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Longing in the Desert

Residing in Las Vegas in the early ‘70s was like living in the land of nothing: no culture, no spark, no vibrancy. The strip was one road lined with casinos touting cheap meals and easy money. A few older headliners (think Perry Como or Jerry Vale) entertained aging crowds. Bottom line: it had no soul.

            I signed up for a two-year residency, teaching as an intern in a Black, segregated school white people didn’t know existed, located in a part of town where the lights went out when the wind blew. The program had its merits: I would earn a tuition free master’s degree in elementary education while being paid $90 per week, a measly salary even then, but it covered the basic expenses of rent and food, and sure as hell beat paying for typical educational fees. Teacher training meant sitting in circles discussing cultural sensitivity and how not to make mistakes, important issues, but nothing about imparting the basics, even reading and math.

            My assignment was a third-grade classroom with a teacher who should have retired long ago. She was a quiet woman, simply but impeccably dressed, with never a hair out of place. Students were told to sit still at their desks, with nothing to do, while she graded papers. If anyone misbehaved, they were made to stand by their desks with hands high in the air, until she glanced up and remembered to let them sit again.

            I tutored a second grader in math once a day, and otherwise rotated between children in my regular classroom, listening to them read or checking on their workbook progress. Rarely, I was allowed to teach language arts skills, like a lesson on creating words that ended with an “e” and an “r”: farmer, trucker, speller, or as one child wrote on his paper, fucker.

            The school’s commitment to the program was financial. Our presence brought federal money to an educational system with few resources. We were tolerated, assisting regular teachers in whatever tasks they didn’t want to do themselves.

            Twenty-six interns were in the program, mostly white, single, and from southern California. Weekends meant escaping as often as we could. The path was simple: cramming into cars to share gas, dropping people off as close to their families and friends as possible. My destination was farthest away: San Francisco. Sometimes I rode overnight all the way there with others, but my last weekend jaunt meant riding solo with Eric, whose family owned a liquor store in Watts. He deposited me at LAX, where I boarded a plane to SFO to spend time with my sometimes boyfriend. Two days later, I reversed directions, flying back to Los Angeles for the remaining four-and-a-half-hour drive.

            Eric was a sweetheart: smart, funny, and reliable. He asked me out when I first met him. I declined. He wasn’t like the long-haired men I was used to, but short, a little stocky, with dark hair and glasses. Now he dated one of my roommates. He was her during-the-week boyfriend, usually spending nights in our cottage until her long-term lover came from L.A. Eric knew his place in their dynamics. The LA beau assumed he was her only love.

            Riding with Eric was comfortable. We started the return drive by sharing stories of our individual adventures the three previous days. Conversation gradually drifted into silence. We switched on the radio. It was nighttime and I-15 was a lonely desert highway. Spanish tunes drifted in and out as we lost signals from one station and found another. To keep awake, we rolled down our windows and started talking again. The topic turned to how much we both disliked Vegas. And the program. Bright lights began to appear off in the dark distance, becoming more distinct as we roared down the road, drawing closer to our final destination.

            I heard myself saying what I had not allowed myself to think, with a clarity that surprised me:

            “I’m quitting.”

            A sense of freedom filled the night air as I headed toward the bright lights of Las Vegas for the last time.

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