Learning to Read
by Jessica Powers
Jessica Powers has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (U. Texas-El Paso) and two master's degrees in African History from SUNY-Albany and Stanford University. She writes under the name J.L. Powers and is the author of several award-winning books, including The Confessional (2007), This Thing Called the Future (2011), and Amina (2013). She is the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories (2009) and That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone (2012). She has published hundreds of articles, stories, poems, essays, and book reviews in a variety of print and online publications and is editor and founder of The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com), Mother Writer Mentor (www.motherwritermentor.com) and The Fertile Source (www.fertilesource.com). She served as a visiting scholar for Stanford's African Studies Center in 2008-2009 and as a curriculum consultant for Stanford's Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education and African Studies Center in 2011-2012. Jessica has taught at Skyline College since 2007.
- Do you have any strong memories of learning to read or being a beginning reader in school?
- Was there one particular book you remember reading that had a strong influence on you when you were in elementary school? Why?
My second-grade teacher Mrs. Pecille grouped students by how well we read. The kids with the green reader were the best readers. The kids with the blue reader—my group—were the second best readers.
I badly wanted to be in the green reader group. I knew I could read better than anybody in the blue group. Certainly, I could read better than Todd, who stuttered. And then there was Michael, who read as if saliva gathered in his mouth, as if he was sucking on a large piece of candy and couldn’t swallow the sweet liquid and spit that accumulated in his mouth. Without a doubt, I read better than Michael, and I told him so. When Mrs. Pecille periodically tested us to see how well we read—whether we could pass into the next reader—I read asfastasIcould,crammingasmanywordsintothe120secondtimeperiodduringwhichshelistenedtoustoseeifwehadimproved.Iranmysentencestogether,notpausingforbreath,readingreadingreadinguntilIhadtopausewithagreatbig
When Mrs. Pecille inevitably told me, at the end of each testing, that I needed to slow down and I would do better, I never believed her. “But my brother has the green book at home,” I’d say. “And I read it, Mrs. Pecille. I read it all the time. I don’t have any problems reading it.”
Mrs. Pecille would smile, wisely, nod her head with its curly brown hair. She sat straight in front of me, posture firm, in her gray skirt, and even though she was getting old and had gray in her hair, she was beautiful. During Show and Tell one time, I wanted to impress her, and I wanted to impress the other kids, so I informed the class, “My mother speaks in tongues.”
Nobody knew what “speaking in tongues” meant. I didn’t really know what it meant either, except that my mother had told me about it, but she had also said it was a very private thing, a very private type of prayer, and she would never speak in tongues in front of everyone. But Mrs. Pecille went to the Lutheran Church down the street from us, so I figured she’d know what speaking in tongues was, and she would be impressed, kind of the same way she would be impressed if I said, “My mother heals the sick and the lame, she casts out demons from the oppressed. The deaf have heard, the dumb spoken!” Anyway, speaking in tongues was way better than dumb Michael’s story about his cat that got stuck in a tree and yowled all night and that was why he was so tired, because he hadn’t slept. He told us this story without standing up because, he said, he was too tired. Still, Mrs. Pecille treated my tongues story with the same grace she treated Michael’s cat story, and I felt dumb.
Later that year, the school had a fund-raising drive for multiple sclerosis. I was supposed to enlist the aid of neighbors and family members, who would pledge a certain number of dollars for each book I read. I had three sponsors, my mom and my dad and my next-door neighbor. Three days before the due date, I panicked. I looked at my list and realized I hadn’t read a single book for the drive.
So I went to the bookcase, and I started writing down the authors and titles of books on the shelf, books that looked to be in the children-ish range but had seemed too boring to actually read. Things like The History of Rome and Life of an Ant. I wrote all those titles down on my multiple sclerosis fundraising list, and I went to my mom and said, “These are the books I read, ten books.” And my mother said, “Really? Did you really read The History of Rome?” And I nodded my head and said, “Yeah.” So my mother and father and the next-door neighbor, who had pledged a dollar for each book I read, gave me thirty dollars, which I took to school the next day, proudly. The kid who had read the most books won a prize, I don’t remember what, but I do remember that he had read a lot more books than I had read. Or said I’d read.
I didn’t really know what MS was anyway.
Sometime after the multiple sclerosis incident, I picked up a book on Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became Moses to her people when she returned South over and over to help her people escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad. I don’t know what happened to me that afternoon, when I curled up on the dark green sofa in our den, with the sunlight coming in through the screen door, and Mom in the kitchen making supper, but it changed my life forever. I couldn’t stop thinking about slavery, and how wrong it was, and how brave Harriet Tubman was for rescuing herself and then going back and rescuing other people.
When I told Mom that I had read that book, she looked very surprised, and she said, “Why, Jessica! You read that book? That’s a difficult book. You can really read now!” Maybe she had known I was lying during the Multiple Sclerosis fund-raising drive after all.
Soon after, Mrs. Pecille passed me to the green group.
- What is Jessica’s attitude about the fact that she lied in the contest? Why do you think she feels this way, and what does this reveal about her motivations?
- Why do you think reading the book about Harriet Tubman changed Jessica’s life?
- Comparing yourself to Jessica in the story, write about your experiences learning to read in and/or out of school.
- Explore Jessica’s motivations for getting into the green reading group. Look at her feelings for her teacher, the way she compares herself to her classmates and the hints we get about her personality.
What Happened to the African-American Middle Class?
by Nathan Jones
Nathan A. Jones has a BA in Sociology (California State University, East Bay), an MA in Ethnic Studies, (San Francisco State University), a TESOL Certification from Oxford House College (Barcelona, Spain), an MFA in Creative Writing and English (Mills College), and a Certificate for the Teaching of Post Secondary Reading (San Francisco State University). He is a poet, essayist, spoken word artist, book publisher, musician, and the author of Revolutionary Erotica (2003), Black Man In Europe (2005, 2008), and Excerpts From My Soul: Read Without Prejudice (2010). He has published numerous articles, poems, and essays for online publications and is featured in a variety of poetry anthologies. He has taught at Skyline College since 2010.
- Discuss your experiences during the most recent recession. Did it feel like a recession or a depression?
- What do you already know about the African-American experience in the U.S. from slavery to the present day? How has this shaped the economic realities for African-Americans?
In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his book The Epic of America. Since its inception, this theoretical and intangible ideology has plagued the American psyche. Politicians invoke it and toss it around like a badge of honor, immigrants pursue it, and despite tirelessly negative economic news, citizens embrace it like a mythical relic. This so-called “American Dream” purports “that [the] dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Unfortunately, the myth of the “American Dream” feels more like a candid reality check of “dreams deferred” which one can find in between the pages of the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.
Millions of Americans have endured financial catastrophes in the recession since December 2007 and are rapidly continuing on a downward spiral. Many in the middle class are economically brittle, barely able to preserve their lifestyle, and are disillusioned by the illusive “American Dream”. However, the situation seems to be unbearably dire within the African-American community, specifically. Due to a steady loss of jobs, homes in foreclosure, loss of 401Ks, loss of retirement plans, and a lack of resources, many African-Americans who once enjoyed the spoils of a quasi-Cosbyesque “standard of living” have been commandeered by a depressed economy, forcing them into poverty and into homelessness in some cases. Is the African-American middle class experiencing a “recession” or “depression” and if so, is it over?
According to Algernon Austin, the Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, “The recession is not over for black folks.” In fact, the layoffs for African-Americans are only the latest piece of unwarranted bad news for a struggling middle class. In 2007, the Brooking Institution found that fewer than one-third of blacks born to middle-class parents went on to earn incomes greater than their parents, compared with more than two-thirds of whites from the same income bracket. Regrettably, the foreclosure crisis secured, shattered and wiped out a large section of a generation of African-American homeowners.
In 2004, the median net worth of white households was $134,280, compared with $13,450 for African-American households, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute. Within a five-year period, there was a decline in incomes earned by both ethnic groups. By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860; and the median net worth for African-American households had fallen 83 percent to $2,170, according to the institute.
What will the history of America look like, as the reversal of fortune knocks at the door of African-Americans who have fought hard to win economic success, which took decades to achieve, just to see their efforts for a better life dissipate in a shaky economic system? How will the decimation of the African-American middle class be justified, under the Obama Administration? What will be the long-term effects on consumerism, if a sector of the populace has no purchasing power? Will African-Americans once again, ask the questions that Langston Hughes posed, “what happens to a dream deferred”? Can African-Americans really buy into the narrative of the so-called “American Dream” or will the dream of a “quality of life” be found in the matrix of the American Dilemma? Poor people do not have recessions, poor people have depressions.
- What is the author’s attitude towards the “American Dream”? Why does he feel this way? Does this dream still exist for everyone?
- What is some of the evidence that Jones uses to support his thesis that African Americans are suffering a depression rather than a recession? Which evidence do you think is most compelling and why?
- If the trend described in the essay persists, what will happen if the African American middle class disappears? How would this change the African-American community? What would be the larger ramifications for our society as a whole?
- The Langston Hughes quote of the dream deferred is referenced twice in the essay. This quote comes from the poem by the same name by Hughes. Read the poem and analyze how you feel it connects to the arguments made in the essay and the larger African-American experience:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
by James Tipton
James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon, A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008), which was a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. He has also published short fiction and a book of poetry, Sacred Places (1989). He holds a PhD in English, a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, and has been a full time Lecturer at University of California, Davis, and at the University of Bordeaux, France. For over twenty years he has taught literature and writing in the Bay Area, where he lives in Marin County with his family. James first started teaching at Skyline College in the fall of 1990.
- What was your earliest experience with death as a child – of a pet or a person?
- What are some ways in which a parent can create strong bonds with a child?
The hamster was dying. I knew that but I also knew that dying people or plants could be brought back to life. They needed a lot of help from an expert, but it could be done. The hamster, my dad said, had eaten something, perhaps the green sports page, and the dye had not been good for him. Or maybe it was something else. He was going round and round in his wheel last night, I said. He was keeping me up as usual before I went to sleep and once I woke in the night and there he was, going round and round.
It happened fast, my dad said. No way of knowing. But he phoned the vet’s emergency evening number and got some vitamin mixture he put in water, and now my dad sat on the edge of the bed and had the little hamster in his big hand. I didn’t know any man bigger than my dad. All my friends’ dads were short in comparison. I felt sorry for my friends. My dad could lift anything—this was before he hurt his back picking plums. I never knew anyone stronger than my dad. Everyone knew he had been a first lieutenant in the war, and his uniform was still hanging up, with plastic over it, in my parents’ closet. Now, in his big palm, the near lifeless figure of my hamster, who had turned the wheel round and round with his running just last night, lay dwarfed by that hand.
I sat beside my dad and watched. There was just a small light on, attached to the wall. I sat in the half-dark in my pajamas and watched my dad take an eye-dropper, fill it with the liquid that the vet had recommended, and feed it gently to my hamster. We didn’t say anything. I saw the hamster seem to sip from the dropper gently inserted into its mouth. My dad stroked my hamster as if it were a feather, with one finger. He tried to make that hamster come alive. He tried for a half hour, or more. I got sleepy sitting there, but I wasn’t going to move, if my father wasn’t. Here, you stroke him a bit, he said to me. And I tried, but the hamster didn’t move, as I wanted him to. All that energy, going round in the wheel, and now he was still, and even the eye-dropper and the vitamins and my dad’s patient stroking didn’t help him to move. But my dad had sat there with him, even when I was too tired and lay down, and pulled the covers up. There was my dad, a big man, with the eye-dropper in his hand.
Some years later we were playing catch in the back yard. There was a little lift of the ground at one end, and I stood there and pitched the ball. My dad squatted down, a catcher and umpire combined, and called the pitches. We struck out or walked imaginary players many times. Sometimes we went several innings. This evening the fog was blowing in—which put it in the summer in the Bay Area—and it was getting late for dinner, but we had to finish the inning. There was only one out, and I had thrown three straight balls. Then my dad walked out to the mound. Look, he said, when this game is over we’ll go get a hamburger and milkshake. What flavor do you want? Chocolate, I said. Deal, he said; now this guy is no problem, just throw it down the middle and think about that milkshake. All the time he was talking he had his hand on my shoulder. We were part of the invisible team. I knew very well that we would go to no hamburger joint, that my mom was waiting dinner for us. I saw my dad squat down again and threw a perfect strike. Then he held his mitt for one on the inside corner, and I got that one too. They all went like that, and in no time we were walking toward the back porch. You just needed to relax, he said, to think of something else.
Many years, decades, later, we walked slowly along the narrow asphalt path that ran along the Napa River. My dad used his cane, although he didn’t want to. We didn’t walk very far, but far enough to leave the parking lot well behind. Before us the flat river, wide here, made a bend that my dad liked. You could see boats going up and down the river. Across the river were marshes with birds flying into them, waving grasses, and, way beyond that, my dad’s new residence at a retirement community. He beat everyone at horseshoes, he said, because his father had taught him how to throw the shoe so it curved entirely around in midair and came in with a satisfying clink. Have I showed you how to throw it like that, he asked me. I said I think he had but I had forgot. He’d have to show me again.
I asked him then about Nebraska, where he grew up, for I thought this slow river would remind him of the Platte, which it did. A mile wide and an inch deep in the summer, he said. So you’d wade across, I said. On the other side, he said, you could still see the wagon ruts of the hundreds and hundreds of wagons that had gone this way on the Oregon Trail, and had crossed at that shallow spot. And sometimes—much more when my dad was a boy, he said-- you’d see a rusty cast iron pot or skillet, or a drawer of an old dresser that someone had thrown out to lighten the load. They realized here, they couldn’t continue with all those things. They didn’t need all those things. Maybe they loved them. Maybe they had been in the family for generations, but they had to let them go. Imagine those women, he said, throwing those things out of the wagon that they had carried all the way, say, from Iowa.
It was at that time that a white egret, wings spread, flew up the river from the direction of the bay and disappeared into the marshes. For a moment his wings had been filled with sunlight, his shadow following below him on the slowly flowing river.
A couple years after that he was back in his old house. The bushes that surrounded the back yard had grown well out over it, and, when I went out there to prune roses that no one had pruned for several years, I thought someone needed to cut those bushes back. Sitting up in his bed, my dad gave me a thumbs up when I had told him I was pruning. He couldn’t talk much, but he acknowledged that I was doing something important. That night I sat next to his bed and through the big window we watched the late winter sun set over the blue bay. I sang him an old forties song, an early Sinatra. Sometimes he would drift; then he would come back and stare at me, as if he were trying to memorize me.
He seemed to be drifting again just before I left, so I said, “Lieutenant,” and he opened his eyes and gave me his full attention. His caregiver then caught on and called him that a few times while I was getting ready to go. Now I stood at the end of his bed, in the living room where my wife and I had moved it, so he could look out the window and see the bay and the mountain. When he had moved back in I had cut some of the pine tree branches that had grown out over the front deck, blocking the view. I got them as far as I could reach.
I stood at the end of his bed now, called him by his rank to say goodbye, and saluted. He slowly brought his big hand from under the covers, raised it, and saluted back.
- Why does the writer include the specific details of the pots and drawers thrown off the wagons on the Oregon Trail and the white egret on the river? How do these details act as symbols, connecting to the theme(s) of the essay?
- How does the father’s service in the war play a key role in this essay? Think about the title of the story and the way the author ends it.
- Examine how love is expressed between father and son in the different short scenes in the essay. Identify and discuss the most important descriptive details that illustrate their close relationship.
- In the beginning, the father cares for the son; later in the story the son cares for the father. Write about the cycle of life, the ways in which a child can learn how to be nurturing from a parent.
Excerpt from the novel Samba Dreamers
by Kathleen de Azevedo
Kathleen was born in Rio de Janeiro Brazil but lived most of her life in the United States. In her spare time she writes and rewrites. Her novel, Samba Dreamers of which this selection is excerpted, began as a poem, then as a story, then, went through five major drafts and many minor ones. The book won the 2007 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award, given to books that address human rights themes. It also won a Latino Books into Movies Award. Kathleen has published articles in magazines and newspapers and online, but she says her secret comes down to this – “I rewrite until the piece is as close to perfect as I can make it. So of course, when I tell students they must revise their essays, I’m treating them like writers all around the world!” Kathleen started teaching at Skyline College in 1995.
- What do you know about the L.A. gang scene? Has it changed over the years?
- Why do people feel compelled to break the law, even putting themselves in danger?
Rosea drove over to East L.A. to look up Geezer Ortiz, who sold guns from his house. She used to carry a gun on her street forays, but never used it. A parolee should not use a gun. Shouldn't have one. Rosea knew this. She wasn't stupid. Shouldn't be in the garden in the first place. But she was going to buy a gun, even though it was the worst thing she could do. For all she knew, someone had heard her in the garden when she screamed and fell. Maybe the police would find a piece of her clothes or her flesh, snagged on thorns. Or maybe the dogs were speaking dogs, the kind in children's TV shows, real snitches, real puxa sacos, as Joe would say. But life couldn't just be a job, an apartment, a happy parole officer. The garden made her feel pure, clean. Like Joe, pure and clean and sweet. As pure as when God first made Brazil.
Some of her compañeros were married, but Geezer had a long way to go to get straightened out. Oh, it had been hot back then! Her love for Mexicans started when her mother told her of the pachucos and how elegant they looked in their linen suits woven with sparkly thread, their sleeky baggy pants, the thick silk ties and matching handkerchiefs. And the knives that appeared out of nowhere---a breast pocket, their girlfriends' beehive hairdos---knives surprising someone like a slippery, deadly eel. Carmen had told her about the action at the Sleepy Lagoon, where some cop killed a Mexican, causing one grandissimo fracas, and Rosea, in love with defiance, grew to seek the fire that went with it.
Many people considered this neighborhood a flick-of-the-knife, fuck-you-gringo sort of place, and so of course the kids today acted like it was scary, too. Instead of the smashing zoot suits, though, they dressed in black Ben Davis pants and buttoned-up flannel shirts, big blue jackets puffed like bruises, peaked hats like wooly elves. They looked like corpses left in a ditch somewhere. The pride and the snazz had disappeared.
Rosea was older now, her heaviness had softened, and she carried more tragedy around. She looked at these street kids and wondered what she had wanted here, way back when. What drove her from the Hollywood Hills to the barrio? She seemed out of place now, in her sweatshirt and jeans, her thick ponytail, no lipstick, and dangly earrings. She hoped Geezer Ortiz, her old boyfriend, was still in the gun business. Once Geezer had brought a gun to her house and had shot coconuts from the trees in her mother's yard; the coconuts had shattered and splashed cool, sweet milk, and she and Geezer had stood under the trees with their mouths open and tongues out, trying to taste the exotic rain as it splashed down.
Rosea remembered the two-story apartment, and she wondered if he still lived there. She drove to the apartment and pulled to the curb. Nothing had changed: not the faded green paint, the rusted rain pipe along the side of the building, the brown water oozing from cracks in the plaster. More graffiti on the wall in front, though. Rosea sat in the car, getting up the nerve to go in. She didn't want to just go up to the front door, have a stranger open it, and say, "What in the hell do you want with us? We are a clean family; we are tired of your element." But oh, Geezer had been swell in his burst of glory, still young, with a gorgeous beard shadow on his ruddy face, his skin white like a güero, and boot-black hair. Jesus, he had been cute and a chingón to the max.
She got the nerve to get out of the car, climb up the concrete steps, and wander down the corridor until she found the metal number 10 nailed over the door. Rosea knocked. She could hear a loud TV and a bunch of children chattering. The door opened, and a small boy with large eyes and a dirty Sesame Street T-shirt stood hanging onto the doorknob. Rosea asked, "Ortiz?" The boy ran away from the door. Rosea stood at the doorway. From the dark hall, she could see the blue glow of the TV in the living room and could hear cartoons with their thump-ti-dump of frantic characters running around and slamming into walls. The little boy who answered the door ran back to the two other kids watching TV, lolling on blankets and pillows scattered on the floor.
A young man came from the lighted kitchen, stood halfway down the hall, and called out, "Quién es?"
Rosea tried to get a better look. His features danced before her in the shadows, the side of his face lit by the pulsating light of the TV. She guessed it was Geezer's brother. "You Scooter?" she said.
"You don't remember me, Rosea Socorro Katz. I used to go with Geezer, remember?"
There was a long pause from the skinny, dark figure. Old cooking oil sizzled in the kitchen. "Geezer's dead," he said.
"Shot. Long time ago."
"Too bad." Rosea was not surprised.
"What do you want?"
Rosea asked then if someone had taken over Geezer's business. Scooter turned abruptly and walked toward the kitchen, and Rosea hung back, not knowing whether she should enter or leave, but Scooter stood at the doorway of the kitchen and called, "You coming? Close the front door behind you."
Rosea stepped inside, made her way to the kitchen, and sat at the table. A large stack of dirty dishes climbed out of the sink, and a pile of wrinkled clothes lay bunched on a chair. An old woman stirred some chorizo in a pan but didn't look up. Scooter went into the pantry, brought out a shoe box, and put it on the table. "Two hundred dollars. Look first." Rosea pulled the box toward her and opened the lid just enough to peer inside. A gun lay there, a .22, with a handful of loose bullets rolling around in the box.
Rosea felt sweat on her upper lip. She wished all this could happen outside in the fresh air, but of course it couldn't. A small girl, about four, came in, took one look at her, then at the shoebox, and she knew. The girl, so fragile and tiny, wore a small T-shirt and floral panties. She said something to Scooter, who told her to shut up. Then the little one turned and left, unaffected by the harsh words, and her skinny feet pattered back over to the cartoon room. Rosea pulled out her wallet and counted out a bunch of twenties, saved up from Hollywood Celebrity Tours. Jesus. Innocent tourist dollars smelling like perfume and Certs and midwestern innocence. She slid the money over. Scooter counted it and nodded, pointing to the box. "Be careful," he said, "it bites."
"I know." Then Rosea remembered her and Geezer shooting coconuts in the backyard. She turned to the old woman at the stove. "I'm sorry about Geezer. I was a good friend of his."
The old woman didn't even look up. Rosea suddenly felt sick about the whole thing, made worse by the mixture of smells from fried chorizo and rotten fruit and stale kitty litter. This place was a filthy dump, and she was a nobody. Scooter frowned. "Life is tough here, Rosea. Always was."
Rosea nodded and slipped the box under her arm, then she turned and left. She used to think it was so cool going with Geezer and being a chola tough chick and a part of his fully Mexican family, instead of everything in her life being "not quite Brazilian." She used to ride behind him on his motorcycle and snuggle her face into his neck smelling of hair tonic, her long hair snapping freely in the wind. She used to think she needed nothing else, but, remembering Geezer's face floating in the apartment window and his sardonic wave to her as she headed toward home in Beverly Hills, she realized now how his family must have despised her.
- What do we know about the main character Rosea? From the information in the opening paragraph, what could have happened previously that caused Rosea to seek out a gun?
- How do the past and the present work together and/or collide in this story?
- What is Geezer’s family like? Does the final line of this story seem accurate?
- Rosea appears to have tried on the lifestyle of the barrio for a time. What would be alluring about this for a girl from Hollywood Hills? How does class play a role? Had she been a true part of this world? What can we learn from examining her attitudes and observations upon her return there?
- How do we see undercurrents of violence threaded throughout the story? How does it shape the setting, the action and the characters? What is the effect or outcome for the reader?