In East San Jose, passing the Tropicana Shopping Center on Story Road, bumping over the potholes on Alum Rock Avenue, or following VTA Route 22 on King Road, there’s no mistaking the charter schools if you know where to look. Typical examples include: a collection of bright yellow portables set up outside a preexisting elementary school, a closed post office repurposed and repainted green and purple, a former public school covered in murals of college mascots.
I’m bombarded by college as I walk into the garishly purple and green building. Pennants from schools across the country are plastered on the walls of the narrow hallway to my classroom. Purple banners printed with a Comic Sans-esque font hang from the ceiling, bearing imperative slogans like “Rocketeers are RESPECTFUL,” “Rocketeers are LEADERS,” and, of course “Rocketeers are going to COLLEGE!”
I’m here to work in an after school program that focuses on linguistics and literacy, and my thoughts go from being concerned that the subject matter is too much for the kids to an unwelcome sense of inadequacy. I’m a thirty-year-old college undergrad. I went to college… eventually.
I soon discover that all the classrooms have a college theme. Mine is the Notre Dame. There’s a Fighting Irish banner next to the teacher’s desk, her rocking chair is covered in a Notre Dame flannel blanket, and there are shamrocks stamped with ND scattered across the walls. A peek next door reveals cardinal red and redwood trees: Stanford. I think I might have seen an SJSU pennant amongst the clashing colors pinned on the walls, but maybe a state school isn’t a lofty enough goal to get a classroom dedicated to it.
My unease slides away when I meet my students. I went to school not too far from here, so these kids feel like the ones I grew up with. If anything, I soon begin to feel sorry for them. Their day is far more regimented than mine was, down the street in a public school that’s since become a charter. I hear low enrollment was a problem, but there are just as many kids now as they were then. More and more parents, parents like mine who are new to this country and want opportunities that they never had, are drawn in by the siren song of COLLEGE.
Oh, I forgot to mention: my kids are in the third grade.
It’s 9:00 in the morning and I’ve melted into my favorite armchair (gray, pleather, extra squishy) in the English student lounge. In true super senior fashion, I’m only just finishing my reading for my afternoon class, Anne Fadiman’s familiar essay on ice cream. Since breakfast so far has only consisted of a coffee I grabbed from my K-cup machine as on my way out the door to catch the 22 on time, of course I’m hungry. But what could possibly make me rise from the womblike caress of my armchair? Oh, right: La Victoria is right across the street.
As I rise from my armchair, I start thinking about rituals. Last year, the early morning text of “Breakfast burrito?” from David would bring a smile to my face. I didn’t have class until 10:30 or noon, but I usually made it on campus long before, because breakfast burritos are 3.25 before 11 am and we always got our fix together. Chorizo and egg with a Mexican Coke for me, bacon and egg with a Squirt for him.
Alas, time passes, change is inevitable, and my partner in crime and burritos has graduated. I climb up the steps of the Victorian house of burritos and orange sauce alone.
My order has changed, too. No more Coke with real cane sugar (I’m pretty sure I can taste the difference, but that smoother sweetness might just as easily be placebo effect induced.) “Cheese?” the woman at the register asks. She flinches when I say, “No, thank you,” for the first time. The soda and the cheese have been sacrificed on the altar of my attempt to be healthier this school year.
There’s no line, so it’s not long before I’m peeling away the layer of crinkly aluminum to reveal the warm bundle of breakfast. The first bite is more tortilla than anything else, but I like the chewy doughiness of it. Rice and chorizo are revealed within, but I take a moment to anoint my breakfast with a few drops of orange sauce. Things could easily go wrong here. Too much, and my nose will run and my eyes will tear up because I have stereotypically white girl spiciness tolerance (ie: none). Too little, and what’s the point? However, because this is a routine, I’ve figured out my ideal dose. Four drops per bite is enough.
Without cheese melting into the rice and chorizo to bind it all together, the chorizo has migrated to the bottom and all I’m getting is rice. Frustrated, I add more orange sauce, and the waterworks begin. If David were here, he would have told me to compromise: leave the Coke but get the cheese. He would have been right, too.
I’ve used up my napkins wiping my nose, and so there’s nothing left to clean up my hands as the grease from the accumulated chorizo begins to ooze past the layers of tortilla and foil and onto my hands. I think about getting up to get more napkins, but I am still hungry so I shove the grease soaked nub of tortilla at the bottom into my mouth.
The savagery of the gesture is soon contrasted to how gingerly I hold my hands away from me. The white shirt I put on this morning, the one so thin and delicate that I almost put a camisole under it because I wasn’t 100% sure I couldn’t see my bra through it, is one wrong move away from being a canvas for bright orange chorizo fat.
I nearly avoided disaster, but a greasy napkin falls out of my hand. I start to calculate the time it would take me to get home, change, and get back to class. There’s time. Probably. I can risk it.
None of this would have happened if David were here, though.
I like the idea of chasing something that (supposedly) doesn’t exist because even if you don’t catch it, the chase is going to take you to some interesting places. That being said, Atlantis does exist. I know, because that’s where I come from. Geologists will tell you that the Azores Islands were born from volcanic activity caused by the North American, Eurasian, and African plates bumping and grinding against one another, but Azoreans know better. Those nine islands are what’s left of a lost kingdom, discovered and populated by another kingdom that fell only to rise again as a shadow of itself: Portugal.
As a thirty-year-old former college dropout turned overachieving undergrad, I also know a little something about falling and rising again. Maybe that’s why I romanticize my origins so much. It is one of the biggest factors in what I choose to write about. “Chasing Atlantis” was the name of a sestina I wrote for a creative writing class about being Azorean. I was unspeakably proud of it at the time, but now I realize needs some polishing.
As an English major, writing for class is the major motivation for writing. In addition to the creative writing (mostly poetry) I did in community college, many trees have sacrificed their lives for me to write essays about literature. Whenever I can get away with it, I write about both literatures I’ve studied: Lusophone and Anglophone. My writing, like myself, is a native of two worlds. For example, last semester my Medieval Portuguese final was a comparison and contrast between Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Bernardim Ribeiro’s Menina e Moça. Meanwhile, for my American Novel class, I wrote about why it took so long for Portuguese-American literature to develop. Neither class required me to cross languages; it was something that came naturally to me. I even spent a long time considering going to grad school to study comparative literature to further explore how the two languages of my heart interacted with one another. I even started scouting Portuguese graduate schools.
However, I think I chose the more practical (if less romantic) route of studying to become a high school teacher instead of escaping to the ivory tower of academia. It’s not settling; I love teaching and sharing the things I care about with other people almost as much as learning about them. Continuing in that practical vein, I decided to take some technical writing classes this year. Teaching, reading, and writing are things that I do anyway. Why not figure out how to apply the latter in new ways?