Symphony 11

Near the tracks, where the dirt road left the tarmac, there was a cluster of tiny houses. Once they had been painted white, but they were repaired with raw wood, some new, some old, giving them a patchwork appearance of gray, tan, and dirty white. Some of the roofs were of corrugated iron, others were of tattered shingles. The few trees that sheltered the little houses from the August sun were unwatered and sparsely leafed. Over everything there was a patina of dust.

Neil slowed down and turned back east once more. Those little houses were typical of the kind of housing provided by farmers for their migrant help, but Gina had said that these had been bought up by a Modesto attorney and were being rented out. They had no formal name, but everyone called them the Johnson Road apartments because the farm had once been owned by the Johnson family.

As Neil cruised by one last time, three small brown children popped up out of the weeds in the road ditch and stared impassively at him as he passed. He waved, but got no response.

He had considered driving up the tarmac road past the small houses, but it had seemed too condescending; too much like slumming. Now he was glad that he had not.  In about a week some of those faces he had seen in the road ditch would be in his classroom, and he didn’t want to start his work here by offending anyone.

# # #

Back in his own apartment, Neil turned the air conditioner up, stripped to his shorts, and sat directly in front of the thin stream of cool air. His drapes were pulled against the afternoon sunlight, so that the room was a cool refuge against the heat. He turned on one small lamp and looked again at the textbooks. Despite the poverty of the barrio apartments, he had been rejuvenated by the sight of the three children. If they were his to teach, then he had to take a closer look at the tools he had been given to teach with.

They were awful. The grammar book was so confused and overdone that he could hardly read it. Every page was overprinted with colorful drawings and pictures. When it was new, that had probably caught some administrator’s eye. It was hard to imagine a working teacher being impressed.

In New York, Neil had learned how to lead a reader’s eye across a page by the manner in which the text was laid out. It could be done subtly by column spacing, choice of typefaces, and the judicious use of headings and simple drawings.

There was nothing subtle in this textbook. Everything was in glaring reds and blues, and the eye paths spiraled and folded back on themselves in total confusion. It was like listening to rock music written by an untalented garage band. It was visual noise.

The spelling workbook was merely dull. There were twenty words per lesson to be memorized, and four or five pages of insipid fill-in-the-blank exercises.

The reading textbook was the worst. It looked good; the pictures were varied, colorful, skillful, and the page layout did not distract the eye. But the stories were so dull and pointless that it would be a wonder if any child could bring himself to read them.

Neil read the first story and shook his head. The second left him feeling hopeless all over again. The third story put him to sleep. more Monday


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