Saturday, May 16, 2009

School's Out!

Shhh! Thanks, America for not telling anyone that the academic semester-system is obsolete. Thanks for not noticing that the vast majority of America's school children no longer need summers off to help with the harvest. We, the humble employees of the educational system, salute you.

Friday, the day before Yavapai College's graduation, I went down to Phoenix. I got there a little early and thought I'd just walk through Metro Center, which is the shopping mall near where we lived when I was in high school. (Can't walk outside anymore -- it's already well over 100 degrees there.)Metro Center was a new mall then (in the ancient 70s), and the Metro Center area was still a vital area. My first two jobs were in Metro Center. The summer between my junior and senior years I worked at a place called Choo-Choo Charlie's. I had to wear a goofy hat and a blue apron and stand in the middle of the mall with a plate of sample choo-choos. Choo-choos are basically fried dough dipped in cinnamon. Choo-Choo Charlie's was next to Orange Julius, and the whole set up was next to Sears and an area of shops made to look like a town square. Needless to say, Choo-Choo Charlie's has been gone a long time. I made $3.15/hour there, and I must admit, it was cool to be in the mall before it opened and after it closed. Perhaps this is where my shopping addiction began. Hmmm...

The next job I had was at Blaire Metro Park 8 Cinemas, which was right outside the mall on the outer loop. I worked there in 1986, right after high school graduation until I moved to Tucson to go to U of A. Working in the movie theatre was the best job I have ever had. I was the assistant manager, and I got paid the enormous (to me at the time) sum of $225/week. Golden! I got to start the films, count the money, stay out late, and in general, deal with very few people and avoid having to serve food or work outside where it's hot and sunny. If I didn't need to actually earn enough money to pay for everything, I'd still be at the movie theatre. Seriously. Best job ever. Free films. No one complaining about their grades. No papers to grade. No e-mail concerning the academic year 09-10's assessment plans. No responsibility except to make sure the films started on time, didn't break, and no one stole the popcorn. Best job ever.

When I moved to Tucson to go to U of A, I also got a job at a movie theatre -- the AMC El Con 6 Cinemas at El Con Mall. (Yes, there's a mall-theme to my employment). El Con Mall is gone too, with the theatre only a memory. I worked there when the first Batman opened. Lines stretched throughout the parking lot. Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out while I worked there, along with She's Having a Baby (shudder!) and The Last Temptation of Christ. Protesters for The Last Temptation of Christ hung themselves on wooden crosses placed up against the side of Dillard's. We had more than a chuckle when a monsoon storm hit and the faux Jesuses had to climb down lest they be struck by very real lighting.

El Con Mall is gone now and of course, the movie theatre along with it. The part of Tucson where I lived in the late 80s is also very different. I don't know why I expect things to stay the same -- expect the same people to be living in the same places, the same stores to be in the same malls, the same conversations to be going on just as they were when I left.

In Phoenix, the place where the theatre once was is an empty lot, as is most of the Metro Center area. Restaurant after restaurant has closed. Even Trader Joe's has moved out. Inside the mall, every other store front was empty, with the just-as-empty sign promise on the window of "Another Great Retailer Coming Soon." There are not going to be any great retailers coming any time soon to Metro Center. Phoenix was hit very hard by the housing crash. When I drove into town, the billboard announced that I could buy a new home at "foreclosure prices" up in Anthem (an area north of Phoenix). On virtually every corner, a wooden sign had an 800# with the "We Buy Houses" pronouncement, or, the equally prominent "We fix foreclosures."

I left Phoenix in the middle of its denial of everything -- denial of the inflated value of its homes, denial of the absurdity of building suburbs 50 miles out in all directions from the city's center, denial of the high price of gasoline, denial of the absence of, yeah... water. When I drove south on I-17 into Phoenix Friday morning, I thought Phoenix looked like the world would look if anyone came out alive after the apocalypse. Dirty, dusty, and desperate. Most times when I go to Phoenix, I can't wait to get back out and shake it off, but this trip, I was just left sad. Sad for what is happening to it. Sad for the people who are suffering because the city is unsustainable. Sad for all of us crazy humans who keep wanting more than we need.

Last night was the graduation ceremony. As faculty, it's our last hurdle before the freedom of summer. The graduates are forced to sit on the stage and look out at the audience. They're forced to listen to speeches, and then, after a photo op and a handshake, they are free. And we are free.

To do what? Prescott's economy, even in the best of times, isn't strong. If I were in school now, I'd stay forever, taking out student loan after student loan until I had a string of PhDs. Several students came by my office this semester to ask about what they should do. They're afraid of the empty job market. They're afraid of their student debt (even from attending a community college). I didn't know what to tell them, except stay in school. Somehow, some way, an education has to help dig us all out of whatever this is we're in, right? Somehow, learning about the history of other civilizations, learning about science, math, literature -- somehow, all of that has to matter, right?

Sometimes I don't know. And that's why I'm most grateful for this strange but wonderful academic-agrarian calendar. During these three months off, I'll re-believe in what I do. I'll recommit to teaching. I'll dig back out my hope. But this semester, at the end of it all, I find myself doubting that it matters. Doubting that we do any good. Wondering if, especially in these times of uncertainty and fear, if there isn't something else I could be doing with my own education that would somehow matter more, help the world more.

But then I read the cards and letters I have pinned up to my wall at work from students. I remember each of them and the work we did together. I remember my own favorite teachers from school, and how each of them in their own ways, showed me how to look at the world differently. Each one opened a door that I hadn't seen before. Do these women and men from my own educational experience know they did these things? Were they frustrated with outcomes assessment and NCAA self-study plans and curriculum and meeting upon meeting upon meeting? Probably. But they still gave us stories, and projects, and additional resources, and extra time. And then they set us free, never to know what we'd do with ourselves.

Thanks for the summer break, Education System. Thanks for the time to recharge and remember why we teach. It's too easy to lose sight of it with all the hoops and forms and paperwork. Thanks for the chance to breathe. When I go back to teach in August, I'll be back in love with it and with my students. But right now, I'm tired and I want to hear, no matter how faintly, what my own voice might have to say.

Happy Summer, ya'll!

Old PS 186 building in Harlem

Moon Valley High School, where I graduated in 1986

Yavapai College commencement


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