Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Weather Outside is Frightful

"Rudolph the red nosed reindeer!"  the kids howled mere feet from me while I tried to answer emails in our office during my lunch break.
"Reeeeiiindeerrrrr......" a teacher harmonized.
"Had a very shiny nose!"
"Shiny nooooose...." the harmonizing continued.
"And if you ever saw it!"
"Saaaawww it...."
The kids, I could handle.  The adult, no.

"A man can let a woman be independent when he knows he's the man."
I gulped some of my small glass of wine and ate a wildly overpriced fried oyster.
"BUMP.  What do you mean, if he knows he's the man?"  my supervisor advised my other supervisor.
I was glad she was willing to take on that fight.  I just wished my wine and entree hadn't cost so much.

The kids laughed at the Charlie Brown Christmas story.
"Look at that tree hair!"  one called, when faced with the famous tree's falling needles.

I stood at the Housing Authority with the kids, ready to do the monthly walk to school that requires me to be at school at 6:30AM, meet a parent and drive to the apartments, and then walk with the kids back to school and have them arrive by 7:30.  I don't have to do it, I hate getting up early, but I always end up enjoying it.  I felt bleary, I had been at the Housing Authority dinner until ten hours before I was standing in front of the Center the following morning.

The little girls put on reindeer antlers and Santa hats over their hijabs.  The boys ran like heathens.  The people of the upscale community we walk through looked on in distaste.  My tutorial group of girls purred lasciviously at the assistant principal they have a crush on.   Mohammed screamed like a girl when a dog walked beside him.  It was good.

"When might be a good time to call you and address your concerns?" I emailed the pervasive parent, who had emailed half of the school about some perceived affront to his child, taking nearly a month before actually contacting me.
"Can we talk Friday during the break?  I've had a busy week!"  he responded.

I watched a teacher I work with allow students to shave off his beard by the flagpole in order to raise money for one of our kids that has cancer.  The sick child is my student. 
The live stream flashed on the screen and the class I was with screamed with excitement.  I saw a cell phone flash on the screen and I saw Andrew's face.
They face-timed him.
I saw his pale face, laughing, bald head laying against the hospital bed. 

I stood in line at the Dollar store, waiting to buy treats for my Housing Authority kids.  It was the last night of tutoring before the break.  I had cash that I had received as a gift from one of my classes.  The line was taking forever.  I child I teach at school was a couple of people ahead.
"That's the Spanish teacher,"  he said loudly.
"Everyone hates her."

I made it.  I survived the week.  Family Christmas matters crashed in, but I navigated that, too.

I looked at Facebook.  A video popped up in front of me of a man swinging an axe into a live pig's head.  It stood next to him, innocently, unaware of what was about to happen.  I quickly swiped away, trying not to see.  I felt a prickly heat crawl up my neck and on to my face.

And then I cried.

Friday, December 15, 2017

These Are the Days

"Now click it, Piggy!"  the little boy shrieked, calling his classmate by her fake 'Quizlet Live' name, while commanding her to click the right answer on her iPad.

I stood in the market, tampon in hand, waiting to sign the receipt for my snack that I eat between jobs.

"Her mother attributed some of her suicidal tendencies to your Spanish class.  Sorry, but I have to run."
"That's quite a bomb you just dropped on me."
"Just letting you know it was said."
Okay.  Thanks.  I appreciate that thought.

I showed my Housing Authority students a picture of Lola in her new sweater.  It is a ridiculous expenditure and I knew that they would think she looked cute in it. 
"Your house looks NICE."  Miriam commented.
I felt uncomfortable.  My house is nice. Very nice.  I hadn't thought that they would notice.  I hadn't thought about it at all. 

"I went to my first concert last night!"  Hunter squealed.   I taught him last year as well and have never see him more animated.
"Who was it?"
"TAYLOR SWIFT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  he howled.
"We had special seats!  And then, we went to the club!  It had leather seats and a bar!".
"It's 'prepara' people!"  he interjected, slapping his hand on the table to instruct the rest of his team to hit the right answer on their iPads.
"I'm flying first class to South Beach for Spring Break!"  he continued.

I crept out of school and walked toward the Housing Authority, climbing over the railroad tracks while fearing that somehow my shoe would get caught between the wooden planks and a train would come, then slid down a rocky hill on my crouched butt and hands, like a disturbed skier, before shooting into the bike path and nearly getting run over.

"MISS WAGNER!!!!" a child screamed, hand outstretched from a passing car.

I rose and steadied myself, and waved back with a smile.

Friday, December 1, 2017

La fuente

We sat in the classroom on our "work day".  Most people think a teacher work day means that we get to catch up on work:  planning, grading, thinking ahead.  But, we had Professional Learning, classes taught by other teachers to help us improve our trade.  It was alright.

During a session, a teacher volunteered to read aloud a section.  He did it in a jokey manner, to entertain us,
obviously we were among friends.  It was funny.
"You sounded like Barry White!" a teacher commented, jovially.
No he didn't.  He sounded like a teacher making a joke.  Just because he was black doesn't mean every voice over is Barry White.

I marched through the Farmer's Market, TWO DAYS before Thanksgiving, as opposed to the day before Thanksgiving nightmare that I have thrust upon myself since assuming the weird adult role of hosting family events at my house, though I have no children, am un-married and have cast aside any other semblance of traditional life except for getting a mortgage.
"Listen, as a person who has to deal with gluten free shit everyday, just pick one"  a side-stander said to his partner.
"I hate the grocery store, I HATE THE GROCERY STORE."  another bystander announced, while strolling through the too-full aisles.

"Frosty the Snowman!  Was alive-ass he could be...."
I checked my ears while staring at Johnny Cash sing Christmas songs on some public access channel, my stomach full of Thanksgiving food.

I stood, staring at kids eating their lunches, while chatting with my fellow teacher at large, who also had lunch duty.
"Hey man!"  a fellow teacher announced to my paisano.
"Where did you get that jacket?!"
"The place where I work during the holidays, I get a discount." he answered.
"Hook a brother up!"  the new teacher announced.
It was cute.  Call the black teacher "brother".  I love it.  Ingratiate yourself.  Bruh.

I drive between my school and the Housing Authority, where I work after school, three days a week.  I cut through the fancy neighborhood, trying to make it on time, often while eating a snack because I am starving.

I noticed a boy, tossing a football with his dad in the front yard.  His face filled with a huge smile, every time they passed the ball back and forth.  Just that simple act.

I watched Anna, in my class during the last period of the day.  She read the lines she was supposed to read for her skit, and her face spread with a smile and excitement for what she was doing.

Their capacity for joy fills me with wonder and envy. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wincing the Day Away

I watched the millionth, skit rendition of the same story, glassy-eyed and tired from a long week of sleeplessness and toxic work environment.  I glanced to my left and noticed a serious looking child cradling the classroom broom in his arms while stroking its dirty bristles, eyes locked on the skit.  

I walked through the school at 6:30 in the morning, already almost late to meet the Housing Authority kids for their monthly walk to school instead of ride the bus day.  I saw a co-worker chatting with Miss Alice.  I can't believe anyone actually comes to work at that hour.  They probably thought they saw a ghost when I walked by, as it wasn't ten minutes past when I was supposed to be at work.  

We walked through the neighborhoods and over the railroad tracks, as the sky slowly lightened and the day began.  Later that morning, an escaped emu would disrupt the parent drop-off lane, standing still and then darting between cars and up sidewalks as startled parents and children stared at it and tried not to run it over.  

I sat with my back to everyone, hunched over my laptop, hoping to be left alone.  

"LONDON — A British bakery chain has apologized after creating a Nativity scene in which the baby Jesus, surrounded by three wise men, was replaced by a sausage roll.
And not just any sausage roll, but one that had been bitten into."
I snickered, probably for the only time all day.  

"Scary movies don't scare me...."  Maryan responded, "I just think of things over and over and they won't go away.....".
"I have that problem, too."  I answered, looking back at her piercing stare.  
She widened her eyes and grabbed my phone, resetting the stop watch for her one minute fluency read.  

We sat under the fluorescent lights, nine hours after we had walked to school together, getting ready to start tutoring.  
"Well, my high of the day is that Mr. Jackson walked with us to school today!"  Muslimo announced with a little purr and side eye.  We burst out laughing while the girls started outing each other's crushes.  
"My low was.....my low was,"  Maryan started again, her voice quiet, "I saw a pile of feathers in the drop off lane....."
"Oh yeah, the emu!"  I interjected.

"They had blood on them." 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

We Take Care of Our Own

"Okay muchachos, ¿Qué es el Libro de Guinness?  Who can explain what the Guinness Book of World Records is?"

"It is a book of beer." a small blond girl offered, definitively.  

"The local people have long believed the monarchs are the returning spirits of their diseased relatives....." Lily read aloud for the class.

"Deceased." I quickly corrected, as she continued reading, unfazed.

"I wanted to check in on Tim's behavior.  We doubled down on his ADHD medicine.  I'm sure you've seen a difference!"

"I can't breathe.....I can't breathe....I CAN'T BREATHE....."  Eric Garner's guttural pleas filled my car as I drove over the railroad tracks and to the Center to tutor.  The gray sky seemed to darken and grip the earth stronger.

"So broken windows is predicated on the idea that if you break a window in a neighborhood, soon, all the other windows in the neighborhood will be broken. So you have to work hard to keep those windows from being broken, so that means cracking down on small offenses. So don't let people jump turnstiles. Don't let people ride their bicycles the wrong way down a sidewalk. Don't let people smoke weed in public. Don't let people urinate in public."   

I turned right on Howard.  

"And of course, this only happens in certain neighborhoods and doesn't happen in other neighborhoods." 

"...police in cities like New York were stopping 500,000, 600,000, 700,000 people a year almost entirely in black and Hispanic neighborhoods and very often physically searching them as well...it's traumatizing....".

I made my left into the apartments.  

"...there is a thing called a roadside cavity search...."  

"Please just leave me alone...." he pleaded, his breathing labored.

"The kids were asking about the Civil Rights Movement.  They think it happened a long time ago..."
"Whaaa?"  a few of the other Center teachers gasped.
"I was there!"  one of them exclaimed.
"Me too!" another seconded.
"I thought we'd watch 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham' today."
"ALL of them will watch it."

I watched the Watsons carefully plan their drive from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama.  The last rest area they could safely stop at.  How early they would leave Michigan in order to drive through the south in daylight.  When Byron runs excitedly to a lunch counter to order hot dogs and fries for the family and is addressed as 'boy' and told to leave.  The look of excitement quickly falling from his face, disgust, anger and confusion replacing it.  The four little girls singing in the church choir.  

"What is their problem?  Why do they have such a chip on their shoulder?  Why don't they just get over it?" rang in my ears, a lifetime of 'questions' in white voices.

George Wallace's face appeared on the screen.
"Segregation now....."
"Segregation tomorrow....."
"Segregation forever....." the teachers said in unison with the archival Wallace footage.

It was burned in their memories.  It always will be.  

*Interview excerpts, NPR, Matt Taibbi

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Dreamers, Poets and Nap-takers

"Oh wow, there was a dictator in Libya, it's a country in northern Africa, he was known for doing kind of crazy things.  You know like, setting up a big tent to sleep in while visiting New York City or he had this like, all-female security team that would bust out with him whenever he appeared in public...."

I have no recollection of what prompted that conversation.

"Wait, will you write his name on the board?  I would like to do further research on him...."

"Qaddafi," I wrote slowly on the board "but it can be spelled other ways..."

"I demand that you change my child's grade from a two to a three.  If she did not learn what she should have, it is your fault."

I walked into school, noticing one of my Housing Authority students carrying the same lunch box as mine.  The Center gave them to us and we all use them.  Our padded, purple boxes with an inspirational message on the outside.  

"My child has NEVER had a disciplinary issue at school and I repeat, NEVER.  We would like to speak to you.  Our phone number is (404) 877-2030.  We are available after 5:30 on Friday."

As I timed Naado reading her passage out loud, I glanced up to see that the other two members of our group had clandestinely rolled up the skirts of their hijabs and flipped them backwards over their heads, transforming their head covers from long, nun-like items to a sort of weird turban.  They laughed hysterically upon being noticed, exposed necks stretched tall and eyes wide with excitement. 

"Noooo!"  Naado shrieked, covering her eyes and tugging on her own hijab as the girls quickly jerked them back down, bubbling with laughter.  

"Telling our child to reflect on his behavior is COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE.  Now, he does not want to come to school.  If you are looking for suggestions for appropriate consequences, I would be HAPPY to provide you with some."

"All day, I watch humans scurry from store to store. They pass their green paper, dry as old leaves and smelling of a thousand hands, back and forth and back again.

They hunt frantically, stalking, pushing, grumbling. Then they leave, clutching bags filled with things - bright things, soft things, big things - but no matter how full the bags, they always come back for more. 

Humans are clever indeed. They spin pink clouds you can eat. They build domains with flat waterfalls..."  Muslimo said aloud, while the rest of us followed along.  

The clock ticked and the sunshine outside dimmed as we sat around a table under fluorescent lights, ten noses in ten copies of the same book.  

*Quote and title, The One and Only Ivan

Saturday, October 28, 2017


"So, then we drove to St. Petersburg to evacuate, me, the dogs and my daughters.  We got to the hotel and this horrible man, an Indian man, with terrible teeth, totally ripped us off.  They are terrible people, immigrants....".

I started laughing, out of nervousness.  I was sitting on her back porch, in the home we had rented in July, well before we knew about Irma, Maria, and the rest of the gang.   Alec and I wanted to back out of the rental, but she had strong armed us, basically making it clear that she would keep every red cent we had paid in advance if we even tried not to drive into a disaster zone.  So, we packed up, put a gas can in the car and took the risk, watching caravans of military, police and utility vehicles drive north as we drove south.

"When I came home, there was a mattress in the living room..." Maryan responded, when I asked about highs and lows before beginning my "lesson" at the Housing Authority.
"Is your mom home from the hospital?"
"No, she's still there" Maryan responded, shielding her enigmatic face below the table.

"THEY ARE TERRIBLE PEOPLE!" she reiterated.
"And they want our jobs".
"But, your husband, he's a keeper.  I might just take him home with me...".
Alec jumped up and went inside.  Florida Mom was pleased that Alec had helped her clear hurricane debris from the front yard.  God only knows what she would say if she put two and two together and realized he was Jewish.
"But," she said, eyeballing Lola, "there were these people once that rented this house and said that their dog was friendly, bit me in the boob!  I told them they could take that dog to the shelter if they wanted to stay in my place....".
"Deadbeat Ex-Husband Roy" pulled up a few minutes later in a Cadillac while she yelled across the small yard what she wanted him to do next.

"Emmy, you have to get up.  If you're ill, you have to call you're parents and go home.  You can't just lay down in here...."
"My mom didn't pick up her food stamps!  I'm hungry and I haven't eaten in two days!".
I looked at her homeroom teacher, who was luckily still in the room.
"Come on, let's go." he responded, taking her to the cafeteria.

We are reading "The One and Only Ivan" at the Housing Authority.  Our original group read was "El Deafo" and it was a resounding success.   I started doing read-alongs because I force my students to read twenty minutes a day.  Most of them would pick picture books, way below their level and on top of it, not even finish them and switch several times within the twenty minute period.  I needed to have them all read the same thing so that I could do comprehension activities, try to do real literacy work.  Not that I know what I'm doing, but, whatever.

They loved El Deafo.  The One and Only Ivan has been more of a struggle.  As the students read the passages out loud, I found myself so engrossed in the book that my mouth was hanging open.  I looked up to my right and saw Muslimo, her hand in an L shape on her forehead, pointing at me.

During the reading, Maryan whispered to me.  "The baby never came out of the stomach.  It died in there....".
"Is your mom home now?  Is she sad?"
"I don't know.  I laid down on my dad's bed for a minute, and tears came out."  she stated, then pushed her eyes back on The One and Only Ivan.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Stars That Shine So Bright

"Hey, Henry, is one of your parents in education?  Something caught my eye this weekend and I thought it was your last name.....".
Yeah, that thing that caught my eye when I was job hunting at work and saw your distinct last name as a head of school that I was checking out.....
"Yeah, both of them are teachers...." he answered, with a little smile and exasperated eye roll.

"Wow, two teachers as parents...."
"Yeah, and they are both moms!" he answered, as if that doubled the problems.

As much as I'd like to pretend that my group of kids in the Housing Authority are a bunch of sweet saints, they often buck me.  I have a group of eleven this year, a big class for what people think is a small group tutoring situation.  And, nine of them are female.  They were cute at first, then I suddenly had a Mean Girls situation on my hands. And, they were against me.

"So then, he came out, dressed as Santa, the blackest of the blackest of the blackest skin on Earth!  I couldn't believe it!  And the kids, the kids accepted it like it was nothing!  None of them laughed!"  Her haughty smug chortle sang from her mouth as if she had just told the most adorable story in the western hemisphere.  I ground my teeth and said nothing, my back turned and hunched like a troll.

"Back away, little girl!"  the tiny fourth grader hissed to her neighbor, the voice of a fifty year-old mean woman coming from her lips.  Her neighbor started to cry.  I knew her mother had been killed in an accident months before while she was in the car and I knew that her table mate didn't like it when people stepped on her shoes.   It was a no win.

"I am the passenger....and I ride and I ride......"
I was so fucked up I could barely stand.  I was stumbling into people.
"All of it is yours and mine...."
"Let's take a ride and see what's mine!"  I screamed with the singer.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Chosen

"Texas mayor tells those not evacuated to write names, Social Security numbers on their arms....".  I felt a ripple of discomfort in my stomach while reading the newspaper and my mind's eye floated off to a different time, more than a decade ago, when I returned to the United States and saw people on rooftops of houses surrounded by water and a government that ignored them.

I watched Trump pardon Arpaio.  My mind travelled to a time I engaged in what was probably illegal activity in the name of social justice.  I watched as my partner in crime quietly pulled up his pant legs and began writing phone numbers in Sharpie on his shins.  I kept driving south, hoping his people would bail us both out of jail.

"Those that have not accepted Jesus into their hearts will not see Michael again!"  the pastor informed the crowd.  My niece sobbed heavily at my side.  Thank you, I thought, thank you for providing so much solace to those that have lost someone.

Someone smeared the Confederate monument close to where I work with shit.  I snickered when I read about it.

I stood outside, surrounded by fourth graders, staring at the sun. Countless mirrored faces pointed directly up.  A small nudge of moon was slowly traveling across the sun, making it look like some sort of Pacman.

Soon, it was completely obscured, save a slim, fire-orange smile at the bottom.

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?"
"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."
"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.
"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


"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."
"Is Indonesia?"
"Is Saudi Arabia?"
Mahmo erupted with laughter.
"He missed a lot of us!"  he cried, crystalline laughter filling the Center.