Why go to college? Why teach students to think about abstract ideas like Home -- or Desire and Envy? This is what we hear now, in times of deep budget cuts and resentment against higher education. Look -- this is what I hear: young people need to be trained to work, they need engineering and math and science, not frivolous courses in the Arts.
Look -- these are their faces. I teach in an area almost written off by affluent America, in a university where "minority" students have been the majority for years. I teach students who lately inspire resentment among Californians who begrudge tax dollars.
Do you want me to go all George Benson here? OK -- "I believe the children are our future." Believe it -- my students who lay awake at night thinking about home, and what they want for their own homes, are truly California's future. They want to be social workers, and teachers, and economists, and lawyers, and entertainers. They want to buy homes, or lofts, or hammock, refrigerators, cars, puppies (yes, puppies!), and guitars, and an extra couch for their beloved cousins to sleep on when they visit.
Another cliché is that we are raised to desire things, to work for them, especially the dream home. We're envious of what we think we want. The two things are not the same, according to my students.
Google Earth played a big part in class, as many students were far from home and wanted photos to show in their presentations, and that seems a perfect metaphor for America right now. Each group came up with inventive ways of talking about the physical structure, the envy, or the loneliness. One group showed photos of homes and had contestants choose who belonged with which home. This was the beginning of not being able to judge anyone by race, gender, accent, or ethnicity -- really by anything. Who knew what house belonged to what face?
Then the students gathered around the photo of the home they envied. The most desired -- a blue two-story suburban Santa Ana house with a nice yard. But that house was most emphatically not the student's home.
"My house was always full of tension, crap. My home is my dojo, and my girlfriend. When my parents found out I was gay, I was on lockdown. I was trapped in my own house. Home is my friends."
Another tract home looked perfect. But the student laughed. "We have a crazy Homeowners' Association! It's a $400 fine if the Christmas lights are up before November 25 or after January 15. No trees! We're fined if grass and shrubs aren't green. We had to get six people's approval for our Mickey & Friends address numbers -- it was a $210 fine every month!"
One group had the class play Charades, and another group darkened the room and showed clips of Disney movies! All those childhood classics are about home, broken families or death, fear and friends. A song from "The Little Mermaid" was shown by a student who lived on a 12-acre ranch but felt isolated with no drivers license and many chores. "The Incredibles" dinner scene was perfect for one student from southern California who envied "a perfect family, all together. My mother had me when she was 21, and she gave me to my grandmother. I was passed around, cousins to grandmother." She met her father for the first time at 13 -- when she visited him in prison.
"Tarzan" has a scene where Jane comes back. Three students talked about how they lived in small, crowded houses and always begged their parents for their own rooms, for bigger homes; when the parents moved them to Arkansas, Central California, or other places where homes were luxurious and lonely, the students became depressed, and the parents actually moved back to Southern California for their children. Holding his Dodger cap, one student said, I grew up in East L.A., Lincoln Heights, you can see Dodger Stadium from my house. My grandpa built that house, but we were all crowded, and we kept bugging my parents for our own rooms. In 8th grade they moved to Bakersfield, but my mom had to stay in L.A. to work, and my dad was always gone looking for better jobs for the house payment, so my sister and I were alone in the big house. We finally moved back to East L.A., but my desire is to buy my grandpa's old house back."
One student stood in front of us with his long arms held out, showing us how he physically separated his mother and father when they fought. In so many stories, divorce or abandonment led to the end of home, and the desire and envy to have one stable place where no one argued or left anyone behind. One student, pointing to the Google image of her well-kept home, said: "That isn't our car, it's just passing by, and that isn't our trash. It's war in my house. It looks nice on the outside, like nice people live in there."
Sometimes it wasn't about envy or desire. A huge mansion, with arched windows and tiled roof, two stories of Mexican affluence in a very haunted kind of tone, contained stories of people who died, and a mother who worked hard and got cancer, and a father who came back from the military to run a tequila plantation. But the unforgettable story, told in deadpan? He and his sister always fought over the single TV, and their favorite cartoons, and when she won one time too many, he put her cat in the microwave. A gasp arose. "It was only for two minutes." He has to go back often, even now. "My house is scary and huge. I want a smaller house."
Treasure Quest took the class outside, where bandanna-wearing guides led us on a hunt for the items that meant home: a large walking staff, a photo of Richmond High School, photo of two Japanese family crests, a container of dirt, and a jar of fish food, among other things.
"Fish" he said, holding up the jar. "I love fish because they move around all the time. They're mobile. I was born in California, when my dad was in school at UCLA, but then we moved back to Indonesia when I was five months old. When I was eight, there was violence, riots, people around us were being murdered. My dad told us to go to Singapore, and he would meet us there. We waited for four months. We never saw him again. We came to California to stay with my grandparents. They lived in a huge mansion in San Marino. I fell down the marble steps when I was little. It didn't feel like home. My desire is a huge fish tank. Ten thousand gallons."
One young woman whose parents are Nigerian, whose grandfather has nine wives, whose mother has 27 brothers and sisters, read for us this: Home -- a place where people live, a dwelling. For her, on her first visit to her grandmother's house in Nigeria, surrounded by cousins, she felt as if the thick walls and melodious voices meant home.
"This is my small Buddha my mother gave me. I pray to it three times when I'm having trouble."
"Call of Duty and the couch. I'm a Bro, not a chick. I have no photos of my family. My family is my friends from Richmond High School."
"Every house in my neighborhood in Ontario has a gate or guard dog. I envy peace, a lawn. But home is my brother, when I'm fighting with him."
Why teach them about ideas of what Americans desire? How did they teach me about what Disney movies my own daughters might have loved, about what my own three daughters might say about our house, our yard, our single television (lots of fighting!) and what we ate, what we had and didn't have?
For ten weeks, they led me to think about why I briefly desired a bigger house, and why I didn't ever move, and what made me envious. Deja Gworek, our Teaching Assistant, told her own story on the last day, showing a Google Earth map of the isolated high desert naval base of China Lake and the cluster of distant rectangles that was her home, miles from anywhere. We didn't waste our time, all 75 of us in that room. We examined our childhoods, what frightened us and what stones we remember holding, what our friends said while we walked on urban sidewalks covered with gun or in fields of wild grass. We looked at our parents with angry or compassionate eyes. We wrote down what we had, and what we thought we would work hard to get, as Americans. We were worth every minute in that classroom. Anyone who gets upset about tax dollars, higher education being a waste, or what kind of young person really needs or deserves college, should think about this: Who do you want living near you, in your neighborhood, and who will your own child marry?
Our stories made us better humans. That is why we gather around the campfire or the table. There is no better investment. One student showed his favorite Asian rappers singing, "Home is an address where you get deliveries. You can be lonely in your own zipcode."
Holding a picture of boxing gloves, saying she learned to box in a club here at UC Riverside, after being kicked out of every home since she was 12, she whispers through tears, with her fellow students' hands on her shoulders, "I want a house where I wouldn't feel like a guest."
Previously: What Makes a Home: Not Wood Frames, but Families
Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published in September. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.