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Final Days in the Borderland

But there was still another semester at El Paso Community College to complete. In addition to the usual beginning composition course, I was teaching, of all things, “introduction to film.”  Asked to do this by the English department head, I agreed, even though I had no experience in such instruction.  Shots, scenes, angles, lighting, fades, wipes: the course was as instructive to me as it undoubtedly was to my students.  The class not only included the study of film technique, but also the viewing of films, which occurred in a conference room of the college library with a device that projected videocassettes onto a large screen. 

Throughout my life, I’d enjoyed―too much, perhaps―watching movies.  I cannot count how many times as a child in the 50s and early 60s I watched Godzilla, King Kong, Crime School (starring my favorite delinquents of those years, the Dead End Kids), The Thing from Another World, Preston Foster in The Last Days of Pompeii, and other films presented by Million Dollar Movie, WOR Television’s program broadcast from New York City on weekday evenings.  The program always opened with music that never failed to stir my young heart: a segment from “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind.  As a teenager, I thrilled to the music and visuals of A Hard Day’s Night and was titillated by the scantily-clad girls in I’ll Take Sweden, starring Bob Hope.  As an adult, I counted among my favorite films The Godfather, Mean Streets, Red River, Hud, Lonely are the Brave, Easy Rider, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, and Deliverance

For the class, I presented some films―available at video rental stores in the area―I’d never before seen, including Dark Victory, It Happened One Night, and Robert Enrico’s masterful short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  In addition, I presented a film whose story line I hoped would be particularly encouraging to my Latino students: Stand and Deliver, in which Edward James Olmos plays a Latino inner-city high school instructor who inspires his students from troubled neighborhoods to overcome huge odds and master advanced mathematics. 

I enjoyed teaching the class, and yet there were times when I felt like I was pimping out a subject that had no place being taught in a community college.  I found myself coming to the conclusion that movies―no matter how critically acclaimed, no matter their artistic and technical achievement―are essentially entertainment, rarely an intellectual exercise.  And if community college students needed anything, I thought, they needed to exercise their minds in the fundamentals of academics; “film” would have to wait for the four-year university or college.  Indeed, I suspected that many of my students were requiring a hand-up in a community college precisely because they had spent too much time watching movies and television in high school, and that “video” had made mush of their curiosity, critical thinking, and imaginations.  Why, the very textbooks that I used to teach my classes often contained a compelling essay―”Amusing Ourselves to Death?”―by university professor Neil Postman decrying the scourge of television on young minds. In terms of an intellectual exercise, I doubted there was a single movie that could challenge the mind of one of my students more than a mere half-hour of reading the lowliest supermarket pulp fiction. 

And yet, had I not taught the class, I would never have introduced my students―and myself―to the genius and heart-rending tenderness of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.  I would never have been touched and gratified to hear one of my students, who likely had never met The Tramp, laugh again and again at the primitive film’s visuals and subtle humor.

I also substitute-taught English for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez.  The head of the community college English department informed me of the opportunity.  I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south.  Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute, which was southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious, clean, and attractive.  Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant, bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar institutional drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish.  The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.   Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devices―I’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it.  In any event, I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert sun and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth until the return of their regular instructor.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I liked them immediately.  After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

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