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.

Ferocity (Revised and Reposted, as a Reminder)

What I want is to be able to write with the same ferocity I had at sixteen, when I would curl up and scribble twenty-five pages in my journal detailing every portion of my day, when I spun my bicycle tires through stop signs at the bottoms of hills, hands in the air, fearless as youth for the ferocious words I wasn’t afraid to spout out.

What I want is to come home and feel that young blood rushing through me, knowing I would have something amazing and important to say, even if my eyes would be the only ones to ever read it. To not have to hover in front of the fridge and feel the hollowness of hunger that comes from too many months of pittance, too many abrupt cancellations, too many days in a row of rain.

What I want is for people to see me. Not for who they think I should be but for the person I actually am. Professional? Yes. Hardworking? Yes. American? Of course. But so much more than that. There’s a reason, I want to shout, that I am your first American teacher who has never called in sick, that I will never be late, that I will ride my bike across town in a rainstorm and teach a lesson in clearly rain-soaked pants and shoes, the dark markings of humility as plain as the nose on my face, in front of a group of seventeen-year-olds whose names I’ll never know!

What I want is to shout, Because I’m not like you! Like the rest of them! Because when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I don’t promise my children that we will move to Spain and then tell them, despite all signs saying otherwise, that we won’t go. I don’t shirk my duties at any job, no matter how small, because I know the value of work, of supporting a family and being the most responsible person imaginable–at a young age, my mother embedded these ideals into my daily life. And most of all, I DON’T LIE. What you see is what you get.

What I want is for them to really see this person who stands before them, who sits at this fluorescent-lit kitchen table in Cartagena writing these words. Even my husband who tells me, “Don’t do that again, just send them a text like they always do you. Cancel; call in sick.” I could do that. But it would be as bad as choosing not to write these words. It would be a lie. Irresponsible. Disrespectful. All the qualities I despise.

What I want is a job back home. Not the bitter, thankless job they hand me daily in Spain, where I’m as valuable as an appointment at the dentist, where my pay is put to the wayside and my hours are tossed away as flippantly as throwing out garbage. I want to work regular hours for a decent salary and know that if there’s a holiday coming up, I’m not out a day’s pay. I want to know that I am making a difference for young people, that they respect me, and I respect them, care about them, and know each. and. every. one. of. them. Even their names. ESPECIALLY their names.

What I want is to be human again. To accept that Spain is a true paradise if you’d like a relaxing, affordable vacation or retirement. And to know the difference between that paradise and the country I have lived in for this past year.

What I want is freedom. To find myself in a place where people have come to the same realization as me—the realization that we can be better. We just need to rattle our lives a little bit and find the ferocity of our sixteen-year-old selves, arms wide, tires spinning, ready to take on the world.

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.

Castellano

I’m thinking about Spain tonight. Not just because I’m already planning our summer road trip across the Iberian Peninsula. Not because Castellano is on the tip of my tongue–because it’s not.

I’m thinking about the garage full of trash bags that I gave to the Goodwill before we went to Spain. Old toys, books, clothes, unwanted small appliances, furniture, shoes, pillows… JUNK. About fitting our lives in five giant suitcases, five backpacks, and an airplane across the sea. About coming back to all of our items left in our house… that was no longer ours.

The piano. The maple nightstands that stood on either side of my parents’ bedroom in that custom-built two-story in upstate New York. The dining set we picked out soon after our wedding, its oak pedestal and matching chairs a testament to the solidity of our marriage. The most comfortable recliners a body could rest in.

Our beds. Our patio set. Our entertainment center. Every last comfort, joy… empty from our rental house upon our return.

How we begged and borrowed items to make a home once we returned from Spain. How we spent the “advance” of my first salary to buy double-over-double bunk beds so that our girls might share a room.

How, when we went there, with everything packed in luggage, we had to adapt to uncomfortable furniture, to a mattress on the floor for a bed, to no closets, no bath, no extra bathroom, no dryer, no dishwasher, no place to fit our lives into.

And how our girls… adapted. How they made friends, made paper cutouts to decorate the walls, painted ceramic eggs from the “Chino” to hang on the tiny plastic Christmas tree we found in the wardrobe, sat next to one of the space heaters during rainy winter months when the wind whipped through the frail windows, learned how to wash dishes and wait hours for clothes to dry and speak Castellano more fluently than me by year’s end.

And the aftereffects of Spain, of moving out… and moving back. Of trying to pick up the pieces of the life we’d left, trying to reposition ourselves amongst our friends, our family, our view of the world, trying new careers and new colleagues and a new house that was ours… and wasn’t ours.

That is why. Spain is why, five years later, we can make space in our two-bathroom, five-bedroom home for six other people. Why when I drove a couple miles today to pay a neighbor $80 for an extra refrigerator, her jaw dropped when I said what it was for, her “For Sale” sign in the yard of a house just like mine because she, her husband and two boys “just need more space.” Why, after sharing one bedroom for a year and one bathroom and one suitcase full of clothes, my girls could move things over, purge, split their beds, their time, their Americanness, to make room for a whole other family in our home.

I may not have learned Castellano. I may not have r’s rolling off of my tongue. My girls may not remember more than what a croqueta is.

But they know what it means to make a sacrifice. To give up a piece of themselves. To move. To transition. To lose and gain friends. To try new foods and new schools and new sleeping arrangements.

That is why this revised chore chart, designed by Mythili and with input from six other voices, is my picture for today.

There is beauty in those three Expo colors. Compromise. Adjustment. Initiative.

Adaptability. With a little bit of gumption and Castellano on the side, just for good measure.

From Age Five

From age five, they were in love. It was meet-the-teacher night, and school hadn’t even started yet. We meandered through the hallways and classrooms of the school we’d chosen, hoping for Spanish immersion and IB education. They were the two oldest daughters of three siblings, and they chatted, did cartwheels, and were holding hands before the night was over.

Her tall and slender, long-lashed mother quietly commented, “You see? They’re already best friends.”

And so, nine years later, when I texted my daughter to make room in her drawers and space in her bed for a loooong sleepover, her only, immediate, obvious response was, “REALLY!!!!!! OMG THIS IS AMAZING!!!!”

Because when you’re in love, when you have a connection, it does not matter if six extra people are going to live in a house built for… five?

Because when you make a fast friend at age five, when emotions are so visceral and honest, it’s probably something worth cherishing.

Because when you have a bonus-five-bedroom dream house, why not share the dream?

Because if the situation were reversed, wouldn’t we all, minute by minute, hand in hand, reach out and make the world just slightly better, one soul, one family at a time?

Because what makes a family?

Girl Scouts. Trials and tribulations. Cookie selling. Lost money. Lost causes. Frustrations. And so much fun you would laugh until you nearly peed your pants, all in the snow on a bitter cold January night. Bridging ceremonies, brownies, a baby brother in tow on camping trips.

Backyard barbecues. Eating meat or not eating it. Sharing our sad stories. Telling the truths we were never able to tell in the schoolyard, at our jobs, in our “real lives,” but that slid so easily from our mouths in the comfort of our back patio.

Camping trips. Sharing pies and drinks and a bite of an ice-cold river. And again, laughing until we cried under a hazy moon and starlit sky.

Sleepovers. Girls screaming into the night, little brothers trying to keep up and eating two giant waffles before ten a.m., before they were even ten years old.

School. The daily ins and outs, friends come and gone, field days and jumping into the sky as if you were jumping right up into heaven. Teachers we loved and hated and commiserated. Our shared experience.

Family parties. Little girls in pretty dresses pretending to drink tea. Everyone, kids and parents, gathering household items to make a Halloween-happy costume. Parents gathering in the kitchen to catch the scene and capture a moment of each other’s joy, each other’s sadness. The connection found in youth, in young parenthood, in the heavy task of raising young people to become wise people.

Because… from the age of five, they were in love. Look how they’ve grown. Look at the young women they have become. Look at the family they have made for themselves.

That is why we can add six people to our five-person house. Because from age five, these girls have carried us into the home we call home. It began with a smile, a cartwheel, a hug.

That, and rearranging some beds, is about all it takes.








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.