eighteen years finished
with this mask that hides us all
bleeds into normal doldrums
(life's quick, painful truths)
sometimes numbers lie
(yet, if you want to trade spots...
you might understand)
cross the sea to wholly see
how corrupt we are
I learned a new Spanish word today. It’s the story of my life, really, the story of any language learner. The learning doesn’t end. It doesn’t end with a high school diploma or a college degree or a summer in Mexico or a year in Spain. It just builds, like bricks on a wall, one word after another.
Before I learned the new word, this is how I tried to say it, in my mind combining the word matar with the suffix –dor, knowing, of course (the year in Spain??) that matador means the person holding the red cape for the bull. The person who KILLS the bull: “¿Has oído del matador en Boulder?”
His response? “¿Matador? ¿Como la persona con los toros?”
No, not like the person in the ring with the bulls. Like the person with the AR-15 rifle who killed ten people two days ago thirty miles from our house.
How can I say this to my child who, two days ago, for the third time, left a slipper in the laundry room sink where the washer drains and flooded my basement?
How can I say this to my child, who, two years ago, crossed three borders to find his way into my home?
How can I find the right word?
Google Translate. Shooter: Tirador.
Tirar: Throw. Suffix: -dor–person who…
Person who… throws?
The word in Spanish for SHOOTER is person who THROWS?
He was in the living room and I couldn’t see his face. And though we have an agreement that I speak to him in English and he responds to me in Spanish, I didn’t mince into English this time. Because he might hear some cockeyed version of this story somewhere else, and sometimes things get lost in translation.
“El tirador? Quien mató diez personas en un supermercado treinta millas de aquí? El asistió nuestra escuela por un año.”
His response: “¿Es un gringo?”
Spanish gone, I whispered, “Yes.” I didn’t want to say it out loud. I didn’t want to say out loud what the world might be shouting right now. I didn’t want to tell this boy that yes, like you, he came to this country hoping for a better life, and yes, like you, he faced racism and prejudice wherever he went, and yes, like you, learning a new language was a struggle.
Instead, the word hung between us. Tirador. Like someone holding a baseball, ready for the pitch. Someone holding a Koosh, ready for a classroom game of Silent Ball. Someone who didn’t know what to do with his anger or fear or loss, someone who walked the same hallways I walked, as a teacher in this high school, as a student in the same middle school I attended, a lost boy who couldn’t find his way.
My son had no other response. His childhood consisted of practically everyone he knew dying of poverty or gang violence, so the shock just isn’t the same.
Instead, I went to work. He came to school. That same place where the tirador walked, that same bubble where I thought the world wouldn’t come crashing down all around me. That glorious Italian architecture wooing me into an imaginary perfection.
“We’re all just processing this. Baked goods are always good.”
And how it popped in my mouth, that sweet and perfect bread.
And my daughters, my three daughters where this school has been the center of their lives, as daughters of the teacher, as students of the school, as children of the world?
“They shouldn’t sell guns to anyone with a penis. Obviously, that’s the best way to eliminate mass shootings.”
And how will we walk in these doors? How will we walk into a supermarket? How will we face the world that we have created?
How will we shape our boys?
The boys who leave slippers in sinks and put FIVE blankets UNDER a fitted sheet and spend a year blasting a space heater instead of wrapping themselves in the warmth that exists under the covers?
The boy who comes home to me and screams, “You allowed our daughter to pay a 20% tip to a carpet cleaner??? What were you doing??”
“Well, the soccer practice got moved, and it was only an hour, so I was walking the dog…” (If only I had the cute pic to demonstrate):
“So now you’re a soccer mom, huh? A mom to him. When, a month ago, you said you’d separate yourself, that he needed to figure everything out on his own, that he’s a man, a tenant, that he needed to take the bus or sign up for soccer or buy the cleats or ride his bike or…”
“Are you done?” I ask my boy, my boy I married at twenty, well before my prefrontal cortex was fully developed, well before I knew what it was to be an adult, just like that 21-year-old boy who was allowed to buy a mass-murdering rifle?
“Well…” he won’t finish, knowing I am done.
“Well, I guess I am. I’m a fucking soccer mom.”
What I don’t say: Better a soccer mom than … Yet the sentence falls flat. It is as empty as the hallways of my high school in the midst of a pandemic. The thoughts are dark, behind the stage, behind the social media, behind those fucking bullets, and broken and cruel and loving and hopeful all at the same damn time.
Better a soccer mom who drives him to every practice and spends $300 on soccer gear and $464 on carpet cleaning because my eighteen-year-old daughter thought a 20% tip was better than pissing off her mama than…
Than a tirador?
Throw me a line. Because this world is fucking drowning me.
And worse, it’s drowning these boys who are just searching for a line to grab onto.
words or lack thereof—
too many or not enough
yet never just right
no snow day for us
just the struggle through this path
that is this school year
a wilting orchid
brought by an empty classroom:
symbol of my month
or this calendar
hiding (not hiding) events
never. ending. tasks.
It’s been almost a year since our world shut down, and 465,000+ deaths later (just in the U.S.), nothing is changing any time soon. Nothing changes. Or we take one step forward (oust Trump) and two steps back (acquit Trump). One step forward (vaccines are on the way) and two steps back (virus variants could beat vaccines).
But I don’t want to write about steps forward or back. I want to write about the little things. The hundred little things that are a part of everyday life and that are no longer a part of everyday life.
I’m back at school now, and what a mess. Never mind that I’m teaching simultaneously to ten students in my room and fifteen more at home, everyone logged into the Google Meet.
But I don’t want to write about that mess. I want to write about my tea. How, for seventeen years of teaching, when the bell rings, I step into the hallway with my fellow teachers and greet students at the door. I stand there thoroughly enjoying my passing period with my hot and sugary, creamy tea and give fist bumps and hugs and hellos as my kids meander in from the crowded and jubilant hallway.
You can’t stand there drinking tea with two masks on your face.
I want to write about past assignments. Creating beautiful, colorful slideshows that we’d print out every year for Culture Fest, put on poster boards to create a collage of the multicultural world in my classroom. Newcomers cutting out hearts for Valentine’s Day, hands of gratitude for Thanksgiving, holding books in their hands, and reading with the endless string of volunteers. The kids sitting in my room at lunch, before school, after school, jabbering in seven languages and communicating through laughter and music.
I want to write about walking my dog in my neighborhood and not having to cross to the other side of the street when I see a person on the same sidewalk fifty feet in front of me.
I want to write about packing my leftovers and eating lunch at the long table, about all the small conversations I no longer have with my colleagues, conversations about the government, the school, the kids, our love lives, our lack of love lives, our kids, our nieces and nephews, our aging parents, our truths.
I want to write about seeing a smile, a genuine smile, on a friend’s or a stranger’s face without it being hidden by a mask.
I want to write about being exhausted on a weeknight and walking five blocks to the local restaurant instead of putting dinner on the stove.
About those small, everyday moments. Stopping at the grocery store to surprise the students with donuts that they can eat in class. Making brownies for my colleagues’ birthdays. My kids getting up at the same time every day, piling into the car with me, trekking the ten minutes to school. Driving them to all their endless activities, watching them master the floor routine or cut their time in a race or perform at a pep rally. Knowing that they see their teachers’ faces every day and don’t hide themselves behind a letter on a screen, ignoring the world.
Knowing that if they need help, a human face will come with a pass and pull them out of the classroom, and they don’t have to remember all on their own some random appointment on Google Meet. (Oh, not another Google Meet…)
I want to write about walking into that 1924 masterpiece of architecture every day, knowing it will be filled with a microcosm of our perfectly-imperfect world, not empty hallways and masked faces.
I want to write about how easy teaching is when you can walk around the room, pat a student on the back, crouch down next to another, whisper advice to a third, listen to the thoughts of a fourth, and so on until you’ve talked to every last one. Talked. Really talked.
I want to write about how these little, seemingly-meaningless, everyday events, now absent for nearly a year, are … life.
Life isn’t a ski trip or a mansion or your dream career or your sought-after sports car.
Life is in each of these moments that are now gone. Twisted and torn, covered and broken.
These hundred little moments that once seemed so basic, so dull, yet whose absence has created a void that feels as frozen as a stream that never freezes.
So here I am. Mid-February 2021. Staring at this stream on a night too cold to be walking. And missing the hundred little things that used to make a life.
an exhausting day
with my spirit-week “jersey”
and this fake smile
hidden by these masks
that have broken our world
like a rootless orchid
but this cat. this cat.
a soft purrfection presence
worth a real grin.