water with him and placed it on the table. He started reading the first sentence again, already forgetting the first couple of words he had sounded out. He made another gesture with his hand, as if to say, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” She leaned back in her hard plastic seat and looked at him, he stared at the page.
“Do you want to learn to read?” Her voice contained tinges of skepticism.
He looked up. “Well yeah, I do.”
“But I can tell you’re not practicing at all, you still aren’t remembering words we went over months ago, the ones we put in the notebook.”
When she had first given him the notebook, he had been very appreciative, he had carefully written down words in his neatest handwriting, he acted like it was precious and thanked her again and again. But it was obvious he hadn’t looked at it since, maybe it was lost with his glasses and backpack and anything else that could actually help him.
“Because, you know, I can come here every week and we can read for an hour and a half, but it’s not enough, you’re really not going to learn unless you practice and memorize the words on your own, it’s really up to you. Right now you’re acting like you don’t even want to be here. I’ve only been coming because you said you wanted to learn to read.”
“Yeah, I do, but it’s hard, I read sometimes with my social worker, but we do different things all the time. And hey, I thought you were supposed to come on Monday!”
“Well, I couldn’t make it Monday, but that’s why I’m here now…and what do you mean, like sometimes you practice reading and sometimes math with your social worker?”
“Yeah, lots of different things, mostly math.”
She didn’t understand what he was saying exactly.
“Well, all I’m saying is that it has to come from you, if you don’t want to learn, it’s not going to happen, no amount of help or tutoring will help unless you practice, it has to come from you. You need to want to learn and make the effort.”
He looked at her. “You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry, I don’t want to waste your time.”
He looked at the short story with a small burst of renewed interest. It took them an hour and a half to read two paragraphs. He had had bouts of enthusiasm before, she was not confident any pep talk was going to make a difference. She would know next week if he had problems sounding out the word “found.” His effort, or lack thereof, would be obvious then.
She knew that there was a part of him that really wanted to learn to read. Maybe it was the part of him that made the effort to get up with the sound of the alarm and put on some clean clothes and get to the train station. But the rest of him, the other 99 percent, got to school and sat down and was angry at the teachers, rude to the other students and made a day of possible learning into a failed effort. He let his days slip by and, when it was time for a tutoring session, he came up with reasons to be angry and annoyed and resistant to practice. No matter how much she wanted him to read, the true desire and effort would have to come from him. It was his journey.
A guide can do nothing without a sincere and constant effort from the voyager. Without such an effort, all help is precious seed poured into a gaping hole in the ground. Nothing will ever grow. Nothing will ever flourish.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Passing Generations

The high school was designed in the customary sprawling fashion as befits Southern California. Instead of a central building with multiple floors, the layout was single storied and extended lengthwise for half a mile, from the science rooms at the top, down to the pool, tennis courts and football field. The design vaguely resembled a large cross, at the tip of each point of the cross were “quads.” A quad was a conjuration of classrooms in the shape of a square donut. Along the sides of each quad were rows of maroon lockers and in the center, where the donut hole would be, was open space, usually dying grass.
The school had central point, it was called “central quad.” It was a park-like space, with various wooden benches and short cement walls used as seats. There were a couple of picnic benches, areas of lawn with mature trees and islands of shrubby bushes that produced clusters of red, orange and yellow flowers. Through the large space, like a sparse spider web, were cement paths that led to each quad.
During lunch, and in the seven minutes allowed between classes, students would congregate in the central quad and in other spots on the campus. Like self-segregating animals claiming territory, clicks of teenagers remained loyal to a designated space and returned to the same spot every lunch, day after day, and year after year.
The popular kids, otherwise known as the “soces” (derived from the word “social”), congregated a couple of steps away from the administration building. They sat on the short cinderblock horseshoe/bench that was uncovered by the eaves that stopped just short of them. There were white and purple irises on either side of the horseshoe and pots with flowers that hung from the eves behind them. The soces tended to be rich, white and blond. They played soccer and football and many of the girls were cheerleaders. They were the all-American standard, their pictures could be cut from magazines.
The smart kids, many of whom wore glasses (also known as the nerds) sat on the lawn in front of the school, a couple steps away from Indian Hill Blvd. The Latino kids sat by the vending machines, on the large cement stairs that separated the upper quads from the lower quads. The punks, and there were only a handful of them, sat on the maroon bench close to the library.
Then there was “the block,” a maroon-painted cement block in the center of the lawn, in the exact spot where if imagined, the lines of the large school-cross would meet. This is where the “alternative kids” sat, the ones who bought vinyl records, listened to college radio and dressed themselves in thrift store clothes, and judging by image, tended to be more artistically inclined. When I arrived in the high school as a freshmen, “the block” was occupied by mostly seniors and juniors, although there were a couple of sophomores and one freshman, Sid, who had been accepted into their ranks.
As freshmen, we were very similar to the alternative kids on “the block,” only we were a little more radical and had no male counterparts. We were a dozen mostly short-haired girls that dressed in old clothes, hung out at the record store and had hard feminist leanings and authority issues. We were called lesbians and man-haters, although almost everyone had a boyfriend from time-to-time. Although some of the girls were friends with the older kids on “the block” and many of us dated, we kept to ourselves and sat at the horseshoe between the trees, a cement configuration of benches that looked like two parentheses facing each other. We sat there during lunch and I often watched the people at “the block”, I watched how they interacted, what they wore…I watched Jean and Mimi, the couple who kissed. I watched Leandra and her big jiggling breasts beneath her ironic thrift store T-shirt, Winslow and his old man clothes and slouchy posture.
By the time we were juniors, the bulk of them had graduated and we, next in line to the alternative throne, migrated to the red cement block, claiming it as our own. This was the block of countless alternative generations. Just as new Latinos entered high school and stood on the stairs, just as freshman football players began to stand at the soc horseshoe, we took our inherited spot in the central quad. We sat there for two years, each new year bringing new, younger additions. They would be the generation to replace us, the kids who would, by merely standing at “the block”, show the incoming freshmen where the alternatives would stand.
A couple years after our graduation, the school removed the block from the central quad. But alternative kids still stand there today. Even though the actual physical block is gone, “the block” is still there.
Year after year, the same kinds of people stand in the same places. It’s a legacy that is passed through shared visual cues, shared heritage, social status, music and dress. It’s passed on by the way we identify ourselves and others. Are we in this group, or that?
Like parents teaching their children the ritual of Christmas or Hanukah, we’re not exactly sure why we put lights up, not really sure about the origin of the potato pancake, but we eat it anyway. The grandparents before us did it, we do it, and the kids will end up teaching it to the next generation. It’s not quite the biological impulse to reproduce and eat, but it’s the human impulse to gather with those like you, to stand next to your clone and reinforce the same shared ideas. It is the impulse for a legacy, a lineage. The danger is the dilution of the original purpose and meaning. Why do we do what we do? Why do I desire marriage? Why do I eat cheese and not cats? Why do I stand by the maroon block?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flight 228

The seat below me is soft and blue. I look out the tiny rectangular window and see nothing but blackness and occasional spurts of lighting.

The seat below me is gray, the windshield before me is covered in smashed bugs that speckle the vision of evening traffic.

We rock violently, trashing through the night sky. This is not turbulence, and as much as I would like to hear the reassuring voice of the captain, assuring us of our altitude and safety, this will not be that type of flight.

My eyes water. I am in a sea of cars, their headlights blink on and off in a Morse code of red.

We jerk violently, like a toy in the hands of a giant. The lights have gone off and the aisle is illuminated in an orange glow of polka dots. The air masks drop, I reach to them like a machine clinging for life. Air. I need air. It is the scene from a nightmare. The terror of birth, the knowledge that soon I will be taken, taken back into the world of darkness. This is the sheer pain, the raw fact of inevitable death. This is happening. And it’s happening to me.

Tears begin to flow. The freeway surrounding me is a slow game of movement. But I am in the sky. I am crashing towards my death. I am sucking air. I am clenched with fear. The ocean is below, a black vastness that will soon embrace my cold flesh.

There are screams and they are loud, but at the same time, running in parallel, is the muted stillness of a moving grave. I move as though it as if wading through molasses, each second stretching further than I ever thought possible. An electric cord of lightning blasts through the sky like a careful dancer. The craft shakes with the force of a demon. All truths exist at this moment.

Sadness will not let go. Fear of the inevitable moves with my blood. My mouth is dry.

A terrible roar, the screech of metal ripping, what have we lost? There is crying, but there is silence, the silence of an approaching death. The plane tips, we flap like a feather, this multi-ton hunk of metal is dropping like a stone in a pond. Has my heart stopped? I am nearly dead with fear.

Their fear is mine.

It is the sound of dying metal, there will be no landing, not on hard earth. Open up, we are coming.
The wing hangs by a tendril. Every prayer I have ever known runs through my mind, words flip through me like a crazed typewriter.

There is nothing that can help us now.

I will never see him again, his eyes flash in my mind, the space we shared in the airport not too long ago. Just moments before the flight. We stared, my lips quivering, my hands still playing with the crinkled hair from his beard.

A tear begins to form, the pain of knowing this is the end.

I held and held, feeling his truth. Sink, he said. Let it wash over you like a warm wave. You will never see me again. Goodbye, I will see you on the other side, I will call for you with my bell and my candle. I will call for you. Listen for me, come to my words, let me be a guide. Follow me.

I reach deep within me and I pull out another breath.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


There are a thousand mirrors in all directions. The sound of the chainsaw on the hill. The neighbors that can only be heard when bickering for the remote. The birds which compete for scraps of bread. And maybe when I look I can’t see the contour of my face or the glint in my eye, but as I hear that bird chirping like a metronome at 5 in the morning, as I see school children running to the white ice cream truck, the mirror reflects more than the skin. Deeper even than the body, reflected back are the habits I carry from form to form. Quick moving bursts of energy that move in cyclical patterns, shapes that are hard to grasp, but I see their trail. Fallen timber, cyclones of anger, streams of tears. If I look, I can see the path of each invisible impulse, like subatomic particles in a cloud chamber.
Two little girls mirror us so closely I can almost hear their mocking laugher. But they do not know that their shadows stand before them, their selves in twenty years. They cannot step out of the sphere that coats them like a bubble. Only while my skin sticks with the iridescent film of a broken orb can I see my mini reflection. Wrapped in pink clothes and shrill voices. Covered in silky hair and tall-tales. They are sisters on the teeter-totter. If one is happy, the other is sad. A well-meaning present for one means the jealousy of the other. We are older, yet we act just the same, the teeter-totter of emotion that bings and bangs, never achieving a moment of balance. Never riding the hot air balloon together. One of us always chooses to stay on the ground, looking up with tears in her eyes as the balloon takes flight. I look at the little girls, I look at them with objective eyes, clear and unclouded by the spheres of emotion that usually whirl around me like a dust storm. On this sunny afternoon, one little girl is happy, she’s going to the library. The other is hiding somewhere, crumpled in a corner, upset that she’s staying home. They match our black and white, our need to balance in extremes. They mirror our inability to move and think and remember beyond the present moment.
Like dogs, we are two little girls with the bodies of women, two little girls with the maturity of children. I may be able to drive and feed and clothe myself, I might look like any other full-grown human with breasts and hips and painted lips, but I have stayed so small, still completely trapped in the most base of concerns, my web of identification that shifts from one action to the next, from one stimulus to the other. We fight like them, we compete like them. One moment of attention is never enough. They compete for wrapping paper, they compete for food and treats, they compete for attention and praise. They are living mirrors. And as I watch them, they seem so silly, so machine-like in their competition and negative balancing. But in this body, I lose any sense of objectivity. It is my own pain which I feel, my own sense of exclusion, my own need for praise and attention that seems to constantly be stifled by the sister in front of me. How can I keep the mirror propped up? How can I remember to look when it seems so easy to just keep my eyes closed. If I can see it over and over, if I see the reflection staring back at me with wide eyes and shock, maybe I’ll have a chance at remembering the teeter-totter I ride.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Storms from the Old Patio

What would she do when she felt like pulling out her hair? One by one or maybe in big clumps of orgasmic release. What would she do when she felt the hurricane come from inside, sweeping through every red tendril, pulling up every cell traveling down the corridors of fire. Great swells moved through her, like ocean storms upsetting schools of fish and traveling whales that wanted nothing more than to reach warmer waters. No, there were wooden ships waiting to capture dolphins and take them to cemented circuses. There were old fashioned harpooners with sharp metal poles. There could be no safe journey. Each mile moved was a step of luck, a brief silence that could be broken at any time.
She sat on the cold linoleum, the same pattern she had grown up with, the pattern of their old patio. The room her father had attempted to renovate. They painted it white, they lay a new floor, they cleaned the barbecue and had birthday parties out there, every year ‘til she was seventeen years old. ‘Til she was seventeen and they moved to a little condo and she had a boyfriend no one liked. Then there were no more parties of short-haired girls.
The old patio, perhaps torn down now, had always gathered mold in one particular corner. They tried to paint over it, but the black spots always surfaced and the southern California heat was not enough to obliterate it. No one thought about the health effects then, no one worried about a little mold, so the children piled in and sat at a long table and ate hamburgers her dad had grilled and ate slices of birthday cake her mom had made and they brought presents and swam in the long rectangular pool. Her dog always lurked with the smell of food, and one year, her mom, distracted, lay a plate of hamburgers on a low lying coffee table and her dog snatched a couple and licked many more. By the time anyone noticed, half a plate was gone and they all shouted "Blackstar!” as she swallowed as fast as she could before she was dragged by the collar and thrown out of the windowed room. Her dad grilled more and the little girls ate until they grew older and many of them turned into vegetarians and then her dad grilled fake meat burgers and tofu dogs and her flesh and blood dog wandered the room, hoping for a dropped morsel.
She sat on the same patterned floor now. With great storms passing through her. Schools of blue and yellow fish traveled up and down the length of her short body. They darted, trying to avoid the sting of her spear, the sharp metal she projected inward. The ghosts of harpooners had long since melted with the sun, it was she her body should fear. She was the trapper, the man with the hook, the killer with the evil grin. Like a great cannibal she would come to feast on her own arms and legs. Had she carried these storms since the days of the patio? Birthday after birthday they became more a part of her, until she thought she was the swirling wind and the chilly gusts of rain filled nights.