Return of the Jedi

Star Wars costume show
followed by our nation’s truth:
the stench of failure

it seeps through the stacks
into our souls’ library:
let’s check ourselves out

depression so rank
we can’t even choose a book
from our city’s shelves

soon we will rise up
upon realization
of Trumpocracy

but it will take faith
beyond what fits in a poem
to fight the Dark Side

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Closing Thoughts on 2016

The year closes with a slew of celebrity deaths, a frightful president-elect, and the hovering window of how hopeless humanity can be as we watch the genocidal and refugee crises erupt around us without comment, without help.

The year closes in my personal life: a new principal at my school, the second daughter in middle school, the first daughter preparing for high school, the third daughter closing out our family’s elementary education. Tumultuous tumbles with family and friends that make me question everything: what I write, what I think, how I speak, how I feel about the issues surrounding me… and whether or not I should publish it “for all the world to see.”

The year closes on my habits: in many failed attempts at fulfilling resolutions, such as writing every day and ditching dairy, I have at least wholly committed to one–not a drink, not a drop, of alcohol for 2016.

And here I am, posting this. Am I an alcoholic? Are any of us? Would anyone be willing to admit it if they were?

Here are my haikus from 13 January 2016, in a moment of reflection and redemption:

reasons why i stopped:
one–brutal voice in writing,
uncensored anger

two–not much laughter,
too much crying to count
(my tear-stained regrets)

three–exhausted sleep
from too many restless nights
swimming in nightmares

four–so much good lost
on the desire to numb,
to not fully live

five–waste of money
in times when we had little,
in times when we’re rich

six–lust and lack of
mediocre love-making
blurred by consumption

seven–fat belly
of someone too far along
to give up this quick

eight–every bad choice
i have made as an adult
came from that bottle

nine–joy i once felt
disappeared on icy rocks
of my lost chances

ten–my daughters’ eyes
watching every move i make
(and i’m making… them)

The year closes with sadness, with darkness, with fear. I lost friends, I came to realize how few I have, and yet… hold them in such a greater light because of their proximity, their understanding of me. I reconciled with my sister and mother. I worked through difficulties in my marriage. I, as always, struggled through the intricacies of teaching teenagers and raising them. I got a new new kitten… and lost her a month later.

I watched the world witness the election of an evil demagogue.

I cried and I cried and I cried.

I wrote less and worried more.

But I didn’t drink. (I didn’t go to AA either. I didn’t need to.) I just wanted to see what the world was like again without the rose-colored glasses.

And the world is a hard, cold place. Filled with people who only think for themselves. Who send text messages to end friendships three years in the making. Who disregard human rights to save themselves a buck. Who turn their backs on those in need for political safety nets.

And the world is a bright and beautiful place. With young eyes that light up and demand that the future sees them for the beauty that they are: conservative Muslim, flamboyant LGBT, bleeding heart liberal, hopeful to no end. With city lights and mountain views, blue skies and snow. With full moons over lapping waves and pink sunrises over quiet urban neighborhoods. With ancient ruins and family freedoms. With girl power and urban schools. With everything that surrounds my bubble of humanity, my hope for human rights, my need to know that it. Gets. Better.
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The year closes, and my eyes have opened. I have come to realize how infiltrated in our culture drinking is (this never quite occurred to me before) as I enter restaurants and am immediately offered cocktails or beer; as I go to book club and happy hour and parties and barbecues and hanging out at anyone’s house; as I navigate the simple sentence, “Water for me, thanks.”

The year closes, and I haven’t been numb. I have been fully awake, fully aware, of the pain that sneaks up when your youngest hasn’t done her math homework in three weeks, when your oldest can’t answer a question without a smirk, when your middle child talks back as easily as she grins, when students refuse to relinquish phones and family members whisper and rejection seems to lie behind every unopened door.

The year closes, and it may have many mistakes. It may have many moments of hollowness. But it does not have a single moment of regret.

Because it has been me, uncensored, unaltered me, in every last word, every last post, every last turn around the long journey through life.

The year closes, so let me hold up a glass: Cheers to a new year, a new tomorrow, a new hope… cheers to a new way of looking at the world. Drink… or no drink.

Cheers.

Getaway. Get. Away.

as we leave, she tells us goodbye till Thanksgiving,
and as always i can’t tell if it’s a guilt trip or a plea.

soon there will be no Thanksgivings.
it will be just us, moved across continents and back,
moved across town and back,
only to remain while they go.

and i pile it on my weekend,
probably our last getaway without grandparents in town,
so perfectly shaped by a Colorado sky,
so tainted by the loss in every flip
as social media stings me again.

before i walk down the steps,
i remind her of Mythili’s birthday,
our dinner reservations before Thanksgiving.

but it’s another night of tears for me knowing that they’re leaving,
they’re really leaving,
and soon all the birthdays and holidays will be just us,
just us,
and i feel the vacancy already,
the gaps once filled by friends
who’ve left us one by one,
and the greatest gap of all
lying in wait,
a storm fit to burst,
a cat poised to pounce,
a weekend ready to be ruined.

and i stopped drinking this year
and lost eight pounds
and didn’t write a single mean post
about my sister, mother, or anyone,
and it’s been ten months,
so why why why
am i surrounded by sadness?

i drive home and can’t dry the tears long enough to read with my youngest,

have only enough in me to enforce showers and teeth brushing

and folding one load of laundry,

and i want so badly to be more than the world only to him,

and i think how fiercely i latched onto him at age nineteen, knowing
even then,
even then that no one would love me that much the whole world over,

and to this day, even with that love in every step of my soul,

rejection. still. hurts.

and this is how our getaway ends:
with the waterfall that never stops.
and the road that never ends.

Day Fifteen, Road Trip 2016

everyone wins today
 with sleeping in and reading books
 and me fitting in a bike ride
 on the way to the movies
 (coastal views, zero elevation,
 heat seeping through my new
 jersey in a rushed attempt to
 meet the time schedule)
 
 and yet it hovers.
 my vacation.
 my vacation with friendly family,
 getting-along-quite-well girls,
 ocean views and coral reefs
 and the best lake swimming there is
 and …
 no happy hour.
 
 pedaling across those bridges,
 sweating steps in Savannah,
 making it through another day,
 a blessed, lucky day on this earth…
 and no drink to top it off,
 to melt the anxiety that comes
 with upcoming controversial family,
 the stress that will be DC in July,
 seeing my father-in-law slowly lose his mind;
 no drink to bring brighter to life
 the constancy of waves,
 to further open my mouth for all
 the thoughts i’m dying to share,
 (to pour onto the page);
 no drink to further relax my toes
 into this cushion of sand,
 my sore muscles into the clutch of alcohol,
 my mind from the weight of the world.
 
 and i say it again and again:
 There’s always a reason…
 and even on the perfect day,
 the life’s a beach dream vacation day,
 it. is. still. hard.
 
 it is why i pedal.
 why i write.
 why i drive 6000 miles.
 why i watch waves.
 
 because the need to escape is real.
 in all of us, no matter how picture-perfect our lives appear,
 it is as real as this view, this beach, these toes.
 
 but i made it.
 i made it through another day.
 and this poem is my happy hour.
 
 

Pity Party

Another year is over, and it ends with a tinge of the same sinking feeling that every year begins with. The constant question all teachers ask themselves as they tackle this challenging career: Is this worth it?

Sometimes it is just a small thing that can make you sad or frustrated or feeling burned out. A student who didn’t come back to make up the final he blew off. An administrator who wouldn’t renew a colleague’s contract. A message from admin that our keys, checkout form, rooms, and us, are all being carefully micro-managed. (We can be trusted to instill knowledge and take charge over 150 students in a year, but god forbid we leave without being checked to ensure we followed through and cleaned out our damn desks).

But for me this year, after three years of teaching at the same school, it is the hollow disappointment of not having any real friends where I work.

While the thought crosses my mind off and on throughout the year as colleagues gather together for happy hours that I cannot attend because of childcare needs, or weekend parties or outings where a group of all the people I work most closely with have all attended and I only see the event posted on Facebook (not invited myself), today, on the last day of the year, the smallest event brought me to tears.

I had just heated up my lunch and was sitting alone in the office. A colleague came in and asked me to watch a student who was taking a test in the next room because she was going out to lunch. And while she offered to get me something while she was out, since I’d already brought my lunch, I said I’d be fine to eat in the classroom with the student.

But when I walked into the hall, it hit me: There they all were, in their too-cool-for-high-school clique, purses in hand, chatting and giggling their way to their outing together.

They had already made plans.

I sat alone with the student and then graded her final, texting her teacher that she was done (a text–one of several in the past few months, including accolades toward him and gratitude for one thing or another–he did not respond to).

I brought the test up to the assessment coordinator and went back down to my lonely, empty classroom, and cried.

Because this job is hard enough. Because I fight every day for these kids just like they do. Because I try to reach out to them, invite them to things, and get outright blacklisted. Because I don’t know why I’ve been blacklisted–is it because I have an opinion? Because I’m a “cynic”? Because I don’t fit into their mold of single and alcoholic?

Because it would be nice to have a friend, even a singular friend, who could support me in this constant battle that is teacherhood.

Because it’s the end of the year, and I won’t see or hear from any of them all summer, and … I guess it doesn’t matter.

At my former school, I had so many great colleagues. We ate lunch together every day and laughed so hard that someone literally started choking once and another teacher had to perform the Heimlich to save him. We’d go to happy hour, occasionally, or children’s events, occasionally, or parties. A couple of them I would get together with during the summer, just for kicks, because we were FRIENDS.

And on days like this, when there were no students? There wasn’t a soul in the building who stayed inside eating lunch alone. We’d gather in groups, ride together to a local restaurant to have lunch, and see the rest of the crew there anyway, and we’d make a giant table and laugh until we cried.

And I knew that going to Spain was going to change all that and that I wouldn’t be going back there.

But, three years in, on the last day of school, it just. Fucking. Hurts.

So this is how my year ends. With a pity party.

Looking forward to a summer with my family, a real party with my actual friends this weekend, and a break from this place. God knows I need one.

They Come, They Go

One of my former colleagues (now retired) always used to say, “They come, they go,” referring to the endless stream of students we see over the years. It was a way to cope with those awful days or those awful kids. Knowing that yes, it might be difficult in this moment, or even for this entire school year, but soon it will be over, and we will have a new set of faces and a new ten months of opportunities to educate, enrich, and touch their lives… Just as they will ours.
 
 I was thinking about this phrase last night when I was making cards and cookies for my seniors, a set of four girls who have shared my classroom for the past three years, always a bit timid, always a bit unsure, always with a smile on their faces as they asked for help. They come from Nepal and Burma, and though have spent their four years at this high school diligently reading and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting …and rewriting, their English is still only at a high enough level for them to attend the community college. Yet, they are taking the chance, stepping their toes in, and pushing forward with the education their parents risked their lives to give to them. They have come…and now, they’re gone.
 
 When Bruce called, texted, emailed, and left a voice mail at 10:53 this morning telling me that Mythili was sick, I had 17 minutes left in class before lunch and senior check out. “She hasn’t thrown up yet, but the principal said she looked like she could at any moment.” I forlornly looked at my bag of cookies and cards, my special sign-out pen. I waited for class to end and my line of three students to dissipate, one demanding to know why she couldn’t have a grade higher than a B+, one wanting me to forgive an assignment she’d lost, and one who can’t formulate a single word of English after three years, and in her broken, muffled frustration, begged for extra work to bring up her futilely failing grade (this one I’ve recommended to be tested for special education, to no avail… The complexities of the public school system).
 
 I couldn’t just leave. I couldn’t just drop everything to pick up my sick child from school. I know that so many people are trapped by their commitments to work and balancing out their commitment to family, but there is something about teaching that keeps you there even when it feels impossible to stay.
 
 I settled what I could with the girls, grabbed my keys, and rushed over to the elementary school where a very shaky eleven-year-old got into my car. I dug around in the back seat for the plastic nut jar, dumped its contents into another, and held it out to her. “In case you need to puke on the way,” I suggested.
 
 She made it home. Barely. Not two minutes in, she rushed to the bathroom and let it loose. I rushed to the kitchen, grabbed the puke bowl, a towel, and an ice cold glass of water.
 
 “I have to go. Senior check out,” I told her as I tucked her into bed. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “OK Mama,” she whispered.
 
 “Do you want the iPad?” I asked, Netflix bribery.
 
 And so I left her. I rushed back to school, heated up my lunch, and waited to sign out and say goodbye to my girls. Just like all the students I’ve ever had, I will likely never see them again. I might hear from one or two from time to time, but once they’re gone… They’re gone. They are not my children. They will get sick and get their hearts broken and fail at jobs or school or possibly life, and I won’t be there to save them or hold their hands or empty out the puke bucket… And so why do I do this?
 
 Because teaching is about balancing out the apathy, the misbehavior, the bad attitudes, the low skills… With those bright spots, those kids who care, those girls who touch your heart and make you feel that the world has the possibility of becoming a better place. And I can’t let go of that. I have to hold onto those moments or all of their apathy will break down my empathy.
 
 Because before Bruce mass communicated with me about my own daughter, I learned about someone else’s daughter. One of my students. A para and another student came searching for one of the boys in my class who has been nothing but trouble for me all semester. He shouts out in class. He makes racist remarks. He ditches. He throws away a perfectly good brain to apathy, something I’ve seen too many times in fifteen years.
 
 “What has he done now?” I asked.
 
 “Oh, he hasn’t done anything. We need to ask about O. Do you know O.?”
 
 “Yes, she’s in my third period… But she hasn’t been here because her grandmother is dying in Illinois.” O. comes in with a jeweled hijab every day, a smile, a dedication to learning. She hadn’t missed a day of school until a week ago.
 
 “Well, she ran away with M.’s brother last night because her parents are making her marry a twenty-seven-year-old on Saturday. And she posted on Facebook that she wanted to kill herself.”
 
 “So… Her parents came in and met with the principal and made up a story about her grandmother dying?”
 
 These were the only words I could muster. They were looking for M., I pulled up his schedule, and they were gone from my room as quickly as they had arrived. I had twenty-three minutes till my next two classes to stew. To wipe away tears. To think about the bright young face that is being robbed of her youth. Of her dignity. Sold.
 
 What could make them do this? What could make them travel the world to bring their daughter away from the poorest country to the richest, where all the opportunities were set out before her, just to give it up, to give in to the old world beliefs that it is acceptable to send a FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD into a trap of a marriage?
 
 When I see M. thirty minutes later, I ask him about her. “Where is she? Is she OK? Is she with your brother?”
 
 “She’s fine Miss. She’s getting married on Saturday. You don’t understand. It’s an Asian thing.” (One of his favorite expressions).
 
 He’s as flippant as if he were talking about his latest rendezvous in the park, his latest date, his latest excuse for not coming to class.
 
 I want to grab his shoulders and look into his eyes and shake him and ask him, “Do you really think it is acceptable for such a young girl to be forced to marry??”
 
 But I don’t. He will leave my class soon (They come, they go) and I will no longer have to hear his ignorant remarks. But O.? She has already gone. Two years older than my oldest daughter, her opportunities for a future have been stripped down and shaped out into a malformed mold of submissiveness.
 
 I carry her home with me. Just like my senior girls who are so kind as they say goodbye, her eyes, her smiling face, come home with me. I check on my daughter who has settled into a nap, puke bucket still empty. I sit in my living room, cat in my lap, wondering why I couldn’t just stay home with her. Why did I go back? Why did I feel I needed to sign a paper for four girls I’ll never see again?
 
 Because ultimately, the truth of this profession is that the students never leave. Each one of them holds a place in my heart, even if it is a hollow place marred by disrespect. Even if it is a broken place marked by abuse and abandonment. Even if it is an unforgiving place where I will forever wonder what I could have done to save them.
 
 And I can’t be the mother I need to be without carrying their stories with me. I can’t come home and exchange silly texts with my nine-year-old and console my forlorn thirteen-year-old whose biggest crisis in life is that she lost her watch, and nurse my eleven-year-old, who’s just a bit weak from a mild stomach flu, without knowing about all that they could be facing.
 
 Rape. War. Abuse. Addiction.
 
 I can’t control who walks into my classroom, or how much it hurts me to accept the pain that trails behind these kids as naturally as a shadow. They come with every story you could ever imagine from the complex rainbow of humanity. Mothers who have died of cancer. Fathers who have never been around. Perfectly happy little families from picket-white-fence yards. Seemingly happy families with closets full of skeletons. Mental illness. Disabilities.
 
 And they go… With all of what they’ve come with. And a little bit of me. Just like I will always carry a little bit of them.
 
 And that is why I hug my girls tight. I wrap Mythili up in her quilt and promise Riona she can buy the terrible chips and tell Isabella she can get a new watch…
 
 I don’t tell them about O. Or M. Not today.
 
 Because I don’t want them to carry that pain. Because I want to shelter them in the love of the perfect little family we’ve created. Because they are girls with the world in front of them, and I want them to know how safe they will be with whatever choice they will make.
 
 Because they have come into my life as my daughters. They are mine. They are not my students. And though I can’t give them every moment of my time, I know that I will never be able to let them go.
 
 Because they are the eyes, the smile, the hope of every student I have ever had… And every student I have yet to meet.
 
 They will come, and they will go.
 
 And I will always be here. For all of them.