Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Glass Castle
















"It's hot, right?"  I asked the little girl with the bedazzled glasses that I was walking to the bus.  She's new.
"Yeah....," she mumbled, glancing off, "but not as hot as Bangkok...."
"Are you a CARE kid?  CDC?"
"Yeah."
"When did you move back?"
"A month ago."
"How long did you live there?"
"Six years."
Wow.  She probably only remembers there.  Not here.
"Gosh, that's huge.  You know, I've been to Thailand before.  Not as long as you, what was your favorite thing you saw?  I'm sure it's hard to pick."
She seemed to not hear me, and then described in detail a famous temple complex, growing animated as she explained the sensations of it.
"So, here's your bus.  What's your name?"
"Mercy." she answered.
"Nice to meet you, I'll see you around, okay?"
She didn't answer, just stared at the group of kids waiting to get on the bus.  I hovered, looking at the little round girl in the spangly clothes that her parents bought, probably hoping she'd fit in.  I watched her staring at the kids from the outside, unsure or unwilling to step into the mix.

I moved from Michigan to Georgia when I was in fourth grade and it was one of the hardest experiences of my life.  Part of me wanted to be her new best friend, though I knew she needed to be friends with kids, not a forty-five year old woman.  

My step-father died this morning.  Everything feels very twilight and confused.  I don't have anything more to say about that right now.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Cat's in the Cradle


My dad died.  I found out yesterday, though he died on the thirty-first of May.  We are, or I guess were, estranged.  He left when I was three.  He and my mom maintained a kind of forced visitation campaign for a while and we would see him a couple of times a year though he lived merely miles away.  We took a couple of vacations with him to the lakes of Michigan and to his hunting lodges.  The beautiful old cottages fill me with love, but all I remember is fear when I think of the time we spent in those places.  Guns, alcohol and violent yelling.  Fear.

We moved to Georgia when I was ten and the few hours we generally saw him a year were basically reduced to none.  It was too much work.  I remember some point when I was fourteen or so when he rolled into town in this big, navy sedan that he had given a name.  Old Blue.  Something like that.  My brother and I visited him at some motel and we were left there, awkwardly hanging out with dad.  Things continued to taper off.

I called him once when I was twenty-one, during a very low point.  I told his girlfriend off and somehow ended up on the phone with him at one of the hunting lodges.  I just wanted to know who he was and cannot speak of the things that might have happened if I hadn't called.  Nothing really came of it.

My brother had a massive falling out with my mom and sister when I was twenty-eight.  Alec and I had left for a year-long trip through Asia, trip of a lifetime, and everything fell apart while I was gone.  I heard little bits and pieces of it via Hotmail, of all things.

I came back and tried to be diplomatic, though I thought my brother and his wife were wrong.  But, I wasn't there, yada yada, keep the status quo, I'm not much for breaking up with family.  But, it pissed me off, because I don't think they were fair to my mom and sister and I constantly felt like a pawn, used to justify their behavior, give them legitimacy....."Hilary is okay with us.....you're the one who is crazy.....".

My brother and his wife reached out to my dad, pretending that they had always been "kept from him" by my evil manipulative mother.  I was induced to meet my father at my brother's house around fifteen years ago.  I went alone.  It was surreal, my dad and his wife (former girlfriend that I told off), speaking loudly, gregariously, drinking, smoking.  Talking about hydroponics like a twenty year old, cocaine, car crashes and poaching, wild random stories.

We kept in touch for a little while after that.  I would send him birthday cards and post cards from wherever I was, which was everywhere.  My brother told me he collected them proudly on a wall in his winter apartment in Florida.  He sent me birthday cards with his amazingly skilled cartoons inside, just as he did when I was a kid.  I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with the whole thing, but I was okay with the correspondence.  I moved to Madrid in 2004 and I remember getting a card sent to my address at school, having been forwarded several times, with a cartoon inside from my dad.  Once, back in my apartment in Atlanta, I clicked on our answering machine to hear a labored voice wishing me a happy birthday.  My dad had had a stroke and could barely talk.  I saw Alec in the doorway, watching me with alarm.  "That's my dad...." I remember saying.

My family made up with each other at some point, but after I returned from Madrid, the wheels were turning again.  My brother and his wife were making critical noises and my mom skipped out of the situation.  And, so did I.  I never told him off, I just didn't talk to him anymore.  I didn't want to be used as a justification and felt like I was selling out by standing by with a frozen smile on my face while my brother and his wife were awful to my mom and sister.

Things have crept along for probably more than a decade.  About a year and a half ago, my maternal grandmother died.  I noticed that my mom and my sister were increasingly agitated by the prospect of some weird family showdown at my grandmother's funeral.  Of some awful, uncomfortable scene with my brother and his family showing up.  I decided to take the bullet, not to be a convenient bystander and I got my brother's phone number and texted him, requesting that he come alone to my grandmother's funeral, simply so that my mother could bury her mother in the most stress-free atmosphere as possible.  I was surprised by his snippy response, but felt like I had adult-ed for once.

So, I got a text yesterday from my mom that my dad was dead.  I was surprised to read a text like that.  My brother had sent my mom a message via Facebook.  All the details were unclear, so I Googled my dad's name.  I found his obituary.  He died a week before my brother sent my mom a message.  He never sent me anything.  He never even mentioned that my dad was ill.  He waited until two days before my dad's funeral to tell anyone that he was even dead.  And the obit, oh the obit.  Survived by:  my brother and his wife.  Not me, not my sister, not his granddaughter Emma, not my cousins.  I found it cruel.  We don't exist.  Our biology is gone, we've been un-familied like the Facebook version of unfriending.

I thought of trying to go to the funeral for some sort of closure.  I found myself thinking of looking for flights to Michigan, should I fly into Flint?  Or, I could drive, it would be cheaper.  But walking into that place almost seems like asking for a fight.   I can't believe going to my own father's funeral would be an act of aggression, that I am not even allowed that, that I feel like I'd be walking into hostility.  And I will never forgive my brother.  Never.

So I've been crying.  And not sleeping but when I do I am dreaming, weird dreams where my dead friend Margaret was explaining things to me that I can't remember.  I've been crying for a solid day.  I don't know why.  Thinking of my paternal grandmother greeting my dad in some way, but her face is put back together again and not splattered everywhere from a self-inflicted gun shot wound.  Did she meet him?

I think of him showing me the cucumbers he grew in his backyard, proudly.  The perfectly sculpted grass, the vines that grew upward.

Sun bleached sky and emerald grass, Jack Purcells and dad. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Turn Me Around

"I've heard bad things about Ms. Long at school."  Raaidah said firmly, her often powerful gaze fixed on me.
"What did you hear?"
"People say she is gay."
"What's wrong with that?" I asked innocently, like I really wanted an answer.
"Is it true?"
"I don't know."  I responded.
"I guess it's okay.  But there is a student in that class that's an atheist."
"Does that bother you, Raaidah?"
"YES.  Yes it does."
I was actually so relieved that she had given the gay thing a pass that I didn't care as much about the atheist part.  It almost seemed respectful, like not telling her in one sitting that ALL of her beliefs were wrong. 

"Can I go to the bathroom?"  Mahmo asked.
"Yes, but make it quick.  I've noticed that some of you take some enormous bathroom breaks whenever I make you read something."
Everyone looked at Badri, who looked back mischievously, a large chunk of hair poking out of the side of her hijab.
"She comes here to poop."  Abshir volunteered.
"READ."  I instructed.

Some of my students at school have realized that I see the kids in my group not just at school, but after school.  When I first started working in the program, I referred to it as "tutoring".  The kids in my group looked at me incredulously as if they had no idea what I was talking about.  Everyone in the program, teachers and students included, just call the situation "The Center", because what we do takes place in a community center located on the grounds of the Housing Authority's apartments.  But at school, the kids in my group have described our after-school relationship in various ways.  I have taken Ladaan's lead and now describe it her way:  I work at the after-care program that Ladaan attends.  "After-care"  a nice, middle-class description of programs that often center around art classes, rock climbing or exploring the outdoors while the students' high-earning parents finish their workdays.  A situation even many middle class parents can't afford.  I like it.  My students attend "after-care" and I work there for extra money.

"Why is Raaidah still wearing that huge winter coat?"  a fellow Center teacher asked.
"I know.  A bunch of the Muslim girls at school are still wearing them too.  It must be a thing."

It worries me.  There has been a hollowness in Raaidah's eyes for a while now, mainly after I overreacted to her misbehavior and she got in a lot of trouble.  We made up, but the hollowness just seems to intensify.  She is a regal child and it is often difficult to remember that she is only ten.  The coat she wears is heavily padded and hooded, with a faux fur lined hood.  It is like her armor, her shield, an additional layer of comfort to protect her from the outside.  It has been in the eighties and will only get hotter through the summer.

We sat on the rug together and I noticed that her coat was tied around her waist, exposing an infantile, long sleeved, second hand t-shirt that in no way looked appropriate for a wise soul like her. 
"It's hot, right?"  I asked.
"Yeah.  My mom wants me to wear sweaters, not this coat."
"And....?"
"The sweater doesn't have pockets.  And, it's itchy.  My sister has a nice, soft sweater....."
"Do you think she'll let you use it?"
"NO!" she responded as we both started laughing. 

I dug through my sweaters at home.  I pulled out a pretty blue one, it had pockets and was soft, but it was still a little heavy for spring-time.  I pulled out a thin soft one, but it didn't have pockets and it was an ugly, business-beige.  I realized I didn't want to give the sweaters away, especially the blue one, until I reminded myself how long it had been since I'd worn either and that the joy of seeing Raaidah comfortable would outweigh the overwhelming pleasure of having things I don't use sit in a closet for years. 

"Do you see apartments that look like these from your back window?"  Raaidah asked the following day, opening the blinds at the Center and exposing the apartments where my students live.
"No, I don't see apartments from my back window, it is mainly houses....." I said softly.
"But I'm sure, I'm sure," she repeated, "I can see a house like yours from my back window....it's green and has yellow trim.....".
I had shown them a picture of Lola, laying on her outside bed in my backyard.
"I live about five miles from here, Raaidah....".
"Is that far?"
"Yes...but there are a lot of houses that look like mine here in Decatur.....".  Rich people's houses.  Not public housing.  Rich one like the ones she can see from her apartment. 
I pictured her little wise face, poking out from her hijab and heavy winter coat, gazing at a house she thought was mine. 

"Hey Raaidah, I brought you some sweaters...." I mentioned the next day, when no one was around.
"Where are they?"
"In my car, you can check them out later."
After tutoring, I motioned to her to come with me.  She pretended not to notice and wandered around.  The parking lot is right beside the Center and the students often accompany me to my car.  I said my goodbyes and left and walked toward the car, only to see Raaidah slowly hovering around it. 

"Hey,"  I said, "you may not like these, feel free to say so, there is no obligation what so ever...."
"Where are they from?"
"I mean, they are from nice stores, nice brands....."  I checked the labels.  J. Crew.  Banana Republic.
"That, I like..." she said, looking at the blue one.
"Great!"
"This one, so-so..." she mentioned, touching the beige.
"I know...."
I was surprised when she scooped them both up and wandered back to her apartment, folding the sweaters under her arms. 

I suddenly realized how embarrassing this must be for her.  Cast-offs, from an adult, your teacher, with stains and sweater pills all over them.  And you're supposed to wear this stuff.  Her old clothes. I don't know why I was so blind. 
She has never worn those sweaters and I never ask her about them.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

When Clay Sings

It was Annie's turn to read out loud.
"Is it one of those depressing books?"  I asked, laughing so that she knew I was kidding.
"No!  No, not this time..... I brought this."  she answered, holding up a book called "When Clay Sings".   The cover was adorned with what looked like some sort of Native American cave art.

I immediately suspected that the other kids would hate it.

Annie began reading the lyrical prose.  I was surprised to watch the kids get sucked in and impressed by their comments and questions.
I looked more closely at the cover while Annie read.
"Byrd Baylor!"  I said loudly.
"Oh my gosh, you guys, I know her, I mean, I've met her, more than once.  I have been inside her house....I camped on her land!"
My mind's eye traveled from the small, windowless room of the public housing authority to the hot, dry, dusty hills of Arivaca.  I remembered the airy, indoor/outdoor house with the rock lined porch, sitting on Byrd's couch, fascinated as she spoke, while my eyes traveled to the many Mexican figurines that lined small shelves, left by migrants that had passed through her home.
"You know her!?"  Abshir exclaimed.
"I mean, we're not like, BFFs but I've met her, she's really cool, do you guys know what living off the grid means?"
They were entranced by the tales of the elderly woman that lived by herself in the desert, mere miles from the Mexican border.  The story of her taking a shower with a rattlesnake that had found its way into her bathroom, stating that she didn't bother it and it didn't bother her.  They were intrigued that she loved the desert, the prickly cacti, the variety of animals that most find terrifying, the heat, the clear nights.   
"You should get her to come to our school."  Abshir stated definitively, as if I could just call Byrd up and she'd come.  Abshir and Byrd Baylor are two such different people, for some reason I loved it that he thought Byrd was a person he'd like to meet, to talk to. 
Better yet, I thought, she should come here....to the Center.

"When she says 'when clay sings' does she literally mean that the clay can sing?"  I asked.
"No,"  Abshir answered.  "The clay tells us about the people from the past....they didn't write it down or anything, the clay tells the story."
"Does she have more books?"
"Yes, Abshir, she has A LOT of books."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sharknado















"And then!"  Mahmo continued, breathlessly reading his narrative I had all but forced him to write, "I killed the president and then I was the president!"
"Mahmo, I need more details, how did you become the president after you killed the original president?"
"Because I was the vice-president!"  he continued, batting away my questions while refusing to augment his story with details. 
"By the way, I copied that whole first part from Sharknado."

The large rusty plane finally landed in Santiago de Cuba.  Everyone applauded. 
"I do not like Russian aircraft." the man to my left said, speaking for the first time during the more than two hour flight.
I smiled and laughed, nodding.  They had actually upgraded the planes since my last visit, lining the metal cabin with a more user friendly coat of plastic and replacing the Cyrillic letters on the seats with Roman ones.  

My district is in the process of cutting instructional hours from the Spanish program.  I lost my job five years ago when my former school completely cut the Spanish program in order to spend my salary on other things: predominately a part-time assistant to the bookkeeper instead of a K-5 Spanish program.  It was devastating emotionally and financially and my stomach literally churns to be watching it happen again. 

"You won't believe what Eleanor did tonight during student lead conferences."  a text message said.

I found out in the morning as I stared at a word find I had left for my classes a day when I had a substitute.  WET CUNT was circled, instead of any of the Spanish words the kids were supposed to be looking for.

"She showed this to her parents as her best work in Spanish for the last year and half?"

I listened to the answer while I gazed off at what I was supposed to be doing:  watching parents crash into each other's cars at 7:30AM while dropping their kids off at school.

I felt fulfilled. 


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lift Every Voice and Sing

I remember January 10, 2016.  My phone buzzed in the middle of the night, waking me and I looked at it.
"David Bowie is dead."
"Margaret will be happy to see him." I thought, overriding my atheist tendencies.

A year passed and everything we loved died.  

Sometimes I focus hard on my tutoring group at the public housing authority, sometimes I don't.  Sometimes I just get by.
Annie always brings books to the Center about poor children.  One time, "The Little Match Girl", another time, a horrible story of a child sent by mail train to visit her grandparents during the Depression, literally sent as a piece of mail, because her parents couldn't afford a normal travel ticket.  Annie does not identify with these children.  She always points out that they must not be "that poor" because they have homes to live in.  I'm glad she doesn't identify.  The little match girl died on the street, dreaming of warmth, food and love.

I overheard the students of one of my classes speculating on who they hoped the Amber Alert was for.
"Kevin!" one called, "Janeisha!" another called, and several voiced agreement.
"Yeah, I hope Janeisha has been taken, man, that time she hit me.....".
"What are you talking about?"  I asked.
"There was an Amber Alert yesterday." one answered.
"I know...."
"We hope Janeisha is gone....."
Several students quickly began commenting on the time Janeisha hit them on the bus, in class, on the playground.  She is the fourth member from the same family that I have taught.  They say that there are more in the pipeline.  I crept backward, not knowing what to say.

The inauguration came and went.   I remember teaching during Obama's first inauguration.  I had the TV in the room and the students, by their own choice, refused to leave the room to get lunch because they feared missing the swearing in.   We did not watch the inauguration this year.  

February grew closer.
"I can't believe our birthday is almost here...." one of my 4th graders whispered, his eyes filled with joy.  He has the same birthday that I have and I was charmed that he considered it "ours".
"I know," I responded, "just a few more days.  I am taking the day off afterwards, so that I can stay up late and then sleep in the next day.....".
"Man, I wish my parents would let me do that...." he responded, as if my parents had permitted it and his didn't.

I walked into the Center, nervous about how our students would react to the Muslim ban.  I was surprised to hear them talking about Obamacare.  It was the last day to enroll, but I couldn't figure out how they would know that.   Slowly, the talk shifted to the ban.
"They're curious!" one of the teachers stated, rolling in the television and turning on CNN.  Trump pontificated and the children's eyes glazed over.  I watched our boss watch the computer that was driving the big TV the kids were watching.  Her eyes shifted from interest, to disgust to sadness.  Suddenly, she put on a documentary about Obama and her eyes grew misty.
Mahmo curled up next to me on the rug.  I was watching the video with the children.
"My dad's from Kenya too...." he stated.
"Mahmo, that might be a sign!"
"No..., I'm not like him.  They said Obama always worked hard and me, I get tired sometimes and just ask for the answers from other people....".
"What if Trump kills somebody, will he be gone then?"
"Well, it doesn't have to go that far, Mahmo, he just has to break the Constitution and he can be impeached...."
"So, even if he kills his own wife, can he be put out?"
"Mahmo, if he kills anyone, even his own wife, he is done."
"I don't understand what is happening, what did Trump do?"  he continued.
"You are not going to like this,"  I responded.  "Trump has temporarily banded people from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States.  Somalia is on the list."
"Is India?  There are a lot of Muslims there."
"No."
"Is Indonesia?"
"No."
"Is Saudi Arabia?"
"No."
Mahmo erupted with laughter.
"He missed a lot of us!"  he cried, crystalline laughter filling the Center.