Stairway F

H was in a mood today because she wasn’t feeling well, and we all suffered. She called out her former friend and said she wouldn’t participate in the therapy session (though she did) during the first class, and in the second class, she sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and did her work without a word.

When it was time to visit the school food bank before trekking home on the train, she was definitely not up to it. I looked at my recently-arrived Afghan girl whom H has been escorting to and from school every day, and H looked right back at me. They were both standing in Stairway F, not Stairway R, the one that leads to the food bank.

“Well… are you going to wait for R to go to the food bank?” (H’s sister and brother had already fled the premises and were five blocks down Louisiana Avenue, halfway home).

“We’re going home. She can’t go home alone.” It might have been a dirty look H gave me, an exhausted look, a middle-child look.

H is from Sudan and doesn’t speak R’s language. But she lives five blocks away from her, and even though the train takes an hour to bring them both to my school, I convinced R’s caseworker that it was worth her staying, that we have a food bank and a newcomer program with three hours of English and two hours of math and a summer program and therapists and patience, and this Sudanese family that lives five blocks away who could show her how to take the train… But what they wanted was an escort, a female escort, who would make sure that she would be safe.

(When we were learning past tense verbs yesterday via a story about a man who had a bad day, my para talked H through her horrible story about her bad day, where, just like the man in the story who missed his bus, she missed her train because R was late. And H is never, never late. And she nailed those past tense verbs, her long braids that her sister entwined spilling down her back like a river of emotion.)

I had to let them walk down Stairway F. (It was just a few years back that I discovered how many stairways are in our building. They go all the way up to X, if you were wondering how a school built a hundred years ago with three additions tries to fit the world into its walls. Stairway X is in the 1987 addition with the new gym and its fancy foyer and its secret passage up to the third-floor batting cage.)

I digress.

I let them go, and I walked the rest of my class down the second-floor hallway to Stairway R, to the food bank where my most-recently-arrived Afghan boy told me the whole story, through his broken English and broken heart and the translator app on his phone, about the series of scarred slashes on his arm.

“The Taliban?”

Scars so deep that they are still pink, as if cut by a suicidal knife, as if done yesterday. He has photos on his phone from the day of the event, less than a year back, when he was working in a pharmacy that the Taliban decided to bomb, shattering the glass on all the windows, sending the glass into his forerarm, his shoulder, his soul.

“Can you walk with me through the food bank and show me how to get the food?”

The patient Wash-Park mother was making a list of new students. He didn’t know just how to add his name, but his verbal skills are over-the-top amazing.
“How many people are in your house?” I asked because the form asks.

“Twelve. In two rooms,” he informed me, holding up two fingers to prove to me he understood.

“How many children? Adults?”

“Eight children and four adults.”

And before we had walked through, before we had picked out chai tea and lentils and halal meat and handfuls of fresh vegetables, filling not one or two, but three bags for him to carry across the city on two city buses, H appeared in front of me, cutting the line with R, exhausted and sick and putting her arm around her, making sure that she had as many bags of food that she could carry home to her huge family, and…

That is what it is like to teach Newcomer English. Find your H, take the right stairway, and fill your bags with food and hope.

Ravine

My mother once fought a ravine and two strange men, and only a woman could tell you which was scarier. The dusk settling in on a rural New York night, a 30-something woman trying to maintain her health with a long walk, and a pickup truck.

Doesn’t every American nightmare begin and end with a pickup truck?

You can feel the humidity in your mouth. As thick as gnats, as thick as a cloud of mosquitoes fighting for blood. Hovering in the clouds that are the sky of the upstate, the Finger-Lake country, the I-can-get-away-with-this country. Choking you.

Telling you just what your mother told you—that you should have stayed home. That you shouldn’t have gone to college. That you should have been a housewife. That education and careers are for penises. That you aren’t really a woman if you aren’t surrounded by a cartload of kids.

And you. She. Didn’t listen. You took that 2.5-mile walk in the dusk, running your long and delicate fingernails along the cattails. Feeling that soft moisture in the air, filling your lungs with droplets as golden as the fire from the sun. Feeling your freedom of marrying a man who would never in a million years tell you not to be who you are. Just letting you.

Walk.

Walk that walk. Walk all the way around the “block”, the upstate block that stretched between a cemetery, an elementary school, houses built two hundred years back, and cornfields flooded with the life of early summer, ready to burst with golden morsels of joy.

She will tell you this story later (not much later). You are nine years old, sitting in your stone-floor kitchen, listening to her tell it.

It is the same story she told you years ago, about her mother writing the letter to the college and telling them that her daughter shouldn’t go, that women are housewives, and why would she waste her life on an education rather than raising babies?

But there’s a ravine in this story.

A ravine. Resting above Flint Creek, the creek with the black snakes in summer, the creek that freezes so hard in winter that we bring our toboggan and sled right down over its ice, the creek that is a mystery and a blessing and a danger all wrapped in a childhood built upon the backbones of exploration.

In case you were wondering, this far along… the ravine saved her.

She clung to the vines, the grass, the weeds, the green growth along the banks of that creek as if her life depended on it.

Her life depended on it.

Because on her 2.5-mile walk, at dusk, in midsummer, two men followed her and did all the things two men in a pickup truck do.

They drove forward and circled back. They blasted their radio and their diesel. They shouted and slurred.

And my mother won a full-ride scholarship for that nasty letter her mother wrote in 1972. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement, and goddamn it if someone was going to tell her or anyone that she wasn’t going to get her degree. Even if it was her mother.

And she clung to the side of that ravine, hiding her waist-length auburn curls and her 120-pound soul and her fear, until she heard that diesel drive away.

And she didn’t call the cops or cry or call my father.

She walked home and told us, my sister and father and me, the story.

And that is why I am here today, writing this.

Because she clung to the terror and came out on the other side and didn’t get raped.

And how fucking sad and amazing and heartbreaking is that ravine, that ravenous victory?

How fucking sad is that ravine?

My Last Letter to You

Dear Fabian,

I wish I had something to say to you to encapsulate how I feel right now. But the main thing I want to say is that you came into our lives at one of the most difficult times of our life, and because of that, I don’t feel that I could give you what you needed. My three daughters, but especially the older two, have been experiencing major mental health issues, and it has been very difficult for me to witness and alleviate. It has been a major strain on my own mental health.

The pandemic truly exacerbated all of this and made my job more challenging and stressful than ever before. With Izzy moving away to college, I feel a great sense of loss. And Mythili is so depressed that she doesn’t even want to consider college or find joy in anything anymore, which also weighs heavily on my soul.

I wish that you had come into my life at a different time and that I could have helped you more. But I feel so strained with my mental capacity, and I became so frustrated with your lack of motivation and adamancy against learning English and focusing on school that I couldn’t focus on anything else.

I still believe that you truly have the potential to be much more than what you give yourself credit for. You had the tenacity and courage to leave your entire family and homeland at a young age to seek an opportunity, and I hope that one day you will truly take advantage of it. If you don’t finish your education now, I hope that you will in the future after a few years of working tirelessly. I hope that you will one day have a family of your own and give them all the things you couldn’t have when you were growing up.

Mostly, I hope that you will look back at your time with us as a lesson. Not a perfect lesson, not a painless lesson, but a lesson. Everything happens for a reason. Someone left their job as the Newcomer teacher, and I took the job, and that same year, my first year, you came into my classroom and told me your story, and I wanted to help you, and I tried my best. I’m sorry that my best wasn’t good enough, but I hope that one day if someone stands before you and offers you all that we have offered you, you will work one hundred times harder to show how much you want it.

Speak the words, one at a time. Study the lessons, one at a time. Make small goals, one at a time.

Love yourself, bit by bit. You must start with that. Just take everything one day, one hour, one moment at a time, and you will find yourself a brighter future.

I will always love you and hold you in my heart, and I am sorry that it must end this way. I wish nothing but the best for you, and I hope that you don’t completely cut me out of your life. I want to hear about your successes, your failures, your loves and losses… your life. Because I want you to have a good life.

Love,

The Mama You Didn’t Want (But Needed)

Dear Fabian

I just want you to know that I tried my best. I loved you the best way I know how. I tried to show you the world–Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, Kentucky… Skiing in beautiful places. Camping under the stars.

I tried to make you a part of my family.

I tried to show you that structure and discipline are the way to a successful life.

I tried to save your money so you could have a future. You would have had $13,000 to start your life. Out of the $9000 I gave you, I likely spent $5000 trying to include you. To show you these beautiful things, places, and experiences. To send money, thousands of dollars, home to your family in Honduras. To love you. To offer you a safe home and stability.

I barely knew you, and I took you into my home.

And you lit a match and burned it all.

I hope to God you learn from this and treat the people in your future better.

I hope to God the next time someone changes their entire life to accommodate you, you show more respect. You WORK YOUR ASS OFF to use your intelligence for your future. You shut down your stubborn ass, ask for help, and apply yourself one hundred percent to work, education, and discretion.

I hope that one day, if you ever go back, you look at the Grand Canyon and say, in utter amazement and gratitude, “Thank you for taking me to this ever-stretching, carved-over-thousands-of-years glory, and sharing its beauty with me.”

I hope you learn from your mistakes and make something out of your life.

Nothing and no one is stopping you.

It’s all on you.

And don’t burn your bridges next time.

You and Me at Twenty

Now I am a hypocrite to myself. As a Taurean, this hurts more than you will ever know. Because I said I would never, and now I have.

I have asked you to leave.

When I was twenty, the age you are now, I married my husband. We were already living together. We scraped together enough money between his pitiful Airman’s salary and my two part-time nanny jobs to pay our bills and put on a small wedding. He was already fully an adult, calling the bank daily to be assured of his balance, setting up online payments before the rest of the world knew how to do so.

I know he isn’t you and I am not you, and that he and I had a calm childhood, raised as regular kids by two parents in middle-class America, and not as feral cats in gang-ridden Honduras, and that you have a million excuses and valid reasons for your childish behavior.

I know that, and I’ve been using your background as justification for your behavior for the past two years. Justification to keep you here after stealing our car. Refusing to clean your room for so many months that it looked and smelled like a homeless encampment. Ignoring our house rules by staying up all hours of the night talking on the phone and preparing food. Not taking school seriously. Shirking tutoring. Refusing to speak even one word of English. Taking all the money we’ve carefully saved for your future and burning through it faster than we can count it.

And in a year, when you turn twenty-one, will you magically change? Will you mature? Between now and then, would you speak English? Sit with me and set up a spreadsheet to count and organize your spending habits? Regularly attend classes and study for the exam that would give you a diploma? Set an alarm so as not to miss extremely important immigration appointments?

Learned behavior. I know. Learned from a childhood of chaos, never going to school regularly, searching the garbage for food for you and your sisters because your mother could never keep or find consistent work. Playing in the streets till all hours of the night. Trying to avoid gang initiation. Trying to get by.

You learned so many things in your childhood. Most of all, you learned how much you wanted to have a better life, and that is why you came here.

And I tried to give you a better life.

I tried to teach you English, but you prefer to speak to me in Spanish. I tried to take you to beautiful places, but you complained about long drives and boring views. I tried to include you in my family, but you called them cold and never used an English word with them. I tried to emphasize the importance of education over all else, but you goofed off in class and played on your phone. I tried to save your money, but you got your hands on it and lit it on fire.

I know, I know. I’m not being asset-based. I’m looking at your deficits.

Let’s take a look at your assets.

You can learn. You are intelligent and capable. You eat any food we prepare without complaint. You exercise regularly. You maintain many friendships. You can repair your own bike. You learned how to ski after just one day. You have a beautiful smile. You help me with heavy things because you are stronger than anyone in the house. You can sing. And you can read and write despite being brought up by illiterate parents and never consistently attending school. You care deeply about your family back home and plan to take care of them forever.

But I can’t take care of you forever.

What was my breaking point? The money or the mama comment or the night in the midst of a hellish week when you woke me yet again?

It was all of these things and more. Mostly, it was just one thing: you just won’t try.

And I have failed in many ways, and I have lived in situations I have hated, and I have been in toxic relationships, and I have something inside me that makes me want to get out of that, to work harder, to find a better place, to end the toxicity.

But you won’t.

So I will.

I’m sorry that I lied to both you and myself, that you didn’t want another mother, and that you couldn’t just grab hold of the opportunities in front of you and see your one-in-a-million chance.

I hope that you will grab hold of the next one, fully sink your teeth into it, and live the dream you imagined when you took all those trains and crossed that river and came to this country.

I really hope you will.

My Classroom at Lunch

My classroom at lunch is typically a cacophony of teenage sounds. Shrieks about hangman clues, laughter that spills into the hallways, bitter rants about schedules or rules, quiet giggles over Instagram reels, outspoken conversations about everything ranging from trans rights to how much COVID has forever virally impacted us.

Over the years, so many students have spilled in and out of my classroom at lunch. Those introverted immigrants too afraid to try English, hiding in the back corner of my room with their Chromebooks watching YouTube clips of soap operas or music videos from back home. Those outgoing misfit groups who just want a place to do handstands or speak their own languages at the tops of their lungs. Those kids, always those kids who need a place to eat lunch, crying and laughing and singing and just.

Living.

My classroom at lunch was just a shadow of its former self today. Rio, my baby, sat in her usual spot in the back of the room, no friends surrounding her as she popped in her headphones and watched her videos. My colleague did the same at the desk she shared with me. Mythili had already gone home, too distraught and exhausted to even speak to her friends.

Instead, a string of teary-eyed bodies entered and exited, their voices caught in their throats, their arms open for sobbing, open-hearted embraces that lasted seconds, minutes…

“I guess it’s better to be here than at home because my mom couldn’t stop crying this morning.”

“I’ve never really dealt with death, so I don’t even know how I’m supposed to react or feel right now.”

“Remember that time when she…”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“If we ditch class, I just need to call my mom, and we have to be back for rehearsal. I’m glad we’re just reading lines today and I don’t have to act out a scene with Percy Jackson with tears streaming down my face.”

The hugs continue, the voices whisper, the tears disappear, and lunch comes to its usual end with the clock and the bell. No one smiles. No one looks back. No one in the hallway knows as that shuffling-to-class cacophony fills our ears and our broken hearts with the unwelcoming sounds of blissful ignorance.

And me? I still have three classes to teach to my Newcomers after a morning of running around testing various students on their national English proficiency exam, meanwhile making adaptations to lessons for my co-teachers, planning for my own classes, and responding to the string of emails about finding a new home for this boy who has lived with us for the past two years.

The weight of the words, the weight of the lack of words, from my classroom at lunch sits with me all afternoon as we learn about our favorite weather and I try, in the simplest English possible, to explain to my Arabic-speaking Sudanese and Yemeni immigrants the history of Martin Luther King, slavery, and the horrors of America. (Always a combination of cultural understanding and functional English, teaching Newcomers).

When I come home, Mythili won’t even look at me or talk to me. She hasn’t called her therapist as I asked her to do. She’s ready to go to her Noodles and Company job and screams at me to get out of her room and I just walk out and let her go to work without saying goodbye because what if I were to retaliate and when I wake up in the morning and go into her room, I find her dead, just like her friend’s mother did yesterday?

The friend in this picture, the truly lost soul.

My classroom at lunch was too quiet today.

Quiet doesn’t capture it. Quiet doesn’t capture the months between this photo and now when Mythili and her friends begged her to get help. To go to therapy. To rehab. When time and time again, she refused.

When her mother told me, “Everything about this stage in her life is ugly. Her clothes are ugly. Her attitude is ugly. Her grades are ugly. It’s just ugly.” And I wanted to shake her and tell her to shut up and to stop thinking of her kid that way. But I didn’t know her, and I didn’t. I didn’t do a thing, a goddamn thing.

When, a few months back, Mythili and her friends tried to set boundaries, telling her that she couldn’t use only her friends for therapy, she took too many drugs, ended up in the hospital, and her first reaction after her release was to explicitly threaten Mythili, promising to track her down and tear her from limb to limb.

Silence in all these months, Mythili doing the only things she could do–blocking her from her social media, filing an unfulfilled protective order against her, removing her from her contacts.

But you can’t block your memories. You can’t block out all those nights Mythili spent at her house, trying to console her, trying to convince her not to take any more drugs, trying to be all the love in the world that she felt she never had.

You can’t block that cacophony of heartbreak that will come into your classroom at lunch.

All these fragile and broken souls and all that they carry with them and all that they will see and do and witness in this awful world we’ve thrown at them.

You can’t bring her back. You can’t bring back the words. The friendship. The torment.

You can only hope to see that smile on your daughter’s face again. That childlike smile of pure joy that was lost for so long. You can only hope for peace in her heart, for friendships that will build her up instead of breaking her down, for the happy, jubilant voices of hope that fill a room.

That once filled my classroom at lunch.

Gratitude/Gratitud/يشكر

I was searching for a knife and I found myself standing in the ceramics room of chaos, otherwise known as Art Room Lunch.

Don’t worry. The knife was for a pie, not anything sinister. And it was a butter knife covered in clay, easily washed off in one of the many sinks, ready to cut through my store-bought pumpkin pie.

Yes, I wrote the words. Store-bought.

I cringe to even think of the admission. At least my cranberry sauce was homemade because God forbid I sell my entire soul to consumerism and mediocrity.

It was in the ceramics room, searching for and washing the knife, that I had a conversation with myself. Not my actual self, of course. My colleague. My friend. My self of fifteen years ago, when I had three tiny girls at home and it seemed all they did was scream… or, at least, cry to spend more time with me. When I couldn’t talk to my husband without a child between my legs, clinging to my breast, or pulling at my shirttail.

And it was so hard.

And here I am now, searching for a knife because between my two jobs and four teens I can’t seem to remember to bring one. My baby drove me to work this morning. My BABY. Fifteen, prepared to be the first of three to get her license on her sixteenth birthday, nine months out. My baby who, when I used to come home from work, wouldn’t let me leave the couch for a good ninety minutes. She needed to cuddle. To read stories. To nurse. To pet the kitty and the puppy. To be wholly mine since I took myself away from her for nine hours a day.

And now? She needs me to “chill” when I gasp at a too-sharp turn of the wheel. To allow her sleepovers on a whim and cash for shopping whenever I have it. To be sure I mention her name whenever I say that my daughters bake the Thanksgiving pies.

But most of the time, as with the other three, she is in her room. I hardly see her. She is FaceTiming friends or watching Friends. My middle is working or Instagramming. My oldest is away at college. And the boy we’ve taken in? He’s on the phone in his room.

There is no screaming. No clinging. If I want to have a conversation with my husband, I don’t have to call him on the way home from work, as my colleague told me today. I can just shut the door to our bedroom. No one will open it. Or we can talk while we walk the dog. We can take a tiny trip to Estes Park. We can talk in the morning, hours before our teens pop their eyes open, and no one will ever know.

No one will ever know how lonely it can be, without the screaming. The crying. The needing.

But I can’t say this to her. She is giving me a knife, and I have a pie to cut. Carne asada, tacos al pastor, shawarma, arepas, patacones, lasagna, and the life I live are waiting for me back in my own classroom.

Yet my lunchtime conversation is just what I needed. I needed to see a roomful of kids trying to shape ferns and mushrooms out of balls of clay. A distraught mother trying to navigate the work/life balance. The vibrant life of humans humming and thinking and creating and loving.

Living.

Because sometimes it feels like it’s just me. Just them. Just all of us. Alone in our rooms with the doors shut.

And sometimes, all we need is a butter knife and a slice of pumpkin pie, store-bought or not, to bring some gratitude to this Thanksgiving table.

This Thanksgiving life.