Cussing Colloquialisms

At the elevator, brace still on, crutch still under his arm, he tells me he thinks that a good return-to-work date would be June 4, five days before we leave for Spain. He seems optimistic as he hobbles down the tiled hallway, as we enter the carpeted office, as we check in and he holds the door open for a woman with a walker, pointing out, “It’s kind of strange they don’t have an automatic door in the orthopedic’s office,” to which she adamantly agrees.

On the plastic, paper-coated bed, he hands me the folder while the PA takes him for x-rays. After just a few minutes, the doctor enters with the films. He has photographs of the entire procedure. He intricately describes the meniscus (intact), the bones (drilled into), the ACL (torn and then repaired). Bruce and I lift our eyebrows at each other, barely able to distinguish the tiny details he points out in each picture.

In his cozy spinning chair, the doctor is also optimistic. “I think you can ditch the brace right now and ditch the crutches by Friday. Use the stationary bike on Sunday. By Monday, you should be walking around the block. Maybe driving.”

From the green paper folder, I begin to pull out the forms. First: short-term disability approval. A list of lines with dates, surgery and medication verification. Affably, he takes them in stride: “I’ll be sure to get these to the right people to fill them out.” Because he has people. Because he charged the insurance company $36,000, more than half of what I earn in a year, for an outpatient surgery that took less than 90 minutes. Because we live in the land of the free.

From the green paper folder, I continue to pull out forms. Bruce begins to tell him–without ever being able to finish because of the doctor’s rambling explanations, the doctor’s defense of his procedures, the doctor’s justification for not filling out anything–about wanting to return to work before Spain. I pull out The Form, the one that CenturyLink requires for him to be able to work: a release of liability for driving a company vehicle, an “if-something-happens-it’s-not-on-us, your-injury-better-not-affect-your-work” form.

From his throne, he glances at the wording. He throws in more anecdotes peppered with cussing colloquialisms. “In twenty-six years of doing this, I have never seen a company require a form like this. What if you’re a shitty driver? How can I, as your medical doctor, determine if you’re OK to drive? I won’t sign a form like that. If you get in an accident and hurt someone and I’ve signed this form, then it’s all on me.”

From my plastic chair, I listen to the tone of my twenty-years-spouse change from respectful to grainy. I can almost feel the lump at the back of his throat as he tries to go on. “Well, my supervisor is willing to let me come back on light duty…”

From his throne, the doctor interrupts: “What you’re going to be dealing with is HR, not your supervisor, and if HR says you can’t work, that’s where things get muddy when I start putting my name on these forms.”

From my plastic chair, I am counting down the hours in my mind until the moment I can let these tears actually fall. First I have to continue listening to this white-haired, privileged surgeon continue rambling on about lawsuits. Then, we have to make Bruce’s appointments for physical therapy. Next, we have to drive home and track Mythili’s progress on her bicycle, as I had no way to pick her up today. After that, I have to take her to her doctor’s appointment, where they will make commentary about how my thirteen-year-old hasn’t had her period yet.

From my plastic chair, I am frozen and without words. The doctor turns to me. “You look frustrated.”

Is that the word you would use? Do you think frustration sums up the past six weeks of my life?

“The thing is…” Bruce begins, “… I’m probably going to get laid off on July 30.”

The doctor has finished listening. “That’s why we have to be so careful when filling out these forms. This happens all the time, when companies decide you can’t work.”

“No, it’s unrelated…” he begins again, that painful lump sitting on top of his beautiful, sexy voice.

“Are you really not going to fill out the form?” is the only thing I can muster. The doctor hands it back to Bruce, asks if there’s anyone he can call, anyone he can talk to, any way he can go back to work without it.

From the tiny patient meeting room, he stands. He shuffles us out the door. He guides us to his people who will make the next appointment. I place The Form neatly back inside the green paper folder.

I think of a few cussing colloquialisms I could shout. I think of hindsight, all of it. Of next year’s ski passes we wasted $2300 on. Of the thousands we’ve already spent in this office. Of the four weeks at seventy-percent-pay he’ll get for short-term disability. Of the thousands we’ve spent on Spain that is gone and tarnished before boarding the plane.

But I have no words in these moments when I have bowed down to our litigate society, our corporations’ fear of liability, our doctors’ refusal to help the little man other than spurting cussing colloquialisms while trying to relate to us.

At the elevator, his brace in my hand, crutch still under his arm, I don’t speak. Picking up Mythili, exhausted from her bike ride, I don’t speak. At the following doctor’s appointment, where, as usual, we only get to see the PA, I cross my arms and don’t speak, forcing Mythili to respond to questions about who she lives with, how she likes her sisters, what kinds of food she eats.

From my recliner at home, I do have a few cussing colloquialisms for the orthopedic surgeon. I could spout them all day, all night, every waking moment of the past twenty years of marriage, every waking moment of my life as a not-quite-middle-class American who just needs A GODDAMN FORM SIGNED SO WE HAVE A FEW PENNIES TO OUR NAME…

From my recliner at home, the words are useless. All the words, all the work, all the life we have put into living, everything feels useless.

And there is no cussing colloquialism that will bring me that doctor’s signature, bring my husband his job, bring me some peace. So why bother spouting them at all?

 

A Few English Words

We took three Afghani students to the foothills today. They have been here for less than a year, so they learned a few English words today: Hike. Trail. Juniper. Ponderosa. Colorado=red rocks. View. 

I tried to ask what it was like for them back home, but they only knew a few English words to describe it: Danger. No school. Grandparents. Parents here in Colorado. All kids–brother, sister, other brother–in Afghanistan. 

Each time I asked if they wanted to continue down the trail or turn around, the most confident girl, the hijab girl, kept insisting we go on. She had no desire to go back to whatever life she had outside of that blue-sky hike, her knee-high boots and sweaty face no hindrance to her joy. She just wanted to walk. To escape. To be on that mountain.

When we were at the top, she leaned in to take a selfie with me, and then one with my youngest daughter whose experiential-learning school had just visited the same location, whose quiet voice shared with us the details of the sedimentary rock layers, the lichen, the igneous and metamorphic. This was a perfect match–the low-English Afghani and my quiet youngest–smiling shyly for a photo, a perfect frame of world peace.

With a walk like this, we step towards empathy. Understanding. Gratitude. We know that things could be worse, that they are worse, for so many people in the world.

But it doesn’t stop me from feeling the pain, the loss that I feel now. For feeling gypped, for feeling like nothing I do, nothing my husband and I ever do, will be good enough to make our lives easier.

Perhaps it’s the curse of Spain. Six years ago, after welcoming two Spaniards into our home, after asking practically nothing for rent, after offering them my car for months when theirs broke down (I rode my bike to work 25 miles a day for three months), after hosting parties for their friends, babysitting their friends’ kids, driving them to South Dakota, after everything, we went to Spain and never heard from either of them again. In addition to the nightmare that that year in Spain was for us, with its broken promises, broken paychecks, and lost jobs, they had to twist the knife right into our backs by acting like they never knew us.

And now we’ve planned a redo. Twentieth wedding anniversary. Fortieth birthdays. Three years into living like kings for the first time in our marriage, with two steady, well-paying jobs, great benefits, and our dream house that we opened up to friends of ours, six of them, rent free for two months because they were down on their luck, and Spain has cursed us again. Our six-week vacation that is 90% bought and paid for, that I have spent over forty hours meticulously planning every last expenditure and activity, will be marred by a pending layoff, loss of benefits, and a mortgage we simply cannot afford on a teacher’s salary.

Let me tell you about that teacher’s salary. Let me tell you about the master’s degree plus thirty credits I have. Let me tell you about all the school events I attend, the lunch meetings, the hours before and after school I work, the summer workshops, the home visits, the dance chaperoning, the sporting events, the class coverage, the every last everything I do to work, to earn an extra buck, to make it. Let me tell you about the eight years we lived on a $48,000 frozen salary.

Let me tell you about my childhood. Parents with bachelors’ degrees in journalism working for a small town newspaper and barely making it. Powdered milk. Ten-year-old, rusted-out Datsun. Ancient house with windows so thin that ice collected on the glass. My mother scraping together a $20 bill for my eleventh birthday and me looking at it holding back silent tears because I already knew that it was equivalent to two and a half hours of her work, and my father was failing his master’s program, and we were moving to Denver for a better life, and everything was crashing down at once.

Let me tell you about contract work, the only kind of work Bruce was able to find when he left the Air Force. No guarantee. No health insurance. No paid time off. No holidays. No sick leave. And when it ends? No unemployment checks.

Let me tell you about health insurance. Let me tell you about the two children I have given birth to without having health insurance because it was a pre-existing condition, and the near $10,000 we paid for those births.

Let me find a few English words to explain to these students from Afghanistan: American Dream. Housing. Insurance. Education. SCAM.

Let me tell you about what we have done to avoid bankruptcy: No car payments. No student loans. No credit card debt. Two properties. Saving and spending. Buying a house only when we were ready, when we could afford it. Saving up for a cursed redo of Spain. Road trips staying with family and camping to save money while traveling. One computer for the whole family. Still driving my 1998 Hyundai Accent.

Let me tell you how I know what poverty is. I know what sacrifices are. I have made them.

Let me find a few English words to say: Fuck this country. Fuck this Trumpian tax cut that cuts workers while CEOs live like kings. Fuck this blue-sky day. Fuck my husband’s military sacrifice, his months in the desert, his sold-his-soul-to-boot-camp commitment, his veteran status that has given us NOTHING.

Let me be twenty years into my youthful marriage and not have to feel like I’m just twenty minutes in. Let me keep my dream house. Let him keep his union (that screwed him) dream job. Let my kids feel like there’s a future here for them and that with two degrees they won’t be buying powdered milk.

Just. Let me be. I’ve had enough.

My Fortieth April

My fortieth April comes to an end with pink flowers and red shirts. Both images are equally beautiful and painful–fuchsia tinted with the blood, sweat, and tears we put on the line every day for a society that vilifies us and threatens us with jail time for shutting down schools for a singular day–when that same society has worked to shut down schools for decades.

My fortieth April is these nachos–too damn big to consume, too impossible to say no to–because sometimes life just feels like a challenge we must at least attempt to make a mockery of.

My fortieth April means my parents are in Paris, on their way to only four months in Europe because I begged them not to totally leave me, sell the house, and disappear from our lives when I’ve just lost my father-in-law and every remnant of parenthood on my husband’s side of the family.

My fortieth April brings the beginning of the end of my children’s childhoods–no more towing them in the bike trailer, no more feeding them from rubber spoons, no more shuttling them to elementary school–instead, the hard reality that they will ride their own paths, make their own decisions, and quite often, leave me behind.

My fortieth April means half of my life has been in the warmth of this man’s arms, this man who flew alone to Tennessee to bury his father while I made a mockery of life with nachos, this man who has never done a thing but work to please the people in his life, who speaks so little but whose actions speak volumes… volumes of loving and giving.

My fortieth April has been hell. Our school district has desks twenty years old and teacher salaries to match. My husband is in a union job that will likely screw him out of one because of seniority. My oldest daughter’s first words to me on my fortieth birthday were, “Can I have my phone back?” My beloved father-in-law died. My parents boarded a plane. My school district’s open enrollment healthcare plan is $1000 a month with a $3500 deductible and $12,700 out-of-pocket maximum. We have bought and paid for six weeks in Iberia and are beginning to wonder why.

My fortieth April is these blue skies. These smiling faces. This willingness to stand up to the truth behind teachers’ vilification. These parents eating French fries in France. This beautiful set of girls we have somehow managed to raise, healthy and unscathed. This fuchsia bleeding into red shirts at Casa Bonita, making a mockery of all that is pain, all that is life.

My fortieth April comes to an end with pink flowers and red shirts. Because we’re all a little bruised after forty years on this Earth. Because the blood, sweat, and tears that go into living this life are as beautiful as the laughter, mockery, and joy.

My fortieth April is the middle of spring. And just like all the other springs that have made up my life, it is time to spring forward, time to smile, time to move on.

Because it’s April–it snows and burns a crisp on our necks within the same week–and we must learn that even the red scars of sunburn will eventually fade into the soft petals of fuchsia.

Eulogy to My Father-In-Law

I was nineteen when I first visited Tennessee, and I felt simultaneously as if I were stepping back into my childhood small-town upbringing and into another world, fifty years past due. Bruce and I drove the twenty-four hours in one stretch under gray Kansas skies, down interstates with gas stations still boasting 99-cent gallons of gas, and through the winding hills of the Smokies east of Nashville.

We went the back way into town, and I remember how excited he was to show me, though it was a dark December night, the Four Corners mart where he’d ridden his bike to on every day of his childhood, the small elementary school, the tiny post office, the grandiose Baptist church, and the cotton rope mill where his father and his grandfather had spent their entire adult lives tirelessly working.

His parents lived in a modest home with the most spectacular view of a golf course and the Smokies, and just like everyone who had worked for the mill for nearly a century, they paid nearly nothing for rent and were allowed to stay there until the day they died.

That little house has rested upon its hill unoccupied for the past two years, its only residents the quilts, pie safes, furniture, photo albums, mementos, and memories of a marriage that lasted fifty-six years and produced four children and seven grandchildren. For the past two years, Don’s eldest, his beloved Donna, has tirelessly committed her life to his care as his mind slipped and his heart broke after losing his wife and the mother of his children.

When I first met Don, or Pappy as everyone was already calling him, he gave me a big hug and welcomed me to the family even though Bruce and I had only been dating for four months. The morning after we arrived, we drove to another town to have breakfast in a small diner. Nanny, Pappy, Aunt June, Bruce and I all piled into Nanny’s van and drove through rounds of curvy roads before settling ourselves into an oval table at the back of the restaurant. When the waitress came, people began ordering the typical southern delights: biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, grits salted and buttered, pancakes stacked high.

I ordered one of my favorites, French toast, and Pappy lifted his gray, bushy eyebrows over his metal-framed glasses, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was hoping somebody was gonna order that,” he grinned.

As Bruce suppressed a chuckle, I wondered if there was something special about the French toast at that place. When the food came and Pappy began to dig into his grits, he held up his fork and said, “Gimme one of them pieces of French toast,” in a jovial, but adamant, tone.

“Well I guess you’re part of the family now for sure,” Aunt June joked. “Once Pappy wants something off your plate, he considers you one of his own.”

The next morning, on Christmas Eve, Bruce proposed to me to make it official. We spent that evening in Pappy’s childhood church for the candlelight Christmas Eve ceremony, where everyone from the small town of Rockford seemed to know Pappy, who proudly introduced his airmen youngest, “here all the way from Colorado,” and his new fiancee. I think it must have been half an hour before we even sat down because Pappy knew and loved everyone, and he was so damn proud of his baby joining the military and coming home for Christmas. The congregation flocked around the deacon and his family, cooing over his young granddaughters, praising Pappy for raising such a beautiful family, and he beamed, offering hugs and handshakes and goodwill.

Over the twenty years of our marriage, in every interaction I had with my father-in-law, I never heard a cruel word come out of his mouth. He had a quiet humor, a loving heart, and an unmatched generosity. He and Nanny helped the people in their town, the people at their church, and their children and grandchildren, any time any of us ever needed anything.

“You were going to have a baby at home and you had to go to the hospital and are suddenly faced with a bill you can’t afford?” The check was in the mail before we even brought our youngest home. Whether they had the means or not, with their simple existence and Pappy’s tireless work, they found a way to help others.

Pappy worked at that cotton mill for over forty years. He came home every night and had to “use the bathroom” with his magazines and chewing tobacco. He then settled in to watch whatever sport was playing that season, running the television on mute while he listened to the small wireless radio that he claimed had “much more accurate sportscasters.” He read the whole set of newspapers from all the localities through and through. He played bluegrass music, George Strait, and Alan Jackson when he tired of the sports. And just as he always had, he went to work for all but the weeks of Christmas and Fourth of July, the two weeks out of the year that the mill would shut down to give their employees a break.

That is, until Isabella was born. His fourth granddaughter, all the way in Colorado, inspired him to take a week off of work in May so he and Nanny could fly out and cover the gap between the end of my maternity leave and the end of the school year.

“You know this grandbaby is awful special if she got Pappy to take off work,” Nanny cooed as she held her. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a time he’s done that.”

Pappy LOVED babies. He loved coddling them, feeding them, gurgling over their tiny fat faces. He and Nanny spent a week traveling around Colorado with Bruce and Isabella, just three months old at the time, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the Garden of the Gods, the city of Denver. Pappy sat in the back comforting Isabella if she ever got fussy, only commenting with, “She lost her fooler, where’s her fooler?” teaching me another southern colloquialism I’d never heard before that first trip to Tennessee.

“It takes an awful good baby to do all this driving without so much as a fuss,” Pappy pointed out. “You got you a good little girl in this one.”

The years went by, and we continued to make our twenty-four-hour treks to Tennessee, where Pappy and Nanny would spoil us with dinners out, endless toys and clothes for our children, hugs and love.

One Christmas, we discovered surprising news just before we made our trip. I couldn’t quite think of how to share the news with Bruce’s family who gathered at the Vittetoe home for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, where we played dirty bingo and then opened all the family gifts before Santa would come and leave unwrapped presents under the tree for the next morning.

Finally, when all the gifts had been opened and we were running out of time before Bruce’s siblings, nieces and nephew were to leave, I told Bruce to find a bun and put it inside the oven. Bruce searched the whole kitchen snack area that was filled with all kinds of cookies, chips, and breads that Pappy loved to munch on, but he could only find a roll. He put it in the oven and told everyone to go into the kitchen.

“OK, I have one last gift to give you all this Christmas,” I announced as they curiously gawked at me, wondering why on earth we were standing in the kitchen. “Pappy, will you open the oven?”

Pappy bent over and stared at the small roll in the center of the rack. “Is this a preview of the dinner you’re fixing tomorrow?” Nanny wondered as he pulled it out, perplexed.

“Well, it was supposed to be a bun,” Bruce chimed in.

Pappy didn’t waste one second. His blue eyes lit up with joy as he walked across the kitchen and wrapped me in a bear hug. “Another baby! Well, what wonderful news… Now that you’re having three, you know how babies are made, right? So this is the last one, right?” He joked.

He always knew just what to say. He always knew just how far he could go with a joke, with a comment, with a piece of advice. He never thought of himself; he always thought of everyone else in his life first.

Even with his name. After fathering two boys, each of which Ann had wanted to name after him, he insisted that his name wouldn’t be carried on because he didn’t want anyone to ever have to go by Junior or Donny.

It wasn’t until many years later, when the baby, the last baby, made his entrance into the world, that Pappy lost his name battle. Ann went to the hospital and pushed out a nine-pound, blue-eyed, perfect little boy who looked just like his father, just before his father could arrive at the hospital.

When Don entered the room to meet his newest son, Ann looked up at him and said, “His name is Donald Bruce Vittetoe the II, not junior, and we’re calling him Bruce.”

And so my husband, the eighteen-years-after-the-firstborn baby, became his father’s namesake. My husband, the kindest, most caring, quietest human I have ever met, was named after the father who shared those same traits. Named after the hardworking man whose joy was found in the simple pleasures of spoiling his pets and grandchildren, of giving himself to others, of living to please.

When I first visited Tennessee, I entered a bygone era–one of chivalry, simplicity, and a lifetime commitment to a home, a job, a church, a family. This was the world of my father-in-law, Donald Bruce Vittetoe. A world I came to love as we moved from flatlands to green hills, as we barbecued in Cades Cove and on the back patio, as the twangy steel guitars and banjos peppered his southern drawl, as he shared his love with me from the moment we first met.

This was Pappy’s world. The Smoky Mountains, the cotton mill, the steadfastness of working, loving, giving.

When I first visited Tennessee, Pappy shared a piece of French toast from my breakfast plate and gave me one of many small, sweet memories of a man who knew how to take just a tiny bite out of this beautiful life that he spent eighty-four years sharing with everyone he loved.

And I am so lucky to be one of the people he loved. As everyone who was ever blessed to know him can attest to.

Goodbye, Don. May you rest in peace with the angels you surrounded yourself with in life.

Pappy with his granddaughters, Sarah and Rachel, 1996.

Pappy, Nanny, Bruce, Karen, Donna, David, Rachel, and Sarah. 8 August 1998.

Danny, Ann, Bruce, Don, Teddy, and Lisa. May 1999.

Nanny and Pappy with baby Isabella. Rocky Mountain National Park, May 2003.

Pappy with his youngest granddaughter, Riona. October 2006.

Ann and Don’s 50th Wedding Anniversary, 2008.

The Vittetoe Clan in Ann and Don’s yard in Rockford, July 4, 2010.

2014.

Pappy with his grandchildren Bailey, Isabella, Sarah, Rachel, Riona, and Mythili. 2015.

Pappy with his grandchildren, 2016.

Donna, Mythili, Isabella, Don, and Riona. January 2018.

Inglorious Glory

As usual, one of my honors students has decided to try to evade work by commenting on how he has already written a personal essay for another class, and can’t he just use that one?

I don’t even try to hide my snarky rebuttal: “And I’ve written 2,200 blog posts, but I spent two hours searching for one and one hour revising it yesterday so that I could give you yet another exemplar.”

But he’ll do what he wants, as they all do. He’ll pretend to write tomorrow in class while the others snicker around him, falling out of chairs and posting immature comments on the class discussion thread, eating their lunch two hours too late, leaving torn bits of fast food wrappers littered on the floor as if there were no trash cans in the school.

It doesn’t matter that I have also spent hours planning and replanning each moment of these lessons, that I have begged and borrowed ideas from a colleague, that I have uploaded links and found beauty in words that some of them will never take the time to read aloud, to fit into their mouths and taste their glory. It doesn’t matter that I have a wealth of class activities that ask them to collaborate and ask them to be introspective and ask them to move around the room, and that I have thought about them in the predawn sleepless hours of my weekday mornings. It doesn’t matter that, unlike every teacher portrayal in movies and books, this isn’t the only lesson I planned today, that I also rushed to the copier this morning with a quick revision of my other class’s lesson because yesterday’s trial was such an utter failure that I wanted today’s students to have a better shot at comprehension.

They will do what they want. They will put little or no effort into a story about their lives and wonder why I put so much effort into the words describing mine. “2,200 posts?” another boy chimes in, calculator-phone in hand, “that’s like you’ve been writing every day for the past eight years straight.”

“That’s exactly what I have done.” And his eyes widen even more as he slips the phone back into his pocket.

“What could you possibly think of to write?”

How could I summarize it for him (how could I admit how many of them have been haikus?)? How could he possibly understand a passion so extreme that guilt rides my insomnia if I take even a day, let alone a week, a month, without writing?

How could I not write, when the world is filled with so many ideas, so much beauty and frustration and kids who drive me nuts and make me love them within the same seconds of the same inglorious day?

Like the Moroccan student who, after our ten-minute free-write, wouldn’t stop, who begs me to read through her words describing her journey into a country that threw hate talk and cuss words at her name (which means generosity), at her religion (which means peace), at the center of her beautiful soul.

Like the A students who put a stop, online, to the Nickelodeon banter on the class discussion.

Like the student (straight from Ethiopia) who has only been a presence in my room for a few months and stops by after school to tell me today, broken English and all, that his family has to move to Utah, and he wants to thank me for the “great much of knowledge” that I have given him.

Like the quiet persistence of the introverts whose words they share with me on shallow screens, turning their light just so, exposing their torn experiences with adolescence, with depression, with whatever shadows have followed them into this too-well-lit, too-hot classroom today.

Later, I think of what I should have said to the boy so caught up on my hours of writing: There is always a reason to write. There is always something you could think of to put into words. There is always a moment worth capturing, however painful, however disappointing, however uplifting, that I try to fit into seventeen syllables, an image, an essay. 

There is no glory in these inglorious moments of our day-to-day lives.

But there is glory in words.

And that is what I am searching for. Every. Damn. Day.

 

 

 

No Matter What

No matter what I do, it will feel like the wrong thing. Allowing her to have a boyfriend. Harping her about homework. Not allowing her to see her friends. Giving in to shopping and a movie instead of a hike. Checking with her teacher about her grade. Begging her to fix it.

Doubting her. Loving her. Wanting her to be better than the me I was at age fourteen.

No matter what, it will feel wrong.

Because she is my guinea pig, my first, my test.

Because no matter how many times she pushes me, I am always going to push back. Because I spent two and a half hours pushing her out of me, and I have been pushing her ever since.

On a sunny Sunday, she tests me again. This time it is about cans. Coats. Collections. And putting on a vest. She doesn’t want to wake up. She doesn’t want to volunteer. She doesn’t want to be voluntold.

She wants to be free. Like the toddler I trapped in the room who would play for hours without my supervision. Like the four-year-old who was fearless enough to have her first sleepover. Like the seven-year-old who I let go to the park by herself. Like the nine-year-old who moved to Spain with me, joy in hand and sorrow in heart, not speaking enough Spanish to realize her mistake. Like the eleven-year-old who tried out the militaristic charter school, who stayed after for forgetting a pencil, a belt, gym shoes… Who came out, unscathed, and better for it.

She is so my daughter. She is every bit of the me I wanted to be, when I was fourteen.

Fearless. Defiant. Independent.

Ready to navigate the world in front of her, ready to manipulate it into the shape that suits her.

And no matter what I do, no matter how much I question myself, I have shaped that shape. I have bought that hoodie. I have pushed her out, pushed her hard, pushed her into this world.

No matter what, she is my daughter. And I couldn’t be more wrong, or more right, about her place in my world.

An Educational Cocktail

You can enter any cafe in Spain and you will probably find the same two drinks: cheap Pilsner beer and local wine (OK, you can at least choose between red and white!). The Spanish palette for mixed drinks is limited to adding liqueur to coffee, it seems, and their availability of decent beer choices is abominable. But when it comes to education, Spaniards love a good cocktail.

Here are some instructions for making an educational cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

Ingredients:

1. Homogeneous groups of students segregated by ability who remain together all day long for years at a time, and are allowed to choose their own seats.
2. Heterogeneous teachers who range in age, management, and educational methodology.
3. A school building that does not provide resources such as technology, textbooks, government-funded lunch, or air conditioning.

Instructions:

1. Place all students in one classroom. Wait for intermittently ringing bells that will shake them up out of their seats while teachers dance through hallways crowded with other teachers and random students who have PE that period, to arrive and wrap the students up in a somewhat-chilled glass with a pinch of salt along the rim.
2. Spend three hours each week trying to settle the above shaking, using the cold stirrer of the teacher’s little authority to embed knowledge enough of one subject area to make a decent mixed drink, full of flavor and memorable enough to spill out onto the streets with jubilation.
3. Subdue them on four occasions per trimester with exams that make up the stark majority of their grades, consisting of arduous essay questions, but only about ten per exam. Their flavors will bleed through classes so that they will begin to taste more like eraser remnants than a decently mixed drink.
4. Shake up the cocktail a little just when the school year is getting cold by surprising only select groups of students in one grade of primary and one of secondary with the annual government test, whose topics, flavors, and question amounts you will never know or begin to be able to prepare for, similar to visiting the cafes in every city in Spain who may or may not have a menu, use local vocabulary non-translatable in any software to identify food items, and whose waiters never return after bringing you your order. (Surprise, surprise, we all like to guess what it is we’re bringing to our lips!)
5. If the cocktail spills, you may clean it up and refill it once, for free, but only once. After that, you will be run dry and stuck in the same situation as the rest of the third world: working shit jobs for little pay.

Alas, you can always look back at your educational experiences and say that you had the best mixed drink of all time: moving through the school system in Spain!