MELODY MARTIN HAS WRITTEN a teacher's what-I-remember-about-my-students book which falls somewhere between The Blackboard Jungle and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Her students were Southern California, vintage 1970, living in gilded ghettos with family traditions as firm as Jello. "Nobody's parents had the same last name as the children. The student parking lot was filled with Porches, BMWs, XKEs and lowriders. Everyone strangled on prepositions. 'He's into heavy metal.' 'She's between jobs.' 'He's out of it.' 'I'll get behind it.'"
This was California's Age of Aquarius. Housing developments, shopping malls, religions and philosophies sprouted everywhere. Suddenly, educational experts discovered the Gifted Child and another gold rush was on. Parents, finding nuggets all over their houses, began clamoring for special classes. And although she still isn't sure what they are, Martin began teaching the gifted.
There are various interpretations of this term. (It used to mean smart.) However, anyone buying this book expecting brilliant pubescent philosophy or polysyllabic vocabularies would do better taking a tour of public restrooms. These students, specialists in four-letter words and bizarre behavior, would have curled the average teacher's eraser.
But Martin is not average. She loved her students, from their four-letter mouths to their flower-painted fingernails. Her book is almost a love letter, intensely personal and meant for the kids she taught, cared for and tried to help.
Their parents appeared to be no help at all. Most of them were more confused than their children, possibly because they'd had more time to work at messing up their own lives. This is the worst batch of mothers, fathers, stepmothers and stepfathers assembled under one cover since the Brothers Grimm quit working.
This book begins with a student's suicide note, which certainly gets the reader's attention. It ends with a collage of notes that have the opposite effect. This hodgepodge of poems and thoughts from students, principals and the author's files jars the continuity and dulls an otherwise interesting book. They should have been filed under non sequiturs and left there.
Mrs. Kamali Would Like to Speak to You About Cloud has no plot and no message, and the characters appear and disappear like passengers on a subway train. Some strike up conversations, reveal their lives, then get off while you ride on, wondering what happened to them.
Take Mrs. Kamali: "She looked like an abused version of an overweight Shelley Winters . . . . She was braless, shoeless, and seemingly fearless. Her eyes switched gears every five seconds." Mrs. Kamali believes that her daughter, Rainbow Cloud, killed her in a previous incarnation, that Cloud explodes carburetors by moving her thumbs and transmigrates shrimp from sea to Safeway while watching Johnny Carson.
Cloud specializes in personality alterations through clothing, body painting and reading materials. She ranges from multiple braids tied with bells, eyelids made up like chessboards and witchcraft manuals to ruffled skirts, lacy collars and Nancy Drew mysteries.
Jayne masquerades as a flaming heterosexual to hide her homosexuality. Her conservative and socially prominent parents are shocked by the former and horrified to discover the latter. Jayne is forced to leave school and enter therapy. Her psychiatrist publishes her case as a "success story," her parents celebrate with a garden party and Jayne runs off to join the Marines. She writes Martin that she's happy, signing her letters Lavender Jayne.
Then there is Chavela Sanchez. She was a tough and fiercely proud Chicano. But when her father rediscovered his tribal roots and went from mostly Mexican to totally Navajo, he changed his name to Crashing Thunder, banned burritos from the household menu and tried to force Wolf Lily (Chavela) to marry a Navajo and live on an Arizona reservation.
Also in this strange cast are Scot, who spends class time lifting 10-pound weights attached to his tongue with twine and Juicy Brucie, who enters the classroom on his hands. When he isn't walking on his hands, he sticks them down his shorts. This makes Martin nervous. It is probably the only thing that makes her nervous. Brucie continually propositions her until she learns that he is unable to read. At which point he exits, walking on his feet, disposition of hands unknown.
This crop, which wouldn't have germinated in Dubuque, flourishes in California. The one conservative is Marco, a transplant from Hackensack, New Jersey. Marco clings tenaciously to his support systems -- the Pope and his Jersey accent. He ignores ridicule, refuses freedom through psychotherapy and won't get a sun tan. He is a pale prophet preaching in the Coppertone wilderness but he hangs on. Marco is lucky. For him, life's issues are either black or white, firmer ground than gray.
Ninety-nine percent of this book's "Sunkist teenagers" were rootless, restless and impatient. They couldn't conjugate life in any tense. Melody Martin dragged them through the past, and tried to deal with their present. She hpes she had positive effect on their future direction. So do I, because they needed direction from someone.