Not Here.

If you had another job, you would be so annoyed by the coworker who couldn’t piece together fiber or the project manager who doesn’t know how to manage, and your day might be temporarily ruined. You would miss your lunch hour redoing someone’s work or you wouldn’t be able to tell your boss your exact opinion of his golf vacation in the midst of your short-staffing issue.

If you had another job, you would spend your lunch hour cutting fibers or sending emails or catching up on a spreadsheet, hoping for a break or a promotion or … anything else.

Anything but this.

If you had another job, you wouldn’t stop in your tracks in the middle of a lesson to let a severe-needs child work his way to his seat, an admin begging you to give him a pencil and a blank piece of paper because maybe if he could draw a basketball, he would stop rocking on his heels and shouting the word across the room for all the world, all your classroom of recent immigrants, to witness.

If you had another job, when the siren makes your phone and the PA system and the whole world bleep and vibrate, you wouldn’t be thinking about the announcement (seeking the nurse) at lunch. You wouldn’t be sending your middle daughter to investigate the health of your colleague whose life was already threatened more times than the number of weeks in this school year, only to hear this report: “There were people everywhere and a kid on the floor. The security guards were surrounding the whole scene. We couldn’t see anything.”

If you had another job, you’d see everything. The botched fibers. The boss’s vacation. The spreadsheet that tells you exactly what you’ve done right and exactly why you don’t belong here.

But you don’t have that job.

You have this one. And despite the pull of this dog lying on your calves with the persistence of a love so divine you couldn’t measure it, this morning or in any other moment, you are here now.

And you look at your refugees and think about the Afghan girl and the Afghan para, who both stood on that tarmac eleven months back in a country that will no longer allow them to attend school, let alone show their faces, and are up in the tech office trying to get a new computer while you stand here, trying to explain without Dari or Pashto words,

“It’s a lock… out. There is a problem outside of the school. Not here. Do you understand me?”

And all the while you are thinking about your colleague whose student yesterday held a girl at her throat and sprayed her with dry erase cleaner, now imagining that at lunch that kid was under the security guards’ hands, and that he escaped, and that he “is a suspect in the perimeter.”

And that your colleague could be gone. And that your daughter was braver than you, walking down there to report on truths that can’t be reported.

And that you have to teach a lesson about the BE verb and all its uses and “Yes/No” questions such as,

“Are you happy?”

Yes, I am.

No, I’m not.

And the boy who can’t read or write or take total control of his body won’t stop talking about basketball, and then soccer, and then eating, and his paraprofessionals finally come, and the Afghan para and the Afghan girl return unscathed, and when you look into her young and beautiful eyes and ask her to say, in Dari and Pashto, “Please tell the students that the danger isn’t here. It’s a danger outside of the school,” they all shout, “We understand you, MISS!”, and even after her translation, her reassuring interpretation of your words,

You’re. Still. Not. Sure.

And let’s make contractions out of these “Be” verb conjugations, my students! (He + is = He’s. You + are = You’re.)

If you had another job, you wouldn’t have to wait until the passing period to see the text from your threatened colleague.

“I’m OK. A kid passed out in my room during lunch. I don’t know about the lockout.”

You wouldn’t have to wait. You’d be sending emails, repairing fibers, or working your way through a mountain of paperwork.

You wouldn’t be standing in front of these kids who are trying to piece together the parts of a sentence and the parts of their lives that were left in another country.

You wouldn’t be you.

If you had another job.

Who Am I?

If you really knew me, you would know…

That when my eleventh birthday was around the corner and my father had failed at student teaching and we were living on my mother’s newspaper salary of $6.25 an hour, my mother scraped together every last dollar to present a $20 bill for me. That we were about to move away from my beloved childhood home where I was best friends with everyone within shouting distance, where I was about to be the king of the elementary school that I could ride my bike to, that I’d be moving to a big city and knew no one… and that $20 was like a gold brick because of all it could buy at the Gorham Market, my childhood store with 3-cent Bazooka gum and fireballs that would spice your whole mouth for an hour and 10 cents.

If you really knew me, you would know that when I got to Merrill Middle School, it wasn’t a pretty picture. I got lost on the first day because the yellow school bus number had changed from morning to afternoon, and my oversized high-top boys’ sneakers, all the fashion rage in upstate New York, were just a reason for kids to trip me in every hallway in Denver, shouting, “What’s with your giant shoes?” I spent two years at that school finishing all my homework in class and getting straight As without even trying while girls in the hallway pulled each other’s hair out and every race, blended in the remnants of forced-integration bussing, smacked me in the face with the word that would always haunt me: “You’re such a loner.”

If you really knew me, you would know that when someone’s beautiful voice came over the PA system and announced that a new arts school was opening in Denver, and if anyone was interested, they should apply and audition, you would know that I spent the next six weeks of my life creating a portfolio and writing and rewriting every last word that tumbled around inside my head and that in those same moments my parents, having dragged me halfway across the country, had decided to separate, and I needed that arts school like I needed to breathe, and yet… even with my best words on paper and an interview I thought I nailed… I got put on the alternate list.

If you really knew me you would know that when all the racist fucks on my side of town realized that their innocent white daughters would be attending Cole Middle School and Manual High School, they withdrew their interest. You’d know that my parents, back together after sending my sister and me to New England for the summer, called and told me, “You got in. This is your chance,” because we’d moved to Denver to be in a more diverse space after my mother’s racist parents fled to the northern suburbs during the 1960s “white flight”, and that I took that chance and two RTDs or seven miles on a bike to get to that school every morning for the next five years, where I met Kevin who came out just in time for his Catholic parents to kick him out, and Lisa who taught me what a bat mitzvah was, and Jermaine who lived three blocks from the school and taught me that you could be Black and beautiful and openly gay in 1993, and Olivia, my forever best friend whose father was from Panama and whose mother’s white parents disowned her for marrying a black man… And of course, Mrs. Clark, the mother of us all, who raised her writers with as much love as her five biological children, and has always lived by the same simple phrase:

Love everyone.

If you really knew me, you would know that I have had a taste of poverty. That I have become a mother who was shaped by a high school that ditched the dress code and told every kid that being gay or straight or trans or Black or Brown was just the way the world was, that I have known kids who were shot by gangs in the distance between Manual and Cole in the same the four blocks we walked each day for our arts classes and that those years between my $20-bill eleven-year-old-self and when Mrs. Clark gave me this paperweight to put on my desk because she just “knew” I was going to be a teacher–? These moments, these memories, make me the mother who doesn’t think twice about what my daughters wear to school or what our school puts up for all the world to see in the gym on the first day.

If you really knew me, you would know that Mrs. Clark is why I stand here today, and why I am asking you to share a little bit of yourselves with me.

If you really knew me, you would know that I care about what you have to say.

A Pile of Rocks

Because you asked. Because the Afghans this summer during Newcomer summer camp couldn’t understand what happened and wanted to see a picture of him. Here’s the picture of him standing among us like the video game we played too late after that Halloween party, like the one we took in Sintra with the extra child who came on our trip and complained the whole time. Like the broken wings of a family trying too hard.

“What happened? Why did he leave? Where did he go? What did he do?”

None of it matters now, in the long run. And, my gut and predictions were 100% accurate, because my last and (probably) final communications with him, informing him that it was time for him to find his own phone plan, told me exactly what I knew would happen. After everything, after actually achieving the miraculous goal of our government granting him a work permit, he’s living in Nebraska, with his cousins he escaped from, climbing on roofs, making no money, and no different than the life I tried to pry him from.

It doesn’t matter that I tried to show him the world. That I drove four hours out of my way to show him the Grand Canyon, an image so large that it can be seen from satellites, only for him to say to me, “This isn’t even worth taking out my phone for. Why would I take a photo of a pile of rocks?”

It doesn’t matter that we saved $9,000 for him to have a future. That when he needed a bike, a ski pass, a phone (three, actually), a haircut, money to send to Honduras, a helmet, soccer shoes, track shoes, a chance… We gave it to him, and still tucked that money away for more than two years, and made the mistake (or the realization) of giving it to him, and he lit it like a wildfire, and it was gone in two months, and he didn’t have a thing to show for it or one word of remorse or gratitude.

It doesn’t matter that my three girls spent those years watching the way he talked to me, the way he called me a “bitter old bitch” and a “controlling bitch” and an “irrational woman” and all the things before and since. That he would barely go to school or tutoring, that he wouldn’t get a job, that he. Wouldn’t.

All that matters, really, is that I forgot who I was.

I am a person who would drive four hours out of her way, the morning that my favorite non-human possessions were stolen, and let the grandness of the FUCKING Grand Canyon take my breath away, even if this is the fourth time I’ve seen it.

I am a person who would work through any difficulty to make this moment, this life, a bit more tolerable.

I am a person who married the most amazing, loving man, who would live in Spain, stay home instead of working, buy the house I want, cook our dinner, feed our cats, take in a boy, braid his daughters’ hair, give me pleasure, drive ten miles to beer in the rain, hike a mountain, sit on a beach, give up his military dreams, put me first… I am a person who should know better.

I am a person who would stand in the hallway, the never-ending hallway of instruction, and listen to your pleading-heart story well enough to hear that you needed help and I have a room and a heart and a conscience, and I will offer it to you.

I am a person trying to raise three girls to not take shit from anybody. Maybe I did well with this, maybe I went too far. They’ll wear the Cardinal red to a Rockies game not because they care about baseball, but because they care about being themselves, and “Why is it sexy? Because some man decided that the way I dress is sexy?” And all the controversial words you can think of between this question and who I was at age seventeen, and …? Do you think I should have brought a strange young and disrespectful young man into this home?

All that matters, really, is that I knew what I was getting into, and I didn’t listen to myself.

My thoughts were a pile of rocks, the pandemic was a pile of rocks, that goddamn destroyed room was a pile of rocks.

And it’s gone now.

He’s in another state. My girls are free.

I found myself again.

He took me away from me. But I have my own camera. And you better bet that I know that there is a time and a place to pull it out and snap a shot.

It’s four hours away, a two-year interception, a worthwhile detour.

But it is NOT a pile of rocks. It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever see, discovering who you are.

It’s a pretty fucking GRAND Canyon.

Better

Dear Erika,

I have been teaching for eighteen years. Aurora, Parker, Spain, Denver. I (mostly) grew up in Denver, where the public school system is pretty much a shitshow compared to upstate New York, where I learned everything by age eleven that was then repeated at Merrill Middle School.

I have seen every teaching style, from direct-lecture to let’s-let-the-students-decide (DSA before what it is now). My former school (in Parker) paid $20,000 annually for us to be a part of a program that was based on improving teaching by learning through our peers. Learning labs. Peer observations. The whole gamut.

Just a bit of background to let you know that I haven’t just stood in front of a group of Newcomers for eighteen years.

I’ve seen, co-taught with, and even evaluated, every type of teacher. The let-loose, out-of-control-classes type of teacher. The expert-in-every-way, loving-just-enough type of teacher. The middle-of-the-road teacher.

And it’s taken more than a week for me to write this to you. And I know that he already left and I would never in a million years deny you the opportunity to stay home with your beautiful child.

Yet when I asked you, point-blank as I always do, if you’d come back? It breaks my heart that you shrugged.

Because you are NOT the let-loose, out-of-control-classes type of teacher, nor the middle-of-the-road teacher. You know and I know that you are the one.

The one who, in your own subtle fashion, captures the entire class. Calling on every kid. Listening to what they have to say. Taking in their expressions and their hidden voices. Reading aloud. Helping them to understand the complexities of our oppressive system while acknowledging their experiences with it.

You once brought your mother with you to a PD I was running. How absurd, that I was running a PD for YOU to learn from. As if you couldn’t have been teaching us all, in your calm and supportive way, how to be better. Your mother, also a teacher, who gave you what you have, who put everything into you that makes you who you are.

Better at teaching.

Better at not having those gut-wrenching reactions.

Better at being truthful without being hurtful.

Better at being yourself.

I wish I could be there to witness what you are about to endeavor. The chasing of toddlers. The balancing of life with a firefighter. The even-keeled response to life that encompasses who you are.

I wish I could be there to thank you. Because you are not just a teacher. You are one of the teachers who listened to me when I cried for my daughter’s soul and.

Saved her.

You’re one in a million. Better than I will ever be.

And I hope you know that. I hope those hundreds of kids who have shuffled through your classroom know that.

And that you won’t just be a statistic.

And that you’ll come back.

Because there has never been a better time to have a good teacher. The one with the Birkenstocks. The one whose beauty fills the room. The one whose patience emanates.

One of the best.

Better than the best.