Lockdowns

This evening, though it took him three times to ask me the question in his perfect Spanish due to my completely butchered understanding, I think I was able to answer him with a too-easy level of coherence.

“Why in that one class did we have to climb under the desks and turn off the lights?”

“Welcome to America, the land of the free, the land where gunmen enter classrooms and kill students and we have to spend our lives practicing for the possibility of that moment.”

“But couldn’t a gunman just blow open the door?”

The irony of everything is in his words.

Couldn’t we just pass gun control laws or have background checks instead of practicing lockdowns?

Couldn’t we have immigration policies that wouldn’t leave 17-year-old refugees in homeless shelters?

Couldn’t we raise our sons to be like this one, so grateful that in the course of seventeen days, he has completely changed our lives and filled our home with laughter and love, instead of raising sons who think the only solution to life’s problems is to shoot someone?

He is here now, in my house, safe after his first American lockdown. What else will he see in a year, in a lifetime, as he adjusts to this new world? As he tries his best to catch up with a semester of learning English that he missed, where we started with the alphabet and now are writing sentences that he struggles to understand, relying on the other Hondurans in the class to translate? As he sits in my ninth-grade advisement class listening to me ramble on about graduation requirements that all of us know are inaccessible to him?

What else might he write, between now and when he leaves our house, that could be more beautiful than these crumpled-up words that we threw into the basket, a silly icebreaker activity that was designed to help the students get to know each other and that completely failed in my ever-introverted advisement class?

The task was to read the messages aloud and try to guess who the author was.

But I couldn’t read his words aloud. Not after the lockdown. Not in my broken translation. Not for this emotionless class to hear.

Because I wanted to feel those words deep in my soul, how beautifully imperfect and ever-so-perfect.

  • A fun thing you did over break: I went to the hot springs, celebrated my birthday with my great family. I have three more sisters and a new mom and dad who make my life perfect. 
  • What is an unusual or interesting fact about you?  I was adopted by a great family. 

Just five minutes after crumpling the paper back to him, the dean came to the door asking for him and his backpack. My blood turned to ice in an instant. I have been teaching for far too long to know what the combination of those words means.

What could have happened between when I saw him getting his coffee from our kitchen this morning and that moment? What could they be looking for? How could they be so wrong?

Every question in the world popped into my brain, and I held back his three friends to ask what had happened in period 2. I told them how scared I was about the backpack request in particular, and they all responded, “No te preocupes, Miss, nada pasó.

The next seven minutes became my own terrifying lockdown. Because he is not just one of the hundreds of kids they have pulled out of my class in the past sixteen years.

He is my kid.

When he returned during passing period, I couldn’t even let him go to math class without giving him a hug of one hundred percent relief after he told me that his social worker had picked up all his documents from the homeless shelter, and he needed to bring his backpack to keep them safe.

Tonight, I could have told him, if I were less opinionated, that we have lockdowns to keep us safe.

But when you’re in a lockdown, you’re not thinking about safety. You’re thinking about your life. All you’ve been through, all you might never see. You’re thinking about all the kids’ faces, all the struggles of the world, everything bundled up into the silent, dark corner of a classroom, the silent, dark corner of our society.

You’re thinking about the people you love. The people who write kind words on soon-to-be-crumpled paper. The social worker who texted her gratitude one last time right after meeting with him. The family surrounding you who took him into their lives without a second thought.

“Look, Miss,” his friend grinned at lunch, gesturing towards him in the hallway. “No necesitaba preocuparte… Su hijo está bien.”

Yes. Both of our lockdowns have been lifted.

And my son is just fine.

 

 

C & H

It was cruelty that put him here. The cruelties of poverty, of corruption, of one governmental thievery after another. Our government to theirs. Their government to their people.

It was cruelty that put him in a cage, that gave him no choice but to keep on keeping on, train after train, burnt house back home, left-behind baby sisters, parents unable or unwilling to give him what he really needed, really wanted in life.

It was cruelty that led him to my classroom and into the basement “bedroom” of our home.

But today, there was no cruelty. Only the miracle of another turn around the sun. And this eighteen-year milestone is so much more than the tres leches cake my youngest prepared, so much more savory than the two pot roasts we spent half the day cooking, more than the intricately-decorated banner, the piñata he never could hit as a kid.

Today, there was only humanity.

The humanity that bleeds through the cruelty even when you think it isn’t there. In programs established by past presidents that a team of social workers, caseworkers, and even a famous poet worked tirelessly to get him into before his eighteenth birthday, when suddenly, and for completely arbitrary reasons, our government labels young boys adults.

The humanity in lawyers working day and night, in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s while visiting family, who are willing to send emails and make phone calls and answer every stupefied gringo-I-don’t-know-the-law question.

PRO BONO.

The humanity in my friends who sent gift cards, cash, and prayers, to thank me for bringing this boy home.

Cruelty brought him here. But humanity has won.

If you combine C & H, you’ll have nothing but sugar. Pure sweetness.

And that is what I want you to taste as you read this post, as you click on these links. The sweetness of humanity. It may seem to be hiding behind the C, but without it, what would we have?

Certainly not a game of spoons. A party of smiling teenagers. An artist’s pencil.

Or a speck of hope.

Blow out these candles with us. Sing this song in broken Spanish. And relish these sweet dreams. They are yours. They are his. They are all of ours.

And they are sweeter than any cruelty you could imagine. Just taste them. Take a moment to taste how sweet our world could be.

 

 

New Year’s Eve

in 2019

Bruce learned to ski from up high

into a new life

in 2019

a drain drained our resources

and worsened our debt

in 2019

my girls adjusted again

to life’s challenges

in 2019

we were given the rare chance

to make a difference

in 2019

we traveled through the country

searching for ourselves

in 2020

we’ll make a better life

everywhere we go

A Quick Email to End 2019

My creative writing teacher (I will always refer to her as such even though I graduated nearly twenty-five years ago) asked us (her forever students) to send her a quick email about an important gift we gave or received this holiday.

Maybe I could snap a quick pic from the tree on Christmas Eve, filled with makeup, watercolor markers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses for my three teenage daughters. Or of Christmas morning with the magical Apple Watches, so coveted by my Apple-only family.

Or the earrings my mother made me or the gift card to Colorado Gives from my sister.

Maybe I could capture a quick pic of my 2019 accomplishments: Writing about, and participating in, a teachers’ strike that led to a life-changing raise.

My first paid-for post. My hundreds of hours of work wrapped up in a National Board Certification. My ever-intricately-planned summer road trip across seven states.

But none of these things could begin to compare with the gift that this year has given me. The gift of this man in my life who would do anything, anything to prove his love to me. Marry me when I was just a baby. Follow me to Spain. Learn how to ski nine months and one lesson after tearing his ACL. Read every post. Drive overnight through the midwest so the entire family could sleep.

Take into our house a boy who doesn’t belong to us and in every way belongs to us.

You have watched the news. You have seen the stories. You have donated money. You have screamed in frustration at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on others by our government. By ourselves.

But have you stood in front of fourteen Newcomers and come to understand how brightly they still see our country? Have you had a hallway conversation with a boy who informs you that, after five days of walking, twenty-five days of train-hopping and pigeon-killing, two days of washing windshields in Mexico City, five days waiting to cross the Rio Grande in the middle of the night on a raft, one week in a detention center and four months in a home for unaccompanied minors, and four months in a homeless youth shelter, he is still looking for a home?

And that, no matter what, he cannot, will not, return home?

What would you do? What might you ask your husband to do? Your three ever-spoiled, ever-adaptable, ever-loving teenage daughters?

Would you keep scrolling past the images of children under space blankets on concrete floors?

Or would you realize that this boy is standing in front of you, in your school, in your class, in your life, without a home? A family? And do something? Anything?

I cannot take a quick pic of the past two weeks, the entire time that has passed between my knowledge of his status and his soon-to-be permanent placement in our home. The phone calls, the emails to every last human I could think of who might help him. The two-hour meeting with the Department of Human Services, his Honduran father on the line, ready to relinquish all rights. The background checks, fingerprints, home visits, all within a day. His arrival to my home with three garbage bags filled with clothing and no coat. The shy first meal that he took to the basement to eat. Alone. His quick smile and ever-present hope that this place must be a better place. His immediate love of our three pets.

I cannot send Mrs. Clark a quick email about my gifts this year. There are too many to count, they are the uncountable nouns I teach my Newcomers: love, hope, future, desire.

They are all in this union that the caseworker asked about today: “Married for almost twenty-two years? Tell me, how do you do it?” “Patience and love. Patience and love.”

They are here, in this boy, unwrapped, ready to be our brother, our son, part of our world.

These are my gifts. I’m sorry this is such a long email, Mrs. Clark.

 

 

What I Heard Today

“Hiking? In the forest? No. Only to look for firewood to cook our food. Not for fun.”

“Yes, I’ve ‘visited’ Mexico. I was there for two months waiting for the coyote.”

“In a room the size of this kitchen there were forty of us. They gave us blankets just like that [pointing to tinfoil]. And when they had to wake someone up to deport them, they woke all of us. And they came in every fifteen minutes to wake someone.”

“Hermano, mira. Hay una lavandería aquí en la casa.”

“My 23-year-old brother wanted to come, but he can’t run fast enough.”

“He can’t run fast enough?”

“To get on the train. I saw so many… broken legs, arms. Even a body with its legs completely amputated. You have to be able to run.”

“I crossed the Rio Grande on a raft.”

“I’ve never seen a dishwasher. We had to wash our clothes and dishes by hand.”

“Eggs, beans, and rice for lunch and dinner. Coffee for breakfast.”

“My cousin bought me the plane ticket, the phone, everything. And the detention center had all of his information, so when I arrived at the airport, the police were waiting for him.”

“$250 here for strep antibiotics? In my country it’s free. Being sick here is a luxury I guess.”

I guess it is.