Teaching John Steinbeck, Part 7, Teaching in Salinas

Lois blogsI drive through miles of construction.  A trip that should take thirty minutes takes one hour.  I drive through Salinas.  It is a poor town.  I drive passed the school.  I realize I am heading onto a one way street going in the wrong direction.  I turn around in a Taco turnaround drive through driveway.  I arrive at my destination.  I am met by Devon, the staff repertory director and a young woman, whose name, like so many names, I can not remember.  They describe the situation.

“English is their second language.  They’re rude, they’re worked up, they’re uncontrollable.  In the next four days you’re going to teach 240 migrant farm workers’ children, at least forty students per class, who could care less about Steinbeck.  You won’t work with the same class twice.  The teachers can’t spare the time.”

“How… What am I suppose to do?…”

“Teach what you can.  The kids haven’t read the book.  They don’t know who John Steinbeck is, they don’t care who he is.  Since they don’t know who he is, they don’t care that he lived in Salinas.  And, the principal can’t promise that the students will attend the show”

“What the hell am I doing here?”

“Don’t ask us. “They hand over the teaching sheet with teachers names, room numbers, and all pertinent information after which they run in the opposite direction.  I am paralyzed with fear.  I enter the building.  I ask myself, “What if one of the kids pulls a knife on me, or something worse happens?  What could be worse?”  I look death in the eye, I look for and find my first classroom.   I enter the room.  The students are screaming at the top of their lungs like wild banshees.  The teacher does not say hello.  She is busy writing down names of the students’ mothers who will make tacos for Saturday’s  taco bake sale.  This is my time, but she is getting her list together for Saturday’s taco sale.  Nobody notices I am in the room.  Finally, she sees me.  I am her way out of the next forty minutes left in her classroom.

She pulls me aside.  “You’ll have to work hard to get their attention.  They’re out of their minds today.  I didn’t know you were coming.  They haven’t read whatever you’re teaching.  What are you teaching?”

“Of Mice and Men.”

“They definitely don’t know that one.  Do whatever you can to keep them in the room.  I have to finish up this list.  If you need me, I’ll be at my desk.”  She walks toward the desk at the rear of the room.   She sits.  She opens a magazine.  She reads the magazine.  She does not look up.  She is too busy doing as little as possible.

This is as bad as it gets.  This is when you want to grab your lesson plan and run for the hills.  I have done that before; once before in Tennessee.  I have never forgiven myself for abandoning that class.  I will not do that again.  After all, this is a job.  I have been hired to teach.  Even if no one wants what I have to offer, I will stay in the room.  One person might learn something about himself; one girl, one boy might reach for heaven, might change their future…  Not in this room!

I teach one unbearable class after another.  While I am trying to teach, Margot continues trying to book passage home.  We are living in parallel universes of vexation.  But, Margot is not dealing with teenagers napping under desks, pulling their hoods over their heads, mumbling, “this is really stupid.”  Margot is luckier by far.

The highlight of our time in Monterey is our trip to the Monterey Aquarium. The octopus should run for office.  I have never seen such maneuvering in such tight quarters.  And the sea horses are beautiful, delicate, and mysterious.  I wish I were a seahorse.  instead, I am a teaching artist.

On my last day at Salinas High, I teach in a portable school room outside the main building.  These students are tough, but there is something different about this group.  They are in the room.   They have no idea why I am in the room, but they are with me.  They are with me because their teacher has demanded they pay attention.  She makes it possible for me to work with them.  The rule of thumb is if the teacher has the respect of her students, the students will listen to her.  I am finally in the right room.  I ask the students to remember some incident that changed their life, something they can not forget for better or worse.

“I remember when they sent my uncle to jail for selling drugs.”

I ask.  “What do you remember about it?”

“I remember how much I hated him.  I still hate him.  I don’t ever want to see him.  He destroyed my family.”

Another teenager raises her hand.  “I remember when my baby sister was born.  I hated her.  I didn’t want a baby sister.  I liked it the way it was.”

I ask her, “Do you like her now?”

“I guess so.  But, it’s never been the same.”

Another hand up in the air.  “What do you remember.  What stays with you?

“I remember when my grandmother and grandfather went back to Mexico.  I missed them so much.  I cried every day.”

“Are they still in Mexico?”


“Do you still miss them?”

“Yes.  I love them so much, and who knows how long they will be alive.”

The class is filled with one heartbreaking memory after another.  When the class is over, they applaud.  One young man approaches me.  “Thank you for coming to our classroom.  It has been a wonderful experience.  I will never forget you.  We shake hands.

At the end of the class the teacher tells me her students will not be allowed to attend the performance unless I speak to the Principal.  I go to the principal’s office.  She will not see me.  I call her from the hotel.  She will not answer my call.  Finally, I get Margot involved.  Margot is a miracle worker.  She moves the mountain.  To this day I do not know how she does it, but she gets those kids into the theater.  When they see the show, I am on a plane to Nampa, Idaho.  Margot is back in New York, which is still under water.  Apparently, the kids love the show… even the students who hid under desks.


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