Monday, July 18, 2011

A Prognosis: Hope Your Cardiologist Didn't Cheat on HisTest

Face it, we are a cheating culture, a culture of cheaters and we condone it, explicitly or implicitly, despite our virtuous sermonizing against it when we do our taxes, get more change back than we should have and say nothing about it, or were not charged for an item we bought at the store and keep walking towards the door.

I read with horror yesterday about how teachers in the Atlanta School District were caught and confessed to helping their students cheat on achievement tests in order to preserve their jobs and not lose government funding denied to poor achieving schools. In some cases teachers met in a cafeteria and with the blessing of their administrators, erased wrong answers and bubbled in the correct ones.

As a former teacher I can sympathize with wanting your kids to succeed and the pain of seeing them fail. Many a time I lamented having to give failing grades to a student who tried hard or who I particularly liked. It was so easy to just give them a passing grade and no one would be the wiser. The student would certainly have not complained. Statistics show that most students cheat at one time or another on tests and that most do not see it as wrong "because everybody does it".

In fact, I remember at times looking at the answers of the kid in front of me or to my side in class and copying. In high school, I survived Biology by sitting next to one of the brightest  girls in class. She would do all my written work, and I would do all the anatomical drawings of insects, frogs and amoebas for her. We both got A's!

In my college English classes I often caught students cheating by copying essays directly from a book or magazine, or copying each others papers. I read every single paper and I could tell each one of my students after returning their papers what topic they had written about, so it was not that difficult to find duplicates. Easier to spot were those papers copied from professional sources; the vocabulary, diction and sentence structures gave them away.

In one case, I allowed three young men into my class who were on the school's basketball team who simply "had to pass their English requirement to play for the team", according to the coach who personally called me on the phone asking that I let them into my already full class.

On one assignment two of them turned in an identical essay, word for word! It was a no-brainer. At the very least, they could have tried to change a few words or sentences around, but no they were identical! They must have thought I was stupid. Naturally, I asked to speak to them after class, and told them cheating was unacceptable in college. I also took the opportunity to call their coach "personally" to tell him about the incident. Did they learn their lesson? Who knows.

But teachers helping their students cheat, now that's a new one for me. For the most part though, besides writing some prompts with a ball point pen on my wrist or palm once or twice in order to pass a test, I was mostly an honest guy and didn't cheat on tests, especially in my latter years in college (now, on taxes that's another matter), becoming my own anti-cheating patrolman.

Thus, I began each semester with a lecture on the virtues of not cheating the gist of which was the moral: When we cheat, we advocate and condone cheating and make it acceptable for every other person to cheat us, and ended it with this admonition:
 "For those of you who see nothing wrong with cheating on tests, I hope your Cardiologist or heart surgeon did not get his medical degree by cheating on his tests. Good luck."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Berkeleylandia: A Valley Transplant

Fresh out of high school from a small Central Valley California cow town, Modesto, California, I walked straight into the heart of Bohemia, U.S.A. and streets filled with bare feet, reefer smoke, the smell of wine and coffee, tie-died hippies, anti-war protestors, artists, musicians, self-made poets dropouts and losers.

It was the late 50-s, early 60's when I first set foot in Berkeley California and loved it; I was an art student just down the road, at the other end of College Avenue in Oakland, and spent much of my off time lurking and hanging around Telegraph Avenue.

It was the perfect excuse for an artist with a little black sketchbook to gawk at an sketch an incredible assortment of rogue characters, sipping wine or coffee in some cramped joint smothering in the smell of cigarettes, pot, and incense.

Small cafes offered venues of poetry and live music, folk and sometimes jazz combos. Stands lining the streets pawned tie-dyed t-shirts, homemade jewelry and incense. Young people with long hair, torn pants, and scrawny beards lined the streets and I was frustratingly straight, dieing to fit in somehow.

An shady dingy foreign film cinema with two screens and no soda and popcorn concession, was a hangout for audiences hungry for dark and austere foreign films with tedious English subtitles, films by Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Eisenstein, Satyajit Ray, Luis Buñuel, Cocteau, Di Sica, and Kurosawa. Speechless, I pretended to enjoy the films just to be hip and in the process broadened my world beyond imagination far beyond the Hollywood epics and musicals I had grown up with.

I stayed away from the protests over one thing or another, war, politics, freedom of speech, religious and artistic freedom. Mainly  I was afraid to take a stand on anything. I was a looker, an observer, a watcher. And Telegraph Avenue, that leads straight into the University of California was abuzz with colonies of anti-establishment beings, all at home with weirdness. I loved it. A weird Chicano boy from the valley.

So I was happy just pretending to be a citizen of Berkeley, never giving away my true origins. The underground station KPFA was airing strong then showcasing the best in subterranean folk and rock. On Friday nights they held a live open mike hootenanny allowing local musicians to play. I would accompany my old friend, artist and folk singer Barry Squires who often took a turn playing. I was amazed by the talent the show attracted: mandolin, guitar, sitar, banjo and harmonica players and crooners.

I  loved hanging out at the record and bookstores and spent hours scouring beautiful books full of exquisite reproductions of the masters, architectue and ancient art, books I could never afford. I even liked their smell ever since I was a kid in the public library in Modesto.

My favorite restaurant on one corner of the avenue, served decent Mexican food reminding me of my roots, and my favorite dish was Chicken Flautas, topped with guacamole and served with a side dish of hot salsa to dip into. I never ordered anything else. Once, after telling the owner I was an artist, he asked me if I could design him some new menus. I did, and instead of the fee, I asked if he could trade me free meals and he agreed. I was to eat there free for a long time afterwards.

To this day, I still get a kick out of visiting Telegraph Avenue, which to me and many others is Berkeley and never cease to be amazed how it still is a haven for misfits, drifters and dreamers just like me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

JFK: The Day I Saw The President

John Kennedy was easily my favorite president. He was the favorite of most Mexicans because he spoke to poor people and he was Catholic. My mother kept a picture of him and Jacqueline on her altar, right alongside the Sacred Heart, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

It was 1962, and I was working as a florist in a small flower shop on Telegraph and Ashby Ave. in Berkeley not far from the University with the manager, Doug. It was mainly a "bucket shop" but we did do flowers for funerals, weddings besides selling flowers in bunches.

I had heard that JFK was going to visit the University, but I had no plans to see him since I was working that day. We had the radio on listening to music as we normally did when the announcer cut in and began to give a street-by-street rundown of the President's entourage.

"The President is now on Shattuck Avenue heading towards the university", said the announcer with a voice of anticipation. Shattuck was only about four blocks west of Telegraph Avenue. That meant they would be crossing Ashby Avenue in minutes!

"Doug, I gotta go see the President, is it alright? I'll be right back?" "Sure, say hello for me", he joked. I tore off my apron, rushed out the front door and started running. "What if I miss him?" I thought to myself. "What if he has already passed when I get there!"

I arrived at Shattuck Avenue to find that crowds had already lined both sides of the street. I pushed my way through the crowd until I found a space where I could see the cars. He had not arrived yet, but I could tell by the screams and claps that he was near!

Several black limousines sped by. But which one was he in?! Then, I saw his face through the backseat window. He was waving at the people. He looked right at me and waved. I furiously waved back.

I felt a thrill, a rush. I had just seen the President of The United States!! "Just wait till I tell my mom", I thought to myself. The trip back to the flower shop was uneventful. I went back to stripping thorns from roses and leaves from carnation stems, and consolidating flowers into buckets, but with a renewed sense of vigor.