cycle summer camp--
real-life language lessons
(fix, pump, pedal, grin)
On my second daughter’s due date, I woke before dawn on that November Wednesday to check the state of affairs: had my labor begun? Had my water broken? Had Bush been reelected?
Only the third was true, and I waddled out of our mid-level bedroom (close to the bathroom) to trek down to the basement to tell Bruce. As soon as I stepped onto the thick, lush, high-quality carpet we’d spent thousands of dollars on that summer in our basement-finishing saga, I felt a soggy, foot-chilling squish.
And then I heard the water. No, not my water breaking. A pipe breaking. And my candidate losing. And my baby not coming. All on a dreary November morning twelve years back. And I spent the morning after election day carrying books from the basement to the second floor, shifting furniture, wishing for a different president and a drier basement. It was a disappointing day, but not a devastating one. Not a frightful one.
With Bush’s second term, we liberals held our breaths to see what might happen. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full force, and the ensuing investigations as well. We were three years past 9/11 and still reeling in its shadow. The economy was shaky at best, and its effects played out not long after Mythili (eleven days late) entered the world: Bruce was soon told his job as a contractor for AT&T could end at any moment; no other prospects were in sight; and my miniature in-home childcare “business” began to crumble before my eyes.
It was a tough time for us. For many Americans. Not long after, the housing market crashed around us thanks to limited regulations on banks and uneducated masses. Millions of people lost their homes, their jobs, their livelihood.
It was easy to blame Bush, though he couldn’t wholly be at fault.
Just like the other Americans I have lived amongst for my entire life, Bruce and I persevered. Since he couldn’t find work, I returned to teaching, leaving my two-and-a-half-year-old and nine-month-old daughters in his full-time care. I had just finished my master’s degree, and it was my third year of teaching, so we lived on $37,000 that first year. We had dial up internet, no cell phones, zero debt, used cloth diapers, breast-fed the baby, and never went out to eat.
It wasn’t the easiest of times, and Bush certainly wouldn’t go down in history as the worst president, nor the best. But with all the uncertainty that plagued his presidency, from September 11 to mideastern conflicts to crashing housing markets, I never, ever felt that our entire culture was at risk of losing itself. I brought my daughter into the world two weeks after he continued his presidency, and though I was disappointed at his leadership and frustrated with his international war-mongering, I was never truly afraid. I continued with my life, we continued our parenthood journey and brought our third daughter into the world in 2006, all before a candidate I admired had even mentioned his platform.
Now, here we are: 2016. My second child turns twelve next week, and another election cycle has reared its ugly head.
But this is not just another election cycle. It has been filled with conspiracies and vitriol on both sides. The Democratic party has been at near collapse, and the GOP has come up with a string of completely incompetent candidates, finally settling on the most frightening one of all: Donald Trump.
I am thirty-eight years old, and I have been following elections my entire life, thanks to highly informed and politicized parents (being born into a family of journalists led to this). I have seen negative campaign ads since I was young enough to wake on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons. I still remember campaign promises like, “Read my lips: I will not raise taxes” and my father’s fierce criticism when Bush Sr. was proven a liar once he became president. I participated in two mock elections in my elementary school in my small town in upstate New York: I was one of the five percent who voted first for Mondale and his female vice-president running mate, and one of the two percent who voted for Dukakis when he was up against Bush Sr.
I realized early on, listening to what my parents taught me, that it didn’t matter if no one around us really believed in the same things we did. What mattered was social justice. Equal rights for all people, LGBTQ, people from varying religions, and people of every race. What mattered was equal rights for women, especially in regards to education and career.
So, while I am not a career politician, I know politics. Liberal politics are in my blood, and as much a part of my core beliefs as anything else.
Yes, I am a bleeding heart liberal. That’s why I cried that day on my brand-new soggy carpet when my baby wouldn’t come and Bush was marking her entrance into the world. That’s why I proudly posted my Dukakis poster on the school bus window for the whole world to see, even when all the other kids laughed at me and told me Dukakis would never win.
I care about my candidates. But more importantly, I care about the issues that they represent.
And now we are in a new age of presidential candidacy. We have social media that blows everything out of proportion and turns father against son, sister against brother. We have minute-by-minute clips of every word every candidate ever spoke.
We hear it all. We hear a candidate suggest Muslims should be listed on a national registry. We watch him mock a disabled man. We hear him brag about assaulting women and grabbing them by the pussy. We hear degrading remarks about the way women look. We hear him ramble on in incomprehensible sentences. We hear him speak of deporting immigrants, of building walls against them, of claiming Mexicans are rapists and thieves. We hear him proclaim that the election system is rigged. That Obama is the worst president ever. That his opposing candidate should be imprisoned. We hear him say that climate change was created by the Chinese and is a scam.
Vitriol is the center of this campaign. It’s all over the media, all over social media, and all over the living, breathing world.
It is what my student hears while waiting at a public bus stop and two white girls first accuse her of being a Mexican who should go back to her country, and then, on further examination of her looks, determine she’s an Arab who is also a terrorist that President Trump will get rid of.
It is marked in neo-Nazi, pro-Trump graffiti within hours of his election.
It follows the next generation like a dark shadow, leaving them in shaking, fearful tears as they discuss the stripping of their LGBTQ rights at GSA club; as they wonder if their family will be one of the two million he plans to deport in the first 100 days of presidency; as they proclaim their gratitude for their parents still taking the risk to bring them to this nation that they thought was free; as they navigate the realization that at least half of the people they know now have a presidential voice to support and back their once-silent bigotry.
It follows the teachers, the public servants: We had a special faculty meeting today to help us help the students cope with their fear, their mourning, their plans for action–immigration lawyers, extra counselors, and mental health specialists are just a phone call away. Yeah, you heard me right–we had to bring in extra mental health specialists to help us cope with a man who was just elected president.
Twelve years into my daughter’s life, I am truly afraid for the first time of my decision to become a parent. I am afraid of what the world has become. I am afraid of what will happen to my students. I am afraid that all the steps we have made toward equal rights and protection of women will be destroyed. I am afraid for my friends of color, my Muslim friends, my LGBTQ friends.
I am afraid. I am not angry. I am not bitter.
I am afraid.
I am a bleeding heart liberal, born and bred. And my heart is beating too wildly this week. This month. These next four years.
There is no soggy carpet chilling my steps. There is no rebirth. I have the faces of three daughters whose lives I fear will be plagued with sexism or ended by policies against renewable energy. I have the faces of thousands of students shuffling through my mind who I fear will not have a future in my country.
I am afraid.
I am afraid.
We have just elected this man to be our president. The water has just broken on a new era in America: the era that openly accepts a bigoted leader. And I am drowning.
Please, someone, teach me how to swim.
Another year is over, and it ends with a tinge of the same sinking feeling that every year begins with. The constant question all teachers ask themselves as they tackle this challenging career: Is this worth it?
Sometimes it is just a small thing that can make you sad or frustrated or feeling burned out. A student who didn’t come back to make up the final he blew off. An administrator who wouldn’t renew a colleague’s contract. A message from admin that our keys, checkout form, rooms, and us, are all being carefully micro-managed. (We can be trusted to instill knowledge and take charge over 150 students in a year, but god forbid we leave without being checked to ensure we followed through and cleaned out our damn desks).
But for me this year, after three years of teaching at the same school, it is the hollow disappointment of not having any real friends where I work.
While the thought crosses my mind off and on throughout the year as colleagues gather together for happy hours that I cannot attend because of childcare needs, or weekend parties or outings where a group of all the people I work most closely with have all attended and I only see the event posted on Facebook (not invited myself), today, on the last day of the year, the smallest event brought me to tears.
I had just heated up my lunch and was sitting alone in the office. A colleague came in and asked me to watch a student who was taking a test in the next room because she was going out to lunch. And while she offered to get me something while she was out, since I’d already brought my lunch, I said I’d be fine to eat in the classroom with the student.
But when I walked into the hall, it hit me: There they all were, in their too-cool-for-high-school clique, purses in hand, chatting and giggling their way to their outing together.
They had already made plans.
I sat alone with the student and then graded her final, texting her teacher that she was done (a text–one of several in the past few months, including accolades toward him and gratitude for one thing or another–he did not respond to).
I brought the test up to the assessment coordinator and went back down to my lonely, empty classroom, and cried.
Because this job is hard enough. Because I fight every day for these kids just like they do. Because I try to reach out to them, invite them to things, and get outright blacklisted. Because I don’t know why I’ve been blacklisted–is it because I have an opinion? Because I’m a “cynic”? Because I don’t fit into their mold of single and alcoholic?
Because it would be nice to have a friend, even a singular friend, who could support me in this constant battle that is teacherhood.
Because it’s the end of the year, and I won’t see or hear from any of them all summer, and … I guess it doesn’t matter.
At my former school, I had so many great colleagues. We ate lunch together every day and laughed so hard that someone literally started choking once and another teacher had to perform the Heimlich to save him. We’d go to happy hour, occasionally, or children’s events, occasionally, or parties. A couple of them I would get together with during the summer, just for kicks, because we were FRIENDS.
And on days like this, when there were no students? There wasn’t a soul in the building who stayed inside eating lunch alone. We’d gather in groups, ride together to a local restaurant to have lunch, and see the rest of the crew there anyway, and we’d make a giant table and laugh until we cried.
And I knew that going to Spain was going to change all that and that I wouldn’t be going back there.
But, three years in, on the last day of school, it just. Fucking. Hurts.
So this is how my year ends. With a pity party.
Looking forward to a summer with my family, a real party with my actual friends this weekend, and a break from this place. God knows I need one.
It is Sunday night, and I haven’t thought about you all weekend. You have been sitting in ungraded piles on the tables by the door of my classroom. You have been unread and unmarked emails that I have chosen to ignore. Because I am raising three kids. And I am raising thousands of kids. And I have to have a balance between the two.
Because Saturday was running from store to store to party to party to house to house to out to dinner to home/friends/love/hate.
Because Sunday was more running (to the Lego store) to appease my middle child who always feels a bit left out. And another party, and another set of meals to make.
Because I need to breathe for a moment and think about what is most important. Is it my administrator telling me she’s tracking our usage of tablets that don’t work half the time so she can send the data to the district? Is it the kids in my first period who have been pushed into lockers and called faggot/whore/freak/thot [that ho over there]/cunt and causing me to stop the entire lesson to beg me to listen?
Or is it my girls, who beg me to teach them cross-stitch and ask me to stay at the advisory party and want me to skate with them and want me to wake them up at 6:15 so that I can make pumpkin spice bagels and vanilla chai tea and spend a moment before work with them?
You tell me. Tell me how to decide. Tell me how I am supposed to carry the weight of a thousand students inside the hazel eyes of the three girls I gave birth to.
Because thirteen years in, I am still not sure.
Because it’s Sunday night, and I am sitting in my dream house, that, thirteen years in, I can afford. Because the candles are burning and the music is playing and my girls have gone to bed. Because I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I have thank-you cards to write and grocery lists to make and weekend plans to destroy and a thousand kids, including my own, to raise.
Because there is never enough time.
And that is why I write. Why I love them. Why I hate how much they take from me. Why I live for how much they GIVE me.
And why I will not live by administrative threats. By school district doomsdays. Why I choose to live by these small requests that pile up around me like leaves falling in autumn. “Do something, Miss.” “Listen to us.” “Take me to the mall even if you hate it.” “Stay at my party, please?!” “I need you to cover me up.”
Because we all need that soft touch. That quilt of love wrapped around all that is evil in the world. That mother’s love. For all the thousands of kids who have it, who will never have it, who long to have it.
That is why.
Because I’m supposed to be watching a Spanish crap TV show right now and reading a Spanish book. Because I have a moment. The first one in ten weeks. Where I can sit back and breathe… And suck it all in. And think about all I haven’t done, all I have ever wanted to do. Because life is supposed to be perfect now that I live in this castle.
Never mind the kid who mumbled, “I hate this class.”
The daughter who dropped the garage door to the netherworld, the never-to-be-opened-again purgatory we’re all trapped in.
The Internet that wouldn’t work for half the day, ruining my entire team’s lessons and setting our high expectations for student success back three weeks… because that’s the next time the computers are free.
The youngest, in fourth grade, who has to do a full-on science fair project, a poetry anthology with twenty poems completely analyzed, illustrated, and with a Works Cited MLA-formatted bibliography … AND read 57 pages in a novel a week, do twenty math problems a night, and fight with her tiny face in the mirror at the top of her alley-product “desk” about what she can accomplish at the ripe old age of nine.
That kid in my class who comes every day and won’t even lift a pencil. Who won’t respond to questions. Who won’t look me in the eye. Who won’t, who won’t, who won’t.
And the part of me that will never understand why he and she and they don’t have it built into their capillaries this work, work, work ethic.
Because I’ve failed. I’m failing. I’m failing at this. This teacherhood. This motherhood. This homeownership-hood. This hood that masks our lives, that covers up who we really are as we place ourselves into tiny boxes that will never quite close.
And it’s only Wednesday.
And I want to go to bed tonight thinking about M, the boy in my class who sat head down for half the lesson, and wouldn’t write down a single question. Yet I called on him anyway, and he glared at me, and snapped back, “Why me? You know I don’t have any questions.” And D, the Afghani-trek-across-Iraq-to-Turkey-survivor, shouting across, “Come on, M, you can do it,” and the smile I forced on my face as I said, “But I know you CAN make good questions” and all twenty-seven of them waited, and he asked, “What would the world be like without guns?” and I thanked him and moved onto the next kid and by the end of class, he came up to me proudly, all ten questions filled in, even answers, to show me he could do it… Which I already knew he could.
And I want to go to bed tonight thinking about their goofy faces. Spoons over eyes waiting to lap up Bonnie Brae Ice Cream at this new restaurant in my new ‘hood… because BBIC follows me everywhere, and because they are kids. Kids who slam down garage doors and fail math tests and forget to bring home books and play with dolls and fight each other over who gets to see the mirror in the restaurant bathroom and race each other to the car and put spoons over their eyes like aliens. Kids who live, fully live, their childhood.
And I want to go to bed tonight thinking about El Amante Turco, and all the hours I’ve spent listening to Esmeralda Santiago’s soothing Puerto Rican accent, and all the words I’ve learned and bilingualism I’ve infused, morning noon and night, even if it isn’t what my Spanish teacher told me to listen to.
And I want to go to bed tonight underneath a hood big enough to cover my broken-down, brand-spankin-new, seventeen-year-wait king size bed. One that will cover me up, block out the light, and remind me of the dawn that will break through tomorrow.
Because there’s always tomorrow.
It is 14:52 on the eve of ESL summer school. We have spent an entire day, AN ENTIRE DAY, planning for a sixty-five-minute lesson from curriculum that we first laid our eyes on this morning after a completely different and unrelated ENTIRE DAY presentation of curriculum yesterday. And at this moment, he announces that tomorrow, for the first day, the schedule will be “different.” That all our lesson planning has just been flushed down the toilet that has become our society.
I cried on my two-mile walk this morning. Not because it was too hot, or the views of the Perfect Denver Neighborhood weren’t impeccable. Or because I had to teach summer school for four weeks to pay for summer camp for my girls for ONE. But because of an article I read about the University of Phoenix, of all things. About how, in five years, their enrollment has decreased by fifty percent. And starting July 1st, a new law will require that they prove that their graduates make enough money to pay back the loans that their for-profit greed has forced them to take.
I was thinking these things as I made my way across town to the locale of this year’s grant-funded summer school, the University of Denver, a NONprofit institution with gorgeous grounds and transgender bathrooms and air conditioning and classes that start at $1200 a CREDIT.
And how screwed I am. Not because I think that the University of Phoenix is so damn amazing that it could grind up the 100-year-old trees of Denver’s “Ivy League of the West.” But because I have to do this. I have to do this damn summer school and have a part time job as an adjunct-but-never-real professor, that I have to bend my will to the beck and call of disorganized, incapable-of-communicating administrators, all for the buck that burns across my back.
That the measly $600 that I sometimes earn in a month at the University of Phoenix is sometimes all that keeps us from bowing down to debt.
And when he comes in at 13:33 and tells me that they haven’t been able to contact more than 11 students for our summer school, I ask him if it will be cancelled, if I will be shit out of luck on all counts this Tuesday. “No worries… it’s already accounted for… a grant. No pasa nada.” And his blue eyes and Argentinian accent are slappable. “And who paid for it?” I demand, the third time in two months I’ve asked, a question he’s dodged until this moment. “Well… you have. The taxpayers. The READ Act.”
And it all circles back to me. The University of Denver grounds I stand on that have been manicured by professional gardeners. The school I could never afford to attend, nor will any of my children even think of applying to. The public education that is filled and funded with so many holes, twenty-seven gorgeous textbooks, full-color photos and activities galore, a slew of classroom supplies including an electric pencil sharpener, that 11 students will take advantage of … all the rest? To waste.
The “for-profit” evil University of Phoenix that has allowed my family to break free of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle that is a teacher’s salary, that allowed us to live on a pittance in Spain, that has allowed me to… breathe.
What is an education worth? Why won’t parents commit to a forty-five minute bus ride for free materials, expert teachers, individualized classes, and free breakfast and lunch? Why won’t the University of Denver be asked to publish data on how many students graduate with a super-fancy psychology degree and start their salaries at $22,000? Why won’t our government ever just see that EDUCATION SHOULD BE FREE??
This is my Tuesday. Let the games begin. The Hunger Games, real world style.
i take your words
heavy accent and all
put them in my pocket
a charm for today
they tickle my heart
almost take away the traffic noise
the hot rooms packed with pupils
and make me feel at home
make me miss my home
all in the same moment
you say eight is the magic number,
all the atoms crave its perfection
(was i born to study science,
the subject i so hated in school?)
i cried when i knew i wouldn’t be
a part of your class
(i begged her to change my schedule
and she made a small compromise)
i can’t say what it is
because it is too subtle to explain
(his words a blur of frustration
never trapped for them to see)
so the opposite of the smooth experience
that our students see every day
(a perfect partnership that takes
them, all of them, to a deeper understanding)
you say eight is the magic number–
the atoms exchange electrons
(to balance each other out,
to coexist in perfect harmony)
you see in me what i see in you
and it is not what anyone else sees
(and wrapped up in infinitesimal 8
the science becomes beautiful to me)
like a hunter in hiding,
you pounce perfectly
as I try to escape
you think you’ve caught me,
but your trap doesn’t dig–
my ankle is free for running
I offer you a portion,
a tiny morsel to munch,
but you are not a master huntsman.
you will only see me
as the prey you trapped too late,
the remainder of the meal left on the table.