Closed House

When I was a child, I always looked forward to my elementary school’s open house night. We would spend time in class creating artwork and projects showing off our classwork for our parents to see. Someone would make cookies to be laid out on plastic tables along the hallway. The teachers would get all dressed up, and they would be waiting happily at their classroom doors to meet and greet the parents.

I was always so excited to hold my parents’ hands, pull them through the hallways, and show them my desk. On it would be a writing sample, a math test, a piece of macaroni art. On the walls would be more displays of student work. The teacher would meander in and out of the room, casually chatting with parents or answering questions like, “What will the next unit be?” or, “How did you come up with the idea to have them make planetary mobiles out of different sized sports balls?”

There was no PowerPoint. There was no outlined agenda. There was not a four-page handout justifying the use of technology, the rigor of content, the guidelines for being prepared in ___th grade. There were no parents giving speeches about fundraising, principals introducing them and cheering them on. There was no gathering in the gym to brag about why this school is different and better than all the others because of this population of students, that method of math, these test scores, this money raised.

The open house, or when I moved to Denver, the back-to-school night, was simply a chance for parents, non-hovering, working (class) parents, to enjoy a small sample of what their children’s schooldays were like, to put a face to a name of the teacher their kids were talking about.

I sit here now at the first of three back-to-school nights of the year. I have just finished my first full day in the classroom, my first full day of balancing between teaching three overcrowded classes, observing three other teachers, covering a class, and having an after-school meeting where I was told, once again, that my ESL students will not continue to receive the support they so desperately need because my course isn’t required for graduation.

I sit here now in a two-hour sit-and-get presentation following (already completed) twenty pages of paperwork stating the same information, following daily e-mails about everything my daughter is and is not doing.

My child was not allowed to come.

I sit here now thinking of all the papers I need to grade for my second job; of my oldest daughter who started high school yesterday and is no longer speaking to me because everyone she’s met so far has asked her to follow them on Snapchat and I won’t allow her to have Snapchat; of my husband’s (so rare) harsh words about a carpool miscommunication that we were forced to exchange in the rush out the door, the rush to get three kids to three schools because “school choice” matters; of the letter Oh Nih Shar wrote to me about how she made bad choices in high school just like I did (as I confessed in my letter to my students)–and how grateful she’d been two years ago when I sent students to track her down and tell her (in cards and letters) we loved her even if she had to marry at fourteen.

I sit here now thinking that everything in this PowerPoint is information I’ve already heard in the paperwork and the forced (or your wait list spot will be lost) parent orientation in the spring, and didn’t I CHOOSE this school, and do you need to further convince me of its value?

I sit here now as a twenty-first century parent, a twenty-first century teacher, wondering, for the love of God, what have we done with our world?

Whatever happened to hands-on projects and cookies in the hallway and simply putting a face to a name?

To kids being accountable for their own work without us helicoptering over daily e-mails?

To teachers dressing up, slapping on a smile, and just offering a casual, kind word?

I sit here now in this closed house we call a school. This place where we’ve set impossible expectations for our students and their families. Where we are strapped not only with too much homework for sixth grade, but also too many technological addictions that leave our kids feeling left out, where schools only feed the fire by providing them with one-to-one technology.

This is the first of three for me. It is the second day of school. I am not home to fully (with text citations, I promise!) explain to my daughter why she can’t have Snapchat. To mull over TEN late-night emails and calls about my middle child’s detention, later cancelled, for our second school of choice. To make sure my youngest has packed her spork and sleeping bag for her upcoming camping trip.

My daughter is not pulling me down the hallway, excited to show me her pastel drawing. She, like the rest of us in this inundated-with-endless-information society we have created, is probably at home playing a video game or we-chatting with her friend in China or trying to figure out her standards-based math problem on Google Classroom.

And I am not there. I am here, in this closed school, wishing that a two-hour PowerPoint justification could transform into a two-minute meet and greet. That we could just trust that our children’s teachers are doing the right thing. That they could just trust us to raise them with the best intentions.

Wishing that we could have an open house. Not a closed society where choices burn us and bore us and take us away from things that truly matter:

Our time.

Our children.

Our happiness.

Refocused

with a broken fridge,
 limitations on dry ice,
 and carpool circles
 
 to pick up daughter
 from uncalled-for punishment,
 my Monday sucked ass.
 
 driving home in rain,
 she told me the whole story
 and other teen truths.
 
 then shared her essay:
 perfectly satirical
 (writer at fourteen)
 
 the rain flooded us
 and we laughed until we cried
 knowing that truth hurts.
 

Drenched. Entrenched.

I have just returned to school in the midst of a snowy spring storm. My raincoat is dripping wet, and after I check back in, I see you in the hallway on the way to the sanctuary of your office. You are just as beautiful as you have always been. Curly dark hair, almond eyes, always ready with a smile or a defensive remark, whichever is necessary in that moment.

I spent the morning at a district training telling my new colleague: I will be blunt.

It somewhat reminds me of the title to an equally brutal movie, There Will Be Blood.

You ask, “How are you?”

I want to say: “My colleague experienced a family loss this morning and felt too compelled by this work to leave.”

I want to say: “Four voicemails and emails and two and a half hours later, I am just returning from getting my 101.6-fevered child from school. From fixing her the lunch she missed. This after walking, rushed, down the senior hallway only to listen to this remark: ‘I don’t know why all these teachers are abandoning their posts when there’s a huge line of seniors still waiting in the auditorium. This happens every year.'”

I want to say: “This is not OK. We are not OK. And you need to listen to us.”

Instead I say, “I am fine. How are you?” in a robotic monotone.

And you catch my glimpse. It is the same glimpse you gave me years ago when we sat at the back of those ridiculous meetings and mocked the administration (remember the half day we spent learning the acronyms? And we added at the bottom: WTF ROTFL LOL TIBS??). It is the same glimpse you gave me when we got a new superintendent, and after her first fabricated PowerPoint, you stood up, stomped out, and said, “I’m done with this district.” And you were. You had the guts to stand up for what you believed in and stomp out new grounds in a place that mattered.

But today, it is a rainy-day glimpse. It is a dark-as-snow-on-May-18th glimpse.

I want you to read Ameer’s letter. I want you to hear Isra’s plea at 3:15 about how, despite her impending graduation and officially checking out, she plans to come to class tomorrow because she misses us. I want you to know why two of my colleagues have quit. I want to talk to you.

I want you to read every inch of my eyes as I look at you, as I rush to open the squeaky 1924-door and sneak up into the safety of my classroom.

I want my new colleague to believe me when I say, “Don’t get me wrong. I love her.”

I want those words to be true.

I want you to make them true for me again.

I want you to explain to me where your voice is. Where your gumption is. Where that fearless warrior is.

I want to see you. To hear what the real reasons are for eliminating the course I have developed for four years. The course where my students feel safe. The course where they prosper.

I want you to feel these snowflakes on your cheek. To understand the gap that lies between us now, between the senior hallway, the rude remark, the unexpected spring storm, and the sun that surrounds your beauty.

I want you to catch my glimpse.

My raincoat is dripping wet. I want you to feel these tears. I want you to shiver. To care. To be the poem I wrote for you. To be drenched in the reality of this sudden spring snow.


I Cry for his Loss

i cry for the card, for his loss,
 for his Iraqi-Syrian past,
 for all the burning hours of summer school
 where he committed himself
 to finishing high school in three years.
 
 i cry for his words, for his loss,
 his inescapable self that has hidden
 a kind face in a chaotic classroom,
 his sly smile catching my every
 snuck-in witty remark
 (even when no one else could).
 
 i cry for the system, for his loss,
 shuffled by our government’s wars
 between homelands that stole his home,
 for his pride in Iraqi architecture
 that he may never see again.
 
 i cry for his future, for his loss,
 for how unequivocally kind his soul remains
 after all he has witnessed in twenty-one years,
 for his brothers who wait under his watchful shadow,
 for our country to give him a chance.
 
 i cry for his words, for my loss,
 to not have his presence in my classroom,
 to have the nicest thing anyone’s
 ever written to me
 disappear with a graduation ceremony.
 
 i cry for the world, for their loss,
 for robbing refugees of their rights,
 for keeping the beauty that is him,
 that is within all of them,
 from sharing their strength
 with all of us, inshallah,
 for a brighter tomorrow.
 

Snow March

because we need this:
 desertification looms
 just beyond the bend
 
 (Trump looms there as well,
 where the ninety-degree March
 made some record highs)
 
 and so? a snow march
 to keep precipitation
 where it belongs: Earth
 

All of Me… for All of Us

The email arrives at 2:18, one minute before the last bell and the rush to professional development that will rob me of my time and steal what little time is left to revise my latest paperwork dilemma (the endless paperwork dilemma of being a teacher in the twenty-first century).

This is the rush, the constant rush, that is my afternoon: students stopping me in the hallway to ask what they missed when they were gone, teachers commenting on the lack of grammar present in all writing and instruction, a line for the only staff bathroom nearby, a snakelike maneuver through the after-school net of kids clinging tightly to the last moments of the school day, a quick conversation in the shared bathroom about a shared student who told a teacher my class is his favorite, the rush back to my room to pack up my bag, gather my things, and make it to the classroom on the other end of the third floor.

All in ten minutes.

All after giving up nearly my entire block of planning to meet with a student and her family about an IEP, after waiting for a translator who never showed up, after discussing her math skills, her joy of writing, her absenteeism, her prom dress (donated by a kind soul who managed to find a sheer blue scoop neck that was made for her).

And after an hour of mindfulness with a video that has scared the shit out of me about my failure to raise teens in this day and age, about the addictiveness (equivalent to alcohol) of phones and social media, I must begin my afternoon rush: late to pick up my youngest, a dash across town to gather up the carpool, a dash back to discover two unpaid water bills by our tenants, to receive two flustered calls from the insurance agent about the dent in my Pilot, to break up three arguments over whose doll is whose, and to finish that damn SLO data nightmare before my midnight deadline.

All in sixty minutes.

I have ten papers for my online class that I must grade by Saturday. I have twenty emails I haven’t checked. I have a stack of paragraphs waiting for editing. I have dinner to cook and children to coerce into completing chores and finishing homework.

And I don’t have time for this.

But I do it anyway. I place the delinquent bill on top of our MacBook for Bruce to see. I finish my tea. I gather my keys. I call my girls. The oldest defiantly stays, but the younger two join me for the trek back.

We stop for fast food noodles and make it in time to see the art show. Riona googles over the sculptures, the pottery, the mixed media. Mythili eyes the graphic arts.

And then the choir concert. The show begins with all the choirs onstage singing a song from five decades ago, and Riona comments (quite accurately) that they must have picked a song from when the choir teacher was little. I can almost feel a collective groan building up inside us all as the song nears its end. But then I notice how many of my students are on stage, and I simmer down, because they are why we are here.

The cute emcees crack song-related jokes between each song. And what follows is nothing shy of amazing.

Soloist after soloist take the stage with voices as smooth and luxurious as anything you’d hear on the perfect pop radio station. A mix of modern and foreign, old and new. Belting out all ranges of the scale from the highest soprano to the lowest baritone.

As I sit with my wiggling girls in the front row, screaming and clapping when they hit those high notes, tears are ever present. I let them fall only two times–when the smaller-than-the-rest special needs student sings a solo in the choir’s interpretation of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and when PoeMuLayLo takes the stage.

Hers was the paragraph I put up on my screen for the past two days as one to model, one to look up to.

Hers was the voice I heard singing in Karen last week, the lilting pain of persecution so clear even if I couldn’t understand the foreign words.

She has been in my class for three years, with her bright eyes, her kind smile, her desire to bring every piece of writing to perfection, to never put up with anything but the best from even her seat partner, to quietly be a calming presence that no one would ever think to cross.

And here she stands, her accent gone, the American song spilling out of her as if she wrote the words herself, and I can do nothing but try to capture one last piece of this magic before I have to say goodbye to her forever.

I’m not thinking about the emails. The papers to grade. The endless tasks that make up my afternoons of teacher-motherhood.

I’m thinking about only her luxurious voice, about the music that connects us all, about how much I will miss her.

“She’s leaving, isn’t she, Mama?” Riona whispers to me, seeing the tears linger on my cheeks.

MuLai belts out the chorus of “All of Me” one last time as I nod my head, unable to answer.

Right now, in this moment, there is no rush. No snakelike maneuvers. No wishing to be somewhere else.

There is only her voice. John Legend’s song. And All of Me.

Here.