What Happened Next in San Francisco

1.

These are sentences from my notebook from the last 8 months. I’m putting them in their place, shuffling my cards so I can make a new hand.  Two-thirds of a year. I’m not old enough, yet, to count time too closely. But I moved here on purpose. I shifted my storyline with so much intention. I’m curious to find out what happened next.

2.

When the tide goes out at Ocean Beach, I learned in September, the Bay is emptying like a bathtub. We drank beers in the haze and the boys surfed. Don’t get used to this, everyone said. The city steamed in the day but by evening was like the cool side of the pillow. I loved California already for its peaches and plums, stayed up too late baking pluots into pie.

During the heat wave, I saw homeless San Francisco at the San Francisco Public Library, washing in the public restrooms and napping in the corners. I saw startup San Francisco at Uber, eating beet chips in the cafeteria and holding meetings in backlit spaceship chairs. Hayes Valley felt like a chic French village at night and the Mission felt like McAllen’s tough cousin, muscled with murals and garbage. The city smelled like eucalyptus and pot and urine, a city of dreams and dreams deferred or never even dreamt.

Right after I got hired, I pretended I was comfortable holding an old fashioned at a fancy restaurant under the highway in SoMa, asking the Mayor of Charlottesville for his unvarnished stories while picking at a cheese platter. 24th Street was better. Sage, drums, girls in feathered headdresses riding slowly down the street. Hair salons making an extra buck by painting faces. The small of pan de muerto in fluorescent-lit bakeshops where the grandma only speaks Spanish but the grandson prefers English. You’re welcome.

I came back to SF in January to skies that turned pink before rain. I came back to the sunrise cracking over the Transamerica tower, late to work. I came back to weekends golden and liquid. I bought a wetsuit and surfed, noticing when I breathed into the wall of water and stood up, and when I just said shit. I biked up and down Golden Gate and Folsom and Oak. I spoke in meetings. I walked in and out of bodegas and fish shops and Chinese grocery stores. I owned a view of San Francisco from a second-story window. The whole city spread below like a picnic blanket and the Salesforce Tower was a delicious rainbow fish.

“You can see why people stay out here,” my east coast parents said, after a day of riding bikes through the Presidio. We took a ferry across to Alameda like a late-night vaporetto ride in Venice. We ran through Golden Gate Park like it was our New Jersey loop. But we ate in the Outer Sunset and I told them how this city felt like nowhere else, like something I could only build myself.

Spring: the rain that makes everything green, exhilarated. The rain that highlights the homeless. Everyone with a place to go evaporates, and everyone in tents or bus stations is left on misty streets like a soggy paper bag. Spring evenings still felt soft like in high school. Days felt bright and raw and the surf was choppy and the coast south was jagged, new.

It’s baseball season now and I run after work. I run along the Embarcadero, I run past the stadium, I run into electric scooters on the sidewalks. I found a place by the Bay where the water is still and the path peters out like writing you’ve erased. I keep running. I haven’t been here long enough to own anything. From my house, you have to run up a hill in either direction to get a view. Then the sun drops into the Pacific and mist rolls across the mountains in Marin like you made it happen.

From the Archives, More Than Sky

I had heard the story. A woman bought the unfinished framework of a one-story house in a field and started to build it higher and wider. The wind-bleached wood looked like bones against the blue February sky. As she scrambled between the ribs of the top floor she whistled, the neighbors say—continuous whistles, as if she only ever breathed one breath. When the season spread into spring, and then summer, she became quiet. She ran out of songs, one neighbor said, but I bet she just wanted to listen to the heavy hum of cicadas. She bought a harness and belayed herself up and down each of the six outer walls to shingle them with cedar. By the end of the summer she was brown, and her hair had turned blonde. She painted the cedar shingles white. In the autumn, when the frost stiffened the fields, the neighbors didn’t see her anymore. They could hear hammering from inside, and sometimes a drill.

No one else ever touched the house’s bones, they tell me, though when I climb up the stairs years after they say she began it seems incredible. The rooms are complete and smooth. The second floor is made out of windows. There is no furniture. To the right of the staircase, on the third floor, there’s a small hexagonal room. The woman has a low, square table set on top of a Turkish carpet, and stacks of paper, and a jar of yellow pencils. It’s February, and the water in a clear drinking glass is frozen. I look up and notice there’s no ceiling. The woman looks up from a sheaf of lined paper. Such a pleasure, she says, to wake up to that blue sky.

New places

 

A nap I don’t want to wake up from.  A quiet I don’t want to break. A hum, testing out the sound of my voice under an archway. Wondering why I set an alarm. Wanting to go back to that quiet but wondering, too, if I need to wake up. Wondering if I am awake already anyway.

I'm learning California by smell. Pot and eucalyptus in the dark on my bike ride home. Pine in the Presidio in the morning, oranges midday, fish in the afternoon where the Bay meets the Embarcadero. By sight sometimes I don't believe it. Twin Peaks hovers over Market, resting quietly under the moon. Streets near the Battery still speculate on gold and Bitcoin. Bolinas shelters a girl with long hair and a giant skateboard moving her hips down the hill like she’s dancing.

The House Last Summer

This summer, the last summer I could spend at the house where my grandmother had lived in Massachusetts, I knew that I was moving soon to San Francisco, where maybe the mist would be similar but the water couldn’t be the same. I tried to remember everything that had been in Beverly because I knew that I was moving to build something all mine. I thought it might be something like a future and that I would want some company from the past.

Time at the house has been part past, part present, part future for some time now, at least since Nonna died. There is history in the house itself, which my grandfather rolled on logs from the woods to its position on a rocky point, and there is history on the bookshelves, in Nonna’s scrapbooks and signed first editions, and there is history in the floorboards, which creak with the weight of people who have visited and stayed but don’t live there anymore. The sea off the point is so changing that it demands your presence just to watch. And after swims in that water, we sit around the pockmarked wooden table where my grandfather wrote his thesis and spin out plans for the future.  

This summer, I paid attention to the living room, which is the heart and lungs of the house. I tried to memorize its lines and its objects and its space. Its two walls are mostly windows, floor to ceiling panes that cross over the blue of the sea right outside. What little there remains of actual walls radiates warm gray, the color of the sea on a cloudy day.

In the evening, after her bath, Nonna would close the heavy canvas drapes across those windows – to keep out the bad guys, she’d say – and in the morning, in her nightgown, she would pad across the worn wooden floor to open them. The sea and sky filled so much of the frame, and the sun’s radiation around 7 am was so golden, that it was easy to believe that each day really was a new day, something moving and open for me to hop into.

The low pegged walnut coffee table in the living room used to be covered with small Venetian glass ashtrays and Japanese lacquer coasters, a purse-sized sterling silver perfume vial, and a few engraved cigarette lighters whose fluid had long ago been lit. It was the neatly arranged detritus of interesting friends and late night conversations. On Sundays, we would cover that table with sections of the newspaper, until Nonna had finished the crossword; on Christmas, we would litter it with wrapping paper, blue and green Venini glasses of eggnog, and platters of cheese and crackers and taramasalata, which Nonna would eat with gusto even if some stayed on her upper lip for a few minutes before anyone told her.

There used to be a small wooden sailor’s trunk in the living room, too, a middle eastern spice chest with sharp corners, covered in sharp brass shapes. Everyone walked into it by accident, and that’s how we learned that the grownups cursed. Ellie and I used to build Lego there, count shells and seaglass there, leave piles of books there after Christmas when we’d read in the sun on the blue and white striped couch. The oriental carpet underneath was worn but its colors matched the blue and red silk pillows on the white canvas sofas.

Behind the fireplace, the walls are pickled wood, their color like a picnic table left out to weather. A sign still hangs above the grate in Nonna’s spidery handwriting, which looks to me like school in Venice, like War and Peace, like carefully balanced checkbooks. FLUE IS CLOSED. Open it before lighting.

Next to the fireplace, one wall behind the bookshelf is painted a red that matches the faded sofa cushions. It holds books that came home from Houghton Mifflin with my great-grandmother, an editor – Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a Julia Child first edition, a memoir called Mrs. Marco Polo with an enclosed typewritten letter from the author. We rearranged the shelves a bit after Nonna died and we sold some things. A bust of the my great-grandfather, a poet, watches over a clear hexagonal Venetian glass with a red rim, a conch shell that used to be in the kitchen, and the sense that we have tried to reincarnate this house as it used to be for the few more months that we have it.

On my last night in Beverly this summer, my brother and I walk to the beach to light a fire. I pass through the empty living room. So much is gone already, but there had been so much there to begin with that when I pass through the room I feel its warmth – the sun through sailcloth curtains, the evenings by the fireplace, the library full of Europe and art and the sea. I feel the weight of its loss double.

We walk across the cool grass of the lawn, avoiding the edges of the gravel driveway, and I’m not trying to remember more, but all of a sudden everything is there: every time my sister and I went to the rocks in the morning or twirled on the grass with our neighbors at dusk, every newspaper Dad bought and episode of Jeopardy that Nonna watched in the study with a sweating glass of Scotch; every time we arrived at night to the breeze or I Ieft for Gloucester in the morning to stillness; how we all read here, played cards here, swam here, relished in the breeze and rocks and sunsets; how many identical pictures we took of the sunset from the kitchen.

I want to remember everything right there so I won’t lose it when I can’t come back next summer, and so I go to write it down. One memory unlocks another, then, and I realize that the memories are infinite, that I can leave them tonight and find them for sustenance later.

rocks.jpg

3,480 Miles West

Lines from the car.

Leaving Fort Worth, Texas

I don't think I'll stop saying y'all, and I will always look for the reggaeton radio station, and the trumpet solo in a mariachi solo will always give me chills. 

Davis Mountain State Park, West Texas

If I were an artist, I would paint the Davis Mountains simply, like a Rothko. I'd scrape undulating lines of blue, green, and purple, blurring the boundaries, adding in only curves. I'd show the painting at a gallery where the only light comes from fireflies. 

El Paso, Texas

The mountains stand sentry over a valley that is neither Mexico nor the United States, just a valley, houses on streets and restaurants with neon signs and tire shops and Target. The border is fluid here, where people work in Juarez and live in El Paso, work in El Paso and live in Juarez. Until Donald Trump promised more deportations, the community trusted the police. 

Somewhere past Santa Fe, New Mexico

The road beyond Santa Fe feels like a shuttle to a place that got forgotten on an American trip to "progress." There's a NASA research stations and there are so many trailer homes. 

The road beyond Santa Fe is called the Paso Real, the royal road. Many small roadside crosses mark its edges, crosses festooned with flowers and grains and faded photographs. Monuments to roadside dead, memorials for unsolved murders of native women and Latino men. Along the Paso Real, a freckled guy in a Walmart parking lot scammed me for cig money, and then there were the most magnificent mountains I've ever seen. 

Boulder, Utah

You turn brown in the canyons of Southern Utah, toasted by the sun and reflective of the red and gold and purple rock. You stand on top of a canyon rim and feel like you're seeing the progression of time. You stand at the bottom of a rock wall with a row of petroglyphs and feel very small. 

 

 

Revise and Edit

     I see my flaws more clearly, having taught. I am a natural educator; I was not a natural teacher. My students understood big ideas, or they at least understood how much I wanted them to learn. But teaching isn’t just planning, or thinking, or dreaming; it’s execution. I struggled to become bigger than myself. I learned slowly how to act and put on armor while leaving some soft spot reachable. These kids made me grin, tear up, and feel warm with pride. Their behavior also made me feel more insecure than any adult has ever made me feel. I relished the days when they didn’t touch my sense of self and instead all of me was enveloping them, guiding them, nudging them forward. On those days, my doubt, fear, frustration, insecurities, assumptions, worries didn’t exist. I felt like a teacher and an educator. Other days, sometimes the days where I had my best lesson plans, my coolest projects - all those inhabitants of Pandora’s Box came out clear and ugly anyway. I judged my students, I felt mad, I raised my voice, I judged myself. 

     My essential mistake, early this year, was wanting it all to be easy. My first year teaching had been so hard - 115 ten year olds, a state test on my shoulders, charter school expectations, all in a part of the United States that was, to me, a foreign country - that I just wanted a little space. I just wanted to leave school without my shoulders pinched to my ears in stress. I wanted the time to get to know my students, even though there were 113 of them. I wanted a few moments to pause the lesson and laugh with them. I wanted my days to flow with some calm momentum. 

     But you don’t teach because it’s easy. There's not much of anything that you should do because it's easy. I realize now that I needed to lean into the challenge of this group of kids, crack the code that would harness their strengths. This group of nine- and ten- year olds had some wild energy that shocked the rest of the school when they saw the kids grow into it. Girls who rolled their eyes at teachers. Boys who ran around the cars at drop-off in the early morning when the other kids sat sleepy against the walls of the hallway. But these boys and girls also had an eagerness to debate, a competitive spirit, a desire to push the limits. An experienced teacher would have known to harness that. I didn’t. There were early moments when I yelled instead of listened, sought control instead of respect, over-analyzed my actions but didn’t change them. 

     I had physical barriers, too; starting in September, I had sinus issues that affected my voice, whittling it down to a harsh whisper on some days and a cracked bullhorn on others, until I had surgery in March. But I can’t help but wonder if this broken voice would have mattered if I had started the year leaning into the challenge. Trying to de-escalate, engage, hold accountable. The disconnect between what I did, and what I recognize that I should have done, reminds me that teaching is a craft that takes years to perfect. With another year, I could have revised my style, edited it. 

     By the end of the year, I did find space at school. Not a lot - but some. When all four hours of state testing was over, I got to plan our days with intentions broader than multiple choice questions. I got to set up and see half my kids compete in a social entrepreneurship "shark tank." I got to stop my lesson and laugh with them when someone said something funny. I got to see them take the structure I gave them - find a problem, think of a solution, write a pitch, deliver it - and run, create shooting safety bracelets and litter collection clubs and anti-bullying apps. 

     One of the hardest things about teaching is forgiving the past - reflecting on but not harping on mistakes. The end of the school year invites so many questions that can drag you down. Have I taught my students anything? Have I been strong but kind? Do they feel loved? Your answers could pull you into your next future. The wedge of space I found after state testing made the idea of teaching another year whisper to me - do it.  I saw the things I fixed by the end of the year, and I understood what many circumstances I could not change.  I saw the mistakes I made, and I understand what I could have done better. But I saw, too, that my skill, my privilege, is in being able to connect worlds. To give my students and kids like them a bigger, richer range of opportunities, I can't stay in the classroom. I crave one more year of this thirsty challenge while knowing that it's not quite mine. 

     And so this essay is, in a way, a love letter to the teachers returning to the classroom. Cultivate that grit you want your students to have. Lean into the challenge. Revise, and then edit; reflect year after year on what you could do better, and then go back there and do it.

The Letter I Left

My dear Champion Readers,

            You’ve made it! You are at the end of your fourth grade year, and you’re a full 180 days smarter, kinder, funnier, and better at flipping water bottles (JK. I know none of you ever do that, right?). You’ve learned the stories of real-life heroes (MLK, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez) and fictional role models (Auggie Pullman, Matilda, Stanley Yelnats). We’ve also talked a lot, this year, about our voices. Not just our voice levels in class or in the hallway, but our words and opinions, what we say and why it matters.

            Some of you have grabbed the idea and run. You have investigated election issues and shared your suggestions. You have come to me at recess because you think something at school is unfair. You have shared with me your own ideas and worries about the news. Others of you have been less sure that you, ten year olds, need to learn and express your opinions about current events. We wrote letters to Governor Abbott about the border wall, which sits 3 miles from school. A few of you stared at your papers.

            “We’re too young for this, Miss!” you yelled.

            If you remember one thing from this whole year, I want it to be that you’re not too young. You’re not too young to learn how your country works. You’re not too young to learn what’s going on in our country and in our world. You’re not too young to build an app or start a Minitropolis business. You’re not too young to express your opinions to me and you’re not too young to learn how to do it respectfully. And you’re not too young to try to understand the opinions of others, especially when grownups in our country need some help doing the same thing.

            Remember the water bottle? How it looked different when we looked at it from different sides of the classroom? Your perspective changes what you see or understand. I want you to understand that you have a unique perspective. Many of you have two countries. You wake up and go to sleep in Mexico, but you spend your day in the United States. For you, alla, over there, means across the border. (For me, when I was ten, it meant across the room). You speak two languages so fluently that sometimes you forget which is which. You live in a place where speaking Spanish and eating menudo on Sunday is American. Our whole country is wondering right now: what does American mean? Your voices would add a lot of ideas to that discussion. You might persuade some people to change their minds.

            You know that champion readers read a little and write a little. They circle key words. They use their strategies on multiple-choice questions. But the most important thing that good readers do is listen. They read the author’s words carefully, and then they respond to add their own voices to the discussion. I’m curious to know what you think about all this. I will be listening.

            Even though I am leaving Pharr, I am not leaving you. I will always, always be available for anything that you need. You better stay in touch! Send me pictures, stories, questions; send me ideas and worries and funny thoughts. You all have taught me so much this year. I can’t wait to keep learning from you.

                                                Love,

                                                            Ms. P

Doodles

     In March, I bought a plant from a local nursery. It had a ruffled rainbow of flowers - red, orange, yellow, and pink - sprouting from one root system, colors nestled between brown and green succulent leaves. It's a native plant, the farmer told me; doesn't need much water, can withstand sun and heat. Nevertheless, a few weeks after I brought it home, I thought I had killed it. The first flowers fell; news ones still hadn't sprouted. I left it outside on our patio as April brought 90, 100, 105 degree days.

     The heat has been rising; the past month or so has been testing season, five weeks of bootcamp for teachers and students alike. We're preparing for the state tests that determine our school's rating and our district's money and our students' passing to the next grade. Despite the stress of these tests, the preparation period can bring amazing gains. You figure out how to push things. You have no time to waste so classes become urgent, efficient, joyfully competitive, even just joyful on the best days. I've found trackers to be an essential tool for guiding and encouraging student achievement. I track my kids' growth, their behavior points on ClassDojo, and their percent passing by class and post it in real time on a big scoreboard in the middle of the classroom. They come into class fired up to beat the class before them and shriek with excitement if they win. On their own, they track their daily exit tickets, their weekly tests, the number of words that they've read, and whether or not they've completed their in-class assignments. The last is my favorite tracker. If they finish their work, I give them a sticker on a star for that day. I want them to know that effort, above all, is rewarded. On Fridays, a sticker on all five stars means ice cream and extra playground time. Just two children have left trackers incomplete over the past month. As a grade, our reading scores, which were low in March, have improved by one measure by 20%.

     But man, a month is a long time to be tracking a child's every move. A month is a long time to read nothing but test passages, no matter how many rounds of jeopardy or "prove it" we play. A month is a long time to quantify learning, to put percentages on understanding, to calculate comprehension to the decimal. The kids were dragging this week. I was dragging this week. Then I made a mistake. I forgot to make this week's copy of the star trackers for completed work. So I scrambled. I gave them blank paper and planned to plop the stickers down. But in a fourth grade classroom, paper isn't blank for long. They started sketching and doodling on the sly, in between multiple choice questions. Some drew their own five stars; I started seeing hearts, triangles, emojis, Gatorade signs, basketballs, trolls. Today, there were full-color envelopes with bubble-letter names and a zoo of different animals, each with a designated circle for the sticker. In my last of four classes, as I prepared to review the same story for the fourth time of the day, I marveled at the creativity sticking out from under black and white testing packets. 

     And just like that, I came home to find my little plant blooming again on the patio, a pink, a red, and an orange flower under leaves I thought had already shriveled dry. 

On a Bus

(From May 2016, edited)

     On the screens of their smartphones, their faces appear small, mostly wide brown eyes. They filter their faces with Snapchat and giggle when they add dog ears and wagging tongues. They smile broadly for selfies. They spend hours making music videos with an app called Musically. Somehow they’ve learned a language of hand motions and face gestures and that come together in a fluid particular dance, slightly different for each song but tailored to a cellphone screen. Their favorite goes like this: Hola como esta, she said konichi wa, she said pardon my French, da da da da da da. Each video that they film zooms around the bus on the other girls’ cellphones and they squeal with delight. There’s nothing sexy about these dances, but it’s them on the screens, ten and eleven years old, open to the world.

      We’re on a charter bus on our way back from a field trip to San Antonio, four hours away from home. Their faces against the seat cushions are flushed with sun and exhaustion. Their dark hair curls from sweat, from splashed water, from the spray of the water park. They re-braid each other’s hair and eat their hamburgers contentedly. The evening calm erupts when J. calls N. to tell her he loves her. (M. had already bought E. a stuffed animal Shamu). The phone gets passed around, different girls pretending they’re N. She takes a turn and calls back, pretending to be a pizza delivery man. How did you know it was me? She cries, when the gig is up.  

     When night falls around the bus, they ask us about boyfriends. Miss L. and I see an opening. Who sees these Musically videos? we ask. The app is also a social network. Just our friends, they chirp, but for the first time in my life I feel like my parents might have felt, like they might still feel – the girls are hiding the truth to protect me. F., tall already, long eyelashes already, a boyfriend already, still says with surprise – but Miss, sometimes random guys message you. It strikes me how much of what they do now, as children, is the creation of image. You might call it dress up, but their mirror is not just the one in their mom’s bedroom. The world that watches their reflection, beamed through cell networks and wireless, doesn’t see their innocence.

Two Kids

 

1. Jacopo*

Last year, Jacopo took great pleasure in running into homeroom during silent breakfast and cackling. He was a boulder thrown into the still pond of any classroom - not just ripples, but waves of disruption. He liked to joke around and throw pieces of eraser. I don’t know if he ever finished his work in my class. He told me I was unfair and mean regularly. “Usted es fea” he said in April. "You’re ugly" - a cherry on top. 

Every three months or so, we had a moment. “Can we do a project on the solar system, miss?” he asked me in October. He settled happily for making paper cranes when I could fit it into our district lesson plans. In January, he helped me build a complicated cardboard storage shelf. Somehow, on the last day of school, he gave me a hug, and this year he asked to join the fitness club I started. 

When I think of the growth that a child undergoes between 4th and 5th grade, I think of Jacopo. My view might be different because I don’t have him in class every day - but I don’t see him cackling in the halls. Instead, he has started channeling his enormous energy. He cheers for our slowest runners. He ran an extra lap around the school on Thursday. Yesterday, at our race, he told me, “I can win!” He didn’t win, but I saw him from across the park, pushing himself to sprint across the finish line. He might still yell when he’s standing next to you but he’ll look sheepish if you remind him to turn it down. His energy, once frenetic, has become happy. 

His family is from Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His dad runs a construction crew here. When I asked the kids yesterday where they would want to live if they could choose anywhere, he said Mexico. “There are a lot of kids over there who don’t have a lot of things,” he said. “I want to help make their lives better. I want to build a school.”

2. Julian*

Julian gave me some mean, mean looks last year. Talking with him when he acted out in class was like ramming into a hot metal wall over and over and over again. He shut me down every time with an imperious “No.” I didn’t know how to avoid power struggles, and this was a kid who would take power wherever he could find it. He’s chubby, doesn’t play soccer, never had new sneakers; when his mom invited me for his sister’s birthday, he showed me where they played, unearthing garbage from a dirt mound. 

His enthusiasm makes things happen. He was one of the first to sign up for the fitness club and brought 3 friends with him. He runs with a small smile around his lips, pushing round cheeks rounder. 

At the race this weekend, he started off sprinting, lost his breath, walked. Sprinted, lost his breath, walked. I walked with him most of the way, reminding him to breathe, encouraging him to jog slowly so he he could jog for longer. But it didn’t seem to bother him that most of his friends had already finished as we were starting the second loop. “I overheard this mom telling her son, it’s not hard, it’s a challenge,” he said. “So that’s what I’m telling myself.” I have a photo of him at the finish line, glowing brighter than the orange balloons in morning sunlight. When we got on the bus, he immediately told everyone what he had heard. “I thought you guys should know,” he said. “It’s not hard, it’s a challenge!”

I can’t wait for his next race. The small smile around his lips when he runs will just get bigger and bigger.  

*Names have been changed. 

Negotiating the Border

On Saturday, I'll be taking my running club to a race in Edinburg, a town 30 minutes north of our school. The race is at another school in our charter network and I had imagined that students' parents could drive them. For five kids, who play on club soccer teams that travel around Texas, that was no big deal. For three of them, it caused some concern.

"Will there be a bus, miss?"  

Amanda's* mom lives in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. Amanda normally spends school nights with her aunt in Pharr but likes to go home on the weekends. Two other students live in Reynosa. Their parents drive them to the border bridge and drop them off on the Mexican side. They walk alone through the turnstiles and to an AutoZone across the street, where a school bus picks them up.

"Oh, it's ok, I'm normally with my cousins," Sofia* says. 

Walls and borders are a daily concern here. We can't see the wall from school, but I'd see it on my drive to work last year. Before sunrise, migrant workers picked lettuce or berries or tomatoes on the ranches around Military Highway. They lined their pickup trucks on the field with headlights shining south to the wall. It looks frightening but fragile from far away, a row of sharpened pickup sticks. 

This NYT article does a beautiful job of telling stories that unfold around, over, and under the border wall further west, in Arizona:

In Nogales, there’s a short stretch of border where the fence turns into a metal grille. At sundown one evening we watched as two women faced each other across the border, touched fingers through the grille, and wept. 

We managed to get a bus that will leave from school on Saturday. I hope all of my kids can get there. 

Poems on Words

At the beginning of May, our TFA training included an assignment to write a poem about the words we hear and use and want at school. We were forty first-year teachers almost finished with that first year and the forms our poems took were varied but so connected. You could hear the day 171 knowledge vibrating with regret at knowledge we didn't have day 1; you could hear the curse words our kids cautiously test out and the swears we drop over dinner; you could hear the humor and the hubris and the hope for next year when maybe just maybe we can use words a little bit better and take our kids a little bit farther. 

40-some of us read - only one sent me theirs (and a few OWE ME THEIRS ahem - email me and I'll add 'em), but I wanted to post them here because I felt they captured the rhythm of days here better than I could write. Having all forty would be best but two will have to do -  

(This is the first time I've posted a poem in a public place since I contributed to a, um, poetry blog during my freshman year of high school. I'm so sorry (*relieved) to inform you that the site is gone and you will not be able to read my free verse teenage angst). 

Poema de la Lengua

"Te la bañaste” - wide eyes

“Pinche negro” - blindly and smoothly said.  

“Ok, so does it mean…” - correct but unsure

“ahorita lo ago”- now

 

“Diache, y con jabon!” - low eyes

“not in my room” - slim stare, mountain voice

“hm, but you do know...” - soft eyes, cuddle voice, comfort pose

“ahorita lo ago” - later.

 

hope stands right with the water

still with no touch, splashed with the pressure 

speaks with different voices

the same words of patience.

-----Jogene Castillo -----

 

Lessons

Miss, miss, I hear 

them saying, sometimes in 

my dreams, sometimes in 

the half sleep after

the alarm goes off and before

I drive to them again. 

Meess, meeeeeesss, Omar says - 

"Can I help today?" in English when

he's rested but

"Nombre porqueeeeee?!" in Spanish when

he's sad,

sharper but more 

sure. 

I'd like to talk with

them about

books in 

Spanish.

*

Comparing and contrasting? They asked,

What's that ?

(Face palm, two days

before STAAR). Bueno, dije yo - 

Think of contrast as contra, and comparing as 

tu compadre - and a lightbulb went off, 

illuminating two worlds. 

*

Thank you, Miss, round-faced Nahomi says

on the way out the door. Thank you,

Miss Parker, Nickolas says, and when

those words

come out crisp I think  how

my name is unusual

here. My name is 

unusual and my tongue is

unusual, capable of 2 and 3 worlds despite my 

skin but too soft, still, too polite. I've

untamed and unteased it, tried to 

toughen my tone and tighten my words. 

They listen; I laugh; but still I

breathe most

freely when I can speak my age, let long words 

and swear words spill and 

roll across a dinner table,

reflecting. 

*

There must be a middle ground, a 

frontera where I speak to children like

grownups and give them

the words they need, in

both tongues, for

both worlds. 

Around the Valley, Rain

Found words from October - 

 

The sun here beats so strong that my students sometimes don't even want to have recess. It's too strong to think or play - all you feel is heat. When it rains, a different place descends, calm and cool and reflective. Green shoots come up and the next day, it seems, they're ready to be harvested as cotton, corn, soy, sugarcane. Our backyard has sprouted bananas and avocados. The citrus is coming. 

It rained yesterday. I woke up at friends' house in Harlingen, a city known in the Valley for having the most white people and the most Winter Texans, retirees who come south for the winter (we spent Friday night at a soda bar watching 50 year men in bandanas play the blues). Saturday morning can be sleep or work in coffee shops - but we, Northeast transplants, chased the thought of a city. We drove to Brownsville because it promised buses and parking meters. 

Every city in this Valley has its own distinct feel. Brownsville moves at the pace of the slow-flowing Rio Grande. Coming into the city, if you forget to turn right on Washington Street, you'll end up in Mexico. When we arrived, we wandered slowly, lazily down sidewalks. We gloried in the paired luxuries of walking and accidental human contact. It began to rain and huddling under an awning watching steam rising from those rich sidewalks brought the smell of cities far away. 

In the late afternoon, I drove back to Weslaco. Brownsville is gritty wet sidewalks - Weslaco is a new housing development still tickled by the warmth of bordering fields.  I went to the bridal shower of a 3rd grade teacher at my school. We played wedding bingo and spoke Spanglish and ate small plastic plates heaped with desserts - cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, a mandarin cake the school nurse had baked for the occasion. I did my grocery shopping on a sugar high and by the time I was driving home, along the local highway, the clouds were over town.

When I got home it started thundering, then drizzling, then raining, that all-out downpour that makes this Valley one of the most fertile in the country. My roommate and I went for a walk at dusk around the citrus groves and marveled at the smell of new dirt. 

Weekend Reading

Prologue

At dinner on Friday, we reminisced about Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, and Good Charlotte. I remembered on the drive home that I can sing all 13 tracks of Avril's "Let Go," including guitar riffs. Seventh-grade Charlotte felt that album expressed all the drama of her life. Dear middle school crush: Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?

Sara teaches high school and Emily and I both teach 4th grade. We wondered - do our kids struggle to express their emotions  because they aren't coming into teenager-hood with angsty music? When I turned on the radio in 4th-7th  grade, XXXtina Aguilera sang about getting dirrtay and Nelly said it was hot in hurrr, but Avril and Green Day held down the fort for those with more complicated desires. Though Adele is on the radio now, I don't think she resonates with my kids. She's too much misty British countryside. My kids press skip, looking for Ariana Grande and Rihanna and J Balvin. I'll take an informal poll tomorrow. I want them to be able to hear music that expresses emotions other than a hope for sex. 

On Identity

Yesterday, I listened to the episode of This American Life that had inspired our conversation about middle school music - a replay from 2011, entitled "Middle School." The whole episode merits a listen because middle school dances will always be hilarious; the following segment merits a listen because the US sometimes seems like a giant middle school dance where being accepted carries much higher stakes.  Domingo Martinez writes about his Mexican-American sisters' attempt to fit in in 1980s Brownsville, the border town at the very tip of Texas, 65 miles southeast of where I teach. 

"Mimis in the Middle"

Don't skimp out - listen to the segment. It's only a few minutes long and Martinez' imitation of the lilting, Spanish-tinted Valley English sounds like our copy room conversations at school. I love it; I've caught myself speaking something like it. 

[This is where you listen to it: here's the link again: "Mimis in the Middle"]

What struck me most about the whole episode was a wonder: would any of my students do this? Would any of them dye their hair blonde and ask for Jordache jeans and a tennis racquet? Would any of them give themselves Connecticut names and pull their families into a game of make-believe so that they could feel more accepted?

I can't imagine it. My students carry the weight of many disadvantages, but I do not think they lack pride in their families' heritage. They all dressed up for Mexican Independence day. (The girls twirled in their folclorico skirts at recess and re-braided their hair in the hallways. J. was wearing a gaucho outfit but passed me a distressed note at 10 am saying he had split his tight pants. Mom came in with a pair of jeans). They know the line dances to Tejano music and they also have Latino pop stars like J. Balvin and Pitbull who sing in Spanish even to audiences in Connecticut. They speak Spanish and English in the hallways. At school and at home, everyone looks like them. 

Today, in the Rio Grande Valley, it's me who doesn't fit in. When the 5th grade science class was learning genetics, I was the only person they knew with blue eyes. I do think the Valley has evolved and grown so rapidly since the 1980s that wealth and power look Mexican. Here, at least, my students can grow up feeling that they belong, that someone who looks like them can be successful. 

As to whether they feel American - I don't have an answer for that. I'll need to ask them. And of course, that sense of fitting in will change for them if they leave the Valley and go most other places in the country. 

If you didn't listen to "Mimis in the Middle," you're missing out:

"I was sorry to see the Mimis go. We all were. When they were at their peak, the Mimis had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting both people and places so you could be looking at the same, dreary landscape as them, the same hopeless and terrible event, and while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, enthusiastically hopeful...They were a gift to anyone who got caught in their Anais Anais perfume. They made all of us Americans."

I hope my students can make it into middle school and beyond carrying that same magic and hope - without the perfume, because holy moly the Axe the boys are wearing is already strong enough.

On Citizenship

The Valley is in D.C. as the Supreme Court begins to hear arguments in United States v. Texas. A decision in favor of DAPA could potentially grant temporary legal status to 4 million people who are in the US illegally. 

You can read more in the McAllen Monitor, here

"She said her research shows that U.S. citizen children are negatively impacted by their parents’ undocumented status and are often unable to experience the full rights of citizenship. Most of the children she’s encountered live in constant fear that a parent, sibling or other close family member could be deported. She said this uncertain legal status involving any family member restricts the entire family from opportunities to earn good incomes, get ahead at work, and gain access to education and health care."

There is one last Border Patrol checkpoint about 100 miles north of McAllen. The first time I drove through, it made me nauseous. As you slow down to the checkpoint, signs tell you how many pounds of drugs have been seized and how many would-be migrants have been apprehended. 

"Transporting illegal aliens is illegal," they remind you. 

I don't know for certain about the legal status of any of my kids' parents. I do know some of them do not live in the US. S. helped his mom study for her citizenship test, while H. helps her mom clean houses in Reynosa on the weekend. 

But that checkpoint made me feel the fear that I imagine any of my students might feel, going through. They look like the people Border Patrol wants to stop. (Border Patrol does have a very complicated and important job. More here, on the Texas Tribune).

I was so shaken I said, "Good morning, ma'am," to the male officer. 

"Don't worry," he laughed, "Second time that's happened to me today."

He was white. I was white. 

 "Are you a U.S. citizen?" he asked. 

"Yes sir," I said, wondering when he'd ask for my ID. He didn't.

"Have a great day," he said. I guess my skin color was proof enough for him. 

On Learning English

     As we near state testing, the huge disadvantages facing English Language Learners (ELLs) become crystal clear. 94% of my students are ELL. MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Organization, filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the Texas Education Association (TEA) for failing to supervise and improve programs to help ELLs succeed in school. More here. 

This article in The Atlantic highlighted some of the work that IS being done to help ELLs in Texas. 

"Elena Izquierdo, a professor in bilingual education at the University of Texas at El Paso would tell you that immersing Spanish-speaking children in English classes doesn’t work. She’s now consulting the El Paso Independent School District as it moves forward after its cheating scandal, and says that type of approach was what led to the scandal in the first place.

"She is helping the El Paso Independent School District roll out a different plan, one she calls the “Ferrari” of bilingual education programs, that she says could serve as an example for best practices for districts like El Paso. The program, which the district began in  2014, teaches all students in English half the time and Spanish half the time. Beginning in the district’s kindergarten classrooms, all students learn all subjects in both languages, so everyone becomes bilingual, she said. The district will continually assess the students to make sure they’re learning in both languages and comfortable about speaking in all subjects in both languages (in Ysleta, students learn Social Studies in Spanish). They’ll also be allowed to test in both languages, until they’ve become comfortable enough with English to focus on the state tests."

Winston Churchill Visits the Valley

March 29, 2016

Today, I watched the kids write personal essays on one page of lined paper that got shipped to Austin to be graded by adults who don’t know them. It was their writing STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), for which they’ve been preparing intensely over the past few weeks. I didn’t even teach reading last week - they came to my room and worked on grammar, punctuation, and those one-page essays. 

I love the times when I get to see them write. In the ideal world, in the world that will be every other year I teach, I would learn all about them through their reading and their responses to what they read. This year, simply getting them to read has been hard enough. I know what books they’ll choose but I don’t know what they want to be when they grow up or what their favorite places are or who their best friend is. When they write essays, I can peer over their shoulders and into their minds. 

(Would you like to know what they wrote about today?….I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you, or the State of TX would kill me). 

When the test ended, the reality of teaching reading again came back to me. We have five weeks before our STAAR to do so much. Forgive me for the mess below:

I would be lying if I didn’t say that this year has been a struggle. I don’t feel capable anymore of stringing together elegant sentences, crisp nouns and verbs with a pearl of observation at the end. In some ways, I feel this is a good thing. My teacher voice and vision are stronger, and what I see and say in my classroom feel more like my job than a weird and intense journalistic experience. At the same time, I feel like some part of my vision and drive has gone missing. Today I think I am remembering to get it back. 

At the beginning of March, my students took their third district benchmark test in reading. We had been preparing for it like they were just preparing for their writing STAAR - after-school tutoring, practice passages, testing strategies, silent reading time. My jaw was clenched and the students were sad, and frustrated, and mean. I was doing what I had been determined not to do. Blinded by the hope of good test results, I turned my classroom into a black hole: a place where positive energy and fun went to die, unless you were one of those students who takes negative energy and grows into a chirpingly menacing side-comment machine. (Editor’s note, one month later: this may be an exaggeration. Leaving in for accuracy as to emotions at time of initial composition). 

Many of my students worked hard and many of them saw a lot of growth on that benchmark test. Many of them, however, especially those who consistently misbehaved in class, stayed put or decreased their scores. We showed growth from the second benchmark, but we scored below the district average of 74% passing. I felt disappointed. I went to a boxing class that night and accidentally bruised and blistered my hands so that they shook when I packed my lunch before bed. That’s what the scores felt like: despite so much hard work and so much love for my students, I got beat up. It felt like a reflection on me and the motivation I seemed to have failed to give my kids. It is, in many ways. (See below, "Charlotte learns to suck it up”).

Over spring break, I had started dreaming again. We need to turn them into readers, I thought. I forgot that part! I was trying to make test-takers! I'll spend my whole class period reading books with them! They’ll write connections and summaries on sticky notes in books that they choose! I’ll have them write a book report! That’s how I learned to read, in my suburban private day school and at my house full of books! Of course it’s the way in this place that is so entirely different!

Reality sank in today when I met with my grade team and our principal. Five weeks isn’t that long. It’s not impossible to make kids the sort of readers I want them to be - joyful and analytical and independent - within that time, but they also have a lot of multiple choice questions to learn how to answer. And if they don’t pass this test, they can’t go to 5th grade. 

So the wonderful writing teacher will be turning her writing block into a reading block so that the kids get double doses of reading. I was given a calendar to fill in - two unmastered TEKs, or objectives (SWBAT sequence and summarize important events in a work of fiction, maintaining meaning and order) to re-teach per day. Clear assessments each day so I can submit daily data on each kids’ strengths and weakness. And the principal has brought in a third, experienced teacher who will be working with me in my classroom to further concentrate our focus and help me get the kids motivated. 

It all sort of threw me for a loop, and this afternoon, sticking away the folding chairs in the hallway after our meeting, I realized: I am taking this personally! I have an ego! It’s bruised! I don’t know what to do! I feel paralyzed and scared! Let me continue thinking about idealistic ways to get them reading!

Running before sunset, things become clearer. The pendulum swings from stubborn dreaming to practical action, mostly. I start to work through the wreckage of a first year teacher’s work - what new can be created, and what else will have to be tweaked and salvaged at this point in the year? Maybe we do just need to get them practicing test passage after test passage. I can move my energy from planning theoretically awesome, overly-complicated lessons into being enthusiastic every single hour of every single day. A good salesperson can sell an empty plastic cup - maybe I can make a passage entitled “Building a Better Sandcastle” more nail-bitingly fascinating than the last scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I drove home in enough of a daze that I listened to the droning ads on KTEX. Pulling onto my street, a weird British accent woke me up. I choked up suddenly because that voice was Winston Churchill’s, Nonna’s idol, and he was saying:

“Never, never, never give up”….

I pulled into my driveway. Breeze stirred the palm trees in a pink sky. The ad ended. Anincongruous accent and incongruous associations in a housing development near Mexico. Good words are always relevant. I put my car in park and got to work. 

Valentine's Day

Time travel, scraps pulled together courtesy of Sick Day. 

 

February 13, 2016 -- On holidays, before the school fills with kids and candy, the hallways hush. Like the calm before a storm, it’s a precursor to the sugar rush that amplifies attention deficits and reminds us that our students are children who spend a lot of time inside and receive very little recess. 

On Valentine’s Day, the noise level in the hallway - despite our best efforts - reached jungle status 5 minutes after the kids started arriving. They were still talking about who had talked to whom at the Valentine’s dance; they wondered who had bought whom a goody bag; they started trading sweet gifts and notes they had prepared for their friends. Some of the boys proudly sat with teddy bears on their desks, ready to give them to their crushes. SHHH don’t spoil the surprise dude!

You couldn’t tell them otherwise - they were going to give out candy to their friends and they were going to eat the candy their friends had given them. Starting at 7:15 am, I had kids run in and leave DumDums and heart shaped chocolate boxes and candy roses on my desk (no complaints). During class, they surreptitiously dipped candy sticks into sugared chile powder, left FunDip in their desks, and pulled notes off of Reese’s Cups and candy hearts. They traded chocolate hearts with their friends. They had chocolate around their lips. 

This sweet goodness, this excitement, should be celebrated. I saw the shoebox Valentine’s mailbox one of my girls had created and remembered the extreme care and thought I had put into my own Valentine mailbox. In 4th grade, I think I actually followed the instructions from Martha Stewart Living. And yet - there was something toxic about this sugar rush. I stress ate mini Kit Kats all day because it felt like I was putting out fires without pause:

A hit J, who had red sugar around his lips, and E pushed L who hit him back. I and D chased each other around the classroom and R came and sat in the back of my room because he didn’t want to go to math, eventually joining the fray between D and I once I had gotten them to calm down. I said bad things about A’s mom across the room. 

I practically pushed them outside for recess, picked up candy wrappers with two students while watching them run and play soccer. I talked with I about his behavior. He appeared to see me for the first time all day. “I’m sorry, miss,” he said. “I just feel like I have all this extra energy to get out.”

After lunch, the swell appeared to have calmed. Then R started sweating and making loud noises. This made O stop working. J wandered around the classroom working his way to the bottom of a box of candy hearts, teasing N for liking Josh (because, as I later told N, who was crying, he really has a crush on her). 

“R is hyper,” one of the kids observed, sounding hyper himself. “He was eating chocolate in the bathroom.” R., who is pre-diabetic and may carry more serious psychological diagnoses, was making loud noises and picking up and putting down a desk. On his way out of my classroom, he pushed into a child and broke his glasses. 

I had set a goal to be quietly firm, after a week in which my kids had seemed to forget how to follow instructions. I was tired of chit chat, so deeply wanting to push them to work hard and think critically. I told them they’d get one warning, and then detention for any choices to misbehave. When it turned out, holy moly, I was serious (Miss Parker is undergoing a transformation), they protested. Pues no. Arms crossed. I won’t stay. In my last period class, a student who has diagnosed anger management issues stood up three times and started to pick up his chair, shaking furiously. He yelled at another student. The class roared, called him a dinosaur. Ricky got too close and got three hits to his stomach. 

At the end of the day, 12 hours after it had begun, I ran out of my candy coated room. I felt stubborn, hyper with reaction; I had said no all day, called parents, given detention, moved desks to face the wall. I hadn’t backed down; it had sort of worked. But I felt a sad disbelief at the poor health and disobedience. I wondered if I had been too mean. How could I not have told them how much I love them on Valentine’s day? I thought I was showing them by holding them accountable to high expectations, but maybe my firm energy was toxic too. 

We had a teacher’s work day the next day. Thursday’s chaos, harshness, had vanished. The school was quiet and my room looked a lot cleaner than I had remembered it. We did a training on English Language Learners in the computer lab. Something was missing. I walked to our 4th grade hallway, where 35 kids were sitting in a special writing training with a fantastic consultant who projected joy and energy. The room was calm and quiet. The kids sat in their street clothes, no uniform. Some of the boys had gotten fresh hair cuts, some of the girls wore dresses. The group by the door smiled when they saw me and a few kids whispered Hi Miss Parker! Shh, I said, work hard, and left, melting a little. I was so happy to speak to them with love. 

I snuck out of our training again when I heard them in the hallways going to lunch. They ate pizza and hugged me, sang a new song about pronouns. I felt so proud of them, then, and so in love. I remembered all the things they had done well that day before - kids sitting tall, listening, answering questions on sticky notes about their books. 100s on vocabulary quizs, two bold kids who performed the bonus question raps they had written about their best friends. Kids who used to tell me they were bad at reading who had told me, Miss, I’m getting better.

At home, I opened one girl’s Valentine’s Day note to me. She had packed it in a sheet protector inside a teacup that says Siempre juntos, always together. She had asked me twice, have you opened it? Do you like it?

I have loved very few things more. 

Dear Miss Parker, the note says. Thank you for always supporting me. I know someday our hard work will pay off!

Notes From a Movement, Not Stapled Together Yet Because It's Sunday and I Still Have to Put in Grades

This weekend, through the support of my school district, I was lucky to attend the TFA 25th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. 

Writing now feels like picking avocados in a rush at the supermarket, hoping they'll be ripe, hoping the whole pile won't fall to the floor when you pick one from the bottom. This weekend was so big picture - so much talk of news and history and a path forward - when my day to day is so small. I've been using words to illustrate the things on my desk and my kids' faces when they get in their mom's car at the end of the day. Using them to tease out a generational issue feels harder, further out of my reach, but necessary.

***

Between the sessions and swag bags, around the cocoon of the privilege of discussing privilege in a huge DC conference center, hung a legacy of struggle and good will, hard work and resilience. That first corps members asked - how can I afford to fail? And the question today is the same, for Teach for America and for all educators. 

Education is a civil rights issue; teaching should be a fight. Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston gave a speech tying Selma to our march now to educational equity. The change we seek hasn't fully happened. Churches are still bombed, police still shoot, some schools in Memphis prepare only 4% of their students. But we've got to keep working. Quasi religious rhetoric: shining lights and climbing mountains. Words building to a crescendo just like the spoken word poet who reminded us to live like we have a microphone under our tongue - our words matter and our silence is dangerous.

I will be thinking about my words all week. I will be smiling at my kids more. I will be thinking about how I, doing my best job, can advocate for them. I remembered the love that needs to go into the classroom every day. Without that, you don't have anything; without that, teaching is just talking and making copies. 

I've been listening to Martin Luther King's speeches for the past few weeks now, ever since Spotify made a playlist that intersperses them with Common and John Legend and Jay-Z. We read about him and Rosa Parks and the kids wrote about him as their hero without my prompting. As I understand more and more the lack of services my part of the country receives - as I feel both outsider and insider for the privileges I have - As I listen to the news from Flint, from New Mexico, from New York- I've been thinking about and wondering if what I'm doing, anyone doing, is any progress at all. 

On Friday afternoon, I ran around the National Mall. I stopped near the Washington Monument, imagined the grass full of people, imagined a clear firm voice. I kept going. Three chalk-like boulders, a full story high, turned gold around rush hour. I jogged in. 

There's a small path, like someone split a rock face. Martin  Luther King stares out at the tidal basin, chin up, reminding of the way to carve a path through monumental obstacles. How you move doesn't matter, but you've got to move.

***

(While my efforts to make #teacherstryna a trending hashtag were unsuccessful, you can read my notes from some of the sessions I attended here: https://twitter.com/charsnewweb )