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.

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.

Road Trip 2022, Day Eleven: Cades Cove

a magical place:
the only way to describe
these teenage smiles
even pup loves it 
cycling past wildlife
below the Smokies
where can you see bears
and collect salamanders
under the same sun?
this mountain-framed pic
taken on the same soil
twenty-three years past
we’re fatter, older
while the mountains are hotter;
such is life—sad changes
yet look at our girls
fearlessly taking this on
one moon-wing a time

Road Trip 2022, Day Eleven: Cades Cove

a magical place:
the only way to describe
these teenage smiles
even pup loves it 
cycling past wildlife
below the Smokies
where can you see bears
and collect salamanders
under the same sun?
this mountain-framed pic
taken on the same soil
twenty-three years past
we’re fatter, older
while the mountains are hotter;
such is life—sad changes
yet look at our girls
fearlessly taking this on
one moon-wing a time

Road Trip 2022, Day Ten: Gaps

through Cumberland Gap
we drive down to Tennessee
and stand in three states
it’s been many years
(the gap between visits here)
and everything’s changed
Pappy’s room is new
with the antique furniture
from their grandparents
a whole new kitchen 
to fill Donna’s empty nest
with the light of love
this generation 
will take the time to teach them
and fill in the gaps
they’ll learn who came first,
what they fought for, what they lost;
close gaps, open eyes

A Boy of Eighteen Years

So many nights of no sleep lost to you. It’s all I can think about on this rainy Wednesday, my mother’s birthday, a cool rain that kept me awake with the endless thoughts of your cold cell, your cold refusal, and my cold ignorance.

Here I sit in my mostly empty classroom, the students done for the year, or done till Monday for me, when I give up three weeks of my summer to give my Newcomers a chance to see the city, learn how to fill out a job application, make a budget, make a meal together.

Remember last year when I tried to get you to come to the program and you blew it off half the time, arrived late when you came, never took notes, and flirted with all the girls instead of paying attention?

You were like that from the beginning. When I called Bruce and asked him if I could bring you home two and a half years ago, he said to me, “But you barely know the kid… and how do you know what he’s really like?” And my gut sank, and I sucked in my breath because you had been nothing but apathetic, misbehaving trouble from the moment you walked in. But I didn’t tell Bruce that. Because you were a boy of eighteen years, and you needed a chance, a home, and someone to believe in you.

I just got into an argument with a colleague about this intuition I have which he claims can’t be true: that I almost always can tell just who a person is within one or two meetings, and I am almost always right.

I was right about you and wrong about myself, and I sacrificed more than two years of my family’s happiness trying to show you that you could take hold of a different way of looking at the world.

But all you wanted was that damn car, that speed, that recklessness that drives so many young boys into cells and gun stores.

And who’s to stop them?

When my husband donned his high school cap and gown after a tumultuous educational experience, having been held back in second and fifth grades then promoted halfway through seventh and barely passing eighth, he walked right across that stage and across our country to San Antonio, just down the road from Uvalde, to don a uniform and learn how to shoot a rifle in the Air Force and begin a career that he would later abandon.

He was a boy of eighteen, just like you were when you came to my house, just like Salvador Ramos, Payton Gendron, Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa, all the boys whose faces I feel I have somehow met in my classroom or otherwise, but he didn’t join the military so he could blow things up and learn how to shoot.

He enlisted because he wanted a future for himself that didn’t involve working in his daddy’s shadow at the cotton mill, because he couldn’t see himself in college, because he wanted the safety and security that so many of us crave.

And is he so different now, twenty-six years later, the father of my three children, the detail-oriented Airman First Class who checks our credit score with the regularity of the rising sun?

Older, yes. Jaded, a little. More liberal? Of course (he’s married to me).

But he is still that boy who knew better than to argue with a cop or buy a gun or bully girls on the Internet.

And he didn’t have your background, and we can all blame these backgrounds till we’re blue in the face. But what of the backgrounds of the two boys who started this sickness, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who came from the perfect middle-class life?

What possesses an 18-year-old boy to choose to forgo a decent future for a life of crime, or worse, death by mass shooting?

I was thinking about all these boys, all these shooters, before you called me from jail the other day. And I know that you think I shouldn’t compare you to them, but I can’t help it. Not because I think you would do that, but because I’m afraid you will.

You have the same tendencies. Resistance to authority. Self-entitlement. High-school burnout. Internet addiction. Recklessness. Ingratitude.

Maybe, just like those boys, you would claim that no one has ever loved you. Or that every adult in your life has failed you. Or that you’re better now than you were when you were younger.

I don’t know what your reasons are. I will never know. I will never understand how an eighteen-year-old boy can walk into a gun store and buy 362 rounds of ammunition to kill fourth-graders just as well as I will never understand how after more than two years of me trying to guide you, love you, offer you safety and security and a home and a future, you lit it all on fire in a matter of months, burning through money, burning through your next two homes, burning fuel into three other states till you found yourself in jail, penniless, without your precious phone, knowing only my number.

I hate myself today, this rainy day in June, for knowing your number, and not just saying no. Because no matter what happens to you, no matter what anyone says to me about how “this isn’t your fault”, I will always carry the burden of failure, of not following my gut, of giving you a chance you never wanted to have.

I met my husband when I was nineteen and he had just turned twenty, and we married each other within a year. He hasn’t changed much; nor have I. And even though you are no longer a part of our lives, we are still going to be the good people we were when we were young.

And you are still going to be the same person I met two and a half years ago.

And I want you to go on with your life. Stop calling me. Give me my life so that I can take my Newcomers to the zoo, to Red Rocks, to the museum, to all the places you never wanted to go. So that I don’t have to hear my girls complain about how you treated me.

So that I never lose another night of sleep trying to make you a better person.