Better

Dear Erika,

I have been teaching for eighteen years. Aurora, Parker, Spain, Denver. I (mostly) grew up in Denver, where the public school system is pretty much a shitshow compared to upstate New York, where I learned everything by age eleven that was then repeated at Merrill Middle School.

I have seen every teaching style, from direct-lecture to let’s-let-the-students-decide (DSA before what it is now). My former school (in Parker) paid $20,000 annually for us to be a part of a program that was based on improving teaching by learning through our peers. Learning labs. Peer observations. The whole gamut.

Just a bit of background to let you know that I haven’t just stood in front of a group of Newcomers for eighteen years.

I’ve seen, co-taught with, and even evaluated, every type of teacher. The let-loose, out-of-control-classes type of teacher. The expert-in-every-way, loving-just-enough type of teacher. The middle-of-the-road teacher.

And it’s taken more than a week for me to write this to you. And I know that he already left and I would never in a million years deny you the opportunity to stay home with your beautiful child.

Yet when I asked you, point-blank as I always do, if you’d come back? It breaks my heart that you shrugged.

Because you are NOT the let-loose, out-of-control-classes type of teacher, nor the middle-of-the-road teacher. You know and I know that you are the one.

The one who, in your own subtle fashion, captures the entire class. Calling on every kid. Listening to what they have to say. Taking in their expressions and their hidden voices. Reading aloud. Helping them to understand the complexities of our oppressive system while acknowledging their experiences with it.

You once brought your mother with you to a PD I was running. How absurd, that I was running a PD for YOU to learn from. As if you couldn’t have been teaching us all, in your calm and supportive way, how to be better. Your mother, also a teacher, who gave you what you have, who put everything into you that makes you who you are.

Better at teaching.

Better at not having those gut-wrenching reactions.

Better at being truthful without being hurtful.

Better at being yourself.

I wish I could be there to witness what you are about to endeavor. The chasing of toddlers. The balancing of life with a firefighter. The even-keeled response to life that encompasses who you are.

I wish I could be there to thank you. Because you are not just a teacher. You are one of the teachers who listened to me when I cried for my daughter’s soul and.

Saved her.

You’re one in a million. Better than I will ever be.

And I hope you know that. I hope those hundreds of kids who have shuffled through your classroom know that.

And that you won’t just be a statistic.

And that you’ll come back.

Because there has never been a better time to have a good teacher. The one with the Birkenstocks. The one whose beauty fills the room. The one whose patience emanates.

One of the best.

Better than the best.

A Boy of Eighteen Years

So many nights of no sleep lost to you. It’s all I can think about on this rainy Wednesday, my mother’s birthday, a cool rain that kept me awake with the endless thoughts of your cold cell, your cold refusal, and my cold ignorance.

Here I sit in my mostly empty classroom, the students done for the year, or done till Monday for me, when I give up three weeks of my summer to give my Newcomers a chance to see the city, learn how to fill out a job application, make a budget, make a meal together.

Remember last year when I tried to get you to come to the program and you blew it off half the time, arrived late when you came, never took notes, and flirted with all the girls instead of paying attention?

You were like that from the beginning. When I called Bruce and asked him if I could bring you home two and a half years ago, he said to me, “But you barely know the kid… and how do you know what he’s really like?” And my gut sank, and I sucked in my breath because you had been nothing but apathetic, misbehaving trouble from the moment you walked in. But I didn’t tell Bruce that. Because you were a boy of eighteen years, and you needed a chance, a home, and someone to believe in you.

I just got into an argument with a colleague about this intuition I have which he claims can’t be true: that I almost always can tell just who a person is within one or two meetings, and I am almost always right.

I was right about you and wrong about myself, and I sacrificed more than two years of my family’s happiness trying to show you that you could take hold of a different way of looking at the world.

But all you wanted was that damn car, that speed, that recklessness that drives so many young boys into cells and gun stores.

And who’s to stop them?

When my husband donned his high school cap and gown after a tumultuous educational experience, having been held back in second and fifth grades then promoted halfway through seventh and barely passing eighth, he walked right across that stage and across our country to San Antonio, just down the road from Uvalde, to don a uniform and learn how to shoot a rifle in the Air Force and begin a career that he would later abandon.

He was a boy of eighteen, just like you were when you came to my house, just like Salvador Ramos, Payton Gendron, Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa, all the boys whose faces I feel I have somehow met in my classroom or otherwise, but he didn’t join the military so he could blow things up and learn how to shoot.

He enlisted because he wanted a future for himself that didn’t involve working in his daddy’s shadow at the cotton mill, because he couldn’t see himself in college, because he wanted the safety and security that so many of us crave.

And is he so different now, twenty-six years later, the father of my three children, the detail-oriented Airman First Class who checks our credit score with the regularity of the rising sun?

Older, yes. Jaded, a little. More liberal? Of course (he’s married to me).

But he is still that boy who knew better than to argue with a cop or buy a gun or bully girls on the Internet.

And he didn’t have your background, and we can all blame these backgrounds till we’re blue in the face. But what of the backgrounds of the two boys who started this sickness, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who came from the perfect middle-class life?

What possesses an 18-year-old boy to choose to forgo a decent future for a life of crime, or worse, death by mass shooting?

I was thinking about all these boys, all these shooters, before you called me from jail the other day. And I know that you think I shouldn’t compare you to them, but I can’t help it. Not because I think you would do that, but because I’m afraid you will.

You have the same tendencies. Resistance to authority. Self-entitlement. High-school burnout. Internet addiction. Recklessness. Ingratitude.

Maybe, just like those boys, you would claim that no one has ever loved you. Or that every adult in your life has failed you. Or that you’re better now than you were when you were younger.

I don’t know what your reasons are. I will never know. I will never understand how an eighteen-year-old boy can walk into a gun store and buy 362 rounds of ammunition to kill fourth-graders just as well as I will never understand how after more than two years of me trying to guide you, love you, offer you safety and security and a home and a future, you lit it all on fire in a matter of months, burning through money, burning through your next two homes, burning fuel into three other states till you found yourself in jail, penniless, without your precious phone, knowing only my number.

I hate myself today, this rainy day in June, for knowing your number, and not just saying no. Because no matter what happens to you, no matter what anyone says to me about how “this isn’t your fault”, I will always carry the burden of failure, of not following my gut, of giving you a chance you never wanted to have.

I met my husband when I was nineteen and he had just turned twenty, and we married each other within a year. He hasn’t changed much; nor have I. And even though you are no longer a part of our lives, we are still going to be the good people we were when we were young.

And you are still going to be the same person I met two and a half years ago.

And I want you to go on with your life. Stop calling me. Give me my life so that I can take my Newcomers to the zoo, to Red Rocks, to the museum, to all the places you never wanted to go. So that I don’t have to hear my girls complain about how you treated me.

So that I never lose another night of sleep trying to make you a better person.

Tomorrow Morning

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.

Vittetoes Do Campfire

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.

Threatening.

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.

Let them rule.

Just take a look at the three girls I have raised who have to face this.

Tomorrow morning.

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.

I am here for you. For a million years.

And I will still be here for you.

Tomorrow morning.

Stairway F

H was in a mood today because she wasn’t feeling well, and we all suffered. She called out her former friend and said she wouldn’t participate in the therapy session (though she did) during the first class, and in the second class, she sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and did her work without a word.

When it was time to visit the school food bank before trekking home on the train, she was definitely not up to it. I looked at my recently-arrived Afghan girl whom H has been escorting to and from school every day, and H looked right back at me. They were both standing in Stairway F, not Stairway R, the one that leads to the food bank.

“Well… are you going to wait for R to go to the food bank?” (H’s sister and brother had already fled the premises and were five blocks down Louisiana Avenue, halfway home).

“We’re going home. She can’t go home alone.” It might have been a dirty look H gave me, an exhausted look, a middle-child look.

H is from Sudan and doesn’t speak R’s language. But she lives five blocks away from her, and even though the train takes an hour to bring them both to my school, I convinced R’s caseworker that it was worth her staying, that we have a food bank and a newcomer program with three hours of English and two hours of math and a summer program and therapists and patience, and this Sudanese family that lives five blocks away who could show her how to take the train… But what they wanted was an escort, a female escort, who would make sure that she would be safe.

(When we were learning past tense verbs yesterday via a story about a man who had a bad day, my para talked H through her horrible story about her bad day, where, just like the man in the story who missed his bus, she missed her train because R was late. And H is never, never late. And she nailed those past tense verbs, her long braids that her sister entwined spilling down her back like a river of emotion.)

I had to let them walk down Stairway F. (It was just a few years back that I discovered how many stairways are in our building. They go all the way up to X, if you were wondering how a school built a hundred years ago with three additions tries to fit the world into its walls. Stairway X is in the 1987 addition with the new gym and its fancy foyer and its secret passage up to the third-floor batting cage.)

I digress.

I let them go, and I walked the rest of my class down the second-floor hallway to Stairway R, to the food bank where my most-recently-arrived Afghan boy told me the whole story, through his broken English and broken heart and the translator app on his phone, about the series of scarred slashes on his arm.

“The Taliban?”

Scars so deep that they are still pink, as if cut by a suicidal knife, as if done yesterday. He has photos on his phone from the day of the event, less than a year back, when he was working in a pharmacy that the Taliban decided to bomb, shattering the glass on all the windows, sending the glass into his forerarm, his shoulder, his soul.

“Can you walk with me through the food bank and show me how to get the food?”

The patient Wash-Park mother was making a list of new students. He didn’t know just how to add his name, but his verbal skills are over-the-top amazing.
“How many people are in your house?” I asked because the form asks.

“Twelve. In two rooms,” he informed me, holding up two fingers to prove to me he understood.

“How many children? Adults?”

“Eight children and four adults.”

And before we had walked through, before we had picked out chai tea and lentils and halal meat and handfuls of fresh vegetables, filling not one or two, but three bags for him to carry across the city on two city buses, H appeared in front of me, cutting the line with R, exhausted and sick and putting her arm around her, making sure that she had as many bags of food that she could carry home to her huge family, and…

That is what it is like to teach Newcomer English. Find your H, take the right stairway, and fill your bags with food and hope.

Ravine

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.

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?

How fucking sad is that ravine?

For Kevin

Dear Family,                                                                                                   

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.

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Thursday, 13 April 1995

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.

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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.

Kevin’s high school yearbook page from 1995.