Lucky Ones

Posted on October 7, 2016


Published in Corvus Review #6, Fall 2016

Shortly before I left Oaxaca to return to San Francisco I ran into Joan Campbell in the Zòcalo. “Chinga, Madison, cuidado!” in her sharp voice that always seemed to be jumping from one octave to another, one language to another.

“I wasn’t anticipating an attack.”

“I guess not. You were sleepwalking.”

I wasn’t sleepwalking: The Zòcalo was filled with people although most of the sidewalk restaurant tables were vacant and I was distracted by clanging marimbas, bead vendors, armed police. Joan asked me where I was going and I fabricated an answer, then invited her to a cappuccino.

We talked for almost an hour. That is, she talked. Reed-thin, sharp-featured, ruddy complexioned despite her Anglican surname, “Bullshit!” she crackled, thin fingers flipping strands of gray hair off her ears. There still were police everywhere she bristled, paramilitaries stopping cars, hundreds of protesters in jail, hundreds of others disappeared.

“Fear! You can feel it everywhere! Pèsimo! Like the gas—like it’s still clinging in the air!”

The “gas” was the teargas the police and militaries fired to drive protesters out of the Centro Historico. I witnessed it; so did Joan, although we were in separate parts of the melee. Detained by police shortly after the militarized purge of the protesters’ encampment she’d refused to acknowledge her U.S. citizenship until a human rights lawyer had intervened.

“Sale abuelita,” a jailer had ordered and she’d spit in his face. “Grandmother I am! And if I had a grandson like you I’d die of shame!”

“Tell everybody up there what’s happened here!” she commanded when I left Oaxaca. “Make them understand!”

Nobody north of the border understood. Nobody believed; nobody cared. Oaxaca was two-thousand miles and two centuries away from San Francisco. Propaganda machinery had assured everyone outside of Oaxaca that the police had stomped out a leftist rebellion, not a legal protest. Beatings, torture, rapes, imprisonments without trial were pushed under the carpet. As far as people north of the border were concerned Mexico was a land of barefoot peasants, dirty and ignorant, not professionally educated, idealistic, socially responsible educators, artists, engineers.

For a time Joan’s commentaries—“diatribes” she belittled them—appeared online in what even politicized San Franciscans considered a radical news site. I read them and occasionally commented although summer classes, tutoring and an aggravatingly persistent lack of money curtailed intended returns to Oaxaca and I lost contact with Joan and most of the people I’d met there. Then her photo appeared on one of those People you also might know FaceBook pages. I sent her a note and she responded with a rattle about goldmine exploitation, migraines, renewed teacher demonstrations. In reply I chided keep your gasmask close at hand and received an immediate SHIT!!! in capitalized oversized type.

“It’s not the same, not like it was…” she asserted:

Shithead Governor Ulisès is gone: Everything’s smoothed over. Smoothed over hell!—covered up!  Torture, rape didn’t happen. Teargas didn’t happen. Everything you remember is false. No, shit, I’m telling you, here it’s all pretty costumes for the tourists. Zapoteca dances. Funky parades…

Hombro a hombro, codo a codo remember? 700,000 supporting the teachers, supporting democracy—wiped out. Gone.

         Now the teachers are the enemies. Reviled. Oaxaca is Zombie land. Yesterday as I passed a blocked government office a woman turned to me and shrieked, “Pinches flojos!” At the teachers. Because they were demonstrating. Over two billion pesos in state funds missing! Stolen! By fucking crooks who were in the government! Què puta madre! Okay, so maybe that woman’s got kids at home driving her crazy because the schools have been closed for two days but there’s no money for schools! For salaries. Nobody gives a rat’s ass! Except the teachers.

         And not all of them, I might add…

Perhaps I should have waited to reply, thought through what I wanted to say, but the words beneath Joan’s photo—chin thrust forward, smile almost a snarl—challenged, commanded. I complained that my JC students, most of them products of suburban highschools, didn’t give a rat’s ass about their own communities much less about any in Mexico. Their attempts at essays were pallid excursions into drug usage, hamburger prices and Giants baseball. Ostensibly sexually liberated they were as neurotic about appearance, rejection and money as any of their grandparents had been. My co-faculty, I added, weren’t a helluva lot better. I could be talking to the walls for all that I was able to achieve.

Chinga Madison! My first school in Chicago—I was twenty-two, graduated twelfth in my class but no political connections, they assigned me to a center city school, all African-American except for a couple of Puerto Ricans. The sewers continually stopped up, the water in the drinking fountains was vile, girls having their periods stayed home because the faucets didn’t work. One of the few students I could understand—ghetto slang, slurred words, every other word muthafuckah!—disappeared—two warrants out for his arrest on hijacking and assault charges. One youngster—Bradley, his name was Bradley, walked with a congenital limp, overdosed on heroin. Kate, a twice-readmitted dropout, clearly psychopathic—the boys were afraid of her because she beat them up—broke all the windows in one classroom. Another, sweet thing, had been a twelve-year-old prostitute. Stephanie, a pretty girl, quit school because her boyfriend was murdered. I finished the year—some of those who didn’t drop out even gave me little presents. That year radicalized me more than all the university protests before or since. And I learned two things:  hungry badly treated kids don’t study; education degrees don’t mean shit.


Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—I read the e-mail on my laptop between classes. Compared with hers my teaching experiences seemed inconsequential, superficial—and my students even more so. Mired in routine, all of us. “Okay,” I announced, as much to rupture my own ennui as break through theirs, “I’m going to read you something. I want you to come back tomorrow with an account of your own highschooling. And I want it to be as honest as what I’m about to read.”

I can’t say the results were startling. But Joan—that is, Joan’s descriptions—got through to most of the thirty-seven. Many of them (for lack of originality?) copied Joan’s one or two sentence tat-tat style: drug busts, car wrecks, attempted rapes, things they’d observed rather than experienced personally. The most evocative was the description of an abortion—fears, humiliation, wanting to forget—written as having happened to a friend but I got the impression that it was a personal trauma and I wrote Joan about it and about other secret existences the mini-essays provoked.

Good job Madison! (Joan’s responses always seemed more like slaps in the face than pats on the back):

Poverty splits people open. Everything pours out: anger, hatred, sexual desire. Middleclass chavos like yours learn early in life to disguise—learn how to pretend. Things here in Oaxaca are more basic. More brutal. Abortion? It happens. But usually they just have the kids. Thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds. Grandmothers by the time they’re thirty.

         In the Zòcalo, 9-10 thousand striking teachers, hundreds of camp tents, ambulantes materializing out of nowhere, charcoal stoves, empanadas, tacos, tlayudas, candy, gum—5, 6, 7-year-olds selling one cigarette at a time, little baggies of peanuts, candied sweet potatoes. A young teacher from rural school way off in nowhere told me that the one really smart girl in his class had joined a cartel—yeah, shit, they recruit girls!—to be with her novio.

         Her classmates, he said, call her “the lucky one.”

         Lucky, chingada yes. The rest of them, he said, have no futures. But that’s not what he’s supposed to teach.

No futures. I suppose that fifteen years ago those of us wrenching our way through highschool thought we had futures. Not that we were naïve. Even middleclass kids growing up in New Orleans felt the poverty, experienced crime. But we developed a kind of immunity, a “them not us.”

The really frightening thing was to come face-to-face with “Who gives a shit whether I live or die?” (“Who gives a shit whether I kill you or not?”) I smoked pot—hell, everybody in New Orleans did except for a few Baptists—but I didn’t deal. That was the middleclass way, nibble at danger, at lawlessness, at prohibitions but keep one foot anchored in middleclassdom, always with an escape hatch, a way back. The threat of going to jail stopped me—it didn’t stop those who didn’t care. The threat of being killed didn’t stop them. It’s something you can’t deal with. You see it and you realize what evil really is: a black hole where the light of life should be.

After I wrote Joan I realized that my students were doing much as I and my highschool friends had done: tiptoeing close but pulling back before they got immersed. Choosing make-believe over reality: Love is forever. Work hard and you’ll succeed. Good wins out in the end.

Ah Madison, Madison, Madison, you’ve just described why revolution hasn’t happened here! The teachers come closest to igniting a conflagration, that’s why the govt tromps on them. The govt can deal with the narcos—hell, they’re after the same thing: money, more money and lots more money. The bastards in the govt and the bastard narcos can share the power in their own brutal ways. But people rising up? People taking power? No, my young friend, that fucks things up. The people have to be repressed.  Kept in ignorance. Fed a make-believe reality: telenovelas, football, religious holidays.

         Part of the make-believe reality here is blame the teachers. Crackdown on disruptions. Abolish non-conformity. The fucking narcos run wild but it’s the teachers the govt represses. Shit yes I know the union was corrupted by caciques; and abuses are numerous. But I also know that for thirty fucking years they’ve pushed for transportation, uniforms, bathrooms, breakfasts as well as salaries—the narcos pay beginning recruits more than teachers who’ve endured the system for 15-20 fucking years take home! And the people? The people who should support them? Off in la-la-land of make-believe repeating govt clichés….

Make-believe: make-believe and cover up in Oaxaca, make-believe in New Orleans, make-believe and cover up in suburban S.F. Students afraid to break out, live real lives. Like the student who put abortion experiences in the third-person. So different from Joan. Joan in the thick of things, participating, analyzing. My students repeating, reporting, staying safe. Doing homework because they have to in order to pass, in order to get their A.A., maybe go on to a four-year university….

Nevertheless, I congratulated them on their essays and tried to direct my grading away from grammar and punctuation towards content. I suggested they post their efforts electronically on the class group site and write comments to each other—a non-graded exercise that even if it got minimal response might get them outside themselves, generate some thought. Also I assigned an exercise based on Joan’s perception of make-believe reality and their perceptions of its existence in their own lives.

Better results. Some unexpected. Several students analyzed—clumsily but with nuggets of insight—family myths that they concluded were cover-ups. A coed deliberating about a personal relationship that she’d entered “despite not wanting to inside” and suffering abuse and humiliation. A returned G.I. (one of the few in the class) scratching at indoctrinations about “democracy” and the lack of it he’d seen in Afghanistan. A young man of Vietnamese ancestry’s polemic but touching diatribe against the “cement walls” of neo-liberalism and how impossible it was to break through.

And, later, a visit from the department chair.

“An interesting group site,” she commented, acknowledged that “others in the department” had voiced concern about assigning English 102 essays on “what would seem” to be more appropriate for social studies or international relations. She asked about “this source” in Mexico—“a friend, I presume?”—and (as department chairs so often do) mitigated her criticism by complimenting the “very commendable results” the students were achieving “but the truth is, Madison,” she fingered the tight collar of her brocaded blouse, “we have to stick to literary examples.”

And before I could counter: “Believe me, I’m with you on this…” she evoked her own struggles as an African-American competing for a place in academia then thrust her shoulders back and crisped, “If they want to write about politics, prejudice, sex, whatever, that’s one thing, you grade them on how well they convey what they’re trying to convey. But to assign something overtly political, overtly controversial? Not appropriate for J.C. freshmen.”

“Stick to make-believe reality, not think, not—”

“After class activism fine, in class this is the English Department.”

Carajo! Don’t I know!” Joan responded to my description of the encounter:

…try to move Popocatepetl with a shovel. You can’t do it. After two years in hell I transferred to a suburban school. Eighty percent white. Seventy-nine percent racist as hell. In front of the school one day a five-year-old hit by a car. Mother screaming. Ambulance driver demanding to know if she had insurance. I intervened: told the sonofabitch to get her to emergency or I’d have him jailed. Back in the classroom, so furious I could have ripped crocodiles apart with my bare hands, I overhead Just a Meskin, should’ve let her die…


Of course I wanted to use that as the next essay assignment but as I looked at the grades I’d given out I realized there was a lot of C- level flotsam: nineteen and twenty-year-olds who couldn’t break through, whose perception of living make-believe lives, of evoking reality, was itself a simulation, a trying to give me what they thought I wanted to read, not what they felt or thought or had experienced. I set Joan aside and gave the class a couple of humorous essay examples from a West Coast literary magazine “for a change of pace.” But I couldn’t fake it. Or fake it well enough. The ex-G.I. came up to me after class—timidly, I thought, for someone who’d seen combat in Afghanistan—and asked if “admin had stomped” me. He said he knew that some in the class had complained about what I’d assigned and word had sifted upstairs. I winced a “not really” then called him back and paraphrased the department chair’s definition of appropriate.

“So I can raise hell but you can’t?”

“I have to do it literarily,” I said, as much to Joan as to him.

“Strike’s over, Joan wrote


…the teachers and the govt came to an agreement. The teachers get a raise and roll up their tents but threaten more actions if the crimes the govt committed aren’t solved. Shit! The govt hasn’t done anything in six years it’s not going to do anything in six more but the la-la-land robots can park their cars again, shop, get their shoes shined. The kids hate school and the teachers hate the govt and the govt vacations in Cancun. The few like you, Madison, who really care wear down and either quit or give up and join the make-believe.

         I quit. I could only take it so long. I could only take marriage so long and Clay and I were about to kill each other. We both were looking for ways out and I bailed first. Chicago was a tough town but there were other things to do and I wound up in Mexico.

         I’m an outsider here. That’s okay. People see me as different and let me be different. Up there where you are people don’t like different. There’s pressure to conform. It breeds anger. Hate. I get angry here but I can accept, I have a way to vent. As nasty, pigheaded, irrational as I am, I get to be me.


After finals the student who’d written about the abortion experience sought me out to thank me “for making parts of a boring class really interesting.”  I took it as a compliment and I asked her about her plans for the future. She interrupted whatever cliché she’d started to invent by fiddling with a water bottle pouched in her pack and mumbling, “Tomorrow, you mean?” Then, “Get a job. Maybe get married. Or kill myself.”

An echo of her words came back to me as I sat facing the department chair for my annual evaluation. I like your approach, Madison, your innovation. Where are you with your doctorate..? adding that “given the current climate” it would be essential “otherwise…” her long fingers calligraphed the space between us

…otherwise I could wind up like Joan? I thought and as she mused “with a Ph.D. you see…”

…I could wind up in make-believe…

Like you.

But I didn’t say it. I booked a flight to Oaxaca instead.


Posted in: Fiction