Balancing My Burdens

As a high school English teacher, I have heard hundreds of stories, and I’m not just talking about the melodramatic novels, plays, and memoirs we are sometimes forced to share with our students.

The burden of our students’ stories is something that all teachers must carry when we enter this profession. We must balance this burden in the midst of administering tests during most of our planning days for a month, attending staff meetings where we are told that we don’t deal with student trauma well enough right after attending staff meetings where we are told we’re not pushing them towards the test fast enough, right after being in class with students who are off-the-walls doing handstands (literally) or thinking about suicide (literally), right before being in class with students who don’t speak a word of English and all my paras are–you guessed it–testing, and these new Arabic-only students have come here with hearing impairments, broken hearing aids, and no money.

I have tried to balance this constant bombardment of burdens with my other role, my most important role in this life: being a mother to three daughters who will soon fully enter the male-dominated maelstrom we call a society.

And?

Most days I feel I fail at both. Some days I drown the sorrow with wine. Other days all I can feel is the freezing fresh air of a ski slope and a million tears of joy. Every day I feel the comfort and strength of the man I love, one who doesn’t contribute to the maelstrom.

Today is definitely one of the darker days. One of the days when I know that I have brought more of a burden than the average teacher onto myself by taking in this beautiful, kind, brokenhearted boy, who, amidst a series of relatively good news in recent weeks, had to share his whole sordid life story with the immigration lawyer today, had to explain the scars on his wrist, his thumb, his forehead, and the weight of his mother’s words behind those scars, had to hear that seeking asylum is an unwinnable case (never mind that just before the meeting he showed me a video exposing his hometown as the most dangerous city in the world to live, overrun by gangs) and that it will be two years if he’s lucky, three if it all goes well, and a 20% chance of never, that he will get. A. Work. Permit.

Not a Green Card. Not a driver’s license. Not an invitation to take a citizenship test.

A work permit.

Then to drive this teary-eyed, always-singing boy home for him to play his Spanish love songs all night long, to pluck along with his new guitar (a gift from my father, another man who doesn’t contribute to the maelstrom), for him to happily heat up some of the sandwiches he collected from the food bank to fill his unfillable teenage-boy stomach.

Then to have my middle child walk into the kitchen after her babysitting job and burst into tears.

Not because the triplets were whiny, not because the three-year-old threw toys at her again, not because babysitting isn’t her favorite thing.

Because they told her, after three weeks and mostly taking over the job from her baby sister (who solicited it to begin with) while Rio has play rehearsal, that they no longer wanted Rio to do it because she’s better.

Because she and I, this middle Mythili, haven’t been getting along lately because she’s fifteen and hates her mother, because she’s been calling me out for being too loud, too embarrassing, too forward, too judgmental, too ME, and because in this moment of inconsolable tears over thinking about what to say to Rio, Mythili and I are on the same painful page.

Because Riona has been hearing her whole life that she’s… too quiet. Too afraid to try new things. Too low to be in the regular group but too high to qualify for services. Too old to learn how to walk. Too immature to fit in with her sisters. Too messy.

Because Riona, after two hours of play rehearsal after eight hours of school after walking to and from school after doing her chores, made this iconic picture of her favorite things: the TV show Friends, an artist’s brush, a sunset background, and six–not five–cats, each with a symbol inside representing the members of our family: a pot for our papa chef, a heart for her mama, a music note for our five-weeks-in singing son, a star for our oldest dancer/actor/gymnast Izzy, a pencil for her artistic Mythili, and a paint palette for herself, the aspiring art teacher.

This is just one day, one story. One of the hundreds of stories that will make their way in and out of this heart within this cat, this heart between Bruce and me.

And I wonder which one will break me. Crying over my kids. Or crying over my kids.

I Just Have One Question

On the phone with the immigration lawyer four weeks ago: “I just have one question. What can we do at the school to get this boy out of a homeless shelter?”

“He needs someone to offer him a home and then we can begin the process of going through family court and applying for an SIJS visa.”

Five minutes later, calling my husband (which I NEVER do) in the middle of a school day:

Bruce: “What’s up?”

Me: “I just have one question.” Loooong pause.

Bruce: “Yeah…?”

Me: “Would you be willing to take this boy into our home?”

Bruce: “This boy who’s been in your class for three weeks and we know nothing about?”

Me: “… Yep.”

On the phone with the social worker, one day later:

Social worker: “Our ultimate goal is to place him with a Spanish-speaking family, although it doesn’t always work out that way. He told me that you might be willing to take him, and just so you know, I already Googled your house and everything I could find out about you. And I just have one question.”

Me: “Yes…?”

Social worker: “How do you feel about taking in a teenage boy when you have three teenage daughters living at home?”

(This was the easiest of these questions to answer).

In an email to the school psychologist, counselor, registrar, and social worker: “I just have one question. How does one take in a student in a situation like this?”

Response: “We don’t know.”

In my living room, three weeks later, meeting with the Undocumented Refugee Minor team of five adults–an interpreter, a bilingual social worker, a coordinator from Lutheran Family Services, a Guardian ad Litem lawyer, and a caseworker from the Department of Human Services. My puppy jumps from couch to couch, hovers on the floor with toys he begs them to throw, sniffs in their on-the-floor bags. Fabian holds the laser pointer and fiddles with the dog’s rampant scavenges for its source in the depths of the hardwood floor.

Social worker: “The primary goal of this program is to reunite you with your family. Let’s talk about all the family members you have in the U.S.”

So begins a lengthy discussion about every reason why his four family members cannot take him. One with a crime, one with a house too full, one in prison, and an uncle in Connecticut he doesn’t know.

Social worker: “Let’s talk about the uncle you don’t know. What if you went to visit?”

Fabian: “It’s too far.”

Social worker: “We could buy you a plane ticket. Pay for a hotel.”

Fabian: “…”

Social worker: “We don’t have to decide today. You can think about it. It’s always an option for your future. OK?”

Fabian: “OK.”

Fifteen minutes later, the meeting is coming to an end.

Social worker: “Now you both have the chance to ask any questions that you have.”

My quiet son, with red eyes and pulling his hands away from his downturned face, looks up and says, “Solo tengo una pregunta.”

We wait for the interpreter to repeat his words.

Fabian: “I just want to know how many times you are going to keep asking me to reunite with my family. Because I was in a homeless shelter for four months and no one in my family did anything for me, and I don’t want to reunite with them.”

Every mouth in the room: Silence.

I just have one question: What would you do?

Knowing that his journey across four borders and a lifetime of woes has ever-gratefully placed him in your living room. Knowing that you will lose sleep over this, waking in the middle of the night to police sirens thinking that ICE is coming, worrying that he will hate you, that he’ll turn back and re-cross those borders, that he won’t fit into your family. Knowing that when he sits in your classroom with all the others, they might make somewhat-joking, somewhat-bitter commentary about “your son.” Knowing that your daughters will get jealous over him being allowed to watch a movie on a weeknight or having a specially-made dinner and a piñata for his birthday. Knowing that people in your life are going to question every aspect of this choice (“College is coming up… can you afford this?” “Are you sure he’s not a criminal?” “Are you worried about having him in a house with three teenage daughters?”).

Knowing that for every day of your life, from the moment when he raised his face and asked his singular question, you will never forget its weight on your soul, on your humanity.

I just have one answer: love. It is the only response that is worth listening to out of every possibility. It is the only way to get through each of the borders that we must cross, each of the dark memories that plague us all, each of the questions we have always asked about what we could do.

We could love each other just a bit more.

What I Heard Today

“Hiking? In the forest? No. Only to look for firewood to cook our food. Not for fun.”

“Yes, I’ve ‘visited’ Mexico. I was there for two months waiting for the coyote.”

“In a room the size of this kitchen there were forty of us. They gave us blankets just like that [pointing to tinfoil]. And when they had to wake someone up to deport them, they woke all of us. And they came in every fifteen minutes to wake someone.”

“Hermano, mira. Hay una lavandería aquí en la casa.”

“My 23-year-old brother wanted to come, but he can’t run fast enough.”

“He can’t run fast enough?”

“To get on the train. I saw so many… broken legs, arms. Even a body with its legs completely amputated. You have to be able to run.”

“I crossed the Rio Grande on a raft.”

“I’ve never seen a dishwasher. We had to wash our clothes and dishes by hand.”

“Eggs, beans, and rice for lunch and dinner. Coffee for breakfast.”

“My cousin bought me the plane ticket, the phone, everything. And the detention center had all of his information, so when I arrived at the airport, the police were waiting for him.”

“$250 here for strep antibiotics? In my country it’s free. Being sick here is a luxury I guess.”

I guess it is.

Minutes

“Did you see that three blocks down, they’ve torn down a house and are building a mansion just like this one?” I complain on the drive up Florida Ave., noticing another mansion in place of a 1940s war home. “It’s happening. Right in our neighborhood.” Our neighborhood of 1960s NON-war, perfectly-good homes.

“Mama, all you do is complain. Do you realize that? You complain about everything.

I think for a moment. We’ve been in the car for five minutes, and this is my first complaint. Give me SOME credit.

***Three hours later.***

My youngest has her exhibition night. She presents a video with her BFF about the endlessly inevitable impacts of Westward Expansion on Native peoples. She has drawn a calming coloring page with polygons for her math class. She has developed a filter to determine how best to eliminate toxins from drinking water.

And now she is participating in a Socratic seminar, sitting in a circle with her classmates, discussing “technology,” the parents hovering on the outskirts.

In the blink of an eye, the topic moves from the dangers of texting while driving to the dangers of guns. A very well-spoken and adamant eighth grader sitting two seats down retorts, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. My father is in the military, and soldiers have learned how to handle guns respectfully. With control.”

It is 19:22 on a Thursday night. I have sat through two 90-minute classes and two meetings and one long-short drive, fixed a put-together-leftover-dinner, walked the dog, walked to this “perfect” school, and begged my husband to join me for this one last event, only to realize the intense permeation of these ideas.

***Three hours earlier***

“Do you see it, girls? Right there. The original house is gone. Only the scaffolding for a mansion in its place.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” my oldest, money-hungry oldest, demands.

“The best part of living in this neighborhood is how real the people are. How middle class they are. NOT rich. Not taking everything out from under the rest of us.”

But all the people taking everything out from under the rest of us actually surround us. They are in my youngest’s classroom. They are five miles away, intentionally driving an RV into a hijabi woman, mother and aunt to the most precious students one could ever imagine the joy of having in a classroom. They are this thirteen-year-old’s mother, who intervenes in the Socratic seminar when some students suggest that in other countries, there are no school shootings. That in America, maybe we should focus on mental health rather than providing guns to all citizens.

A bulldog, she shadows her daughter, raises her voice, raises her hefty body in a darkened stance, and indirectly threatens the eighth graders. “We as human beings… We are ALL human beings, right? You as a human being have the responsibility to get help if you have mental issues. You have the responsibility. No one else. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

I have to turn away. Suck in my breath. Stare at the wall. Clench my fists. Her teacher visibly notices my discomfort, walking towards me but not saying a word.

When I arrive home, all the news of the day is a heavy weight. My two girls who graduated nineteen months ago, who walked across Eritrea for fear of persecution, leaving their parents and home behind in search of a better life, who came to our country because their aunt lived here, who couldn’t tell me till the end of the year that the words of The Good Braider were so true for them, the protagonist counting her minutes on her cell phone, working extra hours to buy more minutes, were so true to them because they had to do the same to call home to their mother… And now?

And now some bastard who saw a hijabi Black woman walking home in the middle of a Wednesday from an ENGLISH CLASS rushed across two lanes to murder her?

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people, right?

“You’re not friends with that girl, are you?” I ask my baby daughter.

“God, no, Mama, she’s just awful.”

“OK, I’m just making sure because …” And I begin my rant about guns, the same rant they’ve heard their whole lives, the same rant that causes my middle child to hold up her hand and shout, “Enough with your opinions, Mama, it doesn’t really matter,” and then I hold up my ever-evil, ever-heartbreaking social media page where my close high school friend has to report that her Muslim son was threatened by a classmate to be shot that very afternoon, and I shout back, “It ABSOLUTELY matters, and this is why.”

It’s true. I complain about everything. I complain about injustice, and I will complain about it every minute of every day until the day I die. Injustice in the distribution of wealth. In immigration atrocities. In gun violence. In violent death from the gun of a soldier in the Middle East to the tires surrounding me in ever-so-fucking-golden-Denver.

I wish I could buy more minutes, too, just like Viola in The Good Braider. Just like Jumea and Salihah, who crossed mountains and oceans and discrimination to be given a chance that has been taken from them.

I wish I could buy more minutes of their smiles. Of how hard every immigrant I know works to build those mansions. To make this American Dream a reality. To put this darkness into perspective.

These are my minutes for today. My notes. They may sound like complaints, but they are tinged with the hope that someone will listen. Someone will donate. And someone will see that people don’t have to kill people.

 

Scarred for Life

I was eight when the plastic surgeons took their scalpels and shaved a thin layer of rectangular skin from my upper right thigh to carefully morph it onto my shoulder and, twenty stitches and forty-seven staples later, make me a new scar over my burn scar.

For the remaining years of my youth, every time I wore a swimsuit, a tank top, an open-necked dress, I had to answer questions. “What happened?” “How old were you?” “What were you doing?” “How much did it hurt?”

Even though I know my mother worried that the questions would always lead to blaming  her, no one ever asked me, “Where were your parents?”

Obviously, they had done the best that they could. After a few moments of shock when the six cups of water came tumbling down onto my ballerina-shoe sweatshirt, they ripped off the thick cotton and lifted me towards the sink, flushing me with cold water. They called the neighbor who was an EMT. They placed me in an ice-cold bath to try to soothe the bubbling blisters. They drove me to the hospital, to doctor appointment after doctor appointment for six months. They scheduled the surgery. My mother took off work for two weeks to care for me in and out of the hospital–her only vacation time of the year spent fretting over the major surgery her eight-year-old child had to undergo. The extra three days in the hospital because I just wouldn’t heal. The forty-five minutes I screamed after the surgery because the hospital was undergoing a major renovation and no one could find me a nurse to administer pain meds.

But no matter the sacrifice, no matter the recovery, no matter the gymnastics lessons I took that fall to stretch the skin, no matter the special silicone-filled vest I had to wear for months to press the new skin onto the old, that scar would always be there.

Primarily on my shoulder, but truly spilling beyond their surgical tools till all the way below my belly button, I was scarred for life.

Its bitter reminder stung me on my wedding day when I knew I could only pick a dress that would fully cover my shoulder.

On each of my children’s birthdays, when their anxious, hungry lips opened up a new wound in my left nipple that wouldn’t heal for six weeks of excruciating, needle-through-the-veins pain each time they nursed.

On every cock-eyed look I’d received throughout my life when people noticed the scar more than they noticed me.

I was eight years old when I had the best birthday of my life. My parents spoiled me that year because the surgery would prevent me from swimming in any of the five Finger Lakes for an entire summer, a punishment equal to hell for an upstate-New York kid. They let me have not one (the usual), but three friends spend the night. I got a Smurf watch and two Slinkys and a bouncy Gummi Bears toy that we played with for hours. My mom made a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting because I was obsessed with pink. They borrowed the neighbor’s VCR and let us stay up late watching movies. They made my night magical.

Despite everything–the ugliness of the scar, the ugliness of the pain–the scar became a part of me. So what if every time I went to the beach I’d get a look or too? At least I had a story to tell. At least it wasn’t worse. At least it was the worst thing that had happened to me as a child.

When my fiancé proposed to me more than ten years later, there was only one date I had in mind for my wedding day: 8.8.98. The number reflected everything–twenty years old, infinity, the life-changing events of my eighth year of life.

And though my mother always fretted over my scar, and though I feared making the choice I made yesterday for my entire adult life because of my fear of never healing and that cursed scar, I have no regrets.

It is dark. It is light. It felt like a cat scratching me a thousand times. But it did not feel like pouring six cups of boiling water onto myself. It did not feel like giving natural birth to three 9-pound babies. It did not feel like surgeons pulling forty-seven staples out of my skin graft.

It felt like infinity. Like the perfect figure 8.

Scarred for life. Just like I always have been and always will be.