Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Uses of Literacy: Lincoln Heights Library

Leo needed to find a cinematic adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet," which all ninth-graders appear to have assigned. He already has, but his transferring of credits means he has to backtrack a bit. Since he'd seen Jet Li's "Romeo Must Die" with us a few months ago on video, he chose this for his comparison and contrast with the play. I have to admit, for all the silly contrivances (the Oakland waterfront's near nightly demise through bullets, explosives, and death by immersion in a bucket of crustaceans seems to go unnoticed by the forces of law or those of the local ten o'clock news reporters, and at the end, without giving anything away, the avenger of one clan and daughter of its rivals stroll out of a mass murder crime scene past the long rows of the cop cars that finally show up, without notice again), I found Aaliyah's presence entertaining, as well as various semi-hapless Chinese, black, and white fun lovin' criminals. It's preposterous popcorn fodder, but hey, at least it's based on the stab-'em-up, poison-them-quick, marry-them-off entertainment that wowed the groundlings and delighted the nobles. Who will be the Bard from our century that keeps the attention from 2508's disorderly masses, plugged into who knows what swarm?

My current class in Contemporary Literature has been investigating similar pairings, and will do so for "Othello" in two weeks, so I approve of such multimedia assignments that fit our generation. Yet, inside the Lincoln Heights Library, the Carnegie grand sweep of its Venetian villa interior appeared, despite the sunny afternoon, empty. Sure, about fifteen people were there. Only one, however, rested near any bound volumes. A bum snoozed under the nearly pristine rows of adult paperbacks of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. All of six new books sat nearby, among them Obama's memoirs, part two. I imagine I will have to put up with a lot more of his visage, not to mention those annoying Shepherd Fairley "Obey"-type "Hope" posters that for me smack of Big Brother more than a paternalistic multicultural empty suit.

Two teen boys behind me checked out two South Park episodes on DVD. The elderly couple ahead were getting a card so they could get their ESL video while the clerk, in Spanish, previewed the features of the library. As I waited inside the handsome 1925 building, which rises on the site of the first branch from 1900 in north-east L.A., I thought about the collection where Leo fruitlessly browsed for his Jet Li. It did have, he admitted, some of Nas's lesser CDs, and a fine rap selection. That wing was given over to videos, recordings, a few computers, and reference works. The shelves appeared bigger than their scant holdings. The other wing held children's books. Despite the many tables, no kids roamed there. Two chattered together, each at a computer. The rest of the spring-lit chambers, soaring high above the well-kept lines of books, appeared cheerfully dignified, but as forlorn as your average art museum (at least in L.A.) on a Tuesday afternoon.

The other patrons huddled around other screens. Nobody walked in the downsized back stacks for grown-ups. They occupied a small alcove without any grand Renaissance sweep. I thought of impending budget cuts in our increasingly impoverished city. The space on the metal racks equalled its volumes in many places in the Dewey system. European history and Chicano/ Mexican-American titles appeared about the same in number. The fiction, where I looked for likely finds for Layne, offered little. Few classics: one "Jane Eyre," two Hemingways, three copies of different translations from Cervantes, and "Steppenwolf."

I wondered if, as at my employer's library, if any book not checked out for the past two years faced discarding, for very few books here appeared very old, and very few were from the canon of the past century. The usual mysteries, science fiction, and chick lit dominated. "How the South Beach Picas Got Their Men" was one offering from a woman with a triple Portuguese name; near it two well-worn copies of "Youth in Sexual Ecstasy" by Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez managed to rest together, a "Sensational Best Seller" as the scripted legend on the bottom of the cover promised, translated from the Mexican edition. And, as in every local library, lots of "Bless Me, Última" and "Rain of Gold," two standards para cada biblioteca en nuestro barrio.

Recently, I'd read a June 2008 Harper's cover story, surprisingly too rambling, arch, and diffused, about the Episcopal battles over same-sex marriage, this about two days before by coincidence the ruling permitting such unions by our State's Supreme Court. In it, Richard Rodríguez was quoted as preferring to be identified as "queer," and it noted his partner had been with him twenty-five years. I had heard him speak at my college, therefore, right around the time he'd met his lover. "Hunger of Memory" had recently appeared, and his reputation soared. At the auditorium, determinedly, he deflected the audience away from his own life's account. Instead, he spoke of Puritan conversion narratives and how they influenced his own autobiography, which told much but held more back. At the time, I'd found much of my own experience mirrored in his.

Maybe fewer Irish nuns given the decline of the Church between my childhood and his, and my battles over complexion did not compare with his; he worked in the sun that I had to avoid. In the first burst of affirmative action, he entered far more prestigious institutions than I did, but as he eloquently narrated, his notion of always being "the scholarship boy" would not leave him. That gap's always been with me too, a chip on my shoulder, the kid who sees class when others only see race. I looked up his source for this concept of the outsider who welcomes his learning but feels always an intruder. I found the Pelican paperback of Richard Hoggart's "The Uses of Literacy." Hoggart mapped the road that he, Rodríguez, and I variously travelled. Today, I think of another Rodríguez going in to Lincoln Heights library.

What would Ricky find? If he, like the elder R., wished to delve into Shakespeare after a curriculum tilted farther away from the dead white males than that taught by the Irish nuns in Sacramento pre-Vatican II to Richard, would he find "Romeo" on the shelf, if not in the video section? If-- as with Richard decades before the judges in his hometown would move to sanction and uphold what the Catholic of his parent's (and many in our) generation would have condemned as sinful or even blasphemous-- a boy or girl from Daly Street curious about their own identity looked for answers in the library's assembled media, what might he or she find to inspire or soothe or rage? Who might dare to assert his or her own identity before a family going to Mass or increasingly likely, a storefront Pentecostal congregation? I think of my student last term who grew up in South Gate, catty, flamboyant, and enduring abuse daily until in Beyoncé Knowles' singing he found comfort and direction to pursue a career in fashion that kept him from succumbing to his despair or possibly teen suicide.

What if Ricky or Enriqueta, maybe sensitive about his or her own "sexual ecstasy," wanted not only Sánchez' robust populism but to track down some teacher's stray mention of Donne's erudite conceits? (A student of mine did just that last month!) Could our charge find beauty in Dante's "vita nuova" as well as one of three copies on the shelf of Villasenor's own chronicle? Would he find them at the local branch? If it's Donne or Dante, no-- although "Paradiso" for once, and not "Inferno" lingers as the only installment of the Commedia a mile and a half from my house.

Today's L.A. Times has a front-page feature on how Morehouse, the bastion of male black gentlemen, is only now acknowledging that gays dare to come out on its campus. Most students, lots of alumni, and many faculty bristle at such admissions. Rodríguez pioneered similar revelations, gingerly and gently, in his own memoirs. Yet, it took him many years to do so and no small courage. Today, I ponder: if he'd gone to his local library, or his neighborhood public school, what would he have been given to read beyond Rodolfo Anaya or Victor Villasenor? We hear a lot from "educators" about role models, and the importance of having your face, your reflection, mirrored back for "sí se puede," for Obama-era self-esteem. (This cliché's already in a You Tube Spanish song for his campaign, adding the titular verb "cambiar.") We also assume, inadvertently but in my opinion increasingly, that unless a student finds such relevance, such intimacy, that no connection can be easily linked. Same problem as the identity politics that balkanizes the presidential race's voters, at least as we're gerrymandered and targeted by marketers. In classrooms, too, we risk a form of "authorial fallacy."

The abandonment for most students of a traditional education steeped in catechism for some like Richard, and Shakespeare for many, has given way, depending on your level of tuition or admission, to a dutifully inclusive reading list. I glanced at Leo's textbook. Shakespeare's there, thankfully, but again, no pretense here: they prefer Jet Li and Nas, not to mention South Park. Sometimes, my wife does too. And, I did laugh at the "Raisins" episode they made me (!) watch the other day when Kyle learns how he can be a Goth. "If you wanna be one of the non-conformists, all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do." I was the punk with the longest hair, who never looked like the type, which confounded everyone.

Now, on the local library's shelves, today's hordes of corporate non-conformists-- who, like the Latino goth student in my lit class, may show their rebellion by preferring print to games-- can find far more authors with Iberian surnames than the Cervantes that might have represented much of an earlier decade's Hispanic catalogue once upon a time a hundred years ago in north-east L.A. Literacy pushes each generation upward, so we're told. But, among the second-generation Latinos, graduation rates decline as the immigrant drive fades and South Park marathons thunder. My students find it harder to pay for college. They're burdened by the massive debt that politicians and bankers collude in saddling our youth with in the name of fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, interest rates on Stafford loans and their Educard payments inflate to pay for war in Iraq.

This progress, therefore, may work but sporadically for a few of us malcontents in every demographic. Maybe the monopolists of the industrial boom were right; we humbler folks should work hard. Ivy League's out of our league. We can frequent libraries in our spare time. But these cultural innovations do not appear to have sparked a massive literacy campaign any more than they did under Carnegie for most families from humble and/or immigrant origins back then when these streets might have hosted Ukrainians, Italians, Jews, and even an Irishman or two. The bus may not be the best example of literate levels today, but if not there, where for our future, given the promises of the pols, the teachers, and the bosses who claim to care? It's uncommon to find the majority of my fellow riders with their nose buried deep in a book, unless you count as a substitute a tattered copy of The Watchtower, the color coupons from the paper, or Hoy!

I wonder if it's more an individual quirk rather than parental or familial example, these Richards who make it out of the barrio into Stanford and the British Library. I dated a girl in college who'd graduated from Locke H.S., down the freeway from East L.A., if you're lucky a half-hour away. Back then, her school's atmosphere meant that she had to learn more on her own, outside of the prison-like system. Today, Locke continues to decline into racial tension and administrative incompetence. Massive immigration changes its "demographic." Watts needs no introduction. It's received lots of federal and state funds, legions of reforms, committed Teach for America and now Green Dot recruits. But, the district fights losing its fiefdom. It drove out the principal the community had begged to keep. It fears privatization and charter restructuring. The union controls the school board. The mayor's plans have floundered without organized labor's support. Now, with sex scandals in the news, Locke again earns its unwanted reputation. Even the institution where I teach graduates from other such schools rarely gains applicants from Locke, only about ten miles away. Given my difficulties with inculcating composition to fresh arrivals from secondary classrooms, this may be a blessing in disguise. Locke now has 2% of its student body reading at grade level.

So, what's an increasingly impoverished city to do? Perhaps the LAPL should stock up on ESL, South Park, and rap. My workplace's librarian told me she's discouraged from any liberal arts acquisitions. Leave the erudition to a few dwindling eggheads. We Angelenos still merit interlibrary loan, which is why I visited that local branch today! But, does it matter how much we invest in municipal libraries if the future is that funny yet edgy depiction that graced the 4/9/07 New Yorker, with its bright stacks of DVDs and computer stalls filling up a similarly adorned interior, as the books were dumped for a dollar each, carted off even before an elderly lady could shuffle towards them, or a bum (of course) could paw through the discards? [See these blogs for a description of the illustration, which I accidentally recycled! No scan exists on the Net, ironically or not. 1) Library Journal: Artwork of Bruce McCall. 2) Booktruck: "Reading Room" Contents. ]

Since Plato, academicians bemoan the plebe's lack of class. My complaints, if they are such, are nothing new. But even an overworked, if underemployed, professor needs diversion. I enjoy varied, often less exalted lit. My own magpie tendencies keep me alert if scattered when it comes to integrating the last book I read or yesterday's papers into my classes, my blogging, my musing, and my mentality.

Today: ILL loan for Robert Ferrigno's paired thrillers, "Prayers for the Assassin" followed by "Sins" of the same. These unfold within a near-future Muslim regime that has conquered much of the U.S. (I relish dystopias poisoned with dogmatic fanaticism, an elusive combo.) Francesca Fremantle's commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Local finds: Martin Amis' "House of Mirrors," in which he offers another Nabokovian novel-- but actually based in the USSR. George Saunders' satirical take on our national ear for self-help nostrums, peddled by corporations, babbled by us, "In Persuasion Nation." (Our copy's in our garage post-remodeling, yes, but I can't find it.) For my dear wife: Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," post-millennial Manhattan in what used to be called a novel of manners. Michael Chabon's post-failed-Israel Alaskan landsmen (speaking of Aliyah spelled correctly) whodunit, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union." You never know what turns up, but I've about exhausted any return visit's treasure trove. The bottom of the hoard's been scraped. Unless I'm in the mood for sinking deeper into disthymia by Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," whose ending a reviewer gave away, so I'm not sure it's worth my tsuris.

I too am an addled product of such alphabetical rambling in fiction's stacks, for decades, and while I might have benefited more from a Great Books regimen at St. John's, I in the spirit of robber baron Carnegie educated myself, haplessly but industriously. My frugality lately means many more trips to libraries and I do wonder why I've bought so many books I could have checked out-- and taken back. This hoarding, of the pages and their contents, may explain my vast knowledge of useless information, if not my inability to tell jokes. Future Rodrígueses may do so in witty and arabesque manner as Jet Li collides with Shakespeare in ways we teachers never anticipated. Even if my own sons to my own resignation appear to pop in hip-hip more than they do open up Plato. I admit my own predilections vary. As my previous blog entry notes, finally, I tended to cue up punk even as I battled with philosophy in college, which may account for my present manner of employment and hiring status!

Lincoln Heights Branch History


harry said...

Wondeful musings here John. Do you know I have pretty much the same picture of the Lincoln Heights Library on my office wall (actually it is less sterile, a few overweight women pusing stollers and newpapers blowing on its lawn). I taught there in the basement for over ten years. I've had the picture on my wall for over 20.

I read the Harper's piece too and thought it was hugely irrelevant and wondered by Harper's cared to feature it. I love Rodriguez (the Mexican American Ezra Pound) who, like gloria anzaldua and Edward Said, relishes in what hybridity (yes, the idea that I bought for $25,000) has delivered. My own thought is nothing's wrong with Will, but why can't white kids have the Upanishads or Popul Vuh or Li Po (or Hello Kitty) too. Canons to left of them, canons to the right, into the valley of Lincoln Heights read the few-who-are-chosen. The white man's burden indeed.

Fionnchú said...

I agree with our newly minted Doctor. I didn't know he-you taught there ten years! It had been closed for a long while in the 80s. When we moved nearby, I guess I put off going to the branch for many years afterwards since I figured it was mothballed still.

In fact, all three local branches had their renovation: Cypress Park transferred from their old church to their sterile new digs; Arroyo Seco got a stony remake; and Lincoln Heights its new cosmetic coat. Still, I must say, irony as I type this notwithstanding my frequent visits to LAPL, I do find few readers and lots of viewers whenever I go to whatever edifice. Our learning may take up little shelf space and lots of carrels in the future of Bruce McCall. I wish I could find an image of his prescient painting.

If you look at Leo's textbook, certainly there's plenty of world lit there gathered, for the minority of our state's white kids as well as its melanin-enriched majorities. My point's not to critique that approach, but I suppose to note its manifestation in a real library, randomly entered, and a snapshot (without the bodies in the way that yours has) of how literacy plays out on a typical lazy afternoon here. Thanks for the post, and I'm glad you responded-- as I was composing it while thinking of you!