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.

 

A Credible Threat

At 12:39 a.m., my husband’s phone rang. A text message beeped. He rolled over and turned it off, not revealing to me the message, though I tossed and turned for the next fewer-than-five hours of “sleep” until my alarm startled me into a flood of my own messages. Realities of life in America in 2019.

One person, an 18-year-old child, lost and confused, dead before the day was over, shut down every major school district in a massive metropolitan area today.

This child, infatuated with the Columbine massacre that has been the backbone of her school upbringing, made “a credible threat” to “a school” and kept all the parents, teachers, officials, and students in a state of shock for the remainder of the day.

A girl, a lost girl brought up by school lockdowns, a mass shooting every day of her young life (of all of our lives), school shootings that have taken the lives of teens and six-year-olds, schools surrounded by armed police officers and security guards, and social media filled with conspiracy theorists and bullying…

Was she a credible threat, or was it us?

Is it us?

When will guns ever be considered a credible threat? When will gun stores who sell shotguns to 18-year-old out-of-state children be considered a credible threat? When will assault rifles be considered a credible threat? When will her online banterings (cries for help), the banterings of every filled-with-angst teen, be considered a credible threat?

One “shoe bomber” entered a plane. We remove our shoes in security.

Thousands of children died in car accidents. We put them in car seats.

Thirty babies died in baby swings. We recall the swing.

Are these credible threats?

Just as Sol Pais grew up with the Columbine tragedy as a backstory to her school experience, I have grown into my teaching career, my parenting life, with its everyday reality. I was a junior in college when the front pages of both newspapers in Denver were filled for weeks with the news of,  Why? Who? How? All the major networks sent reporters that day for an emergency special. All of America, seeing the horrific scene played out on television, sat in numb disbelief.

Twenty years later, hundreds of school shootings later, there might be a few headlines for a day or two. A growing number of protests. A teary-eyed president’s remarks. An ignorant president’s remarks.

Yet, we have done everything but what we need to do to prevent the credible threat of another mass shooting.

We have lockdowns and lockouts at least four times per school year just for practice. Our kids huddle like rats in cages under desks in a dark corner of the classroom, always acutely unaware if this will or will not be the day they die.

We have more security guards and armed police officers walking the hallways. Some schools even arm teachers.

We watch videos to start the school year showing active shooter training for our district staff.

We have metal detectors, clear backpacks, and every exterior door locked to outsiders.

We have to talk to our kids, all of our kids–our students and our own–on a regular basis about reporting threats to Safe2Tell, about keeping an eye on suspicious students, adults, about what guns can and will do.

But…

The most credible threat in the world, the simplest solution, has never even been considered.

What if we just stopped selling guns? Assault weapons?

What if this 18-year-old child barely knew about Columbine because, after all the horrifying media attention after it occurred, our senators and representatives went back to Congress and represented the victims, rather than the NRA, and passed a bill that could save every credible threat like this from ever happening?

What if, at 12:39 a.m., I could dream a peaceful dream, and not have to think about what I’ll say to my daughters today and my students tomorrow?

There is only one credible threat here, and it is not an 18-year-old child.

It is ourselves. Our government. Our inability to bring the life, liberty, and security that we so proudly proclaim we offer in this “dreamland” of the United States.

This Is Why I Will Strike

I just want to think about how hard-won this moment is. This day. This five of us skiing down a mountain together. This money we didn’t have before that we have now.

This fresh powder.

This view. Could you beat that view if you went anywhere else in the world? Well, could you?

I don’t want to think about the five years we, a family of five, lived on a frozen, constituents-unwilling-to-vote-on-a-mill-levy teacher’s salary of $48,000. The $10,000 out-of-pocket expenses we paid to give birth to our third child. The penny-pinching. The laying-out-$400-every-three-months to earn those goddamn fifteen credits so I could get a raise if I … changed school districts.

I don’t want to think about how Spain screwed me out of a decent salary and we came home afterward with $19,000 in debt, more than any we’ve had as a married couple.

I don’t want to think about the TWO 1998 cars we have outside our house right now, car-payment free.

I don’t want to think about a teacher’s strike. I don’t want to think about my refugees trekking across town on two buses and being huddled into the auditorium to wait, without teachers, the long seven hours until they trek back, because if they don’t wait, they might not have a meal that day.

About the hundreds of hours I, and every teacher I know, has put into grading, planning, meeting, educating (ourselves and them), in the ten months between August and June. Hundreds of hours outside our contract day listening to students tell us their traumas that are greater than any soul could bear, listening to our admin and school district rate us as failures when we wake before dawn and go home after dusk to bring our best selves into that classroom every day, listening to our coworkers decide between renting a slumlord shithole or buying a house an hour away…

Listening.

I don’t want to think about the thousands of union workers who died for this day. For this choice. For a society where corporate greed is not the only answer.

I just want to see my husband and my three girls gliding down this Colorado slope, this Colorado hope.

I want to ski. To smile. To rejoice.

I don’t want to go on strike.

But I will.

Just like I walked in and out of Manual High School in 1994 when my teachers asked me to support them.

Just like I lived on pittance pay for the early part of my children’s lives.

Just like every other union member everywhere who’s looking to find empathy in the eyes of the corporate monsters that rule our society.

I will strike.

And I will ski.

And we will win ourselves a bluebird day.