Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Never Judge a Teen by His Cover

This week, I started tutoring school-aged kids in English language arts as part of a federally-funded program. I'll be tutoring the kids in their homes or at public libraries.

Today, I had my first student, and I've already learned a lesson. Yes, it was the tutor who learned the lesson.

I arrived in the apartment to find my student's guardian, his aunt, alone. She informed me in Spanish that the boy, Antonio, would be arriving shortly.

The family is from Guatemala and they live, 6 people, in a tiny studio apartment-- the one room being about 12' x 12'. The apartment is not located in a "nice" part of town.

All I knew about Antonio was that he is a 17-year-old who is in the 9th grade. Knowing this, I assumed that he had failed a few grades, since most 9th graders are 14 years-old. As a result, I was worrying that perhaps he'd be a gang guy type.

Soon, two teenage boys entered the apartment. One looked quite clean-cut, neat haircut, wearing a sporty zip-up sweatshirt and nice jeans. He looked like a good kid. The other boy was wearing a big baseball cap tilted to the side, with the bill of the cap straight and uncurved. He wore a T-shirt that was several sizes too big. He wore extra-baggy jeans that were so over-sized that he had to "cinch" them with a belt, his boxer shorts being the only thing that were covering his ass. He had several gold chains around his neck, bracelets and rings, and had piercings. He looked like a Chicano gangsta to me.

Instantly I started hoping that first boy would be Antonio, my student. He was. Whew, I thought.

Well, the first lesson with all of my students is actually not a lesson at all. It's a test. They take the test, which takes them about an hour. Then I grade it, and figure out what are their strengths and weaknesses, and plan my lessons accordingly.

Antonio sat down and started taking the test. I sat and waited. As I did, the other boy (he of the baggy jeans, gold chains and piercings) started to engage me in conversation, in his thick barrio accent. He was very friendly and respectful, to my surprise. He showed me a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth and asked me if I had ever read it. I told him I had. He then started discussing the play with an enthusiasm which quite frankly stunned me. I am paraphrasing a bit, but this was our conversation...

"We're studying it in English dramatic lit now. It's pretty short for a Shakespeare play, so it didn't take me very long to get through it. What do you think of Macduff?"

My mind drew a blank. I scoured my memory to remember who the hell Macduff was. I hadn't read Macbeth in ages. I said, "You mean the Scottish king that Macbeth kills?"

"No, that's Duncan," he said, "Macduff is the man who suspects Macbeth of killing Duncan, so he goes to Malcom and convinces him to join him in taking revenge on Macbeth."

"Oh," I said, feeling quite inadequate.

"Do you think that Macduff is the personification of morality in the play? 'cuz it's like Shakespeare is using him to represent what is moral, in a play full of immoral people."

At that point my head was spinning. I never thought, when I first laid eyes on that kid, that a word such as personification would come out of his mouth, much less a name like Shakespeare. I felt such shame for having prejudged him as I did, and I simultaneously was wondering how he ever got interested in Shakespeare.

You see, he wasn't some teenager moaning that he has to read Macbeth for English class. He was a teenager who was actively interested in the story, enough so that he wanted to converse about it on his free time with a 41-year-old man.

I said, "I'll be honest with you, I only read it once, in college, and that was back in 1991."

"Whoa," he said, "that was before I was born."

"Yes," I muttered, grimacing at that fact, for the boy was almost as tall as I.

"How come you've never re-read it since?" he asked.

"It's not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays," I said, "Julius Caesar I've read about 5 times, but Macbeth only once."

"It's not one of mine either. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both don't have a struggle of good and evil in them. They're just plain evil. I think it's more interesting when the evil wins over the good, then it's more tragic, you know?"

I marveled at him and asked, "You really like Shakespeare, huh?"

He said, "He's okay. I really-really like Goethe, though."

GOETHE?! This boy reads GOETHE?

He got out one of his school folders and pulled out a few verses of Goethe's Faust. It was covered with yellow highlights and pencil marks, in which he used modern synonyms to define the more obscure words.

"You don't find this too hard to read?" I asked.

"It's hard, but not too hard. I like that it's hard. It's like a puzzle or a code. When there's a word I don't know, I look it up, and when I get all the words together and it all makes sense, it's really cool."

I suddenly realized that I had forgotten all about Antonio, my student, even though he was seated at a table right in front of me taking the test. I asked him if everything was okay and if he had any questions. He shook his head and continued taking the test with great concentration.

From behind me I heard, "Do you like opera?"

This is too much, I thought, I have got to be on Candid Camera. He likes opera, too?

"Yeah," I said, "I like opera. I'm not an aficionado, but I like it. Why? You like it?"

"Well, I've only seen one, but that got me interested in it. Me and a bunch of kids from my school went downtown to the Disney Concert Hall to see La Boheme."

"That's one of the few operas that I know well. I love it. What did you think of it?"

He said, "At first I didn't think I'd get it, because it's in Italian, and I can only speak Spanish and English, but after a while I realized that if I just took in the visual things and opened myself up emotionally to the music, it would all sink in, and it did. I cried when Mimi died. Really."

He not only liked the opera, but he admits that it made him cry. Wow, I thought.

So finally Antonio finished the test, and I said bye to them and left. As I drove home, I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I had caught myself being prejudiced. I am always disdaining prejudiced people, and there I was, being prejudiced.

Sure, he's Guatemalan, and lives in a bad neighborhood, and wears huge, baggy T-shirts and jeans and he piles on the gold chains, and shares a one-room apartment with 5 other people, but that doesn't mean that he can't read Macbeth and write about Faust and cry at La Boheme.

Conversely, there are many white kids living in big houses in the suburbs, who dress like preppies, and, if assigned to read Macbeth, would only read the Cliff Notes. They would hire a nerd to write a paper about Faust, and would have to be dragged to La Boheme, most likely falling asleep in the middle of an aria. Yet, would I have winced at the thought of tutoring them at first-sight? Of course I wouldn't have.

So today, the tutor learned a lesson.

Never judge a teen by his cover.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Today I went to the Pier 1 in my neighborhood to do a little shopping for my apartment, and before I could even enter the store, I saw on the windows the image of a Christmas tree, and the image of a Christmas stocking, and the words, "Make Christmas magic. Kick back & celebrate."

Today is November 2, 2009.

It is only two days after Halloween, and already the Christmas onslaught has begun.

I am so sick of this. Every year it gets worse and worse, earlier and earlier.

As I walked into the store, I could hear Christmas carols blasting over the sound system. The first one that I heard was the one that I hate the most: "It's the most wonderful time of the year... there'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near...!" Why is it that they never play the carols that I like, the lovely church carols, like O, Holy Night or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Could it be that those songs aren't conducive to buying?

I tried to tune it out, and looked for the things that I need for my apartment. The colors of my living room are earth tones, yet it seemed to me that the only colors that I could see today, at the usually earthy Pier 1, were red, green and gold. I got so annoyed by the premature yuletide assault on my senses, that I grabbed a couple of somewhat muted earth-toned cloth place mats, and went to the cashier to buy them and get the hell out of there.

As she was ringing me up, I said, "I know it's not your fault, but the Christmas decorations and music are really unbearable. It's not even close to being Thanksgiving yet, much less the day after it. It offends me so much that I don't want to spend more time browsing. I just want to leave after 10 minutes." She said something like, "Believe me, I know. I've been having to listen to these carols for over a week, and there's still two more months 'til the Christmas season is over." I looked at her with compassion and said, "You mean they were playing Christmas carols before Halloween?!?" "Oh ya," she said, rolling her eyes. I told her to hang in there and left with my place mats.

As I walked home, I thought about what she had told me. They were playing Christmas carols before Halloween. My heart sank. The situation has become more dire than I had imagined. Before, I had felt that Halloween had become the last firewall that shielded the rest of the year from Christmas consumerism.

When I was a child and a teen, the firewall was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a unique and separate holiday. It wasn't Christmas, Act 1. Thanksgiving had its own little season, which lasted from November 1st to Thanksgiving Day. I distinctly remember seeing autumn colors as the November color scheme. Cornucopias, turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians were what were seen in November, not elves, reindeer, stockings and boughs of holly. We used to make turkeys out of pine cones and decorate the dinner table with them during the month of November.

I have photos of Thanksgiving 1973. I was 5. I had made a Native American vest from a brown paper grocery bag, and painted tribal symbols on it with watercolors. I made a headband with paper feathers. I dressed as an Indian rather than a Pilgrim because, even in kindergarten, I was a bleeding-heart liberal, and I intrinsically sensed that the Indians had gotten a raw deal from Whitey. But I would have easily dressed as a Pilgrim before I ever imagined dressing as a North Pole elf. Why? Because it was the Thanksgiving season, naturally. Once Thanksgiving Day was over, then the Christmas season began.

I find it curious that Bill O'Reilly, and other right-wing nuts, rail against the "War on Christmas" when the real war has been against Thanksgiving, and Christmas has won.

Perhaps I'm being partial. I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. There's something very simple and beautiful about it. You partake in a feast with family, friends and often acquaintances and strangers, in thanks for the blessings of life. There are so many rotten aspects to life, but on Thanksgiving, you focus on the blessings, as you feed your body with hearty, delicious food. To me, there is no greater way to express the bounty of life than with a really big, satisfying meal.

In addition to recognition of thanks via eating, there's also the friendship of the opposites, of the unknown. The Pilgrims and Indians were like oil and water. They really didn't know, understand or trust each other, but they were able to gather together for one meal, in peace and brotherhood, because they shared a common thanks for a good harvest.

Unfortunately, that one meal did not symbolize the relations between the European settlers and the indigenous Americans in general, but hey: for one meal, things were as they should have been.

I can identify with that first Thanksgiving. For most of my life, my family has lived in Houston and Miami. During the years that I've lived in New York City and Los Angeles, I've often not been able to go home for Thanksgiving. But it hasn't really mattered, because there were always others who couldn't go home for Thanksgiving either, and we would band together and make a big feast. Usually at these expat gatherings, I'd be friends with a few of the people, and the rest would be strangers. I liked eating Thanksgiving with strangers. That sense of breaking bread with people whom you don't really know, it made it feel more like the Pilgrims and the Indians, back in 16-whenever-it-was.

Another thing that I like about Thanksgiving is that anyone can celebrate it. It doesn't matter which country or culture you come from, what your religion is, or if you even have a religion or a belief in God at all. The recognition of the good things in life knows no borders and has no specific faith.

But perhaps most importantly, what I like about Thanksgiving, is that it cannot be tainted by consumerism. Besides buying the turkey, or the yams, or the green bean casserole, or the pumpkin pie, there's really not much else that you can buy, besides a bottle of wine or some after-dinner cognac. Thanksgiving has not been contaminated by capitalism, like Christmas, nor does it seem like it ever will be.

Capitalism has forever changed Christmas. I don't mean to start sounding like Emma Goldman, but it's a holiday that has been marketed to the masses to the extent that the very seasonal parameters of the holiday have been pushed back two months. We start the season earlier because we start hearing the carols in restaurants and shops earlier, the malls are decked with decorations earlier, we start seeing commercials on TV earlier, and so we start trimming the tree earlier and earlier and earlier.

Let me give you an example of how out-of-touch modern society has become with what Christmas was traditionally in the Anglo world. You of course know the famous song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Well, do you know what those 12 days are? What days on the calendar are the 12 days of Christmas? Is your mind drawing a blank? Give up? Well, the first day of Christmas is December 25, Christmas Day, and the twelfth day is January 6, Epiphany. Do you even know what Epiphany is?

In the West, Epiphany celebrates the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus. According to Christian legend, the Magi (or Three Wise Men) arrived 12 days after Jesus was born, although you'd never know it, because most modern Christmas paraphernalia shows them arriving on Christmas Eve. Anyway, for this reason, the trimming of the Christmas tree was done on Christmas Eve, because the Christmas season began the following day, and lasted 12 days, ending on Epiphany.

Today it is very rare to see a Christmas tree that is still standing by January 6th. In fact, last year on my block, I saw several discarded trees on the curb on December 26th. Not that I blame them. By the day after Christmas, they had had their trees up for almost two months. They were probably sick of the sight of them.

Please don't think of me as Ebeneezer Scrooge. If people want to have a Christmas season that lasts longer than 12 days, fine. In some non-Anglo countries, it lasts 40 days, but it begins on Christmas day, and ends on February 2nd, which is the Christian feast of Candlemas.

But not in America, baby! If we're gonna prolongate the holiday, we're gonna make it buyer-friendly! You need time to buy gifts before Christmas Day, not after it, so from now on the holidays will precede Christmas, by two months! Screw the holy aspects of it. Christmas day is the finale, not the opening act.

Halloween is the kick-off to BUY BUY BUY season, Thanksgiving is incorporated into the monster, and we are bombarded with images that have nothing to do with Christ, but have everything to do with Santa.

By New Year's Eve, most Americans have spent an pretty huge sum of money, and spend the month of January tightening their belts and trying to recuperate, completely unaware that January is, in fact, the traditional Christmas season according to the Christian calendar, and that Christmas is not the holiest Christian day (Easter is).

But who am I to complain? Although I was raised Catholic, I am no longer a believing Christian. I am a happy Agnostic. I'll let my Christian friends try to pry Christ out of Santa's arms, if they care to. He's their god, not mine.

I'm writing this manifesto in defense of Thanksgiving, which is everybody's holiday, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic or what have you.

I want to save Thanksgiving from the Christmas of the Capitalists, not the Christmas of the Christians. The Christmas of the Christians begins a month after Thanksgiving. The Christmas of the Capitalists begins a month before it, the day after Halloween. The way things are going, within 20 years, it'll begin the day after the Fourth of July. To prevent that, though, we must first save Thanksgiving. Save Thanksgiving!

I've had it. This war.