Beyond the Bars

To avoid pouring water down the drain, I spend ninety minutes washing dishes in two pans, running water out to my new mulch to dump, and putting everything away while Bruce researches home equity loans and Trump tax cuts that hurt, rather than help, our current situation.

Behind the bars of my security door, I take this picture of the sewer company’s progress replacing a portion of our main drain.

Behind the bars of this security door, I hide from the American Dream. The one that we are all promised and few of us ever attain. The one where we could afford to buy a house, afford to deal with that house’s expenses, afford to send our children to college or even pay off the loans we might still have from our own degrees.

I hide from the dream of all of my grandparents, a combination of immigrants and endlessly American, one grandfather with an eighth grade education, one with a high school diploma, who were able to raise large families and pay off mortgages well before retirement. On ONE income.

I hide from the audacity of insurance that we carry on our homes, our health, our lives. From the premiums we pay that won’t cover pre-existing conditions (like pregnancy!) or pre-existing problems on our properties (like drains), or pre-existing hope–from all the thousands and thousands of dollars we pour into these plans that leave us empty, behind bars, unable to operate a backhoe.

I hide from the for-sale houses in my neighborhood that are now so outrageously priced that my family, and none of the other families on my block, would ever be able to afford to buy the homes we stand in.

Behind the bars of my security door, I am as insecure as everyone in my generation. The generation that faces housing costs that are equivalent to more than fifty percent of what we earn in a month. The generation of debt that is impossible to avoid even with the best budget. The generation that has made the choice to bring children into this world only to constantly think: why would I bring children into this world? Children I feel inadequate to provide for, children who will face even higher college costs, children who will be straddled with debt for their entire adult lives?

Behind the bars, I cannot see the buyers of the $769,000 remodel on the next block. Where they come from. What jobs they have. What magical formula they applied for that allowed them to take a mortgage that costs more than what our two incomes bring home in a month.

Behind the bars, I hear the Spanish language spilling from the mouths of the workers who have to dig a hole in a yard on a holiday. With perfect efficiency, they have repaired a ten-foot section of pipe within two hours, and they will move on to the next family’s crisis, and the next, and the next, before going home to houses on the other side of town that they also likely can barely afford, because we all know that the $6000 we just paid for that pipe is lining the pockets of a white, male, English-only CEO.

Behind the bars, I live in my dream house, my four-bedroom, two-bathroom, beautiful-garden dream house that we waited seventeen years to purchase. I raise a family of three daughters whose pay may never match their male counterparts but, despite this, whose intelligence and candor will allow them to live the life of their dreams. I share my meals, my home, and my love with my husband who has managed our finances to such perfection that we have flawless credit, making an application for an equity loan for both our properties (because nothing can just happen to this house–both need new main drains), virtually seamless. We both work hard at our dream jobs–teaching and telecom–in order to make this picture perfect.

With the door open, before they rebury the dirt, I snap a picture of our pretty kitty hiding behind my glass of stress wine.

I sit on our paid-for leather recliner and feel the cool breeze of early summer and think about my students who have crossed the world to be a part of this American Dream, and how hard they work to make that dream possible, to learn English and learn how to navigate the complexities of our society that sometimes make us feel like we’re all going down the drain. I think of how hard my husband and I have worked to make this day possible–to give my girls a summer trip to Spain, a year in Spain, to see nearly all fifty states–because of how careful we have been with our money. I think of the health insurance that paid for most of my husband’s surgery and how my grandmother’s baby sister died of a simple infection in her mouth after tripping up on a wooden popsicle stick, all because they couldn’t afford a doctor.

With the door open, we host family friends who make us laugh until we cry, whose daughter will join us in Spain, whose presence makes us appreciate what we have surrounding us in life–a life filled with laughter, love, support.

With the door open and the Spanish-speaking workers gone, the Siberian iris frames my kitty, my pet, my perfect yard. I know that I have given so much to get to this picture, and I know I still have more to give. I have daughters who are lucky enough to have access to all the technology, diversity, and coursework that comes from an urban education, and who will enter their adult lives with an open-minded understanding of the world. I have a house that we can afford and enjoy without feeling like our money is going down the drain. I have a job that brings the global perspective to every choice I make in one of the most beautiful buildings our city has to offer. I have a marriage that has lasted from childhood to adulthood, with all the post-adolescent turmoil and trauma, all the sorrow and joy, that comes with making it work for twenty years.

With my door open, I wait for the American Dream. Somehow, some day, some way, I will see how it is both easy and difficult to achieve. If I would learn to always open the door and move beyond the bars, I would see that not everything is going down the drain. I would see the beauty in every choice, the brutality in every loss, and find a way to make a set of silver linings sweeter than a sip of stress wine.

I would be the wife, the teacher, the mother of that perfect picture. That perfect picture would be me.

 

 

FBQ: Friday. Be Qualitative.

“This is an FBQ conversation,” she begins. And her artistry, backed by data, emphasizes the urgency.

The urgency. It is mid-October, and I’ve seen my principal cry too many times in the course of twelve months.

The urgency of children who have escaped a war zone, who have traveled on three city buses to escape their neighborhood school, who have escaped poverty with our food bank, to be on the tips of our tongues as we sit in the come-down-to-Jesus choir room, AKA, staff meeting with bad news.

This isn’t the day after the election when our hijab-wearing girls were too fearful to take a bus to school, when our students of color were threatened by now-openly-racist citizens, when we were lost souls in a city school surrounded by bigotry.

This isn’t the almost-there rating of last year when we met in our usual fourth floor, everything’s-going-to-be-fine lunchroom location.

This is a Friday-the-thirteenth, tell-it-like-it-is, FBQ meeting. The urgent meeting.

We face ourselves and then each other. Is it you? Is it me? Is it them? Is it us?

We argue in the hallway after, fuck the contract hours on a Friday afternoon when we’re supposed to be at FAC. “You know those charter schools eliminate kids left and right. One infraction, gone. SPED? Gone. Detention for forgetting a pencil and you don’t show up? Gone. Charter schools in the poor neighborhoods? Don’t even try to argue, I looked at all the scores last night. RED.”

We are ourselves, wholly ourselves, and we promise to honor her FBQ request.

But this room will be on our minds for the weekend, for the week, for the rest of the year. This conversation, this seeking of solutions. This, what-did-we-do-wrong-this-time question that sits at the back of our minds every damn day when kids don’t show up, when kids say, “Fuck this class,” when kids come crying about their dying mothers, their far-from-home brothers, when kids wish nothing more than one percentage point higher than what they have earned.

“Can we turn the qualitative values of this school–I mean, look how many of you are wearing purple today–into something quantitative?”

FBQ: Family, Be Quiet.

I want to stand up and shout: You can’t measure this. You can’t quantitatively, statistically, mathematically, measure the amount of emotion that drips down her cheeks, that causes me to clench my fists and hold back my own tears, that makes us question the very effort and belief system we put in place with every moment of every lesson we work so hard to place before them.

You cannot measure, quantitatively, LOVE.

Family, Begin Questioning.

Start with:

1) Why do we vilify teachers?
2) Why do we blame students?
3) Why do we quantify humans?

I want to change her acronym. I want to change them all. To mesh the SLO with the CLO, to move LEAP into SIOP, to blend FAC with FBQ. I want to change colors from yellow to green to the beautiful blue sky that hovers over my beautiful school, with its red-yellow leaves just making that blue pop like a world you’ve yet to see.

It’s Friday.

Be Qualitative.

Because you can’t quantify love. And isn’t that what matters?

Refocused

with a broken fridge,
 limitations on dry ice,
 and carpool circles
 
 to pick up daughter
 from uncalled-for punishment,
 my Monday sucked ass.
 
 driving home in rain,
 she told me the whole story
 and other teen truths.
 
 then shared her essay:
 perfectly satirical
 (writer at fourteen)
 
 the rain flooded us
 and we laughed until we cried
 knowing that truth hurts.
 

Are You Hungry?

My day begins before it begins. With a late-night text, a non-response, and a warning. With cats scratching me awake as the sun just enters the sky. With the complexities of parenthood that bring joy and turmoil to each and every day.

Me: “Hope you’re having fun! Please be home by 8:45 so that we can deliver the cookies to the food bank.”

Two hours later:

Two hours and thirty seconds later: “If you are not home by 8:45, you are grounded for a month. We have been planning this for three months. Please do not ignore my texts.”

Two hours and forty-five seconds after first text: “OK.”

Even as I type the words, I know they are too harsh. And when she cycles around the corner at 8:42 in the bright morning sun, her eyes puffy from lack of sleep, I just want to scream. She goes straight upstairs to change clothes. I bring her her Girl Scout vest, and she silently glares at me. She comes downstairs without wearing it, and I just about lose it.

The last words I heard her speak, after the flurried series of texts and phone calls the moment we arrived home yesterday, after my felt-like-a-migraine headache and hurried “yes” response to her sleepover, after I remembered, already under the down comforter, “You have to be home by 8:45 because we have to deliver the cookies,” were: “Why can’t the rest of the troop do it?” followed by a door slam.

The other three girls pile into the backseat of the Pilot, and I pile it into her. “You cannot have a phone if you refuse to respond to my texts. I’m taking it for at least a week.”

Her tears begin to fall.

“And I just can’t believe how selfish you are being right now. We are going to give cookies to people who DON’T HAVE FOOD. And you’re mad at me for making you come home from an unplanned sleepover at the time we agreed to go?”

“I thought—”

“You didn’t think. Why didn’t you respond to my text?”

“I thought it was just for information.”

“It was. But do you remember the last words you said to me as you left?” (I’m thinking of the pounding headache, the echo of the wooden door slamming). I remind her.

“If you can’t respond to texts, you can’t have a phone.”

Her tears swallow her words now. She swallows them in the brief moments between my harshness and our arrival. The others are already there, waiting for us.

We carry and roll the 43 boxes of leftover Girl Scout cookies into the school. Jacklyn is waiting for us, her heart so big that she practically offers a hug to each and every one of these girls she doesn’t know.

“We’re so happy to have you here! Let me give you a tour.” She points to a girl who is filling bags with loaves of bread. To the tables stacked with clothes. To the halal chicken she found especially for our Muslim students. To the shelves and shelves of canned goods. To the two hundred pounds of rice, the stacks of towels, the cabinets filled to the brim with more for next week.

A man enters, having seen the temporary “Food Bank” sign on the door. He is as small as my twelve-year-old, wearing glasses and a hopeful grin. She immediately welcomes him in her cheery voice, explaining that the food bank is for the students’ families, but he can surely have some Girl Scout cookies and a snack.

“Are you hungry?” She asks him. It is a question that all of us say every day, never even thinking about its weight. Its weight presses against me now as my oldest wipes away the last of her tears and smiles at him.

“Yes.”

Jacklyn hands him apples, the last box of Thin Mints, and before he leaves, he has an entire box of food in his hands because her heart is too big to say no.

Families trickle in, and it turns out I know almost all of them. The mother and younger siblings of Isra, who’s graduating this year after four years of being a shining star in my classroom. Her tiny sister, her purple niqab as bright as her eyes when she picks out cookies for each of her siblings. The father of Ana Maria, whose mother took time out of her busy life to help me improve my Spanish, who spent the day with my girls and I last spring break, who recently left for Mexico and risked everything, even walking, to get back here.

Jacklyn greets them each with a hug, a reference to their last visit, a cooing comment about their beauty, their students, the exciting availability of Girl Scout cookies. Her warmth bubbles up all around her, and I feel my harsh comments and my daughter’s shaky responses melt away into the reality that fills these bags with food and hope.

The girls busy themselves filling quart-size bags with rice, and Izzy perks up enough by the end of the hour to speak to me in a normal, and kind, voice.

Just before leaving, one of the newcomers arrives with a small black backpack on. Jacklyn knows just how to speak to a student learning English. Slowly. Looking at his eyes. Using gestures. She learns that he arrived by bicycle, that he lives near Monaco, and that his bag is too small.

“You just fill up two boxes for your family. I’ll get a pen. You can write your address and we’ll bring you the food.”

Before I can surmise the legality, I mention that we live by Monaco and will bring it ourselves. Moments later, it becomes clear that he is unable to write his address. I hold up my hand in a cross. “You live on Monaco, do you know the cross street, the street that crosses Monaco?”

His eyes brighten. “Iliff.”

We gather our things. Four girls and the food pile into my co-leader’s car. He helps me remove the wheel from his bicycle so two girls, the bicycle, and he can fit into the Pilot. As we make our way eastward, I ask his name.

“Donald.” (only when he says it, it sounds like, Doh-nol-d).

“Hello, Donald. That is my husband’s name!” (Riona snickers, knowing he hasn’t used that name since the moment he was born). “And that is our president’s name.” At this, even Donald snickers, because even he, newly arrived from Malawi, knows that it’s a joke.

Ten minutes later, we drive past our house. I point it out to him. Not because he’ll ever go there. Because I want him to know that, if he needs to, he can. We continue to Monaco and Iliff, and he is able to tell me where to turn, when to stay straight, until we arrive at the apartment complex and gather the food, the girls, and the bicycle out of the two vehicles.

We carry the boxes to the door, and Donald enters with one of the boxes. We set another on a chair on the makeshift patio, and three small children emerge. A girl not older than three tries to lift the box, which is easily as tall as her torso, and then a mother and perhaps a father, emerge from the apartment to shake our hands and send us on our way.

“Every Friday, Donald, every Friday you can have food.” It is all I can think of to say.

It is just past 10 a.m., and I feel as if I have lived a year in these few hours. We return home, and Izzy is her cheerful old self. No dirty looks. No retaliation. She runs to jump on the trampoline at the neighbors’ house. She plays on the hammock. She makes a smoothie concoction and even washes the blender.

We continue with the exciting Saturday of double income, three kids: a dishwasher selection, grocery shopping, fixing lunch, returning library books, visiting the local coffee shop, soaking cedar planks for grilling salmon, sitting on the patio to soak up the mid-spring sun. The girls spend the entire day outside and between their troop members’ homes.

I tell the girls we’re going skiing tomorrow, and the younger two plead their case to stay home.

“Only if you call Grandma on your own and stay with her.”

I haven’t taken Izzy’s phone away yet, and I go upstairs just before dinner with a proposition and a promise: while the younger two are at Grandma’s, she can keep her phone if she goes skiing with me. But when I enter her room, she is dead asleep, light on, with the kitten, and I can do no more than take a picture of the beauty of that moment.

I want to tell her it is dinner time. I want to ask her, “Are you hungry?”

But I don’t. She already informed me, mid-afternoon, that she was up till 4:30 because she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her friends since she had to be home by 8:45.

I don’t wake her. I don’t need to ask my child, “Are you hungry?” because I know she isn’t.

I am quiet for once. I am thinking about Donald, who told me he’d never ridden a bike in Malawi, and now he even knows how to remove and replace a tire, to navigate across town on a Saturday morning even though he can’t write his address, to ask for food for a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile from my $400,000 home.

Instead, I sit on the patio with Donald Bruce and my two youngest, underneath the blooming crabapple tree. We eat cedar-grilled salmon, rice, tomatoes, and beans. We fill ourselves with stories and the evening breeze. I do the dishes for the fiftieth time in the six weeks since the dishwasher has been broken. I don’t complain, because I hate to admit that there is some satisfaction in completing the task by hand, in seeing your work, in soaping your hands.

And my day ends before it ends. With a full belly, a full plate, and this family.

With Jacklyn’s kind voice so much louder than my own, asking, “Are you hungry?” and knowing that all of us are hungry for something.

A text. A bicycle ride. A ski trip. A bright moment in a dark day.

My day begins before it ends. With a late-night silence. A sleeping child. A dish rack full of freshly washed dishes.

And a hunger for a better tomorrow.

Interception

art intercepts life
 on a cloudy Denver day
 at the museum
 
 social justice rules
 when we create from our souls–
 pen; paint on canvas
 
 after a long walk
 The Nightingale finally ends
 (leaving with sorrow)
 
 sorrow chases steps
 across the gray of our lives,
 of this cool spring day.
 
 but i still find hope:
 in neighborhood yard signs,
 girls getting along,
 
 in the purring cats,
 the moist grass that begs to grow,
 the chances that wait,
 
 in my daughters’ eyes,
 and the fight we all must fight
 till tomorrow comes.