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Mike%20Rose - “I just wanna Be Average” Mike Rose...

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Unformatted text preview: “I just wanna Be Average” Mike Rose Currently a UCLA profeer of education and prolific writer, Ali/cc Rose reminisces about the time lie spent in the vocational education track in big/J school. This piece comesfi‘om bis 1989 Lives on the Boundaries: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared. lerming Up: Have you ever had a teacher who really made a difference in your life, who changed your opinion of yourself and your abilities? It took two buses to get to Our Lady of Mercy. The first started deep in South Los Angeles and caught me at midpoint. The second drifted through neighborhoods with trees, parks, big lawns, and lots of flowers. The rides were long but were livened [1/ up by a group gféouth L.A. veterans whose parents also WW set QWWWZWO’ at sixteen, was ealing and was, according to rumor, a pimp as well. There were Bill Cobb and Johnny Gonzales, grease—pencil artists extraordinaire, who left Nembutal— enhanced1 swirls of “Cobb” and “Johnny” on the corrugated walls of the bus. And then there was Tyrrell Wilson. Tyrrell was the coolest kid I knew. He ran the dozens2 like a metric halfback, laid down a rap that outrhymed and outpointed Cobb, whose rap was good but not great—the curse ofa moderately soulful kid trapped in white skin. But it was Cobb who would sneak a radio onto the bus, and thus underwrote his patter with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Coasters,3 and Ernie K—Doe’s mother-in-law, an awful woman who was “sent from down below.” And so it was that Christy and Cobb and Johnny G. and Tyrrell and I and assorted others picked up along the way passed our days in the back of the bus, a funny mix brought together by geography and parental desire. Entrance to school brings with it forms and releases and assessments. Mercy relied on a series of tests, mostly the Stanford—Binet,4 for placement, and somehow the results of my tests got confused with those of another student named Rose. The 277 278 ' Reading and Writing Our World other Rose apparently didn’t do very well, for I was placed in the vocational track, a euphemism for the bottom level. Neither I nor my parents realized what this meant. We had no sense that Business Math, Typing, and English—Level D were dead ends. The current spate of reports on the schools criticizes parents for not involving themselves in the education of their children. Weone like Tommy Rose, with his two years of Italian schooling, know what to askTAnd w fioFoTipressureEfiImfiilW p y.he ernggwent‘ unde— tecte , ‘afimemcational track for two years. What a place. My ho—meroom was superv1sed by Brother Dill, a troirbled and unstable man who also taught freshman English. When his class drifted away from him, which was often, his voice would rise in paranoid accusations, and occasionally he would lose control and shake or smack us. I hadn’t been there two months when one of his brisk, face—turning slaps had my glasses sliding down the aisle. Physical educa— tion was also pretty harsh. Our teacher was a stubby ex-lineman who had played old- time pro ball in the Midwest. He routinely had us grabbing our ankles to receive his stinging paddle across our butts. He did that, he said, to make men of us. “Rose,” he bellowed on our first encounter; me standing geeky in line in my baggy shorts. “‘Rose’? What the hell kind of name is that?” “Italian, sir,” I squeaked. “Italian! Ho. Rose, do you know the sound a bag of shit makes when it hits the wall?” “No, sir.” “Wop!” SWEfiglishwaSJanghmeMopetros. He was a large, bejew— eled man who managed the parking lot at the Shrine Auditorium. He would crow and preen and list for us the stars he’d brushed against. We’d ask questions and glance knowingly and snicker, and all that fueled the poor guy to brag some more. Parking cars was his night job. He had little training in English, so his lesson plan for his day work had us reading the district’s required text, ~711mm Caesar, aloud for the semester. We’d finished the play way before the twenty weeks was up, so he’d have us switch parts again and again and start again: Dave Snyder, the fastest guy atMercy, muscling through Caesar to the breathless squeals of Calpur- nia, as interpreted by Steve Fusco, a surfer who owned the school’s most envied paneled wagon. Week ten and Dave and Steve would take on new roles, as would we all, and render a water—logged Cassius and a Brutus that are beyond my pow- ers of description. Spanish I—taken in the second year—fell into the hands of a new recruit. Mr. Montez was a tiny man, slight, five foot six at the most, soft—spoken and delicate. Spanish was a particularly rowdy class, and Mr. Montez was as prepared for it as a doin maker at a hammer throw. He would tap his pencil to a room in which Steve Fusco was propelling spitballs from his heavy lips, in which Mike Dweetz was taunt— ing Billy Hawk, a half—Indian, half-Spanish, reed—thin, quietly explosive boy. The vocational track at Our Lady of Mercy mixed kids traveling in from South LA. with South Bay surfers and a few Slavs and Chicanos from the harbors of San Pedro. This was a dangerous miscellany: surfers and hodads6 and South—Central blacks all ablaze to the metronomic tapping of Hector Montez’s pencil. One da his right arrr ofhis seat, 5( eye. Snyder: naked. Mr. D everyone fell down to it, I pushed and 1 embarrassed Student: were bobbin—g ing the econi Some serious like Mr. Gros troubleshoot, job skills. The not making it who'rwm Stan—m history. But m us kids who Wt And the i groomed for t how to simplify gled Spanish t1 ways of doing 2 Sive tuning out seeming at leas mediocre stude jects I did have history. My am books indiffere whatI had to d But I did 1. I liked the guys physical prowe: Snyder, a sprint him'na ra Wndép‘éhde lTuTIE possesse} was a testameni eventually went a dearth of Rs a1 firs and became There was and had a baby One day Billy lost it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him strike out with his right arm and catch Dweetz across the neck. Quick as a spasm, Dweetz was out of his seat, scattering desks, cracking Billy on the side of the head, right behind the eye. Snyder and Fusco and others broke it up, but the room felt hot and close and naked. Mr. Montez’s tenuous authority was finally ripped to shreds, and I think everyone felt a little strange about that. The Charade was over, and when it came down to it, I don’t think any of the kids really wanted it to end this way. They had pushed and pushed and bullied their way into a freedom that both scared and embarrassed them. Students will float to the mark ou set. I and the others in the vocational classes were boWadonal education has aimed at increas- ing the economic o portunities of students who do not_v_do_well in our schools. . ¥__ _. _ -u..- __._ Some serious programs succee 1n domg that,”and through exceptmnaI'teacheTsT; like Mr. Gross in Horace} Compromire7—smdents learn to develop hypotheses and troubleshoot, reason through a problem, and communicate effectively—the true job skills. Thevocational track, however, is most often a lace for those who are 'ust not making itfmfipWW Who WW Brother Slattery, for example, 2356315327 stérn v01ce w1t wee y quizzes to try to pass along to us a skeletal outline ofworld history. But mostly the teachers had no idea of how to engage the imaginations of us kids who were scuttling along at the bottom of the pond. And the teachers would have needed some inventiveness, for none of us was groomed for the classroom. It wasn’t just thatI didn’t know things—didn’t know how to simplify algebraic fractions, couldn’t identify different kinds of clauses, bun— gled Spanish translations—but that I had developed various faulty and inadequate ways of doing algebra and making sense of Spanish. Worse yet, the years of defen- sive tuning out in elementary school had given me a way to escape quickly while seeming at least half alert. During my time in Voc. Ed, I developed further into a mediocre student and a somnambulant problem solver, and that affected the sub- jects I did have the wherewithal to handle: I detested Shakespeare; I got bored with history. My attention flitted here and there. I fooled around in class and read my books indifferently the intellectual equivalent of playing with your food. I did what I had to do to get by, and I did it with halfa mind. But I did learn things about people and eventually came into my own socially I liked the guys in Voc. Ed Growing up where I did, I understood and admired physical prowess, and there was an abundance of muscle here. There was Dave Snyder, a sprinter and halfback of true quality. Dave’s ability andhisg‘uick Elgavd hi3” Wm afipégtjafifiifig was TvGEIEéiInEiiEEyiélfc‘ifié‘; 156%:th alwayskept :1 little independent. He enjoyed acting thefoplahd couldcarelessvahoutusmtudies, ME56§_qgggd"é‘ certain maturity and never caused the facultymughfitrguble. It was a testament to his independence TithatIhe included me among his friends—I eventually went out for track, but I was no jock. Owing to the Latin alphabet and a dearth of Rs and 55, Snyder sat behind Rose, and we started exchanging one—lin- ers and became friends. There was Ted Richard, a much—touted Little League pitcher. He was chunky and had a baby face and came to Our Lady of Mercy as a seasoned street fighter. 280 ' Reading and Writing Uur woriu Ted was quick to laugh and he had a loud, jolly laugh, but when he got angry he’d Comn smile a little smile, the kind that simply raises the corner of the mouth a quarter of Sim an inch. For those who knew, it was an eerie signal. Those who didn’t found them— books, selves in big trouble, for Ted was very quick. He loved to carry on what we would 0 1c come to call philosophical discussions: What is courage? Does God exist? He also loved words, enjoyed picking up big ones like salabrious and equivocal and using make I them in our conversations—laughing at himself as the word hit a chuckhole rolling uli or ( off his tongue. Ted didn’t do all that well in school—baseball and parties and test— Idom f1 ing the courage he’d speculated about took up his time. His textbooks were Argosy sifip‘l’E and Field and Stream, whatever newspapers he’d find on the bus stop——from the r n_c__e4_ Daily Wbrker to pornography—conversations with uncles or hobos or businessmen izes thl he’d meet in a coffee shop, The Old Man and the Sea. With hindsight, I can see that dfiVé? Ted was developing into one of those rough-hewn intellectuals whose sources are i exac a mix of the learned and the apoc hal, whose discussions are both assured and sad. TK'N And then there was Ken Harvey. Keri was good—looking in a puffy way and had Every: a full and oily ducktail and was a car enthusiast . . . a hodad. One day in religion class, course: he said the sentence that turned out to be one of the most memorable of the hun- m dreds of thousands I heard in those Voc. Ed. years. We were talking about the para— chemis ble of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, board. blah—blah—blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. very ha Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal affect), him an “I 'ust wanna be avera e.” That woke me up. Avera e? Who wan to be average? 1‘ Tlmm want to laryngectomize interes them, and the exchange became a platitudinous melee. At ’ ht Igen’s veins ai assertion was stu id, and I wrote him off. But his sentence has stayed with‘me all in hanc these years, and I thinkI am fina coming to un erstan it. for the ”WK—€71 arvey was gasping for air. c 00 can e a tre endously disorienting out a C1 / place. No matter how bad the school, you’re going to encounter notions that don’t ! answer fit with the assumptions and beliefs that you grew up with—maybe you’ll hear these up to t dissonant notions from teachers, maybe from the other students, and maybe you’ll methai read them. You’ll also be thrown in with all kinds of kids from all kinds of back- Langer grounds, and that can be unsettling—this is especially true in places of rich ethnic ‘ tered t and linguistic mix, like the LA. basin. You’ll see a handful of students far excel you ; Brothe in courses that sound exotic and that are only in the curriculum of the elite: French, 2 tests. I physics, trigonometry. And all this is happening while you’re trying to shape an ‘ thatI l: identity, your body is changing, and your emotions are running wild. Ifyoulre a~ ; since, a WWWL gag]: the options yOLflbave-toadealrwiththis ; rarely( willbssmminedgrggttamays: youitedléfirffédfiv'féfitsghool a.s__‘f§lrotw_”;\ygfi’re i from V \ placedinawcurriculum that isn’t designed torlibrerate'you but to’occupy you, 01371; i one wc \._ Yguir§.,ll1§l<l’;£rfllll you,_though theitrain‘ing is forfiwork the society doesnottsteem; f living i ‘ other students are picking up tfié cues from your school andyour curriculum and i S \ interacting with you in particular ways. If you’re a kid like Ted Richard, you turn i Was un '\ your back on all this and let your mind roam where it may. But youngsters like Ted in a cl; are rare. What Ken and so many others do is protect themselves from suehsuffo- j istry w eating madnessby taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the voca- the Che tionaltrack. Reject thencgnfusion and frustration by openly defining yourself as the 2n\d—X¢ Common Joe. Champion the avera e. Rel on our own good sense Fuck this bull— s “ se, 1s eve thing you—and the others— ear 1s W books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity, SCIeTfiE reasoning, philo— fl) 1ca 1n u1 ‘flfl 1*“ ' -,_._“ PM“ ”‘ ’ f ’ h l het tragedy 15 that you have to twist the knife 1n your own gray matter to make this defense work. YoWW- uli or diffuse them with sarcasm, ave to cultivate stupidity, have to convert bore— dom from a mala into a wa 0 con rontin wor . ee our vocab simmtmthan you are, flaunt i no— MWWVWFWMQ it drives teachers up thwg secon ary effect}? _ ut1 Ike Tstrong magic, iW WM ‘- “ “m“ 1 y own deliverance from the Voc. Ed. world began with sophomore biology. Every student, college prep to vocational, had to take biology, and unlike the other courses, the same person taught all sections. When teaching the vocational group, l > Mt probably slowed down a bit or omitted a little of the fundamental bio— ' chemistry, ut he used the same book and more or less the same syllabus across the board. If one class got tough, he could get tougher. He was young and powerful and very handsome, and looks and physical strength were high currency. No one gave him any trouble. I was pretty bad at the dissecting table, but the lectures and the textbook were interesting: plastic overlays that, with each turned page, peeled away skin, then veins and muscle, then organs, down to the very bones that Brother Clint, pointer in hand, would tap out on our hanging skeleton. Dave Snyder was in big trouble, for the study of life—versus the living of it———was sticking in his craw. We worked out a code for our multiple-choice exams. He’d poke me in the back: once for the answer under A, twice for B, and so on; and when he’d hit the right one, I’d look up to the ceiling as though I were lost in thought. Poke: cytoplasm. Poke, poke: methane. Poke, poke, poke: William Harvey. Poke, poke, poke, poke: islets of Langerhans. This didn’t work out perfectly, but Dave passed the course, and I mas— tered the dreamy look of a guy on a record jacket. And something else happened. Brother Clint puzzled over this Voc. Ed. kid who was racking up 985 and 995 on his tests. He checked the school’s records and discovered the error. He recommended thatI begin my junior year in the College Prep program. According to all I’ve read since, such a shift, as one report put it, is virtually impossible. Kids at that level rarely cross tracks. The telling thing is how chancy both my placement into and exit from Voc. Ed. was; neither I nor my parents had anything to do with it. I lived in one world during spring semester, and when I came back to school in the fall, I was living in another. Switching to College Prep was a mixed blessing. I was an erratic student. I was undisciplined. And I hadn’t caught onto the rules of the game: why work hard in a Class that didn’t grab my fancy? I was also hopelessly behind in math. Chem— istry was hard; toying with my Chemistry set years before hadn t prepared me for the Chemist’s equations. F tel the priest who taught both chemist and sec— ond- ear algebra was also the school’s at etlc t e track 282 ' Reading and Writing Our World team covered me; I knevawo’uldng’tget lower than a C. U.S. history was taught p‘rerty‘w‘elt‘afid'lmdid Tokay. But civics was taken over by~a football coach who had trouble reading the textbook aloud—and reading aloud was the centerpiece of his pedagogy. College Prep at Mercy was certainly an improvement over the voca; tional program—at least it carried some status—but the social science curriculum was weak, and the mathematics and physical sciences were simply beyond me. I had a miserable quantitative background and ended up copying some assignments and finessing the rest as best I could. Let me try to explain how it feels to see again and again material you should once have learned but didn’t. You are given a problem. It requires you to simplify algebraic fractions or to multiply expressions containing square roots. You know this is pretty basic mate— rial because you’ve seen it for years. Once a teacher took some time with you, and you learned how to carry out these operations. Simple versions, anyway. But that was a year or two or more in the past, and these are more complex versions, and now you’re not sure. And this, you keep telling yourself, is ninth— or even eighth- grade stuff. Next it’s a word problem. This is also old hat. The basic elements are as famil— iar as story characters: trains speeding so many miles per hour or shadows of build— ings angling so many degrees. Maybe you know enough, have sat through enough explanations, to be able to begin setting up the problem: “If one train is going this fast . . .” or “This shadow is really one line of a triangle . . .” Then: “Let’s see . . .” “How didjones do this?” “Hmmmm.” “No.” “No, that won’t work.” Your atten— tion wavers. You wonder about other things: a football game, a dance, that cute new checker at the market. You try to focus on the problem again. You scribble on paper for a while, but the tension wins out and your attention flits elsewhere. You crumple the paper and begin daydreaming to ease the frustration. The particulars will vary, but in essence this is what a number of students go through, especially those in so-called remedial classes. They open their textbooks and see once again the familiar and impenetrable formulas and diagrams and terms that have stumped them for years. There is no excitement here. No excitement. Regardless of what the teacher says, this is not a new challenge. There is, rather,“ embarrassment and frustratinonandhnot surprisingly,“ somevanger in‘BEIEgrevminded ohan inadequacies. 7N0 wonder so many students finally atfiibuw’ms‘fo—sfiethingwinborn, organic: "That 153:; ofygxbrain jusmé‘Yrafififih‘g‘hmafi's'fiiafi'y"affii‘eé'e students have, it’s m1 cu ous th—a_t>any of them can lift the shroud of hopelessness sufficiently to make deliverance from these classes possible. Through this entire period, my father’s health was deteriorating with cruel momentum. His arteriosclerosis progressed to the point where a simple nick on his shin wouldn’t heal. Eventually it ulcerated and widened. Lou Minton would come by daily to change the dressing. We tried renting an oscillating bed—which we placed in the front room—to force blood through the constricted arteries in my father’s legs. The bed hummed through the night, moving in place to ward off the inevitable. The ulcer continued to spread, and the doctors finally had to ampu- tate. My grand father had lost his leg in a stockyard accident. Now my ...
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