A Quick Email to End 2019

My creative writing teacher (I will always refer to her as such even though I graduated nearly twenty-five years ago) asked us (her forever students) to send her a quick email about an important gift we gave or received this holiday.

Maybe I could snap a quick pic from the tree on Christmas Eve, filled with makeup, watercolor markers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses for my three teenage daughters. Or of Christmas morning with the magical Apple Watches, so coveted by my Apple-only family.

Or the earrings my mother made me or the gift card to Colorado Gives from my sister.

Maybe I could capture a quick pic of my 2019 accomplishments: Writing about, and participating in, a teachers’ strike that led to a life-changing raise.

My first paid-for post. My hundreds of hours of work wrapped up in a National Board Certification. My ever-intricately-planned summer road trip across seven states.

But none of these things could begin to compare with the gift that this year has given me. The gift of this man in my life who would do anything, anything to prove his love to me. Marry me when I was just a baby. Follow me to Spain. Learn how to ski nine months and one lesson after tearing his ACL. Read every post. Drive overnight through the midwest so the entire family could sleep.

Take into our house a boy who doesn’t belong to us and in every way belongs to us.

You have watched the news. You have seen the stories. You have donated money. You have screamed in frustration at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on others by our government. By ourselves.

But have you stood in front of fourteen Newcomers and come to understand how brightly they still see our country? Have you had a hallway conversation with a boy who informs you that, after five days of walking, twenty-five days of train-hopping and pigeon-killing, two days of washing windshields in Mexico City, five days waiting to cross the Rio Grande in the middle of the night on a raft, one week in a detention center and four months in a home for unaccompanied minors, and four months in a homeless youth shelter, he is still looking for a home?

And that, no matter what, he cannot, will not, return home?

What would you do? What might you ask your husband to do? Your three ever-spoiled, ever-adaptable, ever-loving teenage daughters?

Would you keep scrolling past the images of children under space blankets on concrete floors?

Or would you realize that this boy is standing in front of you, in your school, in your class, in your life, without a home? A family? And do something? Anything?

I cannot take a quick pic of the past two weeks, the entire time that has passed between my knowledge of his status and his soon-to-be permanent placement in our home. The phone calls, the emails to every last human I could think of who might help him. The two-hour meeting with the Department of Human Services, his Honduran father on the line, ready to relinquish all rights. The background checks, fingerprints, home visits, all within a day. His arrival to my home with three garbage bags filled with clothing and no coat. The shy first meal that he took to the basement to eat. Alone. His quick smile and ever-present hope that this place must be a better place. His immediate love of our three pets.

I cannot send Mrs. Clark a quick email about my gifts this year. There are too many to count, they are the uncountable nouns I teach my Newcomers: love, hope, future, desire.

They are all in this union that the caseworker asked about today: “Married for almost twenty-two years? Tell me, how do you do it?” “Patience and love. Patience and love.”

They are here, in this boy, unwrapped, ready to be our brother, our son, part of our world.

These are my gifts. I’m sorry this is such a long email, Mrs. Clark.

 

 

Migration

I tried to be an immigrant once. I failed miserably because I’m too damn American. A privileged white woman. And because it was so fucking easy just to come home after a year.

In the attempt, I cried for months. I wrote constantly about the struggle of it all. The relinquishment of our family home. The endless paperwork. The cancellation of a dream job for something that was meant to barely sustain a recent graduate, not a family of five.  Saying goodbye to the colleagues and collegiality I had shared for seven years. Saying goodbye to my family, my friends.

But it was just a farce, really. I didn’t fully fulfill my lifelong dream of Spanish fluency because I spent the majority of my days teaching English and the remainder speaking to my English-speaking family. And the money? The dream? The travels across Europe?

Nothing, I learned in those magical ten months, compares to human relationships. The relationships we’d just begun to develop with my clients, my colleagues, my friends in Spain before we had to board a plane and return to our “life.”

I tried to be an immigrant once, to step into the shoes of someone who has to drive across the country for a visa. To find an apartment. A phone plan. A rental car. A school for their children. In their second language.

I failed.

I bought five plane tickets and flew us back to America before we could blink.

Wouldn’t that be nice? To determine, after a time, that it’s just not right? That you could more or less return to your life and be the better for it? That you could pick up right where you left off, master’s degree in hand, Skype-interview-secured position waiting, to the life that you thought you wanted to leave behind?

Well, my students don’t have that choice. They have witnessed everything you can imagine and everything you couldn’t begin to imagine. They have come here with a singular thought: I cannot, I will not, return. I have stepped on that plane, that train, that three thousand miles of pain, to make this dream a reality. 

They come here to relinquish everything about what has shaped them as human beings. Their language, lisping and loving. Their food, aromatic and elegant. Their weather, pungent and tropical, arid and hot. Their religion, every day and every way. Their families. Their communities. Broken or torn, perfect or imperfect, but never enough.

And they know that they cannot look back. That, no matter the circumstance (murdered parents, no literacy, shadows of abuse, a $10,000 bail set on a cousin who came to rescue them from a detention center only to be placed in one himself), they are here. To stay.

They are the brown faces you see on every block building your garages. Hammering  your roofs. Serving your dinner. Teaching your children Spanish. Driving your Uber. Replacing your sewer line. Packing your meat. Running your school district.

Their children are your children. Impatient. Anxious. Determined.

They have come here, across the border, across the sea, across their history, to be reborn. They are no longer Hondureños, Salvadorans, Congolese, Burmese, Asian, Mexican, Iraqis.

They are intertwined into the fabric of our country, building the bridges, picking the food, bringing us hope.

And they’re not in the market to give up. To buy a plane ticket home.

To be me.

How humbling that is, to think of staying, of giving up everything for a different life. Of never being able to return.

Of never wanting to return.

Can you imagine?

And this is why my daughter has made this card. Why I have spent my evening in Walmart searching for gifts that will never replace a loving family. And why I am so heartbroken and so grateful that my students will never be me.

Have you ever tried to be an immigrant? It is impossible to imagine. To describe. To understand.

All we can really do, as her smile suggests, is build a bigger table. Open our hearts. And welcome those who may never have the privilege to look back.

 

 

 

I Remember Columbine

I remember newspapers for a week filled with grisly details,

journalists  flooding our city like vampires in search of storied blood

I remember crying all day on my twenty-first birthday,

the tears permanent streaks of worry on my cheeks.

I remember thinking, How can I become a teacher now?

and, Nothing could be worse than this.

 

I remember that it was ten miles from my home,

with faces just like my own now plastered on screens across the world.

I remember thinking that it could never happen again,

that with this media spotlight on the atrocity, it wouldn’t.

 

I remember my first lockdown, two years later,

kids huddled alongside me under desks like rats in a sewer.

I remember the silent votes of every white man and woman

in charge of our devolving society that grips guns like lifeblood.

 

I remember clutching my six-year-old child for hours

after twenty of her American peers were murdered

for the love of the Second Amendment.

 

I remember living in Spain where the scariest sound

was an infantile firecracker celebrating El Día de San Juan

and every door was open for the world to walk into

what it might be like to Not. Be. Afraid.

 

I remember when I once believed that someone would shout,

Enough is enough! and Congress would listen

instead of filling their pockets with NRA dollars.

 

I remember my high school in the ‘bad neighborhood,’

before a police officer stood at the door,

before I’d ever heard the word lockdown,

before I even knew what we would become.

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.

An Educational Cocktail

You can enter any cafe in Spain and you will probably find the same two drinks: cheap Pilsner beer and local wine (OK, you can at least choose between red and white!). The Spanish palette for mixed drinks is limited to adding liqueur to coffee, it seems, and their availability of decent beer choices is abominable. But when it comes to education, Spaniards love a good cocktail.

Here are some instructions for making an educational cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

Ingredients:

1. Homogeneous groups of students segregated by ability who remain together all day long for years at a time, and are allowed to choose their own seats.
2. Heterogeneous teachers who range in age, management, and educational methodology.
3. A school building that does not provide resources such as technology, textbooks, government-funded lunch, or air conditioning.

Instructions:

1. Place all students in one classroom. Wait for intermittently ringing bells that will shake them up out of their seats while teachers dance through hallways crowded with other teachers and random students who have PE that period, to arrive and wrap the students up in a somewhat-chilled glass with a pinch of salt along the rim.
2. Spend three hours each week trying to settle the above shaking, using the cold stirrer of the teacher’s little authority to embed knowledge enough of one subject area to make a decent mixed drink, full of flavor and memorable enough to spill out onto the streets with jubilation.
3. Subdue them on four occasions per trimester with exams that make up the stark majority of their grades, consisting of arduous essay questions, but only about ten per exam. Their flavors will bleed through classes so that they will begin to taste more like eraser remnants than a decently mixed drink.
4. Shake up the cocktail a little just when the school year is getting cold by surprising only select groups of students in one grade of primary and one of secondary with the annual government test, whose topics, flavors, and question amounts you will never know or begin to be able to prepare for, similar to visiting the cafes in every city in Spain who may or may not have a menu, use local vocabulary non-translatable in any software to identify food items, and whose waiters never return after bringing you your order. (Surprise, surprise, we all like to guess what it is we’re bringing to our lips!)
5. If the cocktail spills, you may clean it up and refill it once, for free, but only once. After that, you will be run dry and stuck in the same situation as the rest of the third world: working shit jobs for little pay.

Alas, you can always look back at your educational experiences and say that you had the best mixed drink of all time: moving through the school system in Spain!

Day Eleven, Road Trip 2016

oldest Florida site
 enthralls us like we’re in Spain
 (memories abound)
 


coquina fortress
 built on the sweat from slaves’ backs
 (engineering feat)
 
 


defense of this sight:
 gleaming harbor colony
 (worth the protection)
 


a dogged day’s drive
 at the end of this journey
 (worth the distraction)
 
 


history, not mice:
 Florida is more than Disney
 (all they need to know)
 
 

Ode to Mixer

i waited four years
 to have my Kitchenaid back
 too bad you’re broken
 
 this last, lost moment
 before i burnt the cookies
 will be remembered
 
 goodbye, my mixer,
 my flourless-chocolate King,
 my sweet-tooth master
 
 i’ve missed your batches,
 your easy whipping of eggs,
 your strength to knead bread.
 
 but i let you live
 in the cold hands of strangers
 who kneaded your death
 
 alas, we all die
 and it’s time for us to part
 forever now, love
 
 may you rest in peace
 while i strengthen my right arm
 while mixing by hand