My husband finishes work at 16:00, but he invited me to dinner in the cool uptown neighborhood where he works tonight. Because he had to “flip a switch”, as the four of us girls teased him, at exactly 18:00, and he couldn’t be late.
And we won these smiles.
Someone with a camera (my camera) took our photo. A nice white woman with a GoldenDoodle sitting next to us. On a Tuesday in May that should have been eighty degrees but it was only fifty and threatening rain.
But it wasn’t a real threat. It wasn’t an 18-year-old one of my students who walked into an elementary school in Texas to kill three teachers and EIGHTEEN 2nd-4th graders.
Nope. That life, that teacher life, is for tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow morning, I will rise at dawn, or just when the bluejays call me awake. I will walk my dog two miles through my Denver neighborhood. I will kiss my blue-collar husband goodbye and let my baby daughter drive me to the high school where we live/work. And we will walk into the Italian-brick-National-Historic-Monument of a high school and pretend that we don’t know the kid who could walk into an American gun store and kill the next generation in ninety minutes.
And I have worked for twenty years in this profession where my heart breaks every GODDAMN DAY in an attempt to keep that kid from doing that.
And you know what?
Tomorrow morning, I am going to see my recently-arrived refugee students who spent thirteen years on a list or thirteen harrowing months waiting in line or thirteen lifetimes waiting to come to the savior that is America, and try to explain to them, in my broken Dari/Spanish/Arabic/Pashto… that we are just as broken as them.
Tomorrow morning, I will rise at dawn after a night without sleep, and I will be there for them, trying to convince the boys that the gun store doesn’t exist and the girls that they have a future that includes educational advancement, no forced marriages, and a life that they can create.
And look at my girls.
Just take a look at the three girls I have raised who have to face this.
And Biden, you’re going to give a speech? And Governor Abbott, and Donald FUCKING Trump, you’re speaking at the NRA convention this Friday, I hear?
And what the FUCK are you going to say? Thoughts and prayers?
Are you going to be there tomorrow morning, when the blood of eighteen elementary students is still staining our hands? Are you going to walk into that high school tomorrow morning, having that conversation with the kid whose negativity has walked him into the free-for-all, no-accountability gun store that is our nation? Are you going to sit by my side tomorrow morning as I try to make it through another day in a profession that vilifies and disgraces me with false promises and broken souls? Are you going to tell my Newcomers tomorrow morning that this really is the American FUCKING Dream?
No. You are not.
Tomorrow morning, before the alarm goes off, I will be awake. I will take my broken salary, my broken heart, and I will hug my kids. The only gun I will carry, the only bullets out of my mouth, are these words:
I am here.
I am here now. I am here later. I am here tonight.
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 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?
It would be impossible to encapsulate in words Kevin’s indelible impact on everyone he met in life. I was lucky enough to know him as a young man—really a fearless, jubilant boy—who knew how to bring vivacity into every room. Below is an entry from my personal journal written when Kevin was about to graduate from DSA.
It was Kevin and Hart (DeRose)’s senior showcase, a play called “On Tidy Endings” that the two of them wrote, directed, designed the set of and starred in. It had only two other minor characters, Wes (Zelio), and Elizabeth Horwitz. It was the story of a man who had died of AIDS, and it had Kevin playing his lover and Hart playing his ex-wife.
Their confrontation in his boxed-up apartment. I will never be able to even begin explaining how powerful that was, so I won’t even try. Let me just say that it was the best performance ever at DSA, and the best performance I’ve seen anywhere—on TV, the movies, or the theatre—since I first saw Dances with Wolves.
Kevin has grown up so much that I almost can’t believe he’s the same person I saw four years ago dancing a South Pacific scene with a hula skirt and coconut breasts. Kevin. I cried at the end, first for the characters in the play—their lives, their pain—it all affected me so much. And then I cried because I realized all too quickly, all at once, that he’s leaving, that soon the first graduating class of Denver School of the Arts will be gone, that soon that will even be me, me having to say goodbye, and now they’re leaving, and everyone leaves, and it hurt so much, but it was a good hurt, a cry that was filled with laughter and smiles, tears that were filled with hope and pride.
Standing ovation and then a room full of sniffling noses and unquieted sobs, everyone hugging each other, everyone loving each other like family, like a family that could never, by any means, be torn apart. I could not stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks for a long while, not until after we all eventually shuffled into the community room, not until after I hugged Cheryl and met Tad, not until after three glasses of punch and a piece of cake, not until after I hugged Devin, not until after Kevin signed my program, not until after talking to Olivia about senior year, not until after the toasts of many loved ones, not until after the pain of losing became the everlasting hope of gaining.
Kevin will always have a place in my heart. He was a genius in every way—through acting, writing, singing, and, most importantly, loving. He loved everyone in his life, and he will always be loved. I feel so fortunate to have known him and shared so many moments of joy and sorrow, whether we were out to lunch at the back booth of Pete’s Kitchen, sharing a shake at Gunther Toody’s, dancing in Cheryl’s living room for her sweet sixteen, or singing all the songs we ever knew while riding in a horse carriage downtown.
Every memory is sweet, precious, and filled with love. And I will cherish him forever.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.