Friday, May 1, 2015


One morning, driving home from one of my punk rock all-nighters, I was stopped at a light and through my car window I could see 1980 off in the horizon. It was approaching like a fast train and I got the feeling that I either had to jump on the train or get run over by it, so I jumped.

By the fall of 1979, I was back at college with the intention of becoming a lawyer. I studied, worked, and played music, and in 1984, I graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a degree in Philosophy. I was still thinking of law school while working part time as a teacher's aid to scrounge up a little cash. It wasn't my plan to fall in love with teaching, but that's how love is. It sneaks up on you. 

Those kids were like Visine for tired eyes, they started each day eager to be surprised by what was in store for them. Nothing beats the moment when a child discovers the answer to a puzzle, when numbers, or letters, or shapes make sense. The joy that radiates from them warms you. I wanted to bask in that everyday.

I took a couple of tests, signed up for an accelerated teaching program at USC, applied for an emergency bilingual teaching credential, and started teaching at Hoover Street Elementary. My students were Spanish-speaking kids from Mexico and Central America. Some were born in the U.S., others were immigrants. They reminded me of myself. I'd started school not knowing any English and the road to English fluency had been a bumpy one. Now I was in a position to make their journey a little smoother. I knew that there was a high dropout rate for kids who grew up like me, kids for whom day to day survival could be more important than anything in a textbook. I wanted to challenge those statistics. I was a fighter, I thought I could fight for them.

It took less than a year before my student debt at USC led me back to Cal State L.A. There, I met a wise philosophy professor who tried to show me new ways of learning. His name was Dr. Vick. Around the same time, another professor assigned Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire as part of the required reading list. It was a one-two punch. In his writing, Freire describes the kind of education I had been exposed to as a child, one that either alienates the students completely or indoctrinates them with values that support the status quo. He denounces a system that creates a one-way flow of ideas, without ever teaching children to evaluate information through the use of higher level thinking skills or to contribute their own ideas. I started wondering how I could improve the quality of education I was giving my students, but my thoughts were rudely interrupted.

In September of 1985, a magnitude 8.5 earthquake struck Mexico City. It shook me to the core. I had family there, and though they they hadn't been injured, every Mexican and person of Mexican heritage felt the aftershocks. I wanted to help, so I did the only thing that popped into my head. I called my musician friends and tried to organize a benefit concert to raise money for the Red Cross relief efforts. The only problem was that I had never put together a concert, and I soon discovered that it was a monumental task. I threw all my energy into coordinating the event, all the while ignoring and irritating my long-time boyfriend, Bruce.

We raised very little money and after it was all over, I felt completely drained and demoralized. I had wasted so much energy and accomplished so little. I wanted badly to make a difference but I had no experience doing this type of event. I felt impotent but even as I sat on my bed in a dark, gloomy mood, the stubborn, resilient side of me sparked a flash of rebellion against the self pity I was feeling. I could make a difference, I thought, if I just tried a little harder. Organizing the benefit concert had put pressure on an already strained relationship. Bruce seemed to be in his own world. He showed little interest in what had been a very important project for me. It just felt like another aftershock when he and I decided to take a break after having been together for 7 years. I briefly dated the club owner who had helped me organize the concert but romance wasn't what I was looking for at that point in my life. I craved involvement in the world around me.

Back at school, my friend Kathy and I sipped coffee between classes and discussed Paulo Freire. We were in agreement with his view that education is used by the dominant elite culture to deposit ideas into the minds of students, a practice he calls the Banking Method. We were all too familiar with it. We knew that some teachers made you feel like a troublemaker if you questioned authority and that a big part of making it through school depended on regurgitating facts or parroting the views of the lecturer. We didn't want to be receptacles, filled with the values of the dominant class, and we certainly didn't want to turn our students into that. We wanted our students to talk back, to have their own points of view and be able to express them. We wanted our students to shape the world, not be herded through it.

Kathy mentioned that Paulo Freire had been involved in helping the post-revolutionary government of Nicaragua with their literacy campaign. I was fascinated, not only because of Freire, but because many of my students were from Central America, and the Sandinista revolution was like a live Petri dish. It seemed that the whole world was watching to see if the Sandinistas would succeed. A few days later, Kathy gave me a small pamphlet for a place called The Nica School, where one could volunteer to work in Nicaragua, learn about the revolution, and live with a local family. There was an option to learn Spanish through immersion, but my first language is Spanish, so I knew that part of the program wasn't for me.

I told my parents I was thinking of going to Nicaragua. They insisted that I shouldn’t go, reminding me that the country was at war and that Nicaragua was being described as the “new Cuba.” I wholeheartedly supported the Sandinista movement which had successfully overthrown the corrupt government of Anastasio Somoza and installed a socialist democracy in its place, but instead, I focused on the education angle with my parents.

“This is going to help me be a better teacher, plus, I’ll get college credit!” As I was trying to soothe their nerves, the nightly television news began showing a clip of tanks rolling through the capital city of Managua. 

“See? That’s where you want to go!” my father yelled at the screen, visibly concerned. 

“Don’t worry, the town where I’m going is far away from Managua. I’ll be safe,” I said. "I'm not going to join the revolution." Little did I know that much of the fighting was taking place in the northern part of the country where I'd be living and that the very act of teaching someone to read could be revolutionary. 

Now, the only thing left to do was to figure out how I could make good on the claim that I would get college credit for the journey. I pitched the idea of going to Nicaragua to study their educational reforms to Professor Vick. I proposed an independent study for college credit. I'm not sure that he was as interested in the report I was required to write as he was about the possibility of me stepping outside of my intellectual rut. Dr. Vick wisely made his approval contingent upon what seemed like an unusual requirement: that I keep a journal of my time in Nicaragua, not to turn in, but to help me understand my journey.

This book is based on that journal.

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