Friday, April 23, 20010
A handful of 826 Valencia volunteers are setting up in the library on Friday, meaning Valerie Barth’s class on identity and immigration is up a flight of concrete steps, past a window of unsightly frosted glass, to a classroom on the third floor.
Before we head up, I listen to the discussion in the library. The volunteers from 826, the Mission-based writing center, pirate supply store and education collaborator, are working with students at Horace Mann Middle School on the Community Heroes Project – one that includes the artist Yolanda Lopez, Barth pointed out earlier this year. But now, it’s a peeling 12-year-old mural on the school’s Valencia Street wall that will be restored with help from the Museum of Modern Art.
The students in the library Friday morning are considering new local heroes to add to the wall, as well as a few farther flung role models. So far, they have Dave Eggers, writer and founder of 826 Valencia; Spain Rodriguez, the underground cartoonist; and Márcia “Cigarra” Treidler, who founded the Capoeira Arts Center on 22nd Street.
We leave that discussion and despite the reroute to the third floor and a lively, playful gathering of students waving and giggling to one another, everyone is seated in Barth’s class when the bell rings to begin.
They’re set to the task quickly. After Tuesday’s discussion on American identity, the students spent time reading a profile of Ghana, a country they learned about the previous year in 7th grade world history.
Two questions ask them to guess the life expectancy and average income of Americans in relation to what they’d learned about Ghana.
An outspoken, sharply dressed boy in back removes his white sweatshirt, carefully folds it, then turns to the assignment. One row ahead, a girl with an oversized Minnie Mouse bow clipped to her hair begins twirling her neighbor’s long, crimped locks in one hand while pondering and writing with the other.
Two boys sit with fat-tip markers carefully tagging the edges of their sheet, while most of the rest write down possible answers.
There’s an abrupt “Ahhchooo!” from the left, and much of the class cracks up.
“Sneezing is not that funny,” announces the teacher.
“Yeah but that was hella loud,” comes a protest from the corner.
A young man of African and Native American descent, answers the life-expectancy question: “It depends what race you are.”
On to average income, set at $670 for Ghana. An excitable, pint-sized student shoots his hand up after a few speculative answers.
“80,000 or 80?” Barth queries.
“Uh,” he looks at his worksheet, then quickly around the room. “8,000!” then bursts out “80,000!”
Barth calmly reasserts herself, asking her students to divide the U.S. average income told to be $47,580 in 2008 by that of Ghana’s.
Murmurs of objection fill the room. “I can’t do that kind of division.”
While one boy goes for his phone’s calculator, another has figured it out on paper within 30 seconds.
“Very good,” Barth responds. “Our average income is 70 times higher than Ghana’s.”
A boy starts to sing the KFC jingle but is quickly shushed by the assistant teacher, Christiana Hart, patrolling the periphery.
Another worksheet is passed around, and most students are quietly reading, save for a chubbier boy with a fuzz of sideburns and a girl with candy-colored fingernails playfully poking each other in the back.
The class continues exploring the profile of the U.S. to learn 11 percent of the country is foreign born.
“What percent is not foreign born?” Barth asks.
Fuzzy math returns at a school where only 1.3 percent of 8th graders in 2008 proved proficient in math. Seemingly-random numbers burst from around the room.
“62,” “4. No wait, 11,” “16.” “89.” A boy in the back answers correctly with an incredulous shake of his head at the swirl of misbegotten numbers around him.
“The U.S. is the foremost economic and military power,” Barth continues.
“That’s right. Aarrrfff,” the excitable boy barks, one of the few to proclaim he identifies as American on Tuesday. “I play baseball and do American stuff,” he’d explained then.
“Our military spending is almost as much as the rest of the world combined,” Barth announces next. “Think if we spent that money on education!”
Most of the class, for the first time, seems pretty blutterbunged at that figure.
“Wow. That’s ridiculous,” one boy says.
He looks further down the reading. “More than 30 million people live below the poverty line.”
“What does this say?” Barth asks. “We don’t take care of our people.”
Another student mentions the war in “I-raq.”
“It’s ee-raq,” Barth corrects. “Don’t say Iraq like George Bush.”
What else is unique about America?
“Martin Luther King Day.” “Coke.” “We have our own sports.”
“But not malls. We Singaporeans are the king of malls,” says Barth who moved here from the land of malls when she was 35.