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.