Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some Free-Verse Poetry for You High Brows

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Alcorn.

I am Himmelhoch's Son

I was Werner Himmelhoch’s illegitimate son,
and I also loved a woman in a housing project in Pacoima.
Decades later, I remember one hot and smoggy
afternoon: We lay coated in a sheen, smoking Marlboros, exhaling clouds
that drifted across her peace sign poster before
getting sucked out the window by the
traffic on Interstate 5.
Even then, in 1979, it roared.

She, Weewish, told me that day,
“You’re not illegitimate. Your last
name is Himmelhoch.”
“Whatever I do is not
good enough for him,”
I replied.  Simultaneously
a pack of Hells Angels thundered
south toward Gardena.

Eventually Weewish dumped me,
moving back to the Morongo Reservation
two hours east on the San Bernardino Fwy.
Secretly I was relieved, as was, of course, my Father.
Oh, I missed the steady supply of sex,
but seldom thought about her three sons
who’d cry or scowl when I'd enter.

“You are better off without her,” my father noted.
Words erupting from his core, carrying all the Germany
he had left. Pop never spoke much,
but he spent hours teaching me how
to swing a golf club
before I disappointed him
and he walked back into the only house I knew, shaking
his head. The wanted man, who with
slide ruler and T-square routed 8-lane freeways across
mountains, marshes and a million razed bungalows
while I was flunking schoolboy math
and earning the name

Today Weewish lives in a mansion paid for by money lost.
One son is a pit boss, another a Council Man.
The oldest fell asleep behind the wheel
New Years Day 2000.

Someone had to chisel
1 9 1 5  -  1 9 9 2
across a marble slab.

I teach your children how to write if I’m not breaking
par at Chester Washington County Golf Course.

Mark J. Blocker

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kid Says the Dictionary is Racist

Friday in a central LA classroom. Lessons of the week introduced, practiced and learned. Tests administered, graded and returned. The students were acknowledging their grades and filing the results into their folders. With no completed assignments to file, Kevin Johnson (not his real name), grew bored.  So the shark of the class made his move.
Standing up Johnson announced to all, "These muthafucking English classes are racist." He locked his eyes on mine as he strutted the center aisle. Grading a pile of papers at my desk I responded, "How's that, Johnson?" Then I warned, "before you proceed,  I remind you this is a classroom; not the corner of Vermont and Manchester. Your language should reflect as such."
He leaned forward, palms down on my desk. "Mr Blocker, why is the dictionary racist?" He turned to the class, grinned and raised his arms.
"I see. The dictionary is racist?"
He waved off my ignorance. "C'mon, Blocker, you know it is," he challenged. "You read it all the time!"
I briefly wondered how this kid thinks I spend my free time. He tossed a worn-out graffiti-marred  dictionary on my desk. It landed with a loud, FLOP! The torn hard cover slid cock-eyed to the thick spine. Johnson pointed at it suggesting, "Look up 'black' and 'white'."
The whole class was interested now. I took the dictionary to the device that projects a page onto the screen. Even though "white" is further down the alphabet than "black," I arrived there first. Here's what the Merriam Webster's School Dictionary, 1994, contains:

white (adj) 1a: free from color b: of the color of new snow or milk c: light or pale in color (white wine) (lips white with fear) d: lustrous pale gray : SILVERY also: made of silver 2a: of, relating to, or being a member of a group or race characterized by light pigmentation b: slang: fair 5a HONEST 3a: free from spot or blemish as a : free from moral impurity : INNOCENT" . . . "c: not intended to cause harm (a white lie) (white magic) d: FAVORABLE, FORTUNATE (a white day in my life) . . .

After I finished reading the entry, I uttered, "Yeah? Well, Johnson, pretty sugary stuff. So what?" I lifted his prohibited, gang-affiliated baseball cap and pointed at his naked head. "You've got a lot of white coursing around through your veins. . ."
"My grandma call me 'high yella'," he nodded. "Now, look up black."

black (adj) 1a of the color black b: very dark (a face black with rage) 2a: having dark skin, hair, and eyes : SWARTHY b: (often cap) (1) : of or relating to the Negro race (black Africans)  2: of or relating to black Afro-Americans or their culture (black literature) 3: characterized by the absence of light (a black night) 4: thoroughly sinister or evil : WICKED (a black deed) 5: invoking evil supernatural powers (a black curse) 6a: very sad or gloomy (black despair) b: marked by disaster (black Friday) 7: characterized by hostility or discontent : SULLEN (black resentment). . .

My voice trailed off. Finally I stopped. Two dozen black and brown adolescents were frowning.
Johnson broke the silence. "Mr. Blocker.  I, we," he gestured to the class, "we are not evil!"
Affirmations followed. "Yeah." "That's right." "Amen" "What the fuck!"
"Hey! Remember it's a classroom." I launched the discussion, "What did you think about the dictionary's definitions of those two words?"
They unanimously preferred how white was defined. Again I reminded them to check the cussing.
"You cuss too!"
"Only when I'm really pissed."
"We're really pissed."
"It's the connotations of the words," I noted.
Johnson's observation turned into a lesson on denotation and connotation. It was going to be that or some vapid whine session about the ubiquitous, evil white man.
"Denotation is what a word means by its definition. Connotation is the emotional baggage a word offers. Take the difference between calling someone thrifty or cheap, fat or voluptuous, skinny or slim. Both describe the same thing, but no one wants to be called fat, skinny or cheap, because of the connotation of those words. We'd rather be called thrifty, voluptuous or slim. It's how we feel when we hear the words."
I then posed the obvious question, "Should the dictionary have used different words?"
I weakly opined that people writing those definitions didn't mean any harm. They didn't know any better. I pointed at the class, "Besides, you guys are partly to blame."
Here honked a chorus of "Huh?" "What?"
Johnson furrowed his brow and listened like the rest of the class.
I hollered for effect, "Hardly anybody is passing this class!" I paused. "How many of you want to be pro athletes or dancers and singers when you grow up?"
Most raised their hands.
"What's wrong with getting to be a pro writer? Maybe working at a newspaper, TV studio, a radio station that doesn't just play the same stupid songs over and over? How about a dictionary company?" I held up the 15-year-old worn out dictionary and eyed them all. Each one returned my gaze.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this crap will continue until we have people of color occupying the executive offices of America--not just the athletic fields and stages! Games are fun, but until you guys get an education and get jobs writing web sites, movies and TV shows--and dictionaries--nothing is going to change. You're only going to see your people defined as criminals, failures and evil. It's whites writing this stuff! So it's all going to be from a white perspective, unless you write about it."
There was contemplative silence.
"You, Johnson, you talk a lot, but I can't get you to pass one stinking test. Instead of looking up our assigned vocabulary words you look up any friggin' word you want!"
"It's better than nothing," he shrugged.
"Nothing ain't good enough anymore, son. You just can't go around pointing out how screwed society is. You gotta give some answers." They were snickering at Johnson as my target now. But Johnson is my favorite student even though he is the least productive on paper. "Don't give Johnson any crap," I warned the class, "if it wasn't for him you wouldn't even be thinking about this. Looks to me like you fools are under attack and playing right into the Man's hands." (The 'Man' being every adult white male except me and David Lindley. Maybe you too.)
Now pumped like a coach I urged, "Pass your classes! There's more college-aged minority kids in jail than there are in college!" (I didn't know if I was right, but I've heard that statistic more than once.)
The bell rang. The kids looked at each other still sitting in their seats. Then they looked at me. I motioned  toward the door, and they silently joined the cacophony in the hall.
I don't know if they'll remember that day Johnson discovered gold--or two old turds--in the dictionary. I never revisited the lesson. How Webster's staff defines what's black and white is Webster's business. For under achieving kids in competitive America, life is tough enough growing up in a poor part of town. There's a lot of negative forces pulling you down. Stay upbeat and positive. That goes for everybody. No matter who fell in love with whom--inspiring the Lord to punch your ticket into this colorful and challenging life.