Beyond the Bars

To avoid pouring water down the drain, I spend ninety minutes washing dishes in two pans, running water out to my new mulch to dump, and putting everything away while Bruce researches home equity loans and Trump tax cuts that hurt, rather than help, our current situation.

Behind the bars of my security door, I take this picture of the sewer company’s progress replacing a portion of our main drain.

Behind the bars of this security door, I hide from the American Dream. The one that we are all promised and few of us ever attain. The one where we could afford to buy a house, afford to deal with that house’s expenses, afford to send our children to college or even pay off the loans we might still have from our own degrees.

I hide from the dream of all of my grandparents, a combination of immigrants and endlessly American, one grandfather with an eighth grade education, one with a high school diploma, who were able to raise large families and pay off mortgages well before retirement. On ONE income.

I hide from the audacity of insurance that we carry on our homes, our health, our lives. From the premiums we pay that won’t cover pre-existing conditions (like pregnancy!) or pre-existing problems on our properties (like drains), or pre-existing hope–from all the thousands and thousands of dollars we pour into these plans that leave us empty, behind bars, unable to operate a backhoe.

I hide from the for-sale houses in my neighborhood that are now so outrageously priced that my family, and none of the other families on my block, would ever be able to afford to buy the homes we stand in.

Behind the bars of my security door, I am as insecure as everyone in my generation. The generation that faces housing costs that are equivalent to more than fifty percent of what we earn in a month. The generation of debt that is impossible to avoid even with the best budget. The generation that has made the choice to bring children into this world only to constantly think: why would I bring children into this world? Children I feel inadequate to provide for, children who will face even higher college costs, children who will be straddled with debt for their entire adult lives?

Behind the bars, I cannot see the buyers of the $769,000 remodel on the next block. Where they come from. What jobs they have. What magical formula they applied for that allowed them to take a mortgage that costs more than what our two incomes bring home in a month.

Behind the bars, I hear the Spanish language spilling from the mouths of the workers who have to dig a hole in a yard on a holiday. With perfect efficiency, they have repaired a ten-foot section of pipe within two hours, and they will move on to the next family’s crisis, and the next, and the next, before going home to houses on the other side of town that they also likely can barely afford, because we all know that the $6000 we just paid for that pipe is lining the pockets of a white, male, English-only CEO.

Behind the bars, I live in my dream house, my four-bedroom, two-bathroom, beautiful-garden dream house that we waited seventeen years to purchase. I raise a family of three daughters whose pay may never match their male counterparts but, despite this, whose intelligence and candor will allow them to live the life of their dreams. I share my meals, my home, and my love with my husband who has managed our finances to such perfection that we have flawless credit, making an application for an equity loan for both our properties (because nothing can just happen to this house–both need new main drains), virtually seamless. We both work hard at our dream jobs–teaching and telecom–in order to make this picture perfect.

With the door open, before they rebury the dirt, I snap a picture of our pretty kitty hiding behind my glass of stress wine.

I sit on our paid-for leather recliner and feel the cool breeze of early summer and think about my students who have crossed the world to be a part of this American Dream, and how hard they work to make that dream possible, to learn English and learn how to navigate the complexities of our society that sometimes make us feel like we’re all going down the drain. I think of how hard my husband and I have worked to make this day possible–to give my girls a summer trip to Spain, a year in Spain, to see nearly all fifty states–because of how careful we have been with our money. I think of the health insurance that paid for most of my husband’s surgery and how my grandmother’s baby sister died of a simple infection in her mouth after tripping up on a wooden popsicle stick, all because they couldn’t afford a doctor.

With the door open, we host family friends who make us laugh until we cry, whose daughter will join us in Spain, whose presence makes us appreciate what we have surrounding us in life–a life filled with laughter, love, support.

With the door open and the Spanish-speaking workers gone, the Siberian iris frames my kitty, my pet, my perfect yard. I know that I have given so much to get to this picture, and I know I still have more to give. I have daughters who are lucky enough to have access to all the technology, diversity, and coursework that comes from an urban education, and who will enter their adult lives with an open-minded understanding of the world. I have a house that we can afford and enjoy without feeling like our money is going down the drain. I have a job that brings the global perspective to every choice I make in one of the most beautiful buildings our city has to offer. I have a marriage that has lasted from childhood to adulthood, with all the post-adolescent turmoil and trauma, all the sorrow and joy, that comes with making it work for twenty years.

With my door open, I wait for the American Dream. Somehow, some day, some way, I will see how it is both easy and difficult to achieve. If I would learn to always open the door and move beyond the bars, I would see that not everything is going down the drain. I would see the beauty in every choice, the brutality in every loss, and find a way to make a set of silver linings sweeter than a sip of stress wine.

I would be the wife, the teacher, the mother of that perfect picture. That perfect picture would be me.

 

 

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.

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).

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

Return of the Jedi

Star Wars costume show
followed by our nation’s truth:
the stench of failure

it seeps through the stacks
into our souls’ library:
let’s check ourselves out

depression so rank
we can’t even choose a book
from our city’s shelves

soon we will rise up
upon realization
of Trumpocracy

but it will take faith
beyond what fits in a poem
to fight the Dark Side

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Honesty. Squared.

It’s a Friday in January and my mouth is running rampant. She came, she asked, and I don’t lie.

I know that people hate the truth, and the truth hurts (me the most–sometimes I think this), but she wanted the truth, and had twenty different ways for us to share it with her, most of them anonymous.

But I said what I thought. What we all think. What needs changing. What already works. I had evidence and examples, just like I always tell my students to write in their ACEITCEIT paragraphs. And I splayed my soul in front of God and everyone–I got a 3 (7 is the best), and Nick was as honest as could be when he spoke to me, and said, ‘I sat in my garage for three hours last night in turmoil over this’–and that humanization of the score meant more to me than anything else. That humanization–that’s what teachers want. 

And do you know what they said (of course)? You let him give you a 3?

As if they hadn’t heard the whole conversation. As if it weren’t enough, the admittance, the heart on sleeve, the truth.

The, Why can’t you be a little more honest?

On with my day. Two more classes in the afternoon. Coming in a bit tired and a bit disgruntled about the first standardized test of the semester they took yesterday, but still willing to work for me. To discuss and argue about the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and try to decide which one they thought was most important, and write a paragraph about it (ACEIT today, just ACEIT).

If I’d known sophomore year was going to be all about paragraphs… one begins, unable to finish as she shakes her hands between sentences. But look at the progress you have made! I begin, but am interrupted by knock at the door number four for period five, with a para and a stack of papers three feet thick. Oh my God, what have I done? I start to ask, but cut myself off when I realize it’s the first four chapters of I Am Malala, copied times 160, because we still don’t have the books on our tablets.

You just saved my life, I whisper, and pile the pile on the desks.

Then, just after I thought my day was done after my sixth period valiantly pointed out a grammatical error on my sentence stem (Have you ever had an HONORS ELD course?? You should try it some time. Come by any day at 1:11), I remembered my ultimate task: covering the severe needs special education class. Seventh period. On Friday.

There is no amount of money in the world that could be a fair salary for what these women do every day. With needs that range from nonverbal to highly functioning, students who are obsessed with either Play-Doh or making sure my watch is exposed from under my long-sleeved shirt, to vacuuming relentlessly and walking around only on knees, to the computer dying mid-class and the wheelchair-bound girls moaning in distress, to the speech-language-pathologist teaching the alphabet to one girl for fifty minute straight, there. Is. No. Fair. Salary.

Before I left, I saw a man who I visited last summer during one of our home visits. He was chain smoking and playing violent video games in the projects, his tiny apartment nothing but white windowless walls. He was kind and adept, and described his rather difficult job of trying to keep severely autistic teenage boys from harming others. I suggested he apply at our school since his daughter would be attending there. You have a severe needs program there? I didn’t even know! Today I saw him for the first time, and we fist-bumped. You’re the reason I even have this job, he told me.

Best moment of my day.

Or, the walk. Yes, I got in a walk after all that honesty and writing and chaos. Around the park with the little dog we’re watching. And the winter light sparkled just so on those geese, perfect silhouettes against the season.


These moments allowed to me before Izzy entered the car and spilled the entire sex ed story, provided by none other than Planned Parenthood and a literal wooden penis named Woody. Yes, they demonstrated how to put the condom on Woody. Yes, “Becca” taught them how to insert a female condom using only her fingers. Yes, they passed around an IUD and pressed it against their skin so everyone in the class could see what it felt like. Yes, the main way to prevent pregnancy is abstinence.

Yes, we live in Denver now, where it’s as liberal as it gets, apparently.

No, this is not the sex ed you remember.

I wonder why my almost-fourteen-year-old thinks nothing about telling me the whole sex ed story? Could it be that she’s my too-honest daughter?

No matter. We made it home and I made dinner. Or rather, I stuck some chicken and potatoes in the oven and called it dinner while I searched for ski condos in Crested Butte. (More than an hour later…) Dinner’s ready!!! Condo is booked!! Friday is done!!! 

It’s a Friday in January, and my mouth is running rampant. But at least I’m being honest about it.

 

To Laugh Until I Cry. To Live Until I Die.

In the crook of early January, three weeks since seeing my students, on a cold wintry Saturday morning I shlep across town to make lesson plans with three other colleagues.

Later I will heat water for hot tea and curl in my recliner with a book, wishing I could write a novel as lyrically beautiful as Caramelo as my children wander in and out of rooms, in and out of our house and the neighbor’s, in and out of wanting to be near their dear old mom.

This after two attempts to jumpstart the old Hyundai whose lights I left on in our trek to the grandparents’ house last night.

This after listening to dating tales and math updates and wondering what it would really be like to be a single woman in modern America.

This after coloring intricate books with the girls in the brief time between our latest tech argument and the neighbor’s reemergence.

So is our Saturday, chicken defrosting in the sink, chores done and Echo playing my Pandora playlist to suit the color of my mood.

No dog to walk, no true purpose to the day other than making plans for a class no one really wants to teach.

What sits in the back of my mind is how easily I want to be able to relax. To have a deep and thought-provoking conversation that is justifiably, blood-burningly exciting. To laugh until I cry. To live until I die.

To take these lonely household moments and flip them over or back or somewhere else, when my children were small and my Chihuahua never left the warmth of my leg, when my marriage was young and everything we thought and did was about each other, not some game or book or phone or faraway friend.

In the crook of early January, holidays left out on the curb waiting for a second chance at life (mulch me till I can be reborn!), the cold of winter settles into my bones. The winter of this year, of my children’s childhood, of my marriage, nineteen years in the making.

Even with the beauty of the flakes that fall, their demise lies in slushy streets and icy black pavement, ready to trick any masterful driver, so used to winter but not its ugly, dry-grassed truth that lies beneath the surface.

In the crook of early January, I wait for the sun to rise high in the sky. For the snow to melt. For the tree to be taken. For the hollowness that hides inside this nook to break open in me a new way of looking at the world. For the bend of this season to straighten out into a road I can see, wide and clear and as questionless as a summer’s day.

But in the crook of January, there are no summer days. There are only questions.