Our Lady of Ransom and The Ghost of John Coltrane

In the Time of COVID. Day 36

April 23, 2020

Our Lady of Ransom and the Ghost of John Coltrane

One of the reader’s comments on last night’s tooth blog mentioned a news report of a migrant worker who was unable to get dental assistance for an abscessed tooth. The migrant died in the fields. This brought to mind my first year teaching.

The school was in the Salinas Valley, It was rural and almost completely migrant. My year there was an homage to John Steinbeck, who knew the valley well. The town is called San Ardo. To the south, are oil fields. To the north the valley spreads 10 miles wide and 70 miles long to Salinas. It has some of the most fertile soil in the world and grows most of the vegetables sold in America.

We drove into San Ardo in late June. I’d graduated, done my student teaching and had a credential. What I didn’t have was a contract. We were told at university to not even think about finding work in San Luis Obispo county. “Everyone wants to teach here”, they said. I applied for a posting in neighboring Monterey County. The opening was a combined 7-8 all subjects. It was something, and they offered an interview. At least I could experience a rejection.

Crossing over the Salinas River Bridge, the sad little town of San Ardo and its migrant trailers lay before me. A county library as big as a single-wide, was on the left. We turned right and came to Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church. I took a double take on the name and said “Sad little town, sad saint of ransomed hostages, it’s a sign. Of course they are going to hire me.”

April walked the school grounds while I did my interview. I had to teach a lesson to three older white women while they pretended to be unruly 13 year olds. They tried to act up, but they put on a lame show.

I’d come with a heavy weapon. “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. You know the poem, when mom put’s her son in his place and says ‘Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…..” A little single Harlem mom telling her kid to stop bitching, cause life ain’t perfect. Life ain’t fair. These gals were taken unawares. Any doubt they had that I could handle a pack of 12 and 13 year olds was squashed . Any doubt that I could communicate clearly, evaporated.

By the time we pulled into the driveway at home, the phone was ringing with an offer. The pay was terrible, but there was pay. I started in mid-August and remember feeling like an imposter that first day, but, I had the keys, and I had the contract.

Every text in the class had DISCARD stamped on it from Monterey or Salinas schools. It was all total junk. There was absolutely nothing current. The retired teacher hadn’t even cleaned out her desk. She’d been a hoarder for 25 years. She just pitched in the keys and blew town on her last day. Not a happy gal. The first three months I just filled the trash cans and dumpsters.

The students were feral. All the teachers were white and all the students, but for three, were children of migrants. They’ed been yelled at their whole lives, actually slapped for speaking Spanish on the playground. When I found that out, I announced in my first faculty meeting that if I saw anyone do that, I’d call Child Protective Services. The principal didn’t like that.

It was a rough start. I ordered Montgomery Wards Fall Catalogs, and Ma Bell Phone Books. Free books. New Books. We started with real math and problem solving . A Hardware store back in Cambria gave me a class set of yard sticks. Homework was bring an empty cereal box from home. We read the boxes and decoded the information. I brought a gallon paint can and taught them how to estimate area of paint coverage.

In late September the farmer right across the street from my classroom, dumped a giant pile of rotting pepper vines near his fence. When I came in the next day, my class smelled like rotting vines and within a week there were hundreds and hundreds of blue bottle flies in the classroom. I bought fly paper, and those got full real quick. I bought 22 cheap fly swatters and froze some baby sized candy bars. The lesson of the day was kill the damn flies. Kids with the biggest body count, got candy bars.

Our rival school was San Lucas, 10 miles north. I was also the 7-8 PE teacher and coach for flag football. When we visited San Lucas in our blue shirts, San Lucas had red ones. Who’s bright idea was that? Those were Norteno and Sureno colors, friggin crips and bloods gang colors. It wasn’t a football game it was a rumble. Later I suggested we change our colors to green. The principal refused.

Lockwood school was an all white school from the Army Logistics base at Fort Hunter Liggett. When those kids came to play us, my kids tasted blood. They ran the score up something terrible. Finally I called timeout and huddled my kids “Let them score” I said. My kids looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. “Let them score, we aren’t trying to humiliate them. You guys are to good.”

The final score was 57 to 6. The coach of Lockwood got so pissed that we let his team score that he refused to shake hands or do the good game high fives. He loaded his kids on the bus and left. He refused to play us in basketball or softball. A real jerk.

The year went on like that, but I built camaraderie and the white kids who were rich rancher kids identified with the brown kids, who parents picked the crops. They stuck up for one another. When Gabriella, a new girl from Mexico arrived mid-year, she had a serious eye infection and was special needs. She spoke no English, but by the end of the year all the kids rallied around her. She was finally fitting in and speaking some English and could write a bit.

When eight grade graduation came around, it was customary to hire Mrs McKinney, A church organist from King City, to play Pomp and Circumstances.

I hired my son’s private saxophone teacher. He had played sax in the US Marine Corps Band in Washington DC, during the Vietnam War. He was an excellent musician. He stood on stage right. A black beret and goatee and a tenor sax from heaven. He soloed tunes from John Coltrane’s Blue World, and as the eight graders filed in, he gave a Coltranesque interpretation of Pomp and Circumstances. We’d brought art to little San Ardo. My principal was pissed.

Mrs Martin wouldn’t let Gabriella sit on the stage with the kids that had completed their studies. That day Gabriella showed up in a fancy dress and flower bouquet and nicely fixed hairdo just like the other girls. The principal gave me the stink eye and Gabriella was made to sit down in the audience next to me in the front row.

Kevin, a white rancher kid, who’s job it was to lead the people in the Pledge of Allegiance, took to the podium and said “Before We begin the Pledge of Allegiance we as a class have a taken a vote and we unanimously invite Gabriella to join us on the stage. She is one of us.” He looked at me and dared me. The audience erupted in applause. The whole town knew there was a drama coming. I looked at the students up there and there was an extra chair. Mrs Martin looked down at me and her eyes said. NO NO NO.

I stood, looked at that class of kids I’d loved all year, I took Gabriella’s hand and she stood up and I walked her to the stairs. The audience stood and clapped, the class stood and welcomed her. I sat back down and felt pride and foreboding.

After the graduation, Mrs. Martin cornered me and said “You planned this . You went against my express instructions. You will never teach again.” I drove home and cried off and on for days. All that work at school and now I am blackballed….

In August I was offered a job at Paso Robles High School, near home. It paid 30% more than I had earned at San Ardo. Only problem was the principal at San Ardo couldn’t be reached for a recommendation. Was there anyone else up there who could vouch for me. I gave the name of the president of the school board. I thought my goose was cooked. He said I was a terrific teacher, I’d taught his daughter.

I discovered that shortly after graduation a special board meeting had been convened and Mrs Martin was fired. It was the wife of the school board president who had purchased Gabriella’s dress and flowers. They were in on it. The Kids had given the adults courage to do what was right.

Occasionally we drive north on 101 past San Ardo on our way to San Francisco, I mean to, but I never do, take the turn off for a drive through that humble little town. Those kids are well into their 40’s now.

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