Thursday, December 15, 2016

All My Friends are Heathens

I walked into the Housing Authority prepared with a week's worth of tutoring materials, eager to finish off the week before our break.  I was surprised.....and pleased, when one of the coordinators, really she is the caretaker of the Center, announced to the kids that we would be competing in a gingerbread house contest and that she had bought all of the supplies.

She spread out colorful, plastic tablecloths and each teacher took their group of students to a table.  We had to select a gingerbread kit.
I looked at the options and asked, "Which...", and the students yelled "TRAIN!" in unison before I could even finish the question.
I was relieved that the students picked the train kit instead of the nativity scene.  I liked the animals in the nativity scene but felt weird about the religious angle, especially because I felt I would be inflicting something on my Muslim students, which is basically all of them.

I have never made a gingerbread house before.  I thought we might have an edge because of my years working in bakeries, but quickly realized my skills would not be necessary.  I felt tense as I commanded the kids to allow me to sort the pieces of the train while they broke the pieces that were supposed to be separated and took turns reading the directions.  The directions sucked.  This thing was hard.

Working together, we actually built the fucking thing.  I started telling the students to take turns decorating, but they quickly took over and I backed off, watching our train become a glistening, bedazzled tribute to sugar.
"Miss Gibson is doing it for them!"  Mahmo called to me, pointing.
I watched the other teacher with her group.  Cheating asshole, she was definitely doing it for them.  For the fucking kindergartners of all people.
I gazed at my group proudly.  They were scaring the shit out of me when I would see seven hands simultaneously decorating a very fragile ginger-train, but the thing was looking great and they were doing it, not me.  I was surprised that Abshir, one of two males in my group, actually knew his way around a pastry bag and seemed to have an eye for decorating.

Paris sat off to the side.  She was pouting, but I knew why.  She had been shut out.  Early in the activity, our caretaker had really gotten in her face about trying to take over the activity from the teacher.  I am the teacher and it embarrassed me to have another adult feel like they had to advocate for me with my own students.  I have had problems with Paris in the past and yes, it was a power struggle.  She has been there five years and I had entered her turf.  But, we have turned a corner and I felt bad that she was getting in trouble by someone she loves based on old crimes. I appreciated that our caretaker wanted to help me and would never question her in front of students.  But it was off-base.  And I feel stupid being viewed as the helpless white woman.

Paris had participated in the early rounds of building the ginger-train, but as the kids got handsy-er and handsy-er during the decorating, she had gone against her normal instincts and stepped away, deflated by the take-down from our caretaker.

Some middle school age kids were roaming the Center, eyeballing the ginger-creations. They normally aren't around, we offer a K-5 program.  I have taught some of them, but they were too far in their adolescence to acknowledge me.  They lurked like vultures, but I have to admit that I felt proud when the kept pointing at ours whenever anyone asked whose was the best.

It was time for the judging.  A count down commenced and ended with "HANDS UP!"  My students stood around our creation, eyes wide and hands up.  It was cute and then uncomfortable to watch my children of color, which is all of them, with their hands up, though I was one of the people that had yelled the command.

I knew we were going to win.
"And the winner is......."
THE KINDERGARTNERS.
"We were robbed" I said and we all laughed, because it really didn't matter anyway.

"Okay kids, you can eat your houses!"  Mr. Kevin announced.
It was shocking how quickly it was gone, chunks of it in each of my students' hands, but the majority in the middle schoolers' hands that attacked our train.  Paris jumped up, eyes filling with tears, hands empty and ran to the other side of the room.

"Paris!!!!"  Mahmo screamed, his voice shrill and horrified, his hands extended with pieces of ginger train that he wanted to save for her.  I had never heard his voice sound like that before.  They aren't even friends.  Ladaan cluthed her ginger pieces to her chest.
"Give this to Paris." she commanded.

I took the pieces to Paris as she dug in her book bag, trying to hide that she was crying.
"I'm fine."  she said, whenever I tried to talk to her.
"Look Paris, I am leaving these cookies here on the table for you.  I know you are disappointed and I understand why.  I just want you to know that Macoow and Ladaan really wanted you to have some and they saved these for you."

I returned to my group as they happily ate their pieces.  I watched Paris walk slowly over and pick up the cookies off of the table and eat them.

"He's okay!" I heard Mr. Kevin call out across the Center.  A white man stood there, the kids had let him in through the locked front door but stared at Mr. Kevin for clarification.  My mind went to Dylan Roof and I scanned his body for firearms.  I pictured the long tables on their sides to serve as buffers against gunshots and knew that plastic would never protect the kids.  I don't know why that occurred to me, but I kept watching him until he left the room.

I stood in Paris' Spanish class at eight o'clock the next morning, ready to start my lesson at my full time gig.  She marched up to me, merry.
"Remember building those ginger bread houses?!"  she said excitedly, as if it had happened years ago instead of fifteen hours ago.
"That was so much fun!"
"Did you see when Miss Ethel tried to take our cookie?"
"I did, Paris, that was hilarious, but we put Ersheti on her and she couldn't get through...."
"Yeah, it was great....."




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Before the election, people kept saying that they would be "relieved" when it was over.  I wasn't sure I would feel that way, but I know now that relief is the last thing I feel.  Post-election has been even more stressful than the eighteen month lead up to the big day.

My school let us sign up for various Professional Learning opportunities.  I had originally wanted to do one on Autism, but it was full so I signed up for one about teaching children living in poverty.  I hoped to pick up some strategies that would help me at school but mainly, something to help me be a better tutor at the Housing Authority.

I drove south down the early morning highway.  My fellow participants from school had asked me to car pool with them, but I declined because they live close to our school and I would save a lot of time if I drove by myself from my house without meeting them.  The workshop was in a city about an hour south of Atlanta.  I felt pretty relaxed, drinking coffee and listening to NPR, expecting a tranquil day of being taught instead of actually teaching.

When I arrived, my three co-workers sat at a table, waving me over to the remaining seat.  I walked over and saw that the handouts weren't at the seat and went back to pick them up from a stack by the door.  I was apprehended by the teacher.
"Aren't there any handouts at your seat?"  she inquired, an edge to her voice.
"No"
"Where are you sitting?"
I pointed across the room.
"You should sit at another table."
"Can't I sit with my co-workers?"
"Well, you can sit there if you want to but don't get too comfortable, because YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO MOVE."  she said loudly.

I sat alone at a table.  Our assistant principal strolled in and sat at the remaining seat at my previous table, oblivious to the teacher.  She glanced at him and glanced away, unwilling to challenge his male-ness or administrative dress.

I felt stupid, secluded at my table. I worried my administrator thought that I had chosen that seat on my own, out of some sort of argument or weirdness.   I could hear my co-workers talking and laughing with him.  They were all grade level teachers.   I am a "Specials" teacher.  We are often treated as secondary, which I have gotten used to as part of the job.  By no fault of theirs, I felt increasingly isolated, alone at an empty table, while the rest of my co-workers sat together.  More people trickled in and a teacher from Monroe County finally sat at my table.  We opened our laptops to view the materials and the coordinator walked by, guiltily complimenting me in a high pitched voice on a picture of Lola on my desktop.  I smiled weakly.

"Let's go outside for our first activity!"  she announced merrily.
I wanted to go outside.  The town itself was attractive, one of those small Georgia towns with a Main Street and town square and antebellum houses with mysterious "garages" in the back of them.  Red and gold leaves laid on the ground.
"Line up on the white line!"  she instructed.
"Take one step forward if you grew up in a two parent household!"
The majority stepped forward.  I glanced furtively at the African-Americans, imploring them with my mind not to leave me behind.  They stepped forward, too.
"Step forward if your parents went to college."
"Step forward if your grandparents went to college."
"Step forward if you usually went on vacations out of state or out of country."
"Did you have after school activities, music lessons, go to camps?"

A massive gap was forming between me and the rest of the group.  My co-workers were nowhere to be seen.  I willed her to say something that would make me step forward, but I knew I would never catch up.  She hadn't even mentioned welfare checks, food stamps or free and reduced lunch.

"Step forward if fresh fruit and vegetables were served with most of your meals."

By the end, the majority of the group stood near the front and the rest spread through the middle.   After a large gap, an African-American man and I stood near the back of the parking lot, barely off of the white line.  He was far on the other side and wouldn't look at me.

"Look around!"  the instructor called.

I could only look forward,  squinting into the sun while the rest looked back at us.  One of my co-workers noticed me and a look of shock and pity crossed his face.

I immediately stared down, not raising my eyes from the pavement, knowing they were filling with tears.

I inadvertently shuffled my feet and dug my hands further into my pockets, while the rest of the group stared at us in the bright morning sun. 


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Make America Great Again

"My dad said Congress will stop Trump from sending us back to Somalia."  Fatima announced, breathless, after bounding up the steps Monday morning.
"How could people ever own black people?  How did they think that was okay?"  she was bouncing from subject to subject, continuing conversations that may have occurred months ago, randomly, at 7:30 in the morning.
"We are not going to let that happen, Fatima, we are simply not going to let Trump send anyone, anywhere."

I kept waking up in the middle of night.  Thinking of the election almost gave me Christmas like excitement, two more days, twenty-four more hours, twelve hours and we would know.  It would be settled.  I feared, like many, that Tuesday wouldn't settle anything and that Trump supporters would contest the election or do violent things at poll stations, or randomly attack minorities with their well known "anger".   I told everyone I knew that I wouldn't be convinced that Clinton was president until she was the president, it was just too important and scary to take anything for granted.  But I guess I believed she would win.  I realize now that I really thought a livable minimum wage was going to be a reality.  I didn't want to jinx it, but was counting on improvement of Obamacare and a Democrat leaning Congress that would actually allow her to govern, unlike the Republican Congress that made it a drinking game to obstruct anything Obama tried to do, whether they actually opposed it or not.   

I went to bed around two o'clock, Wednesday morning.  A few rust-belt states were undecided, yet I felt the obvious sense of doom that I had felt standing in a bar in Madrid in the middle of the night twelve years ago watching Ohio go to George W. Bush instead of John Kerry.  I slammed my eyes shut and hoped like hell for a hail Mary.  Early Wednesday morning, I heard Alec up and around, getting ready for work.  I squeezed my eyes shut, faking sleep, because I was afraid to ask who won.  Finally, I did.  I walked outside with Lola and the smell of wildfires filled the air to the point that I thought my own house was on fire. 

My initial feeling was a tremendous amount of sorrow.  Obamacare would be killed.  No increases to the minimum wage.  The executive actions would be reversed:  The Dream Act, Marriage Equality.  He would pick a Supreme Court judge that would tilt the balance on the Court and challenge Roe v. Wade.  Syria.  The refugees.  And, I felt humiliated.  Humiliated that Hillary Clinton had had to stand on a stage with him, over and over again while he demonstrated his idiocy.  That she had to put up with it, more than likely the most qualified person to ever run for president, stand there with a straight face while he was rude, lying, unqualified, performing a side show that would make some carny snake-oil salesman proud.  And she had to put up with it, pretend like they were in some ways equals, that he was a legitimate candidate instead of telling him like it really was.  And, he won.  There was no reward for her, for us, he won.  Not just any man beat what could have been the first American female president, but a pussy-grabbing misogynist.  All of his positions were validated, his behavior approved by millions of Americans.

I sat at my kitchen table, grading papers.  Report cards were due the ninth, but I could barely focus.  More sorrow.  The Obama family.  Eight years ago, I actually thought the United States was turning a corner, that electing a black president was a sign of progress.  Of course I didn't think racism was gone, but I thought we were progressing.  I quickly realized how wrong I was when I read about my Representative, John Lewis, being called a "nigger" on the steps on the Capitol while I was sitting in my cold apartment in Tijuana.  Fine, I was naive, but believe me, I recovered.  I saw full and well that the election of a black president did not indicate racial progress in the U.S. but instead inflamed every bigot up in this bitch to get really fucking crazy.  I knew that part of Trump's "victory" was indicative of the whitelash.  But for me, Obama had felt like hope.  Not only because of his policies, but for his presence.  And I felt something that sorrow doesn't even describe accurately when thinking of the Obama family leaving the White House, while Trump's repugnant crew moved in, sent by the will of millions of Americans. 

I went to the Housing Authority to tutor, feeling that sense of enemies among us, that every person I saw might be either a supporter of Trump or willing to give him a pass for being a bigot, which is just as bad in my opinion.  I thought of applying for jobs in Mexico, that I needed to get out of this society of which I shared no common values.  I found myself thinking over and over again of the rust belt, of the white people that had lost manufacturing jobs and had switched over from Democrats to vote for Trump.  And I felt angry, really angry.  Some call them working class, some call them uneducated, I don't really care which is more applicable.  Clearly, I am aware that something must be done to help them, and I believe they voted against the people that could have helped them, whether it was by not noticing Bernie Sanders or not voting for Hillary Clinton.  But what they did is the epitome of white entitlement.  A multitude of ethnicities and races have been marginalized for generations.  But, Jesus Christ, white people experience a few bad years and watch out, they will make everyone pay.  They will burn this bitch down.  Because THEIR problems are the priority.  Who cares that Trump proposes brute force action on Muslims, on Mexicans, on African-Americans, on women.  Fuck that, their needs are more important than anything else.  And I will laugh, yes I will laugh, when they are still sitting next to an empty coalmine, jobless, four years from now when the bigot they gave a pass to does nothing for them.  Let them stew in their famous "anger". 

I basically was called an education elitist for making angry comments about the uneducated, white men that helped swing the election for Trump.  Yeah, I got some shit.  Call it uneducated, but yes, you are under educated if you expect to get decent pay without any other training except a high school diploma.  It's not great, but it is reality.  Yeah, I am actually against free trade and don't agree with sending factories somewhere else, mainly because they exploit the people and environments where they re-locate, all while pocketing the savings on manpower and environmental regulations, making the 1% richer and richer.   But other jobs don't need to come back.  I don't want your filthy coal and think it is time to take advantage of some re-training instead of voting for Trump and pointing at minorities as the source of your problems while hoping the mine re-opens.  And....you're going to vote Republican because you want the government to save you?  I thought Republicans liked small government, the pick yourself up by the bootstrap kind of stuff and no "handouts".  Vote for Clinton or Sanders, they may have actually done something for you, but please mark the coalmine off your list. 

I awoke Thursday, having that brief sense of not remembering, then feeling the wet blanket fall over me again.  The air stilled smelled of fire and now there was visible smoke clouding my view.  I taught four classes, my anger and impatience barely in-check.  I was surprised I still felt horrible and preoccupied Friday morning.
"It's like a hangover, like an ongoing nightmare...."  I told a friend at work.
"It's mourning." she responded and she was right.  It feels like mourning.
I regretted saying anything on line about the "uneducated", mainly because I abhor being misconstrued and I thought anyone who knows me would know that I am not an education elitist, let alone unknowledgeable about the struggles of the Rust Belt.  I was especially angry at a "friend" that told me that she blamed "all white people" for what happened, unless they had been actively working against white supremacy their whole lives and that it was unfortunate that we blamed "poor white people".  That she found it laughable that "liberal white people" were ringing their hands and "shocked" because they didn't know "racism exists". Obviously I am not "shocked" that racism exists, I am completely dismayed at this show of force.  Would it be better if I wasn't?  I am saddened because yes, the numbers ARE bigger than I thought of people that either support Trump's ideas or are willing to give it a pass.  But, I did think we were friends and this person used to call me by my name, not "white people" with some assigned textbook definition from the junior activist collection of flyers.  I was mad by the push back and wondered why were fighting each other instead of the giant Cheeto in the room that I felt we should be directing our energy toward.

I started seeing things return to semi-normalcy.  Newspaper articles started appearing that had nothing to do with American politics.  Friends started putting up pictures of their kids' soccer games instead of large reflections on Tuesday's election.  People talking about Football.  And I felt pissed off all over again.
"What are you doing?????"  I thought.
"Did none of this mean anything to you????  THIS SHIT IS NOT OVER!!!!"
It reminded me of September 11th.   The days of doom, the heavy horrible feel, the fear and mourning and the profaneness of a return to normal life.

By Saturday, the fog began to clear in my mind.  I slept almost eleven hours Friday night and found myself mentally preparing an action plan against Trump's proposals.  Make America Great Again.  Like when, the fifties?  You know, when black people "knew their place", women wore aprons and Japanese were barely out of internment camps?  When white American was the definition of "America"?

Fuck that. Really, fuck that. 


Saturday, November 5, 2016

This is Halloween

"Whoa!  Step back a minute!  Don't get in people face!"  I read the reflection on bad behavior from a fourth grader.  He was deciding how to make better decisions.  I think he was totally on to something and wanted to make a copy, but all of the copiers are always all jacked up at school.  I could elaborate on that but need to keep making a semi-living. 

Halloween sucked.  It is my favorite holiday of the year and I didn't even put on a costume.  I spent the evening with the back gate bungee cord-shut and lights out on the front porch.  Alec, Lola and I quarantined ourselves near the back of the house with all of the doors shut so no one could see that we were home.  Much of this has to do with family strife and I would just like to raise one giant middle finger to that and for getting the blame for it. 

I did carve two pumpkins.  They are marvelous, but are now covered in black mold due to the eighty degree, late October temperatures that climate change HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH.

I spent Saturday morning looking at plane tickets to Chernobyl, to Kathmandu, to Lesvos, to Hanoi, to basically anywhere, whether I have been there before or not.

I am in my eleventh year of public teaching.  I have taught through several elections and the students always ask who I am going to vote for.  I demure, imploring them to make their own decisions.  I am an unabashed Liberal, though I endured growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta.  I remember a mock election when I was the only vote for Dukakis in my whole homeroom.  I already hated them, but felt even more like the odd one out when the results came out and I was openly ridiculed, they knew it was me.  I don't want to do that to some kid.  They should believe what they want, or I guess what their parents parrot to them. 

This election has been different.  My Somali kids have asked me if I think Donald Trump will win and they will be deported, though the were born in the United States.  My African-American kids tell me that he will re-segregate the United States and make them slaves.  They ask me what I think of him.  I can't have them think I support those ideas.  I just can't. 

I feel angry at the little white girl that asks me why we can't just say "all lives matter" instead of "black lives matter".   I want to smack the girl that said that her dad said that "either candidate would be impeached within 100 days".  Why, I wanted to ask her, why?  Who would want that?  Hasn't this election been enough?  Can't people pull their heads out of their asses and follow the rule of law, the standards that have been established?  Why does this rich ass grumpy fucking dad want more instability?

I actually am not mad at the kids. Mantra:  not mad at the kids.  But it does disgust me to watch them parrot their parents and eventually, I will probably be living under the influence of the rich white kids I teach. 

My phone buzzed.  It was Emma. 
"Hey... what's up?"  I asked.
"I'm on your porch, are you guys home?"

I went to the front and opened the door.  Emma was dressed as Bobby Hill and her friend Caleb, who I taught when he was in 5th grade, was dressed as Hank.

"I just wanted to say hi, I mean, IT IS Halloween!" 




Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Princess and the Glass Hill

School started in early August.  Duh.  Each day I do my obligatory morning duty and make a pit stop in our office to pack up, before visiting multiple classrooms to teach Spanish.  Additional hours of instructional time have been added to my schedule meaning more students, more grading and less planning time.  I hear the guttural screams from some of our newer students and wonder if this is what I should be doing.

I don't have a car anymore.  Instead of paying another seven hundred dollars to fix the last round of problems, I sold it for three hundred and fifty and now use Alec's car.  The battery in it died early in the school year.  A hybrid battery, unlike a normal battery, costs about three thousand to replace.  In the interim of the crazy expensive repair, I had to Uber a bit to school and to the repair shop in Middle Earth Gwinnett.

"How old are you?" one driver asked.
"44"
"Do you want to go to the movies?"  he responded.
I looked out on the bleak, low-light landscape of super highway Gwinnett.  
"No, I'm partnered."
I was disturbed that my age was a factor in whether or not I went to the movies with him.   I also challenged myself to get out of the car as quickly as possible. 

Another Uber pulled up in front of the house around seven in the morning to take me to work.  Unlike the other cars from Uber, this guy's car had a smashed up windshield and we roared up to school taking the long way, rap blaring from the windows.  I stepped out, thanked and tipped him, while one of my favorite students ran up and introduced me to her Colombian dad.  I bet he liked my ride.

"Is 'dammit' a swear word?"  one of my students whispered.
"I guess technically, yes, it is....you know, one of the milder ones....."
"It's not so much different than 'screw you'" another student added, matter of factually.

I went to Target because I needed a new head for my toothbrush and a bra that didn't hurt.  I scoped out the bras and picked one and walked carefully to the dental care section.  As I walked through the store with a bra in my hand, I knew what would happen.  And it did.
"Maestra Wagner!"
"Hi!  Are  you shopping for Halloween?"
My student ran up to me, for a hug.  I gave her a left, side hug, hiding the bra in my right hand.  Her mother quickly approached, extending her right hand.  I quickly shifted the bra to my left hand, in order to shake her hand with my right.
"We love the school." the mom stated.
"I am so happy to hear that." I responded, and meant it. 

I started tutoring at a public housing authority, the projects, in late September.  It was a complex and competitive process to get the job and I am surprised they took me.   It is not altruistic, it pays pretty well.  I don't dread the eleven hour days like I thought I would, even though the kids totally buck me and no matter how I try, I feel like I am totally failing them.

My main 5th grade BFF, who was my former 4th grade BFF, spotted me in the complex, at "The Center" as they call it, and asked me what I was doing there.  She visits while I sit around during my morning and afternoon duty at school, which encompasses more than four hours of my work week. 
"I'm tutoring.  Some of my kids are a handful."  I answered.
"Do the bad ones wear one of these?" Fatima asked, tugging her hijab.
"No....."  I responded, feeling uncomfortable.  Most of my kids wore one of 'those', but they were not giving me trouble.  The American ones were. 
"Eh" she answered, jutting her chin upward.
"Are you the only white teacher there?"
It sounds stupid, but I didn't realize that she registered my race so much.
"Um, no, there is one other white lady there."  I had noticed the demographics of the teaching force, but hadn't realized that all of the kids were either Somali or African American, save for like one Iraqi and a Latino, until Fatima asked.
"I think they should mix it up.  It should be balanced.  Bye, I have to go!" she said with a smile and a side hug, and ran up the stairs to class.

So it goes.

Monday, September 12, 2016

September 11th
















"Where are you?"  I asked my sister, emphatically.
"We are running late, I'm stuck in traffic....almost there."
"Do you know what is happening?"  I asked slowly.
"What do you mean?" she responded.
"We.... we are being attacked.  Terrorists are attacking the United States.  They have already hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon....".
"Get here.  Get here fast.  I am afraid they are going to impose martial law.  They don't know if the attacks are finished....".
Images of blocked roads and military police filled my head.  My three year old niece was in the car with my sister. 

Alec and I spent the majority of the year 2000 traveling.  We started in Nepal, spent time in India, flew to Thailand, checked out the majority of Southeast Asia and ended our trip on an archipelago east of Flores in Indonesia, after passing through Malaysia and Singapore.  I was often asked "How was your trip?" and could never really muster an adequate answer.  I do remember mentioning once that I had been unaware that the whole world hated us.  Though it didn't define the trip, I noticed it and felt it, especially in Malaysia and in Java.  Sure, I knew that Americans aren't the most loved nationality around, but it was different experiencing it face to face when you are going out of your way to be as nice and polite as possible.

We stayed in New York a little while so that Alec could visit his family.  Shortly after our return to Atlanta, my mom offered me a secretarial job in early 2001.  I spent a lot of time reading the New York Times on the internet when I wasn't busy, which was a lot of the time.  On that pretty, clear-blue sky morning, I recall seeing a little sentence in the rolling news portion at the bottom of the Times' internet page.
"Plane hits World Trade Center"
I didn't even click the link.  I assumed it was some small plane that had basically bounced off of one of the formidable towers. Strange, a curiosity, but I had read that little planes had been known to hit the Empire State Building, too.

I kept working.  I don't remember how I heard about the second plane, but I do remember clustering with my mom in her office, hovering around the radio dialed to an AM station.  At the time, that seemed more up to date than the internet.  People were calling in, some from the actual towers.  There wasn't really a lot of reporting, but more a crowd-sourced telling of events from people on the ground or in contact with someone on the ground in New York.  Or better said, in the towers, high above New York City.

A women called, talking of her son that was trapped in one of the towers.  Somehow, his voice came on and he spoke of smoke and fire.  Caller after caller spoke through the radio.  As alarming as it was, I still somehow pictured a long day for those people and an eventual rescue.  Suddenly, things got very quiet.  The tower collapsed.

I looked at my mom and sputtered.
"But...but..they have to, they have to have evacuated those people....they have to have rescued them....., right?  They were always ugly buildings anyway...."
"Are those people we just heard dead?"
I thought of that woman, calling about her son.
"They need to get in those fighter planes and head the fuck to Afghanistan, NOW, because everyone knows who did this and they need to fucking pay."
I wanted it.  Right then and there, even while the smoke still filled the air.

My step-dad brought in a television and we hovered around it the rest of the day.  The phones didn't even ring.  Everyone had stopped everything.

Details trickled out that day and the following days and months, some that would hold a principal role in the memory of the events and some that would disappear.  How many more cities would be hit?  Every plane in the air could be a weapon.  Fighter jets threatened to shoot down commercial airliners that did not respond to radio contact.  Hospitals braced for the injured that would never come.  They all died.  People lined up to give blood that wasn't needed.  A plane crashed in Pennsylvania, what was its destination?  Where would the next plane hit?  Was it over, were the attacks over?  Crude box cutters became the worst weapon anyone could think of.  Tales of men that went to flying classes but never wanted to learn how to land the plane.  The horror of the jumpers, people faced with the decision to be burned alive or crushed, or to jump from one of the tallest buildings in the world.  The images of them and the apocalyptic sounds they made when they landed.  Our president was circling the country in the air, because it was not safe for him to land on U.S. soil.   There was talk of whether or not to rebuild, if they did rebuild would anyone rent office space on the tallest floors?  Should office workers in skyscrapers be equipped with parachutes?  American airspace was closed, indefinitely.  I looked at my passport and felt trapped, I couldn't leave even if I tried.  Much of the government was in an "undisclosed location".  The subsequent demands that everyone be vigilant and go back to work; Osama bin Laden wanted to destroy our economy and it wouldn't happen if we got back to work.  A fire like the core of the earth raged where the towers once were.  It would take months to put out. 

I finally went home and waited for Alec.  The restaurant he worked at had stayed open all day.  Neither of us used cell phones at the time and when he came in, I wanted to know what he knew.
"We listened on the radio.  They attacked the World Trade Center."
"Alec, the towers are gone....they collapsed."
A look of shock crossed his face.
"Have you considered calling your family?"

Two days later, we "celebrated" our fifth anniversary.  As we sat outside at a normally busy restaurant, the silence induced by the lack of planes in the sky seemed deafening.  My back hurt from sitting without moving in front of the television for days.

One afternoon in the days following the attacks, I stood in the street with several other people, staring at the sky.  Low flying Blackhawk helicopters flew lowly over the neighborhood.
"I think it's a presence, a show of force to make us feel protected...." one guy said skeptically.
"Those bombs hanging off of the bottom of the thing don't make me feel so protected."  another responded.

In a matter on months we would be back in New York for another heartbreaking event.  As our plane banked Lower Manhattan, the area where the towers once stood was vacant, save for flood lights and a massive cloud of smoke.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

In the Shadow of a Steeple

Lola and I made it to Atlanta before nightfall on the third day, effectively driving from the Pacific coast of Mexico to Georgia in seventy-eight hours, including sleep time.  She was never sedated during the ride home. 

I wanted to see Alec.  I wanted to see my plants under at least a shred of light.  I didn't want to come in at three in the morning, blurry-eyed, and sneak into bed.  We dodged floods coming and going, and social unrest that we didn't have any inkling was coming.  We made it.

I sat at the kitchen table, high-alcohol American beer in hand, chatting with Alec and marveling at my big, air-conditioned home while Lola galloped through our fenced-in yard.

Within days of returning, two unarmed black men would be killed by the police.  Days later, another man would open fire on the Dallas police force.  A summer filled with news of unpunished college rapes, massacres at nightclubs and violence within my own family would spill wide open.  Cities would ignite in flames while floods drowned the citizens.  One of the candidates for president would fuel and fan the flames at a convention that threatened to tear another city to shreds and instigate the worst tendencies of many Americans. 

I watched my Facebook feed. 
"I can't be calm, I have a black son." a friend posted.
"Stop putting up beach pictures," another implored, "they are killing our kids."
I could feel the stress, the tension, the fear.  And I felt powerless. 

As the days grew nearer to my school's summer retreat, our official start of the new school year, I feared the stress that a lot of our students would carry into the school after the long, hot, violent summer.  The legitimate fears of their families that they would carry, the things that they had heard, the relatives they knew, the things they had experienced.

"The community is under stress."  one teacher said.
"This has been hard on us." another added.

"Iris, I'm sorry.  I am off topic and I am asking you this question because you are black.  Yes, congratulations, you get to be my window into the black world.  Iris, what are we going to do?  How can we effectively deal with the trauma these kids are bringing with them through the doors of the school house in a matter of weeks?  I know they feel it, what can we do?"

I stared at her, in the conference room at Agnes Scott.  My friend, Iris.  We were supposed to be talking about what we liked about the teaching profession.

"Hilary," she said slowly, and with a smile.  "This summer hasn't been any different than any other summer for us.  We're used to it.  It's more of the same."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Oliver's Army

We were driving, passing through endless Mexican towns and desert on our quest to reach the border.  We scuttled through several military and federal checkpoints where Lola threatened to rip the faces off of men with massive guns as they questioned me about my presence in Mexico.  Thankfully, I avoided secondary inspections and most of the heavily-armed men thought Lola was funny.

Overall, there were less checkpoints and convoys of ski-masked men with giant firearms than in previous trips. No tanks, either. 

In the late afternoon, Lola and I arrived in Nuevo Laredo.  Again, I got lost trying to find the road that leads to the bridge that serves as an international port of entry to the United States.  We cruised by the Rio Grande, where Mexicans fished and swam on one side and the U.S. Border Patrol sat in trucks on the other side, staring at them.  Finally, I made it to the line to exit Mexico, located where to turn-in our temporary vehicle import permit and tipped a guy that had waived me to the correct lane where I could turn in the permit, though I could tell by then where I needed to go.  Lola and I cruised forward, toward the small no-man's land area between Mexico and the United States. One last Mexican check point came into view.  I had not remembered that from the year before.  It was charging twenty pesos simply to leave and I had given away the rest of my pesos.  I dug through change, scrounging up pesos and American quarters to pay the fee.  The guy finally let me through and I entered the massive, uncoordinated, thirty lane-wide mess that constitutes "the line" to enter the United States.

After driving over the strange marker on the bridge that serves as the official border between the U.S. and Mexico, we finally made it to the last American checkpoint.  Agents waived mirrors under the car and sneakily assessed the weight I might be carrying by the level of the car's tires.

"How long have you been in Mexico?"  the Border Patrol guy asked.
"About a month."  I saw an eyebrow raise. 
"What do you do for a living....." he asked slowly.
"I'm a teacher." I answered, while Lola barked viciously at him. 
"What do you teach?"
"Spanish." I responded, afraid that I had inadvertently sounded sarcastic.
"You go to Mexico alone?"
"My partner came for half of the trip but had to return to work."
"Whose car is this?"
"His."
"Where were you?"
"Oh you know, hanging with El Chapo's crew in Sinaloa...."  I thought.  
"I spent most of the time on a town on the Pacific coast, kind of by Puerto Vallarta...."  I felt like I was lying, even though I knew I wasn't.
"Are you bringing any cigarettes, alcohol, plants, fruit, blah blah, er blah blah, bluh blah blah?"
"No." I answered, thinking of the pile of prescriptions laying on the passenger side floor of the car and the trunk full of Cuban rum, covered in underwear that I had pulled from the dryer in La Cruz shortly before leaving. 
"Open the trunk."

Another Migra came up to the window and good-copped me, making small talk about teaching and asking questions about Pit Bulls, while the other guy dug through the trunk.  After a few minutes, he closed it.
"Yeah, they're good dogs, don't believe that stuff you read about them." the original Migra said to the Good Cop.
"You can go."
"THANKS!" I blurted and sped off on the large open highway, glancing back over the massive bottleneck that the border created.

The landscape felt different, though we were only a matter of miles over the border.  We crept through the speed trap town, literally without touching the gas in order to NOT exceed the speed limit. I had one thing on my mind:  Whataburger.

And one came into view, its orange sign a beacon in an otherwise unexceptional town.  There was even a gas station next door.  All of my needs would be met in one stop.  We exited the drive-thru with a bag of deliciousness waiting to be eaten and scooted over to the pump to fill up.  I fed Lola her celebration, good girl made it over the border Whataburger through an open window of the car while I filled the tank.

I hopped back in, eager to mow through my food and get back on the road. But....I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened.  My brain filled with dread.  If I was alone it would be merely inconvenient, but it was over a hundred degrees and I couldn't turn on the air-conditioning on for Lola.  Standing next to the car, waiting for help at a gas station with her on her leash wasn't really appealing either.

"Hey Alec?"
"Yeah, what's up?  Where are you?"
"We are across the border..."
"Great!"
"But.... does your car ever glitch out and sound like it has a dead battery when it really doesn't?  I mean, is there some way that I just hit some switch by accident that makes it, uh, do that?"
"WHAT?  The battery is dead?!"
"Yeah, and it's hot as hell."
"I'll call triple A, find out where you are, what's your address."
"No, hold on.  I'll call you back.  Someone here has to have jumper cables."

I opened the hood of the car, eyeballing all the men in cowboy hats with giant trucks, mentally encouraging one of them to glance over and say:
"Hey little lady in your wimpy hybrid, you look like you need a hand! Let me fix her right up for ya!"

I noticed that one of the cables was completely off of the battery.  I shoved it back on and jumped in the car.  It started. Air-conditioning blasting, Lola and I drove off, Whataburger in hand.

Later in the night, we arrived at our Motel 6 in Ganado.  It felt like the Ritz.  Lola walked around the grounds and hotel like it was her second home, showing a strange memory for places that I didn't think dogs had.

I popped the trunk to grab some things and was surprised to see the oldest bottle of Cuban rum prominently displayed on top of all of my things.  I certainly did not put it there and the only other person that had been in that trunk was the Migra.

I closed the trunk, went back to the hotel and crashed with Lola in the loveliness of our ice-cold room.  







Sunday, August 28, 2016

That Endless Skyway

I sat in very early morning traffic in Aguascalientes, watching the men that swill gas, only to light it and blow fire from their mouths for money.  At six-thirty AM, I wasn't sure how they managed it.

It had been a long night.  I left La Cruz de Huancaxtle around three PM the previous afternoon.  It was time to go, though I had paid to stay in our rental for several more days.  I needed to head back, or I knew my mind might cave in on itself .  I had a goal of driving about six hours, so that I could make it to Texas the following day and to Atlanta the next.  I launched out, without a map or any kind of real directions, showing my first mistake of complacency and getting too used to Mexico being my own backyard.  I packed up the house, packed up Lola and headed out, rigging the doors shut on the rental and putting the key in a weird slot in the wall.   I almost left clothes in the dryer.

I was making good time, until hitting major traffic while trying to surpass Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city, which is saying a lot because Mexico's largest city is one of the biggest cities in the world.  I was bored, frustrated, tapping on the gas while Lola waited patiently in the back seat.  The sun was going down.  I watched a Disney- Cinderella style horse and carriage pass by on the side of the congested road, filled with some sort of green hay instead of a princess or corny couple.  I tapped my phone for directions to by-pass the traffic.  It wouldn't work.  I had a signal, but Google Maps couldn't find a server.  I was worried I had gone over my data amount and finally called my mom.  I didn't want to, she divorced my step-dad in April and I knew this was supposed to be the day he moved out.

"Mom?" I asked.
"How are you?"
"Oh my God, this day has been exhausting....".
"I hate to ask you this but can you call AT&T for me?  I have tried direct dialing them and it won't go through and my data has been cut off and I am stuck in Guadalajara and don't know where to go.....".
As I sat in traffic while my mom texted me, asking my social security number and various other details to get my data back on.
"You have plenty of data!" she told me.  "They said it was a 'glitch' that your phone wasn't working....".

So, my mom fixed it and it worked and I got out of Guadalajara.  I drove smoothly on the highway, relieved to be moving again.  I followed Google maps.  Suddenly, things started looking familiar again.  Why was I back in Tonalá?   Why was I back in Guadalajara?  An hour after exiting, I was thrust into the city center of Guadalajara again.  I studied there one summer more than a decade ago, but was not too keen on reminiscing as I drove past my old university and favorite taco stands in the dark, trying to get the fuck back on the road.  I was stuck in the myriad of streets, completely clueless as to how to get back to the northern highway.  And, there was more traffic.  I was completely reliant on street signs, as Google Maps had dipped out again.  It was getting later, pushing eleven.

As I sat at a traffic light, several men infiltrated the road, spraying dirty water on windshields and "cleaning them off" for money.  People used to do this in Atlanta during the early nineties.  I watched one man eyeball and run straight for the gringo-lady car.  I would gladly give them money just to leave me alone, mainly because Lola goes psycho if anyone goes near the car or touches the windshield.  As soon as I saw him coming, I rolled down the window and started imploring in Spanish that he not touch the car.  Being a misogynistic shit face, he did what ever he wanted.  Lola went insane.  Now, I was screaming in Spanish and in English for him to get the fuck away, before Lola broke a window and ate his face off.  He kept doing what he was doing.  I turned on the windshield wipers.  That stopped him.

He stood by the driver's side of the car, instructing me to to roll the window down.  Obviously, he hadn't understood yet that I don't just take directions from weird men on the street, even though I have a vagina.  He upped his voice as I watched him through the window, yelling in perfect English:
"FUCK YOU.  FUCK YOU.  GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY.  GET OUT."
I smiled at him.  That was actually my goal.

I drove through the night, finally exiting Guadalajara and driving on the same northern highway I had been on hours earlier and toward the dog friendly hotel where I had a reservation.  Alec started calling.
"Yes.  I am still driving."
"Hilary, you are being stupid.  You are going to get kidnapped.  Even those super gringo expatriates don't drive around at night."
"I am doing my best."
He started texting me names of hotels.  Alec doesn't usually text and I thought his concern was sweet.  But I kept driving.
I passed through a toll booth.  I was surprised at the fond look of the young woman working the booth, grinning, asking about Lola.  I was still rattled by the guy in Guadalajara and appreciated someone that seemed to approve of what I was doing - strange gringo woman alone with dog in a Honda on a dangerous highway in the middle of the night, acting pretty natural and innocuous.  Clueless might be the better word.  The second toll booth was similar, this time a male that appreciated Lola as my "guardian".

I knew I would never make it to my destination and pulled into one of the towns Alec recommended.  I stopped at an OXXO and bought water for Lola and me and proceeded inward.  It was a strangely medieval town with a massive church in the middle; it reminded me more of France than of Spain or Mexico.  As I drove through the town looking for the pet friendly hotel that Alec had found on the internet, a noticed a few men on motorcycles following us.  I ignored them, but every time I made a turn they were on our bumper.  Lola didn't like it.  I didn't like it either.  Finally, I exited the town.  As I came up to the last red light, one of the motorcycle men pulled up beside me, and I lowered the window.
"No, I'm good, I don't need to hire your as a guide." I stated, as Lola went feral.
I turned to the right, just to get rid of him and drove back on the highway out of the town.  I saw a small hotel with the lights on and pulled off.  The entire family, complete with elementary age children, was sitting in the lobby.
"Do you have any rooms?"  I asked. "And, do you allow dogs?"
"How big of a dog?"
"A very large dog."
"As long as it doesn't bark all night."
"She won't."
The woman looked to her husband.
"Charge her 250." he stated, asking fifty peso below the rate the was published on a little board with white, stick on letters. 
They helped me carry my bag and all of Lola's stuff upstairs, even though the wife was terrified of Lola.
Lola and I took a quick walk around the area to let her pee, while I looked over my shoulder for the motorcycle men.  I would find out in the morning that I had inadvertently dropped the car keys and my iPhone brick next to the driver's side door.  Lola and I went upstairs.

I set up the fan in front of the bed and Lola and I jumped in.   Lola cemented herself next to my side.  Both girls on the run slept like we were dead for almost five hours.  


Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Rowers Kept on Rowing

We woke and drove south, receiving a two hundred dollar ticket in a Texas speed trap before hitting the Mexican border.  As usual, the gates to Mexico were wide open and people were waving us in.  If we had tried to back out, the spikes in the road would have ripped up our tires.

Nuevo Laredo went much smoother than the year before and we passed through, got our paperwork and made our way to Saltillo, again staying in the same hotel as the year before and even getting tacos from the same awesome taco stand at the end of the driving day.  It was reassuring and delicious.   It was Mexico, and we were back.

We took an alternative route the third day through the "Devil's Backbone", a newly constructed series of roads, tunnels and bridges that cut from Saltillo to Mazatlán on a renovated donkey trail that only drug smugglers used to use.  We wanted to visit Durango and ride over the highest suspension bridge around, and well, try a new route.  We arrived at our small room in Mazatlán that night and made it to our house rental in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle the following day.

The time flew quickly.  We went to the beaches and ate at the restaurants in our sleepy town.  We played with Lola in the walled in yard of our luxurious yet flawed rental home.  We made margaritas and read books by our incredible pool.  I re-read "The Goldfinch" and talked Alec and a friend from school into reading it with my simultaneously.  As much as I loved the pool and being in Mexico, some of my happiest times were spent cuddled with Alec and Lola in our bed in the air-conditioned room of the house, watching Chef's Table on Netflix, knowing that we could stay up as late as we wanted and sleep as late as we wanted the next morning.

During the first week of our stay in La Cruz, the Orlando massacre occurred.  I woke the next morning to find a series of texts on my phone; my niece had also been violently attacked the same night by someone that was supposed to care about her.  My niece, Emma.  The child I saw born and who has been at my side ever since, whether she liked it or not.  The one that just graduated from high school.  The one that should have the world at her fingertips, as her oyster.  The beginning of everything.  The excitement of everything.  Something no one or thing should get to damper or shit on. 

He knocked her front teeth out.
It would set the tone for the summer. 


Thorazine on the Bayou

The first Saturday of June, the car was packed, Lola was buckled in, the new tires shined on the car, and we pulled out of the driveway and headed west, Mexican car permit and Lola's International Travel document safely tucked into the pocket on the passenger side door.

There was a sense of deja vu as we pulled onto the same highway on a similar looking day almost a year to the date later, just days after the school year ended, the plastic Virgin of Guadalupe medallion swinging from the rear view mirror on its dental floss string in the same familiar motion.

Things quickly changed.

The first day should be a "manageable" twelve hours, but the previous year we hit horrendous road work and traffic and twelve hours quickly changed to eighteen.  A different problem presented itself this time when as soon as Alabama, rain clouds appeared.  Being adults, we are versed in driving in the rain, but Lola has an almost violent reaction to windshield wipers.  Soon their use was necessary and Lola became so hysterical that she managed to pull loose from her seat belt and breach the barrier her crate created between the front and back seats.  We pulled off onto the side of the highway, cars whipping beside us from the narrow shoulder and a frightened Pit Bull scrambling over both occupants of the front seats.  It was pouring rain. 

I moved to the backseat and managed to get Lola back there with me.  I tried to calm her, but she continued barking for a solid ten minutes.  Violently.  The whites of her eyes were turning red.

"Look, if you can stay back there with her and keep her from getting up front, I say we just drive and she'll bark herself out."
"Okay." I responded, wrapping my arms tightly around Lola in both a hug and a hold.

Alec pulled onto the highway, windshield wipers flapping in the heavy rain.  Lola was barking hysterically and jumping all over me, the long bony legs that support her ninety-five pound body digging and bruising my legs and arms, her toenails tearing holes in my shorts.  It hurt, but I was more upset by how unhappy and afraid she was.  It was not subsiding.  Then I saw the blood.  It coated her teeth and coagulated at the side of her mouth.  It was on the back of the seat.

"Pull over!  She's hurt!!  She's hurting herself!!!"  I screamed.
Alec got us off the highway and into a gas station parking lot.  I pulled out the sedative the vet had given us for the trip.  We had never tried one before, but I knew from experience how Lola is with certain situations and I had asked the vet for something to calm her anxieties, but only when necessary, not some sort of doggie Prozac for the long term.  Slowly she calmed down and began to slump onto my lap and lay her head on my arms. After a half an hour, Alec carefully crept out onto the road again, turning on the windshield wipers.  Lola didn't react, but laid heavily in my arms, eyes blinking.

We rode like that most of the day until somewhere in Louisiana, Lola re-positioned herself, pressing her butt toward me and her head in the opposite direction. Her eyes remained fluttery.  I reluctantly looked up the medicine I had given Lola, knowing I was not going to like what I saw.  I was surprised that I hadn't read up on it before asking for a sedative from the vet, maybe a willful dissonance on my part or that things were busy and I thought the whole thing was pretty standard.

I discovered I had basically given my dog Thorazine, a One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest-type type tranquilizer commonly used and abused on psychotics in the fifties.  I glanced at Lola's half-cast eyes as the late afternoon sun reappeared over the Louisiana bayou.
"Don't freak out, Hilary,"  I reprimanded myself mentally.
"People use this drug all the time, vets prescribe it, you are neurotic and overly protective of your dog."
I glanced back at my phone.
"The drug actually doesn't sedate the dog...."  I read.
"But makes the dog unable to move its body while the mind remains perfectly aware of what is happening.  The dog is simply physically unable to respond to the fear it feels.  Often, the dog will become more fearful after the event because of the experience."
Wonderful.

As darkness arrived in Texas, Lola began to stir, rising up unsteadily on her feet.  We were both glad to see her.  She wore her "Scott Walker Face", or a Forest Gump-like look of dim eyes and a slight tongue protrusion that we assume someone that had experienced shock therapy or some sort of cognitive impairment might exhibit.  We pulled into the hotel, the same one as last year, and carefully exited the car with Lola.

She seemed more cognizant of the notion of a hotel than the year before and jumped up on the big bed, without the questioning look of "Why did we trade in a whole house and a yard for just one room?" and sprawled out.  At least the twelve hour drive was only a sixteen this year instead of an eighteen.

We climbed in the bed on either side of her.  Lola pressed herself toward me and lay glued to my side throughout the night, only shifting to make sure her head was laying squarely in my arms.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

When Doves Cry

I sat at my kitchen table, glasses off, cocktail sword in my hand.  I had emptied the contents of the gel capsule into a ramekin and carefully counted each little micro bead, one by one, moving each to the other side of the ramekin with the sword as I counted.  Three hundred, seventy-seven.  I was going to figure out how to taper off this happy pill.

One of the K-3 kids jumped off of the school bus and skipped toward me.  They change buses at our school, we are sort of like the Grand Central Station of my district, younger kids come and switch buses to ride with some slightly older kids to reduce the mileage and time that the buses have to endure.  She was cute and blond.
"I love your hair!" she exclaimed.
"Oh thank you!"
"Do you know Mark?"
"Mark who?"
"Mark Stewart".
"Yes!  I am his Spanish teacher!"
"I am his sister!" 
She hugged me.
"You are fun!" she continued.
"Here, wait with me, we will wait for Mark to come out..." I said, smiling.  She grabbed my hand and gazed up at me, smiling.
"Mark says you are the worst Spanish teacher ever.....".

"I cannot take it.  The children cannot take it.  It is too much!".
Suddenly, the hands started flying, the voice started rising and the tears began flowing.  He was on his feet, lips sputtering, weird gesturing.  My co-worker was going Jersey again.  I slowly turned toward my computer.  I wasn't going to ride the crazy train today over something so minor. 

After the end of year hall monitor party, I was flattered to find plates full of cookies and brownies with my name on them in our office.  I didn't want to eat them, but was flattered that so many students had wanted to share them with me.  

Mark ran out of the school and saw his little sister standing with me. 
"Come on," he instructed with a quick nod and smile in my direction.
"But I like her!" she screamed.
"I like her!".

I piled the cookies and brownies on a plate far from the edge of the counter so that Lola could not get to them.   I returned to the kitchen a few minutes later to see the empty plate laying on the floor.  CHOCOLATE. Lola had eaten CHOCOLATE. 

"Holly!" I pleaded into the phone.
"Lola ate some brownies with cocoa in them and chocolate chip cookies.  What should I do?  Should I take her to the vet?  She is acting okay....".
"Don't worry," she advised me.
"Lola is big enough to handle a little chocolate."
"Are you sure.....?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"I am thinking of getting off the happy pills, but I can't figure out how to do it, they are gel caps, you can't split them in half."
"Have you looked online?".
"Yeah...." I answered, my voice dropping to a whisper.
"But those people are CRAZY."
"I think I am going to do it halfie halfie, you know, open the capsule and divide the little pills between the two sides, halfie halfie."

Alec and I entered the vet's office with Lola. She needed her annual check up and shots, just because, and to go to Mexico.
"Do you have a stool sample?" the habitually bitchy receptionist asked.
"No wait, she is just here for her annual shots..." I answered, thinking she was confused with some sick dog.
"YES.  Do you have a stool sample?"
"I don't get it, what are you talking about?  I have never been asked to bring one for something like this....".
"It is just less intrusive, is all I am saying.  Take her for a walk, see if you can get one" she responded, as if I didn't give a shit about my dog. 
"Fucking cunt," I sputtered, as Alec and I walked Lola around the block. 
"I am so sick of this shit, sick of her fucking attitude.....my dog has been coming here for four years and I have never brought a piece of shit in with her for her shots....cock sucking bitch....."
We returned.  Without shit.  Crazy receptionist was bitching out Lola's main man with the pick, her favorite vet tech. 
"I can't take anymore!  We already have one emergency back there and a room full of appointments!  I can't do this!  Lifeline always does this.  Tell them no.   Tell them we cannot take the cat!  They always leave them wide open!".
"The man is on his way" the tech responded calmly.
I looked at the other woman in the waiting room, her cat in a crate and hands over her daughter's ears. 
I walked over to Richie. 
"We can reschedule.  I do not want some open cat out in the world."
I noticed the other woman from the waiting room behind me.
"We feel the same way."
"It's okay..." he muttered.
"We got this."
I sat back down.  A man burst through the door with a cat in a carrier.
"I need help." he said to me.
Cunt face spoke up.
"We can't take her!  Take her to St. Francis hospital on the highway, we can't help!"
I was furious.   There is an emergency vet less than fifteen minutes away.  She was sending him forty-five and the cat's spay incisions were open. 
"It's serious!" she called after him.
"Nothing to play with!  You better go now!"
I scratched my palms until I thought blood would come out.  

My niece graduated from high school.  It was strangely touching and a long, stressful, emotional night for a million events and reasons that cannot be written.  A few days after the graduation, the school hosted a funeral for a student that graduated a year ago.   He overdosed a day before Emma's graduation.  A sad waste.  Though I taught at Emma's school, I didn't know that student.  The ripeness of summer had begun and he had expired.  It made me think of how flowers smell near the end of the hot season, overly fragrant and slightly rotten. 

"That's the guy that nearly made me cry" my sister mentioned as we decompressed a day or so after the graduation.
It was the guy who rides his bike and whistles really loud and in perfect tune.  I can hear him from inside my house.
"He was whistling 'When Doves Cry' the day after Prince died."

"I am going to miss you, Miss Wagner." Janie announced randomly in the hallway.
"I mean, you've been my teacher for two years.  I have never had a teacher like you.   You make me want to ask questions, you don't just tell us what to do.  My class complains about everything.  They complain about Social Studies, they complain about Math.  But they never complain about Spanish....you just make it so fun."

I looked into her clear blue eyes and thanked her.  I really needed that.  







Saturday, March 19, 2016

Green Bikes

I used to have this green bike. When I was a kid, in Michigan.   I went to one school, McBrite, for kindergarten.  I don't remember a lot about the rest.  I remember walking past the McBrite school and commenting angrily to my sister that "the Board of Education" was taking it away from us.  I also remember walking down that long street next to McBrite and smacking a girl I knew in the face with my big book bag and crying when I did it.  When the crossing guard asked why I was crying I told her that my mother had told me that if Bree hit me one more time, hit her back.  And I did.

I started thinking about his because I thought my early schooling in Michigan was idyllic.

McBrite was shut down and I was sent to Sherwood the next year, I guess.  It had an open-concept, pod thing where all of the classrooms looked out on to each other but there was a central space in the middle where we could all get together.  We ate in the library, which was fine with me, I habitually read some Eleanor Roosevelt biography.  They served us from space-age carts that the lunch ladies pushed around.  Everything was covered in aluminum and the weird, packaged smell permeated the room.  I thought it was cool.

I remember walking home from Sherwood and adventuring through the woods.  It was beautiful, snow covered, and we would take forever coming home as we walked through the mansions of Huntington Woods and played in the snow and eventually made it back to our own backyards.

My mom used to walk us to school, as we were on the mile mark where we didn't qualify for busing. We must have talked her into getting us bikes.  My sister won one in some strange Halloween party at the school, it was a dirt bike.  Somehow I ended up with the green bike that I probably thought was awesome at the time. I rode that bitch to school.  But something happened.  I remember the kids yelling "Whose green bike is that!!???" and I walked home, leaving my bike at school, humiliated, not willing to claim my own bike.

My mom was pissed.
"Why didn't you bring your bike home??!!"
She took me back to the school, everyone was gone, and we took the bike home.
I can't remember what ever happened to that bike.

At Sherwood, I remember other days. I was watching the kids spin around on some sort of playground device.  I liked what I was wearing, I was wearing new clothes, they were pink, it was early in the school year.  The kids were spinning, but I walked inside and asked them to call my mother, because I felt too sad to continue the day.

I remember getting attacked by multiple boys on the playground.  I don't know why.  They wanted to fight me, and I was freaking out and rolling and trying to get away from the wrestling match.  I was horrified.  They were pulling my hair, throwing down, and no one was interfering.  I fought and ran, none of the teachers even noticed.

My "best friend" told me slyly, later, in our neighborhood,
"It looked you were fucking".


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Auld Lang Syne




















I returned to school to find a chippy note in my box about requesting too many days for bereavement.  I tried to quickly get things together and went to my first class.  The students were very sweet, happy to see me and genuinely compassionate about the loss of my Grandmother.  I looked around the room.

"Where is Jaquey?" I asked his teacher.  "I feel like I haven't seen him in forever."
I saw her eyes dim a little and she looked down.
"He's gone.  They withdrew him....they are sending him back to his mom....they can't deal with him anymore, the stealing.....".
"I hope somewhere he is getting what he needs." I answered, feeling that he had been failed, that he was slipping through the cracks.
"I do too" she answered. 

I finished the week and our two week break began.  It was filled with shopping and Christmas trees and food preparation for the Christmas Eve event that is hosted at my house for my family.  My beautiful former student Dau came to town, only a year away from getting the degree she so fully deserves.  I got crafty and built my sister a little, free ADULT lending library to house porn in her front yard.

We quietly brought in the New Year, while I silently wished for a good 2016.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Scottish

The following days became more of a nighttime blur.  In the midst of my and my mother's bar crawl of some of the places my alcoholic father had preferred, I decided to tackle the issue of my brother.  But let me first add that my dad had excellent taste in bars.

We are estranged from my brother.  When I started traveling a lot, my brother's wife decided to attack my mother on my first long trip.  My sister stood up for my mom in the ferocious way that I would have if I had been present for the bullshit this woman was dishing out AT MY MOM.  When I returned nearly a year later, my brother and his wife were being very sweet and delicate with me and there was no contact between them and my sister and mother.  It always made me uncomfortable.  I felt like I was being used as a pawn, that the fact that I would speak with them was some sort of validation of their position against the rest of my family.  Against my mom, who single handed raised the three of us.  I did not agree with what they did, and did not like the perception that "Look, Hilary's okay with us.  The rest of those people are crazy."  My mom and my sister are not crazy.  My brother and his wife, are.  

My sister was voicing increasing anxiety about the prospect of my brother and his wife coming to my Grandmother's funeral.  The drama that would ensue.  The stress.  Sitting in a bar that had walls covered with Scottish kilt fabric, I texted my brother.  I felt like it was time for me to take the bullet, not my sister or my mom.  Me, the good one, the nice one, the pushover.  I was finally going to speak up.  I identified myself in the text because my brother doesn't even know my phone number.  I politely asked him to come alone to my Grandmother's funeral, if he intended to come at all.  I really didn't give a shit if he brought his kid, but didn't know how to say, "Can you at least leave your cunt wife at home?".  I asked him to do it for the sake of my mom, that it was her mother's funeral and it was important to me that she could say goodbye to her in a stress-free environment.  I really did not think his wife would be terribly heartbroken about not attending the funeral of a woman she had met a handful of times.  And, my brother is a big boy.  He can handle the funeral on his own.  The thing that was most important to me was my mom.

Somewhere in the blur of days we stopped by the hospice.  I went inside and delivered a large Poinsettia to the nurses and thanked them for taking such good care of my Grandmother.  Another group of people was standing in the hallway, crying.  Someone else had passed.  I knew I was going to cry again just from walking in that place and I quickly exited.

I wasn't going to attend the funeral.  The had to schedule it for the following Monday, as Catholics don't have funerals on Sundays and Saturday was booked up.  I had already missed a week of work; I knew I couldn't ask for anymore days, though my sick leave bank is so massive I could technically take the rest of the year off.  My niece and sister were on their way up to accompany my mom to the funeral.  I received a dramatic response from my brother about how he "broke the news to his wife and child that they weren't permitted to attend their Grandmother's funeral".  Wife and child.  As if I don't know their names.  Caveman style drama.  He thanked me for "allowing" him to come.  I didn't respond, as the end result of texting him in the first place was successful.  I still have the texts saved to my phone.  I don't know why.

On my last night in Saginaw, we ended up again around the table of my aunt and uncle, drinking wine.  My cousin and her partner stopped by a couple of hours after I probably should have stopped drinking. When I rose Saturday morning to get ready for my flight, my head was pounding.  As my mother drove me to Flint, I threw up out of the door of the car and in the process, down the front of my clothes.  I entered the airport.  There was one person at the security area.  I sheepishly went through and proceeded to the gate and sat in a chair crouched over with my head in my hands. I made a mental reminder not to touch anything except bottled water while at the airport.   I heard the flight attendants call my name and I feared they weren't going to let me fly.  To the contrary, they told me they had moved my seat to the emergency row. Yes, the passenger with vomit all over her clothes will be assisting you if the plane crashes.  I passed out before the wheels left the ground and only woke up when we landed in Chicago.

I made it back to Atlanta in the late afternoon.  That night as I slept, Lola curled up beside me.  She breathed heavily as she slept and for a second, breathed quietly.

I woke up, startled, thinking I was beside my Grandmother's bed in the hospice.  But I wasn't.  I was at home in Atlanta. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Far Out in the Red Sky


As we got in the car, I noticed a text message from my niece, Emma.  It was a heartfelt message to my mother about my Grandmother.  The time stamp said 10:37 pm.

It felt like we arrived at the hospice within minutes.  As we rushed to the front door, I saw a gurney being pushed by with a full, black, body bag on it. I had a rush of emotion.  Throughout the days in Saginaw I often thought I was okay with things, accepting them, but then something would happen and I would have to turn away because I knew I was about to cry.

We went inside.  A large family speaking multiple languages stood in the hall, crying.  We arrived at my Grandmother's room.  She was gone.  We did not arrive in time.  I overheard my Uncle Dick say that the time of death was 10:38 pm.  My Grandmother looked peaceful and I kissed her.  She was warm but I knew she was dead.  I again stroked her hair and hugged her.  It didn't seem strange to do this to a dead body, though I have never touched one before.  Her mouth still hung a bit ajar: I wanted to close it.  I didn't think she would like to be seen that way.  Relatives arrived and circled her bed.   Another vigil was starting.

One of the nurses came in and told us that the funeral home, located out in the country where my Grandfather farmed, could not pick my Grandmother up for a couple of hours.  My mother sat at her bedside, stroking her hand.
"I am staying with her." she stated.
I heard my uncle say the exact same thing, independent of my mother.
We all stayed.  People talked and laughed, telling stories of my Grandmother while we circled her bed and overflowed to a common area outside of the room.  It felt important, that we were ushering her out of the world.  I had the definite sense that she was in some sort of in-between moment and I wanted to help her through this stage.  The relatives from the farm area and those from the city, all extensions of my Grandmother's family, spoke to each other seamlessly and without judgement, though their accents and conversation topics were different.  She became colder and her limbs more rigid.  I noticed my uncle slip away to a farther common area, alone.

The driver from the funeral home arrived.  Everyone spoke to him in a friendly manner.  Finally, he told us to leave.
"You don't need to see the next part," he told us, "it isn't pretty."
I knew what he meant.  The black bag.  The zipper.  The end.
We left.

Thursday morning my mom and uncle were up early to meet with the priest and select passages for my Grandmother's funeral.  My mother and I went out later and had a tour of Saginaw's bars.  My mother has excellent taste.  We woke Friday morning and drove to my Grandmother's apartment.  I felt exhausted and surprised that our schedule was still so full.  We were going to help pack up my Grandmother's belongings.  I felt guilty, we had slept later than we should and I knew others were working.  My mom and I rushed to get ready and darted to the apartment with our drive-through, Tim Horton coffee.  We walked in to cheerful faces.  A cooler filled with light beer sat in the middle of the floor.  I realized why we were there.  My aunts and uncles, the stepchildren of my Grandmother, had done everything.  They guided us to small piles of my Grandmother's possessions, encouraging us to take things to remember her by.  One brought out a jar of change announcing that it was the inheritance.  My Aunt Peggy had already left and my Uncle Dick announced her "shit out of luck" for her inheritance cut.  I thought we would be carrying mattresses, packing boxes.  I opened a can of beer and selected a few things of my Grandmother's that I loved, putting them in an eight cent cigar box I found in her bedroom. 

As we walked out of the apartment, I glanced back.  The furniture was gone, a box or so remained and an old newspaper sat on the counter.  I though of Alec, Lola and I eating breakfast with her in the  summer of 2014 in an area that now stood vacant.  My Grandmother had insisted that we "sneak Lola in" to the apartments, though pets weren't allowed, let alone a ninety pound Pit Bull.  I suddenly had to turn again so that no one would see me cry.

She was gone.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Strange Days

I flew halfway around the world once, going west.  We spent days in darkness, basically chasing the sun across time zones.  Something about that flight reminds me of my visit to Saginaw.

My mother and I sat on either side of my Grandmother's bed, drinking red wine out of plastic stem glasses.  It was odd, as if the three of us were hanging out together, though my Grandmother was still unconscious.  A multitude of family members visited my Grandmother that evening and later, it was just my mom and me again.  The T.V. flickered through the night as we watched over her.  Donald Trump appeared over and over on the news shows as they all rehashed the same stupid things he had said that day.  I fell asleep a couple of times, only to wake and see my mom sitting across the room, eyes open, T.V. lights flickering on her face. At times my Grandmother's breathing would become shallow and I would feel startled, but then she would breath deeply again.

The hospice nurses visited routinely throughout the night to shift my Grandmother in her bed.  When they tried to give her morphine, she pursed her lips and made raspberry noises at them.  It made me giggle.  She looked like a soft, defiant little baby hell raiser, not like my Grandmother.

In the morning, family members relieved us and my mom and I went back to my uncle's to sleep for a couple of hours.  Clancy, the beautiful Irish Setter that I had been dying to meet, growled and barked at me again, and then ran and hid under the kitchen table.
"Wow," my uncle commented, "he only acts like that with the mailman."
I fired off some more lesson plans and checked my work email.  A snippy one sat there from one of my bosses, instructing me to re-submit a sub request "ASAP" because I had used the wrong reason code for it.
"Thanks," I thought "definitely the first thing on my mind."  I emailed my other boss telling him that there was no way I was going to make it to work Thursday.  It was Wednesday morning.  When I didn't receive a response, I called him.
"Put in for a sub for Thursday and Friday," he instructed "I am not sure how many days you can take for bereavement, but mark it bereavement."  I did as instructed and laid down to sleep.  I could hear the click click click of Clancy's toenails and occasionally opened my eyes to find his face inches from mine, staring at me.

We got up a couple of hours later and went out.  I bought some treats to bribe Clancy and we visited the hospice again.  My Grandmother laid peacefully in her bed.  My aunt and uncle that had spent the day with my Grandmother told us the nurses' latest reports of signs of imminent death.  The night crew arrived and we readied ourselves to leave.
"If, you know, the nurses say they think it's happening, should I call you?" my Uncle Dick asked my mother.
"It probably won't be that way....." my mom responded.
"But if it does, should I call?" he repeated.
"Yes."

My mom and I returned to my uncle's house.  Clancy was happy with me now that he had his chicken jerky and actually let me pet him.  He rubbed against my legs as I fed him piece after piece.  My aunt and uncle opened a bottle of wine and we sat around talking.  The mood was actually festive, we looked at old pictures, talked about travels and laughed.  It was very natural and relaxed.  It felt like being at a party with people you really wanted to talk to, not relatives you hadn't seen in a long time.  One conversation spiraled into another with talks of my mom and uncle's childhood, the wonders of France and Spain, how silly dogs are yet how much they mean in our lives.

The phone rang.
"It's happening" my uncle announced quickly, grabbing his keys as we all rushed to the cars and raced toward the hospice.

She was going.