Friday, December 1, 2017

La fuente

We sat in the classroom on our "work day".  Most people think a teacher work day means that we get to catch up on work:  planning, grading, thinking ahead.  But, we had Professional Learning, classes taught by other teachers to help us improve our trade.  It was alright.

During a session, a teacher volunteered to read aloud a section.  He did it in a jokey manner, to entertain us,
obviously we were among friends.  It was funny.
"You sounded like Barry White!" a teacher commented, jovially.
No he didn't.  He sounded like a teacher making a joke.  Just because he was black doesn't mean every voice over is Barry White.

I marched through the Farmer's Market, TWO DAYS before Thanksgiving, as opposed to the day before Thanksgiving nightmare that I have thrust upon myself since assuming the weird adult role of hosting family events at my house, though I have no children, am un-married and have cast aside any other semblance of traditional life except for getting a mortgage.
"Listen, as a person who has to deal with gluten free shit everyday, just pick one"  a side-stander said to his partner.
"I hate the grocery store, I HATE THE GROCERY STORE."  another bystander announced, while strolling through the too-full aisles.

"Frosty the Snowman!  Was alive-ass he could be...."
I checked my ears while staring at Johnny Cash sing Christmas songs on some public access channel, my stomach full of Thanksgiving food.

I stood, staring at kids eating their lunches, while chatting with my fellow teacher at large, who also had lunch duty.
"Hey man!"  a fellow teacher announced to my paisano.
"Where did you get that jacket?!"
"The place where I work during the holidays, I get a discount." he answered.
"Hook a brother up!"  the new teacher announced.
It was cute.  Call the black teacher "brother".  I love it.  Ingratiate yourself.  Bruh.

I drive between my school and the Housing Authority, where I work after school, three days a week.  I cut through the fancy neighborhood, trying to make it on time, often while eating a snack because I am starving.

I noticed a boy, tossing a football with his dad in the front yard.  His face filled with a huge smile, every time they passed the ball back and forth.  Just that simple act.

I watched Anna, in my class during the last period of the day.  She read the lines she was supposed to read for her skit, and her face spread with a smile and excitement for what she was doing.

Their capacity for joy fills me with wonder and envy. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wincing the Day Away

I watched the millionth, skit rendition of the same story, glassy-eyed and tired from a long week of sleeplessness and toxic work environment.  I glanced to my left and noticed a serious looking child cradling the classroom broom in his arms while stroking its dirty bristles, eyes locked on the skit.  

I walked through the school at 6:30 in the morning, already almost late to meet the Housing Authority kids for their monthly walk to school instead of ride the bus day.  I saw a co-worker chatting with Miss Alice.  I can't believe anyone actually comes to work at that hour.  They probably thought they saw a ghost when I walked by, as it wasn't ten minutes past when I was supposed to be at work.  

We walked through the neighborhoods and over the railroad tracks, as the sky slowly lightened and the day began.  Later that morning, an escaped emu would disrupt the parent drop-off lane, standing still and then darting between cars and up sidewalks as startled parents and children stared at it and tried not to run it over.  

I sat with my back to everyone, hunched over my laptop, hoping to be left alone.  

"LONDON — A British bakery chain has apologized after creating a Nativity scene in which the baby Jesus, surrounded by three wise men, was replaced by a sausage roll.
And not just any sausage roll, but one that had been bitten into."
I snickered, probably for the only time all day.  

"Scary movies don't scare me...."  Maryan responded, "I just think of things over and over and they won't go away.....".
"I have that problem, too."  I answered, looking back at her piercing stare.  
She widened her eyes and grabbed my phone, resetting the stop watch for her one minute fluency read.  

We sat under the fluorescent lights, nine hours after we had walked to school together, getting ready to start tutoring.  
"Well, my high of the day is that Mr. Jackson walked with us to school today!"  Muslimo announced with a little purr and side eye.  We burst out laughing while the girls started outing each other's crushes.  
"My low low was,"  Maryan started again, her voice quiet, "I saw a pile of feathers in the drop off lane....."
"Oh yeah, the emu!"  I interjected.

"They had blood on them." 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

We Take Care of Our Own

"Okay muchachos, ¿Qué es el Libro de Guinness?  Who can explain what the Guinness Book of World Records is?"

"It is a book of beer." a small blond girl offered, definitively.  

"The local people have long believed the monarchs are the returning spirits of their diseased relatives....." Lily read aloud for the class.

"Deceased." I quickly corrected, as she continued reading, unfazed.

"I wanted to check in on Tim's behavior.  We doubled down on his ADHD medicine.  I'm sure you've seen a difference!"

"I can't breathe.....I can't breathe....I CAN'T BREATHE....."  Eric Garner's guttural pleas filled my car as I drove over the railroad tracks and to the Center to tutor.  The gray sky seemed to darken and grip the earth stronger.

"So broken windows is predicated on the idea that if you break a window in a neighborhood, soon, all the other windows in the neighborhood will be broken. So you have to work hard to keep those windows from being broken, so that means cracking down on small offenses. So don't let people jump turnstiles. Don't let people ride their bicycles the wrong way down a sidewalk. Don't let people smoke weed in public. Don't let people urinate in public."   

I turned right on Howard.  

"And of course, this only happens in certain neighborhoods and doesn't happen in other neighborhoods." 

"...police in cities like New York were stopping 500,000, 600,000, 700,000 people a year almost entirely in black and Hispanic neighborhoods and very often physically searching them as's traumatizing....".

I made my left into the apartments.  

"...there is a thing called a roadside cavity search...."  

"Please just leave me alone...." he pleaded, his breathing labored.

"The kids were asking about the Civil Rights Movement.  They think it happened a long time ago..."
"Whaaa?"  a few of the other Center teachers gasped.
"I was there!"  one of them exclaimed.
"Me too!" another seconded.
"I thought we'd watch 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham' today."
"ALL of them will watch it."

I watched the Watsons carefully plan their drive from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama.  The last rest area they could safely stop at.  How early they would leave Michigan in order to drive through the south in daylight.  When Byron runs excitedly to a lunch counter to order hot dogs and fries for the family and is addressed as 'boy' and told to leave.  The look of excitement quickly falling from his face, disgust, anger and confusion replacing it.  The four little girls singing in the church choir.  

"What is their problem?  Why do they have such a chip on their shoulder?  Why don't they just get over it?" rang in my ears, a lifetime of 'questions' in white voices.

George Wallace's face appeared on the screen.
"Segregation now....."
"Segregation tomorrow....."
"Segregation forever....." the teachers said in unison with the archival Wallace footage.

It was burned in their memories.  It always will be.  

*Interview excerpts, NPR, Matt Taibbi

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Dreamers, Poets and Nap-takers

"Oh wow, there was a dictator in Libya, it's a country in northern Africa, he was known for doing kind of crazy things.  You know like, setting up a big tent to sleep in while visiting New York City or he had this like, all-female security team that would bust out with him whenever he appeared in public...."

I have no recollection of what prompted that conversation.

"Wait, will you write his name on the board?  I would like to do further research on him...."

"Qaddafi," I wrote slowly on the board "but it can be spelled other ways..."

"I demand that you change my child's grade from a two to a three.  If she did not learn what she should have, it is your fault."

I walked into school, noticing one of my Housing Authority students carrying the same lunch box as mine.  The Center gave them to us and we all use them.  Our padded, purple boxes with an inspirational message on the outside.  

"My child has NEVER had a disciplinary issue at school and I repeat, NEVER.  We would like to speak to you.  Our phone number is (404) 877-2030.  We are available after 5:30 on Friday."

As I timed Naado reading her passage out loud, I glanced up to see that the other two members of our group had clandestinely rolled up the skirts of their hijabs and flipped them backwards over their heads, transforming their head covers from long, nun-like items to a sort of weird turban.  They laughed hysterically upon being noticed, exposed necks stretched tall and eyes wide with excitement. 

"Noooo!"  Naado shrieked, covering her eyes and tugging on her own hijab as the girls quickly jerked them back down, bubbling with laughter.  

"Telling our child to reflect on his behavior is COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE.  Now, he does not want to come to school.  If you are looking for suggestions for appropriate consequences, I would be HAPPY to provide you with some."

"All day, I watch humans scurry from store to store. They pass their green paper, dry as old leaves and smelling of a thousand hands, back and forth and back again.

They hunt frantically, stalking, pushing, grumbling. Then they leave, clutching bags filled with things - bright things, soft things, big things - but no matter how full the bags, they always come back for more. 

Humans are clever indeed. They spin pink clouds you can eat. They build domains with flat waterfalls..."  Muslimo said aloud, while the rest of us followed along.  

The clock ticked and the sunshine outside dimmed as we sat around a table under fluorescent lights, ten noses in ten copies of the same book.  

*Quote and title, The One and Only Ivan

Saturday, October 28, 2017


"So, then we drove to St. Petersburg to evacuate, me, the dogs and my daughters.  We got to the hotel and this horrible man, an Indian man, with terrible teeth, totally ripped us off.  They are terrible people, immigrants....".

I started laughing, out of nervousness.  I was sitting on her back porch, in the home we had rented in July, well before we knew about Irma, Maria, and the rest of the gang.   Alec and I wanted to back out of the rental, but she had strong armed us, basically making it clear that she would keep every red cent we had paid in advance if we even tried not to drive into a disaster zone.  So, we packed up, put a gas can in the car and took the risk, watching caravans of military, police and utility vehicles drive north as we drove south.

"When I came home, there was a mattress in the living room..." Maryan responded, when I asked about highs and lows before beginning my "lesson" at the Housing Authority.
"Is your mom home from the hospital?"
"No, she's still there" Maryan responded, shielding her enigmatic face below the table.

"THEY ARE TERRIBLE PEOPLE!" she reiterated.
"And they want our jobs".
"But, your husband, he's a keeper.  I might just take him home with me...".
Alec jumped up and went inside.  Florida Mom was pleased that Alec had helped her clear hurricane debris from the front yard.  God only knows what she would say if she put two and two together and realized he was Jewish.
"But," she said, eyeballing Lola, "there were these people once that rented this house and said that their dog was friendly, bit me in the boob!  I told them they could take that dog to the shelter if they wanted to stay in my place....".
"Deadbeat Ex-Husband Roy" pulled up a few minutes later in a Cadillac while she yelled across the small yard what she wanted him to do next.

"Emmy, you have to get up.  If you're ill, you have to call you're parents and go home.  You can't just lay down in here...."
"My mom didn't pick up her food stamps!  I'm hungry and I haven't eaten in two days!".
I looked at her homeroom teacher, who was luckily still in the room.
"Come on, let's go." he responded, taking her to the cafeteria.

We are reading "The One and Only Ivan" at the Housing Authority.  Our original group read was "El Deafo" and it was a resounding success.   I started doing read-alongs because I force my students to read twenty minutes a day.  Most of them would pick picture books, way below their level and on top of it, not even finish them and switch several times within the twenty minute period.  I needed to have them all read the same thing so that I could do comprehension activities, try to do real literacy work.  Not that I know what I'm doing, but, whatever.

They loved El Deafo.  The One and Only Ivan has been more of a struggle.  As the students read the passages out loud, I found myself so engrossed in the book that my mouth was hanging open.  I looked up to my right and saw Muslimo, her hand in an L shape on her forehead, pointing at me.

During the reading, Maryan whispered to me.  "The baby never came out of the stomach.  It died in there....".
"Is your mom home now?  Is she sad?"
"I don't know.  I laid down on my dad's bed for a minute, and tears came out."  she stated, then pushed her eyes back on The One and Only Ivan.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Stars That Shine So Bright

"Hey, Henry, is one of your parents in education?  Something caught my eye this weekend and I thought it was your last name.....".
Yeah, that thing that caught my eye when I was job hunting at work and saw your distinct last name as a head of school that I was checking out.....
"Yeah, both of them are teachers...." he answered, with a little smile and exasperated eye roll.

"Wow, two teachers as parents...."
"Yeah, and they are both moms!" he answered, as if that doubled the problems.

As much as I'd like to pretend that my group of kids in the Housing Authority are a bunch of sweet saints, they often buck me.  I have a group of eleven this year, a big class for what people think is a small group tutoring situation.  And, nine of them are female.  They were cute at first, then I suddenly had a Mean Girls situation on my hands. And, they were against me.

"So then, he came out, dressed as Santa, the blackest of the blackest of the blackest skin on Earth!  I couldn't believe it!  And the kids, the kids accepted it like it was nothing!  None of them laughed!"  Her haughty smug chortle sang from her mouth as if she had just told the most adorable story in the western hemisphere.  I ground my teeth and said nothing, my back turned and hunched like a troll.

"Back away, little girl!"  the tiny fourth grader hissed to her neighbor, the voice of a fifty year-old mean woman coming from her lips.  Her neighbor started to cry.  I knew her mother had been killed in an accident months before while she was in the car and I knew that her table mate didn't like it when people stepped on her shoes.   It was a no win.

"I am the passenger....and I ride and I ride......"
I was so fucked up I could barely stand.  I was stumbling into people.
"All of it is yours and mine...."
"Let's take a ride and see what's mine!"  I screamed with the singer.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Chosen

"Texas mayor tells those not evacuated to write names, Social Security numbers on their arms....".  I felt a ripple of discomfort in my stomach while reading the newspaper and my mind's eye floated off to a different time, more than a decade ago, when I returned to the United States and saw people on rooftops of houses surrounded by water and a government that ignored them.

I watched Trump pardon Arpaio.  My mind travelled to a time I engaged in what was probably illegal activity in the name of social justice.  I watched as my partner in crime quietly pulled up his pant legs and began writing phone numbers in Sharpie on his shins.  I kept driving south, hoping his people would bail us both out of jail.

"Those that have not accepted Jesus into their hearts will not see Michael again!"  the pastor informed the crowd.  My niece sobbed heavily at my side.  Thank you, I thought, thank you for providing so much solace to those that have lost someone.

Someone smeared the Confederate monument close to where I work with shit.  I snickered when I read about it.

I stood outside, surrounded by fourth graders, staring at the sun. Countless mirrored faces pointed directly up.  A small nudge of moon was slowly traveling across the sun, making it look like some sort of Pacman.

Soon, it was completely obscured, save a slim, fire-orange smile at the bottom.