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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

FBQ: Friday. Be Qualitative.

“This is an FBQ conversation,” she begins. And her artistry, backed by data, emphasizes the urgency.

The urgency. It is mid-October, and I’ve seen my principal cry too many times in the course of twelve months.

The urgency of children who have escaped a war zone, who have traveled on three city buses to escape their neighborhood school, who have escaped poverty with our food bank, to be on the tips of our tongues as we sit in the come-down-to-Jesus choir room, AKA, staff meeting with bad news.

This isn’t the day after the election when our hijab-wearing girls were too fearful to take a bus to school, when our students of color were threatened by now-openly-racist citizens, when we were lost souls in a city school surrounded by bigotry.

This isn’t the almost-there rating of last year when we met in our usual fourth floor, everything’s-going-to-be-fine lunchroom location.

This is a Friday-the-thirteenth, tell-it-like-it-is, FBQ meeting. The urgent meeting.

We face ourselves and then each other. Is it you? Is it me? Is it them? Is it us?

We argue in the hallway after, fuck the contract hours on a Friday afternoon when we’re supposed to be at FAC. “You know those charter schools eliminate kids left and right. One infraction, gone. SPED? Gone. Detention for forgetting a pencil and you don’t show up? Gone. Charter schools in the poor neighborhoods? Don’t even try to argue, I looked at all the scores last night. RED.”

We are ourselves, wholly ourselves, and we promise to honor her FBQ request.

But this room will be on our minds for the weekend, for the week, for the rest of the year. This conversation, this seeking of solutions. This, what-did-we-do-wrong-this-time question that sits at the back of our minds every damn day when kids don’t show up, when kids say, “Fuck this class,” when kids come crying about their dying mothers, their far-from-home brothers, when kids wish nothing more than one percentage point higher than what they have earned.

“Can we turn the qualitative values of this school–I mean, look how many of you are wearing purple today–into something quantitative?”

FBQ: Family, Be Quiet.

I want to stand up and shout: You can’t measure this. You can’t quantitatively, statistically, mathematically, measure the amount of emotion that drips down her cheeks, that causes me to clench my fists and hold back my own tears, that makes us question the very effort and belief system we put in place with every moment of every lesson we work so hard to place before them.

You cannot measure, quantitatively, LOVE.

Family, Begin Questioning.

Start with:

1) Why do we vilify teachers?
2) Why do we blame students?
3) Why do we quantify humans?

I want to change her acronym. I want to change them all. To mesh the SLO with the CLO, to move LEAP into SIOP, to blend FAC with FBQ. I want to change colors from yellow to green to the beautiful blue sky that hovers over my beautiful school, with its red-yellow leaves just making that blue pop like a world you’ve yet to see.

It’s Friday.

Be Qualitative.

Because you can’t quantify love. And isn’t that what matters?

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.

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.