bus from cuba

Re-creation, or now what

Here I go again, re-creating myself, this time into a writer slash editor. Except it’s not so much re-creation as acceptance of the fact that those are the two things I am best at AND enjoy, so I might as well suck it up and try to survive doing those things. Despite a degree in playwriting, I’ve avoided the writing/editing life because I don’t understand how to break into it, and it feels so insecure, hopping from job to job, with no guarantee of the next, and I like security. Sure, I quit a steady job and left my home to teach in a foreign country, but I knew I’d have a place to live, with enough food, what my plans would be for the next ten months, and that I’d have someplace and someone to return to at the end.

Hmm…as I qualified my statement, the bullshit meter sounded. Did I really know what would happen over that year? A lot of crazy can happen under the umbrella called “teaching and living in another culture.” Methinks my tolerance for the uncertain is higher than I realize. Also, don’t I have a fairly secure living situation now, too, as I look for a job? (Hello, retirement savings!) So, really, self, what’s there to fear on this next adventure? A little credit, puh-lease. I’m too hard on myself, I’ve been told. Often.

Wow, you have just had the joy (or annoyance — I have no idea how you’re feeling) of witnessing a successful moment of self-therapy. Hugs all around. I actually feel a little more confident, and I need all the help I can get because it was tough putting on my brave face last week, Week Two of the Quest for People to Pay Me.

Week One was energized and hopeful as I crafted a decent resume, slogged through the clunky platform known as LinkedIn, discovered a few jobs that excited me, and brushed up on a long overdue skill. Week Two, on the other hand, was more of a kid-sized mood roller coaster as I filled in tedious online applications and crafted writing samples (Sell us toothpaste! Come up with awesome medical topics for our blog!). But the mood roller coaster may have been due more to the daily hot chocolate-induced sugar and caffeine crash than the dark hole that is job searching. I’ve been reluctant to admit that, however, because it feels so right to settle cross-legged on the round tuffet between the coffee table and couch with a cup of syrupy hot chocolate as I open my laptop to start clicking job links. A bright spot that coffee (decaf) cannot replace. It is with reluctance and baby dinosaur fist waving that I thrust the cocoa powder from reach. Here’s to Week Three being approached with more of the verve from Week One.

I’ve also been lost as to how to approach this blog. As the header says, it’s here to chronicle my attempts to take over the world, but now that I’ve returned to a world I’m much too familiar with, sometimes the attempts simply don’t make for blogworthiness. I don’t want to post about my breakfast or other dull minutiae from life. So I’ve been quiet, unmoored and searching for the voice again. I think the restlessness relates to my last post about avoiding passivity. That death of life is creeping in much too quickly, helped along by long days searching through job listings, the morning routine of scooping the cat box and watering the garden, the (occasional) evening routine of planning and making dinner. All those tasks are part of life but don’t make a life. It’s easy to get caught up and not look beyond them. I need that manifesto.

Here is something larger than me. I’m doing transcription, and a little PR writing, for a photographer who is interviewing and photographing engaged or married gay couples in celebration of the June SCOTUS decision, one of the few bright reports from the US during my absence. I’ve always been a softie when it comes to love stories. Check out the project.

So long,

theresa

P.S. I’ll probably post pictures from Cuba for awhile, unless you’d like pictures of my cats.

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static

Inútil

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

Tire seat

Thought motes

1. Whining. Sometimes I (along with all the volunteers) am as whiny as the students. I groan when the Volunteer Coordinator reminds us about our weekly meeting, bemoan the pointlessness of our attendance when told of the monthly staff meeting, and bitch when a day off or free period is cancelled. Like my kids, I often try to shoot the messenger.

2. Plastic? I’ve been meaning to mention the love of plastic bags here. The freshness of the observation is lost after nine months, but I do recall that the eagerness to give me a plastic bag with my purchase, no matter how small and how many other plastic bags I already have, used to surprise me. Any rejection of the proffered bag is met with bewilderment. Fortunately, even the smallest bag can be reused for cut produce, like avocado or melon. Also, juice, water, and frozen juice or milk treats called topogigos are sold in knotted plastic bags. Bite off a corner and suck away.

3. Balls. One dreaded part of my job is litigating arguments between kids over stolen balls and fighting in general. If I can’t punt the role of judge to another, I dither about fairness and trust neither party to tell me the truth. Thus I chastise both and no one is satisfied that justice has been done. Is this a contributing factor to the “zero-tolerance” policy in many US schools? Where the bullied is punished for self-defense, as well as the bully?

4. Happiness. For twelve years, my primary jobs, excluding the theatre-related, and even some of them too, have put me in a position that where no one is happy to see or hear from me. A call from me or the sight of my face means that person has something he doesn’t want to. My first adult job was in bookkeeping at a medical collection agency. I took money from people who most certainly did not want to (and sometimes really couldn’t) pay. My next job was as a paralegal who had to contact clients to request a year’s worth of financial documents. And if those weren’t enough to present a solid picture to the court, the person had to supplement with another pile of paperwork. Then I had to contact these people with personal questions about their spending habits. More than one took my questions as personal attacks, despite my sugar padding efforts, my emotional tap dancing. In the theatre life, as a literary manager, I would have to reject more plays than I accepted. Now, I teach children who most definitely do not want to be taught. Please, can I just have a job making people happy?

5. No fun. Joe has been a real jerk in class lately, telling me I’m mean and bad, and whining about every bit of work he has to do. I’m afraid we’re going to end the year on a bad note.

6. Science. My favorite geeky boy told me I was the best Science teacher they’ve ever had, because I explain things so students understand. Now, how can someone not teach that way?

7. Cliques. I will not end this experience with “friends of a lifetime” à la some summer camp or group vacation brochure. Is the cliquishness among the team indicative of age or is this just how adults naturally act when forced together?

8. Ants. I look forward to living somewhere where I’m not awakened by fireworks or firecrackers exploding at 4am. Also, I will not miss the itch of ants crawling over me.

9. Sex. I’ve ended the year by teaching Sex Ed. Of course the kids (and this teacher) are counting the days until school ends, and this is my best bet at getting their attention. It’s also the only topic I feel qualified to teach (get your mind out of the gutter, because experience would mean I’d feel more qualified to teach English) because I was one of those kids in high school who went to other schools to sing about condom use and act as the good witch Sister Syphilis.

This is also my chance for a little socio-political action, to spread messages that girls will not be harmed by masturbation, despite what doctors tell women; that both parties are responsible for protection and the outcomes of sex, despite the fact single motherhood is high and 25% of pregnancies happen to women under age 16; that if someone tries to pressure you into sex as proof of love, you kick that person to the curb because they are quite obviously an asshole and you can find someone better; and, BTW, folks, Miss theresa doesn’t care who you have sex with, or how, as long as you respect yourself, respect your partner—and respect includes protection—and all parties are willing.

I’ve received such wonderful and frank questions, which I attribute to my attitude of non-judgment, but perhaps questions about threesomes and porn and masturbating with car parts are normal conversation topics at this age. I wonder at times if I’m being too direct and open—the grossed out faces on the 8th grade girls when they saw the banana condom, the distressed look on a 7th grader when I responded to her question that the first time probably will hurt, but if she is relaxed and with someone she trusts, it will be easier—and I know, at times, that what I teach is directly counter to their parents and the Church. But they ask, so I tell. And next week we’ll discuss, briefly, homosexuality, in the context of love, because how does more love in the world hurt anyone? While this was on my not-so-secret agenda, someone did ask me, in an anonymous note, if it was “bad.”

With all the grades I did an exercise to prove the point that you have sex with everyone your partner has had sex with. I choose an innocent (ha!) volunteer and informed the class that this lovely person just had unprotected sex and now has HIV, but s/he doesn’t know. She had a great time last night and decides to have more unprotected sex. So she grabs another student, who now also gets HIV, then both have sex with new partners, the disease spreads, etc., until in about four days, all 10, 14, or 17 of the kids has HIV. This lead to a 9th grade braggart assuring me he will buy condoms after school (yes, I am sooo impressed by your sexual prowess) and a shocked expression on Antonio’s face as the exercise ended. Ultimately, I’m skeptical of my overall usefulness here, but if my teaching gets these kids thinking about who they share their feeling parts with and how, then it was worth it. If it encourages my girls to be strong when they’re pressured, because they will be, and makes them less afraid of learning what they like, then it was worth it.

On a related note, the 9th graders laughed when I told them that some schools in the US don’t allow sex education teaching. All grades also enjoyed practicing safe sock wear.

10. More cats. During the Parents’ Day celebration, a 9th grader gave me an itsy bitsy quite-obviously-still-needing-its-mommy kitten, because “Miss theresa likes cats.” Now, she first tried to pawn off the kitten on the Volunteer Coordinator, so it wasn’t a gift for me specifically. Despite my protestations that I couldn’t care for this kitten, it was left on my lap and my student and her father left. Fortunately, my geeky boy loves animals and together we were able to convince his mother to let him take it home to his bunnies and birds. The kitten is doing very well.

3 weeks to go,

theresa

P.S. Today’s picture is the winning project for 7th grade. These were very popular seats.

heat

Flawed human

I present to you my last two students:

Glisa

I worry about Glisa’s future. Many of the female volunteers do. Her 12th birthday was two weeks ago, but she looks older. One could say Glisa is too pretty for Honduras, because beauty leads to attention, and that leads to to trouble. After her last speaking exam, she and I chatted about her desire to study medicine in Cuba (apparently it’s good there?). I encouraged her with a full heart, because Glisa is such a bright girl, and told her that she’d have to be strong and push aside those that would stand in her way, like guys, because guys would try. She laughed. She knew what I meant, but she’s only 12.

I’ve heard that life at home is horrific, that the busito driver has pulled up to the house and heard her younger brother being whalloped by their stepfather. Last year, if not this year, Glisa came to school with stripes. While the younger kids share these wounds with the volunteers, the older ones don’t. I haven’t seen anything and she is rarely anything but cheerful, but I have pulled her aside to tell her that she doesn’t need to give the mid-parcial grade letter to her parents if she doesn’t want to. Glisa’s grades are not the best. She’s careless. She doesn’t study. She chatters constantly, like its an addiction she can’t kick. I shudder when I see her stepfather. Glisa adores her mother.

If she would steal Isabel or John’s focus, there’s nothing Glisa couldn’t do. She radiates light and joy and curiosity. She’s the only person to pester me with questions when interested in a science topic and her hand is usually the first when I ask for opinions. She’s the only 7th grader who (still) loves Justin Bieber and didn’t vote for Antonio in the school elections (he lost). Glisa is silly, with startling moments of maturity and clarity. She would also fit in easily in the US.

Glisa has a crush on Antonio, which everyone knows and he exploits. She hugs me most mornings. She is so hungry for affection and attention. It could be the homelife, or not. It’s this hunger that makes me afraid for her, because someone will prey on it. I want to protect her in a glass shell.

Lizz

After watching me talk with Lizz during recess one day, a volunteer questioned why I dislike her so much. Ouch. Awkward, egotistical, needy, self-concious, unpopular, and hopelessly obsessed with a boy who doesn’t know of her existence, Lizz has been hit with some of the worst characteristics of adolescence. Were I a better, stronger, more compassionate person, my own recollected wounds of those years would help me be gentle with her, but I’m not that person.

Lizz lies to me, carelessly, obviously, then denies it when caught. She disobeys my request that she not hit her cousin, John, and is disqualified from a game, then asks why she didn’t get candy when her team wins. I give her candy so she’ll just leave me alone. She’ll wave me over to her desk with a hushed “Miss, I have to ask you a question,” in such a way that I assume it’s a sensitive matter, but it’s something purely mundane, such as having her homework ready to turn in and I should praise her for it being early, despite her doing it instead of taking notes. Lizz is convinced she is the smartest, exclaims “Miss!” in a shocked tone over…what, I don’t recall, but nothing shocking…expects exceptions and special attention. I ignore her when she complains of illness, because I’ve heard her wolf cry too often.

At first I was able to meet her needs with sensitivity, but now I’m short, impatient, and snap. She’s just a girl, and no one deserves that, especially from a teacher. I don’t know if she notices, but I notice, and that’s enough to wound what is left of my soul. Tara is another recipient of my exhausted, impatient self. She notices.

My imagined soul is spongy like a liver and now shriveled, with decayed spots, like the heart with atherosclerosis I showed the older kids in science. When I am less than kind, or give deserved punishments, or litigate arguments over whose ball it is or who broke the pencil sharpener, a spot appears or darkens. I suppose it will heal, but I’d rather it never appeared in the first place. Ah, the pitfalls of being a sensitive and deeply flawed human. Maybe the damage is mitigated by hugs from the school’s baby dinosaur.

I remain,

theresa

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

A plant with sports

You so crazy

Nothing gets me talking better than the topic of my students, and since I described a few of them last week, here are a few more, all seventh graders. Although I teach three grades, I teach these crazy guys at least three classes a day and think about them the most.

Antonio

During one of our parent-teacher-student behavior meetings, I asked Antonio to be my superhero, like Iron Man, and use his power for good. Tall, attractive, engaged in an active love affair with hair gel, and cocky, Antonio is the obvious leader of the class. He doesn’t walk across the school yard, he struts. During a game of grammar tic-tac-toe, his teammates sought his approval prior to placing their mark on the board. Jojo refused to compete against him in a review quiz game. When the first grade English teacher substitute taught my class this week, due to some scheduling craziness, and she was glaring at him for silence, he commented that she must be looking at him because he was so good-looking. He is confident in his immortality.

Of all the kids, it’s most difficult for me to remember that Antonio is still a child, because he’s tall, because his spoken English is fluent, because his defiance is strong, and I, a neophyte, easily fall prey to his manipulation. I roar internally in frustration at his academic scores because he’s smart but thinks he knows everything and always races to finish his work as quickly as he can, then bother those who aren’t finished. He could do much better, but he’d rather comb his hair and chatter. He laughs loudly when others make mistakes, which further discourages students from risking themselves.  He’s also a baby and, I suspect, babied by his mother. Whenever Antonio is chastised more than he thinks he deserves, he puts his head down and refuses to talk. If given detention, he pouts and threatens, “I will not come.” When asked to write about an awesome person, Antonio wrote about his mother, whose awesomeness stems from her giving him whatever he wants.

Yes, he’s a kid, a popular kid. I struggle to like him. He probably taps into the wounds I retain from my own middle school years. He can be charming, but it’s a power struggle, always, and I often hear his protesting voice in my head. When I can find a moment of vulnerability, like when I catch him needing help with something, I spread my teacher-gifted-with-knowledge wings and flash them in an attempt to blind him into humility. Despite how middle school theresa may feel, Teacher theresa does care. He’d make a good politician. I just want him to be an intelligent and kind politician.

May

There are students closer to my heart than others, and May is one of them, mostly due to the near deadpan inflection of her English, which renders her work protests hilarious. She shakes her head and tells me, “Miss, I don’t understand,” with a strange little lift at the end and a flat-lipped, embarrassed smile in her half-turned face as if this is a strange thing I have caused, this not understanding, and she’s casting it off to me to do something with that information. It stems from insecurity and a self-rooted assumption that she will not understand whatever I’m teaching. I’m not sure why she feels this way, and it may be my fault. Despite months of being with this crew, I still am unable to gauge the difficulty of my lessons. So before quizzes and exams, when I remember—increasingly difficult with my sieve of a memory—we review during lunch time and she passes, whatever the topic, or she doesn’t. She works hard, I think. May is a Good Student, not great, but good. I don’t often enough see her smile and I will tease her and turn myself on my head, in our free moments, to find it in her sweet face, that wrinkled-up nose, averting her eyes. I often want her approval and wish I knew her better.

She loves to make cakes…if only I could get her to make one for me.

Krissy

I am the only volunteer teacher who is fond of her. Big, loud, and a school hater, Krissy is a bully. She frequently and at high volume disrespects her teachers and kicks or punches other students. Hers is another voice I hear in the quiet and it often says, “Miss, but I no want to!” Another volunteer proclaimed that Krissy is “just too much.” I suspect I love her for a vulnerability that is rarely revealed.

Early in the year when I’d allow the students to find relief from our stifling and loud classroom by working outside, Krissy’d wander away and bother other classrooms. I confronted her and explained that because of this tendency I couldn’t trust her, despite wanting to. I’m not sure why, maybe it was my speaking to her seriously and honestly, but our relationship after that changed. She started trying more and looking my approval. If I gave her The Look, she’d stop talking, for at least a second, and work. She’d argue less. And we built this relationship where if Krissy gives me crap, I can give her crap right back:

K: Miss, it is so hot and boring.
T: I know, Krissy, but you are young and strong and in my heart of hearts I believe you will survive. Can you? Can you make it through this rough day?
K. (Smiling) Oh, Miss, you so crazy.

And she’ll try…for a minute.

Krissy is the biggest—okay, fattest—kid in school. At a parent-teacher meeting, her aunt mentioned that the family couldn’t get her to stop continuously eating. Her aunt suspected stress from school. When we were studying earthquakes in Science, an eighth grader joked it was Krissy walking. During a writing exercise where kids had to write a sentence then fold over the paper and pass it to another student to write the next sentence, someone compared Krissy to an elephant. And Krissy, big, strong bully Krissy, who never shows hurt from these comments, was upset. My middle school self, one that was also relentlessly teased, the memory of which struggles against Antonio, hugged her. My teacher self struggled to find a solution and felt inadequate.

Krissy’s family is a good one. Her mother is a dentist, her father a mechanic. Both care for their daughter, though seem confused at times by her behavior. Krissy now sees a psychologist, though I’m curious if she actually talks to him/her, because it’s difficult to get beyond the superficial. Krissy excels in math but hates Science and English. (This post’s picture is what I drew on a quiz when she wrote that a plant could reproduce with sports, not spores.) She has great listening skills and is fluent, if grammatically atrocious, and her writing and reading skills are weak. Recently I started tutoring her once a week, and while she’ll lie slickly to wiggle out of it, to the point that I call her mom if Krissy tells me tutoring has been cancelled, our sessions are fun and she’ll play along. I suspect she enjoys the attention. I enjoy shocking her, such as by telling her I used to dye my hair all sorts of colors. I love her incredulous smile and her look of surprise when she gets something right.

If the other volunteers spent as much time with Krissy, I wonder if they’d change their minds about her. They see her picking on their little kids and protesting their instructions at top volume. I see these things too and daily get on her case for physically responding to a slight. But I also see how she is picked on by others for her size and poor vocabulary, and while I don’t see it, because it’s hidden, I know this hurts her. And, I suppose, I like her because she likes me and I’ve figured out, a little bit anyway, how to work with this girl who’d much rather be at home watching Calle 7.

And those are three of my kids.

ta ta,

theresa

Grover

Now and later

Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.

Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.

This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.

One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.

With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.

This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.

Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.

Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.

Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.

This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.

This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.

Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.

Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.

My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.

I’ll try.

Indubitably,

theresa

P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.