Thursday, December 23, 2010

No hacen falta

Oh, Mexico. I've missed you. Thanks for letting me come over today.

I was invited to a Christmas carne asada party at a place I can't tell you about and with people that supposedly don't exist. After a feast of various grilled meats and homemade tortillas and salsas, I was surprised when the tequila presented itself in the middle of the afternoon. I wanted to hang out. I really did. But I couldn't. Christmas is in two days, as is my trip to Egypt and I don't even know the exchange rate for the dollar.

"He's very depressed" I told my friend at the party, explaining Alejandro's situation. "Así es..." he sighed.

"NO HACEN FALTA MONEDAS, BRILLANTES!" I screamed with the radio as I sped down the highway. I started giving my money away to the men that stood beside the highway where traffic backs up under the overpass. I kept giving it away until there were no more men.

"I'm not nice anymore, which was never exactly my skill set anyway" the girl next to me a Target bellowed into her phone. A man with a face twisted into a grimace and a Christmas tree tag stuck to his shoulder stared into space, a twenty-four pack of toilet paper in his arms. I didn't know what to buy. That tequila buzz was strong.

"Is that a Fendi bag?" the young man asked me while I waited in line at the shady beer store. "No, um, it's Marc Jacobs" I answered, staring at his silver grill. "I am so with that. It's beautiful. You know, Macy's has some real nice bags right now. Look at her..." he said, pointing at the white woman in front of us, "that's a nice Coach bag..."

"Have a good night" I wished him, slinking out to the parking lot with my six-pack and my nice bag and away into the night.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

From the bottom of my heart















"You're hair looks like the people in the movies" the Zebra Girl told me, her bangs mysteriously pulled off to the side in an imitation of my hairstyle. What movie? Creature from the Black Lagoon? My eyes were popping out. I knew I was going to have a seizure. No lunch, non-stop classes, a not so carefully planned day of craft lessons with kids that can barely use scissors, secret feasts when no one was looking on homemade chocolate snack student Christmas gifts and a few short hours until the break officially began.

I watched a nine year old boy slowly lower himself to the floor in a full split, while wearing jeans.

"We are ready to SING IT" little Rafael informed me, plunking himself beside me on the rug. "Let's do it" I answered, cranking up the CD player for a some educational booty shaking.

The kids were wearing their pajamas to school again.

"You're gonna be seeing this outfit again tomorrow" my track suit wearing, teacher neighbor informed me on the day that should have been a snow day. "I'm not even gonna take a shower". That would be two of us.

I could hardly carry all of my loot home. Candies, tea, hot chocolate, mugs, cookies, bath salts, cards, fudge, mysterious chocolate balls, a t-shirt, even a loaf of bread. My eyes were bulging from a non-stop diet of coffee, Coke and chocolate. I was walking way too fast.

He was crying. "What will you say to your papí?" the woman next to me asked the little boy. "Te quiero! Te quiero!" he answered. "I don't want to be in here" Alejandro said into the telephone, wiping his eyes. Inadvertently I grabbed Michelle's knee and started squeezing it, then grabbed her around the shoulders. There is nothing so powerless as watching a person cry through glass. "You'll see them again" I stammered, "I hope" Alejandro answered. "No. You WILL see your family again".

"Hay muchos hombres aca?" the little boy continued, speaking through the glass and into the telephone. "Muchos o poquitos? Ahhh, muchos...."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A few of my favorite things

Two beers down and a parking ticket already in hand, I was running through the Martin Luther King National Historical Site, cross-infested gospel choir robe thrown over my shoulder, toward Ebenezer Baptist Church. Later that evening, I would be on the stage in the historic church, with said robe on my body, in front of nearly two thousand parents and friends of my students.

It had been a long day. After a few short hours of sleep due to an unexpected six hour trek to the detention center the night before, I woke with the devil hisses of Chantix in my ears. I thought about that bus we had seen pull up to the center in the middle of the night as we sped away. The dark bus to nowhere.

I worked like a beast teaching those children all day and found myself running past MLK's tomb in the dark to get to their winter recital on time later that evening. With my robe.

We sing a lot. I try to pick out jazzy numbers for the kids, nothing too high pitched, too obnoxious. Strangely, they play instruments while they sing their little edu-Spanish songs. Fake snare drums. Pianos. Or they they just shake it. They look like the Muppets.

Half way home from the detention center, Michelle gasped and pointed to her jacket. She had walked out wearing the prison visitor badge. I guess I'm glad she noticed it before we went out in public. I carry it in my pocket now. The kids are getting wild, wilder by the day, the closer Christmas comes. I have the urge to bitch at them. When I touch the badge in my pocket, things go into perspective and I don't feel like bitching anymore.

"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens...." the second grade chimed to the crowd. They were wearing their pajamas. Lashandi sang intently, mouth wide and head bobbing. I loved Lashandi the minute I saw her ride. He pulled up between all the nice cars in the pick up line on a bicycle. Lashandi ran out, jumped on the pegs that stuck out from the back wheel and rode away, standing up, holding firmly onto her dad's shoulders, her fake fur coat flapping in the wind. "I simply remember my favorite things...", Ignacio caught my eye, looking regal in his bathrobe. "And then I don't feeeel sooo baaaaddd" he sang solemnly. I knew I was going to cry again. Shit I was tired.

I woke to the sound of someone punching the pillow or the mattress. I sat up and looked around. Alec was completely asleep. Good morning, Chantix. I'm tired. Really tired. I showed the kids a video about Christmas in Mexico. They really liked the parties with piñatas. "True works of art, made to be destroyed" the boring narrator droned on.

"Made to be destroyed...." several echoed, eyes glowing in the darkness.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A lark who is learning to pray

"Do you have a rubber band?" Michelle asked me after clearing the metal detectors and before passing through the door made of metal bars that opened upon direction of one of the guards. "Umm, a silly band" I answered, handing her a red one shaped like maracas. It seemed pretty festive and completely out of place in that shithole.

The metal bars slid open. We passed through, along with a little pack of Hispanic people carrying small children, and waited as the doors slid shut behind us. The second set of bars slid open.

Small, urinal like stalls faced a series of windows. On the other side of the windows, a series of young, Hispanic men sat in prison clothes, smiling eagerly with phones in hand. Alejandro, a young man who attended the high school where I began my teaching career, smiled excitedly at his former teacher through the glass. I sat back on the small plastic chairs while she spoke to him, staring at the ground until the embarrassing tears cleared my eyes.

Immigration Status: "U.S. Citizen" I wrote on the form that allowed me to visit detainees. No wonder no one in his family had come to visit. "I need state I.D." the guard barked at us. Number two reason no one in his family had been able to visit him. "Hey, what can you bring them in here?" I asked a woman sitting behind us in the waiting area. "Clothes" she answered "only clothes. Not even a belt". "Phone cards?" I asked "Food? Money?" "Clothes" she answered "not even a phone number. Like they gonna try to kill someone with a piece of paper" she mumbled. Just Tío Sam making sure that when they're dropped at the border in some town they've never seen before that they have exactly zero resources. Not even a phone number. Just making sure they're fucked.

Alejandro has a face that looks like it's always smiling. I really thought he was smiling until I spoke to him over the phone and through the glass and realized no one would be smiling while they talked about the things he was talking about. People pressed babies up to the windows. Desperate hand prints smudged the visitors' side of the window from top to bottom.

Alejandro stood up abruptly. "I have to go" he told Michelle. I looked furtively at the other guys. They were all standing up. And then they were gone. An older, Hispanic visitor with a definite abuela vibe comforted Michelle as we waited for the bars to re-open. "It will be okay" she said in English. I am glad that she thinks so and hope that it will be true for her, and her detainee.

We exited through rows of fencing topped with razor wire and enclosed with barred gates. It was hard to believe that this deportation holding tank was built so um, sturdily simply to house non-violent offenders, people whose only "crime" was illegal entry to the United States, as opposed to murdering a few folks, as the level of security seemed to suggest. I found myself wondering if Charles Manson might have less security that your average person awaiting deportation. We made the two and half hour drive back to Atlanta.

I stood in our morning meeting on Monday feeling a little dazed. The music teacher announced that the kids would practice "The Sound of Music" for their upcoming performance. I have always hated that song. The music slowly started and the kids began to sing. As they sang they made their hands into flying birds and touched their hearts. They sounded like angels. I watched as one of the most cognitively damaged kids I have ever experienced made his hands into the shape of a bird, gazed upward and sang.

And then I was crying again and quickly exited, eyes on the floor.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What We Do is Secret















"¿Cómo estás?" I asked Joe, a kind of tough looking Kindergartner, just like I do everyday. Something about this kid reminds me of some steel worker in a Bruce Springsteen song, but in the best possible way. He's not a crier, he just takes things as they come. He fights girls, but he is like, five, so I guess it's okay. "Man, I'm bien," he answered "I got to go to a sleepover at Todd's and his dad put a projector in the backyard and we watched Trail of the Dead. I'm not supposed to tell you that, but we watched TRAIL OF THE DEAD". It's cool. All seventeen of us are good at keeping secrets.

"¿Cómo estás?" I continued. "Bien," the Zebra girl answered "we ate pie and turkey and Christopher is getting stitches in his private parts". Alrighty, I guess I now know why he started to tell me about some strange surgery before the break, stopped himself, and decided he didn't want to tell me anymore.

I have to tell you I was shocked when one of these little assholes walked past an empty table and straight up to the most regal member of our teaching staff during our insane dismissal procedure and told her to move, move because he wanted her chair. Not any of the empty chairs. Her chair. It was hard to see the steely look she gave him through the tears of hysterical laughter in my eyes, but I could see a five year old streak of movement going pretty quick in the other direction.

I went into the closet. The dreaded storage closet located in my room. It is piled high with random crap from other teachers and is unlit. I heard there was some Spanish stuff in there, way in the back. Someone had finally moved a few boxes, maybe I could see what was back there. Well, I found it. Piles of posters, craft supplies, nice hardcover books about themes I had already taught, jumbled, mixed together, getting torn up, wasted and re-bought by me because there was no rhyme or reason to what the hell was stuffed in that closet. I realized I was getting pissed off. And weirdly, that I wanted to cry. I have dragged around a class set of scissors, little piles of construction paper, a container of glue sticks and a small box full of DVDs, workbooks and laminated, free artifacts from my Hispanic world travels between two metro-Atlanta high schools, a school in Mexico and over to my new environment. I bought all of that shit out of my own pocket and have literally coveted and guarded it so that my students could use it. I have practically carved my initials in every part of my treasured tool box to keep it from going home with some kid or even more likely, a fellow teacher.

That closet upset me. Is this how rich schools roll?
I know I shouldn't be talking about this.
I should have probably stopped a long time ago, while I was ahead.
That closet pissed me off.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quest for Fire

It sounded like a beast, some monstrous supernatural thing, and it was breathing heavily in the bathroom. I laid in my bed at 6AM, eyes wide open, my mind scrambling. What the fuck is that? I asked myself repeatedly. And then it faded away.

I was bitching at the kindergartners again for being too wild and extrapolating on the many ways to avoid "chaos". "Chaos..." I saw one of my best students whisper, his eyes eyes widening with delight. "Chaos..." multiple students echoed in whisper voices, eyes glowing.

I was waking up. The second before my eyes actually peeled themselves open, I heard an animal-like shriek, an otherworldly hiss. Hmmm, Chantix...I thought to myself and got out of bed.

I stood bleary eyed in a room of nearly four hundred children at ten minutes to eight, awaiting the start of our daily morning meeting. Through the sea of kids I noticed a fellow teacher presiding over her group, clad in a fluffy purple bathrobe.

I went to my classroom and stayed there.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Modern South

As I looped around the west end of the park on my slow, late afternoon jog, something strange popped into my vision. A man, jogging even slower than me, with a long white beard and glasses...waving a giant, Confederate flag.

I thought I had to go outside of the city to see stuff like that. Stuff like stickers that say: Don't blame me, I voted for Jefferson Davis. Figurines carefully placed on shelves of black people eating watermelon. That racist flag.

Oh, that's right. I am forgetting my Southern history indoctrination. The Civil War was not about racism or slavery, but about states' rights. States' rights to do what? Oh yeah. States' rights to own slaves.

I suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable with the African American couple that had been jogging behind me. What do I do? Apologize for idiot Caucasians? Better yet, rally them to help me physically attack this man?

"That flag!" I heard the man behind me gasp to his partner.

Doing nothing seems weak. It's allowing this white fool to creep in from the Confederacy outside of the city lines to deliberately offend people. Confronting him makes you look like a freak.

I did nothing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints

I'm not new anymore. My closet doesn't seem endless and my new home doesn't seem as fancy, it just really needs cleaning.

I remember my first day of high school teaching. I was paralyzed and the hair stood up on my arms when dozens of school buses pulled up and hundreds of students started pouring out. I got used to it. I have gotten more accustomed to my new school as well. I sit in the too small chairs at the too small tables and cram my hands into blunt nosed kids' scissors and it doesn't even seem weird anymore. I tell people to turn their voices off.

I've had a hard time keeping my Mexico with me. I was determined to not let work rule my life when I returned and have let both the responsibilities and my ample problems with my new job dominate my existence.

There's panda watch at the zoo. In adult terms, that means that they think one of them might be pregnant. When I lie in bed at night I imagine all of the animals going to sleep just up the street.

I have a lot of complaints, JUSTIFIED ONES, about my new job, but the students are actually not one of them. Not Harry at least. If fire could be personified, it lives on the face of this first grader. He's bad. He's walking ADHD. He screams. I have no idea why I like him so much. And the weird group of kindergartners that always answer "enojado" when I ask them how they're doing. And Leo, the little old man in a six year old's body that gives me Star Wars tattoos. When he tells me that other kids wronged him, I don't even try to "problem solve" with the offenders anymore. I crack my knuckles, look at Leo and tell him I'll take care of them. He likes that.

The kids looked pretty cute. From what I imagine was an effort to not offend anti-Halloweeners and to pretend there was something academic going on, the students dressed up as characters from different books and paraded through the school. Pigs and butterflies and Grecian goddesses went by, their faces wearing the wild pride of being a person in a parade.

It was an odd time to start crying. Inexplicably, Tijuana flashed through my mind. The pot bust, the creepy revenge message about bringing a little Juarez to the town, the slayings, the headless corpses again hanging from the overpasses. I went back to my classroom and got my shit together, then returned to the joy parading through the brightly colored hallways.

"¿Cómo estás?" I asked various, bleary eyed kids with stained fake blood skin and remnants of dark zombie makeup around their eyes. "¿Qué onda, wey?" I prodded one of my few Latino students.

"I'm bien because I love you" Laurie answered.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Many happy returns















After a completely pleasant conversation, way back in August during the second week of school, a smiling teacher looked at me and said: "A lot of really experienced teachers applied for your job and didn't get hired. I don't know what's going on. I think it's something political".

I remember being stunned, a little broadsided. Yeah, I guess it's completely mysterious why anyone would hire me over someone else.

"I applied for your job," the teacher at a neighboring school informed me today, after inviting me to her classroom so that we could coordinate our Spanish programs. "I wasn't hired. I'm too expensive, I have an advanced degree".

Well me, I come cheap. I'm a bargain. K-Mart prices. Maybe I'll get on over to college someday.
"After I saw your schedule I was relieved that I didn't get the job" she added.

"Ms. Maestra we missed you!!!!!!!!" the kindergartners shrieked. "We're glad you're back from Chicago!!!!!!" one yelled. Lola squinted and gave me an enigmatic smile as she sang the buenos días song. Dragon hissed happily. Gilbert slyly kicked the other kids at the table, raised her hand and said the children were kicking her.

I missed them too.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Way Life Should Be

So I bolted from the school and went straight to the airport. We were off Monday and Tuesday for day of the first tourist to the Americas, I worked Wednesday and spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Fulbright conference in Boston.

I personally prefer this type of work week.

It's a pretty frightening look at the American education system when experienced teachers from around the world spend a couple of months teaching in the U.S. and recoil in horror. "I cannot plan quality lessons in the time allotted for planning" one remarked. "I have no life," many others stated, "I am working twelve hour days and weekends to keep up with planning, grading and paperwork for my classes". The bottom line was that the demands on teachers in the United States are ridiculous. It does make one wonder if teaching in the U.S. is the smartest plan and if the grass is possibly greener in various other parts of the world, including developing countries. Go USA. We're number one.

And the behavior of the students...well that is another story. "I am not used to thanking my students for coming to school" one international teacher commented with painful sincerity. I am deliberately leaving out other descriptions of the student behavior they have encountered. It's too dark and awful and indicative of our failings as a country.

I am not sure what came over me when I had to address the entire crowd as an alumni resource. After describing my position in Tijuana and how to make the most of your exchange, I found myself wandering...."My host school also did not provide me with a lot of guidance or indication of norms and expectations. So I just did whatever I wanted....do whatever you want! Do what you do!" Even as the words spilled from my mouth I knew I was in trouble, especially when an American school administrator stood up to challenge me.

I'm not so fond of public speaking.

I love the Fulbright program. I really mean that when I say it. When I see their view of what public education should be, I am freakishly in agreement. Leaving them makes me sad. I departed the conference conflicted, yet oddly motivated to re-enter the classroom and um, do whatever I want.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Día de la Raza

"Take this leaf for good luck. When you go somewhere, think about what you want and touch it" Lola told me gravely, her small hand sliding through the chain link fence and slipping a green leaf into mine. "I'm moving out of my house," she continued, "I want to live alone. I'm going to the tree house. I watch you from there, but you don't know it. I see you walk to school".

"Jamal, we are going to design the butterfly wing. As a group, you will brainstorm your design and color the wing. We are going to design the butterfly wing...", "Do you know who I am?", "Yes, Jamal", "Do you know who I am?", "Of course, we are going to design the butterfly wing" Suddenly, a bright light shined in my eyes and Alec's face was in front of mine. I was in my bed, sitting up. It was the middle of the night.

"Joe, quit manhandling Laurie" I called to two kids about to throw down in the leaving line. "Manhandle! I love to manhandle!" the booty wiggling blond boy called out "I manhandle my sister. I manhandle my dad!"

And off I go to Boston tomorrow.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

Some kids really can't sing. Most do alright with the little Spanish songs we sing in class, but there is usually one extremely nonrhythmic kid in almost every group. "BUENOS DIAS, BUENOS DIAS!" they thunder, completely off of the CD and louder than any other member of the class.

I give them extra points for that.

Let's just say things are not really going well on the job. I've decided to go Israel on them in the remaining eight months that I will work there. I can't win no matter what I do, so I'll just do whatever the hell I want. It worked in TJ.

I miss seeing signs that point to Los Angeles when I drive on the highway.

I don't know why the fire drill alarm startled me so much. I've done a million of those things. The Kindergarten teacher I was speaking to about my apparent ineptitude looked really stunned when I screamed in her face.

I was invited to Boston by Fulbright to help out with this year's teachers from Mexico. They always seem to come through right at the right time, when I feel the most maligned. "Well you may not approve of me, gross public school administrator, but the FULBRIGHT folks do!". I'm flattered and looking forward to it. I never thought I'd see them again.

"Maestra," the only serious Kindergartner of the sixty-whatever I teach stated "a bird pooped in our classroom today". He stared at me gravely when I burst out laughing and glanced out of the door, only to see my seventies-style bang wearing Dragon student walking by. He stopped, waived nicely, then hissed loudly and ran outside.

I guess it's all in a pinche day's work.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Al claro de luna reposa...

As I hung over the trashcan in my classroom vomiting, I heard the door swing open. "Hi Maestra!" a chipper parent called out "We bought you this book!"

"Today is day deux" one of my bosses announced to the kids. "Dos!" some of the kids howled back. "No, I took French" she retorted "I don't speak a word of Spanish. Well, except taco".

"My parents walked through the desert to get here!" I heard Ignacio state defiantly to another student. "¿Es verdad, Ignacio?", "Sí" he responded, "No sabía, Ignacio, no sabía yo. ¿Cómo llegaste tú, en carro?" "No," he responded "en avión. Nací en México".

I thought it was hard to have undocumented high school students in my classes. To watch them try to get through school, knowing it really wasn't worth anything. They could stack up as much education as they wanted, but not having at least a green card would always lead to working a variety of undesirable jobs reserved for illegal immigrants, in the country where they had spent the majority of their lives. I found it even more difficult to look into the hopeful eyes of the smiling, moon faced eight year old.

I put on my jogging clothes and waved at the old man the kids throw rocks at for being poor and black and headed to the park.

"DON'T SAY THAT YOU LOVE ME!" Fleetwood Mac howled in my ears as I ran. My mind's eye pictured the beige hills and scrubby vegetation of Arivaca that I saw while I drove the last section of paved road last summer, the part before everything turns to gravel and dirt. I pictured little moon faced boys. My stomach felt angry. I remembered Carla crying in my Spanish III class. "I remember those flat trees" she told me "the way that place looks. My back has scars from the barbed wire..."

"The kids have been a little, um, crazy" I told one of the lead teachers as she came to pick up her class. "Oh God, I know, I know. It's a full moon..."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lord of the Flies

I knew August was going to be hard. Driving from Tijuana to Atlanta, finding a house, starting work immediately and quickly trying to figure out how to teach kids that can't even read...I didn't count on September being the same way.

"You got screwed," one of my co-workers told me. "we've never had a Spanish teacher teaching as many hours a week as you are".

I have started playing Norteño and Banda nearly everyday in the classroom. It puts me in a good mood. At the sound of the horns and accordions, the kids eyes widened and they started clapping and bouncing. Some of the ADHD kids literally started screaming. I'm glad they like it. I like it too.

I am not good at being a sucker. It burns in my stomach and sharpens my tongue. I wanted this to work, I really did. Even if I ever receive an equitable situation at this school, I don't think the bad taste in my mouth will go away.

It's okay though. I can work a brutal teaching schedule. The lessons will just become sub-standard and I will start getting not so friendly during four hours of non-stop teaching without even a bathroom break or two seconds of transition time. And during the hours that follow the way too short break. I know your kid is special to you, but I may not remember his name, because nearly one hundred and fifty kids have filtered through the classroom in under four hours and another eighty kids followed them a short period later. I hope it's cool. I'm cool with it. I'm a team player. I believe in this school and I really want to make things work.

The kids are freakishly physical. The don't ask, they grab. If someone's in their way, they shove them out of the way. If they want your chair, the sit in it and push you out of it. If they're angry, the hit. And slap. And scream. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Laurie and Jonathon, two five year olds, with their shoulders back, chest to chest, chins jutting out. And then fists started flying.

They throw rocks at old people from the playground and call black men "hobos". They bully kids for being poor. They threaten the few Latino students and even have insults specifically for Mexicans. They use racial slurs.

It freaks me out.

Ignacio is a sweet, moon faced boy whose smiling shy face greets me three times a week in Spanish class. I don't want to know who threatened him. I think it's better that way. I know xenophobic kids learn from their parents, but it doesn't stop the dark feelings I have towards them.

You're lucky to have a job! I'm highly educated and wildly qualified. I am not lucky to have a job. I am supposed to have one. The supermarket doesn't take beads and sticks in exchange for food. Employers love this job market. It's giving them the "take it or leave it" attitude. Long days. No breaks. Low pay. You're lucky to have a job!

Actually, I'm not.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

One Month















I live in a beautiful, green, very Southern neighborhood. Bungalows and Victorians from the turn of the century, err, not the recent one, the one before that, line the streets. I am constantly struck by how pretty and green and humid the neighborhood is, though I lived here for years and only took a one year hiatus.

My house is pretty swank too. For the first time in my adult life, I have central air conditioning. My school is even gorgeous. Parts of town I haven't been to in a while have suddenly developed in to enclaves of slick hipness. When did everything get so nice around here?

My wallet is not full of San Diego trolley passes anymore. Credit cards that I never carried in Tijuana have taken their place, along with miscellaneous video store cards and my driver's license.

"When I got out of prison, everything just felt surreal..." Mike Tyson commented in the documentary that bore his name. Strangely, I related to that.

My overloaded teaching schedule is quickly killing me. I don't think the one meal, two hundred student a day plan works for me. I walk home with my stomach burning and churning and sit behind my house and stare into space for at least fifteen minutes before I am ready to speak to anyone.

"I'm having some discipline issues with Rob and Warner," I mentioned to their lead teacher "any background information that might help?". "Well. I am very firm with my class. Very firm. They are not allowed to misbehave". Um, thanks. I personally just let my class go ass wild.

I came home from a year in Madrid five years ago. The gas stations didn't have gas and desperate people on rooftops flooded the television. "I don't have any ID!" the exasperated man yelled at the DMV agent when I went to replace my driver's license. "I'm from New Orleans!". When I started teaching a year later, strange area codes kept popping up when I tried to call students' parents because they were chronically absent, failing or had discipline issues. I finally looked up the area code: New Orleans. I wonder where those kids from four years ago are now and if they ever found a real home.

When I walk into the teacher's workroom, people don't even look up from their lunches. Not even a nod, let alone a "good afternoon". I find it rude. In Mexico, this would be heresy and would definitely haunt you with future dealings with teachers and administrators. Am I being too sensitive?

Another full moon passed a couple of nights ago. Two months ago, I was heading to the desert in Arizona. A month ago, I was beginning my drive home.

The borderlands have never felt so far away.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Quizás, Quizás, Quizás

All four alarms were set. Oh, TJ, where did you go? I live three minutes from my job, but I need a little time, a little time to take a nice shower, have my coffee...it doesn't help that I have to get up now when it's dark outside. It was never dark in TJ. Full sun city, with a few hours of darkness while everyone slept.

"Can I smell your breath?". "Qué??". "Can I smell your breath?" the little girl answered. I breathed into her face. "Smells good!" she responded. Must have been those two Nicorette mints I hot boxed.

"Your glasses look like butterflies". I hate wearing my glasses, but my eyes are slowly burning out and I was forced to wear them. Maybe my glasses aren't so bad. They look like butterflies.

"¿Cómo estás?". "Mal," the kid answered "someone cracked the window of my neighbor's house. They didn't take anything, but they tried to get in". "Umm, where exactly do you live? Are you out of district?" I answered. Mental note to self: Rental insurance.

"Just take a picture of your fuse box so that we know the electrical has been updated and we'll be all set!" my insurance agent informed me. Consider it done.

"Mommm!!" Pablo called. "Mom!". "Are you talking to me?" I finally answered. "Mommm!" he answered, staring me straight in the face.

"Here you go, Gilbert. Brand new little man. Don't cut him to pieces" I said, handing the white haired and faced child a new cut out. I strolled by a little while later. The legs were gone.

The boxes are still there. I unpacked enough to get by everyday and suddenly don't want to open those other boxes. I am sure there are precious things in there. I just don't know what they are.

"Does anyone have a hair tie?" Joe asked, his eyes trained on the black one around my wrist. "Um, like this one?" I asked, handing it to him. "Yeah..." he answered, tying his little fro back. Four hours later, he strolled into the classroom while I was with another group, hair tie in hand. "Thanks!" he said and left.

"Um, is it normal for teachers to have eleven, thirty minute classes back to back in one day?" I asked, after getting my first bathroom break in ten hours. "Oh. Sorry about that. We were really worried about the other teachers getting common planning time..." And so you used Spanish as a dumping ground. Forty kids lined up in the doorway, Kindergarten, fifth grade, a couple second grades, fourth grade..."We just all need to come up with ideas", "I have some....", "No, I don't like those. Can we meet in two weeks to figure something out?". Sure, anytime you're ready. "How do I transfer my sick days to your system?" I asked. "Oh. We don't do that. You're starting from zero again". "What happens if I, um, suffer a terrible accident?" "Don't worry, the sick days will add up!". Hope that happens, um, before the accident. "My check seems awfully small, how did my $8000 annual raise end up being $168 a month?" "We pay both TRS and Social Security!". "Um, is that optional?" "No. It's a rule. Don't worry, you'll get it back!" Yeah, when I'm sixty-five. Or eight. Or seventy. Or when I quit and cash that TRS bitch out again. "We also pay a lot more for health insurance!" Yeah, I noticed. "Can I start my insurance after my old insurance runs out?" "No, we can't do that. Don't worry, you have double!". Yeah, and double bills. And a kidney infection because I can't get out of the classroom to take a piss.

"Let's roller skate over here, you can hear the elephants" my niece whispered as we rolled around the parking lot by the zoo. You can hear the elephants over there. She knows everything. Maybe not everything, but the good things.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vengo de rodillas


"Hola" one of the kids greeted me. "By the way, it hace frío in here".

"Gilbert," I said to the icy blond first grader with white hair, white skin, blue eyes, a big bow and a boy's name, "where's your little man we cut out? Did you hand him in?".

"No. I cut him into little pieces" she responded, staring at me until I looked away.

"Mucho gusto" I said, shaking another little hand and looking away. Until I felt the tongue on my thumb.

"Hi Spanish teacher!" little Jay from Kindergarten greeted, after washing his paper man in the sink.

I smiled back and waved at the little boy with the small, alien mouth. The corners of his mouth turned upward in a little toothless smile.

"Cómo estás?" I asked the dark, adult looking Bangladeshi first grader. "Biennnnnn.." he answered, unsmiling, in a deep monster voice. And then he rolled across the rug.

Herbert does everything right. He's a stoic little dude. Someone prepared him for Kindergarten. He watches me gravely with eyes wide open and jumps to do everything I say. He was crying uncontrollably on the third day of school. "What happened? What happened?" I asked him and then the other kids. "He cut the head off his man...." they answered.

I made the mistake of laughing at the booty shaking, knee wiggling blond boy. Suddenly, five booty shaking, knee wiggling kids rose out of nowhere. "No! No! Siéntate!" I cried, attempting to regain control. And then they grabbed me, swarmed me and I too was on the ground...."Keep our bodies to ourselves, our bodies to ourselves...."

"Do you know why you're in Time Out?" I asked the seventies looking kid with blunt cut bangs. He hissed in response. "You can come out of Time Out when we are ready to use big boy voices. We're not in pre-K anymore". He hissed and growled louder. I continued my "class". The hisses and growls grew louder. And then the scratching on the bulletin board...the tearing. "Please stand by the door" I instructed. I heard my Tijuana map being ripped from the wall and animal-like hisses.

"His psychiatrist says he becomes a dragon when he feels nervous. He says he is fluent in English and Dragon and can't speak Spanish as well and it makes him nervous" another teacher informed me after the child was removed from my room. "He didn't stop hissing at us for an hour!". "I understand," I answered,"but I personally am traumatized".

"You can hold this" Ali told me, thrusting his book bag at me. "You can help me keep track of my number". Every time a new dismissal number would be called, Ali would wag is finger. No, not his number. During the first week of Kindergarten, he had memorized it.

I will break their spirits. Unfortunately, I just know it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bienvenidos a la clase de español















"I don't want to gooooo!!!!" a hysterical child cried from the hallway. Parents and children were milling everywhere. It was the first day of school. I felt for him. I didn't want to go either. I hate the first day of school. Screw it, maybe we could leave together. Get a coffee, hang out in the park a little bit.

"This is what SST monitoring should look like" the special ed coordinator instructed us, while distributing a handout that charted an entire day down to the minute. The codes at the bottom indicated symbols for Screaming, Inflicting Harm to Self and Inflicting Harm to Others. 8:01-Screaming. 8:03-Harm to Self. 8:04-Screaming. 8:07-Harm to Others. And so on, and so on, and so on. Nothing was marked for about twenty minutes around noon. Peace? No, she was at lunch. "You won't have kids like this here, I was at another school when I monitored this child". I have never stood in line to work with tough kids. I don't need the bad ass badge of honor or the mental stress. But, I know they still exist and if they're not at my school, where were they...

"This went on for about three months" the coordinator informed us. Three months? Three months of that hellish chaos? Three months of hurting herself, screaming and attacking other kids? "Her parents changed her medication and didn't tell us. They got her on some bad stuff. She suffered a psychotic break". I wanted to leave. I just wanted to leave. I can't think about an elementary school kid having a psychotic break. I can't think of those months of hell and imagine what was happening inside the cage of that seven year old's brain.

"So where did you live in Mexico?" the friendly parent asked me. "Tijuana", I answered cheerfully. "TIJUANA?" she said and turned to her child. "Tijuana is VERY violent and dangerous city in Mexico. VERY DANGEROUS".

"Karen Handel supports tax payer funded insurance for gay couples and a program that promotes homosexuality for kids under thirteen!!" the attack ad screamed from my television. Wow, maybe I'll vote for her, I thought. Until I saw her ad, which featured a smiling endorsement from Sarah Palin. Where in God's name am I?

"Si te vienen a contar cositas malas de meeeeee!!!!" I screamed with my radio as I wheeled past the mega marts and into a small Mexican grocery for smokes. "Venden tobacco?" I asked. "Solamente Newports". Eh, no. "Tenemos tacos de asada...." You are shitting me! I walked out with two, a Mexican Coke and a paleta de arroz. Oh, Mexico. I am so glad you are in my neighborhood.

"Hola" the kids repeated back to me on the second day of Spanish for kindergarten. "Me llamo Maestra Hilary" I said, reviewing the exact same thing we had done twenty-four hours earlier. "Hey...I know you..." a little boy said with a smile as he rolled on the rug.

As I went to shake hands, he grasped on to mine and held it, without letting go.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

You're wondering now


"Wow. Your eyes are really red" the five year old with the old man's face stated, staring at me quizically. "I know honey. Siéntate." I answered, as I noticed a devilish little blond haired boy rising up, wiggling his knees and shaking his booty.

Re-entry is almost more difficult than leaving your home. Instead of arriving to a new, exciting place, your returning to the place you came from...sometimes to the same old thing. There is a flurry of activity and dinners and people that are happy to see you and then things settle back to normal. But you aren't quite normal yet.

After returning from Asia with my mind blown, I remember being surprised when people would ask "How was your trip?" and only expected a one sentence answer.

Your closet seems endless as you are no longer living out of a suitcase. I reminded myself to drink tap water and not throw toilet paper in the trashcan. Everything is just so comfortable. Slowly, the strange shampoo and toothpaste that you bought in some other place runs out, to be replaced by an American product. Then you realize your trip is really over.

We ate our last meal in Mexico in Tecate on July 27th. As I sat at Los Amigos watching Mexico go by, I knew I was going to miss it. I was jealous of the people that live in border areas and can dip in and out of Mexico at will. After making one last visit to the Secondary Inspection Area to have my car thoroughly thumped and checked for drugs, we crossed into California. I mentally begged the pinche Border Patrol agent to use the drug dogs instead of opening the doors of my car, so that all of my possessions wouldn't spill out into the parking lot.

I crossed through the police state the day after. I wanted to stay, really wanted to stay. I felt that it was my civic duty to be present the day that SB1070 went into law. But I had an appointment on Friday in Atlanta. My new job, at an ELEMENTARY school, wanted me to sign insurance papers. So I raced toward Atlanta. The wheels fell off of my luggage in Sinaloa and the wheels of my car began to fall off in Arizona. I lost another in the black hole of Texas and found myself hunting through Abilene for a tire that would fit my car the day before my big appointment in Atlanta. Late in the day, I entered Mississippi, Green, humid, hot South. It was practically ripe. I knew I wasn't in the borderlands anymore.

After a fifteen hour drive, I made it to Atlanta the evening of the 29th. I woke up Friday at my mother's house, confused about where I was. And I checked my email. "It's okay if you just come by on Monday for pre-planning" my new principal informed me. I was willing to try elementary school, though I firmly consider myself a high school teacher, mainly because this school seemed different, experimental. As I scanned the email, I found myself thinking that they are all the same and cursed myself for taking the whole thing so seriously.

I drove through town. People were honking and screaming at each other in traffic. "Take it easy," I thought "it's not like you pendejos don't have everything the world has to offer".

I found an apartment by Sunday that is a three minute walk from the school. Maybe everything isn't exactly the same. New school, new neighborhood, weird new reality. And then I reported for pre-planning the following Monday. I don't like getting up early.

"This room looks like a loft!" Alec exclaimed when he visited, staring at the twenty-foot ceilings, wall of windows and exposed brick walls. I had spent the day digging through the mountain of educational materials in the classroom. I added my carefully saved construction paper to a foot high stack and put my one sombrero on the class set that already existed. Did I think about the TJ kids? Did I notice that the supplies in that room were enough to fuel an entire Mexican school? Did I miss my gray, cell-block classroom without overhead lights?

"Where can I find your curriculum?" I asked my new bosses. "Well..." the answered and started giving me activity ideas. "No, no.." I said as gently as possible. "I know how to teach. I just wanted to know, um, what you wanted me to teach...". It's a little tricky to write a K-5 curriculum a few days before school starts. But I did it. Still not sure what curriculum boards do. I had a skirmish about being paid for my years of experience and held up the signing of my contract until it was accurate. I like starting out on the right foot.

"If we report a student to DFCS, do we find out the action they are taking if the child is still in our classroom?" a teacher asked during our child abuse in-service. No, I thought, thinking of April. They don't tell you anything. You pass the semester, looking for chunks of missing hair and scabs on her scalp, like the last time. And the semesters afterward, you see each other in the hall and awkwardly nod and look away. "I'll tell you if I hear anything...." our facilitator answered.

I wrote curriculum, made some lesson plans and tried to organize the classroom. I trashed a disturbing eraser with "enojado" written on it. And I dragged boxes in the evening and found myself shaking from the ample air conditioning in all of these crazy new buildings.

And then I woke up, at 6AM, 3AM Tijuana time, climbed over some boxes and got ready for the first day of school, two weeks after driving out of TJ.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ando bien pedo

Coming out of the desert is usually thrilling. Air conditioning makes you feel halfway clean. A shower is an amazing luxury. Realizing that you have to pee and do not have to look for a bush is a delight. Your bed feels wonderful. I realized I wasn't feeling how I normally felt when returning to civilization. I liked my shower and the variety of food available, but struggled to shake the numbness that seemed to be broken only by crying fits. I had hoped that going to the desert would shake off the sadness I felt about leaving Tijuana, and left on vacation hoping to shake off the numbness that followed me back from the desert.

I wish I could tell you more about the desert, I really do. I want to. But we'd have to be somewhere private and you'd have to buy me a couple of beers.

So I flew to Chihuahua. Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to blow it out, have some pinche awesome trip and go to some places I haven't been before. I hunted around on line trying to find a cheap ticket, which painfully, does not exist. I found a ticket with just a short layover and bought it . Where the hell was that plane going? After the purchase, I hunted down the mysterious initials of the layover. Oh. Ciudad Juárez. No wonder they were so sneaky about it. Chihuahua suits my aesthetic in every way. Pretty, colonial buildings line a functioning, non-museum like city and there are rows and rows of cowboy boots and hats in every store window. Liked it, definitely would say I liked it.

I got to ride the Chepe. We hung around Chihuahua for a couple of days and then boarded Mexico's last passenger railway to Arepo. We hiked around the canyon and later even rode horses to see a different view. I have ridden both an elephant and a camel, but never a horse. I haven't been to Paris or Rome either, but I have been to Hanoi. A kid named Alfredo guided us. I liked him. He looked about sixteen, and wore a cowboy hat and boots and mirrored sunglasses. He seemed happy, but I couldn't help but wonder what his educational opportunities might be in a rural area like that. Telesecundaria? We rode our horses with a French / Spanish couple. As I watched the Spaniard actually control the horse as opposed to my freestyle, you can do whatever you want attitude with Macho, my horse, I wondered if it was in their blood to gallop around Mexico on horses.

Their faces were starting to disappear. When I would try to conjure the faces of Leo, Rogelio, even Alfredo after leaving Arepo, I would see Jesus, Roberto and Oscar, kids I taught in Tijuana. I couldn't see the real faces, only the faces I had come to know over the year. Everything was disappearing and becoming dream-like. The weird desert mountains that surround the school, the strange normalcy of walking in there everyday, not dream-like as in fantasy, dream-like as in not real.

Poor Sinaloa, such a strange place. We stopped in El Fuerte, a heavily touristed, colonial town. It's pretty, but hotter than hell. We got a really nice looking room that unfortunately had a sewage issue and reeked of cooking human shit, especially early in the morning after being contained in a closed off bathroom all night. We trotted around the hot, pretty town and were surprised to see outright suspicion and unsmiling stares on the faces of the locals. Odd. Even odder was to enter the OXXO and see not one, but two machine gun armed guards in a store the size of my bathroom. Yeah, I knew it was Sinaloa, but, um, is everything cool here? I still liked it. It's pretty. I saw rattlesnake skeletons sitting between watermelons and oranges in the market; the only local that would talk to me told me that the meat of the snakes tastes good. We got some burned Norteño CDs for the road and I saw a six inch plastic Malverde sitting next to a Jesus statue in the same market, all in a city that looked like a Spanish pueblo.

So we got to the shore and boarded a boat to La Paz. After letting the Mexican military off, they allowed folks to board their cars on the ferry. All I could see was a sea of white cowboy hats surrounding pick up trucks. Ah, Mexico. How I love you. Alec and I entered the nightclub to have some Modelos and watch a waitress engage the crowd with a karaoke machine. Three campo type guys caught my eye. They wore cowboy hats and had carried gallons of water into the bar and put them on the table while eyeing the waitress a little longer than they should have. I don't think they bought anything. I couldn't stop looking at the gallons, my eyes kept going over there, over to the gallons of water sitting on the table. "¡¡¡Ando, bien pedo!!!!" she screamed with the karaoke, I noticed multiple people sleeping on the floor of the bar, a kid walked through carrying a pillow in a Spiderman case. "Yo si, te necesitooooo!!!"

Have I mentioned that I love La Paz? I do. And on we went to Cabo Pulmo and Los Cabos and back to La Paz again. I carried a gallon of water out to a deserted beach by La Paz and realized I can't carry a gallon of anything anywhere without thinking about hauling it through the desert. We saw this kid, this crazy kid, standing on an island off of La Paz, next to three fisherman's shanties, throwing rocks into the ocean. "Does he go to school?" someone asked. "No! He learns to fish!" came the answer. He looked bored. Who wouldn't be. I thought of Alfredo and of that kid in the old mariachi costume that practiced his song in the school by a highway in the middle of nowhere and felt my head exploding and clouding over.

And back, back, back again to TJ and back at Lourdes' table, just like we were a year ago, having just arrived in Tijuana, but now we are leaving.

A huge, full moon hung in the sky tonight, just like it did a month ago when I drove to Arizona. It has been a fast month. Too fast.

Movement, furtive activity, all barely beneath the surface, I can feel it on those full moon nights.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Heliotropic ángeles

"¡Chicharitoooooo!!!!!!" the commentator screamed from the radio. While the rest of the volunteers received a tour of the desert aid camp, I retreated to the only location available to listen to the Mexico-Argentina game: my car, which sat in full sun on a 104 degree day in southern Arizona.

I began my third summer volunteering with a group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the Sonoran desert in Arizona. It is the deadliest migration corridor in the United States.

I liked the group of people we were working with. Every summer is different and this appeared to be an especially friendly and cooperative group. The first week, we faced extreme heat both in the camp and while hiking migrant trails and were literally not encountering any migrants. Speculation swirled. Were folks waiting for World Cup to end? Had the U.S. economy slowed immigration? Were they out there in that heat, wilting, withering, dying...and we weren't finding them? To the contrary of the seriousness of our mission in the desert, things were getting slap happy in camp. I like it that way. It is difficult to be around morose people that speak of nothing but the plight of migrants and the disaster of U.S. border policy. I prefer working with people that know when to play and know when to work.

"Waaaaake UPPPPPPPPP!!!!!" a shrill voice howled in an eighties, hair band falsetto while rapidly playing a Neil Young song on an acoustic guitar. I laid in my sleeping bag in the open air under the 5AM sun shuttering with giggles as I watched a sandy haired young man lean over a sleeping volunteer, screaming his song until she sat up. Coyotes began howling in the distance.

Melissa saddled herself into a fanny pack in order to hold up her sagging jeans as we began our morning hike. "Dude, I hope there's no cuties in the wash. I have no game with this fanny pack on". I had never heard this preoccupation at the prospect of encountering migrants before and it absolutely killed me. "Man, this tastes as good as he looks" she continued, taking a sip of water laced with an electrolyte powder gifted from a male admirer as we trudged out on to the trail.

"God, it even smells like shit" I commented, eyeing a road side Border Patrol station. "Um, sorry, that was me" my co-pilot stated as we promptly rolled down all of the windows.

A story was circulating about a group of migrants someone had encountered the previous week. Members of the migrant group had asked the volunteers a series of questions: #1 "Do you have water?", #2 "Do you have food?", #3 "Who won the Mexico-France game?".

We kept finding these insane black water bottles in the trails. I have encountered gallon bottles painted black during previous desert visits; apparently clear gallons reflect the light of the moon and attract Border Patrol to night walkers. It appears someone got smart in Altar and started marketing black ones. Some of us began referring to them as "Model 2010".

The mood shifted when we found Leonardo the Saturday after the one week volunteers had returned to Tucson. He was young. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten and estimated that he had been walking nine days. He had been left by his group and had been walking alone for two days without water. I stared at his lonely, scared, crestfallen face. My eyes attached to his Jack Skellington bracelet, a popular symbol with my students in Tijuana. I knew he was a prepa kid. He couldn't walk anymore. I couldn't watch him touch his toes for Border Patrol, put his hands behind his back, the frisking and shoving and eventual boarding into the back of their dog catcher trucks. I would not be able to watch one of my students being loaded into a BP truck. I couldn't watch Leo.

I remember Julio from Chiapas who returned to Mexico to bury his son. I remember Pedro from D.F. that would whisper water requests. I remember Juan from Sinaloa that had been robbed and left to die by his group. Hector and Eduardo from Sonora, the feral and gaunt looking men who approached us, yelled "México!", asked for water and said they were going back, the men of Puebla, of Vera Cruz, the men who made the sign of the cross when given water, reminding me of my students that made the sign of the cross when I gave them their final exam, I remember the men that exchanged few words and the others that told me everything. And I remember Rogelio.

He was heavy set and limping. He wanted to return to his parents, wife and children in the United States. After nearly ten years in the U.S., he seemed to identify more with the American city in which he lived than the Mexican city he came from. More than anything, I remember the fear and desperation in his eyes when I left him.

I felt numb, but guarded. Someone got us a treat one day, ice cream that was still frozen for lunch. I put my spoon into the dish I had been handed, thought of Rogelio and wanted to cry. I got control of myself, but triggers would puncture my numbness at unexpected times. Like finding Rogelio's discarded water bottle from Altar, something he didn't think he needed anymore wherever he was going.

There are people in the desert called angels, but there really aren't any angels out there. Well, there's one, but you will have to ask my friend Lupe about that. I'm no angel and most of the migrants aren't sprouting wings either. Contrary to popular belief, poverty does not bring out the best in people, it often brings out the basest forms of barbarism. There are some devils out there, some acts of courage and selflessness and a lot of contradictions.

After two weeks in the desert, I returned to TJ, flocked by passing border patrol trucks throughout Arizona and California. I cried when I left the desert, like I always do, somewhat relieved to leave but with a profound sense of sadness. Hours later, as I drove down a deserted southern California road, I suddenly saw a sea of twinkling lights.

I have never felt so relieved to see Tijuana.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Adelante, pues

"Teachercita ¿ahora vamos a tener pura party en su casa? ¿Smoke weed, traigo un kilo de crack?" one of my favorite, truly buck wild students asked me during the last week of school. "Sure, studentcito, let's smoke some crack" I answered, knowing it would probably be our last interaction and finding it oddly fitting.

"Profe, did I pass?" Clara asked me, her arm in a sling and finger splinted and bandaged from a injury she suffered while riding the electric bull at the Day of the Student party at our school. "Yeah, you made it, what exactly ended up happening with your finger?" I asked. "Part of it is gone now. From here to here.." she indicated, showing me the last digit of her ring finger. "They couldn't put it back on".

"Some of my students tried to bribe me today" Profe Hector informed me, as Profe Julio sailed through the room stating "Bailo hermoso, Hilary, HERMOSO" while sauntering to the banda music playing on his laptop. "Really? What did they say?" I asked Profe Hector. "They said that they could just pay me to pass instead of paying the school for the remediation class. I told them I liked my job and I wouldn't do it." he stated. "What did they say?" I said, laughing. "Somos muchos, Profe. Muchos".

I hid in the teacher's workroom for the majority of the last day of school. I hate goodbyes. My students gave me cards, gifts, balloons. There was an assembly in my honor. At the end of it, my students mobbed me and picked me up off of the ground in a group hug that I thought was going to kill me. The school threw me a little dinner party near the end of the day. I cut out a little early and nearly burst into tears while thanking my principal and hugging everyone goodbye. I went to my house, threw my clothes and camping gear in the back of my car and drove to the Otay border crossing.

It was an eerie scene on the border, late on a Friday night. Children cut through the multiple lanes of waiting cars, begging for change. Men with amputated legs rolled by, seated on skateboards. World Cup jerseys and Mexican flags rolled by on carts. "¿Tienes basura?" a man wearing a sign that read "Your tips are my salary" in both Spanish and English asked me through my open window while opening a large black garbage bag. "Ah, you're American!" he said in English upon seeing me face. "I live there for a while, I don't have papers no more..." he said in the lovely, accented English that I adore. "Maybe I try to get some again..." he said after I gave him a tip but no garbage.

I rode through the California desert in the middle of the night, alternating between singing wildly with my radio and crying fits. I was fighting an incredible feeling of sadness that stemmed from driving away from Tijuana. A full moon hung in the sky, bathing the sloping dunes of the Imperial Desert in white light. I almost felt like I could have turned off my headlights and continued driving. I wondered about the people that were surely scurrying through the night, jumping walls and searching for pre-arranged rides. On the deserted highway, I sensed a buzzing activity just below my level of perception.

The cool air in my car was replaced with a hot stillness that made me wonder if I had accidentally turned the heat on. As I drove past the sign painted with yellow and red sunbeams that marks the Arizona state line, I felt a heavy and dark weight settle over my pre-dawn drive.

I had entered the police state.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

El mundial

I have the fever. When I open my eyes in the morning, my first extinct is to get my coffee and get in front of the TV. I flip through the channels until I hear the familiar buzz of the vuvuzelas. Just the sound fills me with happiness.

Alec and I went to Profe Hector's house for a carne asada party. "I can come pick you up" Hector offered. "No!" I insisted, "I have a car now. You don't have to do that". I had forgotten how rough the ride is to his house. I remembered a big dusty unpaved hill, but forgot about the sounds of the wheels falling of the car. Pick up trucks were having trouble with the off road conditions; dry packed dirt riddled with huge holes and in some areas, loose beach like sand, all located on a steep hill. I was curious if my Mazda could make it and dove in, passing the shanty houses and dodging children and dogs, high above Tijuana.

"¡Del diablo!" Profe Sergio howled, "¡Esa muchacha tiene la boca del diablo!" I adore this man. I found him difficult to talk to when I first arrived in TJ, his gruff demeanor intimidated me. He teaches the electronics students how to wire things, radios, TVs, whatever. I didn't think we had much in common, but we teach all of the same groups now. "¡Son del diablo!" he stated again, eyes wide, when I brought up my favorite electronics group. "I am afraid to let them wire anything if I am not standing over them, they'll blow the classroom up!" Poor bobcats.

As I stood upstairs brushing my teeth, I felt the ground bouncing beneath my feet. "Alec!" I called down the stairs "The house is moving!" In another minute, we were both outside, me barefoot and without my glasses and Alec pretty regularly dressed. "Está temblando!!!!" a little girl yelled from the street, while my neighbors emerged wrapped in blankets.

"Hilary! Hilary!" children's voices called from the rattling front gate. "Can you take care of a dog?" the neighbor kids asked, "it's Diego's, you know, the tall boy that speaks English? Our cats are going crazy...it's a french poodle!" "When will he be back?" I asked. "Um, no sabemos. We can give you his number...". "Okay" I agreed. The dog rampaged for a little while, ate a corn tortilla and passed out.

"Goooooooollllllll!!!!!" the announcer screamed from the TV. I was screaming too. "Michoacan, Sinaloa, Oaxaca...!!" the announcer howled, calling off various states in Mexico. "Mexico Nuevo, California, Tejas!" he added for good measure. The door across the street sprang open and my neighbor came out, trailed by her three year old, soccer jersey wearing son. "Mexico!" she shouted and threw a flag over her front gate and went back in the house. People ran through the streets with full sized flags and pick up truck loads of jersey wearing, flag waving fans drove through the neighborhood, honking and cheering. It was like the whole country just exploded with joy for a day.

"Do the kids get to school on time when there's a seven o'clock game?" I asked my principal during the drive to Ensenada. "They are at the gate at six-thirty" he informed me. "We told them that we would have TVs set up for them to watch the game, but each group dragged it's own TV into their classrooms. Some had really big ones. And when we scored...ahhh, the kids were just running laps around the school with flags...." he said, a satisfied smile on his face.

They took me to see a state wide art competition. I really didn't want to go, I have very little time left with my students and I am not big on student art work. I didn't realize it would be four hours of singing and dancing. They were truly incredible. The Norteño dancers looked like professional dance troupes. Another group did this insane, blindfolded dance while they waved machetes over and under their legs. My face hurt from smiling so much. "Ti-juan-a! Ti-juan-a!" the kids chanted, drowning out the groups from Mexicali. A vuvuzela honked wildly. A timid looking boy got up in front of the crowd, wearing a worn mariachi suit. He began performing a trotting little dance to the opening cords of his song with a vague, expressionless look on his face, while the announcer stated that he came basically from a school on a highway in the middle of nowhere. He charmed the crowd and even dio a little vuelta when instructed by the girls. "Give him a hand!" one of my bosses shrieked "Está solito!!!!!" Another group of students performed an indigenous dance. Students dressed as evil spirits darted through the dancers, attempting to distract the participants from their mission. I suddenly realized I was about to cry. The dancers continued stomping and rotating to the rhythm of the music, dressed in hats and scarfs that covered all but their eyes, their will triumphing over the evil that attempted to lure them.

I stared at my lap, willing myself not to cry.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

While the world slept...

The bobcats told me they were getting up at 5am. "Doesn't the game start at seven?" I asked, "Yeah but the inauguration is at five, Shakira's going to sing" they informed me.

I slept in my Tri shirt and got up a little after seven. I had to pee. Suddenly, I heard screaming coming from the house next door. "Alec!" I yelled, ripping open the bathroom door, "What happened!?" I busted down the stairs to see Alec sitting in his Tri shirt in the early morning light. "Mexico scored, they're not counting it" he answered.

I remember walking through the sun-baked streets of Madrid in summer, 2002. They were empty. Not a person in sight. As I wandered around, all I could hear were television sets playing soccer games from inside houses. "If you go outside during a game in Mexico, you are not going to see one person" Roberto informed me during our break. I told him about what happened to me during my first World Cup experience in Spain. "I think they may be even more fanatic than us," he informed me "are Americans fanatics for American football?". "I don't think it compares. I don't know, I had a roommate that didn't go out for a whole weekend once because the Packers lost..." I told him. "Was he Mexican?" Roberto asked. Actually, weirdly, my old roommate's mother was Mexican. "Así es" Rafa responded, smiling.

Alec darted up the stairs about a half an hour before the game should end to start getting ready for work. "Alec, no one is going to get a head start on getting to work here, they're going to watch the end of the game" I said, in a voice I'm sure he associates with a scolding mother. Around the end of the game, we started hearing the first signs of motion outside. I went to the dirt track for a run. I was met by a sea of green. Even a passing dog was wearing a Mexican jersey. "Goooooollllll!" the flip flop wearing kids on my street screamed, kicking soccer balls between trash cans.

Oh, my poor students. It was like trying to teach people that were hung over. Tijuana is experiencing something called "June gloom". The ordinarily full sun city opens each day with a cloudy haze that lasts until about ten. It is actually a little chilly. Friday, the gloom stayed all day. It seemed to match the tired mood of my students and co-workers. The only thing that would get them going was game talk. "Dulce, what time did you get up?". "Five am" she answered, putting her head on her desk. "My dad started blaring the TV at 5:30!" another announced. "What do you guys think about that noise they make in the stadium?" I asked. "La vuvuzela!" they announced with delight. "I read that they don't think the Mexican team will be as affected by the noise, because Azteca is already so noisy" I told them. They looked at me blankly. Noise? Who in the world could be bothered by noise?

We got to go home early. First, they sent all of the female students to a bicentennial celebration. When the teachers were left with half empty classrooms, they decided to go ahead and send the boys. It was only later that I found out that they students were given the day off from school in exchange for an obligatory presence at a political rally for a mayoral contender and not to participate in a patriotic display of Mexican history. Attractive young girls and later, a few lurking boys, championing the prospective mayor of Tijuana with sleepy, World Cup eyes, all at the behest of their school.

"That's what's wrong with Mexico" Roberto told me quietly.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fire

"What's that smell?" I abruptly asked my second class of the day. I walked outside of the classroom to see smoke billowing over the roof from behind the school and into the central area between the classrooms. Kind of a lot of smoke. I returned to the classroom and climbed on a chair, through the window I could see large plums of smoke coming from the dry grass directly behind the school. My school is located at the top of a steep hill and we were on the third floor of the building. We stood on the chairs, watching the smoke. "Looks like Carlito is on it" I murmured aloud, as I watched my favorite custodian run directly into the smoke and turn around a run directly out of the smoke with burning grass chasing a few steps behind him. "Maybe we should get out of here" I instructed the class. A few of the students stepped outside, only to return saying there was less smoke inside the building than outside. The other groups didn't seem to be evacuating.

I have experienced wildfires before. I thought of two young men, probably the same age as my students, walking very slowly through a hot summer afternoon. I remember the weak man thanking me, thanking me for helping him, thanking us for driving him to meet the paramedics on a small road in southern Arizona, struggling to speak to us through an oxygen mask. I remember the panic in the eyes of the girl who was driving...this is how people go to jail...they can charge you with trafficking...I remember the rescue helicopter lifting him into the sky and heading toward Tucson. I remember his friend, arms raised, being loaded into a Border Patrol truck, his friend that said he wouldn't leave him, even if it meant getting deported. And I remember the fires, glowing red lava-like embers lacing the hills in the twilight.

"Hey teacher, people are going down" a student from another group instructed me from the doorway. "Let's go" I said and waited in the room for the kids to clear out. Below, the custodians and the guy in charge of printing the students' report cards ran toward the fire with fire extinguishers. I found that to be a hell of a job description. A large black floating thing burned my arm. "Move your cars!" the teachers were instructed, as the fire spread toward the parking lot. Our fire crew made a second round with rakes and shovels. The fire alarm started to chime quietly. Nice timing. Luckily, teachers are not required to do fire duty. After the bomberos finished the fire-fight by dousing it with water, we finished the day in classrooms that smelled like a wet ashtray.

It appears I have a job. I have been duly informed that I should be glad to have one during Great Depression II. It's a teaching job, in a school that I have always admired. Why does it feel like the prison door just slammed shut on me? When I was unemployed, I felt a little nervous. When I would get a few bites from prospective employers, an even greater anxiety would fill me. Part of me wants to return to Atlanta. I miss my friends and family and I miss a more "normal" way of life. Jogging in green parks, social events and no fear of kidnapping or El Teo. A bigger part of me says that I am missing a opportunity to do something awesome if I stay in Tijuana. Something more in tune with what I have wanted to do for the last ten years. This may be my opportunity and I am giving it up. I did the responsible thing, which grates on me. But, that bitch Sallie Mae isn't going anywhere and I will be a lot freer in a year to perform my bleeding heart antics.

It scares me how quickly one year turns to ten.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Have I told you lately that I love you?

Day three: The chola lady with the long shorts wasn't there. Neither was the prison workout guy, the one that does push-ups after propping his feet about three feet off of the ground on a cement bench, all while wearing jeans, work boots and a baseball hat. I started jogging around the small dirt track that circles the park by my house. Not the one with the taco stand onlookers and mad dogs, the other one. On the first day, I felt like one of those boxers from the movies that trains in the inner city. You see him stoically running past graffiti stained walls, burning trashcans and other evidence of urban desolation, fueled only by superior inner strength. By the second day I started enjoying the view of the desert mountains that encircle the city and the weird morning haze and pastel houses of Tijuana.

I wear regular jogging shorts, my pasty white legs jiggling in the breeze as I circle the track. Yes friends, have a good long look at 'merica, as George W. Bush would say, and all your corn tortillas didn't help matters much either. I watched a soccer team practice some painful looking drills in the middle of the park. "TEACHER!" a couple of the guys yelled as I gasped my way around the track; I looked over my shoulder to see two of my students waving like maniacs as other players jumped over their legs. "How are you?! How are you?!" the rest of their teammates howled in English, just to show me their skills. They cheered me every time passed. I was horrified when their coach instructed the team to start running laps. I really don't think I am any match for a group of teenage soccer players. I managed to stay ahead of them, hearing their coach periodically chastise them with "She's already here! She's already here!" and point at me like I was a rabbit in a greyhound race. Tijuana didn't seem like a big raging city that morning. It felt like a friendly small town where everyone knows everyone else.

As I walked into school, I could already hear the Norteño band that was playing in the area between all of the classrooms. Day of the Student is a pretty big event here. We all got an extra day off and when we returned, the school decided to throw in a party instead of having classes. Students manned food stalls that offered elote, tamarind flavored popsicles and tostilocos. Others dressed like cowboys skillfully whipped their partners around in front of the band. An electric bull spun wildly, throwing kids left and right and then swung around to smack them once again before they could get up. The bobcats are really accustomed to group work in class. They wouldn't even ride the bull alone, often piling two boys on the thing's back and holding on for dear life. The teachers beckoned me to sit with them in the shade. I gave myself a head freeze from a mango and chili popsicle and jumped up to roam around and play with the students. I really didn't want to sit down. It was fun out there. I felt genuinely happy, a rarity for me, and didn't want it to end.

I have finally decided the filth covering my car is something of an embarrassment, and apparently just spraying it with the hose is not going to get the job done. I whipped out the Pine Sol type product and finally washed it off. It looks pretty shiny now, but Pine Sol type product does not seem to be the best thing for a thirteen year old paint job. I probably should have used the dish soap. Shampoo is too expensive.

One of the factory work groups was kind of rowdy and getting difficult to teach. As I darted through the rows that separated the nearly forty students, a kid asked me a good question and I made a mad dash to the board to write something on it. And stumbled....and slipped....and staggered...and completely wiped out in front of the whole class. I think the whole display lasted at least ten minutes, as my fall was very elaborate and intricate, involving many twists and turns and somersaults. I jumped up and spun around. The room was completely silent, the students' eyes were wide and mouths open with horror. I covered my face and began laughing hysterically. The room erupted in screaming laughter. Class was pretty much over at that point. Every time I made eye contact with a student and attempted to teach something, I would begin giggling all over again and the whole place would go crazy. As I signed out for the day, I ran into one of my buck wild electronics students. "Guess what I did, Hernandez?" I asked as I signed the papers. "I just busted my culo in front of 4CF". His face widened with horror. "Did they laugh?" he asked, moon eyed. "Yeah, after I did". Then he laughed, and put his hand on my shoulder. "Profe, I fell down over there one day," he said, pointing, "during the recess. And one time over there too..."

Ching, ching, ching ching ching....I looked out to see someone tapping on the front gate. "I'm with the census," the señora informed me "can you answer a few questions?" Okay, why not. "Does your house have a dirt floor, a cement floor or a tile floor?" she asked me. "Um, tile" I answered. "Do you have electricity?", "Yes", "Do you have a bathroom and tap water?", "Yes" I answered. "A refrigerator?" Check. "Did you attend high school?" Yes, that too. As the questions continued about my living conditions, my 'yes' answers continued. Yes, I have everything. Everything a person could want.

I know that I am lucky.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Love you on a Tuesday

"Please buckle your seat belts for take off" the flight attendant instructed. That's what I like to hear. I stared at my Tijuana - Culiacán boarding pass. If you had asked me thirteen months ago if I ever expected to be holding a boarding pass with those two names on it, I would have definitely said: I believe those two names are restricted to newspaper articles about narcotrafficking. Apparently not for the families and ordinary looking people that filled the plane. One of those two names probably meant home.

I was surprised when my school approved my request for a Monday off on late Friday afternoon. "Is it enough notice?" I asked. "Oh, no problem. Culiacán es preciosa, I'm from there!" one of my bosses told me, beaming. At my U.S. school, we had to request days off, even days for professional development, at least a month in advance. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico? The principal appeared and commented again on my absence from the work Day of the Teacher party. "We would like to invite you to a breakfast, Saturday morning at nine, downtown" he stated, "I noted your absence at the party!" He handed me an invitation for a breakfast in honor of Mother's Day. Hmmm, Mother's Day was weeks ago and I do not have children. Exactly why was my presence requested? The fog of confusion entered my brain. 9AM broke through the fog like a cryptic, smoldering black menace. I nodded vaguely, knowing I wasn't going to go and dreaded the retribution that is surely coming.

I had found a cheap ticket with an airline with "bus" in its name. I am always kind of against using that word to describe planes. I am not sure why anyone would like to identify themselves as the Greyhound of the sky. There is another airline that uses the word "calafía" in their name. In Tijuana, the cheapest and most rickety buses in town are called calafías. They zig zag through traffic, cutting others off and stopping wherever they please. Whenever I think of this calafía airline, I think of a rusty plane blowing black smoke through the sky, tearing in front of 747s and landing in a dust covered field while the passengers jump from an open door of the plane to the ground because there are no stairs.

I bought my plane ticket and decided to hose off my car. I haven't washed it once since it arrived and it uh, shows. It is so dusty here I really didn't see the point, but the students are becoming increasingly fascinated by the level of filth present on my automobile. It looks like a rolling beach. I see their heads snap and stare when the sandy hooptie of the American profe rolls by. A quick spray down made it look like it was just kind of dirty.

I stepped out onto the stairs to exit the plane in Culiacán and was hit by hot, damp air at nearly ten o'clock at night. I pulled my hood up, crouched low and crawled on my elbows and knees military style to the airport entrance. Just kidding. The city looked nice from the taxi windows. I met up with another exchange teacher to attend a teaching conference that was arranged by a third exchange teacher that is based in Culiacán.

Monday morning, the conference room was filled with teachers from Sinaloa. I was surprised by the turn out and was left with the impression that the Sinaloa education ministry is pretty hot shit. Of all of the impressive teachers in the room, one strange one approached my friend and me. "I want to be an English teacher" the shifty guy with a long scar on his forehead told us. "I went to the U.S. as wetback ten years ago and learned English in Las Vegas". I asked myself if I should question him about his choice of terminology and decided not to.

Less than twenty-four hours later, I was back in the airport. I watched Argentina whup Canada in a friendly match and headed towards security. "Please wait" the security guard told me solemnly. I waited a few minutes and was sent to the X-ray machine. As I turned the corner, I saw a cluster of guards surrounding an empty pizza box that was sitting on the conveyor belt. They all started giggling. "It was her birthday!" they called between giggles, pointing at one uniformed woman.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico?

*Title, Tuesday Moon, Neutral Milk Hotel

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Walk on the Wild Side

"HILARY! Why didn't you come to the party?" Roberto asked me. "I don't know, Profe. I planned on it. I got home, I was tired and in a bad mood and just didn't make it" I answered. "Even Profe Julio came," Roberto responded "he has been out sick for two weeks and still showed up at the party and danced all night!". I don't know, if I had been out sick for weeks and showed up for a work sponsored party and danced all night, I wouldn't be lauded, I'd be fired. "I know Profe, I screwed up" I said and hid from the teachers for the rest of the day.

"Profe, ¿va a ir al baile?" the students asked me. It has been one party after another for various holidays that aren't celebrated in the U.S. Day of the Teacher. Day of the Student. Day of the Child. Day of the Woman. "I don't know if I'll go to the dance..." I answered. "Come on Profe, dance with us!" That's the thing, chamacos, I'm a white American. We look gross when we dance. One of my African American students in Atlanta told me specifically, during some goofy class activity, that I was proof that white people can't dance. It's okay. I accept it. Sometimes I do secret shower dances, or this crazy Norteño dance I invented, but that's all I have to say about that.

"¡Voy a bailar en la mesa!" one bobcat announced, with a head jerk and hip twist. "Dance sexy, erotic!" he emphasized, in some crazy English.

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A....I decided to use a song to help me teach the past tense. I wanted something narrative, something that told a story. I've heard "Walk on the Wild Side" so many times in my life that it seemed like a good choice. I was surprised that the students had never heard the song. I saw them holding back giggles when Lou starts his do do do, do do do do..... When I realized they were trying not to laugh, I laughed, then everyone laughed. I'd forgotten how unbelievably lacking in rhythm it is. It's Lou. He's my man.

I entered one group on Wednesday to find the classroom empty. "They're at the cevecería" others told me. The brewery? Why didn't I get to go? I ran into them later and asked them how it was. "It was good," the told me. "we got to try the beer, a cup apiece". You learn something new everyday. The drinking age is only eighteen in Mexico and most of these kids aren't eighteen. "But you know.." one student explained "things aren't so strict here". Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico?

I entered another group and found only a third of the students that should have been there. I got talking to some of them. They had questions about my job in the U.S. Do I always teach? What age group? What subject? "Spanish" I answered. "I took Spanish when I went to school in the U.S." one told me. I laughed. "Yeah, I've had a lot of Mexican kids in my beginning Spanish classes at home," I told him "they take it because it's easy, or because their parents want them to learn more about their language". For some reason, I felt sad. I have taught a lot of these kids in Atlanta. It seemed strange to be talking to a student that had been through the same experience and was back on the other side, voluntarily or involuntarily. Everything is strange. The world really is one big back yard, with signals crossing and people moving. It's beautiful and sad all at the same time. And me, well, I'm just floating through.

Sometimes I wish I could put the beauty and tragedy all in one box, wrap it up, and pet it for a little while.