Symphony 10

“They can’t expect me to teach anything to kids who don’t speak English. There has to be a better way.”

“There are better ways, for districts who can afford the specialized personnel,” Gina snapped. “This district can’t. When you’ve been around a while, you will see for yourself.”

Gina’s news was most unwelcome, and left Neil feeling sorry for himself again. For most of the summer, he had managed to keep the past out of mind by a complete change of scene. He had approached this new school with a grim determination not to let self-pity get the better of him, but that resolution hadn’t lasted out the first day.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Gina said, sensing his mood. “I didn’t mean to be critical, but things are different here than you are used to. I don’t know why Bill didn’t tell you what you were getting yourself into. It’s not like him.”

Neil wanted to change that subject. He said, “Don’t blame Bill. I walked into this with both eyes open. If I didn’t ask enough questions, it’s my fault, not his.”

“Still . . .”

“You were going to show me what books you use and what you do,” Neil suggested, and they spent some time doing that. Then Gina took her leave, waddling uncertainly out to her car.

When she had gone, he sat in stricken silence for half an hour, idly fingering the textbooks without really seeing them. First Alice Hamilton’s false accusation, and then a class full of students with needs he seemed unlikely to be able to meet. That would have been enough for depression. But the textbooks Gina had given him were awful.

Neil was in love with the English language, and with its expression in literature. That was what had taken him to New York, and it was the perversion of literature in the marketplace that had driven him back to college, and then into teaching. Now he would be teaching children who could not even read, and the materials he had been given were so trivial, so insipid, that his mind couldn’t deal with them.

All else he had born with at least an outward calm. But the descent from Shakespeare to Dick and Jane pushed him to the edge of despair.

Despair, however, was something Neil had no intention of giving in to.

# # #

Neil left a short time later, and drove eastward toward McHenry Avenue. Within a couple of miles, he approached the Western Pacific railroad tracks, and slowed down. According to Gina, most of the Chicanos who attended Kiernan School lived in a barrio-like cluster of houses and apartments on either side of the tracks. He rode slowly by, trying to gauge the depth of their poverty but it was impossible from the main road. He turned around and drove by a second time, more slowly.

On the east side of the tracks was a small, run-down apartment complex. It was called the Oaks; or miscalled, because the two huge trees shading it were sycamores. Two scruffy, unbarbered palms flanked a broken concrete fountain at the east entrance. The grass around the buildings was cut and green, but the dusty field beyond was full of abandoned cars. A few children were clustered around a swing set.

On the other side of the railroad, a pot-holed tarmac road led north parallel to the tracks. Two hundred yards from Kiernan, a dirt road led to a huge and ancient barn, a cluster of ragged trees and the burned out shell of what had been a two story farm house. Near the tracks, where the dirt road left the tarmac, there was a cluster of tiny houses. more tomorrow

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