Category Archives: not transportation

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.

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?

Onward

Every Wednesday, I volunteer at my kids’ school. I spend most of my time there in the cafeteria, because — thanks to our state’s chronic (and criminal) funding challenges — our food service manager doesn’t have the resources she needs to do her job well.

I never look forward to my volunteer days — there are always 100 other things I should (or would rather) be doing — but I usually enjoy them. This is because my kids’ school is awesome. The student body is extremely diverse, and each classroom reflects that diversity* (a rarity in this proudly progressive city). The staff is also diverse, and is one of the most committed and conscientious groups of people I have ever had the privilege to know. Despite innumerable challenges — inadequate funding, oppressive (and often incompetent) district bureaucracy, too many tests — they do everything in their power to build a supportive community and provide a well-rounded, enriching education to all of our kids.

But back to Wednesdays.

On Wednesday, November 9th, the first day of the New Reality, I really did not feel up for volunteering. I forced myself — and my kids — through the motions of getting ready for the day, but as the three of us walked to school, I was overwhelmed with despair. It was a heaviness I had never felt before, even in my worst moments of grief.

When we arrived, the blacktop was filled with kids laughing and running and playing. Some were huddled in small groups, discussing the results of the election, but most were simply enjoying their last moments of morning recess, as they do every morning. The bell rang, and they lined up by classroom. Teachers walked out of the building to greet them, many wearing our school’s Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Then everyone headed inside for another day of learning.

I made my way to the kitchen, where our wonderful cafeteria manager was hard at work unloading the “keeper” with the next day’s meals. I washed my hands, donned an apron, and began rinsing and chopping the daily fresh produce snack.** When I finished, it was time for first lunch.

I spent the next few hours serving meals to hundreds of precious children of all colors, faiths, backgrounds, and abilities; hugging teachers who give so much to help those children learn; and watching our beautiful, imperfect community make it through the challenge of another delightful, chaotic, too-short lunch period.

The heaviness started to lift.

After lunch, while I wiped tables and listened to the music class practice songs on the cafeteria stage,*** I realized that we are all still here, doing the work we have always done. We can still connect, and serve, and build. We can still take care of each other. We can still love.

This is not some cop-out platitude post to suggest that we can fix the problems in our country by “being nice” — or to encourage folks to forget about politics in favor of more pleasant subjects. On the contrary, “politics” will have a tremendous impact on the children I serve every Wednesday; indeed, it already has.

Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to vocally and actively and with all the resources at our disposal, advocate for a just and sustainable country and world. But to do that, we must start where we are. And we must remember who we are. I am honored to be part of a community that does both.

Every member of the staff signed this.

Every member of the staff signed this letter.

school sign

***

* This is a relatively recent development. A couple of years ago, the school community made the decision to move from two programs to one. It was a bold and courageous move (one that I will probably talk about in a future post). We still have plenty of challenges, but it has made all the difference.
** This exists at our school only because a parent who is very passionate about nutrition identified the program and raised the money to pay for it.
*** Our (part-time) music teacher does not have a classroom.

I’m too damn tired to think of a title for this

Yesterday morning, I had to look my children in the face and explain to them that a man who was supported by the KKK is our new president.

A. Man. Who. Was. Supported. By. The. K! K! K! Is. Our. New. President.

We are no longer in the realm of politics or policy. This is about denying others’ humanity. This is about inciting violence. This is about evil.

I have never, at least not in my adult life, felt connected to any symbols associated with the “United” States — not the flag, not the anthem, not the Declaration of Independence — none of it. I see behind and beneath all of that, to the oppression and empire building. To the individual suffering of people who are considered afterthoughts or unfortunate casualties of this great American Experiment. And I just can’t drink the Kool Aid.

What I do feel connected to, however, is this city where I was born. Not the symbols or the culture, but the place. This landscape — the mountains, the water, the trees, the rain, even the way it smells — is deeply embedded in me.

Tahoma

I am a descendent of people from three continents. Nearly all of my ancestors – West African, Cherokee, Choctaw, Irish – share a history of displacement. This place, where my grandparents migrated over 80 years ago, is the closest I have to homeland. My father was born here. My children were born here. My people are here: dad, brothers, nieces, nephew, lifelong friends. My doctor, my dentist. My library. My neighborhood. My beautiful neighbors. The trees I planted. My church. My kids’ school. My mother’s ashes. My grandparents’ graves. My community. My memories. My history. I am as rooted as I can ever hope to be.

But on Tuesday, that was taken from me.

I am not safe here. This is not my home.

On heartbreak and clean teeth

Two years ago Saturday, I met my foster son, known on this blog as HBE. That first night was difficult, in ways that are hard to fully appreciate unless you’ve instantly become the mother of a traumatized stranger, shortly after swimming lessons and right before dinner. The most difficult moment for me happened after all three kids were asleep, as I sat on the floor unpacking the large shopping bag of HBE’s belongings.

Until that point, I hadn’t thought much about HBE’s history. His relatives and relationships had been reduced to a handful of sentences on a DSHS form, which I had read only 24 hours earlier. But here was proof that he had real connections to other people: a stuffed dog, a box of favorite snacks, pajamas. At the bottom of the bag I found a tiny toothbrush, carefully wrapped in a paper towel.

Earlier that evening — when we learned for sure that a 16-month old would be joining our family — Bus Nerd had gone to the store to buy supplies, including a toothbrush. We had used that toothbrush to clean HBE’s teeth at bedtime, before I was faced with this evidence that someone else cared for him, someone who had likely brushed his teeth mere hours earlier, at the beginning of a day that turned his world upside down.

I set the toothbrush down and wept, for all of us.

On July 20th, 2015, HBE was reunified with his relatives. Nine months after unpacking his things, I was the one doing the packing. To keep focused on something other than my sadness, I took my time, making sure to include everything he might want or need: a photo book of our family, clothes for now and later, bath toys, favorite stories, the stuffed pig he slept with every night. The final item I packed was his toothbrush. As I slid the plastic baggie into the front of his suitcase, the tears began to fall. They haven’t stopped.

HBE’s other toothbrush is still in the kids’ toothbrush cup in our bathroom. That one I saved, in case he ever returned for a visit. We haven’t laid eyes on him or heard his voice since he left our care 460 days ago. But the toothbrush is still here. It is the evidence that we care.

toothbrush

 

 

Some truth

For me, the most important thing about writing is telling the truth. Ironically, this is precisely the area in which I fall short. It’s s not that my writing is untrue — I do my best to keep things factual; it’s that it is not as true as it could be. Curating facts to advance a particular point of view or present a certain image is one way to communicate, but it feels very surface. Only by exposing vulnerability and exploring ideas without an agenda can we truly connect with words. So today — and, hopefully, on many future days — I am going to share a bit of my truth.

The truth is, in this moment (as in most moments) I am overwhelmed by the suffering in this world. Suffering — of both large and small scale — surrounds us. Hurricanes, homelessness, famine, disease, and war. Child abuse, poisoned water, mass shootings, failing schools, and underfunded everything. Car crashes. Evictions. Convictions. Loss of parents and children. Loss of species and habitats. Exploitation. Violence.

I am beyond fortunate to have shelter, enough to eat, a loving spouse, healthy children, and access to medical care and transportation. Yet, even in my life, there has been plenty of suffering. And I do not doubt that there will be plenty more.

Right now, as I sit on my comfortable couch typing, there are millions of people who are living through their worst moments and millions – even billions – more who have never known comfort or safety.  How can I sit here, so complacent, while children die of drone attacks and women are raped by soldiers and thousands of people in my own city live on the streets? It is because my own fear of suffering keeps me paralyzed.

Ten years ago, I watched my mother die of cancer. Now, all around me, friends and acquaintances are being diagnosed with the disease. I grieve for them, because I know what they are facing. I also wonder: Am I next? Every time a child dies, or a terrible accident happens, or an earthquake devastates, I am filled with the pain of the people who are affected. But also, I wonder: Am I — are we — next?

Dread and despair are my constant companions. I can push them away, count my blessings, look for the helpers, focus on my breath, connect with my Creator, but they lurk beneath the surface and follow me everywhere – even into my most joyful moments.

I know for sure that fear is the opposite of love. One need look no further than the disturbing election that is playing out under our noses to see that. But I cannot conquer my own fear, or even, most of the time, keep it under control.

Fear informs so many of my decisions. It keeps me from standing up and stepping out more than I do, because standing up might be uncomfortable: physically, socially, legally, and in countless other ways. It keeps me from fostering another child, because I know it will be hard, and also because, if something catastrophic happens to me (see above), there will be three children without a mama. Fear even informs what I post on this blog. I worry that it will sound trite, that it will unwittingly offend, that I will be exposed as a bad writer or even a bad person.

I try to choose love over fear, as often as I can, in as many contexts as I can, because love — not the sentimental variety, but love as King envisioned it — is the only constructive response to the violence and misery in our world. But I am not very good at it. Thank God I have so many examples of courage and love in action to draw on for inspiration. I will keep trying.

Ase.

fear-is-a-prison