New Year’s Eve

in 2019

Bruce learned to ski from up high

into a new life

in 2019

a drain drained our resources

and worsened our debt

in 2019

my girls adjusted again

to life’s challenges

in 2019

we were given the rare chance

to make a difference

in 2019

we traveled through the country

searching for ourselves

in 2020

we’ll make a better life

everywhere we go

A Quick Email to End 2019

My creative writing teacher (I will always refer to her as such even though I graduated nearly twenty-five years ago) asked us (her forever students) to send her a quick email about an important gift we gave or received this holiday.

Maybe I could snap a quick pic from the tree on Christmas Eve, filled with makeup, watercolor markers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses for my three teenage daughters. Or of Christmas morning with the magical Apple Watches, so coveted by my Apple-only family.

Or the earrings my mother made me or the gift card to Colorado Gives from my sister.

Maybe I could capture a quick pic of my 2019 accomplishments: Writing about, and participating in, a teachers’ strike that led to a life-changing raise.

My first paid-for post. My hundreds of hours of work wrapped up in a National Board Certification. My ever-intricately-planned summer road trip across seven states.

But none of these things could begin to compare with the gift that this year has given me. The gift of this man in my life who would do anything, anything to prove his love to me. Marry me when I was just a baby. Follow me to Spain. Learn how to ski nine months and one lesson after tearing his ACL. Read every post. Drive overnight through the midwest so the entire family could sleep.

Take into our house a boy who doesn’t belong to us and in every way belongs to us.

You have watched the news. You have seen the stories. You have donated money. You have screamed in frustration at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on others by our government. By ourselves.

But have you stood in front of fourteen Newcomers and come to understand how brightly they still see our country? Have you had a hallway conversation with a boy who informs you that, after five days of walking, twenty-five days of train-hopping and pigeon-killing, two days of washing windshields in Mexico City, five days waiting to cross the Rio Grande in the middle of the night on a raft, one week in a detention center and four months in a home for unaccompanied minors, and four months in a homeless youth shelter, he is still looking for a home?

And that, no matter what, he cannot, will not, return home?

What would you do? What might you ask your husband to do? Your three ever-spoiled, ever-adaptable, ever-loving teenage daughters?

Would you keep scrolling past the images of children under space blankets on concrete floors?

Or would you realize that this boy is standing in front of you, in your school, in your class, in your life, without a home? A family? And do something? Anything?

I cannot take a quick pic of the past two weeks, the entire time that has passed between my knowledge of his status and his soon-to-be permanent placement in our home. The phone calls, the emails to every last human I could think of who might help him. The two-hour meeting with the Department of Human Services, his Honduran father on the line, ready to relinquish all rights. The background checks, fingerprints, home visits, all within a day. His arrival to my home with three garbage bags filled with clothing and no coat. The shy first meal that he took to the basement to eat. Alone. His quick smile and ever-present hope that this place must be a better place. His immediate love of our three pets.

I cannot send Mrs. Clark a quick email about my gifts this year. There are too many to count, they are the uncountable nouns I teach my Newcomers: love, hope, future, desire.

They are all in this union that the caseworker asked about today: “Married for almost twenty-two years? Tell me, how do you do it?” “Patience and love. Patience and love.”

They are here, in this boy, unwrapped, ready to be our brother, our son, part of our world.

These are my gifts. I’m sorry this is such a long email, Mrs. Clark.

 

 

What I Heard Today

“Hiking? In the forest? No. Only to look for firewood to cook our food. Not for fun.”

“Yes, I’ve ‘visited’ Mexico. I was there for two months waiting for the coyote.”

“In a room the size of this kitchen there were forty of us. They gave us blankets just like that [pointing to tinfoil]. And when they had to wake someone up to deport them, they woke all of us. And they came in every fifteen minutes to wake someone.”

“Hermano, mira. Hay una lavandería aquí en la casa.”

“My 23-year-old brother wanted to come, but he can’t run fast enough.”

“He can’t run fast enough?”

“To get on the train. I saw so many… broken legs, arms. Even a body with its legs completely amputated. You have to be able to run.”

“I crossed the Rio Grande on a raft.”

“I’ve never seen a dishwasher. We had to wash our clothes and dishes by hand.”

“Eggs, beans, and rice for lunch and dinner. Coffee for breakfast.”

“My cousin bought me the plane ticket, the phone, everything. And the detention center had all of his information, so when I arrived at the airport, the police were waiting for him.”

“$250 here for strep antibiotics? In my country it’s free. Being sick here is a luxury I guess.”

I guess it is.

Migration

I tried to be an immigrant once. I failed miserably because I’m too damn American. A privileged white woman. And because it was so fucking easy just to come home after a year.

In the attempt, I cried for months. I wrote constantly about the struggle of it all. The relinquishment of our family home. The endless paperwork. The cancellation of a dream job for something that was meant to barely sustain a recent graduate, not a family of five.  Saying goodbye to the colleagues and collegiality I had shared for seven years. Saying goodbye to my family, my friends.

But it was just a farce, really. I didn’t fully fulfill my lifelong dream of Spanish fluency because I spent the majority of my days teaching English and the remainder speaking to my English-speaking family. And the money? The dream? The travels across Europe?

Nothing, I learned in those magical ten months, compares to human relationships. The relationships we’d just begun to develop with my clients, my colleagues, my friends in Spain before we had to board a plane and return to our “life.”

I tried to be an immigrant once, to step into the shoes of someone who has to drive across the country for a visa. To find an apartment. A phone plan. A rental car. A school for their children. In their second language.

I failed.

I bought five plane tickets and flew us back to America before we could blink.

Wouldn’t that be nice? To determine, after a time, that it’s just not right? That you could more or less return to your life and be the better for it? That you could pick up right where you left off, master’s degree in hand, Skype-interview-secured position waiting, to the life that you thought you wanted to leave behind?

Well, my students don’t have that choice. They have witnessed everything you can imagine and everything you couldn’t begin to imagine. They have come here with a singular thought: I cannot, I will not, return. I have stepped on that plane, that train, that three thousand miles of pain, to make this dream a reality. 

They come here to relinquish everything about what has shaped them as human beings. Their language, lisping and loving. Their food, aromatic and elegant. Their weather, pungent and tropical, arid and hot. Their religion, every day and every way. Their families. Their communities. Broken or torn, perfect or imperfect, but never enough.

And they know that they cannot look back. That, no matter the circumstance (murdered parents, no literacy, shadows of abuse, a $10,000 bail set on a cousin who came to rescue them from a detention center only to be placed in one himself), they are here. To stay.

They are the brown faces you see on every block building your garages. Hammering  your roofs. Serving your dinner. Teaching your children Spanish. Driving your Uber. Replacing your sewer line. Packing your meat. Running your school district.

Their children are your children. Impatient. Anxious. Determined.

They have come here, across the border, across the sea, across their history, to be reborn. They are no longer Hondureños, Salvadorans, Congolese, Burmese, Asian, Mexican, Iraqis.

They are intertwined into the fabric of our country, building the bridges, picking the food, bringing us hope.

And they’re not in the market to give up. To buy a plane ticket home.

To be me.

How humbling that is, to think of staying, of giving up everything for a different life. Of never being able to return.

Of never wanting to return.

Can you imagine?

And this is why my daughter has made this card. Why I have spent my evening in Walmart searching for gifts that will never replace a loving family. And why I am so heartbroken and so grateful that my students will never be me.

Have you ever tried to be an immigrant? It is impossible to imagine. To describe. To understand.

All we can really do, as her smile suggests, is build a bigger table. Open our hearts. And welcome those who may never have the privilege to look back.

 

 

 

Minutes

“Did you see that three blocks down, they’ve torn down a house and are building a mansion just like this one?” I complain on the drive up Florida Ave., noticing another mansion in place of a 1940s war home. “It’s happening. Right in our neighborhood.” Our neighborhood of 1960s NON-war, perfectly-good homes.

“Mama, all you do is complain. Do you realize that? You complain about everything.

I think for a moment. We’ve been in the car for five minutes, and this is my first complaint. Give me SOME credit.

***Three hours later.***

My youngest has her exhibition night. She presents a video with her BFF about the endlessly inevitable impacts of Westward Expansion on Native peoples. She has drawn a calming coloring page with polygons for her math class. She has developed a filter to determine how best to eliminate toxins from drinking water.

And now she is participating in a Socratic seminar, sitting in a circle with her classmates, discussing “technology,” the parents hovering on the outskirts.

In the blink of an eye, the topic moves from the dangers of texting while driving to the dangers of guns. A very well-spoken and adamant eighth grader sitting two seats down retorts, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. My father is in the military, and soldiers have learned how to handle guns respectfully. With control.”

It is 19:22 on a Thursday night. I have sat through two 90-minute classes and two meetings and one long-short drive, fixed a put-together-leftover-dinner, walked the dog, walked to this “perfect” school, and begged my husband to join me for this one last event, only to realize the intense permeation of these ideas.

***Three hours earlier***

“Do you see it, girls? Right there. The original house is gone. Only the scaffolding for a mansion in its place.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” my oldest, money-hungry oldest, demands.

“The best part of living in this neighborhood is how real the people are. How middle class they are. NOT rich. Not taking everything out from under the rest of us.”

But all the people taking everything out from under the rest of us actually surround us. They are in my youngest’s classroom. They are five miles away, intentionally driving an RV into a hijabi woman, mother and aunt to the most precious students one could ever imagine the joy of having in a classroom. They are this thirteen-year-old’s mother, who intervenes in the Socratic seminar when some students suggest that in other countries, there are no school shootings. That in America, maybe we should focus on mental health rather than providing guns to all citizens.

A bulldog, she shadows her daughter, raises her voice, raises her hefty body in a darkened stance, and indirectly threatens the eighth graders. “We as human beings… We are ALL human beings, right? You as a human being have the responsibility to get help if you have mental issues. You have the responsibility. No one else. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

I have to turn away. Suck in my breath. Stare at the wall. Clench my fists. Her teacher visibly notices my discomfort, walking towards me but not saying a word.

When I arrive home, all the news of the day is a heavy weight. My two girls who graduated nineteen months ago, who walked across Eritrea for fear of persecution, leaving their parents and home behind in search of a better life, who came to our country because their aunt lived here, who couldn’t tell me till the end of the year that the words of The Good Braider were so true for them, the protagonist counting her minutes on her cell phone, working extra hours to buy more minutes, were so true to them because they had to do the same to call home to their mother… And now?

And now some bastard who saw a hijabi Black woman walking home in the middle of a Wednesday from an ENGLISH CLASS rushed across two lanes to murder her?

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people, right?

“You’re not friends with that girl, are you?” I ask my baby daughter.

“God, no, Mama, she’s just awful.”

“OK, I’m just making sure because …” And I begin my rant about guns, the same rant they’ve heard their whole lives, the same rant that causes my middle child to hold up her hand and shout, “Enough with your opinions, Mama, it doesn’t really matter,” and then I hold up my ever-evil, ever-heartbreaking social media page where my close high school friend has to report that her Muslim son was threatened by a classmate to be shot that very afternoon, and I shout back, “It ABSOLUTELY matters, and this is why.”

It’s true. I complain about everything. I complain about injustice, and I will complain about it every minute of every day until the day I die. Injustice in the distribution of wealth. In immigration atrocities. In gun violence. In violent death from the gun of a soldier in the Middle East to the tires surrounding me in ever-so-fucking-golden-Denver.

I wish I could buy more minutes, too, just like Viola in The Good Braider. Just like Jumea and Salihah, who crossed mountains and oceans and discrimination to be given a chance that has been taken from them.

I wish I could buy more minutes of their smiles. Of how hard every immigrant I know works to build those mansions. To make this American Dream a reality. To put this darkness into perspective.

These are my minutes for today. My notes. They may sound like complaints, but they are tinged with the hope that someone will listen. Someone will donate. And someone will see that people don’t have to kill people.

 

Bio Poems

The suits came by this afternoon. We were in the midst of discussing our fears, which in a Newcomer classroom involves many pictures, much acting out, my modeling of three circled fears, and quite a bit of screaming along the decibel lines so that they could understand the subtle differences between a little scared, a lot, and TERRIFIED.

These fears would go into their Bio Poems, every English teacher’s favorite go-to poem, which seemed so much easier during my last fifteen years of teaching and seems ever-so-complicated now that I have to find emojis and facial expressions to visually demonstrate a range of emotions from happy to angry to guilty for line six, “Who feels…(list three emotions) today”.

The suits heard me scream. They peeked over the students’ shoulders for the entirety of their five-minute, who-knows-why visit. They thanked me in their usual ever-polite way and walked towards their next classroom visitation.

We get a lot of visitors. A white woman just like me and nothing like me wrote a book about our Newcomer Center, and everyone now wants to partake, to drink in her words, their struggles, and culturally tour what it’s like to learn English when your background is anywhere from illiterate in your native language to I-understand-everything-Ms.-says-but-refuse-to-verbally-communicate.

To simplify fears, I asked my students to circle their top three from a photo-supported list of superstitions, animals, insects, arachnids, the open sea, death, crowds, public speaking.

“Are you afraid of dogs?” I asked one, trying not to laugh.

“No…”

“Say the whole sentence now.”

“No, I’m not at ull ufryeed of dogs” came the reluctantly-read reply.

“Are you afraid of spiders?” I asked another.

“Yes, I’m terrif-eed of spee-ders.”

With every sentence comes a retracing of steps, a pronunciation clarification, a pointing to the word, the picture.

And with every sentence, their silent fears hung in the room waiting for the words they don’t yet know to formulate in their minds. More than death, more than the open sea, more than flying or walking under a ladder.

They fear those adults walking into our room. What are they looking for? They fear they will never see their homelands, their aunts, uncles, grandparents, ever again. Some fear they’ll never see one or the other or both parents, the ones they had to leave behind. They fear the next school year when they’ll have a full-on regular schedule and “grade-level work, as all students deserve rigor” and won’t be with me or each other for the majority of the school day. They fear their citizenship status, their asylum status, their social status in a country too complex to summarize in a few Thanksgiving lessons.

Am I imagining these fears? Am I putting words into their mouths, thoughts into their heads?

And this was just one line of our poem.

It took us two hours to write a ten-line, sentence-framed bio poem. The suits didn’t see the real struggle, the re-explanation of vocabulary such as siblings, daughter, What I miss most… They didn’t see how easily some students filled in the blanks, how carefully others penned their cardstock, how reluctantly they read aloud their poems to their partners.

They didn’t read the lines that could break their hearts. So simple, language. So complex.

In five minutes, in ten lines, in two hours, could one write a life story? Could they insert their biographies into the blank spaces so that we could all understand where they’re coming from? Could they explain to me, to the world, the fears that they carry?

No. Bio poems aren’t enough. Suits visiting for five minutes is not enough. This post is not enough.

Only their words, their many, many words in so many languages hidden behind these lines, and their faces, their multi-colored, multi-emotional faces, could begin to capture what is missing from their words.

But the suits didn’t stay to see any of that. I hope that you will stay. I hope that you will see them for who they are and not just peek over their shoulders, unaware. I hope that you will listen and take their fears right off of this page and into a better future.

I hope that you will take their fears, your fears, all of our fears, and turn them into something more than words. Something powerful. Something that we can shape into a better bio poem for all of us.