love, in Portugal:
these perfect pastries, melted;
now just down the block
love, in Portugal:
these perfect pastries, melted;
now just down the block
He doesn’t tell me over the phone when I call him on Valentine’s night to ask for the wifi password for the cabin we’re staying at. Not after twenty minutes of Google-Siri-searching for how to share a password so our son can call his real parents at the appointed 8-o’clock time, something impossible to do without WhatsApp or wifi in this middle-of-nowhere mountain town.
He doesn’t make me a card or buy me flowers.
The next day, when three of us return from a bluebird ski day, he tells me he has started the taxes, but that he was tired, his back hurt, and he got discouraged and bored.
I make a list in my head of what he hasn’t done: thought of what to fix for dinner, gone to the store to buy the cheesecake ingredients for our daughter’s birthday, done the laundry, told the remaining-at-home-children to do some semblance of chores that would peel them away from their screens.
I take our son, alone, to the Honduran restaurant for our Valentine redo.
No one else wants to go.
On Sunday, I do all the things while Bruce visits his friend for hours. Walk the dog. Fight the weekend grocery store crowds to buy not only the cheesecake ingredients, but everything else on the list that’s accrued in the three days since we’ve visited, because with six people living under this roof, why the hell not? Start, fold, and finish three loads of laundry. Throw together the soon-to-be-cracked cheesecake and read, appallingly, that it is an eight-hour, not four-hour, cool time. Put raspberry compote on the stove to overflow for forty-five minutes. Scrub the shit out of the glass cooktop for another fifteen.
He won’t take the time to come with me to see Bernie because it took me thirteen years just to convince him to vote and another nine to push him farther left, but he still doesn’t have any faith in the future, let alone a singular politician who has spent his entire adult life fighting for people unlike himself.
He won’t come with me to waste all of our money on indoor skydiving, Izzy’s birthday gift, even though it would have been nice to have a second parent, like all the other families there, to take still shots while I took the video.
Instead he grumbles about how he wished we’d just bought the cheesecake from the New York deli instead of me making it because “You pay so that it’s perfect.”
Because mine is not.
Before he drops me at the light rail, he argues with me before reluctantly agreeing to apologize for the remark.
We go to bed with few words and wake throughout the night to the giggling screams of Izzy’s sleepover, each of us texting and yelling at her to stop.
We wake at the sound of his alarm set two hours too early.
I begin it all again. Walk the dog. Fix the breakfast. Put away the dishes.
Ten minutes before he needs to leave for work, I whimper as I say, “We only have one year left of her childhood,” and wipe tears to walk into the dining room. He follows me and pours out the brutal truth of his three-day grump.
“My boss told me on Friday that they’re going to cut four positions. No more voluntary cuts. Involuntary. Two of the positions include my job title.”
His voice cracks as he continues the long explanation of every possibility, and I see now that he has been carrying this load all weekend, fuck Valentine’s Day, fuck our daughter’s birthday, fuck all that is right with the world.
I think about what Bernie said last night, what I didn’t catch on video: “We all have families. And every family has problems. We are in this together. We are in this to think about and support everyone’s families, not just our own.”
And I know what Bruce carries is more than the likely possibility of him losing his job. It is the weight of this presidency, this evil presidency that plagues our society and keeps us from moving ahead just when we think we can move ahead.
I immediately think of two years ago when this loomed over our heads, and all the bitterness and anxiety entailed in those two months of stress and anticipation.
I think of the four years of ski passes. The six weeks in Spain. The three-four-week family vacations we have taken. The ski weekends. The going out to eat. The boy living in our basement.
And I know that all of those things combined might add up to a year of his salary if only we had saved the money.
Yet, for that one year of safety net, we had five years of living like kings after ten years of living paycheck to paycheck, and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.
I am so angry at him for not having hope. For trying to carry this weight for an entire weekend when I would have unloaded everything the moment I heard.
I am so in love with him for trying (quite pathetically) to protect me for two extra days because he knew that all I would do is spend most of the day up inside the bedroom trying to hide my tears from the girls.
Our good health insurance will be gone, and we can’t even begin to pay our mortgage on my salary, let alone everything else.
But it’s out there now. He’ll come home tonight to our magical Costco Caesar salad, wish our daughter happy birthday, and act like nothing is wrong.
And we will find a way to make this work. Because twenty-two years in, that is what we do.
Spain-exploring, childbearing, child-adopting, paycheck-to-paycheck, ski-trip, road-trip, voting-and-hoping, working-not-working, accruing-and-paying-debts…
That is what we do.
Tears or not. Silence or not. Apology or not.
That is what we do.
I remember newspapers for a week filled with grisly details,
journalists flooding our city like vampires in search of storied blood
I remember crying all day on my twenty-first birthday,
the tears permanent streaks of worry on my cheeks.
I remember thinking, How can I become a teacher now?
and, Nothing could be worse than this.
I remember that it was ten miles from my home,
with faces just like my own now plastered on screens across the world.
I remember thinking that it could never happen again,
that with this media spotlight on the atrocity, it wouldn’t.
I remember my first lockdown, two years later,
kids huddled alongside me under desks like rats in a sewer.
I remember the silent votes of every white man and woman
in charge of our devolving society that grips guns like lifeblood.
I remember clutching my six-year-old child for hours
after twenty of her American peers were murdered
for the love of the Second Amendment.
I remember living in Spain where the scariest sound
was an infantile firecracker celebrating El Día de San Juan
and every door was open for the world to walk into
what it might be like to Not. Be. Afraid.
I remember when I once believed that someone would shout,
Enough is enough! and Congress would listen
instead of filling their pockets with NRA dollars.
I remember my high school in the ‘bad neighborhood,’
before a police officer stood at the door,
before I’d ever heard the word lockdown,
before I even knew what we would become.
A few years ago, in search of something smaller to carry on road trips, I went to my typical “fashion” store, the Goodwill, and came across a perfectly small, just-big-enough-for-a-phone-and-some-gum, Polo Ralph Lauren purse. For $2. I popped it into my cart with my typical Goodwill assortment of work blouses and pants, and have been using it ever since. It fits perfectly into the console of my Pilot, can easily be crammed inside a carryon bag to bring onboard for a weekend getaway, and is light on my shoulder. It is the first, and last, “designer” purse I will ever own, and it is nothing special. It’s made from variations of polyester inside and out, though it has a reliable zipper. Compared to other, cheaper purses I’ve had over the years, I wouldn’t put my money on designer brands.
I suppose this purse, in retrospect, has now cost me 105 euros and two nights with very little sleep.
Because it was the purse, my Polo Ralph Lauren purse, that caught the eye of a petty thief as it sat blatantly (blatantly empty, I might add), on the passenger seat of our rental car while we carried seventy pounds of luggage into our latest Spanish apartment in Huelva.
Everyone has told me this. Passersby watching my two younger daughters scramble to lay on layers of packaging tape over the small triangle of broken glass at 20:30 on a Saturday night when we were supposed to go to dinner (it turns out dinner in Spain is an hour later anyway, so by the time we arrived in the restaurant at 21:00, we actually beat the long line of hungry customers that would soon make its way down the parkway). “¿Que pasó? ¿Ocurrió aquí? ¿Que tuviste adentro?¨ I heard the same questions when I texted Andrea, the Airbnb caretaker who assured me that this area is ¨muy tranquilo¨and nothing like this has ever happened before, and what did I have inside the car to grab a thief´s attention?
Where did we get the packaging tape at 20:15 on a Saturday night? A small detail of my travels in Spain: having lived here for a year has helped me tremendously with tiny bits of knowledge that are crucially important for moments like this—bazars, or more commonly called chinos—are Chinese-run everything stores that are even open on Sundays when the entirety of Huelva is camped out on the five-mile beach.
I speak enough Spanish to ask for tape, for scissors, to explain to the passersby that it was my Polo Ralph Lauren purse that the thief could see. I speak enough Spanish to explain the whole situation to Andrea, but I am lacking one word as to why I don’t have insurance that will cover this: what’s the difference between a lease and a rental?
I speak enough Spanish to text the owner of the apartment later and tell him the pilot light is out on the natural gas water heater, but even after he texts me photo-supported directions, I can’t seem to light the flame. He calls and coaches me through in such rapid-fire Castellano that I become flustered and am unable to explain what I have done wrong, so, alas, Andrea saves the day for me once again, walks over and lights the flame within seconds.
I speak enough Spanish to understand that on Sunday, everything is closed, and the only thing we can put our money towards are some tapas y postres, not window glass. Mythili and I make our way back to the bazar to find their version of Drano after I have spent half the morning trying to unclog the kitchen sink with a tiny and handy plunger kept under the sink because I can’t bear to make another report about something else gone wrong.
I speak enough Spanish to hear the word cerveza from the man walking up and down the beach with an ice cream cart, and I buy three because the sun is kind in the late afternoon, the beach is full of shells, and Mythili, the only child who would step out of the apartment with me today, is having great conversations with me about how much weddings cost and what types of jellyfish exist in the world and how many shells she thinks she can collect by the end of the week.
I speak just enough Spanish to explain to Jose, Andrea’s friend and owner of the ironically-named CarGlass shop (Andrea tripped over this title many times when she was explaining the location of the shop), that I have an arrendamiento (thank you Google translate), not a rental, that they wanted to charge me 3000 euros for insurance, and can I just pay for it myself?
I speak enough Spanish, with a few stops and bouts of “más despacio”, to sign the paperwork Jose lays out for me, to shell out another 105 euros, to praise the good lord that, once the thief broke the window and saw only a selfie stick inside my Polo Ralph Lauren purse, he decided not to take anything at all. Not even the purse. (He probably realized it was just crap polyester like everything else on this godforsaken planet).
But I don’t have the words, in any language, to describe how challenging traveling with my three girls has been this year. They have reached the tipping point of childhood exuberance melted into adolescent angst, and nothing, it seems, is quite what they want to do.
I have no other adult in the house to help me light that llama, no one to plunge the sink, no one to commiserate with me at 4:00 a.m. when my oldest wakes me by talking to her boyfriend back home, no one to wash up Riona’s puke from eating mussels before the sun rises on a Sunday morning. No one to stand by my side and say, “We didn’t fly across the world for you to sit in an apartment all day and night.”
That little triangle of broken glass has brought fear and doubt to a trip that is already plagued by fear and doubt. While at the beach, I tell Mythili I am afraid to go in the water with her and leave our stuff, because what if someone steals it? “Don’t turn into that, Mama. No one ever steals anything from you, as you always say, case in point with the purse.”
But I speak enough Spanish to understand Jose, when he arrives at his shop at 8:52 on a Monday morning and I am already waiting, come right up to me and say, “Ud. Es Karen, la amiga de Andrea?” Because yes. We are already friends.
I speak enough Spanish to read the bar-coded descriptions of historical points in Huelva as I pull them up on my phone, learning about Cristobal Colon, ship building, and industry while treating myself to pretty views of modern architecture, shady parks, and perfectly placed fountains.
I speak enough Spanish to navigate another day here, to order goat cheese with honey AND jam, to laugh with Mythili at the botched menu translation of squid meatballs as “squid balls.”
The words I need to find, words that could never fit in my car, my Huelvan apartment, my Polo Ralph Lauren purse, are the words of a lonely traveler, a neglected mother, one who just wanted one last glorious summer with her girls before they got too big, only to realize and accept, nearly home by now, that they are already too big.
I still have my Polo Ralph Lauren purse. My selfie stick. My gum. Jose is fixing my CarGlass, so by 18:00, the girls and I can pile in the Peugeot and arrive at the beach well before sunset and late enough to “not have to swim or get sandy.”
I still have the Spanish words I will need to navigate the next two weeks.
I still have the three girls with me, moody or not, and I know in my heart that they will one day look back at this crazy Spanish adventure and be grateful for it.
And no matter what fears and doubts have traveled with me across the world, I still have these views, and they are worth more than the price of broken glass, a Polo Ralph Lauren purse, a scam of an arrendamiento.
No thief or child could take them from me.
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.
You can enter any cafe in Spain and you will probably find the same two drinks: cheap Pilsner beer and local wine (OK, you can at least choose between red and white!). The Spanish palette for mixed drinks is limited to adding liqueur to coffee, it seems, and their availability of decent beer choices is abominable. But when it comes to education, Spaniards love a good cocktail.
Here are some instructions for making an educational cocktail, shaken, not stirred.
1. Homogeneous groups of students segregated by ability who remain together all day long for years at a time, and are allowed to choose their own seats.
2. Heterogeneous teachers who range in age, management, and educational methodology.
3. A school building that does not provide resources such as technology, textbooks, government-funded lunch, or air conditioning.
1. Place all students in one classroom. Wait for intermittently ringing bells that will shake them up out of their seats while teachers dance through hallways crowded with other teachers and random students who have PE that period, to arrive and wrap the students up in a somewhat-chilled glass with a pinch of salt along the rim.
2. Spend three hours each week trying to settle the above shaking, using the cold stirrer of the teacher’s little authority to embed knowledge enough of one subject area to make a decent mixed drink, full of flavor and memorable enough to spill out onto the streets with jubilation.
3. Subdue them on four occasions per trimester with exams that make up the stark majority of their grades, consisting of arduous essay questions, but only about ten per exam. Their flavors will bleed through classes so that they will begin to taste more like eraser remnants than a decently mixed drink.
4. Shake up the cocktail a little just when the school year is getting cold by surprising only select groups of students in one grade of primary and one of secondary with the annual government test, whose topics, flavors, and question amounts you will never know or begin to be able to prepare for, similar to visiting the cafes in every city in Spain who may or may not have a menu, use local vocabulary non-translatable in any software to identify food items, and whose waiters never return after bringing you your order. (Surprise, surprise, we all like to guess what it is we’re bringing to our lips!)
5. If the cocktail spills, you may clean it up and refill it once, for free, but only once. After that, you will be run dry and stuck in the same situation as the rest of the third world: working shit jobs for little pay.
Alas, you can always look back at your educational experiences and say that you had the best mixed drink of all time: moving through the school system in Spain!
I’m thinking about Spain tonight. Not just because I’m already planning our summer road trip across the Iberian Peninsula. Not because Castellano is on the tip of my tongue–because it’s not.
I’m thinking about the garage full of trash bags that I gave to the Goodwill before we went to Spain. Old toys, books, clothes, unwanted small appliances, furniture, shoes, pillows… JUNK. About fitting our lives in five giant suitcases, five backpacks, and an airplane across the sea. About coming back to all of our items left in our house… that was no longer ours.
The piano. The maple nightstands that stood on either side of my parents’ bedroom in that custom-built two-story in upstate New York. The dining set we picked out soon after our wedding, its oak pedestal and matching chairs a testament to the solidity of our marriage. The most comfortable recliners a body could rest in.
Our beds. Our patio set. Our entertainment center. Every last comfort, joy… empty from our rental house upon our return.
How we begged and borrowed items to make a home once we returned from Spain. How we spent the “advance” of my first salary to buy double-over-double bunk beds so that our girls might share a room.
How, when we went there, with everything packed in luggage, we had to adapt to uncomfortable furniture, to a mattress on the floor for a bed, to no closets, no bath, no extra bathroom, no dryer, no dishwasher, no place to fit our lives into.
And how our girls… adapted. How they made friends, made paper cutouts to decorate the walls, painted ceramic eggs from the “Chino” to hang on the tiny plastic Christmas tree we found in the wardrobe, sat next to one of the space heaters during rainy winter months when the wind whipped through the frail windows, learned how to wash dishes and wait hours for clothes to dry and speak Castellano more fluently than me by year’s end.
And the aftereffects of Spain, of moving out… and moving back. Of trying to pick up the pieces of the life we’d left, trying to reposition ourselves amongst our friends, our family, our view of the world, trying new careers and new colleagues and a new house that was ours… and wasn’t ours.
That is why. Spain is why, five years later, we can make space in our two-bathroom, five-bedroom home for six other people. Why when I drove a couple miles today to pay a neighbor $80 for an extra refrigerator, her jaw dropped when I said what it was for, her “For Sale” sign in the yard of a house just like mine because she, her husband and two boys “just need more space.” Why, after sharing one bedroom for a year and one bathroom and one suitcase full of clothes, my girls could move things over, purge, split their beds, their time, their Americanness, to make room for a whole other family in our home.
I may not have learned Castellano. I may not have r’s rolling off of my tongue. My girls may not remember more than what a croqueta is.
But they know what it means to make a sacrifice. To give up a piece of themselves. To move. To transition. To lose and gain friends. To try new foods and new schools and new sleeping arrangements.
That is why this revised chore chart, designed by Mythili and with input from six other voices, is my picture for today.
There is beauty in those three Expo colors. Compromise. Adjustment. Initiative.
On a rainy October day when I was a child, my parents stopped in a small Massachusetts town on our way home from my uncle’s ski lodge in Vermont so that we could visit a Norman Rockwell exhibit. My mother had always loved growing up and looking at his realistic paintings on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, and he had spent some time in the town where they were hosting the exhibit.
That weekend was one of the few where we were invited to pretend, via a fancy ski lodge in Vermont that boasted a sauna and private pond, that we were rich. We’d met our extended family there: aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. The kids all slept on mattresses in the loft, the adults took one of the four bedrooms, and my uncle took the owner’s apartment with a separate entrance at the bottom of the house. We’d play in the woods, race around the pond, braid our hair on the deck, and enjoy an array of delicious food that each family contributed to.
And then we’d drive home to our house in upstate New York, away from it all–the pond, the food, the family… the wealth.
But on that particular Columbus Day, after meandering through the Rockwell exhibit and google-eyeing all the paintings, my mother and father hemmed and hawed over one of their favorite prints: Homecoming. It sat in the gift shop at the end of the exhibit, covered in glass, matted, and lined with a simple silver frame. I don’t remember how much it cost; it may have been $20 or $100, but no matter the amount, it was too much. We didn’t have extra money for luxuries like this–art for the wall??–when we were driving a 10-year-old rusted out Datsun across three states for a weekend getaway provided by my rich uncle.
“What do you think?” my mother asked.
“It’s up to you,” my father responded.
And so the print was rung up, wrapped in brown paper, and carried across the shiny black parking lot through streaks of rain. My mother carefully stacked it atop our possessions at the back of the Datsun and we weaved our way through northeastern storms back home.
As soon as the painting appeared on the wall in our living room, I became obsessed with it. The details. So many faces!! How could he fit so many faces into such a small painting? The redheaded family with open arms, welcoming their WWII soldier home. The old brick tenement and naked trees filled with dirty children. The multi-sized shirts and shorts hanging from the line. The girl pressed against the corner wall, ready to surprise him. The gratitude in everyone’s eyes after the weary war years.
I used to try to count the people. 19? 22? 20? There were silhouettes hidden in the shadows of the apartment’s windows, and it was difficult to determine exactly how many there could be. Homecoming became an ongoing mystery: How did he paint this? How many people did he mean for there to be? How long was the boy at war?
My grandfather, a mostly silent and grumpy man, had survived that war. Was his reception like this one–so filled with emphatic joy that all would be forgotten?
I doubted it.
I saw everything in that painting. The desire. The poverty. The hope.
It hangs in my house now because my mother tired of it, earned more money, moved on to different art, and because she knew how much I loved it as a child.
I pass by it on my way out the door in the morning. Sometimes I play the game with my girls–how many people are in the painting? It witnesses all our guests, all our arguments, all the laughter and joy and chaos that are our lives.
And in these ominous days since the election, it bears witness to my hopelessness. I fold laundry and cook dinner while listening to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, one of the many books I have read about WWII. This one has yet another perspective–that of the takeover of France and the secret groups that defied the Nazis to try to stop the war. It focuses on women–women who had to host German soldiers in their family homes while their husbands were prisoners of war. Women who took risks to save the lives of fallen RAF British pilots. Women who had to wait in line for hours for food rations. Women who had to turn in their radios–their only communication with the outside world–and be prisoners in their own homes.
I think about, walk by, and examine Rockwell’s painting as I listen to Hannah’s words. As I remember that dreary day when we bought the print, knowing my parents’ meager salaries couldn’t really afford it. I imagine what it must have been like for my grandparents, living through the daily sacrifices that encompass a war.
I imagine what it might be like for us. As news floods in daily with human rights stripped away piece by piece, with constant comparisons to Nazi Germany, how can I avoid it?
How can I not put myself in that painting, arms open, ready to welcome home my long lost soldier?
Will there be a day in my lifetime that I am there, really there? Maybe one of the silhouettes in the back corner of the window, ready to finally come out?
Will there be an end to this madness that is only just beginning?
Will our country, our people, our democracy, ever have a homecoming?
I cannot answer these questions, just as I cannot accurately count the number of heads Rockwell painted. I can only guess. I can only imagine.
I can only hope that our homecoming is just around the corner, just like that redheaded girl, waiting for her savior to wrap his arms around her.
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.
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.