Here’s a little song I wrote inspired by the ideas of Lindy West, Rebecca Solnit, Hannah Dreier, George Orwell, bell hooks, Colin Kaepernick, and New Yorkers who scoop their bagels.
Betsy DeVos is right. Lives have been ruined by allegations of sexual assault. It’s really such a shame for rapists. When a woman is sexually assaulted, she most likely will not come forward, as only an estimated 37% of rape victims are heartless enough to report their rape to the authorities. The remaining 63% rightfully spare their assaulters from the life-ruining consequences of their actions, (like 3 long months in prison for poor Stanford rapist Brock Turner, for example) and swallow their trauma in silence.
As they should, of course. Just ask the National Coalition for Men, to whom DeVos lent a listening ear during a series of meetings about sexual assaults on college campuses this past Thursday. I imagine the group expressed their view that while “false accusations are hard to measure and there is not much available research…the problem is much more common than we are told.” That’s enough evidence for me right there.
So what if FBI data indicates that “the prevalence of false reporting [of rape] is between 2 and 10 percent”? I say statistics shmatistics. More importantly, let’s take a moment of silence for the poor Gustavus Adolphus College rapist who allegedly had to write a 500-word essay as a punishment for rape. What a life-ruiner his accuser turned out to be!
In case the National Coalition for Men didn’t make their points clear enough about an issue that affects women disproportionately (1 in 5 women will be raped in her life as compared to 1 in 71 men) DeVos gathered more information about campus sexual assault from yet another men’s rights group: SAVE. The group is not only opinionated about sexual assault, but also about domestic violence in general. Members likely explained to the Secretary of Education one of their core views that “female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent violence.” I mean, what was she talking back for?
Even though 90% of murders are committed by men, and according to the Surgeon General, “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four, more common than automobile accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined,” it’s really OK because, you know, she started it.
I’m just glad we have Candice Jackson as the top enforcer of sexual assault cases at the U.S. Department of Education who famously said that “the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk.’” That’s right. Ladies, leave the keg-stands to the boys. Your responsibility at an event involving alcohol is not to have fun, but rather to protect yourself from male advances. If you fail, well, I guess you were just too drunk.
So thanks so much, Donald Trump for appropriately appointing a business person to be the Secretary of Education. May the rights of rapists continue to thrive under her tenure.
Blogging is narcissistic, but also an opportunity to express some sentimentality during chaotic times.
Lately, my brain has been muddled by politics. Like some kind of mental fog, it has cast a shadow over the small glimmer of creativity I used to possess, leaving me unable to produce anything inspiring. Reading up on world news is important. Being angry is worthwhile. But losing the ability to create seems like an unfair bargain.
But yesterday, something resembling sentimentality payed me a surprise visit. It happened in my Catalan class while we were having an early introduction to the imperfect tense, marking the first time I have been able to speak about the past in this new language. The teacher asked us all to talk briefly about our childhood. What were we like? What kinds of things do we remember most?
The class is diverse. I tilted forward in my chair, trying to see my peers as they spoke in choppy fragmented sentences about being mischievous and cutting class in Morocco, or learning to sew to help their parents’ business in Bolivia. Some shared more painful stories of leaving their native country due to regional conflict. Most read from notes they had nervously scribbled onto lined paper in preparation for this brief moment of public speaking.
When it became my turn, I realized I hadn’t prepared anything, not even a simple mental note about what to say because I was so caught up in everyone else’s stories. I paused, my notebook blank, everyone looking at me. My childhood seemed simple and common compared to that of my peers.
Then inexplicably, a flash of red surfaced from the back of my mind. I could see her clearly blowing tiny bubbles, flapping her red body, gazing emptily at the bedroom beyond her reach. Hardly a remarkable element from my past, Raspberry was my pet tropical fish who swam in silent circles in a glass bowl that isolated her from her adoptive sister (brother?) Blueberry who swam in an identical adjacent bowl. Raspberry lived like an ornament for a full year in my bedroom without making much of an impact on our lives. When she died, however, I remember my sister cried.
The traditional thing to do when a fish dies is flush it down the toilet. Return it to its source, I suppose. But I remember my dad found a little white jewelry box, which was the perfect size for her one-inch frame. It was the carton kind that has a soft layer of cotton on the bottom so that Raspberry could rest comfortably in peace. He dug a hole in the backyard that was also just the right size for her cardboard coffin, and the whole family gathered outside for the burial.
My dad gave a eulogy.
“Raspberry was a quiet fish,” he said. “She never complained. She never bothered anybody.”
My sisters and I giggled, and my dad shrugged at us and said, “It’s true, isn’t it?”
I shared this story with my Catalan peers and they smiled. This isn’t something I think of often, but it is a beautiful memory.
It is also surprising because my dad is not the sentimental type. I wouldn’t describe him as serious, but he’s definitely practical enough to toss a fish into a toilet, pull the trigger and walk away.
But over the years and in many indirect ways, my sisters and I were taught the value of all living things, the eulogy for a fish being an early example. We didn’t practice any religion, we were just taught that life is to be respected.
As the world becomes more divided and my brain becomes more fogged with politics, this lesson on basic humanity seems like a relevant bridge connecting the solemnity of current events with creativity and empathy.
Blogging is narcissistic, but when are we going to start trusting each other?
I remember when Trayvon Martin was tragically murdered, a flustered CNN reporter at the scene desperately cried out, “When are we going to start trusting each other?” I think about that a lot. I want that to be an attainable goal. It would be nice if I could trust strangers more and be less suspicious of them. Especially men.
But it’s hard. Sometimes when I am jogging and a male is trotting close behind, I wonder if maybe he is not a jogger at all. I spin tales in my head about the possibility that he is a fraud, pretending to care about fitness only so that he can follow me down to where the trail winds and the bushes grow tall. Where he can do something unthinkable, and no one will suspect anything for hours because I never remember to tell someone where I am going, or when I will likely be back.
I also notice that often times when I am jogging and coming up behind a female, she will whip her head around, eyes a bit wider than normal, but will relax and return to her calm inhaling and exhaling when she sees that it is just me. Just a woman, that is.
And this is fair, and it’s normal, and it’s expected. But it’s also sad. This is how my fourth grade teacher explained bias. You make judgments based on your personal experience, or experiences you have heard about. That’s what we’re doing.
Now be me for a second. You’re a female driving alone in the early evening. It’s not completely dark, but streetlights are on. Your headlights are on. You turn the corner onto the street that branches out into your neighborhood, and you see a guy standing by an old, oversized truck, one thumb extended upward, hitchhiker-style. In the other hand, he is holding the metal clamps of jumper cables. Do you stop?
He needs a jump, and when are we going to start trusting each other, so I stop.
“Do you need a jump?” This is a dumb question.
He leans in toward the car and I notice his weird bowl-cut hairstyle. His hair is oddly thin and straight, encircling his head like, well, a bowl. He has freckles and moderately crooked teeth that reveal themselves when he smiles and says, “Yeah, I do if you don’t mind.” I decide he looks like a cartoon hillbilly. If only he had a straw of hay coming out of his mouth, the picture would be complete.
I flip around and our engines are now nose to nose. I am positioned as though parked on the wrong side of the road, his truck large enough to consume my compact car. But it is mine that has the power.Though she be but little, she is fierce.
In an ideal world in which we trust each other, this is really not a big deal. But here and now, I start to wonder, Is this a bad idea?
I pop the hood open for him, then reach into my purse and take out my phone so that it’s ready, in case I need to call someone.
He approaches me, leaning cautiously into my window saying, “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” I now notice he is young. Maybe mid-twenties.
“Don’t I need to turn my car off?” I ask.
“No, no, it’s fine,” he says, and as he clamps, he repeats, “Thank you so much!”
In a perfect world, he would not need to be so gracious because I am offering him nothing, really. I am certainly not sacrificing anything. I’m not even getting out of the car.
Suddenly I see sparks shooting out of the clamps. He jumps back. “Oh, maybe you do need to turn the car off,” he says. I can’t tell if this is weird or normal. I know that I personally can never remember the order involved in jumping a car, and maybe he can’t either.
Now he has rearranged the order. My car is off, things are unhooked, then they’re hooked again, then mine is on and he’s turning his key, but still, his truck remains indifferent. Nothing. The hillbilly doesn’t seem too dismayed. He suggests we wait a moment. Again, I can’t tell if this is weird. Wait for what? I wish I knew more about cars.
As we wait and my engine gently rumbles, he leans in again and tells me that he came into town to pick up dinner from a Vietnamese restaurant for himself and his girlfriend. “To make matters worse,” he complains, “she lives out in the country with no cell service. She doesn’t know where I am.” Does that still happen?
I say I know the restaurant. I hear it’s pretty good, but I’ve never been. He pauses. “Would you like to try it tonight? Can I offer you my dinner?” I laugh and say no thank you, and he insists, “Are you sure? Yellow curry?” I consider this way too generous for a jump, especially one that doesn’t even seem to be working. I decline the yellow curry.
The next thing I know, smoke is rising from the cable clamps. “Is it supposed to do that?” I ask, gesturing toward my engine.
He looks startled. “No it’s not!” he says. I shut off my car. He unclips the cables. “It must be these cables then,” he says shrugging, again not looking too concerned.
“I have some,” I tell him without giving myself time to think, and now I get out of my car. As I’m leaning into the trunk, I start to think terrible thoughts. Is this his chance to throw me into my trunk and drive off with me somewhere? Even though he has been completely nice up to this point, I again start to lose trust.
I hear him mumble, “Never seen that before,” and I admit that for some surprisingly terrible sexist reason, I think he means he has never seen a girl with jumper cables. I start to explain, “I donated money to NPR. They gave me an emergency kit as a gift that came with cables.” He looks at me as though he doesn’t understand the words that have just come out of my mouth, and I realize the thing he has never seen before is smoking cables.
Once again, our engines are hooked up (no thanks to me), and still, even with my brand new cables, nothing. He shrugs. We tried. He thanks me again and again, even adding, “You’re such a nice person.” But I’m not, really. If we lived in a world in which people trust each other, it wouldn’t be especially kind to offer someone a jump. (I’m not so great in this world either – in adulthood, I once called an 8th grader a jerk.)
He wraps up my cables nicely. I tell him it’s not necessary. I feel awkward standing over him while he’s squatting, making sure the wires are perfectly lined up in an infinity shape. “So you don’t have a mess in your trunk,” he says. He’s a nice person. And then he adds, “Are you sure there isn’t anything I can offer you? A beer? A joint?” I surprise myself with a loud, unexpected nerd laugh. I decline both offers and tell him that there is a Jiffy Lube right up the street, and wonder if I should offer to drive him, though it is completely in walking distance. In the end, I don’t offer.
And now, we are parting ways. I am just about 50 yards from the small street that leads into my neighborhood, but in spite of everything, I don’t go directly home. I circle the block. When I come back around and see that his truck is there, but it is empty, then and only then do I pull into my neighborhood.
Blogging is narcissistic, but we should be talking about threats of violence at schools.
In Spanish, you can’t talk about something as though it is a fact if there is any doubt about its existence. Not if you want to be grammatically correct anyway. This is because Spanish is a practical language. It possesses an entire linguistic category dedicated to addressing things that may not actually be true: the widely used and irrationally feared subjunctive.
I harbor great respect for the subjunctive. After all, we can’t take for granted something that may not actually be true.
In English, for example, we can say, “I hope everything is OK.” But is just sounds so certain, doesn’t it? And we’re merely expressing a hope. Everything might not be OK. In Spanish, you have to manipulate the verb “to be” so that instead of using es, which corresponds to is in English, we have to use sea, the subjunctive version of “to be.” Therefore, “I hope everything is OK” in Spanish would be, “Espero que todo sea bien.” Because maybe everything is not OK. We can’t be sure.
A couple months ago, I tried to express this concept to my students with the help of Carlos Ponce and a song called, “Busco una mujer,” (“I’m looking for a woman”). I told them that Carlos Ponce has to use the subjunctive throughout this song because maybe he will never find the woman he seeks. Maybe she does not exist. Poor Carlos Ponce.
And just as I could see the room full of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds caring a little bit less, I heard her voice spilling soothingly out of the school’s intercom system. “Attention,” she said, sounding like a yoga teacher announcing a change in pose, “The school is now on lockdown. This is not a drill. Students may not leave the building. Please remain in your classrooms even after the bell.”
Maureen*. I can’t think of a better person to be a school principal. She moves like she is underwater: slow, flowy, peaceful. Maybe she is a mermaid. I wouldn’t be surprised. Her wisdom and quiet control attract respect, but she doesn’t have to say anything to gain it. A sort of calm authority just emanates from her, like wake in the water. No one would dare disrespect Maureen. Yet she is fair and kind, like the time when I accidentally set off the fire alarm and the entire school, pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, had to evacuate their classrooms and line up on the soccer field. I heard her whispery words through the walky-talky system: “We’re still determining the cause of the alarm,” she said without a trace of panic in her voice. I had to come clean. She paused, looked at me for a moment and said, “That’s fine. We were due for a drill anyway,” and smiled revealing perfect teeth beneath her matte plum lipstick. Why can’t everyone be more like Maureen?
But now she was announcing something serious. A lockdown. What a stupid compound word. Don’t we lock things up, and shouldn’t it therefore be called a lockup? English is not a practical language. But regardless, its meaning is clear. I am sadly experienced with locking classroom doors and hiding under desks thanks to the infamous Columbine shooting that happened when I was a kid.
But Maureen didn’t sound worried. She may as well have been announcing a campus-wide nap. Her way of speaking and her flowy pants and tops make me think of a character from a video my sister and I used to watch as children called, We Sing in Sillyville. It was a movie about a town that had lost all its color. Or maybe just the main character had lost all the color in her typically multi-colored jumpsuit, which I assure you was better off colorless. But there was a character who wore long, tinkling necklaces and loose-fitting silk tops. My sister and I got a kick out of the way she said, “Let’s make it brighter in here,” in a sing-song voice and spun in a circle, the room suddenly illuminating. We used to reenact that scene in the bedroom that we shared, taking turns flicking on the light switch, timing it just right so that the room would light up precisely when one of us twirled in a circle. “Let’s make it brighter in here!” we would say. That’s what Maureen is like. So I didn’t really worry. But then she came on the loud speaker again to repeat her message and to remind us that this was not a drill. That no one was to leave the building under any circumstances.
And this is when you realize that even though in reality you are equally as uninformed and confused as the students, you are now the responsible adult. The students now look to you for instruction. And what do you know?
I had a similar realization just a few months ago when a scrawny, puritanical freshman paused before leaving my class to ask if I thought it was OK for him to eat his pizza that had been in his backpack all day. My first inclination was to say yes. Why not? But then I had to check myself. I mean, I would totally eat a piece of pizza that had been in my backpack all day. I would totally eat anything, really. But suddenly I felt this immense amount of pressure that comes from waking up one morning and playing the role of responsible adult. Because that’s why he was asking me, right? He thinks I know better than he does just by virtue of being a grownup. And suddenly saying yes seemed like a risky response. His health potentially depended on my answer, and I do not know what I’m talking about. Especially when it comes to food. I have no sense of food danger. I’ve eaten chicken hearts on a skewer right off the streets of Peru. My friend and I once shared soup in Ecuador that we’re pretty sure had a deer hoof in it. I once even ate a live shrimp in Japan. I have no radar that indicates whether food should be consumed or not.
(But I would like to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back as I suddenly realize that considering my lack of discretion, I have fared pretty well. I really haven’t experienced any vicious tummy troubles like many of my fellow travelers, with one exception in Hong Kong at a most unfortunate moment after climbing 268 steps to reach the biggest Buddha I’ve ever seen. But even that wasn’t as bad as some stories I’ve heard. Oh right, and that time I had a mystery illness that led to my hospitalization which most certainly came from food, probably ceviche. But other than that, I’ve done pretty well.)
“Does your pizza have meat on it?” I asked him, buying time. I don’t really know if it makes a difference. Someone once told me vegetables expire faster than meat. Is that true? I should look that up.
“No,” he stared at me, waiting for my response.
“Oh, OK then. I think it’s fine.” Which is true. I do think it’s fine. But I don’t really know.
“Wait yes!” He said, rethinking his previous answer. “Sausage!”
Now what? I still think it’s fine. But to be consistent, I should have said, “Oh, in that case, no, don’t eat it.” But I don’t really think it matters if there is meat on it or not. Either way, I would still eat it.
I told the kid that it was probably fine, but that he should get a second opinion.
“OK,” he shrugged, and was off, gigantic backpack tipping him forward a bit as he walked out the door. Good thing teenagers don’t really listen to adults anyway.
And on the day of the lockdown, I once again was supposed to have some kind of answer. As if the students were asking me, “Is it going to be OK?” and my automatic response was, “Yes of course!” But just like the pizza, I didn’t really know.
I tried to continue teaching, but it was understandably challenging to maintain their attention, especially since they already had trouble grasping why someone as dreamy as Carlos Ponce may never find the woman he seeks. They asked if they could look out the window to see what was going on, and I said, “Yes of course,” but then immediately thought, what kind of teacher lets her students stand in plain view in front of a glass window during a lockdown? “OK! Back to our desks now!”
At my school, all of the classrooms come equipped with what our students call a “terrorist stick,” which is basically a doorstopper that you squeeze beneath the door itself and under the knob to prevent someone from forcefully entering your room. The students asked if we could put it to use. I should have thought of that myself. Then they asked if they could barricade the door with a table and chairs. They were half-joking, but some of them seemed really worried. I was willing to let them do whatever made them feel more at ease, and whatever would distract them from the situation. I acted nonchalant, and suggested we continue to learn the subjunctive. They didn’t want to. Neither did I, if I’m honest.
And if I’m completely honest, I was a little nervous, and I am not generally a nervous person. I found myself conjuring up progressively darker and darker thoughts. At first it was just things like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do if there actually is a dangerous person on campus. And then I would reassure myself and think things like, Just keep the door locked. Maybe get all the kids to stay low to the ground. And then I would start to worry more and think, Maybe we should be quiet. Maybe we should turn off the lights. Maybe I should text someone? And perhaps the worst thought of all, I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no business being responsible in a situation like this.
And then my brain flashed before me the memory of Victoria Leigh Soto, the Newtown, Connecticut hero who threw herself in front of her students to protect them from flying bullets. She and I were born the same year.
The best thing I could think of was to tell the students that we should all just sit in a circle on the floor and share funny stories. Embarrassing moments, I suggested. And most of them complied, and I think it relieved some tension. One of the best things about teenagers is their ability to recover from things. One minute they’re a frustrated whirlwind of emotions, the next minute they’ve moved on, seemingly unaware (or maybe just indifferent) to the collateral damage they have caused.
Fortunately, the lockdown turned out to be the result of a nearby off-campus threat. A car with guns and possibly explosives was detained a few miles away, and as a result of some kind of law about schools within a certain number of miles of a certain kind of threat, we had to lock the school down. The law is reasonable and reassuring, but the fact that there was a man with guns and explosives nearby in such a quiet, family town is distressing. Equally reasonable yet distressing was my students’ instinct and familiarity with locking and barricading the classroom door.
But because the threat did not permeate our campus, the issue was just sort of swept away. The kids got over it almost immediately. Many even boasted about their lack of fear, or complained that they had to pee but were trapped in a classroom for two hours. They made jokes about being lucky that they didn’t have to take a test that day.
For the remainder of the day, I offered my students in each class period the opportunity to talk about what happened that morning. But no one really wanted to say much. It’s hard to talk about something that never materialized. Like Carlos Ponce’s elusive dream-woman, there was lots of speculation, but nothing certain. And an almost-tragedy is not granted the same language we use for actual tragedies.
But I think that’s part of the problem. There must be a special kind of language for talking about things that may not exist, but whose existence is tragically possible. All I can think in regards to the future of our young people in what is meant to be a safe, enriching environment is, espero que todo sea bien.
[*I changed her name because I don’t know the rules about these things, but trust me, her real name is SO PERFECT for her personality.]
Blogging is narcissistic, but so is our obsession with the way we look.
Watching The D.U.F.F. brought me back to when I saw the musical, Grease for the first time. My parents took my sisters and me to see a live production of it in San Diego. I know I was in second grade because I wrote about it in a daily journal that my teacher made us keep at the time. And journal I did on that scratchy, jumbo-lined paper that we give kids to keep their handwriting from straying too much.
As a kid, I was crazy about musicals. My parents used to take us to see them pretty frequently, and I would always envision myself jumping up on stage and singing and dancing alongside the performers like it was no big deal. There I was, stamping my feet along with the cast of Alabama, tap dancing in heels in 42nd Street, zooming through the audience in my purple roller blades in Starlight Express.
Who is this girl? The cast would whisper to one another. She is amazing!
But Grease? It failed to inspire me. My imaginary self stayed seated. The singing and dancing was nice, but the story was just meh. In penmanship that really hasn’t improved much, I commented in my second grade journal that Grease wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. I didn’t like that Sandy had to change herself to be with Johnny. “Maybe this is a different Grease,” I suggested. My dad had built it up so much. He said I would love it.
Had I been a little older, I would have articulated this better. I would have asked what kind of concessions Johnny made to establish a healthy relationship with Sandy. He just acted like a douche all the time and in turn, landed himself this pretty, intelligent girl. Maybe that happens sometimes, but as a kid, I didn’t want to believe that I would ever be that girl.
And similarly, while I found The D.U.F.F. to be moderately entertaining, the storyline failed to inspire me. To be fair, I don’t really think the filmmakers’ goal is to inspire the audience, nor do I pretend to be among the film’s target demographic. But I still think that if I were in second grade, I would write in my journal, “Maybe this is a different D.U.F.F.”
In all fairness, I can say that The D.U.F.F. signals some kind of cultural improvement since our days of “Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car?” In the more modern example, the main character accepts herself as she is. No teased hair and slinky leggings for her. That’s nice. But she accepts herself as the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Let me cushion this commentary by saying that I know nothing about movies and am in no position to critique one. It just makes me wonder.
And here is what I’m wondering.
Why did so many of my students, all high schoolers themselves, go see The D.U.F.F.? Why did so many of my students say they could relate to the story? Like most teen movies, The D.U.F.F. is at best a hyperbolic rendering of high school. It is not realistic. And my students know that. So why did they still identify with the characters?
And I am also wondering about how my students truly perceive themselves. Does the fact that so many said they could relate to the main character suggest that they consider themselves to be ugly and fat? How literally should I interpret their connection to the protagonist?
And why is it funny and acceptable to call people ugly and fat?
And of course, who decides what constitutes ugly and fat in the first place? I thought the main character, “The D.U.F.F.” herself, was actually quite pretty and not fat at all.
This feels like a worn out topic, but it also feels important to me because so many of my students consider themselves to fall short of our accepted standards of beauty. I have on more than one occasion wanted to talk to some of the particularly self-critical students about this, but I don’t know where to begin. This is partly because outside of an academic context, I wield no power among my students. I can’t convince them of anything if it doesn’t have to do with things like making sure their adjectives match in gender and number. And sometimes they’re even skeptical of that.
If it’s a mixed group of males and females, why does it take a masculine ending?
Spanish is sexist, I tell them.
I am also at a loss with my students because I admittedly haven’t made peace with the issue myself yet either. And that worries me because I don’t want to believe that the fifteen-year-olds I face each day have another fifteen years at least of self-criticism to look forward to. Maybe they exist in a more open-minded society, one that now features plus-sized models in Sports Illustrated, but it is not completely satisfying for me to represent the Sandy to their D.U.F.F.
I partially feel reassured looking back on my Grease experience. Young people are not idiots. I didn’t watch Grease and approve of Sandy’s wardrobe and personality makeover. However, simply recognizing that something is unrealistic does not mean that it does not make an impression on us.
So can we make a teen movie that’s about something else? Can it have to do with something other than the way people look? If anyone is on the fence about whether or not they are, in fact, the ugly fat friend, movies like The D.U.F.F. just might confirm their doubts.
Blogging is narcissistic, but I hope to encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.
I don’t know why it’s frowned upon to dabble. As a high school teacher, I try to encourage my students to dabble. Dabble away, I say! Not to mention, the word dabble is fun to say, although maybe its sound is a bit too close to dribble, which makes me picture myself as some kind of idiot, running around aimlessly, saliva dribbling out of my stupidly cheerful smile. But I still like to say it.
I recently encouraged dabbling to a student in one of my most generous moments: “Not into Spanish?” I asked him, putting on my best I-understand-you face, masking the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me at the very thought of someone not loving a language that so changed my life. “Why not try French next year?” I suggested, once more masking my distress, struggling to suppress a memory of a French man who sat next to me on a long wooden bench at a picnic style restaurant in Cambodia. In an attempt at small talk, I pointed out to the French man that we had ordered the same dish, only his had beef in it and mine had tofu. (Not my proudest social moment.) He acknowledged this fact, then added that he was drinking beer while I was drinking water, explaining in the thickest, most cliché French accent, “I eat meat, I drink beer, I enjoy life.” Ugh. French.
But still, I can prioritize a good dabble over my love of Spanish and my unrealistic expectation that my teaching methods will somehow transform my students into hispanophiles as well. However, in this case my generosity was trumped by the principal who corrected me: “Our policy is that once students choose a language, they have to stick with it.” Oops! But come on, life is not like that. There is a place for people with a clear direction of course, but there is also a place for dabblers. There are, in fact, lots of places for dabblers. So here are some highlights from my years of dabbling, which I hope will encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.
Fresh out of college, I took a job working at an afterschool program for at-risk teenagers, which on paper sounded fun and even noble. Working there, however, felt like being in middle school again, only this time I felt like the new kid, the chubby kind with braces and acne. Whenever I approached a group of girls, the chatting and giggling would stop abruptly, they would shoot me looks of annoyance, gather up their things and walk away. I had a 13-year-old informant on the inside who told me that the cool girls called me “Poodle”. Oh yeah, this is what I look like.
It’s hard not to take these things personally.
I simultaneously worked at a mommy-and-me music school. You know, the kind where you sit in a circle, toddler in lap, clap your hands, stomp your feet, spin around, etc. In theory it was my dream job. But it turns out, one can only sing, “Elephants have wrinkles, wrinkles everywhere” so many times before wanting to break things. And this is coming from someone who loves elephants. My boss said I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, to which I almost sang, “Goodbye, goodbye, thank you very much!” and put a sticker on her hand. Almost is the key word here.
At night I semi-actively pursued a singer-songwriter career, playing shows at coffee shops and bars in San Diego and Los Angeles. Whatever you are imagining, you are probably right. Sometimes people love you and show up at all of your shows. Sometimes they can even sing along to your songs. Other times you are singing as loud as you can, but no microphone in existence can drown out the conversation and laughter coming from an audience that doesn’t even know you’re there. And sometimes there is actually nobody there at all except for one person who is listening very intently because he is next up on stage and hopes you will return the favor. The bartender offers you both condolence cocktails, and your new friend gives you a flier for his upcoming show.
At some point, possibly out of desperation for meaning in my life, I found myself in Santiago, Chile where I worked with more troubled teens. Please interpret the word “more” to mean that there were more of them, but also as a qualifier of their level of troubled. Being called “Poodle” was tough, but even tougher was confiscating hedge-trimmers from a Chilean boy who snapped them in the air as he chased a girl around a cramped classroom. Why were there hedge-trimmers in a classroom? That’s a great question.
Back in the USA, I believed my skin had thickened sufficiently to work once again with at-risk youth. I was hired by a nonprofit organization that offered free tutoring to kids in a neighborhood I never knew existed: Southeast San Diego. Type those three words into Google and it will promptly suggest “gangs” to finish your search. An amateur YouTube video even breaks down the gangs for you by neighborhood, and claims this area to be the murder capital of San Diego. Lucky for me, I had no idea, I just knew it was far from where I grew up, and seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.
The non-profit was disorganized, as they tend to be, neglecting to inform me that one of my students had severe special needs, for example, an area in which I had no training or experience. The organization also sent me to the wrong address not once, not twice, but three times. In Southeast, you do not want to knock on the wrong door. The first time, someone peered at me through a brown metal screen door, the kind in which the holes are so tiny it’s basically a solid metal door. I could not see the frightened woman inside the home, but I realized that she could see me, which is a really strange experience, it turns out. It’s hard to know what to expect when someone who does not trust you is looking at you, yet you can’t see them. It’s eerie. Like being hunted maybe. And in this case the woman behind the door had the right to be on guard because I was a stranger at her home, after all. (Castle Doctrine, anyone?) I asked if the student I was looking for lived there, and she said in a terrified sort of voice, “Who? No, no, thank you, no!” and slammed the interior door in my face.
The second time I knocked on the wrong door I was looking for a recently immigrated Mexican family, but a large white man with tattoos on his neck opened the door instead. He squinted at me almost aggressively, as if to say, You want something? You gotta get through me first. “I’m Enrique’s new tutor,” I said with rising intonation, almost as a question, forcing an I-come-in-peace kind of smile. His features softened, he looked me up and down and then said in a gravelly voice, “You have a beautiful body.” Gross. And scary. But I admittedly think I was at a low enough point with my self-esteem that I almost said, “Really? You think so? Oh my gosh! Thanks so much!” Almost is again the key word here. What I actually said was, “Oh wait, wrong house, sorry! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The laughter of course being as awkward as humanly possible. I set off in no particular direction, hugging a binder full of 9th grade math activities to my chest. He shouted something after me but I don’t know what it was. I came to a four-way intersection and frantically crossed the street, scurrying into a liquor store with barred up windows. I bought myself some condolence cacahuetes. I later learned that that intersection I crossed is known as the Four Corners of Death due to the number of homicides that have occurred there over the years. And all of this basically in my own backyard, and I had no idea. I should say that I loved that job, though. Or at least I loved the kids. I even convinced one of my students to play a “game” that I completely made up called “The Squish Face Game,” which is pretty self-explanatory. He had the chubbiest little cheeks!
Once that contract ended, I accepted a job with a title that is something like Childcare Expert or Youth Specialist or who knows what at a sort of boarding school for foster kids. I left after maybe the sixth or seventh F you. I empathize, but it turns out my skin is not so tough.
One of my favorite jobs at which I stayed the longest (read: one year and a half) involved giving stop-drop-and-roll presentations at schools across San Diego. Yes, I was the stop-drop-and-roll lady who taught the eight-year-old-you what to do if you ever catch on fire. I speak with no sarcasm when I say it was so much fun! Whatever that says about me is unclear, but I loved it. This job also involved interviewing juvenile firesetters, the oops-what-did-I-do? kind, and the habitual I-wanna-watch-this-burn! kind. I also got to install free smoke alarms in senior citizens’ homes, which was oddly empowering. I admit I enjoyed carrying a heavy drill and picking through a box of screws, even if it meant boring holes into popcorn ceilings and letting the asbestos flutter into my hair and onto my goggles. Much like working in Southeast, I loved the overall experience of this job from the seniors to the pyros, but even stop-drop-and-roll has its limits. Plus, I discovered an intensive Spanish program in Panama that I couldn’t pass up.
If you have read this blog before, you may know that I recently spent some time working with kids in Peru. I did that as a one-year hiatus from graduate school because two years of anything is too long for me.
And now I’m a high school Spanish teacher, which I love even more than being the stop-drop-and-roll lady. I love it more than the Squish Face Game. But I still sometimes find myself searching for jobs in places as unrelated as Santa Cruz, California and Cork, Ireland. Because who knows?
Sometimes I think back to when I was one of those teenagers for whom artsy and angsty kind of blend. I had the capacity to find poetry everywhere, and used to write inspiring (or sometimes dark) phrases and quotes all over the place. I would paint them on my bedroom walls, write them into my notebook rather than writing down math formulas, and scribble them into my glasses case. Some of them were stupid. But some of them were nice. A nice one that I still remember is: “Chase your passion, not your pension.” My passion keeps running around, and I hope I never stop chasing it. And you shouldn’t either. Even if that means you look like an idiot, saliva dribbling out of your stupidly cheerful smile.
Oh yeah, and I’ve also learned to eat meat, to drink beer, to enjoy life.