Column: Two Days in East Oakland

By Susan Parker
Tuesday March 20, 2007

I had a few job interviews, and by doing so, I learned a thing or two. I discovered, too late, that one should not mention in an interview that what interests one most about the position is its part-time status and proximity to one’s home. I also learned that I should have a better idea of what kind of work I want. Employers do not like to hear that the interviewee is still trying to find herself, especially when the interviewee is 54, almost 55, and closer to retirement age than career-making status.  

While answering an ad for tutoring in the Oakland Public Schools, I learned that my interviewer was also in charge of filling the Archdiocese of Alameda County substitute teaching staff. I put in an application. I went down to West Oakland and got fingerprinted. I searched through my old papers and found my college transcript and CBEST results. I swore that I had never been arrested for a felony, that I was not on parole or probation, that I was a citizen of the United States, and that I was available five days a week, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. I told the interviewer that I was not a sex offender. No one asked me if I liked children, but I stated that I did, just in case someone might want to know.  

I was relieved to learn that the CBEST test I had taken over 12 years ago was still valid. In fact, it is valid forever. I had taken the test at nearby Oakland Tech. I’d sweated for a few weeks while I waited for the results. I wasn’t worried about my reading comprehension or writing ability, but I was concerned that my math skills weren’t up to par. I was disappointed when the documents finally arrived. I had passed every section with flying colors except the essay portion. I had passed that section too, but barely, getting the lowest possible score that still allowed me access to the state’s public school population.  

Off and on for a dozen years I have thought about returning to teaching. Years ago I attempted to contact several school districts, but I didn’t have much success. I could not get past the Berkeley Unified School District phone system in order to speak with a real person. In Oakland, I got beyond the multiple recorded messages and made an appointment for an interview, but when I arrived at the school board offices, no one knew who I was or why I was there. I decided subbing was not in my future.  

A dozen years later, I’m willing to give teaching another try.  

Last week I spent two days in a fifth-grade East Oakland classroom. Located only a few minutes from the Coliseum, around the corner from International Boulevard, and across the street from a Jack in the Box, several liquor stores, and a check cashing joint, I found myself sharing a small, stuffy room with Carlos, Elena, Javier, and their classmates. They were excited to tell me about themselves, to show me how they could multiply and divide, spell three syllable words, jump rope and kick a soccer ball. They eloquently expressed themselves in two languages, but in deference to me they spoke English, the only language I know.  

I could not have asked for a more gracious, welcoming experience. I’ve read the articles in the local newspapers, and listened to the talking heads on television. I know from their reports that this country’s schools are in trouble, that our children are not learning, that the system is failing. But I also know now that in a funky little classroom within a few feet of the roaring traffic on East 14th, the future is anxiously waiting. Despite what you may read and hear in the news, these children are eager to learn, to share, to participate, and to prove the media wrong.