Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Glass Castle

Since I'm requiring 'Shroom and Lolli to write weekly book reports this summer, I thought I would hold myself to that same requirement. I'm a bit behind -- not in reading but in writing the reports.

The latest book I've read is called The Glass Castle and is a memoir and an incredible heart-wrenching but triumphant story of a girl's journey from destitute poverty to incredible success as a journalist for and a New York Times bestselling author. Jeannette Wells begins her memoir when she is three year old cooking dinner for herself on a gas stove top - a typical task for this youngster in her rather dysfunctional family.

Jeannette is the second oldest of four children born to Rex and Rose Mary Wells. Both her parents are bright individuals with Rex being a well-read scholar in physics and her mom an artist with a teaching degree. Rex and Rose Mary are parents who would never grace the cover page of "Parenting" magazine or "Family Circle" and if anything, in this day and age, would have lost all parental rights for child neglect. Rex is an alcoholic who can't hold a job and Rose Mary is a childish immature woman who can't be bothered with the responsibilities of raising kids.

Clothing was meager, food was scarce, and "home" was a shack with no electricity or running water. In an excerpt from Jeannette's book, she writes about a time when the kids were surviving by eating trash out of the school cafeteria. Dad was off getting drunk and Mom was too busy painting to be concerned about her kids.

"One day while Brian [Jeannette's brother] and I were out scrounging around on the edge of our property, he picked up a piece of rotting lumber, and there among the pill bugs and night crawlers was a diamond ring. The stone was big. . . . We figured we could sell it and buy food . . . We brought the ring home and showed it to Mom. She held it up to the light, then said we needed to have it appraised. The next day she took the Trailways bus to Bluefield. When she returned, she told us it was in fact a genuine two-carat diamond . . . She was keeping it, she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.

"But Mom," I said, "that ring could get us a lot of food."

"That's true," Mom said, "but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food."

Is that just whacked?!?! What is amazing is that Jeannette tells this story without bitterness nor anger. Her narration is factual and somewhat removed. While she does express emotion in her recount, she and her siblings exhibit a type of understanding and maturity that most adults don't even have.

Jeannette's story is both a horrific story of four children who have to face incredible obstacles in order to survive. Their "beds" were pieces of cardboard on rope stretched taut over a 2x4 frame; their toilet was a yellow bucket in the kitchen which would be emptied outside once it got full; food was whatever they could scrounge up in the school trash cans and on rare occasions, a can of beans and a stick of butter.

Had this story ended in the poverty-stricken mining town of Welch, West Virginia, I would have been extremely depressed afterwards. However, Jeannette's story takes us all the way to her adult years - as an accomplished and recognized journalist living on Park Avenue in New York City. Despite the odds against her, Jeannette, along with her older sister and younger brother, are all able to be high-functioning adults capable of showing responsibility and maturity. Something that was not modeled for them at all.

What an amazing story. A must read--especially if you think you've had a pretty tough life.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Donuts and Tortillas

Every Sunday morning on our way to church, we drive by a strip mall--a small shopping plaza of some sort--with a mom-and-pop donut shop on the corner. What caught my eye the first time driving by was the crowd gathered around the shop at 8:45 on a Sunday morning. Taking a more deliberate look, I noticed on that first drive-by that they were all men--perhaps all Mexican--who were most likely looking for contractors pulling in for their morning coffee on their way to a job site.

Since that first drive to church, I would unconciously think to myself, "well, that's one donut shop I'll never visit" In the same vein, I would avoid driving to the nearest Home Depot and instead drive an extra four miles out of my way to shop at another Home Depot. You see, in order to get to the local HD, I'd have to drive through a gauntlet of day laborers - typically men of Mexican descent looking for work or anything that will enable them to earn cash. The one time I had visited this local HD, I was approached by two different men in two different parts of the parking lot. I tried to state politely (but firmly) that I was not interested in hiring them. The second man, however, was annoyingly persistent and insistent and I knew the loaded flat bed by my car was a dead giveaway that I was going to start some time-consuming home improvement project. I didn't feel fearful but I did feel nervous, anxious, and a bit peeved.

All this is to say that since reading the book "The Tortilla Curtain" (TC Boyle), my perspective on migrant workers has widened a bit. The "tortilla curtain" is a reference to the thin border that exists between California and Mexico - a boundary that many Mexicans cross over in the hopes of living a richer better live.

The fictional book is the story of how two very different worlds collide and how the lives of two couples--one from each "world"--change dramatically. Delaney, a writer and magazine columnist, lives in an exclusive community populated with multi-million dollar homes. On his drive home one day, he accidentally hits a man dartng across the winding road. Candido, an illegal Mexican immigrant, is obviously hurt. For different motivating factors, neither Delaney nor Candido report the accident. More out of guilt than anything, Delaney offers Candido $20 which is later referred to as "blood money."

What I found most riviting about the book was the daily struggle of Candido and his young wife (17 year old America) to survive in lower hills of Topanga Canyon (Delaney and his family life at the top of Topanga Canyon which is just north of Malibu). Finding work is impossible for Candido as he can barely walk and fades in and out of consciousness the first few days after the accident. With no food and no money, pregnant America is compelled to find work. Each day, she waits at the labor exchange among the other men to see if work is available for her. She fears for her safety but her fear of starvation outweighs her fear of abuse.

While this is not a new novel (1995) nor does it carry new themes (illegal immigration, American dream, cultural and socio-economic differences), it has provided a wider backdrop on the struggles of immigrants as they try to live the American dream.
Somehow the drive to church today was a little bit different for me.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Vacay in the desert

Today marks the 7th day of summer vacation (11th if you're counting weekend days) and we've spent 5 of them (7 if you're counting weekend days) in Palm Springs where the weather is a sun scorching 110 degrees.

I had planned the vacation to start right after school ended so we could all "decompress" from this past semester of student teaching. Yes, even though I was the only one teaching, it was a tough semester for everyone in my household. Air Boss juggled full-time work (not to mention some pretty stressful project deadlines and meetings) and full-time parenting. The kids had to make some adjustments too (dirty socks to school one day because I didn't have time to do laundry, late dinners or Mackey D's for dinner, no parent or family representative for "Someone Special Day" at school.... a story for another time as poor 'Shroom was eating all by himself).

I wanted this vacation upfront - at the beginning of summer - so we could spend some time as a family, even if we were in the middle of a desert in the summer. As you can see, we did a bit of swimming (or splashing around in the pool). We could go swimming several times a day if we wanted to as our swim suits/trunks would dry in the sun in less than a half hour.

Yay for summers!

Reality settled in our first or second day back. We went out to eat at a local restaurant and as we were leaving the restaurant, I heard say "Hey! That's Mrs. Y__!" I turned around in response and it was one of my math students. I chatted with this former student for a bit and then got in my car.

It's not like I'm trying to block out my student teaching experience but I've had a couple of nightmares since leaving the school. One of the nightmares was while we were on vacation in Palm Springs. I woke up in the middle of the night after having dreamed that it was the fall and the school called me and asked me why I wasn't in class with the students. Found out in my dream that I hadn't passed my PACT (Performance Assessment for California Teachers) and had to do my student teaching all over again. Another dream/nightmare was that I was stuck in one of my observation classrooms (which was done at another local high school) and trying to teach while students were throwing books at me.

I think this dream was triggered after seeing one of my observation students in the grocery store the other day. And this student was a student who had a very unpleasant attitude in the classroom.

Anyway, no need to further ruminate on these unpleasant scenarios. Summer is here and let's focus on that!