Menu Switch

In the Valley

By Stacey C. Johnson From Issue No. 6

“The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave”
—Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

“Hopelessness is just hope that has lost its bearings.”
—Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of Hope

The children of Lemon Grove, California, when they reach high school age, become incorporated into the Spring Valley-Lemon Grove zoning region, where there is a single high school. If you happen to arrive in the area with kids of a certain age and you decide to learn more about the school, you may decide to do a quick search. Most likely the information that comes up first will be a rating system, and this will not prove promising. If the children in question are yours and you have other options available you will do what parents do when they can: send them elsewhere. I teach the kids that do not go elsewhere.

It is Tuesday morning, the rush of Monday over, and the bulk of the week ahead.

I wake, as I always do, an hour before I need to get in the shower, to sip coffee in silence and read my way towards enough courage to face what comes next. After an hour of dreaming over coffee, the rush begins: iron clothes, shower, make lunches and breakfasts, check homework, fix hair to a reasonable level of management, and use just enough concealer to hide dark circles under eyes. I kiss my daughter before I go, and say a soft prayer into her scalp.

“Mama,” she says, as she always does before I go, “will you be there today after school?” She knows I will, but wants to check. There’s been a lot of change this year, and she wants to be reminded of what stays the same. I kiss her forehead again, and as I leave, bags and keys and phone in tow, I toss another kiss across the room. She catches it.

“Bye, mom. Love you.”

I am always reluctant to leave. She’s in second grade at a school only minutes away, and doesn’t need to leave for another hour. My brother will drive her. If I have left in time, my commute to school will be about forty-five minutes: I-5 to the 805, CA-94 to Lemon Grove. If I am five minutes behind, it will take an hour.  If it is raining, there is no telling how long it will take and I will turn up the radio and glance at the rosary around the rear-view mirror and hold on tightly to the wheel, wishing I had bought new tires three months ago, before Christmas break.

On the drive, I will listen to podcasts or I will listen to music and I will prepare to face what comes next. Down the street, toward the ocean, onto the I-5 South. Past neat sidewalks where I have never seen syringes and no one pushes shopping carts, and no one sleeps between the sidewalk and the fence. Past manicured lawns and the community park where we play frisbee after school, where the loudest noises are cheering fans at club soccer games.

Approaching the freeway onramp, a view of the ocean beneath the pink sky, and then the light changes and I turn south toward the I-5 on ramp. It takes 45 minutes to arrive in another universe, where concerns about death and deportation are as real as those of sex trafficking and the trauma of war, where descendants of  an uncomfortable legacy of generational poverty and mass incarceration live in the shadow of the freeway, a current of cars passing above them. Where daughters and sons just like mine worry who is going to be there after school, and in many cases have learned not to ask.

I listen to a recently recorded podcast celebrating James Baldwin, who delivered a talk to teachers in 1963, the year Medgar Evers was shot in his driveway by a white supremacist, and four little girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. “These are dark times,” Baldwin begins, and goes on to explore how “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to grow conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” Yes, I think, feeling an urgent call, renewed with the hope borne of purpose.  We will read the words of visionaries like King and Baldwin, Coates and Morrison,  and we will examine the systemic obstacles at hand and they will know that the world below the overpass is a world designed, against which they might pit themselves in an effort to reclaim stolen freedoms.

South, then east on the King freeway, I am freshly inspired as I review mental notes for the day. First period is finishing their personal essays, second period we are reading King. Third we are going to look at the Allegory of the Cave, Perception and Reality discussion, the idea of being prisoners to illusion. That’s usually a lively one, relatively speaking.  Hope springs again.

When people ask where I work and I tell them, they often say, Wait, where is that? A few exits west on the 94 is College Ave, and a few exits further east are some modest homes with big yards, even an occasional donkey. You might get off the Lemon Grove exit on purpose if you needed to go to the car dealership, but that’s right off the exit, so you’d never have to go into town.  If you did, you would cross the trolley tracks, see the optimistic yellow lemon icon (“Lemon Grove, incorporated 1971: Home of the World’s Biggest Lemon!”) across the street from the trolley station, and notice how it stood adjacent to a main street that may have been promising in an earlier era, and know that something was a little off. If you had planned to stop for gas or food and weren’t feeling particularly adventurous, you might look for a place to turn around. Apparently there used to be lemon groves nearby, and a few small-scale cattle farms.  There is a nice oak tree behind the lemon, providing shade for those waiting at the bus stop, but in fourteen years I haven’t seen any actual lemon trees except at the nursery on Sweetwater. There’s a smoke shop across the street at the corner of main and Broadway. Across from that, a liquor store. Next to the liquor store the remains of a former music store, and beside this a new business in an old storefront. Painted on its windows, in bright bubble letters: “All Shoes $8 or less! Current Fashions! ¡Zapatos con descuento!”

When Starbucks moved in, around 2006, we thought, “Movin’ on up!” I wondered what would replace the pawn shop next to it, the payday loan outlet, the shoe repair place, and Toda Moda discount fashions. I worried about the nice Vietnamese couple that ran the Miss Donuts with Binh, their son who was a senior the year I started.  Surely this would hurt them.  But all of these places stayed and I can think of no other examples when I have watched a Starbucks franchise shut down within a few years.

I see my students walking as I approach the school. Some take the bus, others get a ride, but many walk. They walk to school beneath the shadow of SR-125, where it connects to the MLK freeway, past a chain link fence, past Little Darlings XXX Live Nudes, the check cashing places, the cardboard signs announcing Cash For Homes!!! Call now! Past the trailer parks and auto repair places, a 99 cent only store and a 7-11 announcing EBT accepted here! Freeways tend to divide certain regions neatly into haves and have-nots, and here come the kids of East San Diego county whose parents were probably not on the approval board.

Sometimes in the morning, when I can hear the choir practicing and I see the sun breaking through the clouds, and I see the children walking bravely forward, wearing their swap meet blankets and trying to figure out how to hold their bodies, I find something catch in my throat. I am overwhelmed in moments like this, as I walk across campus getting copies, stopping at the mailroom, going past the quad.

Toward the end of my first period prep time, I walk across the grass toward the bathrooms in the 200 buildings to the water fountain to drink. They say it’s got lead, but I grew up drinking tap water and forgot my water bottle today and the machine in the lounge only sells soda and iced tea—so I drink long and slow, as if to pause time. The silence of this reverie is broken by the call of one student from the adjacent building to another appearing at the other end of the hallway from the fountain, “Hey!” she calls, in a voice sounding angry but which is likely meant in jest. “Get yo’ bitch-ass ova here!”

I have taught here long enough to know that to sound alarm at such a remark shouted at such volume at such a time, in certain circles, would be to indicate that perhaps you do not belong. Always the assumption—my own and others—that perhaps one who makes such judgements, cannot, as the saying goes, “teach these kids.” If you stopped every minute you heard something that required what workshop leaders like to call a “teachable moment” it is safe to say that none of us ever would make it to class.

I keep drinking water for another beat more before raising my head. Turning back toward my classroom, I catch the eye of Byron, driving his golf cart up the center hallway. I think of Byron as the wise soul of the school, a campus supervisor who coaches baseball and drives the cart to deliver call slips from the vice principal’s offices, and to pick up the mid-period hallway wanderers. I’ve laughed often enough with Byron to respect the unaffected manner with which he spends his day listening to all manner of foolishness from young and old people alike, credentialed and non-credentialed, professional and working class, professing wisdom and embracing ignorance, and never misses a day and never raises his voice in anger and never fails to at least nod a greeting passing, usually with some wise comment on whatever has most recently transpired around him. Today when he nods, having heard the exchange in the center hallway, he says, “That’s one way to say hello, ain’t it, Ms. Johnson?”

“Yes indeed Byron,” I say, “We do keep it lively around here.”

“Ima just keep driving, right now, and act like all I’m hearing is these seagulls.”

“I hear you, Byron. Those are some loud-calling seagulls sometimes.”

“Mmmm-hmmm. Truth.”

Said at another time, in another context, I think over beer, after a colleague was venting the vestiges of a bruised vision: “The number one job that we have is to show up on time, have the door open to greet students, and take attendance.” I may not like the statement, but I also must recognize that after fifteen years I have reached a point where I am able to recognize that it takes a degree of willful optimism that I can no longer muster, to categorically disagree with the idea that sometimes, when hope wearies and vision wanes, my best offerings amount to little more than a Hello, a Here We Are, and a counting of heads.

First period ends. Second period is coming. I open my door. I put on a smile and hope that when each student comes before me, I may feel it. I hold out my hand.  I make a point of looking each comer in the eye, even if they do not look back. I make a point of saying their names when they approach, even if they look away; I make a point of shaking with solid affirmation, even if the hand that I meet is limp, or wet, or covered in hot Cheetoh powder, or altogether absent, buried firmly in the pouch of a hoodie. On certain days I will call out the non-shakers—Hey, you left me hangin’!, in playful parody of having taken a great offense. Other times I will let it go. In fifteen years I watch amazing teachers come and go and one thing that the amazing ones have in common is that they do not let some things go. Another thing they have in common is that in general they do not stay.

I am not an amazing teacher. I am not even sure, at this point, if I am a teacher at all.  Sure, I’ve won the usual awards: Teacher of the Year, Golden Apple, the respective Senatorial and Congressional commendations. I’m not sure what do with any of these and it seems wrong to throw them out, so they sit in various drawers—except for the apple, which my daughter took to using as a regular part of an elaborate pre-K princess costume, and it may have been discarded along with some of the make-believe accessories she had outgrown by the time we moved.  In the second year and maybe the third I was starting to think that I had begun to know a thing or two, but after fifteen all I know is that I can usually find it in me to keep going. I can show up with whatever hope I managed to scrape together and I can prop open the door before the last bell rings and I can stand in the doorway and hold out my hand with a smile and a look of sincere appreciation—which on some days may be muted with regards to certain comers, but still genuine. Also, I am coming to recognize at the time of this writing and perhaps for some time long coming, that I am made of something that at every crossroads of potential fallout, cannot keep from whispering, at some primordial level within my interstitial fluid: Stay.

Second period begins.

The next morning I will see them again for an hour at a time, in room 235, in batches of forty, for five periods of a given day. I will have moments of frustration with the listlessness of their eyes, the way they are looking always at their screens the way they seem half-there. If we read King’s “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression,” I will linger on the first: acquiescence, so we can pause to consider how it is possible to live like the lyrics, “Been down so long that down don’t bother me.”

Can you see how this is can happen? I ask. Sometimes I wonder who I am really trying to teach. Is this for them, or for myself? It’s often unclear.

At fifth period my friend Mark usually comes by after his daily trip to the office to deal with some English department matter, and if there’s enough time he’ll say,“Wanna coffee?” and I’ll say yes.

Since the Starbucks shut down this generally meant hunting around in the front office to see if anything was brewing or going under the 125 at Jamacha, right next to the Fruiteria. But a year or so ago, a new Starbucks opened up in the Albertson’s center by the next freeway exit down from there. It’s the one you would get on if you were heading out of the neighborhood, south to one of the big homes in Chula Vista or Eastlake—not mansions by Southern California standards, but new and big and manicured, and often gated.  The new place is between a big McDonald’s with a Play Place, an auto body shop, and a new Circle K, where I have several times gone to buy gas and given up after waiting for what seems like an unreasonable amount of time for none of the cars at the pumps to be moving.

“Powerball’s up to 253 million,” Mark comments as we pass the station, nodding at the LOTTO signs outside.

Oh yeah?

“Mmm hmm. Get your ticket?”


This is a regular line of conversation. He reminds me that I can’t win if I don’t play. I acknowledge the truth, agree to remember to play and then either forget or when I remember find that I am without cash. But today I have a few singles so when he takes a call I make a motion, “Be right back,” and walk over to the Circle K.

A small bearded man in soiled jeans and a military surplus jacket is sitting outside, on the sidewalk, his back to the wall, an unwrapped sandwich in his lap. This is not unusual, but the noises he makes are startling. As he bangs the back of his head on the concrete behind him, he cries out like a dog barking. His cries come in threes, like a chant: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”  He pauses for a few seconds, then does it again. Mark has a phrase for this sort of thing, but he’s back in the Starbucks. I go inside, get two Powerball quick picks—one for each of us—and a couple of Super Lottos while I’m at it. I walk back the long way, avoiding the man hitting his head on the wall. I hand Mark his tickets and we walk out playing the what would you do game.

Our plans don’t change, but we love repeating them. His are more noble. He’d build a school. I just want to stay home with my daughter, take her to Disneyland, and pay for her tuition to a really great school, but I assure him that I would definitely donate to his project. Later, it occurs to me that after a year or maybe even a few months of being able to breathe and recover, I would most likely return, but in this moment I am too tired not to fantasize about not needing to. You don’t get sabbatical in a public high school unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to go without a paycheck.

As we drive away, embellishing our plans, he’s got the window open, and the man at the Circle K is still there, sandwich in his lap. Still shouting “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I know what’s coming before Mark says it. It’s an expression he can say because he grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and spent time homeless before he enlisted in the Marines. And because now, a homeowner, he lives nearby, on a quiet street of residential homes but still “In the hood.” When things like this happen, he has a saying. After we pass the guy there is a tension, a silence, it feels like absorbing something too big to hold. He’s not one for being overwhelmed, so to break the tension, as he often does, he raises an eyebrow and with a wry half smile and a sideways nod of his head, remarks, “That’s life in the hood.”

After lunch, against the blue Gatorade and hot Cheetos and loudness of a throng of teenagers at midday after being out in the sun for thirty minutes in the open concrete yard known as the quad, which during construction, before the saplings started to grow and before the benches were put in, looked disturbingly like a prison yard and was similarly—for reasons that are obvious enough considering the layout—volatile. Nobody I talk to regularly looks forward to teaching after lunch. I didn’t even like the noise of school when I was in it. So as I stand at the door to greet students for after-lunch periods, it takes a bit more to summon the enthusiasm of my morning smile. I stand there breathing against the noise and I have to remind myself.

In any given group in any given neighborhood, it is often the most ignorant voices that speak the loudest. Consider, for example, who speaks most often in faculty meetings. Or whose voices are most often featured in news sound bytes. In any given group in any given neighborhood, it is also the case that other voices—thoughtful, nuanced, sensitive, and reluctant to shout into an already noisy landscape—tend to be silenced, overtly or covertly, by the extant atmosphere into which they might speak if things were different. What keeps me coming back are the sensitive quiet ones who can’t help that their parents either don’t know about voluntary transfer options or are otherwise incapable of sending their sons and daughters elsewhere.

Also, for reasons more logistical than intentional but just as pernicious, it has always been the case that my after lunch English period is the period where the students with the poorest academic records and most traumatic backgrounds are lumped together. The average GPA in the class that is coming now is a 1.4. That’s the class average. There are quite a number of students who haven’t passed more than one class in almost two years. There are also quite a number in the same class who have at least one family member in prison.

In this class, it takes longer than any other class to begin anything that resembles actual schoolwork, because it takes longer to sit down, longer to rearrange seats to accommodate certain energies, longer to deal with nurse passes and other emergencies, and much, much longer to find pens. Then there are usually things to vent. Sometimes, to encourage community, I may invite the students to speak on a question of the day. There are some lively voices in here. “Aww, no, Demaree tryin’ to preach again,” someone may say, of one of the most charismatic of the outspoken. But Demaree’s here so rarely that I’m not inclined to stop him when he gets on a role, sparking responses from the others. The period is about halfway over by the time we begin exploring King’s critique of acquiescence.

“It’s like when you learn to adjust to being hurt,” I say, “like when someone stays in an abusive relationship,” trying to affect detachment, “or when someone gets used to not having opportunities so stops hoping. Or, like—”

“Like when someone’s in prison and they’re afraid to get out.” This from Tyra in the front row

“Yeah,” says Demetrius, like that one guy in Shawshank!”

“Yeah like my brother had that,” says Marquise.

“My dad had that,” echoes Osvaldo.

“My mom had that,” answers Genesis.

“What’s Shawshank?” This from Angel in the back.

“Yeah, what the hell is Shawshank?” answers a few others.

Demaree is ready to respond. “Y’all never seen Shawshank? Shawshank Redemption, man, It’s this old-ass movie but good it’s like a classic. Bout dudes bein’ locked up in the pen. But it’s called Redemption ‘cuz they get out. Dude busts loose and heads off to live the life.”

Cyndi, who recently returned after a long absence which reportedly was at least partially due to being homeless again, “So what’s that gotta do with what we was just talkin’ about? They got free. They didn’t stay down.”

“Yeah but there was this other dude, this old guy, looked like a librarian, ‘been locked up for like seventy years and didn’t nobody even know what he did. Then one day, they set him free and all the world’s different and it’s all fast and he doesn’t know how to be. It’s sad. And he’s living alone in his room and the only friends he has are those guys he’s been with most of his life but they all still locked up. So he’s finally so-called free and what he does is he’s sitting alone in this little room and he just hangs himself.”

“Oh, that’s harsh.”

There’s a rare moment of pause after this. “Let’s pick up reading,” I offer, before we lose it again: “To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor.”

“Can you see how this can work?”

Some look back with thoughtful eyes. Others—the quiet ones especially, stare back, a listless waiting. Many have learned the implicit lesson of their educational careers: wait long enough and whoever is trying to tell you what you should do will eventually leave. They stare at their screens, seeking some mindless distraction in the meantime, through eyes that have never in fifteen years, seen the ocean, fifteen miles to the West.

When I got my teaching credential, I remember coming across a statement about teaching and working in Certain communities. Those who really want to serve, it said, will live in the communities where they teach. I meant to live by this. Reasons for not doing this have more to do with logistical complications of my marriage to a man I met around the time I decided to begin teaching, than any deliberate avoidance. But over time, the relief at being able to avoid certain realities has been more noticeable.  Although I was not comfortable living so far from the community where I teach, what has transpired since the course of my decision to marry and begin work there has been such that I often wonder if it would be possible to continue without the promise of regular escape.

I wonder often about the significance of this layered acquiescence. I will think about this another morning, or perhaps in the evening, after my daughter showers, while she does her homework and I do mine with a glass of wine beside me. 

But when the bell rings, I can think only of escape, some desperate urge to reclaim some sanity and hope against the oppressive dizzy fatigue of 2:30.  It’s not unlike the feeling that  used to have me longing to escape into sleep when the husband I used to live with was in one of his moods. I would mentally move towards sleep long before his anger was spent. With this work, it’s hope, not fear driving the commitment, but fatigue is constant. In my first year, a veteran teacher told me, “No matter how long you stay at school with your to-do list, there will always be something unfinished.”

I straighten a few things on the desk. Double check that I have remembered to take attendance for the last period. Shut down the computer. Bring home the folder containing the list of things I did not manage to get done in the day, to work on later.

I walk outside with my daughter, throw a frisbee at the park, or maybe at the beach, where we will breathe ocean air and laugh. I will be far enough away, even if only for few hours before night comes, that I summon what I need to summon in order to return again in the morning.

Before lights out, I kiss her head again and we do our nightly reminders. Soft prayers, thank you’s for this day, and another thing she doesn’t need to say because I always do. Mama, will you cuddle me, she says. I lay sideways, wrap one arm tightly around her torso, and press my lips into the back of her head.

In the morning, after the alarm announces it is time to get up, after the coffee is brewed and I am propped up against a pillow in bed, sipping, and before I need to move to do anything but read, I pick up Ben Okri’s A Time for New Dreams, which has been on my nightstand for weeks, beneath Baldwin and the NIV Bible and a few others. Turning to a page that seems approximate to where I last left off, I find this reminder: “We are constantly becoming, constantly coming into being.” I turn my notebook to the back page, where I keep words I want to remember. I write it below another which I had recorded a week or two earlier, when I had opened the book before some daily interruption.

What you see is what you make, it reads in the shiny purple ink of one of my daughter’s gel pens.  Turning the pages back to today’s notes, where in addition to catching stray thoughts I will envision certain intentions for the day, I pause and sip, relaxing my eyes in the space above me, halfway between my notebook and my feet, breathing and waiting to see.

About Stacey C. Johnson More From Issue No. 6