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.

Lockdowns

This evening, though it took him three times to ask me the question in his perfect Spanish due to my completely butchered understanding, I think I was able to answer him with a too-easy level of coherence.

“Why in that one class did we have to climb under the desks and turn off the lights?”

“Welcome to America, the land of the free, the land where gunmen enter classrooms and kill students and we have to spend our lives practicing for the possibility of that moment.”

“But couldn’t a gunman just blow open the door?”

The irony of everything is in his words.

Couldn’t we just pass gun control laws or have background checks instead of practicing lockdowns?

Couldn’t we have immigration policies that wouldn’t leave 17-year-old refugees in homeless shelters?

Couldn’t we raise our sons to be like this one, so grateful that in the course of seventeen days, he has completely changed our lives and filled our home with laughter and love, instead of raising sons who think the only solution to life’s problems is to shoot someone?

He is here now, in my house, safe after his first American lockdown. What else will he see in a year, in a lifetime, as he adjusts to this new world? As he tries his best to catch up with a semester of learning English that he missed, where we started with the alphabet and now are writing sentences that he struggles to understand, relying on the other Hondurans in the class to translate? As he sits in my ninth-grade advisement class listening to me ramble on about graduation requirements that all of us know are inaccessible to him?

What else might he write, between now and when he leaves our house, that could be more beautiful than these crumpled-up words that we threw into the basket, a silly icebreaker activity that was designed to help the students get to know each other and that completely failed in my ever-introverted advisement class?

The task was to read the messages aloud and try to guess who the author was.

But I couldn’t read his words aloud. Not after the lockdown. Not in my broken translation. Not for this emotionless class to hear.

Because I wanted to feel those words deep in my soul, how beautifully imperfect and ever-so-perfect.

  • A fun thing you did over break: I went to the hot springs, celebrated my birthday with my great family. I have three more sisters and a new mom and dad who make my life perfect. 
  • What is an unusual or interesting fact about you?  I was adopted by a great family. 

Just five minutes after crumpling the paper back to him, the dean came to the door asking for him and his backpack. My blood turned to ice in an instant. I have been teaching for far too long to know what the combination of those words means.

What could have happened between when I saw him getting his coffee from our kitchen this morning and that moment? What could they be looking for? How could they be so wrong?

Every question in the world popped into my brain, and I held back his three friends to ask what had happened in period 2. I told them how scared I was about the backpack request in particular, and they all responded, “No te preocupes, Miss, nada pasó.

The next seven minutes became my own terrifying lockdown. Because he is not just one of the hundreds of kids they have pulled out of my class in the past sixteen years.

He is my kid.

When he returned during passing period, I couldn’t even let him go to math class without giving him a hug of one hundred percent relief after he told me that his social worker had picked up all his documents from the homeless shelter, and he needed to bring his backpack to keep them safe.

Tonight, I could have told him, if I were less opinionated, that we have lockdowns to keep us safe.

But when you’re in a lockdown, you’re not thinking about safety. You’re thinking about your life. All you’ve been through, all you might never see. You’re thinking about all the kids’ faces, all the struggles of the world, everything bundled up into the silent, dark corner of a classroom, the silent, dark corner of our society.

You’re thinking about the people you love. The people who write kind words on soon-to-be-crumpled paper. The social worker who texted her gratitude one last time right after meeting with him. The family surrounding you who took him into their lives without a second thought.

“Look, Miss,” his friend grinned at lunch, gesturing towards him in the hallway. “No necesitaba preocuparte… Su hijo está bien.”

Yes. Both of our lockdowns have been lifted.

And my son is just fine.

 

 

Progress Monitoring

This is my seventeenth year of teaching, my seventh in this school district. I have taught seventh through twelfth grade English literature as well as English Language Development to every level of English Learners.  I have co-taught seventh- and eighth-grade science and social studies courses, and I have even taught a computer applications middle school elective.

At this school, I have taught a new curriculum for at least one of my classes every. Single. Year.

This year, I have four preps. Every other year, I’ve had at least two, if not three.

In addition to these preps, I have to spend a minimum of five hours every week sitting in data meetings, leadership meetings, and planning meetings.

On top of these meetings, I have to make sure that my students understand enough English to be able to take the bus home. To find the food bank. To sift through the clothes in our donation closet for coats and gloves for a sudden October snow.

For the course I’ve been teaching consistently for the better part of seven years, I have worked tirelessly to build a curriculum when there was none. I have listened to my school, my neighborhood, my district, and my world tell me about how fucking important a grade-level standardized test is even if my students are still learning how to correctly form letters or decode words.

I have built assessments based on those standardized tests, based on the grade-level curriculum, but tapered down, sheltered, supported, for my students.

I spend anywhere between thirty and forty hours a week PLANNING the lessons for four preps, trying to teach my Newcomers everything from how to greet strangers to present progressive verb tenses to vowel-intensive phonics identification. Trying to teach my level 3 ELLs how to become fluent readers, how to effectively present information, how to listen to, write, and correct dictated sentences, how to create a cohesive paragraph supported by text evidence.

Do you give me time to meet with other ELD teachers?

Do you give me a curriculum that includes common assessments?

Do you visit my classroom and see that, oh, none of my Newcomers know how to write the letter ‘k’ because none of their languages use that letter, and maybe I should spend more time teaching them how to do this? Or see that my ELD Seminar kids spend each Tuesday sifting through grammatical rules to correctly identify their errors on their SAT-style assessments? Or see that every word I teach my kids, whether it be “north” or “however”, is built upon a concept or misunderstanding from a previous lesson?

Have you ever looked at–let me break some shocking barriers here–my GRADEBOOK? Do you think, just for a moment, that it is possible that I progress monitor my students there each week? That I look at their scores and determine what I need to reteach? That my students meet with me to retake quizzes and revise written work based on the scores that they receive, and that I endlessly allow this?

Oh. I forgot.

You don’t have time to visit my classroom.

You are running this and seven other meetings this week.

You are sharing SAT data with the entire staff.

You are making me fill out a graphic organizer that analyzes how blatantly biased standardized tests are against ALL OF THE KIDS I TEACH.

You are here to criticize what I HAVEN’T done. Not to offer:

  1. Common planning with ELD teachers.
  2. Fewer preps.
  3. A curriculum with its own COMMON ASSESSMENTS.
  4. Fewer data meetings and ones that ACTUALLY APPLY TO ELLs.

This is my seventeenth year of teaching. I know I have taught longer than you, probably more than all of the admin team combined. I think I have an idea of how to monitor the progress of my students.

Do you have an idea of how to progress monitor your ability to listen? To support? To collaborate with those of us who are in the trenches?

I didn’t think so. This “meeting” is adjourned.

 

 

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.