Thursday, December 31, 2009

...and a happy new year

“Are you willing to help us out in the case of an emergency?” the chipper flight attendant asked me on my San Diego - Atlanta flight. “Nah. I think I’ll leave it to them” I responded, motioning to the people who were actually sitting in the emergency row. “I’m just kidding” I immediately cowered, afraid she would put me in an even shittier seat. “That’s okay! At least I know that you’re a leader!” she beamed back at me. I am really not sure why half the world talks to me like I am fourteen.

I actually got across the border without a lot of anxiety. I left about an hour later than I anticipated but still had plenty of time. After a taxi to the border, the actual customs and border crossing and trolley ride to San Diego, the most difficult part was getting a taxi in San Diego to the airport. It was a bit of a cluster fuck in the security line at the airport and a few of us were laughing about how we had no idea where to go. “You wouldn’t be in such a good mood if you had crossed the border from Mexico!” a pudgy anglo man to my right boomed. “Oh, I already did that this morning” I laughed, until I realized he was serious. “I had to wait two hours in my car!” he blustered. Might I recommend the trolley?

I remember while returning from Asia I inadvertently found myself spinning around and staring, in U.S. airports, when I heard English. It is not the same this time. When I boarded the plane I was a little disappointed that my exit row seat wasn’t actually an exit row seat. A couple of guys came on after me and indicated that they were in my row and didn’t look so thrilled at the pseudo exit row seats either. I have lived in the South for over twenty-five years but do not consider myself a Southerner. These guys were Southern. One sported a kind of genteel, Billy Bob Thorton accent, the other, a more Deliverance variety and both wore camouflage. For some reason, I identified with these men. “This sucks!” I exclaimed as soon as they sat down “I thought these were exit row seats!” . “So did I” responded one of them, in such a serious fashion that I regretted saying anything. I really didn’t want to help them fire bomb the plane. After the plane took off, BBT pointed “Tia Juana” out to his friend. I nearly knocked them over to see it through the window. BBT casually opened a book titled “Finding Inner Peace” and ordered a "spritzer" from the flight attendant.

I hit the ground running. I found the malls a bit overwhelming, but not as overwhelming as I did when I returned from nearly a year in Asia at Christmas time. The highlight was watching an Indian family run up the down escalator. Normally I find things like that annoying, just ride the stupid thing down and turn around and go back up. It made me laugh this time.

Staying at my mom’s house is like staying in a hotel. Everything is clean and warm, the bed is super comfortable and the cable TV is amazing. It feels like such a comfortable break. I am curious what the next six months will bring. And I am eternally grateful to have this exchange. All I can say is prospero año y felicidad - for me and everyone I know and come across in the second half of the adventure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Feliz Navidad

My neighborhood makes a tremendous transformation every evening. By day, it is dusty and ramshackle. But by night, the light disappears and Tijuana is blanketed in twinkling lights for as far as the eye can see. I know that Christmas is relatively popular world wide. But for some reason, I didn't expect to see cars whizzing by with Christmas trees tied to the top and little pick ups sporting reindeer horns here in TJ. In the evenings, the run down shops in my neighborhood plug in the Christmas lights that adorn their windows and the town suddenly looks quaint. I feel as though I am in a small, homey village that is not American, not Mexican or even European, but from some other place and time.

I am excited to go home for Christmas. Alec was a little more hesitant. When we did our big Asia trip we both had dreams that for some reason, we had to go home in the middle of the trip and were unable to return. Middlebury discouraged people from going home, even for holidays, while we were studying in Spain. Their prime concern was language development; two weeks spent speaking English only would set people back. A lot of students were just hitting their stride around Christmas and would go home, only to return to Madrid and become horribly homesick again. I feel differently than I did in Asia. I knew I would come back to Spain when I went home during grad school, I had to finish my program. All my stuff was there. I had an apartment. And I know I will return to TJ. I have a job here. People are expecting me.

I went over Profe Hector's house to eat pozole last weekend. I think he is one of my few, real friends here. While others view my cultural blunders as a sign of my innate stupidity, Profe Hector finds them hilarious. We talk about the students that irritate us without fear of being accused of not being a real, child loving teacher. He lets me borrow his Almodovar movies and eat his lunch when I don't have any. When Hector enters the school with a snarl on his face, wearing his crazy, gold rimmed seventies sunglasses, I know he, like many teachers at my school, was simply napping in his car in the parking lot, having arrived a little early from his morning teaching job. He and his roommate, Karen, are curious about Casa del Migrante. "My house was Casa del Migrante when I lived by the border!" Hector exclaimed, explaining that various friends and family members used his place as a way station before crossing the border illegally. "Look, Oil of Olay is on sale!" he pointed out shortly afterwards, as we perused the sale magazines the boy that wore 'pants' now puts in every one's door, after deciding that school wasn't for him.

The months have gone by quickly, though it seems like a long time ago when Alec and I arrived at the Hotel Riviera and wandered around TJ trying to figure it out. I remember my crazy flight from Atlanta to Mexico City and then, to Tijuana. I sat there, watching the people cram their luggage into the overhead bins and search for their seats. I was a little hungover and concerned about my haphazard packing job. Someone caught my eye. A Mexican man, with a tight, cowboy style shirt on, unbuttoned to his waist, showing his chiseled chest and multitude of gold crucifixes. He wore a huge cowboy hat, tight jeans with a belt sporting a tremendous, jewel crusted buckle and obligatory cowboy boots. As he sat down, I noticed "Ranch" carefully embroidered on the back of his shirt. "I wish I was him..." sighed the pasty, overweight businessman to my left. So did I. The rock star ordered an orange juice and promptly went to sleep, his cowboy hat carefully balanced on the toe of his boot.

Monday, December 7, 2009

And America's next top model is...

"Congratulations" I thought, while calculating one of my student's class average, "You are still in the running to become America's Next Top Model". Grading redos is a bitch. For lack of formal guidance as to how to conduct my school's elaborate retesting policy, I decided to come up with my own system. I have been re-teaching and re-testing for two weeks. In an attempt to comply with a system I don't wholly agree with, I have ended up giving second chances to students that most teachers would have refused and given myself un montón de trabajo. "I'm sorry, Jorge. Please pack your bags and leave" I thought, upon grading another failed test. Tapping my foot to the tune of the gas trucks, I continued tearing through the pile of tests.

"You have to sign this" instructed one of the secretaries that presented herself at the door during one of my classes. Oh God, what did I do now? Oh wait, okay, it wasn't bad, I was being sent to visit some university with the other English teachers. I had only taught two classes the day before because most of my students were on a field trip and would only be teaching a couple of classes the following day, because of my pending university visit.

We piled into Profe Enrique's car and immediately began gossiping about all of the things and people we can't talk about in the presence of others as we wheeled out of the school and onto the highway that skirts the desert. The grocery store song hummed in my head. We arrived at an attractive school after a couple of wrong turns, waited for Enrique to put the club on his steering wheel and promptly got lost within the university. "¡Miranos! ¡MIR A NOS! Profe María wailed with embarrassment. Finally, we arrived at the computer lab we that were supposed to visit.

Other teachers and administrators from various campuses of our school were there. I was surprised when a British man introduced himself as the head of languages at the university. He described his lengthy experience in Spain and ended his sentence with a little chuckle by saying "and then I ended up in...Tijuana". It was unfortunate. I don't think he meant it the way it came out but still noted an uncomfortable silence in the room after his faux pas. His description of their program was impressive and I found myself nodding and agreeing with this man while my counter parts watched with skepticism and confusion. It made me feel like an asshole. What's wrong with me? Pass months in a Mexican program and jump ship the minute I am in a room with a white man that speaks English? His program sounded very, well, American, but in the best sense of American academia. It reminded me of some of the universities I have attended, but not of the schools I have taught in. A student doesn't show a mastery of the basic concepts of a class, they fail. Yeah, the kid might be nice and have extenuating circumstances, but did he master the concepts or not?

His presentation was met with some opposition and out right lies, thankfully not by the teachers from my campus. An administrator from another campus expressed interest in the university's textbook, stating that we were considering "adopting" a new one. Profe Maria and I nearly laughed out loud. A new textbook?! How about A textbook, as our students don't have one? When the same administrator questioned our presenter about the stringency of his program, he answered her with a question. "Do you fail students?". "Oh yes, of course!" she answered, "And if they want to continue studying, the have to wait a year until the course is offered again!". Profe Maria visibly shook her head. Sorry, not our reality.

At the end of his presentation, the boss man approached me and we chatted a little about what I was doing there. He casually offered me a job. Flattered, flattered, flattered I was. A university. A university with a strong program. I found myself thinking about it. A few things slowed me down. Do I really want to keep living in Tijuana? Do I want to move to an even worse neighborhood even closer to the actual desert? Exactly how much money could I expect to send Sallie Mae on a teacher's salary in Mexico? And the biggest thing...I don't want new students. I want my students. How could I stay in Tijuana and not teach my ass wild kids?

We left feeling a little deflated, the jovial mood replaced with a little reality. We felt ghetto. His reality was not our reality. Our school is not pretty. We don't have a book. We are forced to have low academic standards and at times, no standards at all. "It's not our fault" the teachers repeated over and over again.

We returned to the school to teach our remaining classes. One group pissed me off so badly that I walked out on them. So much for professional.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Just another day

The rottweilers stared at me, their smiling faces displaying all of their teeth and their ample jaws. The street was completely empty. Instead of facing the escaped dogs, I decided it was a good time to clean the patio. My neighbor pulled up in her minivan. "I'm afraid of the dogs!!" she screamed from her window, as she honked and gunned her engine in an attempt to scare the dogs so that she and her kids could get out of the car and into the house. She ended up opening her garage door and cramming her van into her driveway between clothes lines, plants and kids' toys, so that she could close the garage door and enter the house safely. A tremendous pile of dog shit sat in front of my gate, with a tire track through it. Eventually the dogs returned to their yard through the hole they escaped from and people quickly filled the street again.

I decided to visit a doctor for two reasons. The pinching pain in my chest whenever I laid down and because I had to after calling in sick on Friday. After the dogs went back in their cage, I braved the street to walk to the little clinic next to the pharmacy. I thought these small, 30 peso clinics existed only to satisfy prescription requirements of Americans buying drugs in Mexico, but Profe Hector insisted that they are convenient and thorough. As I walked, I noticed something in the street and dodged it. Two chickens, smashed completely flat. I arrived at the clinic, was immediately seen by a man in a white coat who weighed me, listened to my lungs and took my temperature. I left about fifteen minutes later with a bag of medicine, all for around eighteen dollars.

I really wanted to be well by Sunday. The couple that normally oversees the majority of the cooking on Sundays at Casa del Migrante were going to be out of town. A full time volunteer had asked me to come early so that we could prepare the dinner ourselves. I didn't want to leave her alone to cook for sixty, eighty, one hundred people. I was imagining it as a replacement for my Thanksgiving that wasn't.

Casa had been a little lower key the previous week. I spent most of my time with the older couple that carefully prepares the Sunday dinner. When I am in the kitchen with them I have these Like Water for Chocolate fantasies that I am going to learn to cook Mexican food from an older, knowledgeable Mexican grandmother who will eventually think of me as one of her own. Though it's not really turning out that way, I do like assisting them and listening while la Doña sings all of the songs on San Diego 102.9. They have no idea how many years I spent working in kitchens and seem pleased that I don't mind getting dirty and seem to know what needs to get done. They think it just comes naturally.

Sometimes I think of returning to kitchen work. The only problem is that I like health insurance and labor laws. After dinner, I sat in a little room with my imaginary grandparents and passed razors, soap and towels through a little window to the migrants that passed by. We put tooth paste directly on passing toothbrushes and handed the stick of deodorant through the window to be used by various people. La Doña kept on singing with the little boom box they bring where ever they go.

I ended the evening by making eighty sandwiches and helping a long term volunteer with attendance. Previously, I was intimidated by taking attendance. Something about entering room after room, some inhabited by up to twelve men made me nervous. It was okay. The migrants were ready for us when we came, many already had their ID cards in a little stack, in alphabetical order. One room had the atmosphere of a boys sleep over party. The men giggled and joked in their bunk beds and called out various English words they knew before calling "Good night! Good night!" multiple times as I left.

The weather was not helping me get better. We experienced our first cold, rainy day in Tijuana last Saturday. I spent the day laying on the couch, watching an entire season of America's Next Top Model on my computer. I found myself wondering how, even when I was eighteen, I couldn't maintain a 90 lb. body weight. I hadn't bathed since Thursday and had no intention of taking a cold shower. Alec and I ate some cold leftovers as we still could not cook and I am still suffering from some sort of food poisoning as a result. Sunday finally arrived and I took my filthy, sick self to Casa.

Like most carefully laid plans, my Thanksgiving that wasn't didn't really turn out like I had imagined. But, the sun did come out.

Monday, November 30, 2009


"Teacher, have you been assaulted?" Jorge asked me quietly, as we walked down one of the dark streets, away from the school. I really hate their word choice. "Not....yet..." I answered slowly, trying to find a way to answer that wouldn't constitute jinxing myself. Why can't they just say 'robbed'? Is it because most of the muggings my students describe generally end with being punched in the face, whether you have money or not?

"Have you?" I asked Jorge and Jesus, a sweet, quiet boy who has taken to walking home with me until our paths diverge about ten minutes from my house. "Yeah. They pulled knives on me. I didn't have any money, but they still punched me in the face" Jorge answered. Jesus remained quiet. I like walking home with my students. I admit I feel a little more secure. I detect an air of chivalry from them, as they walk the lone, foreign female home. And as an adult, as their teacher, I feel protective of them. As I watched Jorge and Jesus walk down the dark road where our paths diverge, carefully carrying their assigned dolls, I wondered who really protects who.

Thanksgiving crept up pretty quickly. The Wednesday before, I woke up with a full blown cold. It was chilly inside the house, but outside, the hot Santa Anas were blowing trash everywhere. It didn't feel like November. I had to go to work. I was being evaluated that day. I got ready and stepped out into the hot street and over a pair of clean, children's underwear that had obviously been ripped from some one's clothes' line by the wind.

I hate being observed. I knew when my observer was coming, during a class with a group that has become increasingly antagonistic towards me. Chronically absent, unwilling to work in class, yet angry when they don't receive passing grades. Excellent, watch me teach! I was shocked when we had one of the best classes we had had in weeks. Those kids put on a real dog and pony show for my observer, hands raised, dozens of volunteers vying to answer questions, students successfully solving problems I never thought they would be able to complete. I have to admit, I really owe them one.

"Teacher, have you been assaulted?" I was asked for the third time within one day. They know I walk to and from school and their questions were making me increasingly nervous. "You shouldn't use your MP3 player on the way to school, there's a lot of rateros out there" one advised me. I have stopped. No more ipod walks, one of the highlights of my day.

Alec woke me up Thanksgiving morning. "The water heater caught on fire. I went downstairs and I all could see was orange. I went out back and there were flames, I put it out". My cold was worse than ever. I struggled through my long, seven class day. Students kept asking me if I was angry. "No," I stressed "just sick". A teacher visited me in the middle of one of my classes, to ask if a couple of students could turn in a small assignment next week that was due a week ago, because he had taken them to a one day, science fair. "No" I answered, "that work should have been done a long time ago". I don't have a lot of patience with this guy. In order to impress the students with his knowledge of English, he gave a group of my students the answers for their last test. "But, but, but..." he argued. Finally, I said yes. "When should they hand it in?" he asked me happily. "How about January?" I answered, "Or June if they they don't have enough time".

I finally got to go home. One of my many, chivalrous students named 'Jesus' saw me struggling with the gate outside of our privada. "I'll wait with you" he said "so that you don't get assaulted". Alec came to the gate to let me in. The fire had left us not only without hot water, but we couldn't use our stove. We ended Thanksgiving with a delivery pizza.

I guess I like pizza no matter what day of the year it is.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mi barrio

All of the little things don't catch my attention as much anymore. I hate this part of the acclimation process. My favorite part about traveling is that moment when your plane hovers over the city you are about to visit and you have no idea what is going to happen next. Upon arrival, you stare at everything, "What's that!? Look at this! Let's eat it!"

They use some crazy words here in TJ. Every Spanish speaking country has a few twists when it comes to language. Anticipating Mexico, I switched coche for carro, zumo became jugo and pisos for apartamentos. Working with adolescents is tricky. If you use a word that sounds funny to them, they do not assume that your crazy word might be used in another Spanish speaking country. They just think you're wrong. As do some adults. I was corrected for calling a pool a piscina and instructed to use alberca. Apartamento was overruled for departamento. And here in TJ, chaquetas are chamarras and muchachos, chamacos. Oddly, sweat pants are called 'pants', but with a little latino pronunciation. Profe Hector and I snickered a lot about a kid we both teach that gets on our nerves. We always referred to him as the kid that wore 'pants' everyday instead of khakis. One hot afternoon while I scaled the hill that leads to the school, the sweat pant wearing child was mysteriously at my side. "You're not wearing 'pants'!" I howled, upon viewing the jeans he was wearing. "I always wear 'pants' because se me rompieron the khakis" he explained. He used one of the beauties of the Spanish language; the khakis "broke themselves on me", instead of saying that he himself had apparently ripped the pants. That day I learned that if you rip your pants in Mexico, you're relegated to wearing the same pair of sweatpants to school everyday for a solid semester. I don't joke about the 'pants' anymore.

I have achieved a certain level of notoriety around the neighborhood and the school. While I walk to work, the various taxi drivers who have given me rides beep their horns and call "Hey, teacher!" in English. One day, I had to go to school early, before my afternoon students arrive. "Are you going to teach in the morning too?" one of the morning students asked me. As I passed through the sobreruedas one afternoon, one of the vendors called out "Hey teacher, the road to the school is closed, you have to go the other way!". On yet another day, a minivan with two students that I have never seen in my life pulled to the side of the road and their father insisted on giving me a ride. It's flattering, yet mysterious. Was there a mass mailing that the neighborhood received describing my presence in Tijuana?

I now know that the majority of dead dogs I see lying in the street are not dead, just sleeping. The people that stand outside of the OXXO staring inside are not simply amusing themselves, they are waiting to use the ATM.

The border has changed since I arrived. I crossed recently to pick up a video that I had ordered from the UPS store in Chula Vista and to visit the wonder of their Target store. I always make a point to drink out of the drinking fountain and flush the toilet paper instead of throwing it in a little trashcan beside the toilet, simply because I can in Chula Vista. When I crossed back, I noticed that the Mexican army, machine guns and all, now greets visitors instead of the ordinary customs agents. And on the American side, the U.S. Border Patrol hassles people entering Mexico. I have never seen them stand directly in front of the turnstiles before. After my visit to Chula Vista, I noticed a Wackenhut bus parked directly on the line between Mexico and the U.S. A long line of men stood beside the bus, waiting to be deported to Mexico. I inadvertently stopped walking. Twenty, thirty men. Were they okay? Did they know where they were going? Had they been to Tijuana before or were they laterally repatriated? I hovered. I could explain to them how to get to Casa del Migrante. I have walked right up to Border Patrol agents in Arizona while they detained large groups of migrants and asked them if I could speak with the people and distribute water. Why didn't I know what to do? I stood there with my Target bags, worrying that I might make an ass of myself if I was misreading the situation. What was there to misread? Wackenhut isn't Greyhound. The men were shuffled into the Mexican immigration office as I walked slowly past the border patrol and into Mexico.

I guess I am not used to everything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Que viva la Revolución

We had big plans for our three day, Revolution holiday weekend. We decided to rent a car and finally see a little of Baja California. I even got to leave school a little early on Friday. Many teachers were out sick last week and several times throughout the week I was approached by students or the prefectos to ask if I could "adelantar" my class. "Our teacher isn´t here" they would tell me "can you come teach us now and we can all go home early?". Absolutely no problem and something that would never be possible at home.

We left Tijuana Friday night for Tecate, which is only about thirty minutes from where we live. I found Tecate charming. I am not a fan of their beer, but liked their little central plaza and their awesome bakeries. I was surprised to visit a border town that hadn´t become an overblown monstrosity like Tijuana or Mexicali. Please don´t mention Tecate to anyone.

Saturday morning, after eating about three or four pounds of sugary bread, Alec and I headed to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja´s wine growing region. Though we weren´t far from Tijuana or Ensenada, we were surprised by the complete change of atmosphere. Alec kept commenting on how quiet it was. And uninhabited. It was a good time tearing around on dirt roads between vineyards, trying various wines. And a hell of a lot prettier than Sonoma.

After languishing around the wine country, we cut across the peninsula on Highway 3 towards the Sea of Cortez. It was getting dark and I was getting tired on that winding road. We realized when we had a quarter of a tank left that we really needed to get some gas. I knew we would make it. I remembered coasting down canyon roads in Utah with my sister on fumes, pleading with the car to survive so that we wouldn´t get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Alec and I broke down once on the "loneliest highway" in Nevada and still got picked up by an eighteen wheeler and got to ride run away truck all the way to town with this guy and his family. We always make it; the worst never actually happens. And then the car started to sputter. Okay, the worst happened. I pulled off to the side of the road in the middle of fucking nowhere.

We just sat there for a minute. A few random cars raced by us. I saw a truck coming in the distance with some sort of flashing light on it. We flagged it down and it actually stopped. A couple of construction workers jumped out, they had started their day around 7AM in Tecate and had lost "a bag" somewhere on the road. Their boss made them go back in the night and look for it. Dear God, were they drug runners? Could the give us a ride to a gas station? "It´s far..." they said, in a way that told me it was really, really far. "The motorcycle men will have gas" they told us. Motorcycle men? Was there really not a gas station? They insisted on visiting the "motorcycle men" and jumped back in their truck, only to discover that it was completely stuck in the soft sand on the side of the road. We had trapped two more people in our Bermuda triangle.

I felt like a real ass. I could sleep in the car, but now we had snared two innocent men after a long day of work in our trap. They were just trying to help us. They flagged down a pick up that passed and asked to be taken to the "motorcycle men". I just stood there, freezing.

A few minutes later, another big pick up truck pulled up. "Hey y'all!" a boisterous, American voice called out. "Bet ya thought all white guys where assholes!" they called, as they jumped from the truck and tied a rope to the trapped pick up. "We'll fill you up too, that car's gonna run great, we got 110 octane for the bikes!" I was stunned. Who were these people?

They yanked the construction workers' pick up up out of the sand and sent them on their way, adding "We saw y'all pass earlier today, bring that pick up by our camp, we can fix the alignment!". And to us, "Y'all don't have enough gas to get to the station, come by our camp and have some beers, we'll fill ya up!". Our car actually started and off we went to the motorcycle men's camp.

There were dirt bikes everywhere, two big trailers and a bunch of white men sitting around a camp fire. "Have a beer!" one said, handing us a couple of Tecates. "We're here for the Baja 1000, biggest off road race in the world!" they told us, "You from San Diego?" I told them that I was teaching in Tijuana, in a public high school. "That's Navy Seal stuff! Aren't you scared?" one asked me, in complete seriousness. I do like to think of myself as a Navy Seal. "Wanna ride the course?" Ah, okay. I hopped in some sort of four wheeled, open sided vehicle, beer still in hand. The thing roared off as I clung to the side so as not to be thrown from the vehicle. "Better put the seat belt on!" my driver informed me, which I did. Suddenly we were going about eighty miles an hour, tearing over a hilly, rugged desert path. I was screaming inadvertently and beer was spraying everywhere. Tears were flowing from my eyes from the wind and my ass was not touching the seat, the only thing holding me in was the seat belt. Most people would have avoided the crests and pits in this path, this man accelerated and dove at them. I knew if the vehicle flipped I would die. As we screamed through the desert under a blanket of stars, I knew that I wouldn't rather be in any other place in the world.

"Please let us pay you for the gas" we pleaded upon leaving. "Pay it forward" one of the racers said with a smile. We went on our way on the dark highway toward the coast. The car really was running well. We stopped at one of the many military check points that line the highways on the Baja peninsula. "Please step out of the car so that we can revise it" a young, machine gun wielding soldier in camouflage instructed me. I have been through quite a few of these check points and generally don't even have to roll down the window. We got out. In an attempt not to litter, Alec had thrown a couple of empty Tecate cans in the back of the car. This worried me. The soldiers climbed through the car and instructed us to open the trunk. They really didn't seem too intent on searching everything and couldn't seem to care less about a few empty beer cans and my beer splashed jacket. It actually didn't seem very abnormal to be standing in the desert in the middle of the night with a couple of guys in ski masks carrying automatic weapons, chatting about the differences in size and crime between Atlanta and Tijuana.

And then we drove to the sea.

Friday, November 13, 2009

La Rumorosa

"You remember those papers, all those papers that the schools had to do for your application?" Oralia asked me on Friday, breathless as always. "I lost them. Someone took them. The administration in Mexicali wants to invite you to visit them but I have to send the papers. Do you have copies?" I told her that I would bring her what I had. Was I in trouble?

By pure accident, Alec and I ran into her again at the Cecut museum on Saturday. She looked amazing, wearing a suit and heels on a Saturday. I, by contrast, was wearing a sports headband and Pumas. "I'll bring those papers Monday" I told her. "Don't forget about Thursday!" she added. Thursday? "You have to visit Mexicali, the head of the school system for Baja California wants to meet you!". Okay, Thursday. Again, was I in trouble?

I ran into Oralia again on Monday when I entered the school. "I brought the papers!" I told her proudly. "Oh, I found them" she told me. "So tomorrow, the academic coordinator is going to take you to Mexicali!". Tomorrow? She speaks English and always wants to practice. Tuesday and Thursday are pretty similar.

The academic coordinator. One of my many bosses. Two hours in each direction, alone, in the car. "Wear headphones!" many teachers advised me. "It is the same distance as Tijuana to Los Angeles!" another informed me. "Maybe something will change. ¡Si Dios quiere !" Dios had better quiere. "You hear us. You know our problems. Bring it to the top!" one teacher pleaded. How was I getting this face time?

The ride to Mexicali wasn't that bad. The scary Rumorosa road is pretty fun at 80 miles per hour. I was surprised to learn that my boss is only 29 and though he is an administrator at our school, he still teaches during the morning at another school. Fourteen hour days. We took a little tour of the city, picked up some folks and did a quick interview where I only had only positive things to say. Afterwards, we visited some other schools in our system. The buildings were the same, but had better landscaping. They were clean and orderly. The kids were in class, instead of milling about the school. They had tourism and culinary programs. I ate manta ray tacos.

There was a lot of cultural awkwardness. Mexicans aren't really that different than us, it's not like I am teaching in one of the Stans or some island in the South Pacific. There was a lot of door opening and "let the lady go first" while the men waited for me to pass. The only problem was that I didn't know where I was going. I would pass, stand back and wait for some guy to lead the way. This led to a lot of stumbling about.

Finally, I was taken to a Brazilian restaurant for lunch with the big boss. Yes, Brazilian. "It's a latino thing" they explained "¡Pura carne!". Yes, meat, meat and more meat. I ate steak, tongue, ribs and pork. I became pretty friendly with a really overweight man from the main office and I think we ate the same amount. He beat me at the grilled pineapple. The boss scares me. A straight shooter that doesn't wear a tie. "I want more teachers from the U.S." he told me immediately. "I have locations in Ensenada and Rosarito. What do we have to do?" Apply, I told him. Apply. There are always more U.S. applicants than foreign applicants. We want to go, I explained. Bring it.

He had other things to say too. "We have a lot of problems with principals. The job of a principal is to resolve problems the teachers have, not create problems with them". Was he fishing? Was he talking about my principal? The academic coordinator shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He began showing the boss various newspaper articles that have been written about our school. The big boss seemed a bit dismissive. I felt kind of bad for the coordinator and our school. All day people had asked me which campus I worked in. When I told them, I heard "That location is dirty" and complaints about it's dusty, hilltop location. Continuing complaints about Tijuana. Part of me wanted to defend my ghetto school and maligned Tijuana, another part wanted to ask the boss what he was doing about our problems. Give us some money, get rid of our principal, DO SOMETHING. We want a culinary program, we want landscaping, we want the graffiti scrubbed from the walls.

My U.S. school has never given my exchange partner any kind of welcome. They didn't even put information about the exchange on the website. The superintendent of my schools will never invite my exchange partner to come to HR, tour the offices and personally introduce him to each and every person that works that there. The superintendent will not take him to lunch, nor will he take him on a tour of various schools in the county. I appreciate what they have done. I don't know why they did it, but I do feel welcomed and frankly, honored.

The boss asked me directly about the administration at my school. Might you be asking about the "pinche director"? "It's good...." I said, in a completely unconvincing manner as the academic coordinator sat back down beside me. Did he really want to know? Where do his loyalties lie? Who am I to talk shit about a school I have worked in for three months, where I am basically an invited guest?

"I want our English teachers to do this exchange" the boss reiterated at the end of my visit. "Imagine how good their English would be after a year in the U.S. They could teach our students about American culture and learn from your system". He gets it. He understands the spirit of the exchange. I want to help them. Rosarito and Ensenada would be easy, but Tijuana and Mexicali are hard sells for American teachers.

We raced back to Tijuana. Mexicali was 79 degrees at night in early November. The twinkling lights of TJ looked pretty as I caught sight of my students walking home from school, carefully carrying their beloved dolls over the dark sidewalks of TJ.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Welcome to TJ

Allow me to invite you to Tijuana, San Diego's rowdy, sister city to the south. I must encourage you to arrive on foot. Normally, you arrive to foreign countries by plane. No, my friends, take the trolley to San Ysidro. As the train heads south, the United States quickly disappears and Mexico begins to emerge. Soon you will see the bustling metropolis of Tijuana, blanketed by a rather large Mexican flag. You may also notice a large wall caging in the city. Some may call it a "fence" but I know, dear friends that you will think otherwise while viewing it. Exit the trolley and head over the large foot bridge to Mexico. Please don't avoid gawking at the enormous number of cars waiting to enter the United States. It is a sight to behold.

Glide toward the turnstile to Mexico. Don't forget to pause as you place one foot in Mexico and the other in the United States. It is a rare pleasure that you're birthright affords you. Then, please enter the turnstile to Mexico. Don't worry about your passport; you will only need it if you choose to return to the United States. Visit the Cecut museum to learn a little of Baja California's history. It is not an obligatory museum visit, but a first rate destination. Please pause to view the men blowing fire from their mouths at various intersections in Tijuana, but remember to tip. Swilling gas is not something one should do for free. Advance toward an obligatory walk down the Revo. There are a number of handicrafts and a wide array of pharmaceuticals for sale. A trip to Tijuana is not complete without it. For those that fancy themselves seasoned travelers, the Zona Norte is also nearby. One can pay for sex or get robbed for free.

Might I also recommend a trip to the Tijuana microbrewery? Yes, you say, you have tried Mexican beer. Allow me to encourage you to try a beer that is not distributed throughout Mexico or the United States. It has a heartier character than many of the lager style brews that have come to define Mexican beer. The next stop on your journey should include the beach. Do not be dissuaded by the descriptions friendly locals will offer you of the area. When they say it is dirty, they are simply trying to keep it a secret, though I would avoid swimming in the water. Enjoy a fabulous array of seafood tostadas while overlooking the marvels of the Pacific Ocean. Please don't neglect the octopus ceviche. No trip to the beach is complete without a visit to the lighthouse, where one can peer through the border wall at the Americans riding horses on the other side. Yes, you say, I can swim where ever I want! But no, my friends. The border wall extends into the sea.

Transportation can be a bit tricky in TJ. If you choose to drive, be advised that stop signs at four ways are optional. Simply tap your brakes and continue driving. Tijuana boasts an extensive, inexpensive bus system, though the routes can only be ascertained by boarding the bus and asking the driver if he is going to your desired destination. Allow me to recommend the calafias, various short buses painted dark red and yellow. They are wildly inexpensive and feature interiors decorated according to the various tastes of the drivers. Many offer sports or religious themes.

As for accommodations, allow me to recommend the Hotel Riviera. At a mere twenty dollars, it is an amazing bargain that includes free wifi. Do not be intimidated by the hourly rental of some rooms, you will not even know that it is happening. Please visit the Auditorio Municipal across the street for weekly Lucha Libre matches. Though the auditorium staff would like to encourage you to observe the big name acts that appear on Friday nights, allow me to suggest a Sunday afternoon, locals only match. One can best view Tijuana's home grown talent in a relaxed, outdoor environment. Be sure to order a cerveza grande, and don't forget to request hot sauce on the rim of the cup.

Friends, Tijuana is ready when you are, wey!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day of the Dead

"All of the students pass in the end" Profe Hector explained, after being bombarded with my relentless questions. I have students that rarely attend class and others that come but do nothing. We have long, elaborate sessions where we have to re-test students at the end of each semester. I still do not know how they will pass. Tests are only 30% of their grade, how will they do the rest of the work that they missed? Is it fair to pass kids that missed the majority of the class and attended a few shotgun sessions at the end? Is it okay to pass a student that hasn't acquired any proficiency in English because he didn't bother coming to class or do any work? "If you don't pass them, they will pay 500 pesos and another teacher will sign that they passed" the profe told me. "It's all about the money. That's Mexico for you. I shouldn't say that, because I am Mexican, but that's Mexico".

I am torn. Do I dig my heels in and work these kids to death at the end of the semester to justify passing them or just hand them the grade to save all of us a lot of hard work? At times my job feels like high paid babysitting. Do I have a problem with that? The students are happiest when I give them long, simple, open ended assignments. We cut pictures from magazines of their vocabulary words and glue them on paper. Those are easy days. I could get away with not teaching them, take my paycheck and pass them along. But it just seems wrong.

I work in a tech school. There are agriculture schools here in Mexico as well and I often wish I worked in one. They learn to farm and go on field trips where they pet animals. The students have to major in something. I find the majors depressing at my school. Their choices are production, electronics or the self explanatory software program. I later learned that production is basically how to work in a factory. Electronics students build various electronic devices, motors, speakers, etc. The new software program seems the most ambitious. Electives do not exist. In the U.S., students are encouraged to explore things, take an art class, creative writing, at least gym. That mentality does not exist here. I understand, they need training, skills, a path to a job. The factory program seems to attract the brightest students, whereas electronics appears to be a dumping ground for low performers. Software is still a wild card. The students never talk of their majors. They do the work, but show no enthusiasm for their course of study. When I see my goofy students, all with varied interests and personalities I find it hard to imagine them working in maquiladoras. Actually, I find it sad.

My family came to visit me last weekend, during our long Day of the Dead holiday. We had a great time but I had a little trouble getting them back to the border on time after I accidently got in the line to cross the border in a car. People sometimes wait eight hours at San Ysidro. We did some Evil Knievel stuff to get out of there and got them to the walk across line. A couple of mysterious taxi drivers offered to get them across fast for five bucks and they hopped in their van. I stared at the van as I quickly walked across the bridge back to heart of TJ. I could see my niece's pink polka dotted suitcase sitting on top of the van for a while. It was hard to stop looking at it.

The prefecta entered my room on Tuesday at 2:45 to tell me that we had a four hour course we had to attend at 3:00. No more class for the rest of the day after a four day holiday and exams beginning next week. It was a constructivism workshop. It was explained to us that we needed to make tests that evaluated the skills we had taught throughout the unit. If we talk of high expectations and provide complex activities throughout the unit, only to give a simple test at the end, the students will realize that they can get away with a minimum level of performance. I couldn't agree more. If we provide rigorous lessons and give tests that reflect our high expectations and the students realize that no one ever fails the class, no matter how often they attended or how little work they do, they will lower to that expectation and do nothing.

Apparently teenage pregnancy is an issue in Mexico. I've had my share of pregnant students in the U.S. as well. In order to discourage the students from having children at a young age, a science teacher is making the students carry dolls around for two weeks. It is supposed to be inconvenient and reinforce that teenagers aren't ready to raise babies. The kids love the assignment. As the days pass, the students are carrying increasingly elaborate baby props to school. Baby blankets, little cribs and intricate, back pack style baby carriers. A few of my students have proudly shown me their cholo babies, decked out in gangster clothes. We have these assignments in the U.S. as well. My brother had to carry a potato around for a week and arrange for babysitters when he couldn't be with his "child". The kids at my U.S. school had to carry around hard boiled eggs with plastic eyes. In one of my classes, a student ate another kid's "baby". I was expecting to see students carrying dolls by one leg and throwing their "child" on the ground when it became inconvenient. But they don't. They cradle these dolls, cooing and patting them during class. Student couples walk leisurely through the courtyard, carrying their "children". I even saw my dreaded electronics students on my way to school, hiking up the hill, all five boys carefully carrying their dolls. I was almost relieved when one of my software students called "Hey profe!" during class, twisted his doll's head around backwards and yelled "Exorcista!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No direction home

I get trapped in a lot of places. Before school started, Roberto warned me not to walk down the street that leads from the school to the main road. "Profes have been robbed, assaulted" he told me "I don't walk down that street; you've seen the people that hang out there". Roberto is not a small man. I spend many evenings after finishing my classes hovering around the school looking for rides. Some evenings, I have gotten complacent. Tired of waiting, I have watched large groups of students walk straight down that street and I have followed them. Sometimes a teacher will pass me in their car and stop, instructing me to get in and lecturing me about the dangers. Sometimes not.

One of my students came to school last week with a large bandage covering his right eye. I asked him what happened and he told me that he was jumped and robbed. "Where?!" I asked, "Right down there, by the school" he told me. I asked him when, was it a night? "About two in the afternoon" he told me.

The migrant house is located in a leafy neighborhood near the center of town. At first sight, I wished Alec and I lived there. When I was ready to go home last Sunday, I told the other volunteers that I was going to walk out to the main road and catch the bus or a taxi. "No!" they insisted "Let us call you a cab. The street is not safe". They waived off the first cab that came. "That driver is weird" Raquel told me. The second seemed better. I started to feel nervous on the long drive back to Villa Fontana. I made a loud phone call from the back seat of the cab, hoping it would be easier to ascertain my location from cell phone records if the car suddenly pulled down one of the many dusty roads to nowhere in Tijuana. The driver started asking me about Casa. "I lived in L.A." he told me "My daughter was born there". The family returned to Tijuana for various reasons. "She is a senior now" the driver told me. "I take her to la linea every morning and she crosses over and goes to a high school in California. We use my sister's address". Sometimes he is able to pick her up in the afternoons, other days she takes the hour long bus ride back to east TJ. "She can never say her dad didn't help her" he told me, dropping me in front of my house.

"You have to be careful here" the Colombian priest at Casa told me yesterday. "They know I'm not Mexican the minute I open my mouth but you are American, you stand out". He encouraged me not to be paranoid but to be cautious. "When they sent me here I wasn't sure if I wanted to come. I was in the Philippines. I don't walk around here alone at night".

"Migrants are bad people. They have tattoos. And they use drugs" Roberto told me after hearing of my volunteerism. I was surprised. I thought all Mexicans had sympathy for migrants. "Please tell me if I am wrong" he added. I told him he was. He said that he would reconsider.

I went to mass again with the migrants. A mentally disabled woman hands out a flyer when people enter the church, a big cheat sheet for what you're supposed to say when. She tried to hand it to the migrant that entered behind me. "No sé leer" he told her. "¿Queeeeé?" she asked loudly. "¡No sé leer!" he answered brusquely. "¿¡No sabes leer!? ¿¡No sabes leer!?" she called over and over again.

"My wife had a miscarriage today" the man whispered to me, after pulling his head out of his hands. "She was five months pregnant, it was a boy". The seminary student continued explaining the rules of the house to the migrants. "You are not allowed to go near the gate because we don't want people buying and selling drugs here". The man showed me his wife's ID. It had a Tijuana address on it. "She is still at the hospital" he said and abruptly stood up and walked toward the gate.

"I was doing everything, meth, cocaine, smoking hierba cronica" the man who slipped into the kitchen told us while we prepared dinner. "I went to jail. Did you know there are two kinds of black people in the U.S.? Real black people and others that are part black and part white". He described the large builds of some of his fellow inmates and how he aligned himself immediately with his Mexican paisanos. After his release, he cleaned up his act, got a dish washing job and started a family. While picking up flautas to bolster the dwindling food supply at his daughter's birthday party, he was picked up by ICE agents. "I begged them to let me say goodbye to my daughter, we were right around the corner". The agents refused. The man went into a tirade, describing all of the things he said to the agents. His eyes repeatedly locked on mine as he angrily said "We are helping this country, contributing by working, you should be arresting dangerous people, drug dealers, not obreros" then in English, "FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! Don't you have families?!". I don't think he actually said any of these things to the agents. But, he got to say them to me. "My family is still there. That is why I am going back".

Level of education: primary school. Home state: Michoacan. Date of arrival: 10/05/2009. Other comments: was shot in the arm and doesn't know why. Years in EUA: 3. Condition of health: diabetes, fragile. Home state: Oaxaca. Years in EUA:9. Family members in EUA: 2. Other comments: spent 3 years in jail for illegal entry. Date of exit: 10/08/2009. Level of education: middle school. Condition of health: healthy. Contact information: Maria Bustamante Veloz, Los Angeles, California. Other comments: arrested for aggression in EUA. Family members in EUA: 3. Years in EUA: 7. No sé leer. No sé leer. No quería leer más.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gray, black or white?

The people I rely on for rides all have cars in various states of disrepair. Profe Josefina's van doesn't have any seats in the back. When she gives us rides home, various teachers roll around in the back wearing skirts and heels as we drive the potholed streets of TJ. Profe Hector's passenger door can only be opened from the outside. Profe Roberto's seats don't move forward, the only way out is to crawl through the middle of the two front seats or wedge oneself through a small crack between the seat and the door, which always makes the horn honk. I envy the cars that they use to shuttle between their various teaching jobs - though most work from early morning until late at night. "Not by choice" they tell me.

Profe Hector invited Alec and me to his house for lunch. He even picked us up and drove us up a long, dirt road that climbed a tall hill that lead to his house. The "road" was better suited for an off road vehicle. Cars drove on all sides of the path, blowing dirt and dust skyward as they skirted huge holes. "The road is fea" he laughed, "but I like it up here. It's tranquilo" he told us as we bounced up the dusty trail. It sounded like the wheels were going to fall off of his little compact car. "I got this car for $350 in Anaheim, I've had it five years!" he explained "But I don't like that sound it's making".

No one is from Tijuana. They came here for work and made a life. But they all speak wistfully of the various parts of Mexico where they grew up. Many phrases begin with "Mi pueblo...." as their eyes gloss over. Roberto says that Guadalajara is the most beautiful city in Mexico. Hector talks of growing up in a pueblo in Nayarit; he and his friends would hike mountains until they reached waterfalls and pass the day swimming in the pools. I imagine thin, brown boys, laughing and jumping in an Eden-like setting. Profe Patricia speaks of the wonders of Oaxaca and the marvels of its cuisine. The flip flop wearing man at the plant nursery said he hated Tijuana at first, but came to love it after he built his plant sanctuary that shields him from the grittiness of Cucapah, one of the main arteries that cuts through town. He and his family live in a shanty-like house surrounded by an inner layer of plants, caged birds and chickens, and an outer layer of exhaust, calafias and cement.

I haven't felt the urge to "rescue" people and encourage them to go to the U.S. When I watch documentaries about the lost boys of Sudan I am horrified by the lives they lead in the U.S., shuttling on public buses in cold climates to various low paying jobs. Alone, without friends or family in a completely foreign place. The various undocumented Mexicans that I know in Atlanta speak of how much they miss Mexico, the food, the pueblos, their families, being in a culture that is theirs. They live in cheap apartments or trailer parks, work any job that will pay the bills and pass decades worrying that a simple traffic stop could lead to deportation. At times I wonder if it is worth it.

Nor have I been a strong advocate of working in the American, public schools. It frustrates me when politicians rant about the need for "quality" teachers in our institutions. Many quality educators enter the schools with the best of intentions and exemplary qualifications, only to decide that they didn't build a hot shit resume to be treated like crap all day. Provide a quality job and you will get quality people. Disenfranchise and disrespect a qualified professional and you will end up with people that can't get a job anywhere else.

Lately, I find myself wanting to drag some of my fellow educators to the U.S. There are chemical engineers at my school working for $5 per hour. And they can't even count on the hours. One semester they may have 30 hours, the next 20, without notice or explanation. They are assigned classes that are completely outside of their fields. They are not granted sick days. Or vacations. Some work for free on Saturdays. I find myself thinking "They can't do this at home" over and over.

Making quesadillas for over sixty people is kind of tricky. Especially when many of them may not have eaten in days. I got a little in the weeds while making dinner at Casa del Migrante. I nice man from Honduras stopped eating and came to the flat top to help me out. As soon as we stopped cooking, migrants swarmed the kitchen to clean it up. They ripped the grill apart while it was still blazing hot and scrubbed every inch; they didn't stop until they had scrubbed everything, including the oven hood. And all of the dishes. And mopped the floor. It was a little awkward asking multiple men what size underwear the wear. They get a clean change of clothes every three days, I couldn't bear the idea of them walking around in too small underwear for 72 hours. They were cool, even requesting various colors from the bin I manned. After spending days and sometimes weeks in the backs of American migra trucks and jails, they were bien polite and friendly with the American woman that popped up in a mission house in Tijuana for the recently deported and the ambitious who were about to cross.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oh, glorious me

I haven't attended too many school events. Sometimes, I can't figure out where they are and how to get there. Some have occurred on our days off when I really don't want to go across town at eight in the morning to work with students. The afternoon teachers, the only people I really know, aren't too big on the events. "If you go, the only people that will be there are the principal's people, the morning teachers" they tell me.

During the foot race, the principal invited me to the "concurso" and I agreed to go, not knowing what it was. One of his secretaries took me to her house, prepared me breakfast, drove me to my house to change clothes and onward to the "concurso". She was really nice, REALLY nice, but I felt a little captive. When we arrived, I was directed to sit at a table in front of a large group of people that included some of my students. The table had a table cloth and individual bottles of water that bore the school's name....though my students don't have textbooks. My table mates included the police chief and the head of our entire school system. I didn't even take a shower that morning.

I was the only teacher invited to sit at the table. Me, who has no idea what is going on and is generally thought of as a hapless idiot by my fellow educators. I had to rise when the principal introduced me to the crowd, describing the prestige bestowed on the school by hosting an international teacher. They applauded. A fellow teacher that I don't think views me with fondness abruptly rose and sat next to me at the table; she was not introduced. I was singled out multiple times during the various presentations and lauded, though I was introduced as a "licenciada" along with all of my superiors at the table.

My U.S. school always "forgot" that I had a Masters. Most teachers have one, which made it even more irritating that I was asked when I was going to get one. When I told them that I went to Middlebury, I was asked if it was Middle College of Georgia. One teacher asked me why I had gotten a Masters before I started teaching. Love of learning, increased knowledge..."You didn't just get it for the step increase?" she asked. During the application process for the grant, I repeatedly had to explain what "Fulbrite" was to various administrators and county chiefs. And yes, that was how they spelled it. My U.S. school did not celebrate receiving the grant in any way. They eliminated me from the website as if I had quit. They didn't introduce my exchange partner as a teacher participating in a fancy ass exchange; people probably think he is just some Mexican guy they hired to take my place.

Seated at the table, I tried to tell myself that I deserved this, that I could handle it. "Be professional, isn't this what you want? Respect, regard!" I told myself. People told me afterwards that my face turned bright red every time that I was lauded. I had to present a medal to a student. I really didn't feel like I was being celebrated for my achievements, but for my nationality. I guess it's hard to lure an American teacher to Tijuana. I don't blame the principal. He has a school to promote and he would be stupid not to advertise hosting a Fulbright recipient. Rafa tells me that they want to use me as a "bandera", but I am willing to do it. It is part of the reason schools participate in the program. Unfortunately it didn't keep me from feeling like a complete fraud in front of the faculty. They have been coming to work there for years, I'm just here on vacation.

Profe Josefina filled me in on her thoughts on the way home from school on Thursday. "They did it because the head of the school system was there" she told me "the principal didn't want to do the exchange". She went on to tell me that the head of the system was my exchange partner's principal when he was in high school. When my exchange partner had trouble getting the principal at our school to sign the application forms, he went to the top and contacted his former principal. Josefina said that the Mexicali boss did it for my partner, that he remembered that "he was a good student". "They never gave you any kind of introduction before, did they?" Josefina asked me. "They did it because the boss was there".

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A good day for a race

The prefecta entered my room with three students that I hadn't permitted to enter class. She never does that. I was annoyed. "Qué pasa...?" I started blubbering. "All the students have to be in a classroom" she replied as her eyes widened "the police are here". I looked out of the classroom to see a police pick up truck, a couple of machine gun wielding cops wearing bullet proof vests and combat boots leading drug dogs on leashes. I let the kids in.

When the bell rang, I looked out, did not see the police truck and allowed my students to exit. Another prefecto herded the kids back in the classroom and I went to the room next door to teach my next class. The other teacher was still in there. I told her that someone was with the other group and started teaching my class. She went next door only to return and announced "They're alone. No one is with them. You have to go back". I didn't want to go back. They are my worst group. One hour was enough.

Everyone says the electronics students are the worst. One of the kids from that group told me that he would make me cry. Not bloody likely, but I can't say that I look forward to teaching them. Oddly, they have started to stalk me. The best group I have is in the classroom next door to theirs, late in the evenings while teaching the good group the dreaded electronics group has taken to scaling the wall and peering in the windows, smiling and waving. They actually look happy to see me. When I pass through the courtyard below their classroom, they all scream "Hilary!", waving and smiling like maniacs. Worse, they do it when I enter the teacher's bathroom that faces the classrooms. Not the best placement idea.

I returned to the electronics group. I sat around and chatted with the students I like until the police arrived at our door. "Empty your bags on the tables, pull out all cell phones and electronics and place your book bags on the floor". They kids immediately started pulling our wires, motors and various bomb like devices; they are electronics students. A heavily armed cop guided a German Shepard up and down the aisles, furtively sniffing book bags. The students seemed to think this was pretty normal.

After losing a couple of classes due to the drug raid, we had the day off on Monday for Día de la Raza. After a relatively smooth Tuesday, they decided that we would take another day off on Wednesday so that the students could have a foot race through the streets of Tijuana. Walking through TJ is like playing chicken. No lines on the roads, four way intersections without stop signs or street lights, cars that accelerate at the sight of pedestrians. I decided to attend the race.

Crowds of students stood at the starting point. Many wore parts of their school uniform, sweat pants and shoes highly unsuitable for running. Electricity for the booming speakers was provided by a neighbor who ran a power cord through a window of his house. As the race was about to start, the principal announced that they had decided to call the police to close off the streets in the route. Not a bad idea. I was herded into the back of a pick up truck with a group of teachers in order to film the race. When the race began, the students shot out of the gate, leaving us screaming and pounding on the truck to drive, drive, DRIVE, as students dove and swerved around the truck. We tore off and followed the students as they raced through traffic, dodging passing cars and police officers. One raced with a chihuahua. A gas truck pulled through the finish line and drove through oncoming students sprinting to the finish. No one was hurt. As I rode in the truck I could hear the various sounds of Tijuana: car horns, police sirens, the chimes of the gas truck, the screams of the students. It actually did seem like a good day for a race.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lucha Libre

"Leave some work for your 3:10 class and go to the computer lab" the prefecta told me, at 3:00. Leaving work for a class is difficult when there are not textbooks, copies or even a television. And it was the second time last week that we were summoned without notice to watch a little TV educativa about school reform in Mexico. Boring, a group of people seated in a blacked out room around a glass table with fake Egyptian busts surrounding them. I don't fall asleep spontaneously in public but really have to fight not to during these videos.

The meeting was flowing over into our 4:00 break on a day when I had to teach seven back to back classes. I needed that 4:00 break. I had to pee and I was thirsty all at the same time. I needed caffeine after watching that video. I needed to get out of that room. People started shifting around and eyeing each other around four. "Give us our break!" they shouted, kicking over tables and rushing the door. Or I wish they did. We were finally released around 4:45, about fifteen minutes late for our 4:30 class. The kids had been running wild for about an hour and a half. I noticed teachers sort of hovering, no one was running off to get to class. I hovered too. Several teachers started walking toward our break room, saying that they were indeed taking their break. I followed. Someone finally said that we were allowed, we were getting our thirty minutes and, an additional fifteen! The atmosphere was festive in the break room. Around 5:20 teachers started trying to trickle out, maybe teach, time to go. "No one's leaving!" one boisterous teacher said loudly, laughing and blocking the door. "I have to go to the bathroom!" one teacher wailed, only to be blocked from leaving. "I need water!" another called, approaching the exit. "Take mine!" he said, thrusting a bottle of water at her. Though the atmosphere was jovial, it was becoming clear that this break may not have been sanctioned by the administration and it was better if we all "misunderstood" together. Around 5:30 someone rushed into the break room. "There was a mistake. We are supposed to be teaching!" They filed out, snickering, while hundreds of students watched us with curiosity.

I was glad they rebelled. It was bullshit. But I was asking myself in that break room if that was how strikes start.

My snack shop friend had an Anarchy in the U.K. t-shirt on on Friday. "Awesome" I thought and asked him if he liked the Sex Pistols. "I actually have never heard them" he said bashfully "I bought this shirt in San Diego because I thought it was cool". I offered to burn him a CD, always willing to inflict my musical interests on others. "But it's my last day" he told me. WHAT? "I'm going to the other side". I didn't know what to say and shuffled off. I avoid goodbyes. My head was full of nasty images, desert walking, rides in trunks of cars, vans bashing through the gate at San Ysidro. I returned to the snack shop and spoke to his father, who explained to me that his son was born in the U.S., he has a passport. "Want to go dancing with me in the centro one weekend?" he asked slyly, passing me his phone number while looking over his shoulder at his wife working nearby. Nice.

I spied El Hombrecito's brother standing on a street corner near my house while I walked to school one afternoon. "Hi profe!" he said, with a genuine smile on his face. "You going in taxi?" he asked, while the Santa Anas swirled around us. "Yeah" I answered, "it's too hot to walk. Want to come?" He agreed and flagged us a taxi. We actually got a decent rate. As we rode in our reggaeton thumping cab, we spotted El Hombrecito walking with a girl down the side of the road. "Can we pick them up?" we asked the cab driver and loaded two more into the cab. Oddly, the taxi drivers don't seem to mind making their cabs into makeshift school buses. When we arrived at the school, I was surprised when the kids pulled out money, offering to pay for the entire fare. No, my friends, this school bus ride was on me.

"¡Quiero ver sangre!" they screamed at the Lucha Libre match. We had taken a wrong turn in the centro and ended up on a street filled with hookers and mariachis. I desperately wanted to pull out my camera, but listened to that little voice that said "Hilary, might not be the best idea". When we found the auditiorio of Lucha Libre, we realized how low rent it was when we were shuffled to a caged in area behind the building with an outdoor ring. Alec bought a "cerveza grande", two beers forced into one styrofoam cup with hot sauce coating the rim. One old timer sat against a wall in a "Hecho en México" hat and repeatedly hissed "pendejos" at the participants. When the "wrestlers" would arrange themselves in certain formations, various sections of the audience would knowingly jump to their feet and run, knowing that men where about to start throwing each other over the ropes and into their vacant seats. While the rest of the participants elected intimidating face masks, tights and leather, one wrestler was inexplicable dressed as a bee. A bee that kicks ass. "¡Callate!" overweight men in superhero masks yelled at señoras, well, señoras that heckled. A perfect ending to a perfect week.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Old kids

My kids here are old. It is mandatory to attend middle school here and at around fourteen, the choice is theirs whether or not to continue. Or the choice is made for them. Students have to pay to attend school. From what I can gather, it costs around $200 a semester to attend the public high school where I work. Most of the kids are on scholarships. I was surprised that a lot of my students don't look like kids, they look like men. Many of them stated their age as "twenty". One "kid" tails me around school, he is not in my classes and his attempts to practice English with me verge on sexual harassment. He looks about twenty-five. While riding to school in the car of a fellow teacher, we saw this "kid" in the street. "He's one of my first year students" the teacher told me. First year? How old would he be when he finishes, thirty? "A lot of them take breaks after secundaria" he explained "and end up working a few years and then returning to school".

I had some secret, old kids in my U.S. school too. I remember the day my beloved Keen told me that her "American age" was seventeen, but that she was secretly twenty-one. "But Mawoo, your brother, is the same age?!" I asked, bewildered. "I'm confusing you" she said with a smile. "My father had many wives in Sudan, when one would get pregnant, the rest would try to get pregnant too. We were born six months apart". She went on to tell me about her trip from Sudan to Egypt to await visas to enter the U.S. "I thought that Mawoo's mom invited me to come because she wanted to help me. Turns out it's easier for girls to find work in Egypt than men. I was thirteen. Men chased me down the street, calling me 'chocolate', ya feel me?" September 11th happened while they waited for their visas, leaving them trapped in Egypt for years. Keen entered the American system without having ever entered a classroom or knowing a word of English, she didn't even know the Roman alphabet. She and Mawoo were handed an English competency test on arrival, they took it, sat with it for about fifteen minutes, then turned it back in, blank. Keen and I spent weeks running from the school the minute after the school buses left to hunt for a free place for her to live after she refused to marry the man her family had sold her to. They were angry and had taken to locking her out of the house.

There was also the lovely Tab. She used a Farsi word for "smile" instead of her real name, because when pronounced, it sounded like "fuck" and all the kids would laugh at her. They tried to put her out of school when they discovered that she was twenty-two, mere months before her high school graduation. She fled Afghanistan with her mother and brothers after her father was killed by the Taliban and spent the next few years as a child laborer in Pakistan. She also entered the American system with one year of "formal" education and was facing removal because of her age. They didn't want to remove the violent students, the chronically absent students, the do-nothing students, but my principal, who stated that his favorite book was "The Kite Runner", wanted to remove her. To his credit, the action was avoided and Tab and I managed to win her a place in a nice, private, liberal arts college.

Sometimes I think the only good I did in three years of public education was work with those two girls. I had a fantasy about starting a charter school for non-traditional students; refugees whose education had been interrupted, a state and federally funded institution that would have higher age limits and a powerhouse ESOL program. I remember the Nepalese girl from Bhutan that I knew. "I went to those classes in the refugee camp. I thought it would help me, I thought it would mean something. Here I have nothing". She was too old (twenty) to enter a public high school in the U.S., but couldn't go anywhere without a high school diploma. The last time we spoke, she was supporting a family of six working as a maid in a hotel chain.

It felt a little cool a few days ago and I finally decided to take a jog. I have been told that wearing shorts can attract unwanted attention here, so I instead donned the skin tight exercise pants that I bought at Wal Mart. It was a little awkward running around the small dirt track while people ate tacos at the stands that line the park, watching the crazy American woman who thinks physical labor is recreation. After a few laps, a dog lunged at me, barking with teeth barred. It was kind of embarrassing to scream out loud like that and I quickly ran out of the park and back to my house.

The temperature abruptly dropped in the middle of the day at school and it rained, for five minutes. "Aren't you cold, profe?" the students asked me, mysteriously clad in jackets, not just jackets, winter coats with fur collars. They don't even have lockers, where did these coats come from? As Roberto and I rode out of school, a couple of students on the street corner started calling "Hey profe! Hey profe!" grinning and waiving at Roberto. "Gaaay!" called Roberto from his window, leaving the boys to shriek and slap each other in the twilight.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

School of Rock

Some people seem to make it past our secure gate with ease. Jehovah's Witnesses descended on us one Sunday morning, while I was sitting on our porch in my pajamas with day old makeup smeared all over my face. Alec went to the gate to speak to them. He tried to tell them he didn't speak Spanish and a man with perfect English popped out of nowhere. I'm surprised that he didn't try "I'm Jewish" on them, but maybe he has been down that road before and knows that it only leads to more attempts to convince.

Various pets also enter our compound to use our "flower bed" as a litter box. A big Persian cat meows plaintively if I try to dissuade him. I actually don't mind the two chihuahuas that trot the street together, peeing on bushes and crapping in shaded areas. Animal friendships are cute and these two are inseparable. And here I was thinking that chihuahuas were some Taco Bell Mexican stereotype.

I dealt with the cop that came to the gate. He asked me for money for vigilancia, something I sort of thought was included in their pay. I quickly gave him 30 pesos, wanting to get him out of my door way before shots starting flying. During the first weeks of school, our principal told us about a new program that our school was participating in. Undercover cops would patrol the area before and after school, looking for kids selling drugs. The principal stated that they also had students participating undercover in the program that were patrolling our classrooms. For some reason this did not strike me as suspect, Alec found it downright dangerous. "People shoot cops here" he stated "are they trying to get those kids killed?"

The principal makes me a little nervous. He is overtly friendly to me but the faculty is squarely divided in two camps: for and against. I feel a little torn, I appreciate his support but do not trust him. During an impromptu faculty meeting on a FRIDAY night, one profe expressed discontent with how we are evaluated as teachers. "Why do you keep working here?" the principal abruptly asked, "Your union rep is here, we can settle this now". With his second in command at his side, the principal dug in. "You're absent a lot and you turned in half of your electronic folder empty" he continued, teeth literally and figuratively bared. Extremely awkward, to say the least. And in front of the entire faculty. I never want to be on the wrong end of one of those exchanges.

Whenever I take a taxi here the driver tells me that he lived in the U.S., often for years in a mid western state. I always imagine that they were deported, most people don't get a resident alien card only to give it up and return to TJ. There are people from all over Mexico here, the southern states, Sinaloa, Nayarit. Lourdes says that they come with the idea to cross, things don't work out and they stay. "Tijuana isn't doing that great, but it has more jobs than a lot of parts of Mexico" she told me. She is from Nayarit. For some reason the taxi drivers always make me think of the men on the trails in Arizona. Seeing men cry was very difficult for me. I remember one late, hot afternoon when I found two men sitting on the side of a road in Arivaca. They were older, in their fifties and not moving. I jumped out of the truck to speak to them and they didn't even stir, just watched me with tired, heat exhausted eyes. This is not normal. They started pulling out identification. I told them repeatedly that I was not migra and they continued anyway. One of them pulled out his federal identification badge, he used to be a cop. And then, they pulled out pictures of the children they hoped to reunite with in the U.S. and started to cry. I really couldn't take it.

The kids seemed to like the "Seven Nation Army" lesson. One kid, Francisco, proudly showed me the CD he burned of the song, he had hunted it down on the Internet. I am horrified about teaching modals. Coulda shoulda woulda? How are you supposed to teach that? Maybe with "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"? The students did not agree that the Clash is the only band that matters, but I sure did like tagging all the whiteboards with this phrase. Next, we will move to the glam rock portion of our lesson with "Queen Bitch". You know what they say, those that can't teach teach electives.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The biggest feet in Mexico

I have done this before. I remember hitting India after two months of backpacking and wanting to claw my eyes out. I recall telling Alec that I wanted to make a public address to the Indian citizens about how they could run their country a little better. And we had eight months left to go of our trip. Three months later, as we rode out of Calcutta in a taxi, I felt strangely sad. India was setting up shop for another day in the life and I wasn't going to be there to see it. Culture shock is a strange thing - you may understand it and anticipate it, but it doesn't make it go away. You just know that it will at some point.

I remember a guy at the Fulbright conference that reacted to my TJ placement by saying "Tijuana! That's the United States!" I personally have never seen the army patrolling the streets of Atlanta armed with machine guns, nor have I seen men blowing fire out of their mouths for money at home.

Little things just seem so difficult. I went to grad school in Spain - nice, developed western country- and remember a point when I was sick of a simple task taking all afternoon. Or two days. And I still don't know why dog owners in Madrid allow their pets to shit on the sidewalk. Most tasks here have taken me two or three shots to complete. When the pinche gas tank behind our house sprang a leak, it took two extra trips from the gas men, with their singing truck, to repair it. Paying the utilities was a nightmare. "Just go to OXXO" everyone told us. We discovered that you can't pay for everything at OXXO. Especially when all of your utilities have massive back charges on them. Walking, trudging through Villa Fontana and up and down Cucapah, hunting for some certain place where we could pay our bills. I am a little concerned about my landlord's financial situation. Back charges with the electric company, water company and overdue mortgage payments. I was surprised when I saw her mortgage bill. She is charging us about seven extra dollars a month. I think the goal is simply that the mortgage gets paid, not to actually make money. Apparently a lot of people don't pay their mortgages here; the company posts the overdue bills on the outside of the mailboxes, name, house number, everything, for all to see. A repo man came to our house to take our landlord's car, but she doesn't live here, we do.

I wanted to start using some audio in my classes. In order to play "Seven Nation Army", I bought a little boom box. Surely it would have good sound, judging from the booming speakers I have heard screaming from inside cars, from on top of cars, mounted on a plane that flies over our house and on various street corners. No such luck, if the kids moved their chairs we couldn't hear it. One classroom didn't even have a functioning electrical outlet. One enterprising student noticed an outlet up by the ceiling, scaled the wall to plug in the crap ass boom box and created a tower of notebooks to balance it on, all just to hear the White Stripes. I bought a set of computer speakers. They have come out of their box once after hearing the meager sound the produce. HOW COULD THIS BE? My printer seems to be suffering from the same, fuck you Hilary virus and will now only print from Alec's computer. I bought ink for it and after opening the package, found a mispackaged cartridge that wouldn't function in the printer. WHY, WHY, WHY?

I also appear to have the largest feet in Mexico. In desperate need of a pair of work shoes, I entered shoe stores all over Tijuana, only to be told that they don't carry my (gigante) size. "Look at her feet, they're pretty big" Alec pointed out repeatedly as we hunted through TJ. I finally crossed over to Chula Vista and bought a cheap pair of shoes from Target. They leave my feet covered in bloody gashes, but I guess I look a little better than the day I went to school wearing a pair of Pumas with my work clothes. No one said anything.

There is this nice lady that works at the OXXO by our house. She schools the kids that work as baggers about how I bring my own cloth bag to avoid plastic consumption. I avoid her now, because I fear she is monitoring my massive beer consumption. We, well I, ripped through their supply of Bohemia and had to turn to Sol. As I grabbed the last six pack of Bohemia, a man commented "That's the good stuff!" as he walked by with a 20 ounce can of Tecate. It's good to know all the right people. One day, I snuck in during the afternoon and quickly ran out with my six pack, thinking that I had missed her. And there she was, hopping out of her car, waiving, a knowing look on her face.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Mexican students don't complain about

My American students can be real whiners. If the temperature crested 70 in the classroom, half the class would complain about the incredible heat, stating that it was impossible to work in that environment or they would sleep because they had no control over themselves in such extreme conditions.

The environment at my TJ high school can be a little harsh. With sweat dripping down my face, I tried a few times to make small talk with the students, "Whew, hace calor", etc. Their faces told me "Quit your bitchin' woman and teach". None of my students have asked me "Are we doing anything today?" as if we generally sat around filing each other's toenails in class, or the dreaded "Can we just do nothing today?". Nor have the told me "This is boring" or asked "Do we have to do this?". For some reason, this sort of commentary is off the table.

There was a big meeting one evening at the end of the street in our privada. We were surprised to learn that we had to pay the privada boss various amounts of money for maintenance, including lights that have never been turned on and plants that aren't watered. Before I could ask any questions, the conversation quickly turned to the behavior of the children on our street. After one parent fielded a complaint about her kids, she proclaimed "If you show them a lack of respect, they will show you a lack of respect". I recognized her little ray of sunshine from the day he repeatedly screamed "¡TONTO! ¡TONTO! ¡TONTO!" at us while we dragged the new trashcan we had bought down the street. Or maybe from the day we returned to our house from D.C. and found about ten kids inside our walled compound screaming and playing, while hers demonically rode what we thought was our secure, gated wall like it was a horse in a rodeo. Might have been him.

Most of the privada kids are actually pretty sweet. There is this big kid that I am guessing looks older than he is that always greets me and Alec in the street. Lately, he has even started trying out English phrases. And then there is little Jessica. She stared at me for about a week and slowly started asking questions. Then, she wanted to see the multitude of plants we bought to make our carless driveway look garden like. After viewing the plants, she started requesting to see the inside of the house. Alec wasn't so keen on the idea. "If she comes in, I am going outside. I am not going to be the American pervert on the street". I finally let her in. She took a quick look around, looked vaguely disappointed by our second hand furniture and left. The last time I saw her, I asked her how kinder was going. "I didn't cry today" she told me. No, neither did I.

There are things Mexican teachers don't discuss either. Like school. They have an "on" switch and a big off switch. In the U.S., our lunches were dominated by talk of bad behavior, certain, dreaded students whom we all knew by name and at times, tales of glorious lessons and activities by glowing teachers that would leave the rest of us annoyed. Here, during our break, teachers talk about their families, about the weekend, about politics. No one discusses the students. Nor do they tell of the awesome lesson they just conducted. Sometimes they rant about the chingada adminstración. The sala de maestros is our sanctuary, our bosses don´t enter. Once, when pressed, a teacher friend of mine decided to tell me of his tardy policy, having heard that I still struggle with tardy students. Hell, I still carry my schedule around and a map of the school so that I know where to go every hour. "I charge them" he told me. What? Do explain. "Five pesos" he stated. "They have to pay if they want to get in late. Or if they didn't do their homework". He continued. "Profe Maria charges forty. People are starting to get mad about that". Things certainly are different here.