I’m sitting in Beth’s living room right now, enjoying my time deep in the heart of Texas. Technically, it’s not quite Texas Texas, the stereotypical one (especially as depicted in Tucker Max’s “The Midland, Texas Story”), since it’s Mexican Texas. Brownsville is one town over from Mexico.

Of course, meeting and dancing on stage with Vanilla Ice has been the highlight of the trip so far, but there have been lots of other good moments as well. Here it is from the beginning:

I arrived in Brownsville at around 6:45 on Wednesday. The flights were good if uneventful; I had a cross-terminal connection that would be nearly impossible to make in Boston or Chicago or Paris, but the Houston airport is so well laid out that I made it in plenty of time. The flight from Houston to Brownsville was SO not the opposite of a sausage fest.

I arrived and met up with Beth — and it was HOT! It was probably just in the low eighties, but the humidity made it feel like so much more — like the mid-nineties or so. It was fucking FANTASTIC — I love very hot, very humid weather. It wreaks havoc on my hair, though — picture that episode of Friends when they go to Barbados and Monica’s hair goes crazy. Not quite that bad, but the same idea.

The airport is located right near Beth’s school, so we went by to check it out. And the outside of her school smells SO GOOD — there are some kind of plants or flowers that have an amazing, fresh smell. Next, we went to a Mexican place called Bigo’s for dinner, and we met up with one of Beth’s two roommates, Andrea (Andie). We had some huge, delicious piles of tortillas stuffed with chicken and cheese, with plenty of avocado. On the side there was also limes, green salsa and really spicy pico de gallo. We hung out and they told me teaching stories.

I should probably give a bit of background here. Beth and I have been best friends for ten years, since we forged our bond in the seventh grade over dioramas for social studies and watching Maury Povich (say it….you are NOT the father!). In the eighth grade, she and Lisa and I were inseparable, wearing our “best friends forever” necklaces almost every day. Once we started high school, Alexa became the fourth member of our group, and we were christened “The Brood” by Matt Stempeck and Chris Tringale. There’s so much more that I could say about the Brood, and how close we were, but that’s the basic gist of it.

Beth went to Muhlenberg in Pennsylvania for college, where I visited her once (and got my tattoo), and during her senior year, she was accepted to Teach for America. Teach for America is a program through Americorps that places new college graduates, most of whom hadn’t majored or minored in education, at schools throughout the country that are in the greatest need of teachers. You could teach in an urban area like DC, New York, Miami or the Bay Area, or you could be in a rural area like the Mississippi Delta, North Carolina, or a Native American reservation in South Dakota or New Mexico.

Beth got placed in the Rio Grande Valley, the area of southeastern Texas that borders Mexico. She got placed in Brownsville, one of the larger cities in the region. The region is known for having one of the lowest costs of living in America (more on that when I get to Beth’s amazing apartment!!), but the areas vary greatly. Last night, we went to dinner in the nicest area of Brownsville, which isn’t quite to the level of suburban Boston, but it was worlds away from Southmost, the area where Beth teaches, where there are fireworks shacks reading “Buy One Get Five Free”.

Beth teaches special education at a middle school. Her kids run along a wide gamut — she’s got kids who are MR (mentally retarded), autistic kids, and kids with plenty of various learning disabilities. She teaches one class of her own each day, and does inclusion for the rest of the day, which is working with the special ed kids who are integrated into normal-level classes.

After dinner, as I continued to marvel at the delicious weather, we went back to Beth’s place. She lives in a luxury complex with two roommates, and what an apartment it is!! There are three bedrooms and two full bathrooms, a spacious living room, dining room, and kitchen, plus a balcony. They also have their own washer/dryer and DISHWASHER (I am SO jealous of that). Everything is brand new.

And they pay $965.00 a month total, or a smidgen over $300.00 each.

Yeah. I’m jealous. I pay so much more, and I definitely don’t have a dishwasher!! But it’s worth it to be in a city I love….even though it’s not QUITE the city….I’ll get there someday.

While driving back, we passed a Sonic, and I freaked out. Sonic is like an urban fast food myth for those of us who live up north — we get all the commercials, but there are none anywhere!! From the commercials, I’ve really started craving a caramal banana split and a cherry limeade. They’re right about that — Sonic’s got it. Others don’t!

I met Tricia, Beth’s other roommate. All three girls work for Teach for America, and Beth and Tricia teach at the same school, while Andie teaches at a high school. We went to bed early, since I was going to school with Beth the next day, and I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. Which was great, and I mean that.

Beth’s alarm went off at FIVE the next morning (five!), a far cry from my 2-10:30 schedule. It was pitch black as we drove to school. On the way, we stopped at a gas station for breakfast tacos, which Beth had been telling me about for a long time and I really wanted to try them. And, trust me, that wasn’t as skanky as it sounds. There was a whole taco place inside the gas station.

We got to school and classes began. Beth’s first class was the special ed kids, and just watching her, I got exhausted. You have to have infinite patience to work with kids like these, especially at this age, or probably any kids, period. The reading lessons are for reading at a first-grade level. For example, they had a sheet with a paragraph on it, and they had to circle every word beginning with spr- or str-. And they had to say aloud a list of words on the side board, and their goal was to say them all — say them all, that’s it! — in less than FOUR MINUTES. That’s the level these kids are at.

And I really have to commend Beth — if there’s someone teaching special ed, it’s someone like her — she’s very well suited for it. She’s very kind and empathetic to kids, but she can also be a hardass when she needs to be! Later on, in a class with non-special ed kids, one of them kept asking her what my name was.

Beth: “That’s Ms. McCulley.”
Kid: “What’s her first name?”
Beth: “Ms.”
Kid: “That’s not a real first name.”
Me: “You’d be surprised.”
Beth: “She’s Ms. to you, just like I’m Ms. to you. And that’s it.”

But forget Ms. — the kids are all about MA’AM! Every kid calls every woman ma’am, mostly ma’am, and hardly ever call women by their names. (Though occasionally when Beth’s on the other side of the room, you’ll hear “Miss Go-li-NI!!”). Ma’am isn’t said with a Texas drawl, since virtually all of these kids are Mexican, so it’s just “Mahm” or “Mum”. You should hear them when they’re trying to get your attention! “Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am. MA’AM!!”

The kids are adorable. They really are — especially this little boy with autism, who kissed Beth’s co-teacher Kyle on the cheek when he walked in. Beth asked him how he was today, and he replied, “Weee! Weee!”

Later on, in one of Beth’s inclusion classes, the kids were writing poems and she had me help one of her special ed students. This little girl just seemed quiet to me, but then I learned just how bad off she was. The poem was fill-in-the-blank: “If I could be any color, I’d be ______ like ______ and ________.” I asked the little girl what color she’d like to be. She was wearing a pink jacket, and she said “pink” so softly you could barely hear her. So I told her that she could write it down, but she just stared at me. And Beth came by and said, “Remember the pah-pah-pah sound? Remember what letter that is? Is it this?” and she drew a P on the paper.

This girl is twelve years old.

Beth says that some specialists have classified her as mentally retarded, but others haven’t, and you can tell she has fetal alcohol syndrome. And I was just shocked to see that she was like that — and being integrated into regular classes! Beth really thinks that she shouldn’t be there, but there’s nothing she can do.

For all the success stories you read about with Teach for America — one that stands out is how a girl in Atlanta took a class of first graders who couldn’t read and got 90% to a third-grade level and the remaining 10% to a second-grade level by the end of the year — you also have the reality that some kids are just hopeless. This little girl will never achieve literacy — and what kind of future can you have without being able to read anything? Beth said that when the career fair comes to schools, the only choices the kids have are the military, the police, the fire department, and cosmetology school. That’s it.

Anyways, I got to meet a lot of Beth’s favorite students and colleagues, and they’re all great people. We were in a seventh grade English class with a LOT of rambunctious boys in it, and they naturally took an interest to me. (In another class, while Beth was out of the room, one kid actually let out a WOLF WHISTLE at me!!) They kept moving, little by little, closer to my desk. Then the question of the day:

Kid: “Do you speak Spanish, ma’am?”
Me: “A little. I can read it, understand some, but I’m not that good at speaking it.”
Kid: “So you can understand a little?”

All the boys’ eyes light up.

Me: “Don’t even go there, because I know you’re going to be saying increasingly inappropriate things, and even if I don’t understand you, I’m going to know it!”

The boys just stared, maybe a little afraid to laugh.

One kid in particular was wild, and he kept asking Beth about me. Beth told him it was my first time to Brownsville.

Kid: “You’ve never been to Brown Town?”
Me: “I’ve never even been to Texas — or Mexico!”
Kid: “Do you like Mexican food?”
Me: “I love it — we went to Bigo’s last night.”
Kid: “Do you like margaritas?”
Me: “Who doesn’t like margaritas?”
Kid: “Do you like Bud Light, ma’am? There’s this place where I go, it’s really good, I drink Bud Light there all the time….”
Me: (looks at Beth) “Um, I don’t think we should be continuing this conversation….”

(Later:
Me: “He’s TWELVE!”
Beth: “He’s actually fourteen — he had to repeat sixth grade. Twice.”)

Beth had a meeting after school, so Tricia gave me a ride home. I took this opportunity to let out the floodgates and ask every question I had about the school, about Mexico, and how it is that so many kids walk over the bridge each day from Mexico to go to a U.S. public schools. We talked like crazy, and she told me that about a quarter of the kids live in Mexico and give a relative’s address in Brownsville. In Mexico, you have to pay to go to school past the fifth grade, so that’s the main reason. Occasionally, like once every three weeks, they find out that a kid doesn’t really live there and he or she gets kicked out, which is sad. Every now and then, Beth has to ask a kid for his or her address, and the kid invariably goes, “Yeah, that’s it but you can’t get my mom there, try this phone number instead,” and it’s always in Mexico. The kids can barely keep it straight — they keep forgetting which one they’re “supposed” to have.

It’s so fascinating, learning about the culture down here. We’re in America, but it might as well be an entirely different country.

Halfway home, Tricia says the magic words:

“Would you mind if we stopped at Sonic?”

WOULD I MIND?!?!?!?!

I was thrilled — I had been begging Beth to take me as soon as possible. Sonic is fucking AMAZING. You sit in your car and order — it’s a drive in — and they bring you your food, sometimes while wearing roller blades. And the food features so many different things, things you wouldn’t find on other fast food menus. I got a popcorn chicken and a chocolate cake sundae. So good. And you just sit there and it, because it’s a drive in! All this time, I thought that the people in the commercials were just paused at the drive-thru window!

Tricia is a native of the Valley, and she kept telling me how much Beth and I are alike — maybe because we’re friends, but she’s never known too many YANKEES before. I have never been called a Yankee in my LIFE!!! Tricia also said that she’s visiting Beth this summer in Boston (Beth will be working at a camp for autistic kids either in North Reading or Bedford, and living at home!!), but she’s apprehensive that everybody’s going to be awful. Northerners. I told her that people really aren’t awful — but then I realized how much friendlier people are here, and I told her, well, maybe. For example, when I ran out to Beth’s car during school, when I walked back to her room, literally every teacher I passed said hello to me.

Also, Tricia went to school in Austin, and was telling me what a great place it was. I’ve been thinking about moving to a warmer city in a few years, because even though I love Boston, I can’t stand that many more cold winters. I was halfheartedly thinking Miami, even though Florida is a bastion of serial killers (just ask my coworker Duval), or Los Angeles, which is a city that I don’t really like but at least my sister will be there a few years from now. I wrote off anything in Texas because I don’t want to be around crazy Bible-beating Bush lovers.

Well, it turns out that Austin is, as Tricia says, “a drop of blue in a sea of red.” Tricia is the lone Democrat in her family, and she says that Austin is actually an extremely liberal city. They were the one district in Texas not to ratify the Defense of Marriage act. And I remember reading a few years ago about a list of best cities for young people, and Austin topped the list. And Austin has the University of Texas, which is a great school and a BIG school with a lot of programs, where I could go to grad school (should I ever decide exactly what I want to study). And the cheaper cost of living would be a breath of fresh air….

So it’s something to think about! I’m definitely going to be doing more research on this.

I took a nap after school, then we went out to dinner at Jason’s, this Panera-type place with a great salad bar. They also have FREE frozen yogurt. Sweet! I went with Beth and Tricia, and they told me so many stories about the autistic boy in Beth’s first class. He’s very different medicated and unmedicated; I got to see him unmedicated, and he was smiling and laughing, but they said that when he goes on his meds he turns into a zombie. Apparently they help him focus, but Beth and Tricia aren’t sure that it’s worth it. One day, unmedicated, Tricia asked him how he was, and he replied, “Shoot for the STARS!” and pumped his fist into the air. And Beth gives out little packets of Goldfish crackers as prizes, and he keeps all of his in a glass jar at home, never opening them. I asked why he doesn’t have outbursts in Spanish, and they told me that autistic kids have difficulties with languages, so his family made the decision to speak only English with him. He does know a little bit of Spanish, though, especially food words! He’s an adorable kid. And meeting him made me want to learn more about autism.

This entry is SO long….I think I’m going to stop for now, but I’ll be writing about my trip to South Padre soon! And meeting VANILLA ICE!! It was awesome. I can’t wait to post the pics.

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