Category Archives: Love

Mai scoria

imageYour daughter is not

A feather in your cap.

Even if you read to her

In French every day

Of her shiny toddlerhood.

Drove her to ballet,

Watched her pink-bowed ponytail

Bob. Pirouette. And plié.

Fed her thrice-washed organic apples,

Laundered her clothes lovingly

In homemade, three-ingredient detergent.

 

She is not a star in your crown.

Even if you never missed a

Soccer game or tennis match, cheering

In an embroidered Mom shirt for

Your girl as she won.

Hosted a midnight prom breakfast

Featuring your grandmother’s fine china

And Welch’s sparkling grape juice.

Straightened her honor cords

On graduation day. Curled her hair.

Cheered her name.

 

Nor is your daughter an albatross

Around your neck.

Even if she flunks out of college–

Community college.

Cannot get hired at Ruby Tuesday

Or even TJ Maxx.

Quits wearing white dresses

With three-finger wide, modest straps.

Refuses to sit on your pew at church,

Clouding your illusive (elusive?) family portrait

As she pierces and tattoos and dyes pink.

 

Your daughter is not a pair of cement shoes.

Even if she is pregnant. And knew better.

Having sat through frank talks.

And seen the ninety-three foster children

Parade their battered lives through her childhood home.

Though the waves crash and crash and crash again

And the fish are nibbling, you’re sure, at your heart,

She is not cement shoes, dead weight, dross.

 

And the embroidered Mom shirt you once wore

Is meaningless if you cannot still cheer her name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Gleam of the Now

10575320_1675980529318413_6993199641154948756_oToday, I awoke to a Facebook post. It said simply, “It’s a nice day for a white wedding,” and my heart just broke. The bride, Shelby, is young, beautiful, tough–and motherless.

Like most of the children of the Seattle bone marrow transplant patients, her life has been full of continued medical crises, financial hardship, and forced independence. The kids who ran amok in Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Pete Gross House in 2001 are between 16 and 24 now; most are partially orphaned, and all are fairly unjaded stoics. They left fairy tales and hopes of happy endings behind before they were out of toddlerhood. They spent hours in hospital waiting rooms, eating stale Cheetos and sipping warm Sprite while their pincushion parents, dragging bags of TPN, stared at Lake Union and mustered half-hearted hopes for better days.

For cancer patients who are also parents of young children, the goal most often mentioned is their child’s wedding day. The walk down the aisle is the holy grail, especially if they have daughters, as we do. Nurses say things like, “You are going to walk your daughter down the aisle. You’ll see” because when you are living from one misery-filled moment to the next, you can’t even see a day when food will taste right again. A happy wedding day fifteen years hence is an almost impotent goal when your crystal ball currently contains only the day’s methotrexate.  So it is the nurses who speak of future years, while the patients content themselves to survive the days.

And now, 906 miles away, Tammy’s daughter is getting married. The day the nurses conjured is now concrete: March 11, 2016–and her dad, who was on the bone marrow transplant ward with my husband, is (as predicted) fine. But his caregiver, his wife–the one who fundraised and moved the family cross country, and entertained us all from the instant she got there–succumbed herself. To cancer.

Words like ironic and cruel and phrases like twist of fate don’t do justice to such heartache, to fifteen years spent watching first one parent, then another, fight for their lives. Yes, these children gain strength and fortitude, that’s true–but they also are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the PET scan to find a nodule, for the biopsy to be positive, for the graft versus host to flare. They walk the cancer tightrope right behind their wary parents–and when a parent passes away, they walk again, alone. Inching forward, toes curled, lips pursed, chins set, continuing their journey.

Fortunately, children learn a lot while curled up in a hospital bed beside a sick parent. The power of a smile. The fun in a quiet game of cards. The pleasure of a Veggie Tales video shown for the fiftieth time. They learn to lie still and hold Daddy’s hand and look at the trees in the arboretum. They learn to hold the Now and move forward some. They learn that time is both slow and fast: they live through both the longest and shortest of days.

I don’t know much about Shelby’s wedding–who wore what, who toasted whom, what hors d’oeuvres were served–but I do know this: the sparkle in her eyes testifies to the happiness in her heart and the joy of the day. Surely it was bittersweet. There has been so much lost. But in her eyes, I can see the gleam of the Now, and it is beautiful.

More than most, Shelby knows that things scar and fade, batter and become. She’s seen much, but her eyes in the photo dance.

Her mother would be so proud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Precious, Cool Nostalgia

Hidden in a tin

In the back of the heart pine cabinet.

Its little black latch a trial for pudgy fingers, were

Valentine’s Day cookie cutters—

Only two.

(It was the 1970s. Before the excess.)

One small tin heart, plain.

One, a pink polyresin press, with its mirrored “Be Mine.”

The old-enough cousins

With their gleaming hands—

nails scrubbed brusquely by a grandma on a mission—

Dipped into the dough.

Rolled and pressed, pressed again

Into the yellow Formica countertops

Until it was time to cut and trim. To bake and eat.

(The cooling was, of course, the hardest part.

The wait before the pleasure.)

 

She hated to cook.

She hated baking most of all.

But made the shopping list.

Put on her plastic rain bonnet,

Tied it just so, every hair covered.

Drove to the grocery store for

Fresh eggs. Real butter.

At home, she unearthed the cookie cutters

To make our eleven memories.

All we had heard–in passing–

“Mother hates cooking.”

 

We never understood until

We owned our own kitchens

With our own pots,

Familiar and resented.

 

It is a chore, this cooking.

(We all eat 1,996 pounds of food

A year.  If half is at home,

We nevertheless lug tons.)

 

We chop the onions.

Brown the meat.

For all the Wrong Tacos.

And cook the Regrettable Bacon

(And this is only today.)

 

We serve stuffed shells with pride.

Slide salmon loaf in the trash,

Having met the requirements.

Our duties fulfilled. The Mouths fed.

 

It will be years before they want my

Cast iron skillet.

And miss Saturday’s predictable tacos.

 

They will then taste a longing,

For memorialized meals.

As they stand alone in their kitchens,

Compressing their hearts

For all the right reasons,

These daughters of mine,

Who have had Their Pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Desum

image

Three days ago I had a dog.

Four weeks ago, I had a daughter.

One and twenty one. Pup. Adult.

Known, Quantifiable.

I could press my hand against his flop and brindled muzzle;

Her half-filled cereal bowl (so much wasted milk) sat beside my sink.

His snore a benediction, my nightly au revoir.

The final thing I heard.

Her face–alight from the flicker of a favorite movie–

The final thing I saw.

 

Now, both are gone.

A quick stripping, a sudden wrench, a dark smash-and-grab

(A stealing from all sides.)

Simple tearing and ripping.

No benediction.

Powerless against their absence.

Two lives I thought to help to save.

Two lives I loved.

Gone, wholly.

And I, again, in mine.

Present. In all this absence.

 

 

 

 

On The Teaching of Kids

Something you may already know about English teachers: we procrastinate. We let the stacks of journal entries and essay tests grow high. We clean our refrigerators, organize drawers, bathe our dogs—anything to avoid all that grading. Common Core Standards, with their heavy emphasis on writing, have made the grading load even heavier.  (I once heard a student, while writing his third extended response of the week, mutter, “I ain’t did a worksheet since seventh grade.”)

I must be feeling masochistic this year: my kids have already written one essay and several journal entries, with another essay test planned for Monday; the stack of papers is quite undeniably large. (Worry not: my Schoology account is now set up, and trees will soon be saved.) So, tonight, after securing my requisites–Cherry Sprite, green Uniball pen, calico cat—I am finally ready to grade. To start hearing their stories, these 77 students.

They have only been mine for 900 minutes. 15 hours. But, already, it is there, in their sloppy handwriting and their short sentences: a desire to be heard. They tell me stories of shooting doves: “I had equality with Papa, just for a minute”; of first bike rides: “I called my dad that morning, back when I still liked him”; of raising their own money for school pictures: “I started singing, and people from all over placed money in the cup beside me”; of their pride in being the first in the family to make it to high school: “. . . even though to everyone else, it may be a small accomplishment.” It is marvelous, this early unravelling, this fragile trust.

For over a decade, I have read everything from research papers on artificial insemination of cows to first person narratives about favorite relatives shot dead in the streets of Miami. My students write of kisses behind the skating rink, the keys to their first trucks, and the impending deaths of their beloved grandparents: I bear witness to it all.

Many people lament the bureaucratization of education. They yell about Common Core and testing and teacher evaluations that are based on pseudo-science. And, yes, it is all a bunch of malarkey.

But I would like to remind my fellow teachers to look behind the malarkey. Behind the pile of Pearson’s money, behind the computers, behind the bubble sheets—there they are: our students.

They are ours. We get to claim them. We get to say things in the teachers’ lounge like, “My students just started Antigone.” We can tell people in the grocery store, “My students are so sweet this year.” At the Friday night football game, we can brag, “That’s my student who just scored.”

We bear the power of possession. Pearson doesn’t.

We teach them the power of kindness. Textbooks don’t.

We write the kind words on their journals of heartbreak. Governors don’t.

Because of us, they will flourish. They will learn kindness and respect.

Yes, we will write commentary in the language of the standard, scrawling “Good use of precise language [CCSS ELA-LITERACY WH 9-102.D], ” like the state school superintendent wants us to. Far more importantly, we will write things like, “I can’t wait to take my picture with you on your graduation day. We will be cheesin’ on that football field.” Surrounding this, we will take a few seconds to draw sloppy smiley faces. From across the room, when students see our notes, they will smile at us, glimpsing our shared future.

That’s our payment. We are paid in smiles, in hugs, in high-fives, and in shouts across gymnasiums. Sometimes, we are thronged in grocery stores and malls like minor celebrities, causing our own children to grouse, “Why do they like you so much?”

The answer, of course is simple: we are people. Not computers, bubble sheets, or multimillion dollar companies. We are rarities: adults who still truly care.

As such, we still have some power. We can ooh and aah over a quiet student’s poem. On Mondays, we can remember and comment upon interceptions at Friday football games. We can take the time to hang up a student’s artwork or chat about colleges. We can sneak hungry students crackers and Sprite.

The executives at Pearson, the governors of every state, the computer programmers and slick salespeople all have one thing in common: they were all taught in classrooms like ours by people like us.

And since they have forgotten, let’s remember. Because somebody should.

You’re a Teacher

I spend 1500 minutes a week standing in a room with kids. That’s 25 solid hours of face-to-face time, just me and teenagers. I have for sixteen years now. About 1,200 kids have heard me talking about what I am supposed to—like Antigone and Shakespearean sonnets—and things I’m not really supposed to, things that aren’t on the lesson plans. So far this year, I’ve dealt with children of alcoholics; children who are coping with serious illnesses—their own, and those of family members; students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and students who were at the really wrong place at the really wrong time; students who cut because they can’t stand the pain; students who think that their lives are over at sixteen because that last bad decision they made was, after all, a very, very bad decision.

And I make my God-honest best effort every single day to be there, to wholly listen, to hear their stories and to look into their eyes because teachers did that for me. Frances Dillard sat and listened to me, a fourteen year old who was lost and drowning. She sat for days, and then for years. Howard Fore made me laugh; he stood up for me and defended me, and he gave Colin and the rest of the class a lecture entitled “Yes, I CAN Have a Favorite Student and Rachel CAN be it,” a speech that I have also given in my classroom, verbatim, about students who merit extra attention and praise. Edith Johnson, Bill Leiss,  Joe Haluski, Cyndi Dixon, Loutrell Harris, Coach Pike, Coach Ganas, and even Senora del Castillo were all a part of a long list of teachers who fed me as I walked, emotionally starving, through the halls of Waycross High.

It was only logical that I want to become them and to live professionally and emotionally in the best place I knew: school.

But what the legion of educators whom I so loved and admired didn’t warn me about was the heartbreak, hard and absolute, that surrounds teaching.  A student arrives at 8:00 AM whose beloved grandmother died just five hours before. There is a matter-of-fact discussion among kids whose fathers did not want them. A kid writes an essay about the three outfits he owns. Monday mornings, kids come in hungry enough to eat Ritz Carmelized Onion Crackers by the fistfuls, then search my cabinets for more.

There were no warnings about visiting hospitals, standing at the bedside after your first student is in a wreck, then your second . . . writing letters to distant jails when your first student is imprisoned, then your second . . .

Because the thing about teaching is your students are yours forever, for both the good and the bad. Yes, you will get to go to their weddings. You will rub their pregnant bellies at Wal-Mart and exclaim over their bright-eyed children at church. You’ll see pictures of your former students standing with their eyes agleam in places like Russia and New York and Saudi Arabia. You will look into the eyes of students who are firemen, Marines, linemen, video producers, professional athletes, and web designers, and you will feel pride that you didn’t know was possible.

But there will be other times when you will click on a status on Facebook that begins, “Pray for _____________; it’s really bad,” and your heart will leave you. It will just go. You will message the people who know how bad things are. And you will wait for them to tell you about how the telephone pole fell while your student was standing on it, or the car split in half with your student inside, or your student’s baby was born impossibly small.

You will hear how a fire tore through your student’s mobile home, killing her five year old daughter. And there are no words for this. There is nothing to say to this. There is no way to go from the power was out and a candle was in the bathroom to a child is dead. How can those simple facts add up to total and utter destruction?

You will do the only thing you can, hold your twenty year-old daughter in your lap, sob into her hair. You will pray as you drive to pick up your other daughter, and holding her hand at the red light, you’ll look at the moon, the same moon that is shining on your student’s hospital bed, and pray some more. You will think about leaving this heart-breaking job.

Then, you will see two out-of-place teens walking through a bank parking lot. Out of habit, you will pull over, hollering out the window, “Are you mine?” and they will beam. Then one will chuckle, “Not yet!” with a sparkle in his eye.

As you drive off, your daughter will tell you, “They say the tall one is on drugs. He’s young, just really tall.”

And you will find yourself thinking about him, and his future, and the part you can play in it, however mighty or miserable it may be.

After all, you’re a teacher.