Sugar Skulls, Vietnamese Cashews, and Oranges -- A New Year of Teaching

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

In honor of students, guest photographer is Olivia Rae Childers, high school senior and artist. Doug McCulloh, whose photo of Merchant oranges is here, is in Florida, hanging around with out-of-state citrus.

Holding manila folders packed with student papers, I struggled to get out of the car just as Gurdon Merchant was setting the eight brown bags of fresh-picked oranges on my porch, as he always does in January. His crew-cut hair glints silver in the sun, and I realize it's been 25 years since his son was my student at Riverside City College. He was in my big composition course, a great student, and he went on to become an engineer. He lives out of state now with his own family. But his father still brings me navel oranges from his home grove a few blocks away.

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Bananas from Minh Pham. | Photo: Olivia Childers

This week, my daughter and I are eating sweet discs of dried banana brought from a backyard in Vietnam, along with newly-harvested cashews roasted fat and sweet like nothing in a store. They were packed by Minh Pham, a graduate student who visited his native Saigon with his mother, who has worked for decades at a Southern California nail salon. For three years, Minh has written for me essays of his dual life: Saigon and Riverside, the smells of the nail polish and sounds of the women speaking Vietnamese to each other while brushing on color.

Vase from Phannara Prak. | Photo: Olivia ChildersOn the table is a black-painted ceramic vase, an inexpensive piece from a curio shop in San Francisco's Chinatown. It's one of the oldest and most treasured gifts given to me by a student, way back in 1985. After college, my first teaching position back home was at Inland Empire Job Corps, where former gang members and teen mothers from all over California sat in my classroom learning how to take GED tests along with just-off-the-plane refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. I had an entire crew of young men in their late teens who'd survived war, then refugee camps in Thailand, and now lived in Stockton, Long Beach, San Francisco. Phannara Prak was shy and very thin, and we sat for long hours at a long table with the five sections of the GED -- he was fine with Math and Science, but History, English, and Language were so difficult I gave him countless practice tests which we scored with our breaths held until we finally had victory. (I had a 90% success rate for the GED during those two years, no matter who took the test, because those who passed got a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies.)

Gang members tried to intimidate him, he told me one day, with stories of their handguns. He replied dryly, "I carried an AK-47 when I was 12. That is not a handgun. That is a back gun." He told me his father was killed in Phnom Phen by Pol Pot's soldiers, how he and his mother and sisters were herded into the jungle, where he was forced to drive an oxcart laden with dead bodies every day to a burial ground. "My back, all dry blood when it was night," he whispered to me. "All day the blood is on my back from the bodies."

My long-suffering husband was a college student himself back then, and a night custodian. He got used to me bringing students home for dinner to our one-bedroom apartment. Phannara was one of my favorites, only three years younger than me. He got his GED and learned electrical assembly, returned to San Francisco and helped his mother and sisters buy a home. We attended weddings for his sisters. He saved money and chose the vase in Chinatown, and now it holds white dahlias in January.

This is what it means to have been a teacher for 30 years, as of this new January quarter. Teachers are under fire now. Union protests. Federal and state testing. Parent triggers, vouchers, hatred for public schools. The one-room schoolhouse, the apple on the desk, the transformative personality of a teacher who changed lives -- these seem images from the past. But when someone says to me, "You're still teaching?" I see those oranges, arrange flowers in the black vase, and count up those 30 years as happy. We give gifts to our mechanics and hairstylists, dentists and doctors, all those who help us. But teachers spend hours and weeks and sometimes years with our students -- and they give us gifts of memory.

Sugar skull from Alex Espinoza. | Photo: Olivia ChildersA papier-mâché woman from Michoacán, Mexico, handmade in a small village and brought by Mayra Ortega, whose mother and grandmother came from there. She wrote her first stories for me at UC Riverside, about dogs patrolling roofs and children watching them fall. A basket of fine tea given to me by Michael-Jaime Becerra, who wrote his first stories of bicycle thieves and El Monte in my classes, and then published them, became a professor and taught Mayra Ortega with his own particular devotion. A sugar skull with sequined eyes and curlicued frosting for hair, given to me by Alex Espinoza, who was a transfer student from a junior college to the university, working nights at the Goth store Hot Topic, writing stories of spells and incantations purchased at a botanica. Those stories became a novel published in 2007, and he became a professor as well. I keep that sugar skull (How impervious to decay! How continuous the sparkle!) near my desk.

They handed me thanks for what we learned together. That means the world to any teacher, no matter the institution. Elementary school, high school, college, ESL courses in a church dayroom (I did that for three years), GED courses in a fenced-off job training site, writing workshops in a prison (I did that, too).

Johnsie Donaldson in his uniform. | Photo: Olivia Childers

But I learned as much from them. Blood and ox carts. Veladoras and the loyalty of Riverside navel oranges, which every January have kept my own three daughters healthy as they peel the segmented globes while doing their own homework. On the table near us now is a thank you card and photo sent from Naval recruit training camp in Florida by Johnsie Donaldson, from Colton, who had dreadlocks down his back while he was my student, who is now shorn and tired but still reading novels. I taught a huge freshman class last year, and their thank-you card (all 75 of their faces!) was the biggest yet. Tonight, past midnight, writing on the pages encouragement and suggestions until my fingers are numb, all over the world, teachers are doing the same -- penciling in corrections on words for first-graders in Zimbabwe, adding ideas to dissertations in Cambridge.

It's not harder than picking fruit or polishing toenails or assembling computer panels or learning how to shoot a rifle. I hear the front door open, and know my daughter has gone out to the porch for one more orange.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. 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. Olivia Childers is a senior at Riverside Poly High School. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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