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.
 

Ground Transportation Parent

In eight months, my youngest daughter will start middle school. What should be an easy transition for our family, being the youngest of three girls, has instead led to the same levels of anxiety brought on when we made this decision three years ago with our oldest.

Why should we have anxiety about choosing a middle school, you might ask?

It’s everything and nothing all in one. The ratings, of course. Should there be any other choice outside of the number-one rated school (three years running) that both of her sisters attend? The middle child didn’t even blink, but set her heart and mind to go there, following in her sister’s footsteps. Even though she’s nothing like her sister. She’s introverted. Imaginative. Responsible. Impossibly sassy. Gets things done, quickly, in order to have more time to enter her otherworldly land of play which has no end in sight.

And yet the decision was easy for her. She didn’t want a surprise. She wanted to go with the option of familiarity after hearing two years of tales from sis.

But the youngest? She’s cut from a different bouquet. She hates reading. Doing homework. Being anything remotely likened to a responsible fifth grader. She won’t brush her hair. She won’t speak up in class. She remains fiercely loyal to her friends, even one who moved away over a year ago to Thailand. She wants to be the baby forever, to delve herself into art and play and being a kid.

So why is this so hard? Because at school the other teachers, all union like me, get their feathers ruffled when they find out my kids go to a charter school (how dare I?), and pester me with questions. Do they have special ed? Do they have ELLs? Do they hand-pick their kids? Aren’t your kids geniuses anyway? What are their attrition rates? What happens when they don’t want a kid–can they say no? Where does the money come from? Why did you put them there?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. All but one of them are not parents, of course, yet experts on parenting.

I wish I was an expert on parenting. I wish I could figure out the formula for raising three daughters in the twenty-first century that is plagued with sexting and social media and ambiguous court approvals of date rape, no suspect ever really sentenced fairly.

These are the things I think about late at night, when I know my daughters will be in a school where a kid would never, ever think about having a cell phone out in class. Where the militaristic, cult-like chants that carry them from class to class grow on them to the extent that they sing their praises in the hallways of our home. Where they will be sheltered, engaged in academics, protected from bullying, for at least the next three years.

Not many people can remember the details of their middle school years, but I remember mine. New to a city with forced-integration busing, I was small for my age and constantly tormented. Once they took the loose sleeves of my sweatshirt as we stood outside the building on a cold morning (we weren’t allowed inside the school until five minutes before the first class) and tied me to the flagpole. When I couldn’t find a place in the schoolyard after lunch, not being into sports or raucous gossip, I sat up on a small slope next to the building reading out of the literature book from English class every day, only to have small groups of girls meander by taunting, “Loner, loner,” in singsong voices. On a semi-daily basis, vicious fights broke out in the hallways–girls, usually–screaming and ripping each other’s hair out. When all the other girls were spraying their bangs into masterpieces of early-nineties art, I sometimes didn’t take a shower for a week or more, not having the energy or the desire to try to fit in.

Perhaps I am jaded and worried about what my youngest will face in a non-charter middle school. Because at the end of the day, after dealing with a hundred needy teenagers and meeting with teachers over data instead of planning lessons, after driving in circles with a carpool, after trying to come up with a meal plan that is healthy, cost-efficient, and acceptable to all, after running up and down stairs with loads of washed and unwashed laundry, after pestering the girls about chores and homework and reading and piano practice, I… I just can’t keep up. I can’t log in to Class Dojo to monitor Riona’s behavior in fifth grade. I can’t log in to Parent Portal to make sure everyone has perfect attendance, no tardies, all As and Bs. I can’t check Zearn to make sure Rio has been keeping up with her math.

I can barely come up with a menu, fold two loads, have everything ready before Bruce comes home at seven o’clock. I can barely grade the stack of papers on the dining room table, carve out an hour for my semi-second job (more grading), and read with Rio, who rarely will read on her own.

I am not an expert on parenting. In fact, most of the time, I feel like I’m a failure at it. I give them what they want (phones) and spend the rest of my waking hours arguing with them about them. I spend MOST of my time arguing with them. What will they wear to The Nutcracker? Why won’t they brush their teeth? Why can’t they practice piano before Daddy comes home? Why are candy wrappers all over the floor? When was the last time they cleaned out their closets? WHERE ARE THE SCISSORS?

I don’t have the energy to monitor every moment of every day. I am no good at being a Helicopter Parent. I can barely keep up with being a Ground Transportation Parent. (Shuffle you to school? Shuffle you to piano? Shuffle you to Tae Kwon Do? I’ve managed to cut all of these tasks to almost no driving with a carpool, an in-home piano teacher, a Tae Kwon Do center within walking distance).

When I made this choice of charters for my oldest, I wanted to protect her. After a year in Spain and a year in a horrific, gossipy fifth-grade class, I wanted her to be in a place that would ensure her mental and emotional stability, not a middle school plagued with social awkwardness and bullying. And so we dealt with the militarism and the constancy of calls to stay after school for one absurd detention after another, for forgetting a heading, a belt, a pencil.

And while my middle child (the responsible one) has had few encounters with after school “retentions,” I know this will not be the case for the youngest. She will forget her pencil, her homework, her charger. She will miss assignments and lose points for not having enough curiosity or courage. She will be intimidated by the chants and irritated by the homework load. And she knows all of these things about herself, and has begged me to consider another option for her.

And just like when I broke the news to my oldest that she “got in” to this great school, she cried. She cried because she loves art and she hates homework and she doesn’t want anyone to push her too much because she’s the baby.

She cried because she’s so much like her oldest sister. She’s afraid to see the potential that she has, the ability to blossom under the Helicopter School.

So now I have my answer for the belligerent teachers. Why, why, why?

Because I’m no expert. I’m no Helicopter Parent. I choose this school because I’m not very good at micro-managing their success, and this school does it for me. I choose this school because it will protect my fragile daughters from a harsh world, if only for a few more years. I choose this school because I’m a Ground Transportation Parent, and at the very least, I can drive them there and pick them up an hour late. I can’t keep up with the homework load, the grade checks, the Class Dojo, but I can hope that after a year my shy eleven-year-old will emerge from its doors with more confidence, more responsibility, more courage and curiosity.

I can at least recognize, as their driver, the similarities between my soul sisters. Whether they wanted it or not, they need this school, just like they need each other to balance out their somewhat-tumultuous relationship with the middle child. They are the two who love ice skating, skiing, Tae Kwon Do. Who forget belts and homework and live in an artistic resemblance of life. Whose fragility connects them.

I am a Ground Transportation parent. All I can hope is that my wheels, my turns, my steering, guide them in the right direction, because there sure as hell isn’t a map anywhere in sight.

And we’re just starting middle school!
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Behind the Curtain

We drive across the city and knock on doors, purple head to toe, hands full of purple pens and folders, t-shirts, and backpacks. Salespeople for the newcomers.

But we are not sales associates. We are teachers spending time on these hot June days sitting in traffic, making phone calls, driving from witnessing a midday drug bust (line of cops, tow truck, handcuffs and all), to a mansion in Cherry Hills that overlooks a forested bike path.

You can see in one day, in one drive, in one singular city, the rainbow of humanity. Rundown yards and barking dogs. Old Victorians in disrepair with living rooms that function as bedrooms, only a thin curtain separating them from the parlor. Perfect little ranches in questionably safe neighborhoods, slicked down and swept up for our visit. Fathers chain smoking and playing violent video games in a government-run housing project, shouting at us out the window before coming to the door, “What do you want?” and then letting us in anyway, telling us the struggles of how to afford a bus pass, a camera for the photography class for his daughter, of being an autistic para who was just attacked by his student last week (proud to show the bruise below his eye) as we sit in the dark room with shabby furniture and not a single painting on the wall.

“Can we get a livable wage for people who are taking care of the hardest kids?” my colleague says to me as we drive away.

And Muslims. Our last visit on this Friday afternoon. Another housing project steps from the violence that hovers outside. We walk three floors up and timidly knock on the door.

One of my students answers (her brother will be attending the school this fall–the reason for our visit), and I barely recognize her without her headscarf. We enter the tiny apartment where an Asian romance is playing on TV with Spanish subtitles, where her mother sits on the floor of the kitchen with bits of meat and spices and vegetables surrounding her in various arrays of order as she prepares the evening meal, the kitchen with no counter to speak of and no table.

We settle into the two sofas and ask about the brother while the youngest boy sneaks his grin around the corner. My student rushes into the other room and emerges with her scarf on, then asks us if we’d like a drink.

“Oh no, of course not, we’ll just be here a minute.”

“No. You will have a drink.” She disappears into the kitchen for fifteen minutes and we hear water boiling, popcorn popping. In bewilderment we look at the cheesy program on the TV and wonder where the remote is, worried that they will spend the entire summer watching Spanish-only TV and not learn any English.

The baby brother dives behind the sofa for the remote when we express our concern. We flip through and realize only one channel is in Spanish. Relieved, my girl comes in with an ornate wooden tray and perfectly polished porcelain coffee set. She pulls a pillow from the line of pillows along the wall and settles in to prepare the Ethiopian coffee. First she lays down a plastic mat, then pours in way too much sugar, adds milk and uses the brown clay pitcher to pour the espresso into the tiny cups which she places before us on the circular coffee table.

Finally her brother comes home and we pepper him with questions about high school, many of which he doesn’t quite understand. We use our break-down-the-language skills to get our point across, and my girl insists we have another cup of the glorious, smooth, sweet liquid. The heat rises up out of the air and blows in the window and the coffee is as hot as all of Africa, and better than any cup I’ve ever tasted (and I don’t drink coffee).

And this is the only house we’ve been to with a Muslim family. And this is the only house we’ve been to with this kind of reception.

They don’t even have a table. They came to this country with nothing but the shirts on their backs and probably this coffee set. They barely know us. And they treat us as honored guests.

And you can’t see this or be a part of this, in this post or in the heat of that thirty minutes, without opening your mind a little. Just pull back the curtain of your hatred, of your bigotry. Tip the tiny cup into your open lips. Swirl the creamy mixture of milk and sugar and bottomed-out coffee grains and look at that grin on her face.

You will find yourself here. You will find yourself there. In the sweet taste on your tongue, the bright hope in her eyes, the kindness that only comes from love.

Just pull back the curtain. You will see a whole new world, one without hate.

Ode to Mixer

i waited four years
 to have my Kitchenaid back
 too bad you’re broken
 
 this last, lost moment
 before i burnt the cookies
 will be remembered
 
 goodbye, my mixer,
 my flourless-chocolate King,
 my sweet-tooth master
 
 i’ve missed your batches,
 your easy whipping of eggs,
 your strength to knead bread.
 
 but i let you live
 in the cold hands of strangers
 who kneaded your death
 
 alas, we all die
 and it’s time for us to part
 forever now, love
 
 may you rest in peace
 while i strengthen my right arm
 while mixing by hand
 
 

Still Worth It

two days of labor
 (grunt work for those unwilling
 to use elbow grease)
 
 and yet, it’s Christmas:
 mixer, platters, and dishes
 we’ve lived years without
 
 back to our dream house
 where toil pays us back
 with soft purring fur