Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Dream Keeper

 I lay on the massage table in the dimly lit room.
"Okay, clear your mind and focus on your breathing." the massage-lady instructed.
I immediately imagined Lola delicately arching her back in the original downward facing dog, then settling on the table for her massage.  My mind flashed to her sitting in a comfortable chair, her feet soaking in hot sudsy water. 
"That's it! You found your happy place!" the massage-lady stated.

"Trayvon's mother is here, she wants to see you." another teacher informed me.  Shit.  I had emailed her earlier in the day about her ass-slapping son's latest antics.  I had a feeling I was the one in trouble.
I walked into the office.  The administrator raised his eyebrows at me and left the room, leaving us alone.
"Hi, I'm Hilary.  I know we have spoken on the phone, but it is nice to meet you in person."  I shook her hand.

"I read your email and came down here right away.  I was already on the bus line on my way to school, but I decided not to go to class.  This is more important.  He is my son.  He has enough time to play and he plays enough.  I watched him when I got here and he didn't know it.  School is not playtime.  He will be in middle school next year.  This has to end.  He has to understand how to be in school."

"I have spoken to him about responsibility.  I am changing careers and I go to school all day.  When I get home, I take care of him and his brothers and sisters.  When they go to bed, I stay awake and do school work.  He has to learn to do this."

My mind flashed to the late seventies.  My mother was in school all day and raising the three of us on her own.  We were also on public assistance.  But I never really related to Trayvon or felt a like-mindedness or parallel experience. Was it racial?  Did I think my white mother with her three white kids on welfare while she went to college was somehow better?  Did I think that what Trayvon's family was doing was some kind of far fetched day dream while what my family did was realistic and practical in some way?

"I am studying to be a chef and Spanish food is my specialty.  I've told him that learning Spanish is important, that there are jobs that I could have gotten if I was bilingual.  I've told him that I might move them to Spain to learn more about cooking.  I want him to realize this is important."

I thought about what she said.  My immediate reaction was that it was a far-fetched goal.  A second later, I realized that she was not a daydreamer, but a guardian of dreams.  She had not looked at her situation and become bitter and angry.  She was still approaching life in the way a prosperous young college student with the world at their fingertips might.

I think it is a gift.

Normally when I have to speak to parents, I really have no idea what I am doing and just throw stuff out there.  I admit it.  But she wasn't blaming me and I wasn't blaming her.  I wasn't a bad teacher and she wasn't a bad parent.  We had to work together in order to help Trayvon.  We came up with a plan.

"So, we are going to try this.  If it doesn't work, we'll come up with something else.  But we are going to get him on board."

I actually really meant it.  I am committed.  I will continue to work with this child and his mother because it is important.  And I will work hard.  We have a partnership.  I will not view Trayvon as an annoyance in my day.  He is a human being that is very much at risk and I will work to help him get the basic skills that he needs to make it through school. 

I looked at "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" book that I had bought Oliver.  It was a Spanish translation.  I bought it for him because I heard that it was his favorite.  I told myself not to get to excited about giving it to him.  He is different minute to minute, sometimes giggling and hugging, only to stare past you a second later and not even notice your presence.  There is a reason why they call kids with his condition 'the child that won't love you back'. 
"Come here, Oliver, I have something for you."
He got up dutifully and walked with me to where my bag of tricks was.  He had his 'no giggle' face on.  As I bent over to retrieve the book, he caught a glimpse of the cover before I reached in.
"THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR!"  he called, grabbing the book from my bag and clutching it to his chest.  He immediately began flipping through it.
"Say 'thank you', Oliver, say 'thank you'"  Marsha instructed him.
"Thank you!" he said staring at the book.
"No, say it to her!  Who gave you this?"
"Wagner, Spanish teacher, thank you!" he said, staring at the book.

If you have never read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", it is a story about a little egg lying on a leaf under the moon that later hatches a small caterpillar when the sun gazes upon it.  The caterpillar eats and eats throughout the book and submerges into a dark cocoon, only to dig himself out after a couple of weeks.

When you open the last two pages, a huge and colorful butterfly covers both of them. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Everybody is a Star

I stood in front of the class, emphatically explaining the oral assessment they would be doing and then unleashed them to practice for a few minutes before we began.  As I turned toward the computer, I felt a hand touch mine tentatively.  I turned to see Oliver standing beside me.
"I need help." he said.
A full sentence.  He had gotten out of his seat to ask me.  This was a first.
"I'll help you, Oliver.  Let's go to your seat."

I wandered the room, checking work.  Bailey sneakily handed me a birthday card he had made himself.
"Sorry it's late..." he whispered.
I hugged him.  A side hug so as not to embarrass him. 
"Oh Bailey, I don't know what I am going to do without you next year when you go to middle school."
He smiled clandestinely.
"And," I thought, "if anyone fucks with you, if anyone says one word that you are 'really' a girl and not a boy,  you just let me know. I will fuck them up."

"Do you want to see a picture of the baby?"  Alejandro asked me, smiling.
He goes by Alex, anglicizing his name for American classroom use.  We speak exclusively in Spanish.  Before the Christmas break when all of the kids were bringing in costly gift cards and treats, he gave me two Icebreakers because he saw that I eat them all of the time and a handmade card.
"Okay," he said, smiling, "but it is from when he was in the hospital, so he has tubes in him."

I saw Oliver's head tilt and his eyes wander.
"You are looking at my hair."
"Do you want to touch it?"
He petted the red streak softly and then rotated to the back, skimming the trimmed edges like a hairdresser checking his latest cut.  And then we continued working.

My mind's eye wandered and "Stand" by Sly and the Family Stone filled my ears.  I imagined Oliver standing behind a seated woman in a hairdresser's chair, working wonders like Edward Scissorhands while the client smiled happily, handing him stacks of money.

He ripped the cape off and checked his cut, got his giggle out and motioned for the next client from the line. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cowboy Boots for Haiti

I woke up on my birthday with Lola cuddled next to me.  I could see through the window that it was gray and windy.  I held her closer and went back to sleep.

I saw Oliver in the hallway and greeted him.  His hand was slightly outstretched and I shook it. He smiled.
"How are you?"  I asked.
"GOOD." he responded.
"Do you know who that is?"  I heard his paraprofessional question as I walked away. 
"Spanish teacher.  Wagner." he answered in his oddly flat yet emphatic way.  I was thrilled.  He said my name. 

I felt pretty frumpy.  I was wearing ugly clothes, my hair looked bad, it was just not my day.  One of my students came up and hugged me.
"You smell good." he informed me.
"Really?  I was feeling really raggedy today, thank you."

The day crept ahead as Lola and I laid in bed.  'Get up' I told myself, 'you took the day off for a reason, it's your birthday'.  But I just couldn't.

I ran into Oliver again in the hallway.  He grabbed my hand and shook it, emphatically asking me "How are you?  How are you?"  over and over again, a huge smile on his face.

I walked by a kid I didn't know in my ugly clothes. 
"I like your sweater and that shirt you are wearing." she called to me.
"Ohhh, thank you!"
"I like that red streak in your hair too."
They have no idea how much these little comments mean. 

I was leaving class as I passed Oliver and his paraprofessional in the hallway.
"Have you gotten your giggle out?"  she asked.
He squared his shoulders and put a serious face on.  But his mouth started to twitch and he broke into giggles.
We laughed too, it was impossible not to.
"Okay, is your giggle out?"
Again Oliver burst into the cutest and most genuine laughter ever.  He shook his head and his eyes watered and I couldn't stop laughing either.  It just felt so good.
A large group of school visitors walked by us.
We turned Oliver toward us and all laughed, as if someone had told an amazing joke.

"So...." Jonas began, "I have a Valentine...." he whispered, motioning that it was from him to me.
"Wow really?"
"But the question is.....," his voice lowered further "do you have one for me?"  he pressed his forehead to mine and stared at me.

I walked through the hallway and passed Oliver again.
"How are you?"  he asked emphatically.
"Good!"  I answered.
He raised his arms in a hugging gesture and I hugged him.

I couldn't believe it. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Dog Days of Winter

"Did you have a good weekend?"  I asked Amy, a newer member of the unusual group of kids that like to hang out and talk with me while I'm on hallway duty in the mornings.  I actually don't think they like to talk 'with' me, more that I listen to them.  Which is fine.
"I went to see 'Selma'".
"Oh.  I hear it's good but...."
"Sad.  Really sad."
She went into a detailed explanation of every violent scene in the movie.  I could tell she was honestly distressed by it and that the concept of racially induced discrimination and violence was relatively foreign to her.  Which is actually a good thing. 
"They used the 'n' word'!" she stated suddenly, with an oddly fake and exaggerated pose.  She crossed her arms and pouted.   She started speaking in baby talk.
"The 'n' word is bad!"

"She filled up three rooms of the funeral home, it was amazing."
"Really?  That's awesome."
"But the casket was open...."
I was surprised.  I had just assumed she had shot herself, I don't know, as my family tradition seems to dictate.   
"The makeup was weird....she may have hung herself."

"I think gay people should be able to get married."  Amy continued the next day.
"Well, the Supreme Court might make that possible in all of the states, Amy, it is very exciting."
"I know gay people.  My hairdresser is gay and a friend of my mom's is."
I thought of all the other gay people she knew right there at school that she didn't even realize were gay.  Which again, is a good thing.  Why should it matter who her teachers fuck?
"My mom says we are even going to get a female president next time!"
"Yep, maybe, Amy."
"She said the wife of a man that was president a really long time ago will be our next president."
I racked my brain.  A really long time ago?  Like William Harding times or something?
"Oh my God, do you mean Hillary Clinton?!"
"Yeah!  That's her name!"

"Michael is at it again," my sister continued.
"What do you mean......?"
My stepfather.  Hospitalized on my mother's seventieth birthday last April.   Fatty liver disease, sclerosis.   Had a broken ankle and shoulder for who knows how long and he didn't even know it, the result of drunken falls.  Had to have half of his non-broken foot cut off because of diabetes related gangrene.  Was in the hospital for months and we didn't think he would make it out of there.  The doctors said he wouldn't.  But he did.  Because the insurance cut off, forcing my mother to become his in home nurse.  He also succeeded in destroying the family business and finances of the majority of my immediate family. 
"We were barely out of the house to drive to Michigan for the funeral when he called, bragging of taking mom's 'little car out'".
"Jesus Christ".
"He bought a bottle of rum, drank it and vomited all over the house.  Mom had to call his brother, they found him covered in piss and shit and vomit on the bed."

I smiled and waved at Bailey as he walked up the stairwell.  He smiled back; I could tell that he wanted to talk more but Amy was there.
"THAT is really a girl." Amy whispered after Bailey entered his classroom.
I looked at her closely.
"Bailey is whatever he wants to be.  Bailey is whatever he feels he is." I said lowly.
"Yeah....yeah she is...." Amy answered slowly, brain gears grinding. 

"Hilary, I didn't want to tell you this part.  The other cat is dead, again, like what happened before Christmas.  Michael let the dogs get her.  Mom found her on the porch in a liquor bag."

"Good morning, Amy." I called in greeting the next morning in the stairwell.  My eyes felt fuzzy.
"My dad took me to Revolution Donuts!" she responded, and entered into the tale of the morning.