Back-to-School Night

Pulling into the dimly lit parking lot, the sound of AM 570 filtered through my ears as the start of the Lakers game was about to begin. I clicked the worn black dial off as Stu Lance's infamous voice faded before me. My mission for the next two hours was much more important than the game at hand.

As the car door scraped open, the swirling sounds of children and parents mixing Spanish and English in between the pitter patter of basketballs in the distance intertwined with the immense darkness. One fluorescent light I dubbed my "north star" led me through the couple of turns my scrawled directions started to make, as did the dirty, grungy, gummy ground. The metal- lined stairwell clicked as my heavy heels clunked upward toward ceilings of scrawled graffiti, soot, and hanging filth. Approaching the final turn, I saw the bright warm lights of my final destination, Room 521.

Upon entering the royal blue doorway, relief from the darkness of hell sprang my soul into the lights of heaven that included two tightly squared groups of desks, to the left a whiteboard, and straight ahead a collage of pictures and glittering awards. As I peered to my right, a soft glow began radiating a warm golden hue of the most beautiful and familiar face I had ever known in my life. I immediately felt at home. It was my wife and I was at Back-to-School Night at Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Middle School located near Crenshaw Blvd. and Venice in Los Angeles.

Regaining focus, I realized her brown laminated teacher's desk held a picture of us from one of the best nights we have ever had as well as an archaic computer dating back to the ascent of the Macintosh era and, of course, a stack of red-marked 8" x 11" college-ruled papers. I marveled at the loving environment she had created inside of this classroom compared to the prison-like entry.

I reflected on how this was the perfect opportunity for me to be of service to my wife and at the same time able to get the feel of what an inner-city middle school was all about. You see, I'm bilingual and my wife usually needs a translator on back-to-school nights. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) seems to always be short of hands to assist the teachers with communication efforts. It's not surprising, though, considering that on Friday, March 13, 2009, approximately 9,000 LAUSD faculties received their walking papers via "pink slip" despite union efforts. At Cochran Middle School, "Pink Friday" had already worried nearly 30 teachers that their jobs would be ending at the completion of the current school year in June; luckily my wife was skipped… for now.

My wife teaches eighth grade English to roughly 166 students and the slight ticking and clicking of the clock made me aware that it was 15 minutes after the start of the night and the empty room stared us both in the face. The steady stream of students and parents I had expected to be wrapped around the room were absent in comparison to my own sheltered suburbia back-to-school nights when I was in junior high.

Eventually, some parents and students slowly meandered in, each with their heads tilted downward, seeming as though they were headed for a natural disaster. The parents were dressed as though they had just come off work. Dress varied from occupational uniforms to some sort of basic apparel, nothing fancy. Almost all of the students were still in their school uniforms, including white-collared shirts stained with dirt, pen, pencil, and who knows what else had splattered throughout their long day, and dark blue pants. Hints of yellow mustard, perhaps combined with a generic Hidden Valley Ranch wafted beneath my nose. As I sat back in the corner, I watched my wife be a teacher. She had a smile across her face with each student and parent regardless of the pain they were about to face or the congratulations they would be awarded. I was proud of my wife's positive nature after our countless after-work debriefing sessions and her constant worry about how to ensure no child is left behind.

At first glance I thought most of the parents would need interpretation, but to my surprise, there were only a few. The few that I did have to translate for seemed very concerned with their children. They asked with great sternness, "¿Mi niño ha estado hablando demasiado?" ("Has my kid been talking too much?") "Tiene mi niño que hace su tarea?" ("Has my child been doing their homework?") "Son que escuchan en clase?" ("Are they listening in class?") The pleasant words that came out of my mouth about their children were met with an agreeable smile or sometimes an almost comedic deep sigh of relief. The more mischievous students and concerned comments they received were met with a harsh look from their parents as though "they were really going to get it when they got home." Those parents' facial expressions could not be defined.

In between students, I spoke to my wife about the surprisingly short list of names that had signed in and her response, "Yep, this is how it usually is." The list was close to 20 signatures deep which boggled my mind in comparison to the 166 eighth graders she taught. Their parents should be flocking to ensure their children have the opportunity to culminate to a high school of their choosing rather than being planted into a high school similar to the middle school they hoped to depart.

The small flow of participants quickly diminished and the last 45 minutes allowed my wife and me quiet time out of our busy schedules. I learned about my wife's work life and actually had some quiet personal conversation with her about our lives considering she works full-time, and I am a full-time student, and we have two daughters, ages 3 and 7. It seemed so ironic within the closed walls of this school that it would be the time and place for my wife and me to get to know each other even better after nine years.

As the 8:00 p.m. bell shrilled, a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing time was up. My wife and I gave each other the look. "Let's get out of here." We walked towards the door, turned out the lights to the little piece of heaven she had created for these inner-city kids, and walked out of the dimly lit, infested walls of the prison hand-in-hand towards home.