Saturday, December 25, 2010

Top 10 Movies: 2010

Like so many other years, film goers found themselves under a deluge of crappy films throughout the beginning of 2010. It was an eclectic year for film, but beside the mediocre sequels and brainless comedies, there were a few gems scattered throughout the year.

I haven't seen everything, so there may be films that deserve to be on the list that I've missed - but overall I felt 2010 had a lot to offer. (And a lot that should never have been offered.)

Top 10 films of 2010:

1. Social Network - Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher make a potent combination; the dialogue crackles with raw energy, and there is nothing more topical at the moment than Time's person of the year Mark Zuckerburg and the advent of Facebook.

2. A Prophet - Technically released in 2009, this modern day (and more realistic) Scarface story about a no name's rise to prison kingpin is compelling, brutal, and so freaking cool! Yeah, it may be from France, but don't hold that against this gem of a film.

3. True Grit - D. H. Lawrence once wrote that the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer, and no one seems to understand that better than the Coen Brothers. True Grit isn't just a film, it's an homage to the Western and the legends of the Silver Screen.

4. The Town - Ben Affleck's second directorial debut about a Boston gang of bank robbers is taut, cunning, and full of brutal action. But the scene where Jeremy Remner goes down in a hail of gun fire surrounded by police is praise worthy of James Cagney in White Heat.

5. Toy Story 3 - Lovingly crafted, Pixar has made a film that is by turns sweet, funny, and full of danger. It's a shame that many adults dismiss animation, because no one should feel they need to have a kid in tow to watch this delightful and brilliant film.

6. The Fighter - Down on his luck fighter finds girlfriend who helps him learn to believe in himself and gives him the heart of a champion. Yeah, we've seen this before, but the performances by both Amy Adams and Christian Bale are terrific, the fight scenes are tense, and Melissa Leo and the six sisters are unforgettable.

7. Inception - Christopher Nolan's movie about stealing ideas from people's dreams is a time piece of intricate writing, pace, and action that makes his former film Memento look like a wind up watch. Never pandering to the audience, Inception is cinematic surrealism of revolving stairs, there is no one correct way to interpret this film.

8. The Ghost Writer - Yeah, it's directed by Roman Polanski, but this old school Hitchcockian thriller is an ominous web of film noir that spirals Ewan McGregor into further and further peril. Pure suspense at its best, this film is a treat for anyone who has an attention span longer than sixty seconds.

9. The King's Speech - Think the Madness of King George III meets the Miracle Worker, this showcase for Colin Firth as a stammering prince terrified at the thought of having to give a speech is a masterpiece of acting. Geoffery Rush ain't too shabby either.

10. Easy A - A tribute to eighties comedies, Emma Stone hits one out of the park in a break out role that could easily land her on the "A" list. Witty and delightful, its always a blessing when there is a film about teenagers that doesn't view adults as perennially clueless and stupid.

Films that were pretty good, but didn't make the list: Iron Man 2, The Other Guys, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Megamind, Date Night, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, SALT, Kick-Ass, The Expendables...

Films that shouldn't have been made...
(I can't include Sex and The City 2 because I didn't see it, but I bet if I did it would be on this list.)

5. Knight and Day - Here's an idea, let's throw Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise into some mish mash spy adventure and hope it all works out. Well, it didn't.

4. Robin Hood - Hey, let's tell the story of Robin Hood but cast Russell Crowe, one of the most serious and stoic of all actors as one of the most jolly and flippant of all heroes. There aren't any merry men to be found in this monstrosity that is only colossal in it's dullness.

3. Alice in Wonderland - I like Tim Burton, I do. I like Johnny Depp, I like Helena Bonham Carter - but this bizarre, goth faerie tale is Alice in name only. Someone needs to reign Tim Burton in, first Willy Wonka, and now this. Burton's remakes are defacing classic art.

2. Jonah Hex - I knew it wouldn't be good, but I had no idea it would be so bad either. How does a film like this happen? I blame the terrorists.

1. The Last Airbender - I loved the cartoon series, which is why watching this boring, ponderous, piece of crap was all the more painful because the crap was flying into my eyes because it was 3-D . M. Night Shymalongadingdong - the jig is up. Quit!

Merry Christmas, Mr. Leiken

The last week before Christmas vacation is a strange time at a public high school. In the LA school system, we get a three week break before heading back for the long three month slog towards Easter. With nearly everyone looking forward to the holidays, the school takes on a festive atmosphere, akin to the last week of school without the disruption - the kids know they have to come back.

During the final week before the break, the worst students disappear, the school puts up its decorations, and everyone: teachers, administrators, and students are more relaxed. By unwritten agreement a truce is declared; chill man, it's Christmas - relax.

I'm just miffed I can't find my funky Dr. Suess Santa hat, the only hat I've ever owned that glorifies the spirit of Christmas while simultaneously promoting the fashion of the ghetto.

Bah, Humbug!

One of the best teachers at the school gives me a gift card to Starbucks. I'm so surprised I'm at a loss of words. She's had a rough year, but that hasn't stopped her from being a great teacher. This year she is particularly frustrated with her honors class of Seniors, "They think they know it all," she complains, "and when they don't do their work, I turn into a real bitch."

We're still talking about them when her seniors file into the room; it's Friday, the last class of the day and everyone just wants to go home and leave. One of the students has a guitar, but when I ask him to play something he freezes up, embarrassed.

The teacher calls him out on it. "Why won't you play for Mr. Leiken? You had no problem playing for me yesterday."

The students eyes go wide, "Because that's Mr. Leiken."

I don't remember him. "I had you for another class?"

"U.S. History with Mr. Duran; don't you remember?"

Concentrating, I vaguely remember him. "Well, I hope you learned something."

The bell rings as the students take their seats. "Hell yeah!" he replies, putting the guitar away. Suddenly the seniors rise out of their seats and walk out of the room.

The teacher is stunned. "What is going on!" she calls out. "Where are you going?"

"Sorry Miss," one of the seniors answers, standing guard in the doorway. "You can't come outside." He pauses for a second, "But you can come out, Mr. Leiken."

I walk outside to find the seniors in the hallway formed into a group for a photo. Two in front are holding a fruit basket while another holds flowers. "Okay, you can come out now Miss!" The students standing guard at the door allow her into the hallway, her class breaks into applause.

The teacher's eyes grow red. "They may not know it all," I whisper, "but they do know you are a great teacher."

As the day ends, I'm in my room, preparing to leave when two young men call out to me. "Mr. Leiken, we've been looking for you!" For a second, I don't recognize them, they look too old to be in high school when I realize they are too old to be in high school - they are seniors who graduated last year. Neither was in special ed, or on my case load. They were regular general ed kids who were in a history class with Ms. Martinez.

I had them for one semester for one class, and even then I was the secondary teacher, but they remember me. We shake hands, "We've been looking for you all day, Mr. Leiken. How have you been?"

I invite them into my room and we talk. One of them is attending Northridge College; the other plans to attend college in the spring but is busy making his own film. We talk about classes, work, life after high school, and of course girls. One of boys has a line he likes to use when he meets new girls.

"I ask them if their hair is real, or if it's a weave."

I raise an eyebrow. "Well that's either going to flatter them or leave them really offended."

"It's the only way, Mr. Leiken. You can't let girls get too full of themselves."

"I never did hear back from your cousin," the other breaks in. "The one who works in casting."

"I forwarded your profile, but you have to remember she sees hundreds and hundreds of actor photos. I'm sorry she didn't get back to you."

"That's okay, Mister. You told me never to give up, so I'm not."

We talk for over an hour. I ask them who else they wanted to see. "Mr. Adams, because he encouraged us to get into college, and of course you Mr. Leiken."

This surprises me. I never tutored them, I never helped them with college applications, never met their parents - from my point of view they were just two more faces in the crowd.

Yet here they are, wanting to tell me how much I helped them.

I look at the clock. It's time to go home. I shake their hands and bid them goodbye, chuckling to myself as I head towards my car.

Thanks for the gift, kids. Thank you.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Write it, and you will offend...

Can you write a blog without being offensive?

The answer to that is a qualified yes, provided you are willing to stick to the following topics: product reviews, cooking, art, feel good memoirs, travel and shopping. In order to be inoffensive, a potential blog must be devoid of colorful language, personality, opinion, and humor.

It's the difference between Cormac McCarthy and J.K Rowling; No Country for Old Men might be a great book, but it will never capture the imagination quite like Harry Potter battling Voldemort. The more thought provoking and evocative an idea, the greater the chance of stirring controversy and angering the reader. Religion, politics, crime, ethnicity, education, celebrities, medicine, war, sports; all guaranteed to piss somebody off.

Especially if you are trying to be funny.

My profession is full of controversy; I had no idea that teacher's invited so much hullaballo until after I became one. Even though most people have never taught in a public school, everyone has an opinion on what's wrong with education, and the #1 target: teachers.

When America loses a war, we don't blame the soldiers for being cowardly.

When crime goes up in a neighborhood, we don't blame the police for eating too many donuts.

But when public schools fail, the first people we go looking to blame are teachers - usually for being lazy.

So for all our detractors, haters, and critics, I'd like to hear from you on how you would fix the following situation.

Let's take the following kid: we'll call her Maria.

Age: Going on 17
Years in School: 3
Days absent: 112
High School Credits: 20
Credits needed to graduate: 240
Learning Disabled: Yes (Reading disabled)

Maria's been pulled out to make up an inter-coordinated science test. Inter-coordinated science is the class students get after they've failed biology at least twice. Heavy set and wearing thick mascara, Maria wears a black hoodie and black jeans, ghetto wear 101.

The instant I enter the room to collect some paperwork, Maria's looks up, distracted, ignoring her teacher as she puts down her test, waving.

Two years ago I spent two hours trying to get her to write two paragraphs. When she refused to cooperate, I refused to give up, when she deflected my attempts to help her, I deflected her excuses - all of her whining, complaining, and attempts to wheedle her way out of work fell on deaf ears.

Two hours later, I'd failed.

The next day we tried again, but Maria refused to give in. She refused to bring paper, she refused to bring a pen, she refused to study, to bring her books, she refused even to copy what I wrote down on the board. It was a siege, who would break first, the teacher, or the student?

In the end, Maria won. I had other concerns, other students that needed my time and help. Students who wouldn't fight me every step of the way - students who wanted to pass and graduate.

Two years later, and she is on a different teacher's case load. She waves to me like she is greeting an old friend. "Hey, Mr. Leiken!" Maria calls out cheerily. "How are you doing?"

I grunt. "What test are you taking?"

"I don't know, some intercourse test."

"That's inter-coordinated, Maria," the other teacher corrects.

"I know what intercourse is," Maria replies, waving her arms. "Yah-ah!"

I glance around my room, except for another kid quietly taking a test in the corner, its empty. I pull up a chair, sitting down across from her. It's time for the "talk".

"Maria," I ask, "what are you going to do after high school?"

"What you mean, do?" Maria answers, rolling her eyes. "Get a job, duh!"

"Doing what?"

"I don't know Mister, a job. I'll work for my family or something."

"Well, what do they do?"

"I don't know."

"So let me get this straight, you are going to get a job working for your family but you have no idea what it is you'll be doing."

Maria sneers, "I know what's up Mister. You don't need to worry about me."

"So what are you going to do about money?"

"You can just get money from EBT. (Electronic Benefits Transfer - or Welfare) That's what my Mom does. If you have kids they give you food stamps."

"So you are planning to have kids just to get food stamps?"

"No!" Maria scoffs. "I'll just lie or something." She glances at both me and the other teacher. "Don't the two of you get food stamps?"

"No, Maria," the other teacher answers, "we work for a living. We've never been on welfare."

"Well that's stupid," Maria scoffs. "You should both go down there and tell them you need food, they'll give you some."

I refuse to let her change the subject. "Maria, what are you going to do for a living?"

Maria picks up her test. "I need to take this test, Mister Leiken."

"After you answer my question. How old are you?"

Maria thrusts the test down. "I'm 17 in January. But in my head, I'm already 17."

"So what happens when you turn 18? If you've got it all figured out, why waste your time in school?"

"I have to stay in school or I get in trouble with my Mom! If I'm not in school she doesn't get food stamps."

"But what happens after you are 18? They won't be giving her food stamps anymore because you'll be an adult. Is your Mom going to let you hang out around the house? Won't she expect you to go get a job?"

"Psshhh, I'll just live in the garage." Maria snatches up her test. "I really need to take this test Mr. Leiken."

"Why? You are just going to fail it."

"You can't say that!" Maria snaps angrily. "You don't know that."

"Have you been in class? Have you studied? Have you done any of the homework?" I look at the test, its empty of answers. "The entire time you've been down here you haven't even answered one question, and now you want to take the test because I'm putting you on the spot. What are you going to do after you turn 18?"

Silence. Maria and I stare at one another, a class of wills, but this time I win the siege and she breaks away. "I'll just go to adult school. Then I'll get a job at McDonald's."

"Maria, I believe you don't do the work not because you are lazy, but because you don't believe you can do it, so you give up before you even try."

"I think you're right, Mister."

"You can retake classes, but you can't make up time. Even if you passed every class from now on you wouldn't be able to graduate until you are 20." I rise from my seat. "If you don't want to learn, fine. But if you don't want to be here, you need to think about what you are going to do, and you need to figure it out soon."

I leave the room. I have ten more just like her on my case load, it's not the learning disability that impairs her ability to succeed, it's the attitude. There are at a minimum five hundred kids at my school just like her - who treat school like a social playground, a place to "kickback" and get away from home.

At least five hundred kids who refuse to bring their books, to come on time, to bring a pen or a pencil, to turn in homework. Five hundred? It could be a thousand. A thousand kids who don't try and fail, but fail to even try. Is it any wonder the graduation rate is only 50%, that my district ranks lowest academically across all of California but is first in teenage pregnancies?

Yep, it's clearly all because we're lazy, shiftless, money grubbing, union protected teachers.

And Charter schools are the answer!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I'm in a funk.

We're not talking about a mild case of the Mondays, but a full out thunderstorm of gloom pierced through by bolts of apathetic rage, draping the sunnier parts of my personality in a light coat of annoyed frustration. This funk is bulletproof, unreceptive to the simple charms of Glee, impervious to sharing a cold one with friends; I don't even feel like celebrating Halloween, and typically I find nothing more enjoyable than having any excuse to dress up like a pirate and terrorize the school.

But this year, I don't even hand out candy. The blues has been ringing in my ears for the better part of two weeks, and I'm starting to wish the band would just shut the hell up.

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly the funk started, professionally I'm kicking more ass then I ever have, when I stop lecturing more often then not the class lets out a giant "awwww." But for all my success, I find myself dissatisfied with both my performance and my impact as a teacher.

Seniors I have worked with for years, bright kids who should be applying to Cal States, won't fill out college applications or take their SAT's. Four years of coaxing them, teaching them, encouraging them to believe in themselves, and they won't take the final steps towards higher matriculation. If they don't get in their college applications by Thanksgiving, they've missed the deadline for next year.

If the entire goal of high school is to prepare students for college, but they won't even bother to apply, what is the point of this entire exercise? I tell them to stop by my room, that I'll help them with their applications and proofread their essays during my planning period or after school.

No one ever comes.

Then there are the troublesome students, the kids who are killing time until they turn 18. As a point of pride, I believe I should be able to manage any troublesome student, no matter how belligerent, obnoxious, or disruptive - I think I can handle it. Wrong, Leiken, wrong. Some things are out of your control. I push a student too hard, and I find myself almost getting hit.

Master teacher, indeed...

But hey, at least I'm not in jail. Unlike my friend Carlee who has been ordered to do eight months for her second DUI.

She’s in a funk as well, one caused by being locked in a small cell and being unable to see sunlight. She writes they only let the inmates outside once every two weeks to play basketball in a court covered by a thick wire mesh, intentionally designed to prevent the prisoners from fully enjoying the outdoors, to glimpse only slivers of blue sky between steel cords of cold metal.

Carlee’s been a friend for years, I know her through her ex-husband whom I met in the teachers intern program. Before her DUI, Carlee worked as a teacher on an Indian reservation, dedicating her life to trying to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. A graduate from UCLA, Carlee has no criminal record and no history of violence, she would blend into any college campus.

But the moment that Carlee was declared a felon was the moment she ceased to be a person.

All societies require sacrifices - we may not plunge daggers into a victim’s chest cavity to pull out a beating heart, but declaring someone a felon destroys the individual all the same. Hester could move to a new town and remove her scarlet letter, but with computers Carlee’s brand will follow her no matter what she does or where she goes. Her freedom to travel, her ability to get a job, to vote, even to volunteer to work with children – gone.

My father explained that the more savage district attorney's are to drunk drivers, the more popular they become. When it comes to drunk driving, no amount of punishment is excessive, the more drunks DA's lock up, the better their chances of getting reelected. Drunk driving isn't just a crime, in the eyes of American society, it's a sin.

And like all sinners, Carlee can’t be redeemed without first being purged. The DA isn’t out for justice, the DA is out for Carlee’s blood - with a 96% conviction rate, Carlee’s fate is sealed.

For breaking her boyfriend’s arm in a car crash, Carlee is charged with a felony. The boyfriend doesn't want to press charges, but to the DA, that’s immaterial. He hands Carlee the standard eight months, but will let her out in four with good behavior. Carlee is charged for the cost of cleaning up the crash, her DUI classes, and is given three years probation which she has pay for her out of her own pocket in addition to thousands of dollars in fines.

The Indian reservation, with its strict child protection policies, fires her. She's a felon - she'll probably never teach again. How she’ll find work without a driver’s license or start a career with a felony on her record is not the state’s problem. As far as society is concerned, she screwed up, and now she has to pay for it – forever.

Two weeks ago I made the trip out to Riverside to visit Carlee in the county jail. Dressed in prison blues, Carlee’s hair is a tangled mess, skin ghoulish and pale, eyes bloodshot and riddled with pain. I pick up the black receiver and we talk. Separated by two inches of bulletproof glass, I press my hand up against the pane. Carlee counters by raising her hand up as well, and for a moment, there is no conversation; nothing is said, nothing is spoken, for there are no words in English or any other language that can fully express our mutual sorrow.

By the time I leave I’m angrier and more disappointed then ever before – disappointed at the system for locking up good people, disappointed for not being able to do more to help my friend, disappointed at feeling powerless to prevent injustice.

But mostly, I’m just disappointed in myself. I can’t save my students, I can’t save Carlee, I can't stop the war in Afghanistan - I can’t seem to do much of anything.

But the worst part is that after visiting Carlee, I can’t even indulge in one of my favorite pastimes.

I can’t even feel sorry for myself...

...I'm in a funk.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Master Teacher

Year seven.

Among teachers, year seven is an unofficial "turning point" - your time and experience has transformed you from a neophyte into a battle hardened veteran. You've survived the first year trial by fire and weathered years of bureaucratic indifference; against the limitless hordes of wild, hormone driven teenage larvae you've proved yourself to be more durable, more resilient, more seasoned. Almost nothing surprises you, even the most obnoxious and difficult student leaves you unfazed.

Wannabe gangsters, hyperactive adolescents, outraged rebels, attention starved hecklers, the emo who wish they were vampires - come one, come all - their classroom antics mean nothing. A sharp glare, a stinging rebuke, the no nonsense frown - one by one they fall into line.

By year seven the art of teaching has been programmed into your neural hard drive, you operate not on conscious thought but instinct. You are a psychic savant, intuitively predicting outcomes and neutralizing trouble with an enchanted sixth sense. Like a magician fooling an audience, you are seven steps ahead, you know where to push and when to pull back - you are the foreman, the manager, the drill sergeant, the boss - except you don't have the authority to "fire" anyone. Nor can you write a "ticket" or make an arrest, you have no badge and you have no gun.

All you've got is a mouth and attitude.

On the second floor of the B building I spot two semi-circles of students standing idly in the hallway. Like a sea captain who can spot a typhoon on the horizon, I tack into the midst of the crowd, stopping between a pair of boys glaring at one another.

"Boys," I state calmly, eyes squinting, "I need you two to move along. You can't fight here."

There is a long pause, the onlookers holding their breath in anticipation. A second later one of the boys shuffles down the hallway, glowering fiercely at his rival. The crowd begins to dissipate, the typhoon has been averted.

"Awww...Leiken, you ruin all the fun."

"Aye," I reply, "That be true."

In U.S. history I give a brief lecture about individual rights versus state rights. I radiate energy, pulsating with enthusiasm and humor as I hook the class into the lecture, seizing their attention like a virtuoso performer who cannot be ignored.

At lecture's end, they applaud.

I give a guest lecture to a World History class about colonization and slavery - they're riveted. By the end, they applaud.

The following day I am working with a group of 11th graders, encouraging them, pushing them, expounding the importance of believing in yourself. "I don't teach you, ladies and gentleman, you teach you! You may not be the next Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean you can't graduate! Everyone can make the team!"

And they applaud.

I've paid for that applause, earned every single clap minute by sweat driven minute, crossed the River Styx on a boat of gravel and grit, my paddle an increasingly sardonic sense of humor.

No document or credential can create a "master" teacher, no amount of training or books can adequate prepare any individual who wishes to cross the River Styx to teach in an inner city school. It's a journey each teacher must take alone, an odyssey of restless evenings brimming full of nightmares followed by anxious mornings filled with silent dread; long months of being quietly petrified at the thought of having to face down class after class of unruly, mean spirited students.

The master teacher is born not out of the classroom but a journey crossing a thousand moments of uncertainty, guided not by conviction but doubt as they ask themselves the same question, over and over: "Could I have done it better? With just a little more effort, could I have nudged that student in the right direction?"

There will be no trophies, no awards, no medals, no ribbons; your reward is to inspire others.

Hey, Mr. Leiken, I just wanted to tell you I got into Polytech! Mr. Leiken, did I tell you I entered culinary school? Mr. Leiken, you're awesome, history isn't boring at all. Mr. Leiken, thanks for encouraging to save up my money and go to Hong Kong, it was like the best trip ever! Hey Leiken, you were right, I started my own moving business. Hey Leiken, are you going to run a comedy club again, we want to be funny like you. Mr. Leiken, I hope one day I can be a teacher, because you like make learning fun.

And to think that seven years ago I went into teaching for the money...

It may be true that you'll never obtain riches teaching, but its taken me seven years to learn that a master teacher is never poor.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cap and Gown

Six years, five graduations, nine hundred school days. A relatively short period of time in the lifespan of a human, 900 days.

If all the hours I had spent teaching in school were added up into one continuous, non-stop marathon, at 6.6 hours a day I'd be only 247 days old.

Six years teaching and I'm still just a baby.

This year only two of the students on my case load are graduating, but only one will be at the ceremony, only one will walk across the stage. The other should have graduated last year, but doesn't want to "walk" when most of his senior class graduated a year earlier.

But the girl who is walking across stage is a success story. I've seen her grown from a shy, dependent girl into a slightly less shy but independent young woman. It's been a struggle: building her confidence, teaching her to believe in herself, getting her to work on her own.

"Looking forward to graduation?" I ask rhetorically.

"I'm not going to walk," she says flatly.


"I don't want to walk. It's stupid."

Oh no, this is not happening. "Graduation is a rite of passage, it only comes once. In life, there are no do-overs. You should go."

"No, Mister. I don't want to, it's embarrassing."

"Embarrassing? Everyone is walking across stage. It will be over in like a second."

"No, it's okay. I don't want to. Graduations are boring."

"Of course they're boring!" I exclaim. "Graduation is supposed to be boring! It's for your parents, and your teachers, and your family! Graduation is for everyone but you!"

The girl looks at the floor, unwilling to meet my gaze.

It occurs to me there is more going on here than meets the eye; the benefit of six years, five graduations and 900 days experience. "If you don't do this," I continue, "you may live to regret it."

The girl mumbles something. I ask her to repeat herself, leaning in.

"I don't have the money, Mister."

"Money for what?"

"It's a hundred dollars for the cap and gown."

"A HUNDRED DOLLARS! Cold hard cash?"

The girl nods, quietly embarrassed.

"What about your parents?" I ask. "Don't they have the money?" The girl shakes her head. I've known that her family is poor, I once had to "loan" her and her sister money to go see Eclipse. "Do they want you to go?" The girl nods, gaze furtively darting about the room.

"I want you to go the rehearsal today at lunch. You are going to graduate."

"But I don't have the money."

"I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it."

"But, I don't have the money."

"I'll get you your cap and gown. Go."

I go the special ed department first, explaining the situation. Borquez and Khazani immediately start asking their students, some seniors short on credits have already bought their cap and gown but won't be needing the gown since they won't be graduating.


An aide who graduated two years ago says he'll bring in his blue and silver cap and gown, after all, he isn't using it. Caps and gowns don't really change, South East's 2005 graduating class would fit right in with the 2010.

But his father has already thrown the aide's cap and gown away. Turns out he didn't think his son would ever need to use it.

Ms. Owens finds a website that sells the gowns for $15, but time is short and it will cost me through the nose to have it shipped.

Eventually I go to the head of leadership and ask her if I can buy the gown at cost, or about $50. The head of leadership agrees. Khazani, Martinez and Solorio all help contribute cash.

I go back to the girl, handing her the money. I could have paid for it directly, but I want her to buy it for herself. She deserves that.

Two hours later she enters my room with a small plastic bag containing the gown, cap, a black sash embroidered 2010, and a small medal. (In today's world, graduation is worthy of a medal.)

"I have my cap and gown, Mr. Leiken."

I nod, looking up from where I am helping a student finish up a paper. "Awesome, so how was rehearsal?"

"It was okay."

The girl goes to my window, looking out over the football field, where students are lining up for the senior photo. She stares in silence, twisting the cap and gown bag in her hands in endless loops.

"Aren't you going to join the seniors for the photo?"

"No. It's too hot."

"You should go. Be a part of it."

"No, I don't want to." she answers, staring at the crowd outside.

I stop lecturing her. Sometimes you have to let people do what they want to do. Nothing is said, nothing is spoken. Neither of us is bothered by the silence, the lack of conversation.

The bell rings, and the girl turns. "Goodbye, Mister," she says, exiting the room.

It's her way of saying thanks.

Six years, five graduations, 900 days.

It never gets old.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bridges of Destruction II

"Bridges of DESTRUCTION!" I intone over the public address system. "Twice the Bridges, Double the DESTRUCTION!"

Mind numbing in their repetitiveness, school announcements over the PA system resonate with monotone dreariness straight out of Communist Russia or George Orwell's 1984. Daily reminders to obey the dress code, to return overdue books, to gear up for summer school; all are ritually blared over the PA system only to be tossed into the bin of white noise trash we reserve for commercials and political pundits.

Then came Leiken.

"TUESDAY, TUESDAY, TUESDAY! Bridges of DESTRUCTION!" I exclaim, gesticulating wildly with my free hand, mike inches away from my mouth. "See bridges made out of mere popsicle sticks, held together with nothing but Elmer's Glue - hold hundreds of pounds of weight! Then see them - DESTROYED!"

The office stops, kids walking by halt to stare at the crazy maniac dancing behind the counter, lost to the performance. "With the winner," I continue, "winning one hundred dollars COLD HARD CASH!"


It started as a joke, but already in its second year the Bridges of Destruction contest is becoming a South East High school tradition. Mr. Barrigan helps the students engineer and design the bridges, while I handle the promotion. Last year the winning bridge, the "Whopper", held 425 lbs before shattering, no mere feat for a bridge made out of popsicle sticks.

But for me it isn't about who wins or loses, it's about the joy of going crazy over the announcements. I'm not in the classrooms when the announcements hit, but I know the students are paying attention. I can hear them shout: "Bridges of Destruction!" in the hallways, sometimes stopping me to ask if I'm the guy who does the announcements and if I'll use my "promotional" voice.

"Your that Bridges of Destruction guy! Right Leiken! Do the voice."

I always smile and shrug. "Sorry, don't know who it is."

"We know it's you Mister. It's got to be you."

"It's got to be me?" I ask dryly.

"Yes! You do all those voices! You like those pirates!"
"And you wear that parrot hat!"
"Can you do the voice, please?"

I shake my head. "Sorry, no autographs, just throw money."

Bridges of Destruction isn't so much a school activity, as it is a monster truck rally with a special guest appearance of BRIDGEZILLA! At least, that's how I promote it over the announcements, ending the commercial with a fast and low disclaimer:

Twice the bridges, double the destruction, gross exaggerated hyperbole. Cash is neither hard nor cold. No popsicle sticks were harmed in the making of the bridges, all bridges made out of non-toxic Elmer's glue, the official glue of LAUSD, for all your gluing needs. Brought to you by A&E, the "unofficial" place to be.

With the promotion, unfortunately, also comes responsibility. I didn't ask for it, I didn't want it, but I've become the point person for setting the date, organizing the event, and keeping everyone in the loop. The weights to destroy the bridges, the tables, the portable sound system, it all falls on me.

It almost doesn't happen. The forms are turned in, administrators are informed, space is reserved in front of the auditorium and the event is marked in the school calender, but the day of nothing is ready. Nothing.

There is no cart to carry the weights, no one knows if the tables will be ready, no one can get additional chairs and desks, the sound system is MIA. I turn to the kids, ask for their help, explaining we've got less than an hour to get Bridges of Destruction together.

The kids make it happen. Five of them ferry the weights back and forth from the gym, carrying 45 lb dumb bells, one weight at a time. Others text their friends, and like magic the sound system is set up. Tables and chairs spring up almost on their own.

The event goes off without a hitch.

I announce the contest while Barrigan assists the students with setting up the weights. This year's winner named for its jaw like sides, is the Piranha Plant, which holds 350 lbs before cracking. Joshua and Kim, the team who worked on it, are ecstatic. The crowd cheers as they both give special shout outs to their friends.

When the event is over, the kids come and pick everything up, ferrying the weights and tables back to where they belong. Leadership materializes to collect the sound system. I might have promoted Bridges of Destruction, and Barrigan might have helped the students create the bridges, but in the end, the kids made it happen.

It's a good day to be a teacher.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Smog Check

California, land of automotive rituals, home of the smog check. Before the invention of the catalytic converter and cleaner fossil fuels, air pollution covered LA in a dusky blanket of impenetrable fumes that choked out the sky.

Brown became the new blue.

After thousands of stage 1 smog alerts and hundreds of "day-light dim outs" , hospitals filled with asthma patients and gas mask wearing commuters, California decided to incorporate the "smog check"; an emission test to ensure that vehicles no longer undermined public health.

Years of dogged regulations and shrew environmentalists have finally won the battle against smog. We no longer have pollution, but a "marine layer".

Gray is the new brown.

The price for clean air is a small bi-annual ritual: the smog check. Every other year vehicles must be inspected for emissions, tested to ensure that they are not "over-polluting" the atmosphere. Without a verified smog check, California will not allow motorists to buy license plate tags, all but guaranteeing fines from the state's legion of meter maids.

Parking violations is the one aspect of the state government that functions with optimal efficiency. If you put the meter maids in charge of finding Osama Bin Laden, they'd catch him, provided he was parked illegally.

Me being me, I forget all about my tags until after they've expired. I get a notice from the DMV stating I'm overdue, $120 for the car, $20 for a mysterious bonus tax, and another $112 fine for being late with an additional $10 processing fee. $262, plus I need a new smog check.


Fortunately I drive a Honda Civic, a car that excels at passing smog checks and extremely low emissions. I drive to a nearby smog center, wait patiently, playing video games on my iTouch as the mechanic hooks my car up to an emissions testing machine.

Catalytic Converter: Pass
Electrical Systems: Pass
Emissions: Pass
Maintenance Light: Fail

The mechanic apologizes. "I'm sorry, I thought your car would pass, but you have a maintenance light that's flashing on the dashboard."

"So?" I reply, trying to conceal my irritation. "It's been on for months. Probably just a short, the car is fine."

"I'm sorry, but I can't pass the car with that light on. The computer won't give your car a passing grade."

"The computer?"

"The computer checks the car, then it wires the state. If it finds anything wrong, it won't allow me to pass you."

"You are not going to certify my car because of a dash board light?"

"Bring it back tomorrow. Sometimes it goes away after you drive it for a couple days."

I swallow my anger, snarling as I restart the car. The maintenance light is not just going to go away, its been lit for two months.

Perhaps its a blown fuse? I drive the car home and check the fuse box under the hood, then the box under the driver's seat. There are dozens of fuses, but I have a fuse checker, a small hand held device that emits a green light if a fuse is operational.

The hood fuses are easy to check, but underneath the driver's seat it is cramped and difficult to manipulate the device to read the fuses. The fuse checker is an inch too long. It's like trying to screw in a nail in a three inch space with a four inch screw driver, the fuse checker just doesn't fit under the driver's seat. After several minutes of cursing, I stop, frustrated.

Harry calls, and I tell him what's happened.

"Peoples Republic of California." Harry responds, blowing smoke out a cigarette on the other end of the phone. "In Georgia we don't even have smog checks. My check engine light has been on for months. My guess: they probably just want you to bring the car into the dealership in order to change your spark plugs and oil, then charge you $600."

"Well I don't know how to fix it." I complain. "Anytime its electrical it can be expensive."

"This is just your socialist government trying to get more money out of you," Harry says, smoking. "It's just like the movie Casino, it's all about getting your money. This mechanic could have passed your car, but he isn't going to."

After a long bitch session I decide to search the world library for answers. The Internet, cornucopia of rumors, pornography, and useless information. I know I can't be the only owner of a Honda Civic who has ever had a maintenance light problem. After a minute I find an old discussion group thread, turns out hundreds, if not thousands of people have been in the exact same predicament.

Harry was right. The Honda Civic maintenance light is scheduled to flicker on every 10,000 miles in an effort to get owners to turn their car over to the dealer. There is also an easy way to shut it off: press in the travel odometer, turn the car to on, and hold the button in for twenty seconds. The light then switches off as it resets.

I go out to the car and try it. CLICK! The maintenance light vanishes.


The next day I take the car back, just as the mechanic is finishing up with a customer. I'm delighted I don't have to wait.

The mechanic informs me he's taking his lunch.

I smile and try not to get impatient. After fifteen minutes he re-hooks the car up to the emissions equipment and reruns all the tests. The car appears to have passed. Finally! I am now cleared to pay money that I don't want to pay to the government.

"I don't know if I should pass your car."

I blink. "What?"

"Something is not right, you need to take better care of it."

I look at the computer. The computer screen reads "passing" under the half dozen state mandated criteria. I glare at the mechanic, imagine his head blowing apart, spraying gibbets of brain matter and gore as pieces of cranium shattered bone scatter over the street beneath his formless gray hat.

He lasts five seconds before passing my vehicle.

Zoolander had a look called "Blue Steel". I have a glare called the Exorcist, a laser like beam of dark psychic energy, honed to deadly glower by years of unruly students.

Turns out the Exorcist is also good for difficult mechanics and officious bureaucrats. Who knew?

Thanks kids.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jury Duty

Jury duty, a civic obligation and American tradition, a vital part of the judicial process and a privilege that should be embraced by all responsible people.

But who said I was responsible?

Since moving to LA, I've received five summons in ten years to appear before the Los Angeles Superior Court. Every other year, I receive a notice in the mail, and every other year I trek over to the court house to sit patiently until I am summarily dismissed. I've discovered through careful observation that the louder and more boisterous your opinion, the less the lawyers want you on their jury.

I've only ever served on one jury, a personal injury case. I could have gotten out of it, but I was unemployed at the time and it provided me with an excuse not to look for work.

Jury duty in LA pays $15 a day, plus 34 cents a mile (one way), and the unemployed can't afford to be picky.

So I kept my mouth shut and sat on the panel like a lemming, got selected to serve and sat through four days of mind numbing drivel as I witnessed an incompetent lawyer try to prosecute a weak case on behalf of a plaintiff who had been involved in at least fourteen other personal injury law suits.

This would not do. I made myself foreman and convinced the jury in under thirty minutes that the defendant was innocent. After the trial I told the plaintiff's lawyer that his client was a money grubbing moron, and if I could have, I would have awarded both the defendant and the court damages for wasting everybody's time.

There's a reason why I don't get picked to serve on juries. I may not be a lawyer, but my father was an attorney as was his father before him. The blood sings.

Today I walk through security, and go the 5th floor where a couple of hundred potential jurors are instructed in the finer points of court etiquette. While in court there is no reading, no use of cell phones, no computers, no talking or chewing of the gum. I pull out a book and read, ignoring the unhappy crowd. I've heard it all before.

Several hours pass before fifty of us receive a summons to the 13th floor. When we arrive a pleasant bald headed African American judge who sounds like Barack Obama informs us that we will be hearing a marijuana case, and that the defendants are being charged with trafficking and for being in violation of the California health code.

Two black men in their early twenties stare straight ahead, eyes riveted on the front of the room, either unwilling or instructed not to meet our gaze. Each of the defendants has a personal lawyer, and given that this case was not plea bargained, I speculate that both defense lawyers are private attorney's, not public defenders.

The prosecutor is a young Asian woman wearing black rimmed glasses, a diamond ring sparkles on her left hand.

The judge reads us some of the rules, and then has the court clerk read off a series of jury ID numbers. As the numbers are read off, jurors quietly walk up to the jury booth and take their seats, twelve in the "box" with an additional ten outside the booth.


I raise my hand and am directed to seat #21, directly in front of the jury booth. The judge instructs us to read a series of questions framed on the court room wall. We are to state where we live, our occupation, if we are married, have any children, and if we have ever served on a jury before.

"Ladies and gentleman of the jury," the judge announces, "I would just like to thank you all for all being here. May I ask, does anyone want to be here?

Juror # 7 raises his hand. "Actually your honor, I'm glad to be here. It's a privilege."

The judge looks taken aback. "Well, I'm glad to hear that. That's wonderful. The men in white lab coats will be coming for you soon."

The court room cracks up.

Each of the jurors answers the questions, being #21 I'm one of the last to state my name, occupation, and marital status. I inform the court that I'm a high school teacher and that I work for LAUSD.

"You're a teacher?" the judge asks. "What do you teach?"

"I teach history and English in the city of South Gate, your honor."

"Teaching high school kids must be tough."

"It can be challenging, but I have to admit its even more challenging to have to sit and listen. I'm the one used to doing the talking."

The court laughs.

The judge instructs us in the importance of assuming all accused our innocent until proven guilty. He asks the jury if we understand the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence, and that we are not allowed to speculate on punishment, only to deliberate the facts and follow the law with our best moral certitude.

One juror tries to pretend like she can't understand what is being said, another tries to play the "pain in the ass" card by questioning everything the judge says. He dismisses no one.


The judge continues. "I know many of you may think the war on drugs is a waste of time and resources, and that many more of you may think that marijuana is not a "drug". Nevertheless, it is illegal and the law states clearly that you cannot sell it without a proper license. I need to know if anyone has a problem with drug enforcement?"

My heart tightens. I have an opening, a chance! I raise my hand along with several other jurors. The judge begins asking questions of the jurors, starting with the lowest numbered juror and working his way upward, asking them about how they feel, questioning them if they can follow the law while informing them that "juror nullification" is illegal in the state of California.

"Juror #21," the judge states. "I understand you have a problem with the drug laws."

"I do your honor. The current law is an absurdity." Calm, Leiken, calm.

"An absurdity?" the judge chuckles. "Are you claiming the law is absurd?"

"Yes, your honor, but it is even more absurd that anyone would traffic or buy pot illegally when you can get it around the city from hundreds of medical dispensaries."

The court room breaks into laughter, even both the defendant's crack a smile. Only the prosecutor looks unamused. Good, I think to myself, good.

"You understand, juror #21, that while we may disagree with the law, we have an obligation to follow it. If you want to try and start a "grass roots" campaign to try and change the law, that's one thing, but that doesn't give you the right to dismiss it."

The judge pauses for a moment. "I'd just like to note for the benefit of the court reporter that when I refer to "grass roots" I mean a political movement, not cannabis."

The court laughs again.

I smile, ignoring the fact that I'm being one upped by a judge. Fortunately, I've already heard him question several other jurors so have had time to think of a response.

"Yes, your honor, I do understand. We do not have the right to choose what rules we want to follow. If this was 1857 and a fugitive slave had escaped to the North, according to the Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott I would be obligated to return the slave to their master."

The silence is deafening. Both the prosecution and the defense attorney's perk up. The judge looks taken aback. "That is assuming," I continue, "that the slave owner could prove that the escaped slave was his property and I was on the jury deciding the case."

The judge stares at me for a moment, then continues. "You understand that this is not 1857 and this case has nothing to do with slavery."

"I do your honor. This is 2010 and this is a marijuana trial. It is not 1919 and I am not on a jury having to decide if a woman is guilty for trying to vote at a public poll. My duty is to follow the law, not to have an opinion on whether it is right or wrong."

The judge raises an eyebrow, but decides to let the matter drop. He hands it over to the lawyers to make opening statements. The defense attorney's ignore me, but the prosecutor decides to ask me additional questions.

"Juror #21, I understand you have some strong opinions about the drug law. You are aware that people who sell marijuana legally are licensed and sell only to people who have a legitimate medical condition. There is a matter of public health."

"Yes, ma'am. I also understand that those who are in violation of the public health code are typically either fined or have their place of business shut down or condemned. They are not charged with felonies and do not have to face the prospect of jail time."

The prosecutor cocks her head. "You aren't allowed to speculate on punishment, only on the facts of this case."

"But this is a felony case, and typically felonies involving illicit substances involve incarceration. But you are correct, I am not allowed to speculate."

"While I disagree with your opinion, I respect how you feel. We do, however, have to follow the law."

Bullshit. "The law is a flawed tool to maintain order because it is created by flawed people. To my knowledge, I have never heard of anyone who OD'd on pot, nor have I ever heard anyone turning violent or becoming abusive on pot. If marijuana is a detriment to society, then it is certainly not any worse than alcohol, which is the leading cause of DUI's, or more addictive than cigarettes which are sold in almost every gas station and drug store."

The judge should stop me, but I've launched into a diatribe and I can't stop.

"I once worked as a pharmacy clerk where I routinely handed out vicodin, percoset, oxycontin; pain killers so powerful they put some of our patients back in the hospital. We handed out methodone like candy, that's medical heroin. Every month we would have patients run out of their medication "early" and every month they would be back in the pharmacy, asking for more. If they were loud and persistent, their doctor would just refill their prescription and give them more."

"Juror #21!" the prosecutor interrupts.

I clamp my mouth shut.

"The issue is can you follow the law? If you find the defendants guilty, you must follow the law. Can you do that?"

"I will follow the law to my best moral certitude."

The prosecutor frowns, she isn't happy, but she wisely decides not to ask me any further questions.

The judge moves on, asks the last juror, juror #22 the same questions he's asked everyone else. Juror #22 is an elderly Asian woman with no opinion on anything, identical to the majority of the other jurors who sit politely like sheep. The judge looks at the time, it's 4:00.

"I'd like to thank everyone for coming, but we clearly aren't going to finish picking a jury today, I'd like to adjourn court until tomorrow at 10:30. Please be on time."

The daydream ends, the fantasy evaporates.
I've sat in court for three days, playing out the above scenario in my head, rewriting the movie, reworking the court room dialogue. There are no distractions as my writer's brain is forced to sit and listen, forced to hear the same banal questions followed by the same trivial excuses, superficial arguments, and petty justifications.
Turns out not many people in LA think marijuana is a crime.
Three days to play out my response as I study the courtroom like a hawk, anticipating both the judges and lawyers potential questions, preparing to launch into a soliloquy the moment I'm called up. Three days on the bench I have sat, waiting impatiently for my number to be called so I can have my moment in the sun, and then exit stage left to freedom.

Three long days.

But I am never called. Three days of having to listen to the same rules repeated, the same questions asked, and the same tired pleas about why said juror can't serve on said jury. "I can't serve because I've done drugs, I don't like cops, my next door neighbor is a cop and I have him over for BBQ, my brother's step-nephew was arrested for drug use and we're close."

The prosecutor removes all the men she can, preferring older women with young children. The defense retaliates and dismisses all the older mothers with young children, and in five minutes both sides dismiss nearly every potential juror and the process has to start over as another batch of 22 jurors is called forth.

The court has to process 44 jurors before they can decide on a final 12 plus 3 alternates. I am one of the last 6 who is never called up. Never given a chance or the opportunity to expound on the stupidity of the law, to have an audition.


Three days, wasted.

Not to worry, I'll get another chance in 24 months.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Friends of Proximity

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family.

It's an old adage, a cliche, wisdom served up straight from the fortune cookie factory.

But how many of our friends our already chosen for us? Friendships decided not by shared values, or similar interests, but location?

Sometimes we meet people who do share our interests, forming bonds that transcend both time and distance. We pull them into our orbit and never let go, regardless of where they have moved or what they are doing, they are eternally bound to our minds and hearts. We may not talk to them for years, but the moment we reconnect, the gap of time closes in an instant.

Time and space cannot weaken a true friendship.

Then there are friends of proximity.

Friends of proximity are friendships of shared experience, momentary attachments based not on shared interests or values, but on immediacy. Proximity friendships are short lived and transient, based an our neighborhoods, our homes, our work place and our families. Quit the job, move to a new neighborhood, and most of your friendships quietly disintegrate, dying an invisible death.

With a friend of proximity, you don't share common interests, you share common experience.

One such friend was Tom. Living beneath the heel of our tyrannical property manager, we were united in our dislike of the warden, prisoners sequestered under the same roof. A waiter at Canter's Deli and older than me by a good ten years, Tom was calm and affable, he showed me how to bet on the ponies and I helped him write a script.

We saw shows together, griped about politics, and were always unified in our hour long "bitch" sessions about the craziness of our dictator roommate and his unreasonable demands. (Like shutting off the power to my room, telling me how I should park my car in the drive way, or insisting that one of us was stealing his silverware.)

After I moved, I promised to stay in touch, but somehow I never really did. Not long after I left Tom moved out as well, and that was the last I heard from him. We no longer had our common experience, both of us had moved on to different shows, to different venues.

A week ago I walked into Canter's to have an open beef brisket. Canter's has probably 300 things on their menu, but only five of them are good. (Corn beef, matzoh soup, brisket, pastrami, and of course, the brisket - as a rule, stick to traditional Jewish food when eating here.)

I look for Tom, but don't spot him.

"Does Tom still work here?" I ask at the register.

"No," the woman replies, counting my money, "Tom passed away a year ago."

I try to hide my shock and fail. "What? What happened?"

"He had a heart attack." She answers, handing me my change.

Tom's dead? Dead? I exit the deli in a daze. I still have his number on my phone. I haven't called it in years, but I call it now.

His voice mail picks up. "This is Tom, leave a message."

For a moment I don't know what to say, maybe the woman behind the counter was wrong? Maybe she was talking about a different Tom? Don't phone companies cancel voice mail after no one pays the bill?

Or is your voice mail like MySpace or Facebook, a digitized ghost casting a pixeled shadow, remaining up on the web even after you are gone. Death is no longer marked by a mere gravestone, but electronically encrypted bits of data zipping around the world, locked into place until someone makes a conscious decision to erase your electronic thumbprint.

A week later I never hear back from him. I call a second time. Nothing.

Does it even matter? Tom vanished from my life years ago. He was a friend of proximity, a connection of convenience. The moment we stopped living under the same roof was the moment our friendship vanished into the ether.

How many friends have I met in LA? How many people have I met and formed friendships with only to never speak with them again? Thinking back I can barely remember half their names. Former roommates, people I worked with, teachers I've known, writers who moved away - so few remain friends.

But when they're gone, you don't really miss them.

They're no longer in your proximity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crossed Out

Kids don't read.

This statement is so overused and hackneyed it's akin to a pair of frayed shoes, scuffed and scraped to the point where the soles are falling apart from overuse. "Kids don't read" is no longer an opinion, its an unquestioned fact, passing beyond the world of cliche and into the realm of truism.

My first year I was teaching a phonetics class designed for elementary school students as part of the LANGUAGE! program. Unfortunately, the class was filled with unruly high school freshman who rebelled at the thought of having to read Dr. Seuss and Dick and Jane. One of them insisted that he read "as good" as any other student at the school.

I'd taught the class for weeks, and by this point the kids are in open revolt. It's the end of the day, they don't want to be there, and as a new teacher I'm fresh meat. I'm about to to lose my temper.

"Than let's see how a general ed student reads." I declared grandly.

Outside the bungalow I spotted a teenager wearing a black Metallica T-shirt slouching across the quad. "Hey kid!" I called out. "C'mere, I need you for something."

As the teenager approached, braces glinting in the afternoon sun, my class of special ed students began to freak out, terrified at the thought of being embarrassed in front of a student from general ed. In a school of 5000 students, there is anonymity, but there isn't a special ed student alive who isn't terrified of being "outed"; of being thought of as dumb.

My students covered their heads, raised up their hoods, retreating to the back of the room - one ran and hid in the closet. When Metallica gets to my room I handed him one of the phonetics books.

"Read this."

Metallica stared at the book, confused. A second later he made an attempt to read it.


The class cracked up, backs straightening, terror evaporating, fear gone in an instant. My student in the closet leapt outward, bounding up to the front of the room.

"You see, Mister!" she laughs. "You see! We do read as good as all the other kids."

I shouldn't have been surprised.
Kids don't read.

By my second year I realized part of the problem was lack of reading material, what was available was either too easy or too difficult. Precious little was in the comprehension "sweet spot", easy enough to be decoded, but interesting enough to be challenging. I scoured book rooms and searched book stores in a never ending quest for stories that would spark interest.

There wasn't much. The district claims they have identified 4,700 books that are high interest, low readability material, but that is a gross exaggeration.

I put the number at less than ten. House on Mango Street, Holes, The Outsiders, A Child Called It - how many times can I teach the same novel? Animal Farm? Too abstract. To Kill a Mockingbird? Too different, the deep South might as well be science fiction and take place on Mars. For the majority of the students, even vampire goth drivel like Twilight is a challenge.

After a few years, it occurred to me that perhaps I should begin writing my own stories. After all, who knows their audience better?

Once upon a time, before I was a teacher, I was a writer.

I decided to write a survival story about a student who is afraid to come to school because he doesn't want to get "jumped" by a rival gang. Each chapter was kept to a few pages, written in 14 font with shorter margins and wide spaces to make it easier for struggling readers. Unlike most novels, I was writing in a setting that "mirrored" the students world, an inner city high school, a story that kids could immediately pick up, access, and understand.

They devoured the first chapter. What happens next, Mister! What happens next! I wrote a second chapter from the point of view of a girl who secretly has a crush on the kid hiding from the gang, then a third chapter from a "stoners" perspective. By the time I get to the goth girl in chapter 7, I was starting to realize I had a book.

And so Crossed Out: A City Tales Novel, was born.

I passed out some of the chapters to other special ed teachers, and almost instantly they wanted their own classroom sets. The book became viral, taking on a life of its own as it wound its way through the school. Soon regular ed teachers were asking about the book, eager to offer it to their own struggling readers.

Crossed Out isn't just a book for special ed, it's a book for ESL and anyone in developmental reading. It's a book for all the students who read below grade level, for every kid who has never read a novel, who doesn't have books at home, who has parents that are functionally illiterate.

Crossed Out is a book for over half the LAUSD school district.

Students approach me in the hallways now, some I know, others are strangers.

"I love your book, Mister!"
"Hey, Leiken! Good book."
"Hey teacher! Did you write that book? It's awesome!"

I acknowledge them with a smile a wave. For some students, Crossed Out is the first book they have ever finished.

A few even want to take the book home, refusing to let go, fingers glued to the pages.

"Can I take it home Mr. Leiken?" Sam says. "I promise to return it."

Normally I would say no. The copies I have keep on disappearing, but in Sam's case, a demote who should be a senior, I'll make an exception. I've never seen him excited about anything, at least anything to do with reading or school.

He returns the book the next day.

"It was excellent, Mister. Best book I've read."

Sam is a slow reader. At 180 pages, I'm a little surprised he could finish Crossed Out that quickly. "You finished it in one day?" I ask. "How long did it take you to read it?"

"It took me all night, but I couldn't put it down!"

A student reading for fun? A student reading for pleasure? It's not possible.

Because kids don't read.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Baby Sitting

Half of my students are failing.

Habitually late, continuously sick, incapable of turning in work, those who fail are all to eager to give up when confronted with a challenge, ready to avoid anything that requires thought or mental effort. Some don't try at all, because for them school is a layover, purgatory before they reach their final destination.


Then there are the students who believe they have remained in first grade, perpetually stunned when I inform them they are failing all their classes.

"But, but I'm a good boy." a student declares, emphatic.

"Yeah," I retort, "but you don't do any work."

"Yes, yes I do!"

"Show me." I order.

The student opens up his notebook, and with the exception of a few journal entries, it's empty. No home work, no final projects, no notes. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

"Sorry kid, you need to work harder."

"But I'm a good boy."

I could tell you that students fail because of poverty, or cultural differences, or lack of parent involvement.

But I'm not in the business of making excuses. It's not their fault they are failing, it's mine. They are failing because I don't care.

A few of my colleagues don't hesitate to point this out. "You don't care anymore Leiken. What happened to you?"

"Acid reflux."

"Seriously, these kids need help. You need to be there for them. You shouldn't have put Sam in that government class. He can't handle it, he's falling apart."

I shrug, there wasn't much of a choice, all the other classes were full. Not that it matters, even if Sam came back for a 5th year and passed all his classes, he still wouldn't have enough credits to graduate. "Sam hasn't done anything for years," I counter, "he should be a senior and he only has sophomore credits."

"Well now he's trying, Leiken! You need to give him a chance."

"Not trying hard enough. He's still failing all his classes."

"That's because he's depressed. He has a bad home environment."

I shrug. I've heard it all before. What difference does it make why he fails, the fact is, he is still failing. The cop doesn't care when he pulls you over for speeding, the land lord doesn't care when you don't have money for rent. But I was late for work! I lost my job! My child is sick!
My girlfriend gave me herpes! Blah, blah, blah.

Sorry, but the world moves on.

Again and again I hear the same complaints, a cacophony of blaring horns that drowns out the ability to listen until finally, you become deaf to the pleas, the whining, the excuses...

In some cases, the students are so helpless they remind me of slugs drying up on hot pavement, unable to slither to safety. One such slug never brings a book to class, (or pencil and paper) claiming that his locker is jammed and he's unable to open it.

"Why don't you tell the office to fix it?" I ask, knowing that as I ask the question that this conversation is a waste of time.

"I did," he responds, "but like, they told me to retry the combination, and I had forgot it, so I had to pay them a dollar for the combo, and when I tried it the locker still didn't open, so like I wasted a dollar. What do you want me to do, go waste another dollar?"

Another minute of my life gone. At least if I had been sitting in traffic I would have been going somewhere.

No point arguing. I take him to the attendance office, whereby I pay a dollar to get the combination to try the locker for myself. I fumble with the lock, it's been years since I've actually had to spin a lock in place, twice to the right, once to the left, then back to the right again.

Nothing. The locker doesn't open. I try again. Nothing.

"See, Mister!" the kid crows. "I told you, waste of time."

I go find an assistant principal and ask for a key. She is glad to help, but first I have to fill out a form to have the locker opened. I make the student do it. Five more minutes, zapped away, POOF!

"How was I supposed to know to do all this!" the kid complains. "No one told me!"

The assistant principal tries the combo for herself. Nothing. Finally she gets out the key and opens it.

The locker's empty. There are no books, no pens, no paper. It looks like it's never been used.

"I don't understand," the student mutters, dumbfounded. "Where are my books?"

"If you can't find them you'll have to pay for new ones. They're expensive, $70-$100 dollars each."

"But that's not fair! You can't expect me to pay for books! Someone must have stole them!"

"How could they have stole them when the combination to the locker never worked?"

The student stares into space, silent. I've got him, one more witness nailed to the stand.

Bite me, Matlock.

But this time, I walk away. If a slug doesn't want to dry up on the sidewalk it actually has to want to move off the sidewalk.

I only have twelve students on my caseload, and six of them are failing. They don't study, don't complete assignments, don't bring their books, and for the most part can't be bothered to pay attention. Their parents are absentee, college is outside their imagination, they have no idea what they want to be when they grow up, and no idea how to get there.

Most of them have lost the ability to dream.

But I'm not in the business of making excuses. These kids are failing not because they are unmotivated, but because I refuse to dream for them.

But, hey, as I told you, it's my fault. It's my fault I don't do their homework, it's my fault I don't continuously check up on them, it's my fault I ask them to come after school, but never make them come.

It's my fault I don't want to be a babysitter.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dating LA

Dating in LA is notoriously difficult. People who move here often go for years finding no one, then move away only to discover a "soul mate" and marry six months later.

It's a paradox. How can a city known for its youth and beauty, a city crammed full of party loving singles, a city like LA, be so difficult for finding love?

The problem is the nature of LA herself.

LA is not a person, but a goddess. She is the daughter of Apollo and Lilith, forever chic, eternally young, phone glued to her ear as she veers down the freeway in an SUV for one. Like all gods, she goes by many names: Hollywood and Tinseltown, she is the American Idol.

She's attractive, even beautiful, the essence of desire; to have LA laughing on your arm is to have the shadow of every aspiration fulfilled. Her silhouette covers the city in sequined glamour. People who look in the mirror do not want to see themselves - they want to see her gazing back at them with longing.

She's elusive, this woman. Her whims are fickle. She wants everything but promises nothing. Countless millions come to LA seeking her, yearning for her approval to kiss their ears or to smolder in her radiant gaze. She is mesmerizing, Narcissus reborn; those who seek her unable to tear themselves away, hoping, praying, even begging for the briefest hint of her acknowledgement.

She is terrifying, this goddess. Those lucky few who bask in her glory often get too close to her divine flames, burning up, enraptured by all that she offers. Those who lose her interest are the wash outs; has-beens who frequently debase themselves on game shows and reality TV in acts of public self-flagellation, all in the vain hope of regaining her approval.

Within six months most who come to LA realize she doesn't exist, no more real then a mirage, no more edible than a bowl of Renoir fruit.

Reach out to touch her and your hands won't come away with an apple but a bruised canvas, coated with oil and paint.

She is untouchable, but her captivating splendor remains.

It is because of this goddess, this siren of desire, that dating is impossible in LA. No one wants to date who they are with - they want her. She is the collective consciousness of the modern world's dreams, a broadcast perversion of mass marketed fantasy. LA is lust and passion, wealth and romance, ecstasy and bliss. No mere mortal can match up to the promise of LA; no one person can fulfill all the dreams and endless possibilities with which she provides.

It is only after becoming numb in the land of collagen enhanced bodies that realization dawns - not even LA can satiate all that she promises. No matter how much you are with her, LA leaves you hungry and desperate for more. More fame, more success, more praise, more self-adoration.

LA doesn't bequeath dreams, LA bestows hallucination.

Natives born in her womb are impervious to fever induced charms. Birthed with immune systems incapable of substance, LA natives accept her artificiality with a zen like Buddhism that mystifies outsiders. For the natives do not date, they "hook-up." For them, it is enough to have a look and the appearance of a relationship.

For true initiates of Hollywood the image is the person, what you look like is who you are. They accept that when you are in a relationship, you aren't just a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you're an accessory.

In most places, it's what you bring to the table. In LA, it's not what you bring, it's who you bring to the table with you. In LA, an image isn't skin deep because there is nothing beneath the skin.

Dating in LA isn't about love or commitment. It's about creating an image, all in an attempt to be closer, to be closer to her.

It's why as a broke writer I did better dating than an employed teacher - a writer has the potential of launching a career, catapulting an individual into her hands.

A teacher? A teacher might be able to add you to their PPO.

It's why people in LA can have one night stands, but are incapable of sustaining a relationship. In a relationship, your image might not be compatible with theirs.

People often say to me, "Leiken, you are too picky. You won't bend, you won't compromise. You expect too much. You don't put yourself out there enough and you get discouraged too easily. You won't change your look."

To date in LA you have to find your niche, you need to have a look.

Because when you are dating in LA, you are dating two women. The girl you are with, and LA. One I can handle, the other can never be satisfied.

That's LA.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


"We need to stop paying lip service to public education, and start holding communities, administrators, teachers, parents and students accountable. We will prepare the next generation for success in college and the workforce, ensuring that American children lead the world once again in creativity and achievement." - Barack Obama

7:45 AM

Gerado enters 11th grade English late. Smirking with surliness, he tosses down his backpack with practiced nonchalance before whipping out a nub of a pencil. An instant later he starts talking.

"Gerado," the teacher asks, "could you please stop talking?"

"Why don't you stop talking?" he snaps.

"Gerado, please don't give me attitude."

"You're the one giving me attitude." he snarls, cursing her under his breath.

"Gerado, please step outside."

"This is bullshit!" he cries out, leaving in a huff. The teacher gives him a minute to cool off, but when she exits to check on him, he's gone.

"Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act--preserving local control, raising standards in public schools, & holding those schools accountable for results. And because we acted, students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap." - George W. Bush

8:10 AM

I'm outside, looking for Gerado, when I stumble across a student wandering the courtyard. He's a round faced kid with a wisp of a goatee, wearing pants cut off at the knees. I don't know him by name, but I recognize him from my home room class.

"Why aren't you in class?" I ask perfunctorily.

"I'm feeling sick, Mister." he replies. "My stomach hurts."

"Why aren't you at the nurse?"

"I was, but sometimes I just come out here and walk around."

"Who is your first period teacher?" I ask.

"I don't know."

"It's March, how can you not know?"

The kid shrugs. "I've been sick a lot."

I escort him back to the nurse.

"We have made education a high priority, focusing on standards, accountability and choice in public schools, and on making a college education available to every American." - Bill Clinton

9:15 AM

During 2nd period I co-teach world history. The teacher asks her students to get out their books to take notes.

There are about 30 kids in the class. Only twenty take out their books.

I make the rounds, asking kids why they didn't bring their books.

"I left it at home."
"I didn't know we'd need it today."
"My locker is jammed, so I can't get it."

I stop before one of my students. He's bright, but lackadaisical. "Why didn't you bring your book?"

"I don't know, I left it at home."

"Why don't you leave the books in your locker?"

"I forgot the combination, so when I asked for a new one they wanted to charge me a dollar, and that's like a rip off."

My irritation is masked behind a facade of unflappable indifference. "Why not carry them?"

"Carry them? Those books are heavy!"

"We're on a block system. You only have two academic classes."

"C'mon, mister! Carry books? That would make me look like a nerd!"

"We will insist on high standards and accountability because we believe that every school should teach and every child can learn." - H.W. Bush

11:00 AM

Special Ed has been called out for a meeting with our administrators. They want to know why more of our students haven't been "mainstreamed" into General Ed, and why more Special Ed students aren't graduating. We promise to do a better job tracking students and keep tabs on their present levels of performance.

Speaking of performance, only one in five of the General Ed students at our school tests at advanced or proficient.

No one mentions that Special Ed fits right in with the other 80% of the school who test from somewhere below grade level to beneath the Earth's crust.

That would be impolite.

No one mentions that only 55% of our student population graduates high school, or the droves of them that drop out of community college after one semester.

That would be rude.

Clearly what we need to do is let parents decide where to send their children to school, break up the teacher's unions, allow for more state mandated testing, send more money for books and technology, put teachers through a more rigorous training process, allow charter's to take over, encourage more diversity, make students wear uniforms, reinstate school prayer, and make sure parents are fully involved in their children's education.

I could tell you that none of those are going to work, but I won't.

Because that would be rude.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Subbing AP

AP is short for Advanced Placement, for students who not only plan on attending college but want to get a head start - high school AP courses are often worth college credit.

AP is for the organized, the studious, the diligent; AP is synonymous with the staight A student, the self motivated go getter, the "teacher's pet". There aren't many AP students in the hood.

Much like the tiger and the bald eagle, AP students are considered something of an endangered species.

In my world, the special ed world, AP students are a rumor, a myth; they walk by me every day but exist in a different universe.

I once stumbled into an AP student in the hallway and thought I had stepped on a dodo bird. Kids who do their homework and want to go to college? You might as well tell me you were teaching leprechauns and unicorns.

So on Monday when I'm asked to sub for an AP class, I'm more than a little surprised. Subbing is an onerous chore, as soon as students spot a sub they see a mark and know they have a golden opportunity to misbehave.

If you hope to be an effective sub, your personality defaults to tyrant.

As the AP class files in, they are both quiet and subdued. There are no cat calls, students attempting to switch seats, whipping out cell phones, or any one of a hundred other teenage shennagians subs typically have to deal with. It's a small class, but to me they seem the kids seem more like scholastic monks than students.

The bell rings. They are all seated, attentive. I pull out a typed lesson plan. "Today ladies and gentleman, the teacher has asked that you finish your story questions for The Importance of Being Earnest. She would also like to remind you that you need to finish Pride and Prejudice by the end of the week and that your essays are do tommorrow."

I move to write the days agenda on the wall, but stop myself. The kids all have their notepads out, busy writing everything I say down.

What the hell?

"Is that all Mr. Leiken?" one of the students asks.

I blink. "Did I mention my name?"

The girl points to the board. "You have it written up there. Plus, we've heard of you."

"Good or bad?"

"Do you remember Emily? She took a class with you and Duran and said the two of you should be teaching AP history."

"Your that guy that dresses as a pirate."

"And you ran the comedy club."

"Don't you do those crazy announcements?"

I nod. "Yes, yes, I do those crazy announcements. You all know about Oscar Wilde on his death bed?"

The students shake their heads, rapt.

"Oscar Wilde was dying in a cheap hotel in Paris, and he couldn't stand the drapes. So he told his friends, Either those drapes go, or I go. Then he died."

The class laughs.

I ask the students take out their books and start working, fully expecting to repeat myself.

I don't have to repeat myself. The students pull out their binders and start quietly working, opening up their books as they write down their answers. I stand at the front of the room for a few minutes, dumbfounded, fully expecting someone to ask for help or to have a question.

No one does. For the first time ever, I don't have to do anything.

I go to the back of the room to finish up an assignment. The students talk quietly among themselves, but after about twenty minutes I can see a few of them aren't on task.

"Excuse me," I ask in a normal tone of voice, "I'd just like to remind all of you that the questions are due at the end of class."

The students put their heads down and get back to work.

God damn it. Why won't they do something? What is wrong with these kids? I see a couple of them reading Pride and Prejudice, but when they get stuck, they pull out dictionaries to look up words.

Kids thinking for themselves? Should I call someone? Why aren't they asking me for help?

I've been teaching the bottom of the barrel for so long I can't even remember what a "normal" class looks like.

Special Ed has ruined me.