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.

I Cry for his Loss

i cry for the card, for his loss,
 for his Iraqi-Syrian past,
 for all the burning hours of summer school
 where he committed himself
 to finishing high school in three years.
 
 i cry for his words, for his loss,
 his inescapable self that has hidden
 a kind face in a chaotic classroom,
 his sly smile catching my every
 snuck-in witty remark
 (even when no one else could).
 
 i cry for the system, for his loss,
 shuffled by our government’s wars
 between homelands that stole his home,
 for his pride in Iraqi architecture
 that he may never see again.
 
 i cry for his future, for his loss,
 for how unequivocally kind his soul remains
 after all he has witnessed in twenty-one years,
 for his brothers who wait under his watchful shadow,
 for our country to give him a chance.
 
 i cry for his words, for my loss,
 to not have his presence in my classroom,
 to have the nicest thing anyone’s
 ever written to me
 disappear with a graduation ceremony.
 
 i cry for the world, for their loss,
 for robbing refugees of their rights,
 for keeping the beauty that is him,
 that is within all of them,
 from sharing their strength
 with all of us, inshallah,
 for a brighter tomorrow.
 

The Swirling Reality of Everyday Life

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I watch the white world spin outside the third story window. Flakes, long absent, now twirl in a late winter dance, clinging to bare branches, reaching for a new hope.

I catch glimpses of the video–an analytical description of the autonomic nervous system. It is both too much and too little for me right now. The primitiveness of the hunt, the threat that is ever-present in our lives, has put me on this graph at full activation–State 1–always ready to react.

I want to be outside. To feel the flakes on my face. To bite the cold with shivering teeth. To pretend that winter will stay.

I want to be those bare branches, gathering snow in my arms, soaking up every last bit of moisture after too many days of drought.

The sky whitens as the swirls make their way across the city. The video provides a relatable example–how we react when we’re driving a car on a snowy evening and slide on a patch of ice. I giggle, minimally, and my co-worker turns her whole body towards me to be sure I see her how-dare-you? glare.

Does she not understand the irony? After a winter without snow, we’re watching a video with this particular example on a snowy afternoon?

Later, State 1 follows me as I rush out of the building, late to pick up my youngest. I find a parking spot half a block away and rush against the crowd of parents and children leaving the school. I stomp through the slushy parking lot and round the corner of the building as the first grade teachers close their doors. There she is, the final student standing in the cold, holding her hood around her eyes and huddling against the brick wall.

She asks for both of my gloves before we arrive at the car, blasts the heat, and turns on the heated seat, but she doesn’t complain. For once, she doesn’t complain, and I find myself breathing in, breathing out, like the wild animal described in the video, ready to let go.

But I can’t let go. It’s the drive on ice in swirling snow, the counting of thousands of cookie dollars when I get home, the friend over, the constant mess, the story told of the one day the older girls caught–and almost missed–two city buses, the trek across town to the bank, the grocery stop, the endlessness of the swirling snow and the swirling reality of everyday life.

Before I jolt across the parking lot that separates the bank from the grocery store, I hear the sirens. The sound of panic, the crashing of metal. The slipping on ice.

I grab the few frozen items I need off the shelves and make my way back into the snake of traffic. It twitches and slithers in the shadow of blinking red and blue lights. The accident, less than five minutes behind me, four cars splattered in pieces across the intersection, firefighters fighting the good fight.

That could have been me.

I think about the graph in the video, the curving line, the constant dip that we find ourselves trapped inside, unable to get over the hump that could save our lives.

The panic that sets in when our kids won’t listen, when we’re running late, when we fuck up an interview, when we slip. On ice.

I make my way into the snake. In slow motion, we weave through the mess of the accident. I breathe in. Breathe out. Think of the words I will write. Of the children I will hug.

Of the irony of this swirling reality of everyday life.

And I laugh.

(No one glares at me).

Lead the Way… Or Find Someone Who Can

My hope for today (and this has been a hard day, let me tell you… this is getting harder every day): LEADERS.

A leader listens. A leader asks for help instead of demanding things to be done one (his/her) way. A leader inspires.

When Isabella was in fifth grade and we were looking at middle schools, I was so inspired by the positivity, the motivation, and the strength I saw in Brad White, the director of DSST: Byers, that I did the “unthinkable” as a public school, union teacher: I enrolled my daughter in a charter school. A charter school with tediously high, somewhat militaristic expectations. A NEW charter school.

Here’s one reason why: Brad did not get up there and spout out lies. He was genuine. Honest. He asked a parent of a special needs student to share her story of how accommodating the school had been, more than any other, to her son’s severe ADHD and specific learning disability. He told us all that his ultimate goal in life was to provide a college-ready education for every student regardless of income, ability, race, or nationality. And I believed him.

I still do.

He inspires the kids. He knows all the parents. He actually CARES. Every conversation I’ve ever had with him has been positive.

Next: my current principal, Jen Hanson. I have known her (off and on) for more than ten years, as I worked with her in Douglas County. She is an impassioned advocate for immigrants and refugees and speakers of languages other than English.

She is genuine. I have seen her cry on more than one occasion, and not fake, I-want-to-prove-I-care tears. Real tears. That’s how much she cares about what she believes in and the students she supports.

She values people for their strengths and works hard to make sure that in a positive way, she can help them grow.

So today, at the end of first period when Jen came into my room and asked me if a man could observe my classroom because he wanted to see a strong ELD classroom (and she chose mine), of course I said yes. I walked out into the hallway and who was the man?

Brad White.

What did he do once he realized it was my classroom that he would be observing?

He offered me a hug.

A leader listens. A leader learns. A leader strives to make the best out of everything and everyone.

There doesn’t have to be such a division between charter and public schools. If we could all have leaders like Brad or Jen, every school would be amazing.

So here’s my hope for today: find yourself a good leader. Stand by that person (because a true leader would never ask you to follow). Share in that person’s ideals and inspiration.

Offer a hug. And try to be more like the leader you emulate.

This is All I Have For Now

Hope for today: a new student came to my advisory. A Syrian refugee who has been here for 20 days. He could not communicate very well in English, but another newcomer from El Salvador who’s been here for a few months was able to help him with signs and support. He also took pictures on his tablet of everything I handed out and was able to run the words through an app that translated the words to Arabic. And, through the tablet translation, proudly told me at the end of class that he speaks three languages: Arabic, Turkish, and Kurdish.

I wonder what else he has stored behind those questioning eyes? I can’t wait to find out. And I’m so glad he made it through the Trumpocracy.

#standwithrefugees #standwithimmigrants