A Thousand Words

You came to me in the hallway of a school that I had mixed feelings about on a night in mid-December that I had mixed feelings about (I’m a teacher, and I was annoyed about the timing), and your tone was a little bit too grateful.

Is it possible to be too grateful?

That mid-December night was before the pandemic, before the isolation, before I even knew your name. And you put your hands on my hands and your eyes on my eyes and said to me: “I just wanted to thank you. Because your daughter saved my daughter’s life.”

They were in seventh grade (one of the worst grades). And I knew you meant it, though my shy child hadn’t even mentioned your daughter’s name at the dinner table.

Yet.

I want to tell you now, on your fiftieth birthday, that I can’t buy a decent gift other than this silly gag gift for your stock-tank “pool” and soon-to-be six-person hot tub. I can’t photograph “The Lovers” or paint “The Fly That Looks Like a Bird in the Sunset Scene” with acrylics and talent like you can.

But I can write a thousand words.

And I’ll try to make them worth as much as a picture.

The picture of you with your hands on my hands. Of you sitting in my backyard for a thrown-together fall party around the Solo Stove, then going home and buying one and giving ME credit for the idea. Of you trying to hide behind this tree, because you don’t want your dreadlocks, your beautiful dreadlocks, to outshine the flowers.

(This far along, I don’t know if I can limit this picture to a thousand words.)

Of you in that bar/laundry-drying front room with the original-owners’ Nebraska-farm barnwood walls bearing down on us, when you poured out your whole soul with a sip of bourbon, with a sip of trust, and trusted.

Me.

And I listened and tried my best not to take sides. And my husband said, “But why would she choose you? You’re barely friends.”

But you chose me, in that December hallway, in that barnwood barroom, in that part of yourself, to be your friend.

I want to capture a picture of how much it means to me to be your friend.

Of you, who I can text-rant, text-cry, text-breakdown until the ultimate five minutes of three dots and a, “You want to come over?” invitation when I’m already in my pajamas, leather moccasins and all, and there’s no question that Rosie is going to sit in my lap and your daughter is going to make me dinner and your son is going to praise the concoction of meats and cheese he created and Guy is going to entertain us all with his stories.

On a Monday night.

Of you with your hands on my hands, your eyes on my eyes, your heart on my heart, telling me not to cut the strawberry stems, warning me about the upcoming winter storm, teaching me and all your second-graders how to garden. All your COVID-traumatized second-graders who you did nothing but publicly praise and nothing but quietly worry over and save.

A picture isn’t enough. A thousand words isn’t enough.

Because you–I–can’t encapsulate, in a blog post or a birthday card or a gag gift, how much you mean to me.

You once sent Lilly on a trip with me in the middle of a lockdown. You praised me on social media because my packing list required three masks. I drove the five kids–Lilly, Rio, Mythili, Naomi, and Fabian–to three campsites in as many states, took them on a pontoon, on a series of bikes up the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, on a reservoir along the Snake River, into the depths of Wyoming gun country, into the depths of Montana right-wing ignorance, and you?

You were nothing but grateful.

To thank someone whose ideas are crazier than hers? To hear that voice that you’ve heard in your head your whole life but now has vocal chords and that beautiful face?

I can’t tell you what it means to me.

It means more than that moment when you told me that my daughter saved your daughter from the bullies that epitomize seventh grade.

Because we are fully-grown adults now, and those bullies still bully on the other side of those barnwood walls.

Yet.

You are too grateful to be bullied. As is she.

And you put that light in her and that light in my youngest and that light in the world, and I wish I could paint it. I wish I could pick up the brush and choose just the right texture, the correct mixture of pale blue, soft white, maybe a shade of gray, and be that painting that belongs on an easel first and a living room wall later.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words.

And there will never be enough words, colors, hands, or hearts to describe how much you mean to me.

Happy birthday, Tonja. Thank you for taking your hands into my hands, my baby into your home, and my heart into your heart.

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.

That Smile

Dear Kurt,

The only reason I called you out in front of three or more people at the bar is not because my best friend is married to a firefighter, or that Erika, the calmest and most even-keeled human on earth, couldn’t handle your new schedule.

It’s because you once won an award for that smile on your face.

It’s more than a smile, of course. It’s your whole soul, put on perfectly honest display for the 175 (or whatever the number might be) of students who cycle in and out of your classroom each year.

It’s a smile that leads more than a hundred teachers to scream on a sidewalk for three days begging for a better life. A smile that brought her to you for a secluded wedding in the New Mexico hills. A smile that calms the hearts of a sixteen-year-old broken heart, a sixteen-year-old’s questioning of the world.

You can’t win an award for something that isn’t genuine.

And I hate that you won’t be the other end of the Sche-… Germanic name that is our department. That you won’t be the first to tell me I’m talking too much or the last one to throw in the lunchtime joke.

I hate that you put those numbers of students up last year and I hate that you know exactly what they don’t mean and that you had already completed your EMT course before those numbers were even posted, because you were unhappy.

And the last thing that a winner of the Smile Award needs.

Is to be unhappy.

So instead? Instead of me telling you my children’s drama, instead of seeing that beautiful, award-winning grin?

I want you to be happy. To work your two-and-four-day schedule and say goodbye to us (but leave us Erika, please), and keep winning those awards.

Those awards she didn’t give you: patience. Truth. Leadership. Accountability. All the goddamn buzzwords that you curse and yet live by. Because you are the teacher and leader that everyone needed and never had.

Because you are genuine, and I love you and hate you and want to be you all in the same smile.

And you deserve to put that smile on your face like you mean it. And I know you mean it.