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COURAGE

Wheels of Misfortune

During a transit strike, the theft of a bicycle can be a personal catastrophe

October 19, 2003|John McCormick | Besides teaching ESL, John McCormick was a producer of the documentary film, "Bukowski: Born Into This."

Last Tuesday, as I drove from Highland Park to Berendo Middle School in Koreatown, traffic seemed a little heavier than usual. But I was focused on the Cubs and the Marlins, who were just starting to play Game 6 of the National League playoffs on the car radio. As on so many Tuesdays before, I was on my way to teach an English-as-a-second-language class to adults.

My lesson plan for that night was straightforward: reading and summarizing an excerpt from "The Jungle Book." Then we'd discuss how the words "so" and "such" could be used to modify adjectives (as in: She had such a bad headache). After the break, I'd have the class write a story together. I would supply the first line: "Yesterday, while coming home from work, I noticed a man following me." The class would continue the story from there. With any time remaining, we would review and discuss the newspaper headlines. The banner on the newspaper I'd brought to class read: "Strike 2: MTA."

Tuesday is usually the best night for attendance at school. But any attendance is nothing short of a small miracle when you think about it. My students work eight- and 10-hour days; half of them use public transportation to get to and from work. And then they come to study English for three hours, four nights a week. It makes you think twice about describing your own life as hard. But that night's attendance was light, the same kind of light you find on nights when there is a televised Mexican or Central American soccer game. I began to realize just how much the transit strike might hurt us.

By the break, only 50% of the class had arrived. As we finished up "so" and "such" and waited for the break bell, I offhandedly asked one of the most popular students in the class, Isela, a stout 27-year-old woman from Mexico, how she got to work that morning. "I rode my bike," she answered. "Where do you live?" I asked. "12th and Western." "And where do you work?" "Westwood." "How long did it take you to ride there?" "Two hours." "Two hours round trip?" "No, two hours each way." She smiled as she said that.

After break, I headed back to the classroom, passing through the throng of students gathered around a catering truck. One of my students, Antonio, approached me. "Teacher," he said, "Isela's bike was stolen."

He led me to Isela, who was sitting on a nearby bench looking strangely unemotional, almost as if she were in shock. She showed me the missing space where her bike had been locked, and I suggested we report the theft to the LAUSD policeman who was standing nearby. But as we neared him, Isela shied away, leaving me to approach the officer by myself. I explained the situation, and he promised to come to my classroom later to take a report. No, he said in answer to my question, the school doesn't compensate students for stolen property.

After the break, I told the class about Isela's bicycle, which prompted a lively discussion. "Did you lock your it?" "Did anyone else have a key?" Soon, the campus policeman arrived to take his report, which consisted of getting Isela's name, address and a description of her bike.

After his departure, it was time to start the "class writes a story" exercise. But my subject ("I noticed a man following me ... ") quickly metamorphosed into an account of Isela's day. Students questioned Isela, then suggested sentences, which I wrote on the board: "I got up at 5 a.m. I left for work at 6 a.m. I rode my bicycle to Westwood." Isela revealed that her brother had told her that afternoon not to take the bicycle to school, warning that it might be stolen. Two final sentences were proposed, which I wrote on the board. "She had a big surprise. Her bicycle was missing."

Though I had asked Isela before we started if we could write her story, at the conclusion she looked sullen. I felt terrible for having let this happen. Desperate, I asked the class, "What can we do to give this story a happy ending?" I'm not sure who first made the proposal, maybe Angelica, or possibly one of the two Marios or Antonio, but an impromptu collection was taken up. In a minute or two I was holding $60 for Isela in my hands.

Isela was clearly embarrassed by the collection. But my students are experts at turning something bad into good. They wouldn't let her off the hook. Because some of the students had no money with them that evening but wanted to contribute, I announced that for the next two nights we would continue the collection. One of the Marios had a better idea. "Teacher, why don't we buy her some cutters? That's cheaper than a bicycle. Then she can steal another bicycle." I reminded Mario that only the teacher is allowed to make bad jokes in class.

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