This planet is their home

“We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try.” – Erica Jong

People often ask me how my decision to live without a car affects my children. Usually, I respond with my standard spiel about how we’re able to do all the stuff other families do (blah, blah, blah), because for the most part, it’s true — and because what usually underlies these questions is an assumption that I am shortchanging my kids, that I have sacrificed their birthright of a middle-class lifestyle in service of some extreme and unrealistic ideology.

The thing is, in a way, I have.

I look around and see friends and acquaintances driving their kids to water parks and on camping adventures and to premiere athletic competitions and to schools that are perfectly suited to their needs and temperaments. I see them participating in kid-focused organizations we would likely join if we owned a car. And sometimes, it feels like I am shortchanging them. Certainly, our life choices limit their access to opportunities many of their peers enjoy.

And then I remember that my children are not deprived in any of the ways that matter. They are loved. They are housed. They have access to fresh food, health care, and unlimited books (thank you, Seattle Public Library). They participate in sports and study the arts and play outside safely in their own neighborhood. And they see their beloved extended family regularly, if not as often as they (or I) would like.

Yes, their lives are constrained in some ways, but all kids’ lives are constrained by their parents’ values and circumstances. (Just ask my dad, a talented athlete who was prohibited from participating in most school sports because the games conflicted with his family’s religious observances.) And far more important than the minor, parentally imposed constraints they currently deal with are the very real threats to their future — climate change, extreme inequality, political instability — which are primarily the result of the very lifestyle they have been deprived of.

At some point, we have to acknowledge that what our culture values and prioritizes isn’t actually good for our children. We can continue to participate, or we can choose a different path, however impractical or unrealistic.

Several weeks ago, I came across this beautiful essay by Nicole Bradford, a mother of three whose husband is facing years in prison for participating in direct action efforts to stop fossil fuel extraction. Nicole’s insights are a gift, because they remind us of what we truly owe our — and everyone’s — children.

The accelerating instability of our earth is clarifying. And the act of rising to the enormity of what’s in front of us magnifies the commitment I made to them, when painfully, in love and toil, I brought them to this world.

I know that to use their youth as an excuse to not engage in this struggle would be to betray their existence. Together we are fighting for something all children on earth should be entitled to: a livable planet. And for Ben and me, the work of it becomes its own love story–to each other, and to our children.

Certainly, my family’s “sacrifice” (such as it is) cannot be compared to the Bradfords’ courageous stand. It’s difficult to even argue that our transportation choices are making any kind of difference — in the health of our planet or in our culture. But while the effectiveness of our resistance might be up for debate, the need for it is not.

Working for a healthy, peaceful, just planet does not conflict with our role as parents. On the contrary, it is the most important part of our job. We don’t owe our children fancy camps, or a perfectly curated school experience, or a spot on the best premiere soccer team. We owe them a future. We owe them a life.

 

Westbound 4, 10:20 AM

A thirtysomething man finds a seat near the door, directly in front of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

Woman: “Good morning. How are you?”

Man: “Somebody took my wallet.”

Woman: “At least you had one for somebody to take.”

HBE, D, and me

Dear D,

I don’t know you, but we share a son. I realize it is presumptuous of me to say this, since you never willingly shared him, and since he was never really mine — or for that matter, anyone’s. He came into this world belonging to himself, a little light from God shining through so much darkness. I was his mama for such a short time. But then again, so were you. Except you will be his mama for eternity. He is from you. Of you. There is that.

I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to grow a person in your body. I know the depth of that connection. I know the crushing weight of that love.

I know what it’s like to be desperate. To be so empty inside that you are simply unable to do what needs doing. To feel your own pain so deeply that you don’t have room for other people’s needs.

D, I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to lose a child. Your child, as a matter of fact. I won’t claim my loss is the same as yours, because it is impossible to know what all of this feels like for you. But I can tell you what it feels like for me. There is an emptiness, a small space inside that can’t be filled. It aches and it tugs and it searches every moment of every day.

I know what it’s like to face down dread, to do more than you thought you were capable of  — for love. The day I met you, you had done just that: conquered fears and demons and risked your own freedom to show up for your — our — son.

That day, I noticed you are left-handed. Like me. Like him. It reminded me that all of his beautiful qualities — his dimples, his perfect skin, his gentleness — came from somewhere. Many of them came from you.

Your sister is our son’s mother now. She is the mama who planned the celebration of his fourth birthday, which, as you well know, was last Thursday. (Maybe you were there?) She is the mama who fixes breakfasts and bandages booboos and schedules appointments and snuggles in for stories. Unlike me, she is a blood relative. Unlike you, she is available.

Your sister doesn’t keep in touch (and maybe that’s for the best), so I don’t know how he’s doing. I also don’t know how you’re doing. Like I said, D, I don’t know you.

But we share a son.

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

On poems and pipelines (or, We are water, part II)

You might already know that I am a fan of Poetry on Buses. I’ve loved the program in all of its incarnations, but the post-2014 version is the best yet. The 2016/17 theme, “Your Body of Water,” was so timely and compelling, it motivated me to sit my non-poetic self down, write an actual poem, and submit it. I am so glad I did.

Last month, I had the privilege of reading that poem at the Poetry on Buses launch party at the Moore Theater. WOW. What a powerful celebration of art, community, and LIFE!

There were “poetry buses” parked outside the theater, where attendees could read and listen to recordings of some of the selected poems. In the lobby, there were more poems, as well as an interactive display where people could pledge to protect water. (I didn’t actually visit that display; I was too focused on being nervous about my reading.)

The poems read onstage were presented in four phases to evoke the water cycle, with the Native Jazz Quartet improvising beautiful water sounds between readings. Several local artists also performed, including the incomparable writer/rider/rapper, Gabriel Teodros, who just so happens to be my bus friend from the 48.

A poetry bus! (photo credit: 4Culture)

Poets (including me) onstage during the “evaporation” phase (photo credit: King County Metro)

The entire evening was masterminded by poet planner Jourdan Keith, whose mission in life is to remind us that “we are all bodies of water, connected to other bodies of water.” If there were ever a time when it was critical for us to understand this, it is now.

In her sobering 2010 Ted talk, Jourdan asks, “If you know you are a water body: capillaries, creeks, streams and rivers, containing runoff from farms, rooftops, airports, and driveways — your bladder, an estuary. If you knew you were as contaminated as Puget Sound, or the Orcas that swim in our waters, what would you do?”

This is the question we must urgently ask ourselves, as greed and disregard for life threaten the water all of us depend on – in Flint and Evart, Michigan; in Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota; and right here in Puget Sound.

Right now, Kinder Morgan is preparing to build a pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Pacific Coast in British Columbia. Known as the Transmountain Expansion, it will be the second pipeline to travel this route, with more capacity than the original. The project was approved by Prime Minister Trudeau late last year, and if built, will increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea sevenfold, further stressing our endangered Orca population and dramatically increasing the chances of a major oil spill.

And so much is at risk if the pipeline itself leaks, which they all eventually do. Thank God there are people with the courage to resist.

Would we allow rapacious, profit-driven corporations to threaten our water if we understood that they are also threatening our lives? If we understood that the damage we inflict upon the planet shows up in our bodies? I am not confident of the answer, but I am grateful to Jourdan Keith and Poetry on Buses for reminding us of what is at stake.

Over 300 poems about our connectedness — to water and to each other — will be displayed on buses and trains throughout King County until this time next year. I hope they will inspire you to keep riding.

Guerrilla driver appreciation

Yesterday, a local public radio station aired a story about the Seattle roots of Bus Driver Appreciation Day (now known to everyone except me as Transit Driver Appreciation Day). Eight years after Hans Gerwitz first proposed the idea, the day is celebrated across the US and even in a few other countries. Honoring the work of bus drivers is not a tough sell.

But the thing is, pronouncing one’s appreciation for bus drivers is not the same as showing appreciation. And it’s actually pretty hard to figure out how to do something nice for a bus driver. Every March, there’s a flurry of social media action and lots of official acknowledgement; a number of municipalities have even issued proclamations. But very little of that professed appreciation actually trickles down to drivers. Most of the time, we riders come in contact with them while they’re doing they’re difficult, demanding jobs, so there isn’t time for much more than an enthusiastic, “Thanks for the ride!”

This year, I was determined to do something a bit more meaningful. So, I found an energetic and enthusiastic partner — my friend Myesha, who also happens to be a licensed massage therapist — and the two of us spent a decent chunk of this rainy holiday parked (under a borrowed pop-up tent) at Mount Baker Transit Center, offering drivers on layover free chair massages.* We figured, given the nature of their work, they probably have their share of aches and pains.

I’m not sure how many massages Myesha did today, but I’m guessing it was fewer than a dozen. Most of the massages were shorter than we would have liked, because the drivers had only a few minutes of free time. Still, I hope we brought some joy (and relief) to the drivers who took us up on our offer. We certainly enjoyed the time we spent with them.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, I’m ready to build on the momentum. Fellow bus chicks, let’s make BDAD/TDAD 2018 the best, most creative, most love-filled, most driver-pleasing holiday ever. Let’s work with agencies and with other riders to come up with delightful surprises that do more than pay lip service to our appreciation. Next year, let’s really do this.

Who’s with me?

***

* Since I wasn’t giving the massages, I was the official Bus Driver Thanker. I also kept track of the time, so that everyone made it back to their vehicle on schedule.

A February adventure, Bus Fam style

On Saturday, my crew took a transit trip to the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. We rode three routes on three different systems: the 14 (King County Metro) from our neighborhood to downtown Seattle, the 594 (Sound Transit) from downtown Seattle to downtown Tacoma, and the 1 (Pierce Transit) from downtown Tacoma to the theater. It was a two-hour trip, including walks and waits. Good thing we had our books, cubes, and snacks packed and our adventure hats on.

Even though we ride the 14 regularly, there is something about traveling during “off” hours that makes it more fun. When buses are less crowded, drivers are more relaxed, and there is a solidarity and camaraderie among passengers that leads to conversations — and frequent bus-wide discussions. Our early Saturday morning 14 was one of those special rides, and it put us in just the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the day.

The 594 was exciting for Chicklet and Busling, who are used to city buses and did not know what to make of a Sound Transit commuter vehicle. When I showed them that their seats could recline, they just about fell out.

The 1 ride to the theater was a 30-minute trip down Tacoma’s busy 6th Avenue. Who needs expensive vacations when you can take the bus through a neighboring city? It was fun to notice the differences : the velvety bus seats (which are easier to ride on because they are not slippery but which kind of freak me out because I once read that they’re teeming with scary bacteria), the location-specific bus ads, and the shops and other sights.

It was also pretty amusing to experience all the things that were the same. There was the bus breakdown. Two stops into our first 1 ride, our driver had to “switch coaches” because of an unexplained mechanical problem. There was the Inappropriate Questioner — this time, a middle-aged white woman who yelled across the aisle to a young, light-skinned black man that he looked just like Gregory Hines (he didn’t) and then proceeded to interrogate him about his knowledge of the famous dancer. There was the Manspreader (in his defense, the bus was half empty, so he wasn’t actually encroaching on anyone), who spent the better part of the ride scratching his back with a butter knife. And, at the stop where we got off, which is a half block off of one of Tacoma’s busiest streets, there was this.

Different city, same bus problems. Exhibit D: junk blocking the sidewalk.

Despite the minor setbacks, we arrived at the theater with plenty of time for a stop at the restroom (which had a chaise!) and a little exploring before the show started.

And about that show…

And now, perhaps, you understand my motivation to travel all the way to Tacoma to watch a “family musical.” The show was absolutely wonderful and somehow managed to please all four of us. Not only was it historically accurate — it even included the story of Claudette Colvin and dispelled many myths about Parks’ life — but it was also entertaining and incredibly inspiring.

We tend to see history’s heroes (and sheroes) as Chosen Ones, special people who embrace their destiny as our saviors. The truth is, heroes are almost always regular folks with families and fears and bills to pay. This was certainly true of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Virginia Durr, and the countless unrecognized people who risked and sacrificed for 381 days.

Their resistance was radical and dangerous. They faced violence from terrorists and from those who were sworn to protect them from terrorists. They had no reason to believe that their boycott would be successful, and they had every reason to believe that tremendous harm would come to their families if they continued. Yet day after day, setback after setback, they faced down their fear and doubt and chose to act with hope and courage. Their example is an enduring reminder that justice is not inevitable. It requires struggle. It requires us to persist in moments when it would be far easier not to.

I am grateful to Sue Greenberg and the Tacoma Musical Playhouse for bringing this beautiful struggle to life for my family.

And speaking of family…

My other motivation for a bus adventure to Tacoma was (and will remain) my hilarious, adorable three-year old niece, HD. After the show, HD and her mama met us for lunch at a fun burger joint near Wright Park — another 1 ride in the opposite direction. They also took us on a tour of Stadium High School (which is a short walk from the restaurant), so my Harry Potter-obsessed children could pretend they were visiting Hogwarts.

Coolest high school ever

Stadium’s stadium

After our rainy tour, we decided to continue our sightseeing on foot. We said goodbye to our guides and walked the mile to the nearest 594 stop. Then we headed back north, spending most of the ride napping contentedly in our reclining seats.

Sure, our excursion had its share of wet socks, waiting, and whining (mostly, in the form of begging for treats at the theater), but those irritations will be quickly forgotten. What we will remember about our February Tacoma adventure is that it stimulated our curiosity and imagination, fortified our courage, and connected us with our family and community. In my book, that’s as close to perfect as an adventure can get.

For LaDonna, Linda, and Lucia

Recently, my sweet Busling (who is seven!!!) has been transitioning from captain of Team Mommy to full-fledged Daddy’s boy. I’m mostly happy about this (and hoping some of it will rub off on his big sister), both because I want my kids to have a strong relationship with their awesome father and because I’d like their neediness to occasionally be directed at someone other than me.

But sometimes, I feel this very normal separation as a loss. Like Wednesday, when B brought home a card he’d made during his class Valentine party. Each kid had made one card, and his, he announced matter-of-factly, was for his dad. He was so proud when he showed it to me, insisting that I smell the rainbow heart he’d drawn with scented markers and read the lovely note inside. My good angels couldn’t wait for Bus Nerd to see it. My bad angels were feeling abandoned by my once cuddly, affectionate, mom-centric baby. The bad angels won.

After some cursory praise, I — a woman who has never expected (or even wanted) a valentine from her own spouse — asked, in a tone that might have come across as a wee bit jealous, why he hadn’t made a valentine for me. I managed to recover from my tantrum pretty quickly, but not before the guilt trip had done its damage. Busling immediately busted out a pad of post-its and started writing me love notes. There were lots of sweet messages: I love you, You are my valentine, You are awesome, You give the best snuggles, You rock

And then, just as I was running out of refrigerator space on which to stick the coerced kindnesses, he handed me this.

I have no idea what inspired him write those words. It could be the “courage” sticker that has been a fixture on my laptop since 2013. More likely, it’s that his beautiful, intuitive spirit knew it was just what I needed to be told right now, as I gather myself to resist the evil that is descending upon us.

Maybe you need to be told, too.

Small moments

Last Thursday, I met with a woman named Rachel about a bus-themed event she is planning. Not surprisingly, Rachel and I bonded over our love for buses. We talked about the connections that happen on transit, how they influence us, instruct us, and ground us in our communities. Rachel called these interactions “small moments,” which — leaving aside the association with elementary school writing curriculum* — is exactly the right way to describe them.

Most of my meaningful bus encounters aren’t stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They don’t result in epiphanies or lasting friendships but instead in a slight opening of my heart, a brief glimpse into another life, a kindness shared or received, a small surprise.

There was the time last Friday, when the kids and I were waiting at the Madrona Park 2 stop while the bus was laying over, and the driver, who could surely have used a few moments to himself to eat, use the phone, or just be blessedly alone, opened the bus doors and invited us inside 10 minutes before he was scheduled to leave. Because it was cold.

There were the four teenagers in the back of a Friday evening 106, talking smack and cursing up a storm, then — remembering my kids —  turning to me and saying, “Oops! Excuse our language.”

There was the time in mid-November, at the height of my post-election rage and panic, when I spotted this graffiti message in front of my seat on the 3.

There were the Thanksgiving rides to and from my brother’s house (three buses each way), populated with passengers (including us) carrying dishes to share and foil-covered plates of leftovers.

There was the time Chicklet and I boarded the 48 on the way to church, and the driver announced to everyone within earshot, “Look — twins!”

There was woman next to me on the 27 having a desperate phone conversation with DSHS, trying to figure out who to talk to and how to get credit for the services she was receiving, so that she could be reunited with her children.

There was the time we played musical chairs on a crowded 4 — an elderly man getting up for a woman with a walker, and then another person offering a seat to that man, and so on, until six people had made room for someone who needed a seat more than they did.

There was the man at the 14 stop showing his birth certificate to random strangers to prove he was born in 98122 – a zip code where he can no longer afford to live.

There was the Saturday when Bus Nerd and I took Busling on separate 8 rides and later figured out we’d had the same driver, because we each returned with a snack bag of chips he’d given to Busling upon boarding.

There was the woman on the 120 who reminded me of a younger version of myself: brownish, with a bus bag, reading a big book. After I snuck a peek at the title, we spent the next few minutes bonding — over books in general and Zadie Smith in particular — until we reached her stop.

There was the time we took my three-year old nephew to the Children’s Museum, and Chicklet left one of her beloved Harry Potter books on the 8. Thanks (obviously) to wizard magic, we rode the same bus on the way home, and Chicklet found her book right where she’d left it.

There was the Link ride back in June, where I saw a woman in a hijab with a Pride t-shirt and a man with a sign that said “LGBTQ solidarity with Muslims.”

There was the time I waited at Mount Baker Transit Center with two senior adults and their 12 preschool-aged charges, who chattered cheerfully — wearing matching backpacks and grins — as they waited for the 8 in a perfectly straight line.

There was the time my kids successfully chased down a 50 for the second morning in a row, and the driver told them they would grow up to be track stars.

There are so many more, every day — every ride. Most are quickly forgotten. They are part of the background of my life, perhaps in the same way as a driver’s daily maneuvers. But unlike drivers, I am reminded every time I travel of the humanity that surrounds me.

And it is beautiful.

***

* Chicklet and Busling have both written their fair share of “small moments” stories in their school careers. So far, none have been about the bus. ; )

What I know — what I owe

In the mid ’90s, back when I lived in Texas, I was a teacher. I came to the profession through a rather unconventional — though sadly, not particularly uncommon — path, and I didn’t last long.

I graduated from college with a BA in English, broke, with no clear idea of what I wanted to do for a living and exactly zero job prospects. Despite numerous visits to my university’s career services office, several half-hearted applications to “consulting” firms, and the moral low of applying for an entry-level communications role at Enron, I remained unemployed months after graduation. It was during this desperate time that I learned a school district at the northernmost reaches of the Houston city limits, comprised mostly of poor students of color, was hiring teachers.

It hadn’t occurred to me to apply for a teaching position, since I had no teaching certificate or teaching experience. (I had entertained — and dismissed — the idea of a teaching career early in college.) But this district was just as desperate as I was; it was experiencing an extreme teacher shortage and was therefore offering emergency certification. All that was required to apply was a bachelor’s degree, a mediocre GPA, and a background check.

After a short interview at the district office, I was hired to teach English at one of its four high schools. I started work at the beginning of the semester, without one single minute of training, without even a substantial meeting with the principal or the other teachers in my department. I was told what subject matter I was expected to cover, issued a couple of teacher’s manuals and a rolling cart, and sent off to do a job I had no idea how to do.

The cart, I should explain, was needed because I did not have a classroom. The school was overcrowded, and because I was a newbie and therefore low on the teaching totem pole, I was expected to “float”: teach each class in a different room, using the classrooms of more fortunate teachers during their planning periods. I had no desk of my own, no way to prepare lessons on the board in advance of class, and no place to meet with students or parents outside of class time. I didn’t even have access to a closet to store my coat and purse.

My classes were huge. Some had close to 40 students. On days when everyone showed up, there weren’t enough desks, and I would scramble at the beginning of the period in search of rare extras from other classrooms. A couple of times a month, a new student would show up. At least as often, a student on my roster would disappear.

The school had recently moved to “block” scheduling and for some reason could not figure out how to implement more than one lunch period with this new schedule. So, all 3,000 students ate lunch at the same time. There was not enough room for 3,000 people to eat in the cafeteria, so students ate throughout the school building. The staff was expected to supervise the students during lunch, to ensure that they followed school rules. This exercise in futility was called “lunch duty.”

Back in the mid 90s, state tests were just starting to become a thing. Texas’s test, then called the TAAS, was a big deal for districts and was an especially big deal for our district, since our scores were quite low. In my second year at the school, I was required to teach a daily, semester-long class on this test. (In block scheduling, a semester is the equivalent of a full school year.) I repeat: I was required to teach a daily class about how to take a test. This was in addition to the math test prep that I, an English teacher, was required to do with all of my classes for the first 10 minutes of every period.

These were the conditions under which I began my short-lived teaching career. It is clear to me now (even more than it was then) that I was not set up for success. Given the circumstances, I could not have given my students what they needed and deserved no matter how hard I tried. But the thing is, I didn’t really try.

I had no idea how to be a good teacher, and I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t find a mentor, or attend trainings, or read books about best practices for classroom management or lesson preparation. Instead, I prepared lessons at the last minute and “winged” my way through almost every class. I looked forward to my students completing required readings so that I could show the movie version of the story and avoid teaching for an entire class period. Any (rare) moments that I wasn’t required to spend with students I spent in a locked classroom with a few other young teachers, talking about how much we hated our jobs.

Once, I shared a lunch duty post with a PE teacher, a man in his 50s with many years of experience. In the course of our conversation, I complained about the chaos at the school. He agreed with me about the craziness but seemed resigned and wholly unconcerned. “These kids are trash,” he told me matter-of-factly. He only worked at our school, he explained, because the district paid more than districts with more “desirable,” students. He was looking forward to retirement, but in the intervening years, he would earn his paycheck honorably, by “giv[ing] them a basketball.”

What did I say in response to this man’s disgusting comments? Absolutely nothing.

At the beginning of every semester, I received individual education plans (IEPs) for all of my students with special needs. As their teacher, I was required to adjust my teaching style to suit these students’ learning styles. I know for sure that I did not do that. I did not even know how.

I rarely called parents, in part because many of my students were from non-English-speaking families, and I lacked the necessary communication skills, but mostly because I wasn’t organized or proactive enough.

Despite these (and many other) deficiencies, both of my formal reviews were solid: in the B+ range. This fact alone tells you all you need to know about the level of expectation and the amount of oversight in that school.

It wasn’t all awful. I showed up every day, despite the terrible conditions and the depressing, prison-like atmosphere. I tried to help my students understand how their schoolwork applied to their lives and their futures. I managed a few creative and inspired lessons. And I am certain that some of my students learned something of value from me.

With my 9th graders — in someone else’s classroom (ahem). Hard to tell which of us is the teacher.

Two of my students — eating their lunches on top of a trash can

With a student on the last day of school. Loved that kid but was singing, “Hallelujah!” in my head.

After two years, I accepted that I was not cut out to be a teacher and moved on to a profession I was better suited for. (A decade later, I moved on again, but that’s a story for another time.)

Now I have children in school, and I am dependent upon teachers to care about them, to see their humanity, and to create safe and stimulating learning environments. Now I understand better than ever what my students deserved, and just how much I failed them.

There is no way to fix the mistakes I made. All I can do now is ask myself what I owe.

Certainly, I owe a commitment to the children who are enrolled in public school now. I owe support and encouragement to those teachers who take seriously their responsibility to educate our children. (This support must also manifest in the public arena, by demanding that our leaders fund reasonable working conditions and decent salaries.)

Also, I owe the truth.

The truth is, we don’t value all children equally. The truth is, we are willing to accept substandard education for poor students and students of color.

The truth is, we are throwing away human beings.

What are we going to do about it?