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Saturday, July 7, 2012

'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)*: In Memory of Alfee Enciso

S.Segal, J.Woods, Y.D. Hutchinson, T.Thigpen & Alfee
at Ms. Hutchinson's retirement from King-Drew HS, 2009

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Bob Dylan, barnstorming wordsmith and one of Alfee Enciso’s favorite artists, once said that “he not busy being born is busy dying.”  Alfee was always in the process of being born; as a teacher, writer, friend, athlete, public intellectual, and skeptic par excellence who never took anything on faith, abhorred dogma, and rammed his finger in the face of complacency every chance he got.  One of my most vivid early memories of him was when he strutted around our living room in high dudgeon after he and my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson had weathered another long day at Markham Middle School.  A student had stolen $50 (big big money in 1984) from his desk and he was royally pissed, railing against the injustice of it, jabbing a broomstick in the air for dramatic emphasis.  After one too many jabs the broomstick hit the ceiling, sending plaster raining down on the floor.  Sheepishly, Alfee dissolved into his trademark Cheshire cat grin, muttering forgiveness of the culprit who “probably needed the money more than I did.”

And that was Alfee; empathic satirist, eternal student.  As one of my master teacher mother’s first Markham mentees he internalized her lessons about teaching as radical humanist art and ethics.  Over the years I had the chance to see this wild man mix of swagger and sweetness in action with his students, young and old, from Dorsey and Washington Prep High Schools to L.A. County’s annual teacher conference.  He roved and ruled his classrooms like a prize fighter, inspiring all who entered to think critically about the sociopolitical condition of their communities in a global context.  At Dorsey he presided over classes of often brilliant but disaffected students who, like many in the LAUSD, had had it drilled into their heads that youth of color were incapable of intellectualism or scholarship.  Having learned from my mother’s rigorous example Alfee’s approach was to bring it on—lavishing his students with both multicultural and canonical “Great White Men” literature, steeping them in the poetry of black and Latino culture, schooling them in how institutional racism was at play from everything to the fast food that they ate, the crappy chronically late public buses they had to ride traveling through South L.A., and the draconian prison system that ensnared their friends and family at an early age.  Alf-Dog, as my mother affectionately called him, embodied all that was right about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—he ate, slept, and breathed teaching as life’s art and work; recognizing no dividing line between being literate about books, being literate about the world and being literate about the bitter paradox of America’s sham “democracy.”

In an era where many young men of color are socialized to believe that being hard and swaggering is the currency of real manhood, Alfee wasn’t afraid to show compassion and emotion to his students.  Once, when I was observing him at Dorsey while working for the LAUSD school board he broke down out of frustration with the sullen self-hating disdain they expressed during our discussion about black/brown tension at the school.  The kids shifted in their seats mockingly, unsettled by the “heresy” of seeing a grown man and an authority figure cry.  The boys in that room who called Mr. Enciso soft were just trotting out the patriarchal script they’d learned about men’s proper roles.  But, like many of us who teach, Alfee’s tears sprung from rage and profound impatience with American public education: impatience with the glacial pace of progress in so-called inner city schools, impatience with the sloth and corruption that deifies professional mediocrity, and impatience with how little time his students had to get out alive and punch through to freedom.  And this is what I will miss the most about him; the critical consciousness, ferocity, and courage that he brought to the classroom of life, blazing into it with a 100 mph sense of mission; knowing that if you weren’t busy being born every day you were busy dying.

*Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred


While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked


An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it


                                    --Bob Dylan, 1965