I sat at the back of a class the other day at Evans Community Adult School, where 8,000 students--mostly from Asia and the Latin countries--are learning English.
For years I had driven past the school at Figueroa Street and Sunset Boulevard, seen the crowds of young people on the sidewalks waiting to cross the street, and sensed that something important was happening there.
I had seen the new three-story building erected at the corner--white with bright red trim, modern, blocky, with long bay windows on the upper floors.
Then Planaria Price invited me to attend her class. Planaria is the young woman who lives in a Victorian house on Carroll Avenue and owns the nearby Eastlake Inn, a Victorian bed-and-breakfast house at 1442 Kellam Avenue.
Planaria's daughter, Euphronia, was the subject of one of the two most famous sentences I have ever written. Euphronia's leg was in a cast at the time I visited their house, and I described her as "an 8-year-old girl with a broken leg named Euphronia."
I had also had tea with Planaria at Eastlake Inn, a charming old house she has restored to its quaint Victorian elegance.
We were a few minutes late to her class, having stopped to pay our respects to Harlan Barbanell, the principal. From him I learned that Evans is the largest community adult school in the United States; it holds classes from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; its students come from 80 countries; 60% are Hispanic, 33% Asian; 80% have been here less than two years; 2,000 are in the high school diploma program.
"You mention Evans to most people in L.A.," he said, "they haven't heard of it. In Shanghai, they've heard of Evans. People get off the plane at LAX and come here with their suitcases to enroll even before they've found a place to live."
A huge mural in the lobby of the new building shows young people in the native dress of every nation dancing arm in arm. "It was painted by Wei Li Wang," Barbanell said. "He turned out to be the Norman Rockwell of China. He worked 900 hours on that, and I finally got him $900 for it."
Tables under umbrellas were set on a patio between the new building and the old brown wooden buildings that used to be Betsy Ross High School for girls.
Planaria's classroom was on the third floor of the new building. One of the floor's picture windows looked out on the downtown skyline. The other looked out on the crowded hills above Chinatown.
Planaria's students were waiting for her--more than 40 of them. They seemed full of youthful high spirits, but polite and eager to begin.
"Good morning!" Planaria said.
"Good morning!" the class responded.
"How are you today?"
Obviously ritual was an important teaching method.
A young man who had been named secretary for the previous day's class read his minutes:
"Good morning, class. My name is Harold Gale and I come from Nicaragua.
"Yesterday after Planaria gave some new students welcome to class, we had an interesting test which resulted in drawing a pretty hat.
"Then we kept on talking about body language, which is gestures and noises we do with our hands, eyes, faces and our whole body to communicate our feelings depending on each circumstance and culture.
"Finally, we were matching the body language with the vocabulary words, like cough, yawn and sneeze.
"When the class ended everybody left yawning over and over and over. . . ."
Today, Planaria said, they were going to do some more body language.
"Will everyone cough for me in American English?"
Everyone coughed, most covering their mouths with a hand. Planaria explained that it was proper to cover the mouth when coughing.
She sneezed. "Everyone sneeze," she said. "One, two, three--go!"
Everyone sneezed. Planaria explained that it was polite to cover one's mouth when sneezing, and to excuse oneself.
"In English we have a nice little conversation when you go to parties. I sneeze and I say 'Excuse me,' and he says ' Gesundheit ,' and I say, 'Thank you,' and he says, 'You're welcome.' " She wrote Gesundheit on her blackboard, explaining that it was a German word brought to this country by German immigrants.
She demonstrated a burp, explaining that it was what one often did after eating a satisfying meal.
"In some countries it's considered good to burp," she said. "In Korea is it all right to burp?"
A Korean student answered, "Yes."
"All the time?"
"Women and men? Or just men? If I burped would it be good?"
Planaria said she thought that was hardly equality of the sexes.
"In some countries," she explained, "burping means you have enjoyed your meal. In some countries it's considered rude. In the United States it is considered very impolite to burp."
She went through clapping, stomach growls, spitting, snapping one's fingers at waitresses, snoring and whistling at women.
One young man admitted that he whistled at women. "But it's like a joke," he explained.
Planaria said he ought not to whistle at women.
Snoring, everyone agreed, was OK, because you couldn't help it.
"It's impolite," Planaria said, "only when you snore in my class."
Everyone seemed to be having fun. They were attentive, responsive, cheerful and bright. They seemed to be opening, like flowers.
Now if I go to a party and sneeze and some young Korean says " Gesundheit ," I'm going to know he's in Planaria's class.