More than twenty years ago, before the civil unrest launched me into journalism and the larger story of L.A., I was a teacher. I taught in LAUSD in the adult education division, sort of chased there -- and chastened -- by some less than ideal experiences teaching middle and high school. I liked those students, but quickly discovered I lacked the temperament or skills to keep order in order for me to teach at all. Too, I was a substitute teacher, which is like being a relief pitcher in the first inning of a baseball game in which the bases are loaded, the batter at the plate is on a hitting streak, and there are no outs. Oh, and the fans are screaming for blood. The odds are excellent that you'll get shelled. I did.
So I moved to adult ed to teach mostly English as a Second Language. The experience was a revelation. The students who came to my night classes at Westchester, Washington, Fairfax, and Venice high school campuses were not simply students, they were an entire demographic of the city I lived next to but had only seen at a distance: immigrants and service-sector workers of all ages and levels of ambition. Being adults, they were my peers, which meant that despite the language differences, we talked often about adult things like work and family and personal history. In between the lessons on conversational English, we also talked in as much depth as we could about the idea of America and how that idea brought the students here, not just to the country but to my class. They were happy to talk and I was eager to listen; these were stories I had never heard from people I had never spent any time with. The realities of race and class, including a growing unease amongst blacks towards Latino immigrants, had discouraged that coming together. Adult ed gave us all a meeting-up spot, neutral territory.
They respected me as a teacher and gave me elaborate gifts on many occasions; once they tried to give me money. I was grateful for the regard and the fact they showed up night after night, and wanted to educate my students in any way that I could. I wanted them to hear about my experience and views of America, so during Black History Month I did some English lessons on slavery and Jim Crow and we sang spirituals and blues.
I also taught non-immigrants. At one site I taught GED classes to mostly black women who were on federal assistance looking to get off by getting their high-school diplomas. Again, the experience bridged a gap for me that was bigger and more forbidding than the immigrant gap: the divide between the black middle class and the black working class and poor. I became friends with several students, especially Tamy: she was smart and funny, creative with a great fashion sense. Like everyone else in the class, she wanted to get ahead in life, to utilize her talents, to be seen and to matter. My own life, scattered as it was at that point, was something of a model for her, and I was grateful that I could provide any inspiration at all.
I thought about all this recently because L.A. Unified is now considering axing adult education altogether. It's the latest proposal by the district to save money and to pull back yet again from the brink of financial disaster. The hard times that have plagued the district for years are officially austere. But the cost of losing adult ed -- an unsung bridge between resignation and ambition, and a bridge period in so many other ways -- would be enormous.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.