The other day, I was walking to my car in East Oakland and this kid started shouting at me, "Maestra, Maestra.. YO!" as he whizzed up to me on his bike. Twice my size, definitely deep into puberty... the first thing out of his mouth was, "Do you remember me?"
My immediate reaction: "How could I forget?"
A was only in my class for a few weeks. Within five minutes of my first day, he sat down on the rug and began sobbing. I was paralyzed. He had just moved from Mexico three days prior and thus had no understanding of the English language. The way my other students comforted him was just the beginning of my countless experiences of what true community is in East Oakland. Over A's next four years at Bridges, he regularly stopped in to say hi and let me know how he was doing and to show how quickly he was picking up the language.
My time with him with him as a teacher was brief, but as one of my dear friends once said "it's the love that is important, not the time."
As we were catching up on how he was doing in middle school, I saw D run out of his house decked out in red. He jumped into a car, bass and weed spilling out the cracked windows, filled with older guys that I vaguely recognized. I turned back to A and his eyes filled with shame as he said "I told him it wasn't a good idea, but he wouldn't listen".
D is one of those students who has become deeply ingrained in both my life and heart. He was a difficult, unruly, disruptive first grader who was prone to violent outbursts in class and tested my patience on an hourly basis. Over the years we have stayed close; so many afternoons sharing mango con chile on the curbs, shooting hoops, and walking to the local library. D has also spent the last four years volunteering with my students as part of an agreement with his teachers as a reward for when he is behaving in class. Just last week, my friend brought in his baby chicks and D came to help him facilitate the experience for my students.
Six weeks ago, D's mother was shot in a drive-by on E.14th.
It doesn't make sense to understand who we are in isolation. Who we are depends on all of our relationships, our experiences that connect with the environment around us, and almost all of our ideas are shared ideas. It seems to me like we're inevitably connected. When we help others we are helping "ourselves" and when we hurt others we are hurting "ourselves."
As I walked on to my car, I passed M's house. Still barely 4' tall with those long monkey arms of his, he darted out past the wire fence and wrapped his arms around me. Looking down at him, I couldn't help but feel a range of emotions from anger to appreciation to deep pain. Two years ago, I had called CPS repeatedly to report sexual abuse that was both clearly evidenced in M's behavior as well as directly described to me. When the police officer came to our school to talk to the both of us, I asked what would happen if M didn't tell the truth. They said they wouldn't do anything.
M just got out of the hospital. It took a three week hospitalization years after the first CPS calls for social services to finally step in and investigate. His step-grandpa has since been held and is awaiting charges for over five years of sexual abuse.
As I left 53rd and International that afternoon, I cried.
I can count the number of times I've cried in the last five years on two hands. Over the years, I have learned to craft lies instead as if somehow that would make everything ok. That day, I just didn’t have the strength to lie to myself. There have been too many times where I wish that I could walk away from it all, times I've thought to myself "if I didn't know them, these stories... I wouldn't hurt so badly." As I cried, I thought about how I could never imagine asking for this much pain but yet be grateful for it has given myself a new humility and a honesty about myself. It is part of who I am.
Everything is going to be okay if I just let it. Sometimes the meaning of life is revealed like clouds opening up to a clear night when you can see the stars, and then it's covered back up again as the clouds blow over. I guess we just have to believe that the stars are still there and that they are always beautiful. By living with open hearts and open minds, we can naturally receive what's real in the living world.
It is not just the hurt that I feel, but also facing the hurt that I have caused. The times when I've lost my temper, when I've snapped at students, when I've been completely unengaged from what they are sharing or unprepared to teach them. The days where I haven’t gotten enough sleep, hadn’t had time for lunch, where my every mood is felt by twenty others, and have felt utterly overwhelmed with the amount of work and how it contrasted with the little time I had to do it. I cannot even begin to describe the shame that I've felt over such incidents because in reality - it had nothing to do with my students. They didn’t deserve it. I failed in shielding what I was feeling in my personal life and felt such shame in myself when they would wrap their arms around my waist afterwards and look up with those sweet brown eyes and say “you’re the best teacher ever”.
We should embrace life and live as fully as we can, outside of ourselves and in each other. We should travel along the ups and downs of life, disclose ourselves sincerely in our relationships, and encounter everything along our path with authentic interest.
When I got home, I remembered that JH had left a card in my box. JH was born with craniosynostosis, which has left one side of his skull underdeveloped and prevented the formation of one of his ears. Despite this, he just rocks who he is: inquisitive, an avid story-teller, always bopping his head to the beat only he hears. I pulled it out of my bag (along with a few blocks and a toy car I had confiscated) and read what he had written to me. “Thank you for making me the boy I am today. You were hard on me and D and you pushed me when I didn’t want to try and look where I am now.”
JH nailed it. That’s what it comes down to. Despite how hard it is, both in pushing past the hurt we feel and pushing past the shame of the hurt we cause. It is such a simple, soul-liberating, organic concept, yet I feel one of the hardest to put into play. However, it absolutely is the beauty that comprises the integrity of our collective identity.
(And because of that, I can never forget)
For A, D, M, JH, and all of my students in Oakland, Compton, Seattle, Spokane, and Richmond, VA
For those I’ve met, loved, and continue to carry with me.