Your Words

A few days after she was born, my mother held Mythili in her arms, Mythili with her ever-open eyes, her neck craning for me or for another look at the world, and my mother said to me, “This one has been here before. She has lived another life.”

Without the spiritual background that is ever-present in so many lives, but not our life, I was surprised by these words from my mother, a second-time grandmother with her second-born granddaughter. But not shock-surprised. Just surprised. And yet, I knew she was right. Mythili had a presence about her from the moment she entered the world, an energy, an awareness of her environment that was never so obvious in my other two girls.

Mythili looked around at the world and immediately questioned it, even from birth. Where’s the milk? (Colostrum delays). Where’s my sister? Where’s my Daddy? Most importantly, Where’s my Mama? She observed, dissatisfied, her mostly-immovable state.

“You have one of those babies who hates being a baby,” the midwife told me at our six-week checkup. “Once she can sit up at about six months, you’ll see a total change in her.”

Mythili, who craned her neck from birth to search for a view of whoever was walking into the room, knew that her surroundings, and the people within them, meant everything in the world to her.

And you asking her to do this meant everything in the world to me.

I know it was you because I searched the crowd after, my face stained in tears, my hands still shaking, my heart still leaping with pride and disbelief. I found her counselor who told me it was your idea, your encouragement, your words that convinced her.

And it was only a moment out of a thousand moments in my daughter’s life. My daughter’s life that has been filled with happy memories and tainted with sadness these past few years. My daughter, who attended the high school where I teach, where I’m given the privilege of seeing one set of graduates after another pass through this gym before the ceremony. My daughter, who was hiding, sitting by herself at the top of the bleachers, all of her Class of 2023 friends gone, chatting amongst themselves, because of grief, loss, rivalry, meanness, jealousy, bitterness… death. My daughter who took this selfie with me but kept the speech a secret.

My daughter, who during the COVID lockdown, when one of her beautiful art pieces was being featured on the school TV show, couldn’t be convinced, not with note cards, not with me filming an example, not with any words, to record a 20-second video to describe her talent and inspiration.

My daughter took your words and put them into her heart, stood upon the stage in front of a thousand people, and honored me, honored the friend she lost, and most importantly, honored herself.

For a decade I have watched my students, my refugees and immigrants, enter this stage and share their 15-second speeches about how Denver South helped them form a new life in America. I have watched as struggling American students, those lost in the crowd, those never-valedictorians, those never-heard-of students, had a moment of glory.

And I can never thank you enough for giving me this moment of glory in my daughter’s life. For giving her your words so that she could find her own.

Thank you for giving my daughter her words with your words. Thank you for giving me this moment with your words.

What I Would Say If I Could

What you took away with your error:

Trust. Friendship. Education. Love. Accountability. Faith.

What you didn’t hear:

Danger. Toxicity. Neglect. Ignorance. Hate tactics.

What we have lost:

The connection of the Kabul airport that they shared. The trauma of it–of suddenly being ripped from the only home they had ever known, of fearing the Taliban would come for them next, or their mother, their father, their faith in humanity. The collective trauma that bonded them together and allowed them a communication that none of us could fathom. A connection, through Dari, Islam, and kindness, brought to her by her paraprofessional interpreter. A confessional for her to share how horrid her foster mother was. An English classroom where all her friends are, where her teacher loves her and wants to help her. The relationships with her peers who now can’t understand the reasons behind her choice.

YOU are the reason behind her choice. You broke your professional commitment to a system we have in place that is meant to protect children, and you gave power to the toxicity of a human not fit to be a mother to anyone, let alone a fragile, motherless child. You sided with lies instead of the truth, and everyone will suffer because of it. Especially her. Especially this girl whose mother was murdered by the Taliban, whose foster mom has stripped her of her religion, language, and connection to her culture, who has manipulated and molded her to be a completely different human being because she was too fragile to say no to her.

I will never forgive you for all those hours you spent in my house, looking me in the eye, holding my foster son accountable, asking me point blank if I’d had enough, listening to me, trusting my judgment, only for, one year later, for you never to trust me again.

I have been teaching for more than twenty years. I have seen belt marks on children. I have heard stories of sexual abuse. I have called to report starvation, emotional abuse, neglect, alcoholism, and drug addiction. I have done my job to protect the children who shuffle in and out of my life year after year.

And I thought you could do yours.


So is mine.

Only one of us is doing it right today.

And it is not you.

Bites and Pieces

There isn’t a photo today, unless my mantra-cup, “Bless This Hot Mess” can be my actual mantra. There is a meal, a beautiful meal that New York Times Cooking thinks a regular person can make in forty-five minutes. A meal that involves chopping then roasting cashews, skinning then mincing fresh ginger, garlic, chopping a bell pepper into bits, washing rice, slicing two-inch sections of green onions, and preparing cilantro. Also cutting and cooking chicken before the oven part. I don’t have a photo of my youngest and my husband and me, making a mess of this kitchen before I cleaned it, trying to make this meal in forty-five minutes between the three of us.

I just have this. This meal to eat while we listen to and argue about Bruce Springsteen (The BOSS) and discuss our days.

Oh, our days. Bruce was under pressure to change a card (a card as big as a board game and twice as heavy), Rio was under pressure to meet her social and familial weekend obligations, me under the pressure of society to not tell a student’s caseworkers that her foster mother isn’t good enough because.

Because there are no more foster mothers available. Because it isn’t horrible enough that her mother was murdered by the Taliban, and that she’s living in a home that doesn’t recognize or celebrate her culture or speak her language, because she may never see her brothers and father and baby sister again.

It isn’t enough. It is never enough. The crying, the screaming, the desire to be perfect, the accusations, the pain that seeps through every word, the trauma that breathes through every breath.

I wish I could just change a too-heavy card, or balance my sleepover with my obligation to my grandparents, or just be a kid or just be a human who doesn’t have to carry the weight of all these humans.

But I can’t. I can’t cook this meal in forty-five minutes, NYT Cooking, and you should stop lying to people. You can’t bring your mother back, and you should stop lying to people. You shouldn’t make false accusations, and you should stop lying to people.

People who could lose their jobs, their lives, and all the love they’ve given in twenty years of carrying the weight of these kids. People who put on a musical rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast just so my poor kids could see it. People who spend half of their summer taking your kids to every place they could ever imagine because they couldn’t see those places otherwise. People who love your kids as fiercely as you do and for some reason you can’t see it,

You can’t see me.

What does it mean to be a teacher in the twenty-first century? It carries a weight that you can’t imagine carrying because nothing, nothing is more enticing than a 24/7 entertainment device that every kid carries in their pocket. Nothing is more enduring than teenage love or parental defense. Nothing matters more than a grade. Nothing compares to the TikTok video or Instagram caption–not a cultural connection, a passion for language, or a pile of free clothes.

It is like this meal. Sticky rice coconut chicken. It has everything: cilantro, ginger, coconut milk, basmati rice, a yellow bell pepper, garlic minced to perfection, chicken broth, scallions, hot sauce, a dutch oven pan that fits into the best-ever toaster oven, a bubbling bite with perfect spice… Everything.

But it’s a lie. It’s not a Wednesday night meal. It does not take forty-five minutes to prepare.

It takes years, twenty years of patience and a pinch of forgiveness to make this possible.

And you can taste it in every bite. Every bite that you put in your mouth and every bite that bites you back.

Taste it. The creamy coconut, the sriracha, the beauty of the world swirling in the rice.

And bite back.

Thank You (In Every Language)

There aren’t enough words, in English or Dari, Pashto, Spanish, Arabic, Tigrinya, Romanian, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, or the twenty-three languages of Guatemala, to express my gratitude today.

Today was EXHAUSTING. It started with the first time this semester that I drove my car to work. Yes, I have been walking in the snow and ice that has stolen Denver’s mild winter this season. Yes, I have ridden my bike all of seven times. No, I haven’t driven my gas-guzzling car even once.

Until today.

It was supposed to snow today (again), so it was a good day to drive. My eight-passenger car was filled to the brim with clothes you gave to us.

My colleague, my two daughters, and several of our students marched back and forth from the long sidewalk of our 100-year-old school to the parking lot. Back and forth, breaking our backs, to bring this to them. My colleague and I spent the entirety of our ninety-minute planning period sifting through and organizing the clothes, planning a lesson that should have happened three months, three years back… but there is so much to teach them in the time they put their faces in front of us. From the only-in-English auxiliary verb ‘do/does’ that exists in nearly every question and EVERY negative answer to how to navigate our complex transportation system to how to cope with the fact that they witnessed a pregnant woman murdered in front of them in the Kabul airport and don’t know how to calm their nerves for three hours with me every day.

But they find a way.

We find a way.

Today’s way was labeling the piles with notecards and making copies of said cards for these students to pick up as they walked in the door.

“Let’s continue to practice with present-tense verbs. What clothing do you need? When I say you, I mean your whole family. For example, you could answer, ‘I need exercise shirts’ or, ‘My brother needs hoodies.'(always an emphasis on that final ‘s’)”

They held up their cards. They looked around the room at the piles of clothes that surrounded them. They asked their paraprofessional interpreters what the words meant. What this day meant. What craziness, what generous craziness, lay before them in perfect piles.

And they recited their sentences. They practiced their English. They learned what a hoodie was. The English word for scarf. For long sleeves. For T-shirts. For little brother (there was an entire bag of clothes for little brothers; another for little sisters).

I met you twenty years ago, my friend, in my first nightmare year of teaching. When it was so hard and they crammed thirty-eight of these kids in my room and I didn’t know if I could handle it, and you stayed at that high school way longer than me (I gave in to pregnancy rather than facing it), but ultimately you left the profession. Yet I know your heart is still there. Your heart is still here with me in this classroom of Newcomers.

You gave me a lesson today, you and your friends and your book club and your kind-heartedness.

You gave us a lesson today: in English vocabulary–everything from learning the names of clothes to how to write a Thank-you card (“Miss, what is this ‘Dear’ meaning at the beginning?”) to what it is to be human.

And it’s in all their faces. Their joy. Their gratitude, their hope in an America that you have given to them today.

Thank you. Gracias. Mulțumesc. شكرًا لك. له تاسو مننه. متشکرم. የቕንየለይ. Asante. Murakoze. Thank you.

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.


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.