Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Not So Quiet American

I awoke to the sounds of footsteps on our roof and chainsaws blaring.  Instead of being on red-alert, Lola rose her head slowly and sleepily, giving me her version of a smile.

The tree men were here.

I gathered her up and went where the tree men were not.  I pulled up the newspaper on my laptop.  Anthony Bourdain was dead.

I worked in restaurants, mostly as a cook, for around ten years.  I culminated my experience with a brief stint as an assistant pastry chef in a French restaurant where I met one of the owners, Eric Ripert, shortly before Alec and I left on a nearly year long trip through Asia.

I read Kitchen Confidential shortly after it came out and devoured Bourdain's stories.  The pirate brigade ferociousness of the line cooks.  The lifestyle. I vicariously relished the sight of a dinner service beginning with the line doused in brandy and set aflame to the sounds of Flight of the Valkyries.  A mad scientist, pastry "terror dome" filled with gallons of molten seafood stew, conceived while fucked up and served to unsuspecting guests, with hopes that it didn't spring a lava-spurting leak.  My experience was never quite as intense as his, but I did enjoy reading the ride.

Later, he would talk about The Quiet American and show the world Hanoi.  All you have to say is 'Hanoi' to me and it invokes memories; I found it one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.  It holds a place in my heart that is bigger than New Orleans, larger than Havana, it's Hanoi.  I read the The Quiet American while in Vietnam, and was entranced by the mystery of Indochina, the roots of war, the opium and the decaying splendor.  He went to Hanoi for the first time the same year Alec and I did, the year 2000.

We are all friends here, right?  I've got my demons.  You've probably got yours, too.  But Anthony Bourdain seemed to have slayed the beast, whether it was worries of an unaccomplished life, the slavish life of a restaurant worker, addiction, mental illness.  He went on to craft a life of anyone's dreams well past the point when, in his own words, he should have been sent to the glue factory.  Extensive travel, exotic food, basically doing whatever the fuck he wanted.

But, it looks like you can never really slay the beast.  It lays and it waits.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

La despedida

"Oh what a night!"  the sound system boomed, while dozens of elementary school students danced in the makeshift disco in the school's library.
"What a lady what a night!"
I found myself chuckling, listening to various disco songs about fucking while the kids danced obliviously during our indoor Field Day. 

I sat at my post, watching children file down the stairs to leave school. 
"It was the second to the last day of Spanish!"  one of my fifth grade students students exclaimed. 
"That's right," I answered, unsure of how to address his comment.
He milled back and forth, staring at the floor.  He hugged me. 
"We only have one more day.  Then it's over.  I'll be gone.  I won't be here.  You'll be gone, too."
He continued pacing, grabbed me again in a hug and ran down the stairs, his sport emblazoned back pack bouncing quickly from his shoulders.  A difficult student with a laundry list of conditions.  He seemed so off-kilter, disoriented.

I entered the "Teacher's Lounge", a small, windowless room with fluorescent lighting, hard chairs and a microwave.  I think "lounge" is a wildly glorified way of describing the place.  Two teachers stood next to a table covered in cupcakes.  Each had a cupcake in one hand and a popsicle in the other.  One had an additional to go plate stacked full of cupcakes. 
"Oh my god, Hilary, open the freezer!"
I opened it, to see it packed full of every flavor of popsicles imaginable.  I glanced back at their feral faces, mouths lined with sugar and eyes aglow with strange light.  We had twenty-four hours to go.

Shonelle was clutching me, her arms wrapped tightly around me.
"I'm going to miss you." she whispered.
"I'll miss you too, but we'll see each other at the apartments!"
"Everyone on this hall hates their Spanish teachers, but we got you.  We love you."
"Believe me, I have students that hate me."  I answered.
"Yeah, Patty does,"  she answered, referring to a fifth grader that also lives in the Housing Authority.
"But whenever she says anything, I tell her to shut up."

"Some of your interactions with students have not been positive.  I don't know, I find you a pleasant person, some of the time....".
Thank you.  That must be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. 
Mahmo stood in our office, waiting for me, having snuck away from his class again.
"Did you have a meeting?!"  he scream-asked.

I stood outside the classroom with Laadah, one of the students I have taught for two years at school and who was also part of my group at the Center.  I didn't want the rest of the kids to know that I had gotten her a present. 
"Congratulations on finishing fifth grade!"  I told her, handing her a bag of chocolate truffles. 
"I know you're fasting, but maybe you can eat them in the night when you break the fast...."
Her face erupted with joy and she hugged me.
"I am going to miss you so much," she said, "will you be at the Center next year?"
"YES."  I answered, thrilled that she liked her gift. 
"Where is Raaidah?"  I asked.
"She's not here, she says it's because she has to go to her brother's graduation, but it's not until seven o'clock tonight."  she answered, raising her eyebrows.
"She couldn't do it....."
"No.  Yesterday she yelled at everyone in class all day to be quiet...." 
"I'm sorry, Laadah...."
She hugged me again.
"I'm taking swimming lessons this summer!" she told me, eyes wild with excitement.  I really didn't know how much I loved her until that moment. 

We stood outside of the school, waiting for the school buses to take off.  The drivers revved the engines and started honking the horns.  I was desperately trying not to cry.  They started to drive.  Kids waved from the open windows. 

Suddenly, the overcrowded school bus that goes to the projects tore by, countless heads and hands thrust through every open window.  I found myself jumping and waving, yelling out, as all their little heads and hands got smaller and smaller in the distance.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eight Mile

I woke up gasping, feeling like I was drowning.  I couldn't breathe.  I couldn't even swallow, my throat was so sore.  I couldn't believe I was sick again.  This year, I've had a CT scan, an ultrasound, several feverish debilitating colds and a vomit laced stomach virus.

The emails started and would not stop coming.  Accusations against me that ranged from "singling out"  a child, to "maltreatment", to racism.   The same parent that accused me of not being able to speak English and demanded a meeting between me and the principal, only to cancel it when only an assistant principal agreed to attend.  Each time one of the accused teachers tried to address the accusations, another email would fly in our boxes that was even longer than the previous.  Accusations against me were mixed with accusations of other teachers, students and substitutes.  Confusing descriptions of my misbehavior were mixed with things that had happened in Science and recess, classes I am not even present for.

Alec and I were trying to prepare Lola for another visit to the vet.  I couldn't speak anymore because I had lost my voice.  Taking Lola to the vet when it's raining is an unbelievable task.  We have nearly wrecked the car because she becomes eighty plus pounds of hysterical pit bull if we turn on the windshield wipers.  She had to go to the appointment.  They were going to assess if her epidural shot worked.  Alec and Lola ended up racing to a hotel a half a mile from the vet, north of the city, simply to avoid driving fifteen miles in pouring rain in the morning.  I helped pack up Lola and watched them go, feeling worried.  I squeaked out my goodbyes. 

A new accusation flew into my inbox, for a bathroom situation that I wasn't present for.  I do not enter the student bathrooms.

I woke up, wondering how my cold could keep getting worse instead of better.  I called my Uber and waited on the front porch, texting Alec to see how the night went.  It was pouring.

I received the message that my Uber was there and ran out in the rain.  I was drenched in minutes while I watched my phone get soaked, while the driver sat passively at the wrong address.

"Sorry," she said casually when she finally pulled up.  I was wet to the skin.

It was hours before I was dry, but I never felt warm the whole day.  I cordially administered tests to the student who threatened to shoot me last week and made my way through the day, cold and sick to my stomach from too much cold medicine.  I kept texting Alec to see if he and Lola were safe, if the visit went alright and if they were home.

I bummed a ride to avoid walking in the rain to go to tutoring.  At the Center, I made my students write persuasive essays about things that are important to them.  One picked "extended recess".  When I asked for her talking points, her persuasive arguments, she said:

"We work harder than teachers.  They get breaks all day and sit around and socialize with other teachers."

Yeah, fourth grade life is a real killer.  Punching that clock 24/7.

My heart hardened in a way I didn't think was possible.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Backwards Forwards

I watched the girl get in the boy's face.  Open her eyes wide, shake her head repeatedly, brow beat him, act like her mom.  Her mom that gets in my face, acts ridiculous, unfair, disrespectful.  Uncalled for.
He stared straight ahead, and put both fingers in his ears.  I think he might have put his feet on the table.
I call that problem solving.  Conflict resolution.  21st Century skills.

"So, I shaved off all of the hair on my arms and hands, because, well I have hairy hands."  Muslimo informed me, while we pulled out our copies of 'Wonder'.
"I cut my finger." she added, showing me a bandaid on her thumb.

I entered one of the classrooms where I teach and shoved my flash drive into the desktop so that I could set up for my lesson.  The general ed. teacher tried to calm the class down, get them ready for me.

The boy that moved in halfway through the year began issuing insults to me under his breath, like he always does.  Staring at me, trying to stare me down.  Just because I'm there.  Just because I arrived to teach a class he doesn't like or finds difficult.  I've worked with him.  Treated him with kindness.  Blew off his insults, ignored them.  Even when he threatened me, I blew it off, because I wasn't going to give it credence or amplified importance.  He's a child.

I found it sadistic, but I have a lot of rich entitled kids that are sadistic.  That enjoy trying to make another person feel bad, just because someone is there that they can throw darts at.  And it makes them feel good.  To pick on a maid, or a teacher.  Lord of the Flies.  America's Future.

"I'm gonna get a rifle." he muttered, glaring at me.

I'm sorry, but you don't get to threaten me with firearms.

You just don't.

And, it ended there.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

You Might Ask Yourself

Men, some not even men but teenagers, shimmied up the border wall and straddled it, one leg in either country.  Countless other people from the caravan stood below.  The were at the border wall that extends into the sea, and at San Ysidro, in Tijuana, at locations where I've spent countless afternoons.  I would have done anything to be there, to be there cheering them on. 

"You tell me why you were talking about me!"  the ten year old screamed in my face. 
"I wasn't talking about you.   I apologized to the back table for the distraction coming from your table."
"You talk to me now!" he continued to yell, rising and getting in my face.
"I've answered your question." I answered calmly.
"YOU were talking about ME to other students!"  he yelled, walking toward me and inserting himself between me and the desktop computer. 
"Oooooh, you told her!" his only friend in the class cooed, laughing.  The rest of the class stared on in astonishment as I tried to keep the lesson going. 
"I demand to know why you were talking about me with other students!"  he continued yelling.
"At this point, your harassing me."  I answered.
"How can a child harass an adult!" he yelled over and over, while I tried to continue the lesson. 

"Look, Mrs. Lovett, Anton had a really bad day...." I said into the phone, my voice shaking.
"His behavior is YOUR fault!"  she shrieked back.
"He only acts like this because he thinks YOU don't like him!" she continued.
"I am coming to your class TOMORROW to observe."
"Okay."  I said weakly and hung up.  Observe me, though you're not my boss and have zero qualifications to evaluate my abilities.  But of course, I'm the one that has done something wrong.

I walked to the Center after a Central Office meeting for all elementary Spanish teachers.  Meetings for whole departments at this time of year has never been a good thing.  Six years ago, I was laid off.  One year ago, our instructional hours were slashed.  This meeting had been surprisingly painless, but I felt a little annoyed to have lost forty-five minutes of tutoring time for a meeting that seemed to be basically an exchange of pleasantries.   When I arrived at the Center, my kids were helping the kindergartners.  They begged to keep doing what they were doing.  My boss assured me that everything was fine and my kids could stay with hers.  I slipped out a side door and walked away, feeling like no one needed me for anything. 

I called an Uber and my driver even drove right past me, though I was waving my arms in the air, then he blamed me when I got in the car.

"How was Lola's epidural?" I called, while opening the front door.
She walked up wearily, a huge square shaved out of her fur. 

I woke up, tired and with puffy eyes, both from lack of sleep and crying.  By the end of my "observation", it appeared that the parent wanted to enroll in my class. 
"I told Anton that that is how he needs to act everyday!"  she exclaimed.
"That would be great."  I responded.
"And call me if you have ANY problems!"
I let her save face, pretend like the reason she came was to make sure her kid acted right.  I was glad I had triumphed, but questioned why people in my profession have to deal with this kind of shit so regularly. 

I was happy when Friday arrived.  But Friday night, I literally threw up all over the house.  My stomach churned and my body ached.  I slept most of Saturday.  There has been a stomach flu going around school. 

I'm not sure if that was the only thing that got me. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Heart of the Matter

"Do you see her?"  I heard a student say while I walked down the hallway.
"I've known her my whole life."  I glanced back to see one of the ghosts of Christmas past.  I taught both of her older sisters at my old school and then they moved to the district where I work now.  I was flattered that she thought of me, remembered me. 

"You are WALKING from school to the Center?"  Muslimo asked me, incredulous.
"Yeah, it's only like, a mile."
"But what if you get run over by the train?!"  she howled.
"Muslimo, I look both ways before I cross the tracks."
"What if it comes up really fast?"
"Muslimo...."
"What about, about....you're going to pass Trinity Walk?"
I averted my eyes.  Trinity Walk.  The apartments where the girl was murdered.  It was still in their heads, as if the location was what was to be feared.
"I don't go that way." I answered quietly. 

A theatrical group showed up at the Center one day after school.  They wanted to do an anti-bullying play.  Sly smiles spread across all of the teachers faces.
"Oh, wow, it will last more than an hour....oh so, um, we just watch them entertain the kids and we sit back and get paid....."
Broad smiles spread across our faces. 
I looked at the actors.  White do-gooders.  This ought to be good.  But as the play began, it was more nuanced than I expected.  Creative.  And the actors generally seemed thoughtful, it was an original take on bullying.  One of the women walked on her hands and slowly flipped over as they mimicked kids walking in a circle.  Somehow it didn't look like showing off, it was amazing and I envied her strength and grace.  I like watching people do something they enjoy.  And I scolded myself for being condescending. 

When the play ended, the actors did a little question and answer session with the kids, trying to make sure they understood the play.
"Why did Polly bully Josh?"  they asked.
"Because he's WEAK!"  a number of kids called out.  I saw the look pass over the actors faces. 
"He's a nerd!" a third grader called out, wrinkling her nose.  I felt disgusted. 
"What do you do if someone tries to bully you?"
"I hit them."  Shanika answered definitively.
Other kids nodded.
"I get my brothers!"
The actors kept trying to get the kids to look at the situation a different way and at times, the kids played along.  But we all knew the first answers were the real answers.  I felt for the actors. 

After, the third grade boys stared wide eyed and dazzled as the athletic woman moved to an easier subject, showing them jumps and twists and flips that she was able to do effortlessly.  Their faces were filled with pure wonder.

Suddenly, one of them jumped straight up and did a full backflip himself, flying a few feet in the air and gliding in a full circle, then landing squarely on the carpet on both feet. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Fall on Me
















"Ms. Wagner, did they tell you what happened?"  Mahmo asked me lowly, while I loaded my school computer and books into the trunk of my car in the parking lot at the Center.
"Yes, Mahmo.  The superintendent emailed us.  And....I saw it on the news."
"She was stabbed eight times....they said he was bipolar.  Ms. Wagner!  What is bipolar?" Mahmo screamed/asked, in his distinctive way.
"Issues.  Means he has issues." Raaidah answered, authoritatively.

She had been on my mind since Sunday afternoon.  The girl that had been murdered in the apartments.  The apartments where I work after school, where I tutor.  I remember moving to Atlanta in spring of 1982.  A child murderer was ravaging the city.  I questioned why, why, why my mom would move us to a place where a man was killing children.  I didn't know or care that I didn't fit the demographic.  Or that we lived a couple of miles outside of the city limits.  It scared me.

"There's a vigil tonight," Mariama told me casually.
"A group of us from the Center are going."
I already knew about the vigil, and was flattered to be invited to go with the group of children.

She went to the school where I work.  I think I remember her.  I could only imagine her fear, her pain and the ridiculously unnecessary death.  I pictured Miriama.  I pictured Mahmo.  Raaidah.  I pictured all of them.  And I felt like I couldn't speak. I could only imagine how they must feel, a child, murdered in the complex where they live.  And the man was at large.  The boogyman.  I felt their fear.  So much that my stomach felt like it was bleeding from the inside out.

I looked up crisis techniques.  Don't bring it up, wait until they do, then listen.  We went through two hours of tutoring until they circled my car, when I was leaving.  I listened.

"I'll be there." I told Mariama, though I had already planned to.

I shot gunned two beers at a bar around the corner.  And came back, parked my car at the Center and approached the area of the vigil.  I stood, alone.  I watched Miss Edith come in with children from the Center and waved her over, feeling like they deserved my preferential location more than I did.  Mariama and another child, a child of the apartments, sat on the retaining wall that I leaned against, one on either side.  Laddah was next to them, her eyes fixed and unwavering on the speakers.  Their physical presence felt like a warm blanket, something cloaking me, though I wished I could do something to comfort them.  Some of the worst behavioral problems my school has had in years approached, some of the middle-school aged, alone and without parents.  The boys.  They took a knee.  And they stayed like that for forty minutes, without talking, without doing anything but listening.

We left an hour and a half later.  Laddah was cautious, trying to keep her candle lit.  Mumar, the wildest boy we have experienced in a while, ran at her, bull in a china shop, and put out her candle.  She kicked him in the stomach, barely raising her long sleeves and skirt, not even ruffling the hijab.  He raged at her.  I put my hand on his stomach to hold him back, re-lit her candle and the candles of the other children, saving Mumar for last.
"Be careful," I asked and he was.

The following evening, I read over my students' "What Home Means to Me" project.  I scanned Mowliid's, happy that his handwriting is legible.

"I can stay in a safe place," he wrote,
"where I can't get merdt..."

Merdt... merdt...murdered.