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I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

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Bacteria and virus models

Sweetheart and the enigmas

Admire this week’s science project above—making bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi with clay and pipe cleaners—and meet Isabel, John, and Tara.

Isabel

When I consider my failings as a teacher, I think of her. I suspect Isabel’s often bored and frustrated with the classroom disruptions and slower pace of her classmates.  Diligent, she’s the most reliable when it comes to studying. When I asked the students to write a short story, 10 sentences, about their lives at Camp Green Lake, the setting of Holes, she developed an adorable piece about becoming best friends with a “gentle” (vocabulary word) boy there, who later became her boyfriend. When I suggested that she consider writing as a career (I can dream), she laughed. Like Joe’s, her imagination is colorful and my envy. She’s one of two who puts effort into their bi-weekly journal entries.

Isabel is still a pre-teen however, with moments of slack. Friday she said she couldn’t finish her paragraph about being sleepy because she was too sleepy. (I recommended she write, “I’m so sleepy that I can’t even finish this paragraph.”)  Likely because of the language difficulties, or because I inspire revelation, she can be rather frank, openly admitting she didn’t study for the writing exam because she was busy with another teacher’s (English always takes a back seat, despite this being a bilingual school.). She makes such observations with her sweet laugh. Sometimes she’ll stand near me, perhaps with nothing much to say, and I’ll wrack my brain for conversation. She confides in me that another teacher’s classes are boring and also when mine are boring; yet, despite her boredom, she has on occasion told me how happy she is that it is my class. Perhaps I am not boring. When I have doubts about my effectiveness as a teacher, I look in Isabel’s notebook and see improvement. I see and hear her try. These signs reassure, a comment, I suppose, that contradicts my “failings” comment above, but let that stand. Isabel can move at a much more rapid pace, but I’m not equipped to manage different levels.

As with nearly all of the kids, Isabel is obsessed with love, as well as Logan Henderson of One Direction, Facebook, my comparatively newer iPhone, and discovering the password to my computer. She has an older iPhone and braces. In fact, she’s one of few students with braces at school, which gives you an idea of her family’s financial situation. Petite, with a sweet smile, she is among the most fashionable on Color Day, in dresses too old for her, but elegant nonetheless. I’ve never had such style.

Isabel is the only one who unfailingly thanks me when I hand out anything to the students. She is a sweetheart.

John

The enigma, a student whose mind I have been unable to open for a peek. He will not speak unless called on, and then in a mumble, and is quick to join the other three boys in goofing off in class. Despite this, he vies with Isabel for the top spot. I often wonder if he is uncomfortable being (one of) the best in the class, among the boys, and this is why he goofs off so wholeheartedly, to fit in. Or, more likely, he’s just a short, stocky boy, who doesn’t make the 8th grade girls’ A-list, who’d rather play than work.

Because he confuses me, I am nervous and awkward with him, afraid that he senses my confusion—did he just glare at me? am I seeing contempt? So I consciously praise him and touch his shoulder during corrections. John usually puts in the minimum effort in class and is just as untrustworthy as the other boys for working independently. This adds to my confusion…and distaste. But—of course, but—he surprises. Parcial exams ended this week. His paragraph, a response to the question Are boys or girls smarter? thoughtful, mature. He said both were equally smart…because both are human and have the same potential. This is not the prevailing cultural thought and most students were decidedly in one camp or the other. I was surprised and softened.

Insight alert: I cannot find a vulnerability or place for connection with John. Were I replaced tomorrow, I suspect he wouldn’t care, and this summons insecurity, because if I am not needed (wanted?), in some way, why am I here? Isabel may not be insecure, but she needs me and my teaching. Antonio may be frustrated with me more often than not, but I know he is appreciative when I explain and he understands. Joe lacks confidence, but I am confident, more or less, in my ability to evoke the bright flashes I see in him. Moments like these answer the question, “Am I needed?” With John, I have none of these. I can’t tell if he’s a good, quiet kid or an asshole, a theory I developed after some exchange I don’t recall well.

But, no, I must remove that asshole consideration after his response to the writing exam question. There is someone thoughtful and considerate in there. I just might never get to meet him.

Tara

Oh, Tara, where to begin? At the beginning of the year, Tara was Kim’s coloring cohort. Now she more often colors alone. She’ll request permission to wash her hands because the pen she was chewing on or the marker she was toying with burst. Five seconds after I’ve given instructions, she’ll ask, “What, Miss?” or “For the notebook, Miss?” having returned from her cloud. If I take a breath, she’ll burst in with a non-sequetorial “How many homeworks [until I get a prize]?” no matter how many times I’ve stated she can ask at break. As the year progresses, I’ve (shamefully) grown increasingly sarcastic in my responses, having no idea how to address her delay, the inattention. Attempts at personal talks, to solicit questions or request behavioral changes, are met with an uncomfortable eyes-averted, “Nothing, Miss,” or “Yes, Miss,” implying she has no questions or understands, when she obviously just wants the conversation to end. Corrections are met with denial and cease communications notice. Like John, I haven’t found the way in.

Her work is erratic, but quiz scores are high, indicating that she studies, and even remembers. After a student tipoff that Tara had cheated on a quiz, I questioned her a few days later. No cheating; she knew her stuff. She is eager to participate in board work—but on her terms. If she doesn’t get to go first, forget it—bingo, and most games. In her own mind, she is infallible. Actually, that could apply to most of the students. They are all perfect, in their own and God’s eyes.

Like John, she is an enigma, but of a different type. A less kind person would suggest that she has a screw loose. Let’s just say she and I have different priorities…and maybe different planets.

And now it’s Semana Santa!

theresa

Our cat, Nova

The me of me, or I don’t love *Serial*

In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.

I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.

After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.

Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.

The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.

I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.

This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.

To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.

And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.

But I’m probably wrong.

And that’s okay.

theresa

P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.