Monday, December 26, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past

"I......want Charles in charge of me.  Ieeeeeeeeeee, want Charles in charge of me....." the young, Kroger employee sang over and over while I checked myself out.  I laughed.  Was that the song from that awful, Scott Baio TV show, post Happy Days?  Way post Happy Days, when Chachi had to acknowledge that it was the '80s?  I thought it was some weird joke at first, until I could still hear him singing it as I walked out of the front door.

"Ieeeeeeeeeeeeeee, want Charles in charge of me............".

I was driving south, way south, toward the Stewart Detention Center.  The dead grass looked kind of golden.  I woke up.  I knew why I was dreaming about this for the second night in a row.  Alejandro has been free almost ten months, but Cristian is not.  And he's headed to Stewart on Monday.  Sundays at Stewart.  Again.  Do the people still cry when the let the guys come out and sit on the other side of the glass and pick up the phone?  Cry like I did, to see an innocent person locked in jail for not being able to produce a driver's license?  Do the kids still smear the glass with their hands when they see their fathers?  Do people still sit out in the car for hours, afraid to come inside, unable to come inside because they don't have the documents to visit, but still willing to make the drive, still willing to at least be as close as they can, even if that means sitting in the parking lot, without laying an eye on the person they came to see?

I remembered the Christmas that Walter Garcia and I spent, driving my shitbox of a car around, holiday songs on the radio, with a dead dog in the back, looking for the Humane Society.  The Cremation Society.  Our roommate was going to kill us.  But it wasn't our fault.

"Do you know we haven't gotten paid yet?" Miranda asked, as she dropped her class off for Spanish on the last day before the break.  Huh?   Our checks always go through, at like five in the morning.  It was afternoon.  Hijole, what the fuck?

"I don't care when the money clears my account.  Can you just give me the pay stub, even though I haven't gotten the money?" I asked the accountant impatiently.  We are supposed to close on our, well, HOUSE in a little more than a week.  The lender wanted that check stub to finalize our loan.  Our mortgage.  On our first house.  Why was my job fucking this up?

I remember the hissing of cats in our kitchen, followed by the distinct sounds of cats fighting.  Alec and I sprang out of bed.  It was Christmas, ten years ago.  We didn't own cats, but were pretty partial to the Orange Cat, a big stray that roamed the apartment building we lived in.  He would jog with me like a dog and run to me when I called him from all the way across the parking lot.  The one that we didn't use, but had cars in it that Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer would drive.  We had a cat door that we kept open for him.  He would come and go as he pleased, eat, get in bed with us, relax a bit. He was our perfect pet.  No commitment.  Independent.  And now he was knee deep in a snarling fight with a big, mysterious black asshole cat in our kitchen.  It had followed him in.  Alec has never been a cat owner and is not versed in how to respond to their fights.  He grabbed the Orange Cat, afraid that he would get hurt in the fight.  Orange transformed himself into a viper and sunk his teeth directly into Alec's forearm, and then ran out the cat door.  He returned a few minutes later, as if nothing had happened and laid down on our bed.  A few days later, Alec was on an IV in the emergency room.  We didn't know cat bites were so nasty. 

"Why were you in Mexico?" the lender's email asked for the millionth time.  I don't know, running from the law.  Selling drugs.  All kinds of shit.  "I was on a Fulbright grant" I explained, again.  "My employment was not interrupted.  Nothing scandalous.  Congressionaly funded, educational exchange". 

No one was helping me with the check stub.  The tension was mounting in my head.  And, the second graders were making Puerto Rican musical instruments in class.  A recipe for disaster.  Me, ready to explode, them, with homemade maracas. I didn't want to be a dickhead.  I planned the lesson, because I knew that they would love it.  I finally got the class lined up to "assault", or surprise carol, the secretary at our school.  I heard a loud bang as something hit the wall of the classroom.  Norman started yelling furiously at no one in particular and running around like a nut.  He had beamed his "guiro" across the room, trying to hit another student.   Everyone stopped, stunned.  "What the HELL was that?"  I asked loudly, in front of twenty-two second graders.  "She said 'hell'" someone whispered.


I remember when Cristian was deported the first time.  It was over the holidays.  It went on for months, his parents paying bond after bond only to see him transferred to another jail in another state.  They were distraught.  Holly and I started volunteering in the desert that summer, after he'd been sent "home", to the country he didn't even remember, alone.  He was trying to get back and we knew it.  Every young man we met made us think of him.  Especially the sick one and his friend.  The sick one that flew up into the sky while his friend was shackled and frisked and fire lined the mountains and smoke filled the air.

And it's happening again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Holly Jolly

The exacto knife dove into my finger.  Instinctively I grabbed it and squeezed.  The kids gasped, still holding their hand made, sandwich bag piñatas. The knife was supposed to be punching holes in the  piñatas, not shoved into my finger.

"Does it hurt?!" someone asked.
"No, no, I'm just afraid to look."

I let go of my finger.  Blood smeared my hands.  They all gasped again.  The kids in that class can be real assholes.   I'm surprised they don't drink blood.  One grabbed the first aid kit and put a band aid on my finger.  Another kid, an especially violent one, bolted out of the classroom.  I had no idea why.  Looking for a pitchfork to finish the job?  He ran back in, holding a small, wet paper towel to clean the blood off of my hand.  I was surprised.  It was actually one of the nicest moments I've had with that group in a year and a half of teaching them.  I always knew that they needed to see blood. 

Dau looked beautiful.  And excited.  More than excited, as if she couldn't stop smiling, her perfect white teeth shining against her dark skin.  I have always loved her.  She was in my class during my second semester of teaching.  I taught her again the following year.  She insisted on having my cell phone number on the last day of class.  I was reluctant, but gave it to her, though she was a student.  I was so glad I did.   I followed her through graduation and the frightening period when I lost her.  I always remember standing in the nearest "town" in the Arizona desert that had a cell phone signal and calling my old principal, the one I hated, to tell her that Dau was in trouble, she needed help, her financial aid for college had fallen through and she didn't know what to do.  The principal that claimed to mentor her because it would look good to have a Sudanese mentee.  I couldn't do anything and my principal didn't do anything and I couldn't find Dau when I came back to Atlanta.

I clicked play on the parranda You Tube video for the kids learning about Puerto Rican Christmas.  "Will METH make you do this?" it asked, showing a guy with no shirt on sitting on a cruddy bed.  "How much will I get for this?" he asked the man unzipping his pants.  Oh shit.  I put my hand over the light shining from the projector and tried to get the volume down.  "There's a guy with no shirt on in the video!" some kid exclaimed.  Great.  

"It looks like the seller is going to accept your offer, he just has to return it in writing!" our realtor announced.  I went out to my car.  It made a horrible noise and became difficult to steer.  I pushed on to the beer store, because I am dedicated like that.  "I've heard that new power steering is really expensive" my sister stated, plunking down on my decrepit porch furniture and opening a beer.  Great.  The idea of having to buy a car terrifies me.  I have never even had a car payment.  What the fuck was I doing buying a house?

I looked at Dau as she rode in the backseat of my sister's car as we drove her to the airport to catch a flight to Australia.  She hadn't seen her sister since they left Sudan and got scattered across the world.   She hadn't been abroad in more than a decade, when she took a boat up the Red Sea from Sudan to Egypt, got trapped there in September 11th, Arabic as a primary language limbo and finally arrived in the U.S. via Germany where she was placed in the public school system without knowing a word of English or even the Roman alphabet.  As she walked through the airport, her white teeth shining and her dark skin accented by the red leather jacket she wore, the names of her nieces and nephews that she would soon meet air brushed on her long nails, total strangers were smiling at her.

They couldn't avoid the light.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Golden Isles

I woke up in the bed I had spent part of the summer in, looking out at the southern Georgia foliage and thinking about the splintery path that goes to the grey Atlantic shore.  It looked even more beautiful in the fall.  I had to bake some pies for Thanksgiving.  But that wouldn't be for a couple of days....

"Please verify your panel and when you are holding interviews" the Fulbright email said.  I was excited about assembling my own panel to help select who would go on exchange next year.  But THAT would happen after my week-long, late November break.

"So, how much of an offer do you want to put in?" the realtor asked us.  I felt my stomach churning.  I wasn't exactly sure if I was actually going to shit my pants or if it just felt like it.  That house was cute.  I've seen lots of cute houses in my nearly twenty years of renting.  Unfortunately, I really liked this one.  But the cage was coming down on me, the one that makes you get grown up and act like an old person, the one that kills your ambition, the one that guarantees that you never do anything interesting again.  "Low ball or legitimate?" she asked.  "Legitimate". 

I watched Charlie in class, this super smart kid that always seems so reserved.  He was smiling and interacting with his friends.  I'm glad he likes being in there.  I remember the first few times I saw his mom.  So familiar she looked.  Great kids, who was she?  Then I remembered that she was a shrink doctoral student that I went to when I was losing my mind as an undergrad.  I watched Charlie.  I'm glad he feels comfortable.  I'm glad that I have something to offer him.

We accepted the seller's offer, finally.  I hadn't been sleeping well, was behind at work and blood had been coming out of strange parts of me.  Nose, and other non-mentionables, accompanied by insane stomach cramps.  I got zits.  And a migraine.

The kids were practicing for their annual, winter recital.  At the end, they all held hands and raised them.  "That's the part that will make the parents cry" I whispered to a co-worker "but not my dry-eyed, childless heart".  She laughed. 

Emma and I were walking over the splintery path to the beach.  She had been rollerskating and I had been watching.  We wanted to look at the sea.  "You almost hit me, bitch" an unknown voice called to a lady riding her baby on the back of a bike.   Emma and I looked at each other.  A dad emerged, with two teenage sons and a pre-teen daughter.  We looked down.  As we passed, the pre-teen called out: "Like your hair," in response to Emma's hot pink do.  "Thank you" Emma responded courteously, without a hint of sarcasm.  We kept walking.  "And your bodies".  Emma and I looked back, a little stunned.  "And your pink flowers..." the girl continued.  We were baffled.  I was baffled.  Were we being, um, harassed by a thirteen year old redneck with her dad standing by?  As an adult, should I do something or avoid confrontation?  We walked to the sea.  And started laughing. 

I watched the kids sing during their recital, remembering last year.  So exhausted after driving half the night to the detention center and back.  Half drunk and running through the King Center with a parking ticket in my hand.  Things were so different this year.  The kids finished their song and lifted their little candles while holding hands.  I saw Emily, waving her candle and playing with the other kids.  And I started crying. 

"Do you think the Randolphs will get matched?" Terry asked me, after we completed our fifth interview of the day.  "I hope so," I responded, "they would be perfect".

"My name is Frank and I have autism" the tall seventeen year old said to our kids during our morning meeting.  I still felt blurry eyed and frankly, rosy and filled with love after the beautiful display the kids had put on during their recital the night before.  He pulled out a piece of paper and slowly tried to adjust himself and started reading.  Tears flooded my eyes.  Not normal, misty tears but full on crying.  "How many of you know someone who is autistic?".  Hands went up.  "Yeahhh..," he said quietly, "there's a lot of us".  "In Kindergarten, I couldn't speak.  I wanted to, but no one could understand me.  I wanted to play and talk to the other kids, but I couldn't".  EMILY.  EMILY.  EMILY.  Is it what I had hoped for?  That she is in there, just waiting to come out?  "In third grade, I couldn't read.  Ms. Zalero helped me.   Good job, Ms. Zalero" he said, motioning to our principal.  She burst into tears.  He continued and I tried harder and harder to not make a scene.  Would Emily be able to get up one day and speak like he was?  "I may be a big guy, but I feel like a kid inside" Frank ended.

And I ran to my room.  And cried and hiccuped and panted.  Every time I tried to calm myself, thinking of the twenty-odd kids that would be busting through the door at any minute, I just started crying again.

Friday, November 18, 2011


I stared across the child sized,  too short table at Bobby.  He didn't smell like pee.  It was my only break of the day, a whole one hour for both lunch, planning, communicating with parents and whatever other fucked up thing popped up.  Ridiculous.  "Alright, Bobby.  You had a bad day in Spanish.  Now, you are going to have to do the work you should have been doing while you were...well, flipping out".  Yeah, flipping out.  Yelling, screaming, refusing to leave the room, shoving my hands away when I tried to hand you a paper.  Again.  A couple of days ago you threw a chair.  You've attacked most of your classmates, many in my presence.  Randomly.  You've freaked them out.  You've been dragged out of here before.  A lot of the sympathy I had felt for the pee clothes had dried up.  He needed to get his shit together.

"You're taking my recess!" he howled.  Yeah, he didn't buy my creative language at all.  I was totally taking his recess.  If I had had it my way, he would have been sitting on a bench watching the other kids play outside.   And I would be eating lunch in peace, without my least favorite student sitting across from me, taking an extra half an hour of my time.  We decided that we needed to present it to him as not taking recess, but making up for lost time.  And that, coincidentally, comes out of my time, though I had already taught his class once that day.  

"I'll tear it up!" he screamed, referring to the "work" in my hand.  His face was red, he was howling.  I watched the scene play out for a minute.  "You're faking" I finally stated.  He stopped on a dime.  And started laughing.  "Alright, here's your work.  I am going to eat my lunch.  I can sit at my desk, or sit at the table with you.  Which do you want?".  "The table" he answered.  "With you?" I asked, incredulous.


I spread out my Bento and started eating, seated in a Kindergartner's size chair.
"I have a fake spacer in my teeth" Bobby said, randomly.
"Open your mouth.  I saw something going on in there while you were screaming".   He opened it.  "That's a crown, what's up with that thing on the other side?"
"I put that in myself".
"What?  Okay Bobby, you do your own dental work?" I responded, gazing in to the silver shit bracing his teeth.

"Do you think tomatoes are gross?" I asked.  "Well, I'm eating the whole thing" I continued, not waiting for answer, while laying it on the crisp bread.  The Wasa kind.  The kind I like.  He actually didn't need help with the assignment.
"You read well" I mentioned.
"You know why?  I go to the Sylvan learning center"
"Really, how often?"
"Once a week.  And then we go to the shi-shi place afterward"
"The shi--shi place, what, some fancy place?"
"Yeah, the sushi place" he responded.

I thought of Emma, my beautiful, fourteen year old niece.  She has liked sushi from the time she was little, and would stuff little calamaris, legs and all, into her mouth on trips to Mexico, in little places with plastic tables while the admiring staff would smile at the cute rubia that would eat anything.   "You have sophisticated taste, Bobby.  Most six year olds won't eat sushi" I finally responded.
"My mom is teaching me to cook".  I was surprised by how articulate he was.
"Do you like that?"
"Yes.  She is teaching me to make sushi rolls".

Your family sounds nice, I thought.  It sounds almost normal.
"Do you have friends in your class?" I asked him.
"Bobby, you have hit a lot of them".  He nodded in agreement.    "And when you scream and mess up our whole class, it scares them.  They are sick of it." I responded.

He had finished his work.  I pulled out the reflection sheet,  the thing he had crumpled and destroyed both times before.  He grimaced.  "No, this isn't for you, I'm drawing what happened".  I drew stick figures, one for him, one for me.  Him screaming.   Me, looking like Judy Jetson.  I showed him step one.  "Take a reminder, Bobby," I advised, "it doesn't have to go to this" I continued, pointing to the drawing of him screaming, kicking, raging.  Attacking random kids.  Peeing on himself.   "What happens when it goes to step two at home?".   People say they beat the shit out of you.  Say it.  Say it.  "They don't let me go to sushi.  Or I don't get to cook with my mom".  Really?  Why has Family Services been called out a few times?  Why are you so fucked up?

"You kept asking to go to the bathroom.  You said it over and over.  You poked me, which I don't like.  I don't think you had to go to the bathroom.  I think you knew you were in trouble, and you wanted to get out of here".  He drew steam flowing out of my Judy Jetson's head.  "Yeah, it made me mad.  Is that why you did it, to see me get mad?".  "No," he answered "I didn't have to go to the bathroom.  It was what you said.  I wanted to get out of here". 

I took him back to his classroom.  My next class was lining up outside.  "Can you wait with them?" I asked their teacher, as I galloped down the stairs with Bobby.  He grabbed my hand.  I was surprised.  I held it.  I felt him pulling away when we reached the bottom of the stairwell.  "No," I told him, "I feel you trying to let go.  You're not getting away from me.  You are going to hold my hand and like it".  He did.

He will be the same demon he has been for a year and a half.  He is tricky.  He lies and he fakes.  I can't trust him.  But I want to.

He waved at me after school.  That was a first.

Will it change?  I doubt it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Music was playing over the intercom.  Kids from all grade levels began singing with it, singing some song I have never heard before but that they all seemed to know and like.  Sherman jumped up in his fuzzy, one-piece, footed pajamas and began doing a Pete Townsend-windmill with his arm.  "Dyno-mite!" Hands vs. Feet sang, along with the other kids.  We just kept calling the numbers.

I wheeled my stacked cart through the Buford Highway Farmer's Market.  I never use carts.  I don't like them. I generally just break my own arm off with an overstuffed basket before pushing one of those pinche things around.   I made an exception.  It looked like rolling Mexico, stocked with Day of the Dead bread, sémaforo candy, Mexican Coke and fresh tortillas and cream. It was gorgeous. 

I drove toward the city, stuffing a carne asada taco in my mouth.  It was my second.  "Excuse me..," an Asian man with accented English asked me from a neighboring car.  "where is Farmer's Market?".  I pointed with my thumb in the opposing direction and continued stuffing taco in my mouth.

As I walked around the park, a large, dark SUV rolled past, its back window quickly lowering.  I saw Curley's eyes looking out through the open space.  Even though I couldn't see the lower part of her face, I could tell she was smiling. 

I laid on my back, looking up at a sunny blue sky.  It almost hurt my eyes it was so bright.  I saw a full color image of the Virgen of Guadalupe, transposed over the blue, up in the sky.  It looked like the Virgen on the back of my Nuevo Laredo shirt.  I smelled roses.  And then I saw roses, circling and blooming around her in the sky.

They were red.  Red roses.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An Owl in a Dead Tree

"Try to guess why I got in trouble at school today" I instructed Alec.  "Yelling at a kid?  Being mean?" he asked.  "No" I answered.   "Being drunk in public?". "Not that".  "Your clothes?", "Nope", "Giving the kids cigar boxes?".  "No, none of the above, " I answered,  "rewards.  Rewarding them for academics". 

I walked down the dark sidewalk to school, tired, the morning after Halloween.  I could hear the lions roaring from the zoo.  I was wearing my pajamas.  And a robe.  I entered the school.  It looked like a hospital; teachers wandering around in robes and slippers, carrying coffee.  Kids in furry pajamas.  Me, in my Mexico jersey, pajama pants and dragon robe I bought in Vietnam.  I wore shoes.  I didn't want to mess up my slippers on the sidewalk. 

"Maestra Hilary DOES what she wants" one of the second graders commented in line.  "Now THAT'S what I'm talking about, Raymond" I said, nodding in agreement.  "And WE are ready to sing it" he answered.  

"How did it go today?" the cute teacher asked me.  "Well, Bobby menaced another kid today, but we were able to talk through it, and he didn't actually hit anyone," I answered,  "or bite".  "Great!" she answered.  "But he smells bad, like piss or something, shit," I whispered in her ear, "but he says he doesn't have to use the bathroom".  "He's wearing yesterday's pee clothes" she whispered back.  "What?".  "He pissed his pants yesterday and we put him in a change of clothes," she whispered, "his parents never cleaned out his backpack, and the pee clothes were still in there today.  He had another accident, and we had to put him in something". "That's disgusting" I replied, unsure if she realized that I didn't mean her actions were disgusting, but that any parent would allow their kid to walk around in piss stained clothes from the day before in addition to not even checking their six year old's backpack.  I looked at Bobby.  He pisses me off.  He acts like a dick.  He attacks everyone physically in class.  It's been going on a long time.  I stared at him.  No one should walk around in pee clothes.

There is something so wrong there I don't even know where to start.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


"So, you going to say 'hi' to your wife on your way out?"  I asked the blond booty shaking, now first grader.  "Miss Connor?  She's not my wife anymore" he answered, referring to probably the hottest member of our teaching staff.   "That's not what you said when you brought in that drawing of your name in hearts for her last year" I responded.  "Nooo!" he contested, "It's over between us, but she keeps chasing me.  I have a fourteen year old girl friend now". 

"My family escaped from Vietnam on a boat.  They were boat people.  It was after the war, things were bad.  They sailed to the Philippines and lived in a refugee camp until the U.S. let them in" the thin, pretty woman told me, while she painted my fingernails.   "That sounds dangerous" I responded.  "It is," she answered, "people get lost and the boats sink.  The U.S. stopped letting people in not long after my parents got here.  They had to.  It had to end sometime.  But people still get here".  "How?" I asked.  "They get fake papers and bribe people along the way until they get to the U.S. My roommate did it, she's not who her papers say she is," she responded "why are you missing a toenail?". 

"The hot water heater went out?" Alec told me.  Were we in Tijuana?  "What do you mean, did you re-light it?" I asked.  "Yeah, like a million times, it just goes back out.  I'll try again".  It didn't work.  Coldest night in recent months and no hot water, and I smelled like wet dog after my slow jog around the park. 

I stood in our morning meeting at work, feeling very bright eyed and bushy tailed after my freezing cold, splashing water army shower.   A woman walked by in furry, leopard printed pajamas.  A one piece.  Must be pajama day somewhere in the school.

I was wearing the necklace, the long, silver necklace with a silver apple at the end, that has a real, working clock inside.  My sister gave it to me when I started teaching.  High school kids loved it and now elementary kids love it.  It caught Emily's eye the minute she sat on her place on the rug.  The place she always sits.  Without change.  Everyday.  Barely thinking, I pulled it off and handed it to her.  She tried to twist the knob that sets the time.   I had to pull it out so that the hands would move.  Would she break it?  It was a gift.  What if she slammed it into the brick wall?  I love that necklace.  For some reason, I felt like it was worth it to let her play with it.   As I continued the lesson, every time I would glance at Emily's marble-like eyes, filled with fascination as she made the hands move and dangled the apple in front of her face as if hypnotizing herself, I felt oddly calm and content. 

It was time to get off of the rug.  Would it be a struggle to get the apple back from Emily?  I couldn't let her have it.  It was too important.  As soon as I explained the assignment, the kids jumped up, including Emily, to go to the tables.

She quickly handed me the necklace and headed to her place at the table, to the place where she always sits.  Everyday.  She wanted to draw what the seasons of the year looked like. 

I almost wanted her back, back watching the apple, back watching the silver swing in front of her glass eyes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Noah's Dino-Ark

"Did you enjoy the King center?" the kindergartner asked.  "Huh?",  "The King center, when you went?", "Sure" I answered.  The little African-American girl was resuming a conversation that we had begun a month ago, completely without preface.  "Martin Luther King was killed.  Someone shot him." she continued.  The little African-American boy that had just turned five piped up.  "A white person!" he howled.  "Noooo," Nia corrected, "a black person!".  "White!" Joel yelled.  "Black!" Nia responded.  "White!", "Black!", "White!", "Black!" the kids continued, until their teacher came to take them away.

"Carbon dating is wrong!  It doesn't tell you how old bones are!" the radio commentator squealed through the car speakers.  "Man and dinosaurs existed at the same time.  There are cave paintings of dinosaurs...,".  Which apparently are more credible than carbon dating.  "Dinosaurs were walking the earth even three hundred years ago!".  Okay, you got me there.  Ben Franklin and the brontosaurus.  All the shit they wrote down with quill pens and no one mentioned flying beasts or man-eating monsters.  The commentator started taking calls.  "How did Noah fit the dinosaurs on the ark?" caller after caller asked.  THAT is the only problem you have with this guy's story?  "He took babies," he answered, "baby dinosaurs". 

Someone called Nia a "black bitch" on the playground the other day.  He was black too.  And, in kindergarten.

"Thanks for returning my note" I said to the parent quickly.  I already know her and her kid has been fucking around in class, hence the note.  I was surprised when she started crying.  "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry" she stammered.  "What?  Why?  It's not your fault, I just need your help," I answered, "it's really not a big deal".  "We've had a lot of chaos lately and it's showing and I just feel so bad, you are so nice and I worry that you get stepped on".  So nice?  I turned around, and spun back to her.

"Are you talking to me?".

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sing and Never Tire

I walked into my trusted hairdresser's shop.  "I am filling in!" a man announced, "I am learning to cut hair!".  It was a parent of one of my students.  A troubled student.  A violent student.  I felt awkward about saying 'no' and sat in the chair.  He shaved my hair off, all around the front and the back, leaving a small, yarmulke-shaped ring of hair on my head, surrounded by a quarter inch shave.   I couldn't believe it.  "Why did you do this?" I screamed/asked.

"I was doing my best" he answered, sarcastically. 

I woke up, feeling weird, and went to work. 

The kids were actually working steadily on the thing I gave them.  "¿Quieren música?" I asked them.  They wanted it.  I put on Daddy Yankee and not Norteño, my música of choice. "Is this rap?" Lashandi asked loudly.  "Sí," I answered "de Puerto Rico".  She looked to another African-American girl in her class.  "We do it better" she said.  I was disappointed.  He is a "we".  Are we really going down this road again, so early? Who is black and who is not.  That you can't be black and Hispanic at the same time.   Stupidity. 

I laid down, just for a minute, after school.  I heard my bird, Momo.  She makes a typewriter noise, over and over again, on the side of her feeder.  She does it when her partners die.  Suddenly, I opened my eyes.  More than two hours had passed.  It was seven o'clock.  Typewriters were in my head.

"You received a big shipment" Alec told me.  "What?" I asked.  "Like, a million boxes.  They are in the front". Oh, those boxes.  The one hundred and forty boxes for the kids to make mini-altars for Day of the Dead? I really needed small boxes, and the cheapest ones I could find were empty cigar boxes.   My front room smells nice, cedary, and is filled with beautiful wooden boxes from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. They are golden, lovely, filled with embellishments and clasps.  I spread them out on the floor, and open and close them. 

"¿Como estás?" I asked Emily, just like I always do.  I generally discard the answer.  She says strange things -  things I don't understand.  She started talking, and for some reason, I watched her carefully.  Little coos and sounds that no one would ever consider language flowed from her mouth.  Her eyes and head moved back and forth, just like any other person's would while talking, except that her eyes looked like glass.  I listened intently, for the first time.  She was thinking and communicating whatever was in her head, just in a way that no one could understand.  But she wanted to tell us something.  I watched her until she was finished, and thanked her.  For the first time, the corners of her mouth moved upwards and her normally expressionless face assumed a look of satisfaction.

A few minutes later, she said her first Spanish word of the year.  Azul.  Azul was her first word. 

It has been a big week.  First grade is making a project to send to a school in Mexico.  I have begun full immersion teaching in grades K-3, and they are getting it.  Fourth and fifth grades are researching historical figures and making cigar box altars that represent the person's life. Emily spoke her first words of Spanish.  I was at school until nearly eight o'clock the other night, explaining my curriculum to happy parents, one of whom started crying and hugged me.  "I need to talk to you" one of my bosses said, entering my room near the end of the day.  "I received an email from a parent that said you are giving the kids candy everyday, which she says goes against our discipline policy and our sustainability plan for the school.  And, it does". 

Of all the things going on in my classroom, I was really surprised to only hear about the random piece of Mexican candy I give whichever kid wins our monthly Bingo game. 

Friday, September 30, 2011


Two more minutes left until the kids had to go to aftercare if no one picked them up.  "Well Frank," I said to the first grader sitting on the floor with me, "looks like you're sleeping in the library tonight.  You could probably hunt around in Ms. Henry's stuff for snacks if you get hungry.  I guess you'll have to take a sink bath before school starts tomorrow morning".  Alice started giggling.  "We are too big for the sink!  Well....actually, I get up in my sink sometimes.  When my mom isn't looking...".  "So do I," Frank added, "and I pee in it".

That stopped the conversation.

"Can I go to the bathroom?" Alex asked.  I gave him my stock answer:  "Can you wait until the end of class?".  Ninety-five percent of kids can and usually don't really have to go to the bathroom anyway.  He looked me square in the eye.  "I have to poo...",

"Go" I said, without letting him finish the word. 

One minute until aftercare.  Alice's number came up.  "That's you!" I said as she sprang up, catching her foot in her dress and falling hard on her face.  She screamed.  Blood sprayed out of her nose.  She ran and fell in my lap, clutching her face.  Blood came out from between her fingers and dotted her dress.  It was picture day.  A large drop landed on my pants, bright red and suspiciously close to my crotch.  She was scared.  I was kind of scared too.

Sometimes, in moments of adversity, I imagine myself singing in fancy outfit in front of a funk band.  Other times, I do a ballerina dance where no one can see me.  Lately, I haven't really been doing anything.  I just white knuckle it out. 

I held on to her until it stopped bleeding.  Then,  I stood, pulled my shirt down as far as it would go, and headed to the Diversity Team meeting that I was late for.

Diversity is walking around with blood on the front of your pants, and not for the reason that everyone thinks it's there.

Friday, September 23, 2011

City in the Sky

"Emily, no one is going to take your place on the rug, right class?" I asked/told the kindergartners.  They agreed, several vocally.  "Let's walk to the rug".  Emily walked with the rest of the class for the first time, instead of running.  And, when she arrived at the rug, Riannon was seated in her place.  Emily started screaming, crying.  I was almost screaming.  "Get out of her place!  Out of her place!" the three teachers in the room, including myself, started saying desperately to the child in Emily's place on the rug.  "Whaa...," the little girl responded, "I was just, just...", "She doesn't understand, Riannon, Emily doesn't understand..!".  I couldn't believe it.  She would never trust us again.  What was Riannon thinking?  Why did she do that?  Riannon started to cry.  "I was saving her seat for her..." she said quietly, tears rolling down her face.  Two minutes into class and the kids were terrified, and at least two were crying.    "We are going to be okay," I told them quietly, "we are going to be fine".  I kept repeating it until the kids stopped crying.

I sat at my desk, which is really a little table, writing the names of colors on colored paper.  I started cutting them out quickly, trying to make a wall display.  I cut spikes and clouds around the words.   Brown looked like a turd.  I threw it away. 

The kids were mesmerized by the absolutely stupid puppet video I bought them.  I was shocked.  And pleased. I was afraid they would hate it, and obviously have no idea what a five year old thinks is funny.  I heard a fart.  It seemed impossible that it came out of the pretty porcelain girl with such dark eyelashes and pretty eyes.  But it did. 

Emily's hands and face were covered with marker.  I walked with her to the sink and turned the water on, instructing her to put her hands underneath. She did it.  She shifted with agitation while I dried her hands off.  She started to dart away.  "Emily, come back.  Can I wipe your face off?".  She stared back at me.  I carefully lifted the little pastel framed glasses to the top of her head.  She stared at me, immobile, the glass doll eyes directed straight ahead.  "I am going to wipe your face now" I told her, moving the wet paper towel down her face.  She cooed.  "Does it hurt?" I asked, alarmed, "Do you want me to stop?".  She stared straight ahead.  I continued to clean the marker off of her face.  She continued to coo, but stood rigidly still.

Her face was clean.

As Emily walked out of the room, she raised her hand, and high-fived me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Buffalo Girl

I was running, tearing around the fountain, in hot pursuit of the little blond boy that was giggling hysterically.  A chair was in my path.  I plowed into it, did a somersault on the cement, and kept on chasing him.  "Do it again!  Do it again!" he shrieked.  I loved that hysteric giggle.

I was running, slowly, jogging,  up the sidewalk that circles the park.  I had had a productive day.  Went to work, worked after work, ran some errands, cleaned the bathroom.  Which, was nasty.  And now, a jog.  I stumbled and found myself smacking down on the sidewalk, hands bleeding and chest hurting like a motherfucker.  What just happened?  I got up and started running again.  I stopped after a few minutes.  My body really hurt. 

Tuesday morning, the air conditioning continued its upward cycle.  It was nearly eighty degrees in the room.  I was exhausted.  Every twitch of my body hurt my ribs, my shoulder.  I am not sure how I can crash into a chair and do a somersault on cement and be fine, but take a little fall on the sidewalk and half kill myself.  I picked up my phone during a break, ready to call my doctor.  I paused, and went to the school nurse instead.  "You probably bruised your ribs," she told me, "maybe even cracked them.  You are standing up and talking, so it must not have punctured your lungs.  There's not much anyone can do".  I knew she was right.  But everything hurt. 

I realized my voice was stammering.  "I need to know how to get a sub.  I know that you want us to find coverage if we are in a one teacher classroom, but you do not have a list of people to call in order to find someone to come in." I couldn't believe I was having this conversation.  My school relies on parent volunteers instead of paid substitute teachers.  I don't know who to call if I am ill, or if my rib cage is caving in on my lungs.  The general response has been, "Wow, we really don't have anyone for Spanish".  "I also will not be at the faculty meeting.  I am going to the doctor, it hurts me to breathe". 

I was surprised when an hour later, the recipient of my nervous conversation walked into my classroom, a young woman in tow.   It was late in the afternoon, and the kindergartners were struggling to even sit the fuck down.  "Someone from another school!" she said brightly, while I winced and struggled to lift my left arm to do the hand motions of our opening song.  They left.  Another group of kindergartners arrived.  They were struggling.  I was struggling.  It was late.  Suddenly, the little observer from another school reappeared.  The kids were having one of their worst days yet.  The mysterious observer wandered around, without identifying herself.  I was having trouble breathing.  "We are going to listen quietly while I read the book out loud that you are going to illustrate" I told the class.  The kids got quiet.  The lovely observer started crouching next to kids, asking them questions.  It was confusing to them.  I had told them to be quiet, this lady was talking to them.  My chest was collapsing.  This little bitch needed to shut the fuck up, ask me in advance if she wanted to observe my class and quit disrupting the lesson.  And now all the kids were talking again. 

"Your rib cage and collar bone are bruised," my doctor told me.  "but I want to X-ray your arm, it worries me.  It could be dislocated or fractured".

I stood in the dark room, staring at the ghostly X-ray on the screen.  "I don't know what I am looking at." I told the technician.  "It's okay," he answered "I just wanted you to look".  "Bones are elegant, aren't they?" I asked him.

"Yes," he responded breathlessly.  "Yes they are".

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Walking and Talking, Part Two

Warren walked in carefully, back erect and head held high, eyes cautiously shifting from side to side, with subdued, yet nervous delight.  He was wearing a full, real, soccer uniform from the Ivory Coast.  Jersey, shorts and the knee socks, which were mysteriously pulled up over his knee to mid-thigh.

He looked magnificent. 

"I'm hot. Are you hot, Carl?" I asked the fourth grader to my left.  "No, I'm kind of cold" he answered.  "I must have a fever," I responded, "I'm sweating". I have an odd cold that has never exactly reached full expectancy, yet began as a sore throat, moved to a clogged nose and is currently hovering in coughing up nasty stuff territory.  It leaves me feeling permanently tired, yet has not actually completely knocked me out yet.  It has been going for over a week.

The whole class was dancing to the Ketchup song.  I am a terrible dancer and can even show my lack of rhythm during easy, Spanish favorites, like the Macarena and the Ketchup dance. I do it anyway.  I actually really shake it.  The song was reaching the strenuous part when everyone starts to get tired.  "Keep going!" I yelled, "You guys are getting beaten by a forty year old woman with a fever!".  "Your only thirty-nine!" some of the kids yelled back.  Thanks for that, lovelies.  And I mean it. 

As first grade George excitedly told me about the best water slide in the world, I slyly slipped my fingers around his ankle.  We both started screaming. The notion of swimming along in the pool and feeling a hand closing around your ankle horrifies both of us.   Jokes like that are probably not appropriate for six year olds, but we like it.

The kinders are taking shape and developing personalities.  I have my eye on one devilish little girl with curly hair and mischievous eyes.  She holds hands with Ignacio's little brother in class, which only makes me like her more.  I sat on one of the tiny chairs in my classroom, reading La Oruga Muy Hambrienta to the class.  I could feel the kids fiddling with the weird floral object that sticks up at the end of my shoe.  I don't mind when they touch it.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Curly coming in a little closer to my shoe, a curious look in her mischievous eye.  "El lunes, la oruga comió...." I continued.

The tip of her tongue shot out, touched the flower thing on my shoe and quickly retracted, only to be replaced by a satisfied smile.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Here there and everywhere

I looked into the doll-like glass eyes, caged in by pastel frames of the little girl.  "Don't let her play you," one of her teachers told me the other day, "she is disabled, but she can follow directions".  "WALK to the rug" I told her.  She ran.  And pushed other kids.  "Emily.  Stand up" I commanded directly.  She refused.  In front of everyone.  "Emily, stand up" I asked again, quietly, extending my hand.  She refused again.  Her teacher came in, unexpectedly.  I got the kids singing and walked over to her.  I was frustrated.  "Emily is refusing to do what I asked, in front of everyone" I lamented.  "Yeah well, she does that, she's disabled....".  "Well, she can't shove the other kids, she just can't" I said with frustration.  She walked over and said loudly, "Emily, get up!" and then picked her up, kicking and wiggling to the far corner of the room.  Emily was screaming, crying, her face red, like a trapped animal.  The doll eyes darted behind the pastel frames.  I wanted to shoot myself.  I am so sorry, Emily. 

I remember carefully placing my glasses on a gravestone in the old cemetery by my house, and then somersaulting down the hill that faces the old textile mill.  I was drunk. Big green hills in the middle of the city had to be good for something.  I went to my sister's house and tried to race my niece on foot, while she was on roller skates.  I watched her skate up and down the street in the twilight, looking like an elegant swan.

I sat in the border wait line in Otay, eating a cup of corn.  So good, so very good.  Alec and I had flown to Los Angeles for the long weekend.  I had carefully booked us a cheap hotel by the airport due to our late arrival, which just happened to be convenient to South Central and Watts.  We hung around the city the next morning and went out to the pier, then beat it south.

So good to pull into Mexico.  Mi querido Mexico.  We ate like pigs, and did a nostalgia tour of our old neighborhood.  While heading back to the border, I nailed a huge pothole, like I have a million times in Tijuana.  I figured it was no big deal, until a light on the dash came on with exclamation points, on the rental car that wasn't supposed to be in Mexico.  I pulled off.  "Está pinchado" the gas station guy told me; I could hear the air coming out while he was putting it in.  "¿Hay una llanteria cerca?" I asked.  Why of course.  Tijuana is full of tire repair places.

"The rim is bent" the guy answered me in perfect English, after my sketchy Spanish description of what happened.  Great.  Another man walked over with a sledge hammer.  Instead of feeling nervous, I felt suddenly at ease that a Mexican with a sledge hammer could get that wheel on the road again in the simplest and most economical way.  They ripped it off, pounded out the rim, patched the tire and rotated it to the back, in less than ten minutes.  For gringos.  With a rental car with Arizona plates.  "It's six dollars," the main guy told me "and whatever you want to give him for the work on the rim". 

And now, back to work tomorrow. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Let the games begin

I tried so hard to be positive.  I really did.

"Our class was feeling very negative about Spanish class, so I thought I would say a few words to them in Spanish this morning to make them feel more positive.  How do you say this?" the teacher implored, pushing a half translated piece of paper in front of me.  So, the kids don't like Spanish.  But they will like Spanish if you do it with them, right?  I guess I am the problem here.  It wasn't even eight o'clock in the morning.   "I told them this would be a different year.  Your schedule was really bad last year and it was your first year...". I appreciate that, I really do.  Do say that to the kids.   I have more than two additional instructional hours on my schedule than I had last year.  I would prefer last year's schedule.   "I told them that you have to be impatient with them.  There isn't a lot of time!".  Exactly.  The class looks like a most wanted list of who is a behavioral problem, but you know, it's my fault.  Parents have pulled their kids from the school to avoid that class.  Teachers have been fired for not being able to tame them.  But wow, I guess it was me all along.

The late night teeth grinding has already begun.

I have been forced to lead a song in Spanish during our morning meetings all week.  I was horrified by the prospect.  I can be a real ham when I am alone with the kids in my room, but not in front of more than four hundred people.  Singing. It has been going remarkably well.  I have too many student volunteers to sing it for me, and the kids high five me when I leave the stage.  I may do it again.

I left Atlanta's most wanted elementary class, angry.  Four or five kids managed to really fuck it up, and I had only a ten minute break before I had to teach for another two hours and fifteen minutes straight. I had already taught an hour and a half.  I went to buy a Coke.  "Hey..." a teacher called to me in the hall, insinuating that the lovely little boy to her left had a question.  "Doesn't the end of the song say 'turn to the other side' in Spanish?".  "Yes" I answered.  "The kids aren't doing it when you lead them in the meeting.  You need to teach them that!".  Thanks for that.  Anything else?  I have a few suggestions for you too. 

"How can we show respect for each other in Spanish class?" I asked the second graders, late on Friday afternoon.  "Don't say 'I don't like Spanish'" Julio announced.  "Wow, thanks Julio.  We don't say hurtful words in here, do we?  Those words hurt me" I responded.  "And ME too!" he answered.  I was surprised.  "Why Julio?" I asked.  "Because I am Mexican and THAT is my language".

The problems of the week slowly slid away...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Week Two

I could feel my scalp sweating as I sat in a circle on the floor with the third graders.  They sang lazily.  As I scanned the room, a dark little exposed belly caught my eye.  Lashandi sat singing, her tired looking eyes drooping, her shirt carefully folded up to air her stomach in the hot room.  She looked like a little old man.  Possibly a little old non-American man.  I've noticed they will unapologetically sit in public or walk through town with their shirts raised to air their bellies, jiggly old flesh staring out at the world.  I wonder if it works, if airing your stomach really cools you down.  A million old men and Lashandi certainly cannot be wrong.

The temperature crested at eighty-six degrees in my classroom.  A number of folks pushed all the useless buttons on the thermostat just as I had when I walked in that morning and achieved the same result:  It was fucking broken, just like I had said.  Penny reached toward me to hug me as she left the classroom, something she rarely does.  "I'm sorry, honey.  I stink." I told her as she continued to advance.  I could smell the curry I had eaten the night before escaping through my pores.  She smiled knowingly while wagging her head no and hugged me anyway.

It started out innocently enough.  I really felt raggedy one morning.  And it was only the second week of school.  And the air was working again.  I don't know what my problem is.  My first class came in.  "¿Cómo están?" I asked them.  "I haven't been sleeping at night" one responded.  Others nodded.  "My stomach hurts everyday" another added.  "I threw up last night" yet another quipped.  "Why are you all so anxious?" I asked.  They didn't know.  Instead of fighting the mood of the class, I decided to just go with it.  I heard about ear infections, blood, sleeping on the couch because the bed was too uncomfortable.  Oddly, one of the blond devils that has always been difficult for me voluntarily sat next to me, and even let me pat him on the back a couple of times.  David rose his hand.  "In the summer, my dad came in one day and turned off the T.V.  He said he had something serious to tell me".  I was nervous.  I could tell by his face that this might be a big one.  "My step dad died.  He was in the army and had to take medicine to get his head right again after he came home.  One night, everyone was out to dinner and he accidentally took too much of his medicine for his head and he died, because no one was home to help him".  "Is he still dead?" another kid asked.  "Yes," David answered solemnly, "he still is.  It is permanent".

"Oh my God!" their teacher laughed when I told her how we spent Spanish class.  "Yesterday we had a really long discussion about the various ways that they have been spanked!  It's not as awful as it sounds!".  "So....what about Jimmy, never been spanked?" I inquired.  "No," she answered, eyes widening "belt".  "What about Sarah?", "Measuring stick", "And Zach?"  I continued, strangely curious about the various means of corporal punishment. 

"No," she said with a relieved look, "never been spanked". 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

You, Me and Everyone We Know

The one eyed machete wielding men of Nicaragua seem very far away now.

I walked through the blistering heat into the mini mart at the gas station, the first week of school under my belt. It's odd. There is a really shiny, fancy gas station across the street that has really shitty beer. I go to the completely sketchy looking place on the other side that actually has good beer. It was hot. Really hot. There was a vibe in the parking lot. I saw this Asian guy, wearing tight, dark jeans and multicolored Adidas, dark wristbands and spiky hair. He didn't have a shirt on. His upper body was completely covered in tattoos. I don't really have any issue with that, but something about him sort of screamed mafia, and don't fuck with me. He spoke in rapid fire, some kind of Chinese to another, I assume, Chinese guy. Stereotypes preclude that Asians aren't supposed to be intimidating, yet these guys clearly smashed that to bits. I steered clear of them. There was a line clear across the store. I grabbed my beer and got in it. "Hey! Where your partner?!" a completely homeless dude yelled across the store, "This is ridiculous!" he added, and stormed out. I stared forward. I heard a shouting, barking noise in the parking lot. "What is that.....?" the young, African American guy behind me in low slung jeans and an A hat whispered. "It sounds like shouting..." I responded quietly. The homeless guy re-entered. "Where your partner?!" he yelled. I bought my beer and left, exiting quickly and eyeballing the Appalachian homeless that sit by the dumpster, making sure they weren't coming up at me. A van blocked my car in. That is, a prison transport van, complete with prisoners shackled inside. I got in my car, locked the doors and turned the air on.

I could wait.

So, just mentioning Nicaragua made it come back to a dream. Nicaragua is a big bike country. Not for fitness or fun, but primarily because of poverty. People routinely give each other rides on their bikes. Yet most bikes lack pegs on the back wheel that will allow a second rider to stand behind the principal one. The most common pairs of riders seemed to be young men. Not kids, but guys that were like, twenty-three. I was a little stunned to see the principal rider on the seat, peddling, while the second rider straddled the bar, yup, sitting right on it, while steering. Dads that were riding little boys often peddled and steered, yet the little boys still straddled the bar in front of the principal rider. I have to wonder if there is any sort of legacy of infertility among men in Nicaragua. The only people I saw riding side saddle on the bar, permitting the principal rider to both peddle and steer, were women. To put it bluntly, we aren't fools. We have a lot less junk down below, but we still aren't riding a bar.

I stared back at the new sea of kindergartners. They lacked identity and personality. I guess I don't have to wonder this time if they will worm their way into my heart. Everyone I teach does. This is my sixth year in the public schools. Blobs will become people and people, personalities. They will come and they will go.

Now, they just have to make themselves known to me.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

We wish you well

I'm really fat right now. It's something I don't like to discuss. Giant. My hair is really big too. That part, I love. My hair has always been straight as a rail. Now, it is fluff king. My hairdresser flat irons it, to be fashionable. I hate it. I run straight to the shower, and let it fluff up it's to its full madness again. It has curls, waves. Cascading red craziness. It feels nice. I touch it and twist it and push it up and it only gets grander. Day two is the best. Day two after washing. Lionesca.

I went back to work. I am sorry, let me rephrase myself. I WENT BACK TO PINCHE WORK. We began three days before traditional pre-planning begins, which meant we started in the end of July. Let me rephrase myself. HIJO DE LA GRAN PUTA, JULY. JULY. I know it is only a three day difference, but starting before August fucks with my head. It does. We had to go to a retreat. At a 4-H camp in eastern Georgia. Let me rephrase. A 4-H CAMP. EASTERN GEORGIA. This wasn't some fancy thing that made you at least grateful that you got to go to a nice hotel. We are talking bunk beds, cinder block buildings. I struggled.

Two days after returning from Nicaragua, I actually managed to get up on time and head to my car, Google map in hand. I am not so hot at directions outside of the city. I drove. And I drove. I missed a little "highway" and had to turn around and catch it. Finally, I was on the road where I was to make my last right hand turn. I drove. I kept driving. What the fuck?! I started saying out loud. What THE FUCK?! The map was wrong. I was late. It was snowballing. Not five minutes late, not ten minutes late. Pushing thirty. I tried to call the camp, and the last bar on my phone died as the lady told me directions that were completely contrary to my map. I followed them anyway and was stunned when I saw the place. I drove way too fast through the little roads and got to the meeting building and entered. I was forty-five minutes late. Everyone was seated and in full discourse. Way starting the year on a positive note, I thought.

After the initial discomfort, I settled in. I was shocked at how much fun it was to speak to my co-workers and even more, to get drunk with them in the evening. Really drunk. Rampaging, hiking river trails without flashlights, bonding drunk. Screaming drunk.

The retreat was fun. I just hope that the school year will be fun. I will be returning to my Spanish island and oh so much can go wrong. So very much. People that are fantastic at a party are not always fantastic at school. I am crossing my fingers. I want it to go well.

I wish myself well.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The One I Love

I drove east on the same highway that I had driven with both birds. I passed the exit where the vet was and continued to the exit of the "petuary". I glanced at the brochure. They even had a little pet hearse. I found it kind of disgusting and wanted to get my poor bird out of that ridiculous place. Even if he was dead. I was a little stunned when my Google map lead me to a real funeral home. With human size hearses. No mention of pets. I cautiously went inside. Viewing rooms were open and people sat in chairs, talking. I was under dressed in my Fuerza Azteca t-shirt. People were looking at me. I went back outside. It was as if I had crashed a funeral.

"Hey, I think I'm at your place" I said with exasperation into my phone from the parking lot. Some gross man sat staring and smiling at me with his feet up on a bench beside the building. Idiot. "Where do I come inside? There is like a funeral going on in there." I continued. "Ah yes, there is a visitation," the woman responded calmly, "just walk straight through and to the back".

So I did. I drove back to my house with a little box of ashes instead of the big chirping cage I had driven east with.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Va pues

¡Nicaragua! ¡Mi querida Nicaragua! ¡Nicaragua linda!

The summer is flashing before my eyes, riding in a pick up truck with a multi-tiered gun rack to a bar in Opileka during a tornado, trees bending and skies graying and talk of hanging out in a walk in cooler. Border walls, the Gulf from the Texas side and the biggest tamale I have ever eaten. Feral. A customs form that asked if you had recently experienced nausea, vomiting or "decay", and another border that was wide open...friends, dear friends and lovely students saved in a time capsule that can never be reopened, eggs frying on the sidewalk in Phoenix, running down the splintery path to the Atlantic coast, bike rides, bike rides in southern Georgia to dark little bars with friendly people, a no brakes or gears bike ride through farms and jungles to a mineral water swimming hole on a little island comprised of two volcanoes in the middle of the biggest lake in Central America. Singing at Holly. A river that separated two countries. Revolutionaries. Sonoran hot dogs. Tarantulas. Soccer games. Descending a thousand feet in less that five minutes on a burned up active volcano, flying, running, arms outstretched, feeling like no one could ever reel me in again. Dropping off two pet birds at the vet and only returning with one. Bayous. Friendship bracelets that finally broke off. Crocodiles. Microbrews. Toña beer. A beautiful, wrap around screened in porch with wicker furniture. Staring down the smoking hole of an active volcano. Handing over a huge bag of toiletries to a priest. Plantains. Sunburns. Bug bites. Coconuts. Scabs. Cars. Bikes. Air planes. Boats. Kayaks. Hiking boots.

I had a dream on July 1st that it was July 27th, my day of return to work. I remember thinking in the dream, "this summer has gone really fast".

This summer has gone really fast.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Things became blurry after that. We shopped, ate, hung out and raged a bit. Tijuana seemed different, calmer. I did not see one ski mask wearing soldier or cop in the entire city, let alone military checkpoints or patrolling trucks of men with automatic weapons. It actually felt pretty casual going out drinking, walking around. One memory stands out of the additional three days we passed in Tijuana: Standing on the beach in Rosarito at sunset with Hector and my sister, eating coconuts. It was beautiful.

After five days in Tijuana, we finally headed out. It was difficult to leave. We headed east, through Tecate, the Rumorosa, Mexicali, through the small border towns and down to Puerto Peñasco, spending the night in the same hotel where Alec and I spent a weekend over a year ago. We left the next morning, the stifling Sonoran heat shocking us after the breezy, Tijuana temperatures. We headed southeast, toward some small Sonoran towns that interested us, intending to loop back up to Nogales to re-enter the United States. Until we ran into a customs checkpoint. In the middle of Sonora. Miles from the border. It was odd.

“Do you have the car’s registration?” the agent asked in Spanish, without ever asking for ID, anything to declare, where we were headed or even if we understood him. “No,” I answered, “our tag is current. We have ID and insurance cards….”. “Pull over to Secondary Inspection” he ordered. I have never been asked for the my car’s registration in Mexico, not by Mexican or American Secondary Inspection agents, or the Mexican military in checkpoints in Baja California and Sonora, or in customs on the Sonora / Baja California line. We sat and waited. Finally, he came. “You have to have the car’s registration. Whose car is this?”. “Her husband’s” I answered, referring to my sister. “Does she have her marriage license?” he asked. “Of course not” I answered. “Does she have his ID?”. “No” I answered. He randomly started opening our bags, without even advising us. “How much money do each of you have on you?” he asked. Great. “I have one dollar” I answered, opening my wallet for him to see. “You don’t travel with money!?” he responded. “I need to got to the bank”. I didn’t even mention that an ATM in Tijuana had eaten my bankcard and that money was a little problematic for me at the moment. “You have to go back to Sonoyta and cross back to the American side,” he said brusquely, “if you continue to Caborca, your car will be impounded”.

So, that ended our Mexico experience for summer. Ejected. Kicked out. Of Mexico. Mi querido México. A-hole. After such a nice visit. We back tracked to Sonoyta and ate our last meal and passed our sand covered car, stacked high with shit that we’ve acquired, through the border without even a wait and only a flash of our passports. No Secondary Inspection. It was a miracle.

On the bright side, I thought, I have always wanted to visit Organ Pipe. I love cactus, especially the huge, barrel-like Saguaro cactus that they have in Arizona. It seemed that we were the only car on the road, except for a few million south bound Border Patrol trucks. I pulled off the road to take a couple of pictures. Another migra wagon pulled by, skidded, and made an abrupt U-turn. I pulled out into street as I watched him race back up to us in my rear-view mirror. He was directly on my bumper, but wasn’t indicating in anyway that I was supposed to pull over. What the fuck? Seriously. I kept driving, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. I started slowing for an upcoming Border Patrol checkpoint. The young agent was pretty conversational. I really didn’t feel like chatting, but did what you are supposed to do to avoid confrontation with men in authority with uniforms and guns. “Did you pull off of the road back there?” he finally asked. “Yeah,” I answered, “it’s a national monument. I wanted to take some pictures”. “An agent called it in” he answered. “No kidding,” I responded “he nearly ran me off the road”, “There’s a lot of smuggling in this area” he retorted. “Well, I hope they do a better job than I did” I responded. He let us go. I was irritated. How many confrontations can you have with The Man in one day?

And we raged toward Phoenix. It was only 118 degrees.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Day Two

"Okay, it looks like the first thing on the room service menu is lube" Holly commented. I looked at the Spanish menu. "Yeah, they list condoms too. And they really seem to highlight which channels are 'adult' as opposed to say, CNN, like a normal hotel" I answered. We swung open our garage door and walked up to OXXO for coffee. As we came back in, we noticed a pretty hot woman with a very small dress on, really high heels and a lot of makeup for ten o'clock in the morning. The ladies with the headsets that ran the place were shepherding her through a nondescript door. We went about our business.

"You are in a total hooker hotel!" my former exchange partner cried as we walked to a bar to watch the Mexico - U.S. game. "It's so cheap because people only stay four hours! Are there a lot of adult channels and a pretty good sound system?", "Well, yeah now that you mention it....", "They didn't give you a key because nobody needs a key! They do what they're going to do and then they leave! If a hotel is called a 'motel' in Mexico, that's what it's for. You should get out of there" he informed us. You learn something new everyday.

We raced over to the east side of town to my old neighborhood to climb the hill to Hector's house for dinner. I was running late and tore across town and up the potholed dirt hill, until the car slowed down, sputtered and stopped. Hmmm, gas really helps these things run. I was horrified. Late, and now out of gas. Rude asshole American. Hector and his friend jumped out of the car and inserted a tube in Hector's gas tank. His friend took a "bien bonito trago" of gas in his mouth and spit it out in an attempt to siphon gas into a jug for my car. The tube wasn't long enough. They stood in the dark on a dusty hill above Tijuana, rosaries gleaming on their necks while I backed my car down the hill and to the side of the potted dirt road and jumped in their car to go back to town for gas. Hector's friend played loud, American gangster rap as we bumped along the road. People burned garbage in the street in front of the mix of shanties and modest homes that make up Hector's make-shift neighborhood. Finally, we had the gas and climbed the hill again, using a modified plastic bottle as a spout to insert the gas in Holly's car. It wouldn't start. "La bomba," Hector's friend commented, "está vacia". He directed me to roll the car backwards down the hill until I was on flatter ground. It took a while. The car finally started. We roared up the hill and arrived at the dinner party, now two hours late, while Roberto and his wife and Josefina and my sister, who does not speak Spanish, patiently waited. Rude asshole American. I was mortified.

We talked until late in the night. I was tired, and my Spanish powers of comprehension started to fail me the later it got, as wild barrages of words flew out of my friends' mouths. It had been a long day. A trip to Playas, game watching in Zona Río, a race back to east Tijuana and a long dinner party. We headed back to our hooker hotel. The place was hopping. Cars pulled in and out and the headset ladies scurried from room to room, many pushing cleaning carts in order to ready the rooms for the next four hours. We pulled in. "We're in 110" I told the woman with the headset. "Your room has been turned over," she informed us, with a smile, "you have to pay". "No," I answered "we paid this morning". "On the weekends the rate is only for five hours," she informed me "do you want to take your room for five more?". "No," I answered, "just tell me how we can get our stuff". We quickly cleared out and drove toward the centro. It was late, pushing two in the morning. We wheeled into a high end hotel, one with a front desk, keys and wifi in the rooms. No lube, no adult channels.

We paid the insanely exorbitant rate and slept as if in a tomb.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


It was late. It felt oddly surreal and strangely good to be driving the streets of Tijuana again. Familiar. As if this past year didn't wipe the whole experience away, snatch it from my grasping fingertips. I was back.

I'm not so good at planning. I've frankly gotten really bad about it when it comes to traveling and just figure everything will be fine as long as I have my passport and multiple means of accessing money. We drove past the university where the graduation would be held, hoping to find a place to stay nearby. It was the same dusty university I had visited long ago as a guest with the other English teachers from my TJ school. There is nowhere to stay out there.

I drove through my old neighborhood, avoiding the few hooker-ish hotels that exist over there. Alec's words came into my mind...."There's this place, the blue and white used to pass by there, you know, after it goes down that huge hill toward Otay. It's like a fortress, it has walls around it, Holly's car would be safe there. I think it's for some kind of Japanese CEOs that come to visit the maquiladoras". Well I was hard up, and I followed his directions to the walled place that actually looked freakishly nice, for only 300 pesos? I pulled in. A guard rail stopped incoming cars. Wow, security, nice! Oddly, a woman sat in a glass box and rolled out a drawer, like in gas stations in bad parts of town. It seemed out of place in the beautifully manicured hotel. "Do you have room for two people.....," I asked in Spanish "is this a hotel?" I continued, while eyeballing the garages under each room. Maybe they were condos? "You can speak in English" the woman responded curtly. "We have room. Three hundred pesos". I put the money in the drawer. She stared back at me. "Do we get a key?" I asked. "It's open" she responded.

We drove past the dark condo-room things, were we the only people staying there? One garage door was open and we drove in, closing it behind us. We went upstairs. The room was huge and decorated in a modern, yet kind of Stanley Kubrick style. The bathroom looked expensive and crazy modern, something you would see in some expensive hotel in the centro. A little door in the wall opened so that food and expensive bottles of liquor, wine and champagne could be inserted through the wall in your room without having to let a room service person in. It had a flat screen TV, air conditioning, cable and a giant king sized bed. In short, it was awesome. But in Otay? Why in Otay? In the middle of the factories? This place really didn't look like a business hotel and the one thing it lacked was a decent wifi connection. Something odd and kind of hooker-ish was afoot, but oh well.

We left early the next morning after paying for another night and closing our garage door behind us, racing to the ceremony that began at 7:30AM. I was tired. I slightly questioned the wisdom of voluntarily attending what could be five hours of graduation ceremonies. As I drove through the parking lot, I saw my old students walking with their caps and gowns. A sense of deja vu washed over me. Thankfully, they were late too. I immediately saw Hector and felt completely at ease. We rushed into the auditorium and stood in the back, as familiar and surprised faces of my former fellow teachers passed and greeted me with hugs and kisses.

Suddenly, the vice principal was at my side, grabbing my arm and ushering me to the front. Oh, no, oh no. My sister was abandoned to Hector's care and I did not know what was in store for me. Please don't make me speak to the crowd, please don't make me speak to the crowd. As I moved to the front, I again felt a sense of deja vu, remembering the many times I was ushered to the front of assemblies and events, a trophy for my school. I was being swept up again, as if I had never left. It felt so familiar, and embarrassing all over again. I was seated in the front row and the superintendent and my former principal began assailing me and the crowd with praise, praise for my year in Tijuana, gratefulness for my return and declarations of mutual love between me and my former students. When my kids spontaneously rose and cheered emphatically, smiling and waving at me, I suddenly realized I was going to cry. It has been a long year, and I forgot how good it felt to be appreciated, for whatever reason.

I stayed for all of the ceremonies. My face hurt from smiling so hard. I had lipstick smeared on my face from hugging and kissing so many people...Hector, Roberto, my exchange partner, Josefina...all the familiar faces from that year that went so fast. The second ceremony of the day was for the formerly dreaded Electronics students, my bobcats, the kids that gave me a run for my money when I arrived in TJ and grew to be some of my favorite students. I was horrified when I was ushered up on the stage next to the principal, superintendent, valedictorian....the police chief. This was not supposed to be my day, it was a day to recognize the kids. As the students filed up to receive their diplomas, shaking each hand at the table, I was eternally grateful for my placement. It was just so good to see their faces, to be able to congratulate them individually, to grasp their hands, one by one, to not skip a single person.

As the third ceremony began, I watched a dad walk slowly into the room, carrying a congratulatory plaque that many parents were giving their children. He wore Dickies pants and a baseball hat, his skin dark from the sun. He glanced furtively around the room and went outside, only to return with a balloon to accompany his plaque. He sat down for a minute, looking at the flowers the woman beside him carried. He went back outside, returning with a bouquet of red roses. I was again introduced to the crowd an met with surprised cheers from my kids who again jumped to their feet. After the ceremony, I chatted and snapped pictures with the kids. I realized this was the true end to my Tijuana teaching experience. It was the last time the students would all be in one place at one time. I would not be at another graduation ceremony, I wouldn't even know the students. Mine were leaving, finishing and embarking on the next stage in their lives. What I thought was the end last year really wasn't, this was.

The man in the Dickies pants wandered around, flowers, plaque and balloon in hand. Finally, his daughter spotted him. She burst into tears. He smiled and quickly whisked away a tear of his own.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Go West

I woke up bright and early and loaded my stuff into the car. My trusty ’97 Mazda was maintenanced and ready for its triumphant return to Tijuana. I picked up my sister and drove toward the highway.

Two hours later, we were sitting in a transmission shop in Alabama. “Anywhere from $500 to $1900?” I heard myself reiterating to the mechanic. “The parts won’t be in until Monday…..?” It was Friday afternoon. I got drunk while waiting for someone to pick us up and stared dismally out of the window as we road back to Atlanta.

Saturday morning, I was awake again, put the same clothes on that I had worn the day before and pretended like it was Friday. I got in my sister’s car and we headed west.

A day and a half later, we started seeing Border Patrol check points as we headed west, then south, south south. We entered Brownsville. Agents had a man surrounded on the side of the road, his trunk open. Strange, shanty like houses lined the border. “Does someone live in there……?” I asked and stopped, as I saw a man walking out of a pieced together home. The border wall cut through their backyards. A dusty expanse on the other side was Mexico, mi querido México.

We drove west. The border wall stayed on our left as we passed through vacant, blighted towns. Shanties were mixed indiscriminately with larger homes, some that looked older, oddly historic and strangely reminiscent of homes I had seen in Chihuahua, Chihuahua city, on the other side….something that continued but had been interrupted by a large rusty wall.

We stopped in Eagle Pass for the night. We passed through the empty downtown that would be charming if someone, anyone, actually opened something up in the empty storefronts. We drove by the river, or what we could see of it through the border wall. Suddenly, there was a space, a huge space; a large gate that was part of the border wall was wide open. We stared through. Across the narrow expanse of Río Grande, Mexico sat. Kids swam in the river with a couple of adults. It was tranquil and strangely homey and lovely in the late afternoon sun. And then the Border Patrol pulled up, tearing down the dirt road and stopping, staring at the Mexican side. The kids got out of the water. We left too.

As we careened through El Paso a day and multiple border patrol check points later, I saw the signs pointing to Mexico, to Juárez, and suddenly realized I was in the line TO Juárez and no one was letting me out and I shoved my way into traffic and out of the line, determined, bound and determined, not to go there.

We drove by the wall separating El Paso from Juárez. Was it caging Mexico out, or caging it in? Tidy houses mixed with shanties lined the dusty Mexican side. Some roads were paved, some were not. Water ran through the street. White people played golf on the American side. A massive crowd of people waited in line over a long bridge that went over the highway, a line that extended from the gate to the United States and into Mexico for as far as the eye could see.

We drove west, through the desert of New Mexico flanked by Border Patrol trucks and on to Arizona. We stood, gazing through the border wall on a dusty road west of Douglas in a desert so familiar to both of us, when a racing truck with a plum of dust behind it tore up. I snapped a picture of it, then continued doing what I was already doing, basically looking around. For once, I actually wasn’t doing anything wrong. “Hey… ,“ the Border Patrol agent said tentatively through his open window, “…um, just uh, taking some pictures? We have cameras. Someone called us in on you.”

We headed toward Nogales. Wildfires got in our way and clouded the air above the desert, reminding me of a summer long ago when a helicopter picked a sick man up and flew him into the sky while the fire glowed like lava from the hills. Nogales looked different in the daytime, much different than the nervous couple of evenings I spent there one time, one strange time while fireworks exploded in the sky and things scurried in the night. The border wall cut straight through the town, dusty houses butted up against it on the American side and brightly painted houses squeezed against the Mexican side.

As we passed through the Imperial dunes, my Arizona memories were replaced by California ones. I remembered the moonlit night I had spent a year ago, driving through the glowing dunes after finishing my last day of school in Tijuana, crying and singing in a strange delirium of emotions and separation. We came to Holtville and stood in the odd part of the cemetery, way in the back, where only “John Doe” bricks mark the graves. Signs warned of stepping on the ground, that it would cave in. By the graves. People say the bodies, the migrants, are not buried in caskets in their pauper graves. Flies swarmed and one bit me hard on the face, leaving it itching for days. A migrant-friendly group had put crosses up, wooden crosses, each painted carefully with “No olvidado” across the front. They were inserted by the bricks.

We looped around the familiar country roads heading south. Finally, we came over a hill and Mexico exposed itself before us, a sea of twinkling lights in all directions. After days of avoiding the lanes that point straight toward Mexico, I drove straight in.

Oh, Mexico. How I’ve missed you.