Stairway F

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 digress.

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.

“The Taliban?”

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.

My Last Letter to You

Dear Fabian,

I wish I had something to say to you to encapsulate how I feel right now. But the main thing I want to say is that you came into our lives at one of the most difficult times of our life, and because of that, I don’t feel that I could give you what you needed. My three daughters, but especially the older two, have been experiencing major mental health issues, and it has been very difficult for me to witness and alleviate. It has been a major strain on my own mental health.

The pandemic truly exacerbated all of this and made my job more challenging and stressful than ever before. With Izzy moving away to college, I feel a great sense of loss. And Mythili is so depressed that she doesn’t even want to consider college or find joy in anything anymore, which also weighs heavily on my soul.

I wish that you had come into my life at a different time and that I could have helped you more. But I feel so strained with my mental capacity, and I became so frustrated with your lack of motivation and adamancy against learning English and focusing on school that I couldn’t focus on anything else.

I still believe that you truly have the potential to be much more than what you give yourself credit for. You had the tenacity and courage to leave your entire family and homeland at a young age to seek an opportunity, and I hope that one day you will truly take advantage of it. If you don’t finish your education now, I hope that you will in the future after a few years of working tirelessly. I hope that you will one day have a family of your own and give them all the things you couldn’t have when you were growing up.

Mostly, I hope that you will look back at your time with us as a lesson. Not a perfect lesson, not a painless lesson, but a lesson. Everything happens for a reason. Someone left their job as the Newcomer teacher, and I took the job, and that same year, my first year, you came into my classroom and told me your story, and I wanted to help you, and I tried my best. I’m sorry that my best wasn’t good enough, but I hope that one day if someone stands before you and offers you all that we have offered you, you will work one hundred times harder to show how much you want it.

Speak the words, one at a time. Study the lessons, one at a time. Make small goals, one at a time.

Love yourself, bit by bit. You must start with that. Just take everything one day, one hour, one moment at a time, and you will find yourself a brighter future.

I will always love you and hold you in my heart, and I am sorry that it must end this way. I wish nothing but the best for you, and I hope that you don’t completely cut me out of your life. I want to hear about your successes, your failures, your loves and losses… your life. Because I want you to have a good life.

Love,

The Mama You Didn’t Want (But Needed)

Six Years Back

Six years ago, to the day, we had a snow day just like today. I got out the art supplies and all three girls colored all morning. All three girls put on their snow gear and built a snowwoman. All three girls giggled. Mythili finished a book she’d started three days prior. Riona helped me shovel. Mythili walked over to the local cafe and ordered tea, just like me.

Six years ago, they were still children. So happy to have a moment to themselves. To enjoy. To laugh.

And now what?

Before the day even began, I was crying. I cried myself to sleep, and now my eyes are so red I can’t even see straight. My husband tried to love me so hard last night, my perfect husband, but the pot smell seeped into the room, the door shut, the Camry reeked, and my worst nightmare crept under every crack.

It’s been two weeks and three voicemails to a non-responsive therapist since Mythili lost one of her closest friends to an overdose. And the last thing I want to smell is pot coming from out of her room. Pot she’s smoking alone. Because she’s lonely. Because she’s alone.

She was one of her closest friends whom she’d cut ties with months ago, months when her therapist deemed her better and stopped seeing her every week… every two weeks… every month… to not at all.

Not at all.

As if my girl, my child, was cured. As if all the phone calls I made to various medical and psychiatric doctors, begging to get her medicated, to no avail, were just washed down with every other aspect of this dark pandemic, a pill too solid to be swallowed. As if, after six months of therapy, her mind could go back to the mind of the girl in these pictures, from our snow day six years back:

I want to go back. I want to go back to that smiling child. I want her to tell me what I did. What someone did. I want a reason for the pain that torments her soul.

In two days, I have a four-day weekend planned. Booked months back with the hope that, with an outdoor heated pool, a cool town with tons of shops, and a hot springs right downtown, she’d want to come with us.

She used to love swimming. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Hiking. Camping. Traveling. Drawing. Doing puzzles. Riding her bike. Talking to me. Walking. Eating. Cooking. Baking. Reading.

All the things, all the things that I love, she loved.

And now she hates all of them. She hates everything. Even a snow day.

And do you know the weight of this? Do you know how much it hurts to see her hurt?

I’m not even at noon yet. I’m not even halfway through this hellfire snow day. When I went cross-country skiing to and around the park, trying to find peace after another night of four hours of sleep, I didn’t find anything but loneliness. I haven’t slept in days, weeks, months. Is it her? Is it Fabian who we’ve asked to leave, whose program sent the email today confirming that it will be within two weeks, that there’s another big meeting on Friday, the day we leave for Steamboat Springs, the day I begged, fought to have off, the day I requested as a personal day (along with Monday), putting in for my reason, “Mental Health Weekend,” and my principal’s secretary responded with, “Due to class coverage concerns, the principal is asking if you could just take one mental health day?”

One mental health day? I didn’t have a planning period for nearly three weeks because I was either covering classes or proctoring an English-proficiency test. Then my co-teacher got COVID and I had to fully run her class, too. Then my principal got COVID and couldn’t meet with me to discuss my request. And then I just gave up and changed my personal days to sick days. And this is the world we are living in, where we can’t take two days off, where the person who has to quarantine with their under-five set of kids for a week has priority over the mental breakdown of this mama of teens.

Before I went skiing today, before Mythili reluctantly agreed to go grocery shopping with me, this is what she told me:

“None of my friends want to listen to my problems. None of them care. I don’t want to talk to another therapist. I’m tired of talking to so many people. I just want to talk to her. I want to be home alone all weekend. I don’t want to be around anyone because nobody understands. Nobody understands how I just go through each day. I just go through each day, going through the motions, and I can’t find joy in anything, and I have no reason for it, and I don’t understand it, and it’s like something is just wrong with my brain, and I AM SO TIRED OF IT, I’M SO EXHAUSTED.”

And the tears took over. Hers and mine.

And what have I done through my tears today? I have been working on a puzzle and telling my son that he’s moving out next week because I failed him and texting my husband, to which I knew he would say yes, “Can you, for the second year, stay home with Mythili this weekend instead of having this amazing weekend together?”

Because there is nothing amazing about wanting to take two days off in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a mental health crisis. There is no new snow in Steamboat, no leniency for teachers, no grace for a mama whose heart is as broken as her child’s.

And the boy who is leaving my house next week? Am I supposed to feel good about it? Relief? Gratitude?

There is nothing, nothing but remorse.

Because he’s probably feeling much like Mythili, and I couldn’t help him.

Because I’m feeling much like Mythili, and I can’t even have a long weekend. I can’t ski the pain away, drink the pain away, pretend that the pandemic, my job, my family, don’t exist.

We exist.

And we all hurt so fucking much right now that we cry ourselves through a snow day.

A snow day–the best day ever. Six years back.

My Classroom at Lunch

My classroom at lunch is typically a cacophony of teenage sounds. Shrieks about hangman clues, laughter that spills into the hallways, bitter rants about schedules or rules, quiet giggles over Instagram reels, outspoken conversations about everything ranging from trans rights to how much COVID has forever virally impacted us.

Over the years, so many students have spilled in and out of my classroom at lunch. Those introverted immigrants too afraid to try English, hiding in the back corner of my room with their Chromebooks watching YouTube clips of soap operas or music videos from back home. Those outgoing misfit groups who just want a place to do handstands or speak their own languages at the tops of their lungs. Those kids, always those kids who need a place to eat lunch, crying and laughing and singing and just.

Living.

My classroom at lunch was just a shadow of its former self today. Rio, my baby, sat in her usual spot in the back of the room, no friends surrounding her as she popped in her headphones and watched her videos. My colleague did the same at the desk she shared with me. Mythili had already gone home, too distraught and exhausted to even speak to her friends.

Instead, a string of teary-eyed bodies entered and exited, their voices caught in their throats, their arms open for sobbing, open-hearted embraces that lasted seconds, minutes…

“I guess it’s better to be here than at home because my mom couldn’t stop crying this morning.”

“I’ve never really dealt with death, so I don’t even know how I’m supposed to react or feel right now.”

“Remember that time when she…”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“If we ditch class, I just need to call my mom, and we have to be back for rehearsal. I’m glad we’re just reading lines today and I don’t have to act out a scene with Percy Jackson with tears streaming down my face.”

The hugs continue, the voices whisper, the tears disappear, and lunch comes to its usual end with the clock and the bell. No one smiles. No one looks back. No one in the hallway knows as that shuffling-to-class cacophony fills our ears and our broken hearts with the unwelcoming sounds of blissful ignorance.

And me? I still have three classes to teach to my Newcomers after a morning of running around testing various students on their national English proficiency exam, meanwhile making adaptations to lessons for my co-teachers, planning for my own classes, and responding to the string of emails about finding a new home for this boy who has lived with us for the past two years.

The weight of the words, the weight of the lack of words, from my classroom at lunch sits with me all afternoon as we learn about our favorite weather and I try, in the simplest English possible, to explain to my Arabic-speaking Sudanese and Yemeni immigrants the history of Martin Luther King, slavery, and the horrors of America. (Always a combination of cultural understanding and functional English, teaching Newcomers).

When I come home, Mythili won’t even look at me or talk to me. She hasn’t called her therapist as I asked her to do. She’s ready to go to her Noodles and Company job and screams at me to get out of her room and I just walk out and let her go to work without saying goodbye because what if I were to retaliate and when I wake up in the morning and go into her room, I find her dead, just like her friend’s mother did yesterday?

The friend in this picture, the truly lost soul.

My classroom at lunch was too quiet today.

Quiet doesn’t capture it. Quiet doesn’t capture the months between this photo and now when Mythili and her friends begged her to get help. To go to therapy. To rehab. When time and time again, she refused.

When her mother told me, “Everything about this stage in her life is ugly. Her clothes are ugly. Her attitude is ugly. Her grades are ugly. It’s just ugly.” And I wanted to shake her and tell her to shut up and to stop thinking of her kid that way. But I didn’t know her, and I didn’t. I didn’t do a thing, a goddamn thing.

When, a few months back, Mythili and her friends tried to set boundaries, telling her that she couldn’t use only her friends for therapy, she took too many drugs, ended up in the hospital, and her first reaction after her release was to explicitly threaten Mythili, promising to track her down and tear her from limb to limb.

Silence in all these months, Mythili doing the only things she could do–blocking her from her social media, filing an unfulfilled protective order against her, removing her from her contacts.

But you can’t block your memories. You can’t block out all those nights Mythili spent at her house, trying to console her, trying to convince her not to take any more drugs, trying to be all the love in the world that she felt she never had.

You can’t block that cacophony of heartbreak that will come into your classroom at lunch.

All these fragile and broken souls and all that they carry with them and all that they will see and do and witness in this awful world we’ve thrown at them.

You can’t bring her back. You can’t bring back the words. The friendship. The torment.

You can only hope to see that smile on your daughter’s face again. That childlike smile of pure joy that was lost for so long. You can only hope for peace in her heart, for friendships that will build her up instead of breaking her down, for the happy, jubilant voices of hope that fill a room.

That once filled my classroom at lunch.

Gratitude/Gratitud/يشكر

I was searching for a knife and I found myself standing in the ceramics room of chaos, otherwise known as Art Room Lunch.

Don’t worry. The knife was for a pie, not anything sinister. And it was a butter knife covered in clay, easily washed off in one of the many sinks, ready to cut through my store-bought pumpkin pie.

Yes, I wrote the words. Store-bought.

I cringe to even think of the admission. At least my cranberry sauce was homemade because God forbid I sell my entire soul to consumerism and mediocrity.

It was in the ceramics room, searching for and washing the knife, that I had a conversation with myself. Not my actual self, of course. My colleague. My friend. My self of fifteen years ago, when I had three tiny girls at home and it seemed all they did was scream… or, at least, cry to spend more time with me. When I couldn’t talk to my husband without a child between my legs, clinging to my breast, or pulling at my shirttail.

And it was so hard.

And here I am now, searching for a knife because between my two jobs and four teens I can’t seem to remember to bring one. My baby drove me to work this morning. My BABY. Fifteen, prepared to be the first of three to get her license on her sixteenth birthday, nine months out. My baby who, when I used to come home from work, wouldn’t let me leave the couch for a good ninety minutes. She needed to cuddle. To read stories. To nurse. To pet the kitty and the puppy. To be wholly mine since I took myself away from her for nine hours a day.

And now? She needs me to “chill” when I gasp at a too-sharp turn of the wheel. To allow her sleepovers on a whim and cash for shopping whenever I have it. To be sure I mention her name whenever I say that my daughters bake the Thanksgiving pies.

But most of the time, as with the other three, she is in her room. I hardly see her. She is FaceTiming friends or watching Friends. My middle is working or Instagramming. My oldest is away at college. And the boy we’ve taken in? He’s on the phone in his room.

There is no screaming. No clinging. If I want to have a conversation with my husband, I don’t have to call him on the way home from work, as my colleague told me today. I can just shut the door to our bedroom. No one will open it. Or we can talk while we walk the dog. We can take a tiny trip to Estes Park. We can talk in the morning, hours before our teens pop their eyes open, and no one will ever know.

No one will ever know how lonely it can be, without the screaming. The crying. The needing.

But I can’t say this to her. She is giving me a knife, and I have a pie to cut. Carne asada, tacos al pastor, shawarma, arepas, patacones, lasagna, and the life I live are waiting for me back in my own classroom.

Yet my lunchtime conversation is just what I needed. I needed to see a roomful of kids trying to shape ferns and mushrooms out of balls of clay. A distraught mother trying to navigate the work/life balance. The vibrant life of humans humming and thinking and creating and loving.

Living.

Because sometimes it feels like it’s just me. Just them. Just all of us. Alone in our rooms with the doors shut.

And sometimes, all we need is a butter knife and a slice of pumpkin pie, store-bought or not, to bring some gratitude to this Thanksgiving table.

This Thanksgiving life.

Scenes from a Marriage

Dear One,

You can try to call me out, but it will never work. I have been doing this for as long as you have, if not more. I know the rules. The laws. The disappointment is just another capillary in the bloodstream of America, and I have swallowed it wholeheartedly.

You have not swallowed it. You gave up after twenty-some years and didn’t take this picture.

To you, it’s just a middle-aged man at a sink, exasperated with his wife. I know. I know.

Exasperated with my need to document everything. Even a bleeding finger. To post it. To show the world: this is what life is ACTUALLY like. It’s not a picnic, a corn maze, a perfect autumn afternoon.

It bleeds.

But you wouldn’t let it bleed. You wanted to stop it too soon, to pull away the paper towel and slap on the band-aid. Never mind what a doctor would tell you, a marriage doctor.

Hold it above your head. Apply pressure. Replace the paper towel five times. Have the peroxide and neosporin ready. Yet, don’t remove the paper towel, the pressure, all the pressure of the world telling you not to, before the blood stops.

Just.

Wait.

And in the waiting, you will take the time to study the video. To read every law ever written about what we can. Do. About how horribly our immigration system has failed these children who stand before us.

And if you just waited? And if you let it bleed? And if you understood?

Then you would have this pic. And a chrysanthemum for a background, filled with color. And you wouldn’t have quit. You would have taken a snapshot of twenty-three years of marriage instead.

And you would understand where I am coming from.

But instead?

Let me just post my Scene from a Marriage.

Unlike HBO, this is not a Scene from a Divorce.

Because I see the beauty in making things work, even if the law, the world, the society tells me otherwise.