Saturday, April 1, 2017
"Is it one of those depressing books?" I asked, laughing so that she knew I was kidding.
"No! No, not this time..... I brought this." she answered, holding up a book called "When Clay Sings". The cover was adorned with what looked like some sort of Native American cave art.
I immediately suspected that the other kids would hate it.
Annie began reading the lyrical prose. I was surprised to watch the kids get sucked in and impressed by their comments and questions.
I looked more closely at the cover while Annie read.
"Byrd Baylor!" I said loudly.
"Oh my gosh, you guys, I know her, I mean, I've met her, more than once. I have been inside her house....I camped on her land!"
My mind's eye traveled from the small, windowless room of the public housing authority to the hot, dry, dusty hills of Arivaca. I remembered the airy, indoor/outdoor house with the rock lined porch, sitting on Byrd's couch, fascinated as she spoke, while my eyes traveled to the many Mexican figurines that lined small shelves, left by migrants that had passed through her home.
"You know her!?" Abshir exclaimed.
"I mean, we're not like, BFFs but I've met her, she's really cool, do you guys know what living off the grid means?"
They were entranced by the tales of the elderly woman that lived by herself in the desert, mere miles from the Mexican border. The story of her taking a shower with a rattlesnake that had found its way into her bathroom, stating that she didn't bother it and it didn't bother her. They were intrigued that she loved the desert, the prickly cacti, the variety of animals that most find terrifying, the heat, the clear nights.
"You should get her to come to our school." Abshir stated definitively, as if I could just call Byrd up and she'd come. Abshir and Byrd Baylor are two such different people, for some reason I loved it that he thought Byrd was a person he'd like to meet, to talk to.
Better yet, I thought, she should come here....to the Center.
"When she says 'when clay sings' does she literally mean that the clay can sing?" I asked.
"No," Abshir answered. "The clay tells us about the people from the past....they didn't write it down or anything, the clay tells the story."
"Does she have more books?"
"Yes, Abshir, she has A LOT of books."
Saturday, March 25, 2017
"And then!" Mahmo continued, breathlessly reading his narrative I had all but forced him to write, "I killed the president and then I was the president!"
"Mahmo, I need more details, how did you become the president after you killed the original president?"
"Because I was the vice-president!" he continued, batting away my questions while refusing to augment his story with details.
"By the way, I copied that whole first part from Sharknado."
The large rusty plane finally landed in Santiago de Cuba. Everyone applauded.
"I do not like Russian aircraft." the man to my left said, speaking for the first time during the more than two hour flight.
I smiled and laughed, nodding. They had actually upgraded the planes since my last visit, lining the metal cabin with a more user friendly coat of plastic and replacing the Cyrillic letters on the seats with Roman ones.
My district is in the process of cutting instructional hours from the Spanish program. I lost my job five years ago when my former school completely cut the Spanish program in order to spend my salary on other things: predominately a part-time assistant to the bookkeeper instead of a K-5 Spanish program. It was devastating emotionally and financially and my stomach literally churns to be watching it happen again.
"You won't believe what Eleanor did tonight during student lead conferences." a text message said.
I found out in the morning as I stared at a word find I had left for my classes a day when I had a substitute. WET CUNT was circled, instead of any of the Spanish words the kids were supposed to be looking for.
"She showed this to her parents as her best work in Spanish for the last year and half?"
I listened to the answer while I gazed off at what I was supposed to be doing: watching parents crash into each other's cars at 7:30AM while dropping their kids off at school.
I felt fulfilled.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
"David Bowie is dead."
"Margaret will be happy to see him." I thought, overriding my atheist tendencies.
A year passed and everything we loved died.
Sometimes I focus hard on my tutoring group at the public housing authority, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I just get by.
Annie always brings books to the Center about poor children. One time, "The Little Match Girl", another time, a horrible story of a child sent by mail train to visit her grandparents during the Depression, literally sent as a piece of mail, because her parents couldn't afford a normal travel ticket. Annie does not identify with these children. She always points out that they must not be "that poor" because they have homes to live in. I'm glad she doesn't identify. The little match girl died on the street, dreaming of warmth, food and love.
I overheard the students of one of my classes speculating on who they hoped the Amber Alert was for.
"Kevin!" one called, "Janeisha!" another called, and several voiced agreement.
"Yeah, I hope Janeisha has been taken, man, that time she hit me.....".
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"There was an Amber Alert yesterday." one answered.
"We hope Janeisha is gone....."
Several students quickly began commenting on the time Janeisha hit them on the bus, in class, on the playground. She is the fourth member from the same family that I have taught. They say that there are more in the pipeline. I crept backward, not knowing what to say.
The inauguration came and went. I remember teaching during Obama's first inauguration. I had the TV in the room and the students, by their own choice, refused to leave the room to get lunch because they feared missing the swearing in. We did not watch the inauguration this year.
February grew closer.
"I can't believe our birthday is almost here...." one of my 4th graders whispered, his eyes filled with joy. He has the same birthday that I have and I was charmed that he considered it "ours".
"I know," I responded, "just a few more days. I am taking the day off afterwards, so that I can stay up late and then sleep in the next day.....".
"Man, I wish my parents would let me do that...." he responded, as if my parents had permitted it and his didn't.
I walked into the Center, nervous about how our students would react to the Muslim ban. I was surprised to hear them talking about Obamacare. It was the last day to enroll, but I couldn't figure out how they would know that. Slowly, the talk shifted to the ban.
"They're curious!" one of the teachers stated, rolling in the television and turning on CNN. Trump pontificated and the children's eyes glazed over. I watched our boss watch the computer that was driving the big TV the kids were watching. Her eyes shifted from interest, to disgust to sadness. Suddenly, she put on a documentary about Obama and her eyes grew misty.
Mahmo curled up next to me on the rug. I was watching the video with the children.
"My dad's from Kenya too...." he stated.
"Mahmo, that might be a sign!"
"No..., I'm not like him. They said Obama always worked hard and me, I get tired sometimes and just ask for the answers from other people....".
"What if Trump kills somebody, will he be gone then?"
"Well, it doesn't have to go that far, Mahmo, he just has to break the Constitution and he can be impeached...."
"So, even if he kills his own wife, can he be put out?"
"Mahmo, if he kills anyone, even his own wife, he is done."
"I don't understand what is happening, what did Trump do?" he continued.
"You are not going to like this," I responded. "Trump has temporarily banded people from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States. Somalia is on the list."
"Is India? There are a lot of Muslims there."
"Is Saudi Arabia?"
Mahmo erupted with laughter.
"He missed a lot of us!" he cried, crystalline laughter filling the Center.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
She spread out colorful, plastic tablecloths and each teacher took their group of students to a table. We had to select a gingerbread kit.
I looked at the options and asked, "Which...", and the students yelled "TRAIN!" in unison before I could even finish the question.
I was relieved that the students picked the train kit instead of the nativity scene. I liked the animals in the nativity scene but felt weird about the religious angle, especially because I felt I would be inflicting something on my Muslim students, which is basically all of them.
I have never made a gingerbread house before. I thought we might have an edge because of my years working in bakeries, but quickly realized my skills would not be necessary. I felt tense as I commanded the kids to allow me to sort the pieces of the train while they broke the pieces that were supposed to be separated and took turns reading the directions. The directions sucked. This thing was hard.
Working together, we actually built the fucking thing. I started telling the students to take turns decorating, but they quickly took over and I backed off, watching our train become a glistening, bedazzled tribute to sugar.
"Miss Gibson is doing it for them!" Mahmo called to me, pointing.
I watched the other teacher with her group. Cheating asshole, she was definitely doing it for them. For the fucking kindergartners of all people.
I gazed at my group proudly. They were scaring the shit out of me when I would see seven hands simultaneously decorating a very fragile ginger-train, but the thing was looking great and they were doing it, not me. I was surprised that Abshir, one of two males in my group, actually knew his way around a pastry bag and seemed to have an eye for decorating.
Paris sat off to the side. She was pouting, but I knew why. She had been shut out. Early in the activity, our caretaker had really gotten in her face about trying to take over the activity from the teacher. I am the teacher and it embarrassed me to have another adult feel like they had to advocate for me with my own students. I have had problems with Paris in the past and yes, it was a power struggle. She has been there five years and I had entered her turf. But, we have turned a corner and I felt bad that she was getting in trouble by someone she loves based on old crimes. I appreciated that our caretaker wanted to help me and would never question her in front of students. But it was off-base. And I feel stupid being viewed as the helpless white woman.
Paris had participated in the early rounds of building the ginger-train, but as the kids got handsy-er and handsy-er during the decorating, she had gone against her normal instincts and stepped away, deflated by the take-down from our caretaker.
Some middle school age kids were roaming the Center, eyeballing the ginger-creations. They normally aren't around, we offer a K-5 program. I have taught some of them, but they were too far in their adolescence to acknowledge me. They lurked like vultures, but I have to admit that I felt proud when the kept pointing at ours whenever anyone asked whose was the best.
It was time for the judging. A count down commenced and ended with "HANDS UP!" My students stood around our creation, eyes wide and hands up. It was cute and then uncomfortable to watch my children of color, which is all of them, with their hands up, though I was one of the people that had yelled the command.
I knew we were going to win.
"And the winner is......."
"We were robbed" I said and we all laughed, because it really didn't matter anyway.
"Okay kids, you can eat your houses!" Mr. Kevin announced.
It was shocking how quickly it was gone, chunks of it in each of my students' hands, but the majority in the middle schoolers' hands that attacked our train. Paris jumped up, eyes filling with tears, hands empty and ran to the other side of the room.
"Paris!!!!" Mahmo screamed, his voice shrill and horrified, his hands extended with pieces of ginger train that he wanted to save for her. I had never heard his voice sound like that before. They aren't even friends. Ladaan cluthed her ginger pieces to her chest.
"Give this to Paris." she commanded.
I took the pieces to Paris as she dug in her book bag, trying to hide that she was crying.
"I'm fine." she said, whenever I tried to talk to her.
"Look Paris, I am leaving these cookies here on the table for you. I know you are disappointed and I understand why. I just want you to know that Macoow and Ladaan really wanted you to have some and they saved these for you."
I returned to my group as they happily ate their pieces. I watched Paris walk slowly over and pick up the cookies off of the table and eat them.
"He's okay!" I heard Mr. Kevin call out across the Center. A white man stood there, the kids had let him in through the locked front door but stared at Mr. Kevin for clarification. My mind went to Dylan Roof and I scanned his body for firearms. I pictured the long tables on their sides to serve as buffers against gunshots and knew that plastic would never protect the kids. I don't know why that occurred to me, but I kept watching him until he left the room.
I stood in Paris' Spanish class at eight o'clock the next morning, ready to start my lesson at my full time gig. She marched up to me, merry.
"Remember building those ginger bread houses?!" she said excitedly, as if it had happened years ago instead of fifteen hours ago.
"That was so much fun!"
"Did you see when Miss Ethel tried to take our cookie?"
"I did, Paris, that was hilarious, but we put Ersheti on her and she couldn't get through...."
"Yeah, it was great....."
Thursday, November 17, 2016
My school let us sign up for various Professional Learning opportunities. I had originally wanted to do one on Autism, but it was full so I signed up for one about teaching children living in poverty. I hoped to pick up some strategies that would help me at school but mainly, something to help me be a better tutor at the Housing Authority.
I drove south down the early morning highway. My fellow participants from school had asked me to car pool with them, but I declined because they live close to our school and I would save a lot of time if I drove by myself from my house without meeting them. The workshop was in a city about an hour south of Atlanta. I felt pretty relaxed, drinking coffee and listening to NPR, expecting a tranquil day of being taught instead of actually teaching.
When I arrived, my three co-workers sat at a table, waving me over to the remaining seat. I walked over and saw that the handouts weren't at the seat and went back to pick them up from a stack by the door. I was apprehended by the teacher.
"Aren't there any handouts at your seat?" she inquired, an edge to her voice.
"Where are you sitting?"
I pointed across the room.
"You should sit at another table."
"Can't I sit with my co-workers?"
"Well, you can sit there if you want to but don't get too comfortable, because YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO MOVE." she said loudly.
I sat alone at a table. Our assistant principal strolled in and sat at the remaining seat at my previous table, oblivious to the teacher. She glanced at him and glanced away, unwilling to challenge his male-ness or administrative dress.
I felt stupid, secluded at my table. I worried my administrator thought that I had chosen that seat on my own, out of some sort of argument or weirdness. I could hear my co-workers talking and laughing with him. They were all grade level teachers. I am a "Specials" teacher. We are often treated as secondary, which I have gotten used to as part of the job. By no fault of theirs, I felt increasingly isolated, alone at an empty table, while the rest of my co-workers sat together. More people trickled in and a teacher from Monroe County finally sat at my table. We opened our laptops to view the materials and the coordinator walked by, guiltily complimenting me in a high pitched voice on a picture of Lola on my desktop. I smiled weakly.
"Let's go outside for our first activity!" she announced merrily.
I wanted to go outside. The town itself was attractive, one of those small Georgia towns with a Main Street and town square and antebellum houses with mysterious "garages" in the back of them. Red and gold leaves laid on the ground.
"Line up on the white line!" she instructed.
"Take one step forward if you grew up in a two parent household!"
The majority stepped forward. I glanced furtively at the African-Americans, imploring them with my mind not to leave me behind. They stepped forward, too.
"Step forward if your parents went to college."
"Step forward if your grandparents went to college."
"Step forward if you usually went on vacations out of state or out of country."
"Did you have after school activities, music lessons, go to camps?"
A massive gap was forming between me and the rest of the group. My co-workers were nowhere to be seen. I willed her to say something that would make me step forward, but I knew I would never catch up. She hadn't even mentioned welfare checks, food stamps or free and reduced lunch.
"Step forward if fresh fruit and vegetables were served with most of your meals."
By the end, the majority of the group stood near the front and the rest spread through the middle. After a large gap, an African-American man and I stood near the back of the parking lot, barely off of the white line. He was far on the other side and wouldn't look at me.
"Look around!" the instructor called.
I could only look forward, squinting into the sun while the rest looked back at us. One of my co-workers noticed me and a look of shock and pity crossed his face.
I immediately stared down, not raising my eyes from the pavement, knowing they were filling with tears.
I inadvertently shuffled my feet and dug my hands further into my pockets, while the rest of the group stared at us in the bright morning sun.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
"How could people ever own black people? How did they think that was okay?" she was bouncing from subject to subject, continuing conversations that may have occurred months ago, randomly, at 7:30 in the morning.
"We are not going to let that happen, Fatima, we are simply not going to let Trump send anyone, anywhere."
I kept waking up in the middle of night. Thinking of the election almost gave me Christmas like excitement, two more days, twenty-four more hours, twelve hours and we would know. It would be settled. I feared, like many, that Tuesday wouldn't settle anything and that Trump supporters would contest the election or do violent things at poll stations, or randomly attack minorities with their well known "anger". I told everyone I knew that I wouldn't be convinced that Clinton was president until she was the president, it was just too important and scary to take anything for granted. But I guess I believed she would win. I realize now that I really thought a livable minimum wage was going to be a reality. I didn't want to jinx it, but was counting on improvement of Obamacare and a Democrat leaning Congress that would actually allow her to govern, unlike the Republican Congress that made it a drinking game to obstruct anything Obama tried to do, whether they actually opposed it or not.
I went to bed around two o'clock, Wednesday morning. A few rust-belt states were undecided, yet I felt the obvious sense of doom that I had felt standing in a bar in Madrid in the middle of the night twelve years ago watching Ohio go to George W. Bush instead of John Kerry. I slammed my eyes shut and hoped like hell for a hail Mary. Early Wednesday morning, I heard Alec up and around, getting ready for work. I squeezed my eyes shut, faking sleep, because I was afraid to ask who won. Finally, I did. I walked outside with Lola and the smell of wildfires filled the air to the point that I thought my own house was on fire.
My initial feeling was a tremendous amount of sorrow. Obamacare would be killed. No increases to the minimum wage. The executive actions would be reversed: The Dream Act, Marriage Equality. He would pick a Supreme Court judge that would tilt the balance on the Court and challenge Roe v. Wade. Syria. The refugees. And, I felt humiliated. Humiliated that Hillary Clinton had had to stand on a stage with him, over and over again while he demonstrated his idiocy. That she had to put up with it, more than likely the most qualified person to ever run for president, stand there with a straight face while he was rude, lying, unqualified, performing a side show that would make some carny snake-oil salesman proud. And she had to put up with it, pretend like they were in some ways equals, that he was a legitimate candidate instead of telling him like it really was. And, he won. There was no reward for her, for us, he won. Not just any man beat what could have been the first American female president, but a pussy-grabbing misogynist. All of his positions were validated, his behavior approved by millions of Americans.
I sat at my kitchen table, grading papers. Report cards were due the ninth, but I could barely focus. More sorrow. The Obama family. Eight years ago, I actually thought the United States was turning a corner, that electing a black president was a sign of progress. Of course I didn't think racism was gone, but I thought we were progressing. I quickly realized how wrong I was when I read about my Representative, John Lewis, being called a "nigger" on the steps on the Capitol while I was sitting in my cold apartment in Tijuana. Fine, I was naive, but believe me, I recovered. I saw full and well that the election of a black president did not indicate racial progress in the U.S. but instead inflamed every bigot up in this bitch to get really fucking crazy. I knew that part of Trump's "victory" was indicative of the whitelash. But for me, Obama had felt like hope. Not only because of his policies, but for his presence. And I felt something that sorrow doesn't even describe accurately when thinking of the Obama family leaving the White House, while Trump's repugnant crew moved in, sent by the will of millions of Americans.
I went to the Housing Authority to tutor, feeling that sense of enemies among us, that every person I saw might be either a supporter of Trump or willing to give him a pass for being a bigot, which is just as bad in my opinion. I thought of applying for jobs in Mexico, that I needed to get out of this society of which I shared no common values. I found myself thinking over and over again of the rust belt, of the white people that had lost manufacturing jobs and had switched over from Democrats to vote for Trump. And I felt angry, really angry. Some call them working class, some call them uneducated, I don't really care which is more applicable. Clearly, I am aware that something must be done to help them, and I believe they voted against the people that could have helped them, whether it was by not noticing Bernie Sanders or not voting for Hillary Clinton. But what they did is the epitome of white entitlement. A multitude of ethnicities and races have been marginalized for generations. But, Jesus Christ, white people experience a few bad years and watch out, they will make everyone pay. They will burn this bitch down. Because THEIR problems are the priority. Who cares that Trump proposes brute force action on Muslims, on Mexicans, on African-Americans, on women. Fuck that, their needs are more important than anything else. And I will laugh, yes I will laugh, when they are still sitting next to an empty coalmine, jobless, four years from now when the bigot they gave a pass to does nothing for them. Let them stew in their famous "anger".
I basically was called an education elitist for making angry comments about the uneducated, white men that helped swing the election for Trump. Yeah, I got some shit. Call it uneducated, but yes, you are under educated if you expect to get decent pay without any other training except a high school diploma. It's not great, but it is reality. Yeah, I am actually against free trade and don't agree with sending factories somewhere else, mainly because they exploit the people and environments where they re-locate, all while pocketing the savings on manpower and environmental regulations, making the 1% richer and richer. But other jobs don't need to come back. I don't want your filthy coal and think it is time to take advantage of some re-training instead of voting for Trump and pointing at minorities as the source of your problems while hoping the mine re-opens. And....you're going to vote Republican because you want the government to save you? I thought Republicans liked small government, the pick yourself up by the bootstrap kind of stuff and no "handouts". Vote for Clinton or Sanders, they may have actually done something for you, but please mark the coalmine off your list.
I awoke Thursday, having that brief sense of not remembering, then feeling the wet blanket fall over me again. The air stilled smelled of fire and now there was visible smoke clouding my view. I taught four classes, my anger and impatience barely in-check. I was surprised I still felt horrible and preoccupied Friday morning.
"It's like a hangover, like an ongoing nightmare...." I told a friend at work.
"It's mourning." she responded and she was right. It feels like mourning.
I regretted saying anything on line about the "uneducated", mainly because I abhor being misconstrued and I thought anyone who knows me would know that I am not an education elitist, let alone unknowledgeable about the struggles of the Rust Belt. I was especially angry at a "friend" that told me that she blamed "all white people" for what happened, unless they had been actively working against white supremacy their whole lives and that it was unfortunate that we blamed "poor white people". That she found it laughable that "liberal white people" were ringing their hands and "shocked" because they didn't know "racism exists". Obviously I am not "shocked" that racism exists, I am completely dismayed at this show of force. Would it be better if I wasn't? I am saddened because yes, the numbers ARE bigger than I thought of people that either support Trump's ideas or are willing to give it a pass. But, I did think we were friends and this person used to call me by my name, not "white people" with some assigned textbook definition from the junior activist collection of flyers. I was mad by the push back and wondered why were fighting each other instead of the giant Cheeto in the room that I felt we should be directing our energy toward.
I started seeing things return to semi-normalcy. Newspaper articles started appearing that had nothing to do with American politics. Friends started putting up pictures of their kids' soccer games instead of large reflections on Tuesday's election. People talking about Football. And I felt pissed off all over again.
"What are you doing?????" I thought.
"Did none of this mean anything to you???? THIS SHIT IS NOT OVER!!!!"
It reminded me of September 11th. The days of doom, the heavy horrible feel, the fear and mourning and the profaneness of a return to normal life.
By Saturday, the fog began to clear in my mind. I slept almost eleven hours Friday night and found myself mentally preparing an action plan against Trump's proposals. Make America Great Again. Like when, the fifties? You know, when black people "knew their place", women wore aprons and Japanese were barely out of internment camps? When white American was the definition of "America"?
Fuck that. Really, fuck that.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
Halloween sucked. It is my favorite holiday of the year and I didn't even put on a costume. I spent the evening with the back gate bungee cord-shut and lights out on the front porch. Alec, Lola and I quarantined ourselves near the back of the house with all of the doors shut so no one could see that we were home. Much of this has to do with family strife and I would just like to raise one giant middle finger to that and for getting the blame for it.
I did carve two pumpkins. They are marvelous, but are now covered in black mold due to the eighty degree, late October temperatures that climate change HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH.
I spent Saturday morning looking at plane tickets to Chernobyl, to Kathmandu, to Lesvos, to Hanoi, to basically anywhere, whether I have been there before or not.
I am in my eleventh year of public teaching. I have taught through several elections and the students always ask who I am going to vote for. I demure, imploring them to make their own decisions. I am an unabashed Liberal, though I endured growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta. I remember a mock election when I was the only vote for Dukakis in my whole homeroom. I already hated them, but felt even more like the odd one out when the results came out and I was openly ridiculed, they knew it was me. I don't want to do that to some kid. They should believe what they want, or I guess what their parents parrot to them.
This election has been different. My Somali kids have asked me if I think Donald Trump will win and they will be deported, though the were born in the United States. My African-American kids tell me that he will re-segregate the United States and make them slaves. They ask me what I think of him. I can't have them think I support those ideas. I just can't.
I feel angry at the little white girl that asks me why we can't just say "all lives matter" instead of "black lives matter". I want to smack the girl that said that her dad said that "either candidate would be impeached within 100 days". Why, I wanted to ask her, why? Who would want that? Hasn't this election been enough? Can't people pull their heads out of their asses and follow the rule of law, the standards that have been established? Why does this rich ass grumpy fucking dad want more instability?
I actually am not mad at the kids. Mantra: not mad at the kids. But it does disgust me to watch them parrot their parents and eventually, I will probably be living under the influence of the rich white kids I teach.
My phone buzzed. It was Emma.
"Hey... what's up?" I asked.
"I'm on your porch, are you guys home?"
I went to the front and opened the door. Emma was dressed as Bobby Hill and her friend Caleb, who I taught when he was in 5th grade, was dressed as Hank.
"I just wanted to say hi, I mean, IT IS Halloween!"