You came to me in the hallway of a school that I had mixed feelings about on a night in mid-December that I had mixed feelings about (I’m a teacher, and I was annoyed about the timing), and your tone was a little bit too grateful.
Is it possible to be too grateful?
That mid-December night was before the pandemic, before the isolation, before I even knew your name. And you put your hands on my hands and your eyes on my eyes and said to me: “I just wanted to thank you. Because your daughter saved my daughter’s life.”
They were in seventh grade (one of the worst grades). And I knew you meant it, though my shy child hadn’t even mentioned your daughter’s name at the dinner table.
I want to tell you now, on your fiftieth birthday, that I can’t buy a decent gift other than this silly gag gift for your stock-tank “pool” and soon-to-be six-person hot tub. I can’t photograph “The Lovers” or paint “The Fly That Looks Like a Bird in the Sunset Scene” with acrylics and talent like you can.
But I can write a thousand words.
And I’ll try to make them worth as much as a picture.
The picture of you with your hands on my hands. Of you sitting in my backyard for a thrown-together fall party around the Solo Stove, then going home and buying one and giving ME credit for the idea. Of you trying to hide behind this tree, because you don’t want your dreadlocks, your beautiful dreadlocks, to outshine the flowers.
(This far along, I don’t know if I can limit this picture to a thousand words.)
Of you in that bar/laundry-drying front room with the original-owners’ Nebraska-farm barnwood walls bearing down on us, when you poured out your whole soul with a sip of bourbon, with a sip of trust, and trusted.
And I listened and tried my best not to take sides. And my husband said, “But why would she choose you? You’re barely friends.”
But you chose me, in that December hallway, in that barnwood barroom, in that part of yourself, to be your friend.
I want to capture a picture of how much it means to me to be your friend.
Of you, who I can text-rant, text-cry, text-breakdown until the ultimate five minutes of three dots and a, “You want to come over?” invitation when I’m already in my pajamas, leather moccasins and all, and there’s no question that Rosie is going to sit in my lap and your daughter is going to make me dinner and your son is going to praise the concoction of meats and cheese he created and Guy is going to entertain us all with his stories.
On a Monday night.
Of you with your hands on my hands, your eyes on my eyes, your heart on my heart, telling me not to cut the strawberry stems, warning me about the upcoming winter storm, teaching me and all your second-graders how to garden. All your COVID-traumatized second-graders who you did nothing but publicly praise and nothing but quietly worry over and save.
A picture isn’t enough. A thousand words isn’t enough.
Because you–I–can’t encapsulate, in a blog post or a birthday card or a gag gift, how much you mean to me.
You once sent Lilly on a trip with me in the middle of a lockdown. You praised me on social media because my packing list required three masks. I drove the five kids–Lilly, Rio, Mythili, Naomi, and Fabian–to three campsites in as many states, took them on a pontoon, on a series of bikes up the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, on a reservoir along the Snake River, into the depths of Wyoming gun country, into the depths of Montana right-wing ignorance, and you?
You were nothing but grateful.
To thank someone whose ideas are crazier than hers? To hear that voice that you’ve heard in your head your whole life but now has vocal chords and that beautiful face?
I can’t tell you what it means to me.
It means more than that moment when you told me that my daughter saved your daughter from the bullies that epitomize seventh grade.
Because we are fully-grown adults now, and those bullies still bully on the other side of those barnwood walls.
You are too grateful to be bullied. As is she.
And you put that light in her and that light in my youngest and that light in the world, and I wish I could paint it. I wish I could pick up the brush and choose just the right texture, the correct mixture of pale blue, soft white, maybe a shade of gray, and be that painting that belongs on an easel first and a living room wall later.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words.
And there will never be enough words, colors, hands, or hearts to describe how much you mean to me.
Happy birthday, Tonja. Thank you for taking your hands into my hands, my baby into your home, and my heart into your heart.
H was in a mood today because she wasn’t feeling well, and we all suffered. She called out her former friend and said she wouldn’t participate in the therapy session (though she did) during the first class, and in the second class, she sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and did her work without a word.
When it was time to visit the school food bank before trekking home on the train, she was definitely not up to it. I looked at my recently-arrived Afghan girl whom H has been escorting to and from school every day, and H looked right back at me. They were both standing in Stairway F, not Stairway R, the one that leads to the food bank.
“Well… are you going to wait for R to go to the food bank?” (H’s sister and brother had already fled the premises and were five blocks down Louisiana Avenue, halfway home).
“We’re going home. She can’t go home alone.” It might have been a dirty look H gave me, an exhausted look, a middle-child look.
H is from Sudan and doesn’t speak R’s language. But she lives five blocks away from her, and even though the train takes an hour to bring them both to my school, I convinced R’s caseworker that it was worth her staying, that we have a food bank and a newcomer program with three hours of English and two hours of math and a summer program and therapists and patience, and this Sudanese family that lives five blocks away who could show her how to take the train… But what they wanted was an escort, a female escort, who would make sure that she would be safe.
(When we were learning past tense verbs yesterday via a story about a man who had a bad day, my para talked H through her horrible story about her bad day, where, just like the man in the story who missed his bus, she missed her train because R was late. And H is never, never late. And she nailed those past tense verbs, her long braids that her sister entwined spilling down her back like a river of emotion.)
I had to let them walk down Stairway F. (It was just a few years back that I discovered how many stairways are in our building. They go all the way up to X, if you were wondering how a school built a hundred years ago with three additions tries to fit the world into its walls. Stairway X is in the 1987 addition with the new gym and its fancy foyer and its secret passage up to the third-floor batting cage.)
I let them go, and I walked the rest of my class down the second-floor hallway to Stairway R, to the food bank where my most-recently-arrived Afghan boy told me the whole story, through his broken English and broken heart and the translator app on his phone, about the series of scarred slashes on his arm.
Scars so deep that they are still pink, as if cut by a suicidal knife, as if done yesterday. He has photos on his phone from the day of the event, less than a year back, when he was working in a pharmacy that the Taliban decided to bomb, shattering the glass on all the windows, sending the glass into his forerarm, his shoulder, his soul.
“Can you walk with me through the food bank and show me how to get the food?”
The patient Wash-Park mother was making a list of new students. He didn’t know just how to add his name, but his verbal skills are over-the-top amazing. “How many people are in your house?” I asked because the form asks.
“Twelve. In two rooms,” he informed me, holding up two fingers to prove to me he understood.
“How many children? Adults?”
“Eight children and four adults.”
And before we had walked through, before we had picked out chai tea and lentils and halal meat and handfuls of fresh vegetables, filling not one or two, but three bags for him to carry across the city on two city buses, H appeared in front of me, cutting the line with R, exhausted and sick and putting her arm around her, making sure that she had as many bags of food that she could carry home to her huge family, and…
That is what it is like to teach Newcomer English. Find your H, take the right stairway, and fill your bags with food and hope.