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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Bell Jar

"'re going to have a class like that at school," I responded, to the girls of my tutor-group.
"Like, SEX ED?!" Muslimo shrieked, while the rest of the girls stared at me with mouths open.
"No, not sex ed but, oh god even the word is gross, um, puberty class.  You know, how everything works?  Don't worry, the boys and girls are separated during the talk."
"Boys have puberty too??!!!"
"Yeah, and they don't want to talk about it in front of girls, either."
"Well," Maryan stated definitively, slapping her hand on the table, "it already happened to me.  Happened in January.  Happened again last Monday."
"At least you're done with that for the next month."
"That's right." she answered.

"Shanika is never coming back."  Mariama stated, an uncomfortable smile on her face.
"I know, she's mad at me because I kept getting on her about working here."
"It's not just that.  She's mad at us.  She doesn't want to be with us anymore.  She is hanging around with you know, the bad people."
"We tried to bring her back."
"She keeps trying to fight me.  She doesn't even get herself ready in the morning, her mom does it for her.  And she wants to fight."  Mariama continued.
I looked at Mariama.  I wanted her mom to get her up in the morning and help her get ready.  The girls dissolved into stories, the fist fights when they get off the bus, the attacks on the bus, frightening adults that threaten the kids physically.
"I threw my backpack in a bush and pretended I was going to fight her, just to make her go away...."
I felt weary.
"Look you guys, I know my advise doesn't really mean a lot, but when you're older, fighting, physically fighting - people are really going to look down on you, really think badly of you.....I know that here, if you don't push back people will think you're..."
"WEAK." they said in unison.
"Yes.  Weak.  But if there is anyway to avoid it... you're just better than that."
"My mom said if they come at me, fight back....."  Naado began, voice raised.
I listened.  And I wondered if my 'advise' was even relevant there.  Or safe.  And I worried, worried about my girls, fourth grade, surrounded by violence that will harden and shape them.

Some 4H club brought came in to do an anti-smoking campaign.  Our kids immediately proved too advanced for the lesson when the started answering their questions with name brands of cigarettes and responses like 'weed' or 'cocaine' when the lady was just asking about tobacco.  At the end, they were shown a series of international, anti-smoking commercials.  One featured a parade float and fun house music, everything in bright pastel colors.  People in hospital gowns sang to the carnival-like music, most of them missing parts of their faces, mainly parts of their jaws.  Others sang through holes in their necks.  Some hissed away through oxygen masks, all while the jolly music kept playing.  All the while, the float rolled through town.

"Ms. Wagner, can we please just go in the back now and do homework?  Math, school work?  We want to work."  Muslimo stated emphatically, eyes wide.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Parkland, U.S.A.

"Some teachers are retired military and law enforcement and would not hesitate to protect our children."

"But, you will be apart of innocent children and teachers being defenseless against a killer??? No Gun Zone = Invitation to criminals and psychos."

"It's so obvious that liberals don't care about protecting children."

"We value life and want our children to LIVE. If you don’t want to carry that is fine, there are teachers already trained and equipped to protect."

"You obviously don’t care enough to do whatever it takes to protect your kids!"

"No says the voice of the fricken teachers union ..."

"There will be other teachers who love their students (and yours) enough to do whatever possible to protect them!"

"It takes an average of eight minutes for first responders to arrive...our children don’t have that long to wait."

"Let your co-workers who are willing to be a last line of defense do so as you are helping evacuate more children safety."

"Good, we don’t need any more chicken shits “educating” our kids!"

"Stay the hell out of the middle American states, you would probably melt down when you realize just how much Guns are part of life out here!  Where do I send the case of paper towels to wipe you up when you melt down!"

"Yeah, I was just told by a police officer that I'm being selfish for not wanting to defend my students."

"Some teachers and staff DO want to protect the kids and we should let them."

I could feel the tide turning pretty quickly.  If you have some doubts about adding "armed guard" to your list of duties during the workday, you are a teacher who doesn't really care about kids.  You know, the same way you don't really care about kids if you want to get paid for your work.  Or if you don't buy your students school supplies out of your own paycheck.  If you don't spend weekends raising money for the school.  You really don't care.  You really don't have a 'passion' for this, do you?

I expect you to have gone to the best schools.  I expect that you have experience teaching in the best schools. I expect you to teach my child all day, exactly to my specifications, because though you went to the best schools, I know what's best.  I expect you to support my child emotionally, answer all of my emails within minutes, and perform the services of an armed guard.  I expect you to take a bullet for my child.  THAT IS WHAT A GOOD TEACHER WOULD DO.  Someone who really cares.  

If I do not expect this of you, it is because there is something wrong with you and you could never be trusted anyway.  Everyone knows teachers are idiots.  

"My mind goes straight to a teacher having a breakdown and my kids locked in that room with that gun."

"A good number of teachers are on medication for anxiety and depression."

"And the teachers' lounge is essential a bar, or so I've heard."

Sometimes I wish the teachers' lounge really was a bar.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

Blue Valentine

They were swinging, hard.  Like all fist fights, everything was fine until it was not, and when it was not, you knew it.

I hadn't been around too many fist fights until I started teaching.  In high school teaching, they could be pretty awful.  Blood on the walls, people pinned to the floors, mayhem.  Threats of even more violence, things that go home on the bus and to the neighborhoods, guns, group attacks.

We walked back from the city-run auditorium, shepherding our kids to the Center after they practiced their Black History performance.  It is a joyous time that has filled me with pride for the past two years.  It is enlightening and celebratory, a presentation of African-American contribution that has often gone uncelebrated.

I heard something familiar, something unwanted, and started to run.
They were going to hurt each other.  My favorite fourth grader, who was now in sixth, and our troubled fifth grader had erupted in a brawl.  The only other adult close by was another woman, and she was trying to pull them apart.  They are large boys, and they were angry.
I yelled their names, knowing I wouldn't grab either of them because I wouldn't be able to separate them.  A mysterious man from the community ran in, and grabbed Jiinow by the waist, pulling him off.
"Go to the Center!" Ms. Harmon yelled at Jiinow.
"Take Mumar with you," she instructed.
"Mumar, let's go, come with me, you're not in trouble, but I need you to come...."
I know him, and I know that he is not sound.  He growled.  They were both crying, faces pulled with rage.  I knew what he would do, that time he ran away from the school, flight, flight, flight...
"An adult is speaking to you...." the mysterious man said lowly.
He ran.
Their enraged faces flashed in my mind, over and over again. The tears, the humiliation.  The abject pain.

"I'm going to Saudi Arabia."  Anward announced the next morning.
"To the Haj."
"You're kidding, that's amazing!"
"I will get to smell the stone," he announced, peppering his words with perfectly pronounced Arabic words that adding a flavor to his description.
"But you know, I'm a Kurd.  My Arabic sucks.  I hope it's okay."

"I might just need to go on a junket...."  my boss at the Center announced, as we walked back from the Black History performance the following day.
"I don't have plans for the vacation, but I really might need to take a junket somewhere...."

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Downward Dog

"I love modulars."  Mowliid announced randomly.

I gazed at the bright eyed boy, small for his age, with consistently the cleanest clothes I think I have ever seen.  Why he loved the trailer at school was a mystery.
"Why do you love modulars?"
"THEY are good buildings."
"AND, they can go on a truck."
"And be moved to a new location?"
"YES." he answered definitively, a look of satisfaction on his face for having explained himself fully. 

I have nearly completed a Soberuary, or a booze-free January.  At times, I feel like the Seinfeld episode when George Costanza gave up sex and became hyper-intelligent.  Other times, I feel overstimulated by the extra activities I do in my new-style quest for healthy living. 

I stared at a book that leaned against the white board in one of my classes.  Its cover had one of those famous Dust Bowl photos of skinny, rugged white people, looking strained.  The title, MIGRANT WOMAN, was emblazoned across the front.  I wondered why people viewed poor white migrant workers as valiant but poor brown migrant workers as takers. 

"Did you show them what child abuse was?" one of my students asked, snickering.
"Don't make me come over there...." I responded, laughing.
"Are you going to turn the car around?"
"Don't make me turn this car around, I'll give you something to cry about...."
"Do you want something to cry about?"
The whole class was laughing.  They love my stories about popular, parent sayings from the seventies. 

Next, I'd like them to try one of those old metal slides in the summer while wearing shorts. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Day of Kings

"When does the tree come down?"
"You have to wait until after Epiphany.  At least Catholics do."
"What's Epiphany?"
"The day the three kings arrived with weird shit like mir for the child-God Jesus."

"I saw a picture of my mom IN FRONT OF A CHRISTMAS TREE."  Shanika informed me during tutoring, eyes wide.
I blanked for a moment.  And?
"She used to celebrate it...."  Shanika added, in a whisper.
She says that they don't celebrate any holidays at all anymore, but that the lack of commemoration is religiously based.  Sometimes I wonder if it's actually poverty based, or a complete rejection of material things in a quest for purity, influenced by their circumstances.

Maryan showed me a small, clear stone with some sort of object in the middle of it.  It was the second time in two days that she had shown it to me.  I knew she loved it, but I couldn't figure out why.  She would only tell me that her sister gave it to her.  This time, she held the stone up so that I could get a better look at it.
A small, pink imprint of a baby's foot was in the middle of the stone.
"It's for the baby."  she told me, her mysterious eyes locked on mine.
"For the baby that died."
She turned the stone over and over in her hand, then quickly obscured it somewhere under her hijab.

The circular machine arched over my head.  It made a swooshing noise over and over that reminded me of the contraption in "Contact" that Jodie Foster tried to go to space in.  My right arm was bandaged from a blood extraction.  An IV with a strange, coiled tube extended from my left arm.
"Okay, I'm going to start, and I'll stay here to monitor.  You will notice a metallic taste in the back of your throat, you will flush and you will feel like you have to urinate.  Don't worry, you won't.  Here we go."
He activated the IV, paused, and left the room.
"Don't breathe.  Don't swallow."  an automated, authoritative voice commanded.
I began to roll backward through the tube-like machine.
I stared straight up, watching the radioactive symbol on the machine begin to glow brightly as I passed through the tube.

"Rafa has died.  He will be buried the sixth of January."  Rafa.  Probably our closest friend in Tijuana.  Why?  How?  My breath caught in my throat.  He was gone.  Rafa was gone.  It seemed impossible.  They were burying him on the Day of Kings.  The Day of Kings.

I ran through the Housing Authority, chasing a runaway ball.  The air was almost Spring-like after days of below freezing temperatures.  The kids cheered and laughed, waiting for my return with the ball.  As I rounded the fence and down the hill to the ball, I realized a huge smile had spread across my face.   I couldn't have stopped it if I tried.

"Thank you for the apartments, thank you for the apartments, thank for the apartments...." repeated over and over in my head as I turned and ran back to the kids with the ball, hair sailing in the breeze.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Weather Outside is Frightful

"Rudolph the red nosed reindeer!"  the kids howled mere feet from me while I tried to answer emails in our office during my lunch break.
"Reeeeiiindeerrrrr......" a teacher harmonized.
"Had a very shiny nose!"
"Shiny nooooose...." the harmonizing continued.
"And if you ever saw it!"
"Saaaawww it...."
The kids, I could handle.  The adult, no.

"A man can let a woman be independent when he knows he's the man."
I gulped some of my small glass of wine and ate a wildly overpriced fried oyster.
"BUMP.  What do you mean, if he knows he's the man?"  my supervisor advised my other supervisor.
I was glad she was willing to take on that fight.  I just wished my wine and entree hadn't cost so much.

The kids laughed at the Charlie Brown Christmas story.
"Look at that tree hair!"  one called, when faced with the famous tree's falling needles.

I stood at the Housing Authority with the kids, ready to do the monthly walk to school that requires me to be at school at 6:30AM, meet a parent and drive to the apartments, and then walk with the kids back to school and have them arrive by 7:30.  I don't have to do it, I hate getting up early, but I always end up enjoying it.  I felt bleary, I had been at the Housing Authority dinner until ten hours before I was standing in front of the Center the following morning.

The little girls put on reindeer antlers and Santa hats over their hijabs.  The boys ran like heathens.  The people of the upscale community we walk through looked on in distaste.  My tutorial group of girls purred lasciviously at the assistant principal they have a crush on.   Mohammed screamed like a girl when a dog walked beside him.  It was good.

"When might be a good time to call you and address your concerns?" I emailed the pervasive parent, who had emailed half of the school about some perceived affront to his child, taking nearly a month before actually contacting me.
"Can we talk Friday during the break?  I've had a busy week!"  he responded.

I watched a teacher I work with allow students to shave off his beard by the flagpole in order to raise money for one of our kids that has cancer.  The sick child is my student. 
The live stream flashed on the screen and the class I was with screamed with excitement.  I saw a cell phone flash on the screen and I saw Andrew's face.
They face-timed him.
I saw his pale face, laughing, bald head laying against the hospital bed. 

I stood in line at the Dollar store, waiting to buy treats for my Housing Authority kids.  It was the last night of tutoring before the break.  I had cash that I had received as a gift from one of my classes.  The line was taking forever.  I child I teach at school was a couple of people ahead.
"That's the Spanish teacher,"  he said loudly.
"Everyone hates her."

I made it.  I survived the week.  Family Christmas matters crashed in, but I navigated that, too.

I looked at Facebook.  A video popped up in front of me of a man swinging an axe into a live pig's head.  It stood next to him, innocently, unaware of what was about to happen.  I quickly swiped away, trying not to see.  I felt a prickly heat crawl up my neck and on to my face.

And then I cried.