My Classroom at Lunch

My classroom at lunch is typically a cacophony of teenage sounds. Shrieks about hangman clues, laughter that spills into the hallways, bitter rants about schedules or rules, quiet giggles over Instagram reels, outspoken conversations about everything ranging from trans rights to how much COVID has forever virally impacted us.

Over the years, so many students have spilled in and out of my classroom at lunch. Those introverted immigrants too afraid to try English, hiding in the back corner of my room with their Chromebooks watching YouTube clips of soap operas or music videos from back home. Those outgoing misfit groups who just want a place to do handstands or speak their own languages at the tops of their lungs. Those kids, always those kids who need a place to eat lunch, crying and laughing and singing and just.

Living.

My classroom at lunch was just a shadow of its former self today. Rio, my baby, sat in her usual spot in the back of the room, no friends surrounding her as she popped in her headphones and watched her videos. My colleague did the same at the desk she shared with me. Mythili had already gone home, too distraught and exhausted to even speak to her friends.

Instead, a string of teary-eyed bodies entered and exited, their voices caught in their throats, their arms open for sobbing, open-hearted embraces that lasted seconds, minutes…

“I guess it’s better to be here than at home because my mom couldn’t stop crying this morning.”

“I’ve never really dealt with death, so I don’t even know how I’m supposed to react or feel right now.”

“Remember that time when she…”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“If we ditch class, I just need to call my mom, and we have to be back for rehearsal. I’m glad we’re just reading lines today and I don’t have to act out a scene with Percy Jackson with tears streaming down my face.”

The hugs continue, the voices whisper, the tears disappear, and lunch comes to its usual end with the clock and the bell. No one smiles. No one looks back. No one in the hallway knows as that shuffling-to-class cacophony fills our ears and our broken hearts with the unwelcoming sounds of blissful ignorance.

And me? I still have three classes to teach to my Newcomers after a morning of running around testing various students on their national English proficiency exam, meanwhile making adaptations to lessons for my co-teachers, planning for my own classes, and responding to the string of emails about finding a new home for this boy who has lived with us for the past two years.

The weight of the words, the weight of the lack of words, from my classroom at lunch sits with me all afternoon as we learn about our favorite weather and I try, in the simplest English possible, to explain to my Arabic-speaking Sudanese and Yemeni immigrants the history of Martin Luther King, slavery, and the horrors of America. (Always a combination of cultural understanding and functional English, teaching Newcomers).

When I come home, Mythili won’t even look at me or talk to me. She hasn’t called her therapist as I asked her to do. She’s ready to go to her Noodles and Company job and screams at me to get out of her room and I just walk out and let her go to work without saying goodbye because what if I were to retaliate and when I wake up in the morning and go into her room, I find her dead, just like her friend’s mother did yesterday?

The friend in this picture, the truly lost soul.

My classroom at lunch was too quiet today.

Quiet doesn’t capture it. Quiet doesn’t capture the months between this photo and now when Mythili and her friends begged her to get help. To go to therapy. To rehab. When time and time again, she refused.

When her mother told me, “Everything about this stage in her life is ugly. Her clothes are ugly. Her attitude is ugly. Her grades are ugly. It’s just ugly.” And I wanted to shake her and tell her to shut up and to stop thinking of her kid that way. But I didn’t know her, and I didn’t. I didn’t do a thing, a goddamn thing.

When, a few months back, Mythili and her friends tried to set boundaries, telling her that she couldn’t use only her friends for therapy, she took too many drugs, ended up in the hospital, and her first reaction after her release was to explicitly threaten Mythili, promising to track her down and tear her from limb to limb.

Silence in all these months, Mythili doing the only things she could do–blocking her from her social media, filing an unfulfilled protective order against her, removing her from her contacts.

But you can’t block your memories. You can’t block out all those nights Mythili spent at her house, trying to console her, trying to convince her not to take any more drugs, trying to be all the love in the world that she felt she never had.

You can’t block that cacophony of heartbreak that will come into your classroom at lunch.

All these fragile and broken souls and all that they carry with them and all that they will see and do and witness in this awful world we’ve thrown at them.

You can’t bring her back. You can’t bring back the words. The friendship. The torment.

You can only hope to see that smile on your daughter’s face again. That childlike smile of pure joy that was lost for so long. You can only hope for peace in her heart, for friendships that will build her up instead of breaking her down, for the happy, jubilant voices of hope that fill a room.

That once filled my classroom at lunch.

Gratitude/Gratitud/يشكر

I was searching for a knife and I found myself standing in the ceramics room of chaos, otherwise known as Art Room Lunch.

Don’t worry. The knife was for a pie, not anything sinister. And it was a butter knife covered in clay, easily washed off in one of the many sinks, ready to cut through my store-bought pumpkin pie.

Yes, I wrote the words. Store-bought.

I cringe to even think of the admission. At least my cranberry sauce was homemade because God forbid I sell my entire soul to consumerism and mediocrity.

It was in the ceramics room, searching for and washing the knife, that I had a conversation with myself. Not my actual self, of course. My colleague. My friend. My self of fifteen years ago, when I had three tiny girls at home and it seemed all they did was scream… or, at least, cry to spend more time with me. When I couldn’t talk to my husband without a child between my legs, clinging to my breast, or pulling at my shirttail.

And it was so hard.

And here I am now, searching for a knife because between my two jobs and four teens I can’t seem to remember to bring one. My baby drove me to work this morning. My BABY. Fifteen, prepared to be the first of three to get her license on her sixteenth birthday, nine months out. My baby who, when I used to come home from work, wouldn’t let me leave the couch for a good ninety minutes. She needed to cuddle. To read stories. To nurse. To pet the kitty and the puppy. To be wholly mine since I took myself away from her for nine hours a day.

And now? She needs me to “chill” when I gasp at a too-sharp turn of the wheel. To allow her sleepovers on a whim and cash for shopping whenever I have it. To be sure I mention her name whenever I say that my daughters bake the Thanksgiving pies.

But most of the time, as with the other three, she is in her room. I hardly see her. She is FaceTiming friends or watching Friends. My middle is working or Instagramming. My oldest is away at college. And the boy we’ve taken in? He’s on the phone in his room.

There is no screaming. No clinging. If I want to have a conversation with my husband, I don’t have to call him on the way home from work, as my colleague told me today. I can just shut the door to our bedroom. No one will open it. Or we can talk while we walk the dog. We can take a tiny trip to Estes Park. We can talk in the morning, hours before our teens pop their eyes open, and no one will ever know.

No one will ever know how lonely it can be, without the screaming. The crying. The needing.

But I can’t say this to her. She is giving me a knife, and I have a pie to cut. Carne asada, tacos al pastor, shawarma, arepas, patacones, lasagna, and the life I live are waiting for me back in my own classroom.

Yet my lunchtime conversation is just what I needed. I needed to see a roomful of kids trying to shape ferns and mushrooms out of balls of clay. A distraught mother trying to navigate the work/life balance. The vibrant life of humans humming and thinking and creating and loving.

Living.

Because sometimes it feels like it’s just me. Just them. Just all of us. Alone in our rooms with the doors shut.

And sometimes, all we need is a butter knife and a slice of pumpkin pie, store-bought or not, to bring some gratitude to this Thanksgiving table.

This Thanksgiving life.

This Is Not Another Zucchini Post

I want this post to be about this zucchini. About this pathetic, limp, underdeveloped zucchini. The singular zucchini that grew in my garden this year.

That’s right. That’s accurate. And for any renowned gardeners, for any beginner gardeners, for anyone with a handful of zucchini seeds that sprout into the weed-like plant that I’ve always labeled zucchinis, for anyone who has, year after year, made enough zucchini bread to feed the entire nineteen-person English department and half of the block at Christmas, who has had enough zucchini to make pies and cakes and dinner every night for weeks, you could understand how painfully small and broken and brutally ugly this zucchini is.

And can’t I just sit here for forty minutes on a Monday night and cry over the singular garden zucchini that I chopped up and put into chicken marsala tonight, its flavorless flesh still so perfectly adaptable to any recipe?

No, I cannot. I cannot cry about how much I failed in my garden this year no matter how perfectly this pathetic zucchini encapsulates how much I have failed in my life.

What I am really writing about, English-teacher-symbolism be damned, is parenting. Or lack thereof. Mental health. Or lack thereof. Pain so deep, so dark, even a limp zucchini is too weak to be an accurate representation.

Oh no, you’re not gonna do this. You’re not gonna put that up for the whole world to see, are you?

I can already hear the critics. Like voices in the back of my brain, like cobwebs in the corner, telling me that We don’t talk about this.

And isn’t that the problem? Isn’t that exactly the whole problem? That it’s a secret? That it’s a faux pas? That we can’t say it out loud? That we can’t take that damn zucchini and throw it out into the middle of the street, ready for the next set of tires to splatter it, to expose its soft center and ready-for-next-spring seeds?

When they were little, and something broke like their finger nail or their Polly Pocket head or their sister’s promise to share, when they came to us crying, we knew just what to do. Trim the finger nail. Reattach the doll’s head. Have a conversation with their sister.

What about now? What about pandemic-social-media-climate-crisis-humanitarian-crisis-societal-collapse-adolescent-angst NOW?

Can we even say the words aloud, on a page, to each other?

What do you do when the one who is hurting your daughter is herself? With her thoughts, with a razor, with words on a page, with repeated mantras in her mind?

What do you do with yourself, Mama? How many times will you think, “If I had said this… If I had done this differently… If we weren’t in this situation… If I had listened… If I had stopped…” The ‘What-Ifs’ will haunt you worse than a Shel Silverstein poem.

But we’re no longer reading children’s poetry. We’re listening to screaming-guy music and painting our eyes as black as night and hiding in our rooms and holding dark secrets and shaking with bad news and confronting no one.

Especially ourselves.

Until someone confronts us.

I don’t have a picture of the courtroom. I don’t have a snapshot of me standing at my door at 2:30 in the morning last Friday, my husband out on a call for a telecommunications emergency while I dealt with the emergency that is my household, five and a half hours after calling 911, and the police officer bluntly telling me that a protection order against a juvenile is not likely to be approved in court, that I could invite him in for a criminal investigation if we’d like to file criminal charges, that if we miraculously got the order approved, then his job would be to protect and enforce it, that I could find the paperwork online, that

this

is

our

life

now.

I don’t have a picture of Monday morning, of how surprising it is how many people are out to breakfast in this diner downtown two blocks from the courthouse. Our consolation breakfast. Our after-filing-for-a-protection-order-against-one-of-her-best-friends breakfast.

Where did it start, and when? March 13, 2020, when we were all sent home for eighteen months of remote learning nightmares? The day we moved our kids away from everything they knew and placed them in a not-so-friendly classroom in Spain? The day we moved back? The moment she started high school? The moment she met this girl? The moment she stopped reading books in favor of Instagram? The day her period began?

This is my child:

This is my child:

This is my child.

And I want the world to know that I can grow zucchini. That I can have three beds overflowing with enough zucchini to feed the neighborhood. That it will fill every plate and erase the stress of holiday gift-giving, that it will easily blend in to any meal.

And that I can raise a child who isn’t lost, hurt by herself and others, threatened by the world in which we live.

That maybe I can’t. That maybe my garden and my parenting have failed me. That maybe I have failed her in a way I can never understand nor take back.

And that maybe, just maybe, the soil wasn’t right this year. The sun was too hot, the sky too dry. Maybe my daughter made the wrong friend. Maybe all of this is out of my control, and even though I only dug up one zucchini, and even though she’s lost, she’s not alone. She’s going to therapy and making progress. She’s smiling more. She’s setting boundaries with friends who she knows aren’t good for her. She’s saying no. She’s standing up. She’s not using the razor and instead finding her voice.

And maybe I fixed up her favorite meal tonight, chicken marsala, said zucchini still inside, and even though she had to work, I packed it up and put it in her black lunch bag with an apple and her favorite yogurt and a napkin and a fork and a spoon and no note.

Because she doesn’t need a note to know how much I love her. To know how much I feel her pain and want to take it from her. Every ounce. Every last seed.

And I want to plant it and start again. I want a new garden. A new tomorrow. Enough zucchinis for Kingsolver’s ‘Zucchini Larceny.’

Because we’ve been robbed. But we are not thieves. We are not victims.

We are gardeners. And someday soon, we will bloom again. And you won’t even be able to count how many loaves we will bake.