Cussing Colloquialisms

At the elevator, brace still on, crutch still under his arm, he tells me he thinks that a good return-to-work date would be June 4, five days before we leave for Spain. He seems optimistic as he hobbles down the tiled hallway, as we enter the carpeted office, as we check in and he holds the door open for a woman with a walker, pointing out, “It’s kind of strange they don’t have an automatic door in the orthopedic’s office,” to which she adamantly agrees.

On the plastic, paper-coated bed, he hands me the folder while the PA takes him for x-rays. After just a few minutes, the doctor enters with the films. He has photographs of the entire procedure. He intricately describes the meniscus (intact), the bones (drilled into), the ACL (torn and then repaired). Bruce and I lift our eyebrows at each other, barely able to distinguish the tiny details he points out in each picture.

In his cozy spinning chair, the doctor is also optimistic. “I think you can ditch the brace right now and ditch the crutches by Friday. Use the stationary bike on Sunday. By Monday, you should be walking around the block. Maybe driving.”

From the green paper folder, I begin to pull out the forms. First: short-term disability approval. A list of lines with dates, surgery and medication verification. Affably, he takes them in stride: “I’ll be sure to get these to the right people to fill them out.” Because he has people. Because he charged the insurance company $36,000, more than half of what I earn in a year, for an outpatient surgery that took less than 90 minutes. Because we live in the land of the free.

From the green paper folder, I continue to pull out forms. Bruce begins to tell him–without ever being able to finish because of the doctor’s rambling explanations, the doctor’s defense of his procedures, the doctor’s justification for not filling out anything–about wanting to return to work before Spain. I pull out The Form, the one that CenturyLink requires for him to be able to work: a release of liability for driving a company vehicle, an “if-something-happens-it’s-not-on-us, your-injury-better-not-affect-your-work” form.

From his throne, he glances at the wording. He throws in more anecdotes peppered with cussing colloquialisms. “In twenty-six years of doing this, I have never seen a company require a form like this. What if you’re a shitty driver? How can I, as your medical doctor, determine if you’re OK to drive? I won’t sign a form like that. If you get in an accident and hurt someone and I’ve signed this form, then it’s all on me.”

From my plastic chair, I listen to the tone of my twenty-years-spouse change from respectful to grainy. I can almost feel the lump at the back of his throat as he tries to go on. “Well, my supervisor is willing to let me come back on light duty…”

From his throne, the doctor interrupts: “What you’re going to be dealing with is HR, not your supervisor, and if HR says you can’t work, that’s where things get muddy when I start putting my name on these forms.”

From my plastic chair, I am counting down the hours in my mind until the moment I can let these tears actually fall. First I have to continue listening to this white-haired, privileged surgeon continue rambling on about lawsuits. Then, we have to make Bruce’s appointments for physical therapy. Next, we have to drive home and track Mythili’s progress on her bicycle, as I had no way to pick her up today. After that, I have to take her to her doctor’s appointment, where they will make commentary about how my thirteen-year-old hasn’t had her period yet.

From my plastic chair, I am frozen and without words. The doctor turns to me. “You look frustrated.”

Is that the word you would use? Do you think frustration sums up the past six weeks of my life?

“The thing is…” Bruce begins, “… I’m probably going to get laid off on July 30.”

The doctor has finished listening. “That’s why we have to be so careful when filling out these forms. This happens all the time, when companies decide you can’t work.”

“No, it’s unrelated…” he begins again, that painful lump sitting on top of his beautiful, sexy voice.

“Are you really not going to fill out the form?” is the only thing I can muster. The doctor hands it back to Bruce, asks if there’s anyone he can call, anyone he can talk to, any way he can go back to work without it.

From the tiny patient meeting room, he stands. He shuffles us out the door. He guides us to his people who will make the next appointment. I place The Form neatly back inside the green paper folder.

I think of a few cussing colloquialisms I could shout. I think of hindsight, all of it. Of next year’s ski passes we wasted $2300 on. Of the thousands we’ve already spent in this office. Of the four weeks at seventy-percent-pay he’ll get for short-term disability. Of the thousands we’ve spent on Spain that is gone and tarnished before boarding the plane.

But I have no words in these moments when I have bowed down to our litigate society, our corporations’ fear of liability, our doctors’ refusal to help the little man other than spurting cussing colloquialisms while trying to relate to us.

At the elevator, his brace in my hand, crutch still under his arm, I don’t speak. Picking up Mythili, exhausted from her bike ride, I don’t speak. At the following doctor’s appointment, where, as usual, we only get to see the PA, I cross my arms and don’t speak, forcing Mythili to respond to questions about who she lives with, how she likes her sisters, what kinds of food she eats.

From my recliner at home, I do have a few cussing colloquialisms for the orthopedic surgeon. I could spout them all day, all night, every waking moment of the past twenty years of marriage, every waking moment of my life as a not-quite-middle-class American who just needs A GODDAMN FORM SIGNED SO WE HAVE A FEW PENNIES TO OUR NAME…

From my recliner at home, the words are useless. All the words, all the work, all the life we have put into living, everything feels useless.

And there is no cussing colloquialism that will bring me that doctor’s signature, bring my husband his job, bring me some peace. So why bother spouting them at all?

 

A Few English Words

We took three Afghani students to the foothills today. They have been here for less than a year, so they learned a few English words today: Hike. Trail. Juniper. Ponderosa. Colorado=red rocks. View. 

I tried to ask what it was like for them back home, but they only knew a few English words to describe it: Danger. No school. Grandparents. Parents here in Colorado. All kids–brother, sister, other brother–in Afghanistan. 

Each time I asked if they wanted to continue down the trail or turn around, the most confident girl, the hijab girl, kept insisting we go on. She had no desire to go back to whatever life she had outside of that blue-sky hike, her knee-high boots and sweaty face no hindrance to her joy. She just wanted to walk. To escape. To be on that mountain.

When we were at the top, she leaned in to take a selfie with me, and then one with my youngest daughter whose experiential-learning school had just visited the same location, whose quiet voice shared with us the details of the sedimentary rock layers, the lichen, the igneous and metamorphic. This was a perfect match–the low-English Afghani and my quiet youngest–smiling shyly for a photo, a perfect frame of world peace.

With a walk like this, we step towards empathy. Understanding. Gratitude. We know that things could be worse, that they are worse, for so many people in the world.

But it doesn’t stop me from feeling the pain, the loss that I feel now. For feeling gypped, for feeling like nothing I do, nothing my husband and I ever do, will be good enough to make our lives easier.

Perhaps it’s the curse of Spain. Six years ago, after welcoming two Spaniards into our home, after asking practically nothing for rent, after offering them my car for months when theirs broke down (I rode my bike to work 25 miles a day for three months), after hosting parties for their friends, babysitting their friends’ kids, driving them to South Dakota, after everything, we went to Spain and never heard from either of them again. In addition to the nightmare that that year in Spain was for us, with its broken promises, broken paychecks, and lost jobs, they had to twist the knife right into our backs by acting like they never knew us.

And now we’ve planned a redo. Twentieth wedding anniversary. Fortieth birthdays. Three years into living like kings for the first time in our marriage, with two steady, well-paying jobs, great benefits, and our dream house that we opened up to friends of ours, six of them, rent free for two months because they were down on their luck, and Spain has cursed us again. Our six-week vacation that is 90% bought and paid for, that I have spent over forty hours meticulously planning every last expenditure and activity, will be marred by a pending layoff, loss of benefits, and a mortgage we simply cannot afford on a teacher’s salary.

Let me tell you about that teacher’s salary. Let me tell you about the master’s degree plus thirty credits I have. Let me tell you about all the school events I attend, the lunch meetings, the hours before and after school I work, the summer workshops, the home visits, the dance chaperoning, the sporting events, the class coverage, the every last everything I do to work, to earn an extra buck, to make it. Let me tell you about the eight years we lived on a $48,000 frozen salary.

Let me tell you about my childhood. Parents with bachelors’ degrees in journalism working for a small town newspaper and barely making it. Powdered milk. Ten-year-old, rusted-out Datsun. Ancient house with windows so thin that ice collected on the glass. My mother scraping together a $20 bill for my eleventh birthday and me looking at it holding back silent tears because I already knew that it was equivalent to two and a half hours of her work, and my father was failing his master’s program, and we were moving to Denver for a better life, and everything was crashing down at once.

Let me tell you about contract work, the only kind of work Bruce was able to find when he left the Air Force. No guarantee. No health insurance. No paid time off. No holidays. No sick leave. And when it ends? No unemployment checks.

Let me tell you about health insurance. Let me tell you about the two children I have given birth to without having health insurance because it was a pre-existing condition, and the near $10,000 we paid for those births.

Let me find a few English words to explain to these students from Afghanistan: American Dream. Housing. Insurance. Education. SCAM.

Let me tell you about what we have done to avoid bankruptcy: No car payments. No student loans. No credit card debt. Two properties. Saving and spending. Buying a house only when we were ready, when we could afford it. Saving up for a cursed redo of Spain. Road trips staying with family and camping to save money while traveling. One computer for the whole family. Still driving my 1998 Hyundai Accent.

Let me tell you how I know what poverty is. I know what sacrifices are. I have made them.

Let me find a few English words to say: Fuck this country. Fuck this Trumpian tax cut that cuts workers while CEOs live like kings. Fuck this blue-sky day. Fuck my husband’s military sacrifice, his months in the desert, his sold-his-soul-to-boot-camp commitment, his veteran status that has given us NOTHING.

Let me be twenty years into my youthful marriage and not have to feel like I’m just twenty minutes in. Let me keep my dream house. Let him keep his union (that screwed him) dream job. Let my kids feel like there’s a future here for them and that with two degrees they won’t be buying powdered milk.

Just. Let me be. I’ve had enough.

Inglorious Glory

As usual, one of my honors students has decided to try to evade work by commenting on how he has already written a personal essay for another class, and can’t he just use that one?

I don’t even try to hide my snarky rebuttal: “And I’ve written 2,200 blog posts, but I spent two hours searching for one and one hour revising it yesterday so that I could give you yet another exemplar.”

But he’ll do what he wants, as they all do. He’ll pretend to write tomorrow in class while the others snicker around him, falling out of chairs and posting immature comments on the class discussion thread, eating their lunch two hours too late, leaving torn bits of fast food wrappers littered on the floor as if there were no trash cans in the school.

It doesn’t matter that I have also spent hours planning and replanning each moment of these lessons, that I have begged and borrowed ideas from a colleague, that I have uploaded links and found beauty in words that some of them will never take the time to read aloud, to fit into their mouths and taste their glory. It doesn’t matter that I have a wealth of class activities that ask them to collaborate and ask them to be introspective and ask them to move around the room, and that I have thought about them in the predawn sleepless hours of my weekday mornings. It doesn’t matter that, unlike every teacher portrayal in movies and books, this isn’t the only lesson I planned today, that I also rushed to the copier this morning with a quick revision of my other class’s lesson because yesterday’s trial was such an utter failure that I wanted today’s students to have a better shot at comprehension.

They will do what they want. They will put little or no effort into a story about their lives and wonder why I put so much effort into the words describing mine. “2,200 posts?” another boy chimes in, calculator-phone in hand, “that’s like you’ve been writing every day for the past eight years straight.”

“That’s exactly what I have done.” And his eyes widen even more as he slips the phone back into his pocket.

“What could you possibly think of to write?”

How could I summarize it for him (how could I admit how many of them have been haikus?)? How could he possibly understand a passion so extreme that guilt rides my insomnia if I take even a day, let alone a week, a month, without writing?

How could I not write, when the world is filled with so many ideas, so much beauty and frustration and kids who drive me nuts and make me love them within the same seconds of the same inglorious day?

Like the Moroccan student who, after our ten-minute free-write, wouldn’t stop, who begs me to read through her words describing her journey into a country that threw hate talk and cuss words at her name (which means generosity), at her religion (which means peace), at the center of her beautiful soul.

Like the A students who put a stop, online, to the Nickelodeon banter on the class discussion.

Like the student (straight from Ethiopia) who has only been a presence in my room for a few months and stops by after school to tell me today, broken English and all, that his family has to move to Utah, and he wants to thank me for the “great much of knowledge” that I have given him.

Like the quiet persistence of the introverts whose words they share with me on shallow screens, turning their light just so, exposing their torn experiences with adolescence, with depression, with whatever shadows have followed them into this too-well-lit, too-hot classroom today.

Later, I think of what I should have said to the boy so caught up on my hours of writing: There is always a reason to write. There is always something you could think of to put into words. There is always a moment worth capturing, however painful, however disappointing, however uplifting, that I try to fit into seventeen syllables, an image, an essay. 

There is no glory in these inglorious moments of our day-to-day lives.

But there is glory in words.

And that is what I am searching for. Every. Damn. Day.

 

 

 

An Educational Cocktail

You can enter any cafe in Spain and you will probably find the same two drinks: cheap Pilsner beer and local wine (OK, you can at least choose between red and white!). The Spanish palette for mixed drinks is limited to adding liqueur to coffee, it seems, and their availability of decent beer choices is abominable. But when it comes to education, Spaniards love a good cocktail.

Here are some instructions for making an educational cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

Ingredients:

1. Homogeneous groups of students segregated by ability who remain together all day long for years at a time, and are allowed to choose their own seats.
2. Heterogeneous teachers who range in age, management, and educational methodology.
3. A school building that does not provide resources such as technology, textbooks, government-funded lunch, or air conditioning.

Instructions:

1. Place all students in one classroom. Wait for intermittently ringing bells that will shake them up out of their seats while teachers dance through hallways crowded with other teachers and random students who have PE that period, to arrive and wrap the students up in a somewhat-chilled glass with a pinch of salt along the rim.
2. Spend three hours each week trying to settle the above shaking, using the cold stirrer of the teacher’s little authority to embed knowledge enough of one subject area to make a decent mixed drink, full of flavor and memorable enough to spill out onto the streets with jubilation.
3. Subdue them on four occasions per trimester with exams that make up the stark majority of their grades, consisting of arduous essay questions, but only about ten per exam. Their flavors will bleed through classes so that they will begin to taste more like eraser remnants than a decently mixed drink.
4. Shake up the cocktail a little just when the school year is getting cold by surprising only select groups of students in one grade of primary and one of secondary with the annual government test, whose topics, flavors, and question amounts you will never know or begin to be able to prepare for, similar to visiting the cafes in every city in Spain who may or may not have a menu, use local vocabulary non-translatable in any software to identify food items, and whose waiters never return after bringing you your order. (Surprise, surprise, we all like to guess what it is we’re bringing to our lips!)
5. If the cocktail spills, you may clean it up and refill it once, for free, but only once. After that, you will be run dry and stuck in the same situation as the rest of the third world: working shit jobs for little pay.

Alas, you can always look back at your educational experiences and say that you had the best mixed drink of all time: moving through the school system in Spain!

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?

Closed House

When I was a child, I always looked forward to my elementary school’s open house night. We would spend time in class creating artwork and projects showing off our classwork for our parents to see. Someone would make cookies to be laid out on plastic tables along the hallway. The teachers would get all dressed up, and they would be waiting happily at their classroom doors to meet and greet the parents.

I was always so excited to hold my parents’ hands, pull them through the hallways, and show them my desk. On it would be a writing sample, a math test, a piece of macaroni art. On the walls would be more displays of student work. The teacher would meander in and out of the room, casually chatting with parents or answering questions like, “What will the next unit be?” or, “How did you come up with the idea to have them make planetary mobiles out of different sized sports balls?”

There was no PowerPoint. There was no outlined agenda. There was not a four-page handout justifying the use of technology, the rigor of content, the guidelines for being prepared in ___th grade. There were no parents giving speeches about fundraising, principals introducing them and cheering them on. There was no gathering in the gym to brag about why this school is different and better than all the others because of this population of students, that method of math, these test scores, this money raised.

The open house, or when I moved to Denver, the back-to-school night, was simply a chance for parents, non-hovering, working (class) parents, to enjoy a small sample of what their children’s schooldays were like, to put a face to a name of the teacher their kids were talking about.

I sit here now at the first of three back-to-school nights of the year. I have just finished my first full day in the classroom, my first full day of balancing between teaching three overcrowded classes, observing three other teachers, covering a class, and having an after-school meeting where I was told, once again, that my ESL students will not continue to receive the support they so desperately need because my course isn’t required for graduation.

I sit here now in a two-hour sit-and-get presentation following (already completed) twenty pages of paperwork stating the same information, following daily e-mails about everything my daughter is and is not doing.

My child was not allowed to come.

I sit here now thinking of all the papers I need to grade for my second job; of my oldest daughter who started high school yesterday and is no longer speaking to me because everyone she’s met so far has asked her to follow them on Snapchat and I won’t allow her to have Snapchat; of my husband’s (so rare) harsh words about a carpool miscommunication that we were forced to exchange in the rush out the door, the rush to get three kids to three schools because “school choice” matters; of the letter Oh Nih Shar wrote to me about how she made bad choices in high school just like I did (as I confessed in my letter to my students)–and how grateful she’d been two years ago when I sent students to track her down and tell her (in cards and letters) we loved her even if she had to marry at fourteen.

I sit here now thinking that everything in this PowerPoint is information I’ve already heard in the paperwork and the forced (or your wait list spot will be lost) parent orientation in the spring, and didn’t I CHOOSE this school, and do you need to further convince me of its value?

I sit here now as a twenty-first century parent, a twenty-first century teacher, wondering, for the love of God, what have we done with our world?

Whatever happened to hands-on projects and cookies in the hallway and simply putting a face to a name?

To kids being accountable for their own work without us helicoptering over daily e-mails?

To teachers dressing up, slapping on a smile, and just offering a casual, kind word?

I sit here now in this closed house we call a school. This place where we’ve set impossible expectations for our students and their families. Where we are strapped not only with too much homework for sixth grade, but also too many technological addictions that leave our kids feeling left out, where schools only feed the fire by providing them with one-to-one technology.

This is the first of three for me. It is the second day of school. I am not home to fully (with text citations, I promise!) explain to my daughter why she can’t have Snapchat. To mull over TEN late-night emails and calls about my middle child’s detention, later cancelled, for our second school of choice. To make sure my youngest has packed her spork and sleeping bag for her upcoming camping trip.

My daughter is not pulling me down the hallway, excited to show me her pastel drawing. She, like the rest of us in this inundated-with-endless-information society we have created, is probably at home playing a video game or we-chatting with her friend in China or trying to figure out her standards-based math problem on Google Classroom.

And I am not there. I am here, in this closed school, wishing that a two-hour PowerPoint justification could transform into a two-minute meet and greet. That we could just trust that our children’s teachers are doing the right thing. That they could just trust us to raise them with the best intentions.

Wishing that we could have an open house. Not a closed society where choices burn us and bore us and take us away from things that truly matter:

Our time.

Our children.

Our happiness.

Views from the Road

The beauty of the road is so much more than views. It is the elevation loss and gain that sneaks up on you as quickly as the road snakes its way along the Snake River.

It is the surprise of the desert that has made its rural-America mark in southeastern Oregon.

It is the spontaneity of stopping at state parks for a peek at history and scenery so breathtaking you feel you’ve stepped into a mini Grand Canyon.

It is the trail our ancestors walked upon that you place your weary soles on now, however twisted and stolen it may be. It is still a silent beauty resting behind a sleepy Americana town, waiting for rediscovery and firsthand learning for three young women.

It is the creek sparkling in the hotter-than-expected northwestern sun, and the quick dip that makes an afternoon sparkle just as brightly.

It is the curve that moves from summit to limitless landscapes, to the expansive end of the Oregon Trail, played out in a quilt of farm fields, and the hope they held for a better life.

The road brings beauty, and within this beauty lies everything you’d expect and wouldn’t expect: children bickering, bits and pieces of trash and clothing piled up in the backseats, state lines that bear no stoppable signs, audiobooks and downloaded movies, snapshots taken from a moving vehicle, trucks that hog both lanes, treeless mountains and endless vineyards, poverty and wealth found behind fences and up on winery hilltops.

The road brings more than views of tall pines, sagebrush-only molehills, and sleepy rivers. It brings us all a new world view where we search for ourselves and find ourselves in each other. Where children find joy in only their siblings’ company, where the road promises a pool at the end of the day and a reality check about small city poverty to remind us of what we have.

Can you see it from an airplane, from a train ride, from a walk down the block?

Never quite like the views you’ll find when you hit the open road. The views of nature, of civilization… of yourself.

You just need one set of keys, a whole lot of gumption, and a pair of soul-searching eyes, and you can find yourself a whole new world view.