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.

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.

 

The Rush. The Run. The Race.

My daughter’s face perfectly encapsulates my day, my motherhood, my career. Straining to run through the burning sun of a late summer day, pushing the limits of what she’s run before, and wishing for a closer finish line.

Disgruntlement at a too-hard, too-narrow concrete runway, making it nearly impossible, impassable.

Fear that her time will be worse than before, that the heat will beat her, that the world will beat her.

A sliver of hope for that final push, that final lap, that is just around the corner yet feels like twenty thousand steps too far.

In the background, teens cheer.  “You got this!” “Just one more mile!” “Keep it up!”

Parents chase the runners, crossing the park’s midsection while they wrap their legs around its exterior shaded walkways. Parents trying to get the next best vantage point to capture that pic, that glimpse of angst that is in every athlete’s face.

Coaches stand on the sidelines, their own cheers tight with passion, with expectation and longing. “Lift your legs!” “Raise up those arms!” “Just like at practice!”

Her expression, their words, the globally-warmed, never-ending sun, beat down on the tumble of meetings that began and ended my day. The constant admonishments from my administration. The constantly shifting expectations and placement of people in power at my school district. The constant lack of a curriculum for the students who need it most and don’t have the right words, the right expression, to beg for that finish line. The constant task of preparing three hours of sometimes-failing lesson plans I must place in front of my Newcomers.

The rush–my god, the rush. Three weeks back, adding item number one thousand and seventy-three to our Google family calendar, Bruce rearranging his ever-strict hours to be able to make this meet, the shuffle of only-two cars, three girls in three activities with varying times, my after-work meeting, my cycle down the bike path, my fifteen-minute window to cross a park three times to gather this glimpse, my Torchy’s Tacos stop, bike locked and unlocked, bathroom locked and unlocked but only with a code, taco bag ripped on the rush up the elevator, only to find a buffet of snacks waiting in the final meeting room. My race to beat the moon home because it would never be light enough, our car in the shop for nearly six weeks, and I don’t even have time to fix the chain on my bike, let alone buy a decent headlamp.

All of this is in my daughter’s face. All the angst, the cheers, the backtalk, the doubts.

And just like her, I am racing to the finish line. It is never close enough, but both of us, somehow, have made it today. We have made one more race, one more step, towards what we hope will be better on the other side.

And that is enough. For today, it is enough.