Last night I read my poetry master’s thesis in my childhood bedroom on a Zoom call. The walls of my room are painted like the rainforest from third grade when I obsessed over jungles and canopies. In the background, my cohort and professors could probably make out the blue sky painted on the ceiling of the room and the closet in the background that still houses old dresses, short-shorts, and cosplay costumes from high school.
I haven’t lived at my parents’ house consistently for over six years. Part of that distance has to do with coming out as a queer transgender person. I have returned after my housemates and I were unable to make rent in our New York apartment due to COVID19 closures and uncertainty of future employment.
The juxtaposition between my childhood bedroom, a place where I grappled for the first part of my life with gender, sexuality, and mental health, and the achievement of finishing an MFA as a queer trans poet, is, ironically, something I could see myself having written into a poem months ago before any of this began.
In my poetry, I often turn to the surreal, the fantastical, the paranormal, and the absurd to make sense of the fulcrums of my life and my place in society as a queer person. The deeper we wade into the pandemic and into the increasingly disturbing and violent American landscape, the weirder and weirder I have found my poetry becoming. Usually, before the pandemic, I would take notes to write poems daily but I have found myself waking up and leaning into whatever images are stalking my thoughts. I find comfort in my strangeness because the worlds that warp and distort time feel more real and true than the present.
This past week I have been reading a collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who I admittedly only stumbled upon because there’s a Frank O’Hara poem I love titled by his name. In his poems, I find the threads of my own tilting away from realism in order to grapple with injustice. There is a sad humor to his speakers similar to O’Hara’s. In, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” he writes:
And beyond that village yawned a hole, into that hole- and not just maybe – the sun for certain always rolled, slowly, surely, daily. At morn to flood the world again the sun rose up- and ruddied it. Day after day it happened this way, till I got fed up with it.
And one day I let out such a shout, that everything grew pale, point-blank at the sun I yelled: “Get out! Enough of loafing there in hell!”
This moment in the poem sticks with me because the idea the sun could retreat into a hole and then the speaker’s anger and address to the sun tells us something I think is incommunicable without turning away from “reality.” The earnestness of the speaker and the futility of yelling at the sun is much like how I feel right now. The bends in perception capture what we are experiencing as humans who also implicated and interpolated in complex systems of oppression in a time of great loss, grief, and injustice.
The speaker shouting “Get out!” embodies how I have been experiencing time. I forget what day it is. An afternoon takes eons and then a week is totally gone. The speaker wants the persistent cycles to stop and even chastises the sun for his role in this.
I wish I had more time to find endings. Instead, I have been brought back to a physical place full many of my ghosts.
In the absurd and surreal I find my contradictions survive together. There is healing in letting the worlds of my poems unravel in ways the physical word doesn’t allow for. I’ll leave you with the last lines of a poem I wrote today:
i hope the sky is eventually mauve. i hope the stone melts to magma & the mountains finally get to experience a real transformation. i too turned to liquid & cooled in the stream. pillow over my head. the sun is blinking or winking who can know which?
thinking about the world we will leave our children. In the wake of what is
happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many people mourning the
inability to return to a world as we knew it, yet this may be the only world
that today’s youth will have any memory of.
line; fissure; an inability to reason with the past.
The instinct of a
new writer might be to create drama in a piece—at least that was what I found
when teaching. Some teachers I had forbid us to kill anyone in a poem or story
because we felt the need to create stakes by doing so. To make people care. A
professor of mine once said that all poems must have conflict, but that
conflict might be as subtle as the way the light falls across the road. I want
to believe him, to value that, to be able to sit still, but, when I am called
to write, the ghosts ascend, the sky falls, and I can only see what is down the
dark tunnel in my mind.
written from a place of risk: what do I need to say? Why is that? Is the dramatic
situation complicated in an interesting way? Do I recognize the difference
between melodrama and drama? Why am I attracted to poems where the stakes are
high? Must every poem be about death, somehow, some way?
What I learned
through this crisis is that I have trouble writing a quietly complicated moment
because I have not had time to appreciate those moments in my life in a great
while. Right now, I swing between the inability to get out of bed (inertia) and
being overly productive as my two coping mechanisms. I’m not sure which is less
effective. Yet, crises have come in waves over the last few years, whether in
the form of catastrophic weather (hurricanes on the Gulf coast where I was
living), or gun control, or money problems, or health issues, or the deaths of
loved ones. How can anyone be expected to write about the light falling across
the road when all around us worlds are falling? On the other hand, I read
Tranströmer, for example, and understand that both are possible at once.
[The site of
resistance as the body]—
My father died when I was nine. I’ve written about that incident a lot. I’ve resisted calling it trauma. Yet, right now, children are experiencing trauma in a new way that feels much like that event: something that they won’t realize is traumatic until years from now. I’m trying to stay hopeful that the lives children dream of will one day be possible. I worry that, much like many of our ancestors, there will not be a place beyond struggle to reach for—which brings me back to my question: what world will we leave our children?
Being isolated in our homes gives us writers that sweet time we always crave to actually get some writing done. Personally, I’ve been reading through my old work, sprucing it up and sending it in to some of my favorite magazines. I might as well while I have the time, right?
One of the most helpful parts of being the Fiction Editor for Superstition Review this year has been learning what editors look for in writing. And since it’s been helpful for me, I thought it might be helpful for you! Here’s an insider’s look on the selection process here at Superstition Review.
The first thing I did as Fiction Editor was make a mistake. I linked my editor’s account on Submittable to my personal submissions account. That means, every time I opened Submittable to review submissions, the first thing I saw was all of my rejections for stories I’ve submitted over the years. For the first hundred stories, I felt like I owed it to every author to at least read their story all the way through, because that’s what I want for all of my stories. Soon enough, I was weeks behind on deadlines and extremely tired of reading every page of the stories that I didn’t enjoy. Thus, I learned my first lesson.
Lesson 1: It’s the first page or two that makes or breaks a story. If I’m bored early on, I will not read the rest. Make that first page captivating enough to make me read the second page, then make that page captivating enough to make me read the rest of the story. Otherwise, I do not have the time.
I started catching up, but I was still behind. Submissions poured in faster than I could read them. Our Founding Editor called me and gave me some new helpful advice. We are a magazine that does not read blind. That means we read your bio and cover letter before we read your story. Trust me, the bio and cover letter are more important than you may think.
Lesson 2: Don’t waste your editor’s time with your bio and cover letter. By all means, include a bio and cover letter, but this is a brief blurb about who you are, your degree if applicable, any major awards you’ve earned for your writing, and maybe where else you’re published. This is not your resume, your life story, or a list of your Boy Scout merit badges.
Finally, I had all my favorite stories picked out. I met with our Founding Editor and the Senior Fiction Editor, and we compared notes. Unsurprisingly, all three of us have different tastes in fiction, but none of us caved to the others. We fought for the fiction we liked, and, in the end, we all left happy. This lesson is a stretch, but bare with me.
Lesson 3: Your story doesn’t have to be universal. I feel I have to address this because lots of literature is praised for being universal. There are plenty of good niche stories out there, and they are all the better because they aren’t forced to appeal to everyone. We all fought for the stories we felt the strongest about, and we all had our absolute favorites published.
I’m really proud of the upcoming fiction section in Superstition Review. The authors who wrote the stories we’re publishing should be proud as well. The authors of the stories that didn’t make the cut but were counted among our favorites should be proud. Everyone who submitted should be proud that they put their work out there.
Lesson 4: Keep writing, keep submitting, keep aiming for publication in your favorite magazines. Every time I logged on to Submittable to review new fiction submissions, I saw all of my rejections from over the years. Honestly, I was proud of them. That’s how many times I’ve put myself out there with stories I was proud of.
Keep up the good work! And thanks for a fantastic submission season.
«bones that are my bones numbers that are my numbers words that are my words:
the bone of my bones the number of my numbers the word of my words»
I do not know much about numbers. In my life, I have just had the chance to count to four or ten or twenty several times, but this has not taught me much about them. I do not really know what they mean, when I do not count. Whether they are still somewhere, alive or dead, or where they sprout from when I need. Whether a huge box keeps them all within, a box full of ones and twos and threes, a heap of all numbers in all shapes and sizes. For people might need to count many bits of things all at once and one must never be short of numbers. Some say they altogether match the overall things to count and that they stay as words with meanings do. To be true, I do not believe that way either. No one counts the numbers for the numbers’ sake. For new numbers would be required to count the old ones and some trick should finally be devised to prove the existence of the new ones and that they do work. This procedure would actually be endless and pointless, a stiff chain of hopeless chances, of loops trapped into one another. Numbers stick out of a stack of algebra, figures and unknowns, a poor slang of fingers in a few hands, whether sand grains or red giants. There is no competition among numbers – this I have observed. It is like in a perfect, steady queue: each stands its own place and never tries to pass over that coming after or before, just for the sake of being the one, the first, the last at once. A murmur of conversation always rises as I count. They seem to be polished to the touch, polite, somehow glancing up as well, as I call the roll. The whole world gets a strange feeling as I count. The imprecision of feelings is rounded down to fingers. Big things crackle and crumble like frozen snow under feet. Again, in spite of that, the whole world is worth being counted – two ones from the same pair, for fear of loss and despair.
Two Aprils ago,
my guest post for this blog held hope for my children. Now we’re in a pandemic,
all of us in one house trying to teach and learn still.
struggled with superstition. When I was a child, if I saw a cardinal in the
underbrush on the way to school, it would be a good day. If I didn’t, then
maybe I had but didn’t realize. Or maybe I didn’t say it as a charm under my
breath, so a bad day wasn’t coming after all.
My life wasn’t
bad, not as bad as other people’s. I told myself that over and over, scorning
myself for being sensitive. Addiction, mental illness, accidents, violence,
poisons in our environment and diseases that followed–forget how you feel. It
doesn’t matter. Be glad it’s not worse and get on living.
No need to
suffer heartbreaks if you figured out the game and played to win. Yet success
could be lost anytime, either by having too much confidence (pride goeth before
a fall) or too little thankfulness (taking it for granted). In other words, if
something went wrong, I had only myself to blame.
We didn’t talk
about bad things happening to good people, except maybe Job, and even he failed
the test. We didn’t confront flaws in the systems. Life was a vale of tears.
Only fools expected otherwise. Know your place.
As an adult, as
a parent, it’s endless, all the ways I can keep failing. I realize now the
adults around me as a child felt that way, too. Even before COVID-19, this was
everything to be back to the way it used to be. Except for me.
My uncle, my
mother’s brother, died last Thanksgiving. The Air Force emblem with its bald
eagle was part of the ceremony to honor his service. Growing up in southern
Illinois, I never saw eagles. But there, after his memorial, I saw one fly over
towards the river. Since then, more times than I can count, I’ve seen an eagle
flying overhead where I live now, hundreds of miles away.
The last time I
saw my uncle, at his daughter’s service, I asked him, although it was more like
a statement, how do we survive this, how can we go on.
And he held me
and said, because we do.
Superstition: a widely held but unjustified
belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action
or event, or a practice based on such a belief.
Middle English: from Old French, or from
Latin superstitio(n- ), from super- ‘over’ + stare ‘to stand’ (perhaps from the notion of ‘standing over’ something in awe).
What does it
mean to stand over something? Does the awe come from how things turned out? Or from
the surprise that you’re still standing despite what happened? Is it like
understanding, meaning you try to make sense of events by looking for what
controls them? Or does overstanding mean surviving despite realizing you don’t control
If I can’t
protect my children, then what does it matter what I wrote for this blog last
time, my father’s room of books, my mother’s lifework teaching, anything I’ve
ever written, what I write now?
It’s easy for
me to fall back into that kind of fatalism. But when I give myself space to
feel, I return to what I sensed despite myself from the beginning: it matters. Just
like the memory my uncle shared of riding in a motorboat on the river as a
little boy with his little brother. The Mississippi was flooding. His brother
had brought a toy he loved, a stuffed bunny. He held it in front of him so its ears
flapped back in the wind as they went forward. My uncle was joyful in this
memory. But in all the stories he ever told me, he didn’t share this one until
a few years before he died. It must not have been long after this ride that he
lost his brother in an accident.
On what turned out
to be our last day in the physical classroom this semester, my students and I
read E.E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:
children guessed (but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew….
stars rain sun moon (and only the snow can begin to explain how children are apt to forget to remember with up so floating many bells down)
Prior to the corona outbreak, which
has demanded that we form new relationships with isolation and stillness, I’d
been thinking a lot about the connection between religion, writing and the
concept of silence and solitude. I
often think and try to write about how religion and writing are intertwined,
how both seek to create meaning out of the ineffable. Many organized
religions rely on language to get at the holy, unspeakable things, and so does
writing. A good piece of writing shows the reader life’s ineffable nuances.
More than that, writing elicits the feeling of holiness—a feeling of
recognition, connection and empathy, without dogmatism or divisiveness. The act
of writing, for some, is a spiritual practice. It is for me. This isn’t to say
the act is joyful or anywhere near divine—it’s often a painful practice,
laborious and difficult. Still, it feels like holy work in that I have to do
it. Whether or not the writing is seen by anyone else, whether it’s good
writing or bad, the need to write calls, and I surrender.
By default all artists are
theologians. We create meaning out of disorder and succeed far greater in this
meaning-making pursuit than any organized religion ever will. We strive to
show, not preach, connect, not separate. Yet there is something to be said that
silence and solitude show up in religiosity and art-making. Virginia Woolf’s A
Room of One’s Own, and Thoreau’s Walden, are just a few examples of
the long history between writing and solitude; we understand writing as an
inherently solitary act, one that is often accompanied by silence. Some think
of cabins in the woods, private rooms in which to muse. Religions, too,
particularly monastic traditions, emphasize solitude as a means to get closer
to the divine, with nature and therefore the Self. The scholar Alan Altany says
that “silence and solitude are as mother to the monk, leading him into the
abyss, shorn of distractions to be alone with god.” Religious traditions are
rich in their attention to isolation, pilgrimage and exile.
In The World of Silence, Swiss
philosopher Max Picard asserts that silence is not merely an absence of sound,
but an internal state that can be achieved anywhere. Thoreau makes this point,
too, when he says, “the really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of
Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.” Silence, Picard
says, is not a negative lacking: “When language ceases, silence begins. But it
does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes
the presence of Silence more apparent…language and silence belong together:
language has knowledge of silence as silence has knowledge of language.” Although
it is not necessary according to this point of view, quiet time with nature, for
me, is religious. And it’s true that I do not need language, theology,
or poetry for that matter, to tell me to feel moved. It’s just there. It’s
unnamable. It feels sacrilegious to try to name it outright—that’s what art is
for. In fiction we try to mimic that unspeakable feeling through plot, through
the specificity of an individual life. In poetry, via surprising, precise metaphors,
form and structure.
Now suddenly our world has changed.
The corona outbreak, this microscopic virus, has asked us to engage with large sociopolitical
dilemmas as well as theological and spiritual questions. The term sabbath
comes to mind, both as a religious observance and, more poignantly, as an
internal state of stillness and rest. Most of us are not retreating to the
woods, and many of us are attending work—i.e. nurses, doctors, grocery store
employees, etc.—all the people who are keeping us going during this time of
flux. Many of us are disengaged from a literal silence, but all of us are
interacting with isolation, change, uncertainty, fear, patience,
empathy, and surrender—these human conditions that are obsessed over
by both theists and artists. Altany writes, “Solitude and silence are not so
much attempts to stop the world or to escape it, but to engage in a new way.” We
needn’t identify as a theist or an artist to find internal states of sabbath,
nor must we live a silent, monastic life. We will continue to make meaning
because we are human.
The word sôma [or σώμα] in Greek refers as much to the singular, to soma mou [my body] as it does to a group, as in the body of a state or community; σώμα, often used to refer to the Greek police force, i.e. το σώμα του στρατού, or “The Force” as we’d say in English. The Force, a momentum of the singular body as it conflates itself with a larger body in times of war and love and pandemics. Crisis moments teach us we are independent in so far as we acknowledge our interdependence, the self a map made mutable by what contests and reshapes it. When I wrote “The Wig & The Scream, a forensics” (s[r] issue #24)) I was interested in the fallibilities of how we construct borders, how the law and emotions are mapped out — who do we let into our hearts and why, at what borders do we accept or reject individuals?
The COVID-19 virus has no regard for class, race, gender, or nationality; it is particularly Darwinian, as the strong and young are its best carriers who can unbeknownst to them lethally infect the elderly and weak. As with any plague, the virus has overwhelmed borders. “My heart is a country that is dying,” says a doctor on television from Bergamo, the Lombard town at the heart of the pandemic in Italy where military trucks are carrying off the coffins of its victims. “The new virus certainly seems to be effective at infecting humans, despite its animal origins,” notes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. Meanwhile animals are not carriers. Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” or Οιδίπους τύραννος (Oedipus of Tirannous) begins with an epidemic in Thebes, the body of the city vulnerable and equal to what infects it, including that of its king. “The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts, over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians” (Yong).
2. One’s life in the physical world
When the Greek government’s first measures closed cafeterias, restaurants, and hairdressers, it was a weekend. My neighborhood transformed from its evident café life with people out shopping in local shops to a community that spread itself into the groves of the Ymittos hill behind my apartment. People strolled the green embankments with their kids and pets and partners, or like me were alone enjoying the air and wild chamomile. It was a weekend of spring showing her gorgeousness in the sprays of wildflowers and newly sprouting greens. The virus, we were being told, all around us in the air, a contagion of breath that settles in the lungs and makes it hard to breathe; if we get too close to each other we will inhale these droplets if one is infected and coughs or sneezes; the pollen was plentiful so people were sometimes coughing and sneezing as the hill gathered us, and the sun, coating us in its embrace, promised that the virus, partial as it is to the cold, like any vampire, would die in that sunlight.
3. That which is material (as opposed to spiritual)
In an online March 19 piece in Verso Judith Butler asks how the pandemic is making us think of “our obligations toward one another” emphasizing that the politics of health care in the US “all testify to the rapidity with which radical inequality” allows for “capitalist exploitation … to reproduce and strengthen their powers.” Wealthy businessmen were tipped off to sell their stock before the pandemic started to affect the market that subsequently started to crash. Trump wanted to “buy (with cash) exclusive US rights to a vaccine from a German company… funded by the German government” (my emphasis). A German politician, Karl Lauterbach, responded with, “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has its limits” (my emphasis). I wrote “The Wig & The Scream” in a series of vignettes in imitation of the 44 episodes of the crime series The Killing, a sequencing aimed to suggest the limitations of our assumptions; in “#13 There is a poverty to desire that insists on its object & only that” I was not thinking of Trump, or Midas, or the self-interest of big business, but the context of this pandemic and Trump’s poverty of vision (if we can use that noun for someone so blind), makes Butler’s question urgent: “Is it even thinkable within his world to insist upon a world health concern that should transcend market rationality at this time?” A statement by a doctor in Bergamo might be one answer, “At this point you realize you are not enough.” Another is that unlike Oedipus, Trump does not recognize his role in the plague.
We have gathered in our homes under the Greek hashtag #μένουμεσπίτι or #menoumespiti [#westayathome], we’ve adjusted our individual routines, kids home schooled online, teaching through computer screens. The materiality of space has taken on a new significance. In moments of danger we are viscerally aware of our threatened selves too often viewed as singular, our borders close, our doors shut, on what we view as “home”; it’s been interesting to see how countries are telling their citizens to “return home,” as I write airports such as Heathrow are overrun with people whose canceled flights have left them in limbo. But without a coordinated [συντονισμένη] effort, a shared base, we lose battles and borders are useless. A base might be the assumption that the good of the group begins with the good of the individual, i.e. “#9 The instinct to protect our selves begins with the body’s bone & flesh vulnerabilities as much as its heart” or “# 36 Our assumptions can cost lives, as in The Killing, as in the rejection of those seeking refuge” (“The Wig & The Scream”). Reuters reports that Fiat Chrysler, the Italian automobile giant, is now making badly needed masks and respirators. Panagiotis Sotiris in a March 14 article answers the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s critique of the Italian government’s lockdown measures, suggesting that state power used for the larger good can go “From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds … to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations.”
Biopolitics, a term coined by Michel Foucault, considers ways power has capitalized on (and made capital of) our persons. Sotiris writes, “Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in this attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example,” but here Sotiris detours to suggest an analogy to the HIV pandemic. This is “not [just] the disease of ‘high risk groups’” and our practice of social-distancing, and the state’s mandate to stay at home might be a possibility for viewing our biopolitical moment as one “of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions,” i.e. your person becomes a geography of others.
Two nights ago in Athens, neighborhoods of apartments stood on their balconies and clapped, keeping lights on through the night in a gesture of gratitude and solidarity with doctors and health care workers putting in around-the-clock hours to help save lives as they put their own at risk. Italy’s towns and neighborhoods are singing from their balconies. Some venues are projecting films on walls so Italians can watch them from their balconies. In China, a totalitarian state, the body is one with the State’s, and as my daughter reminds me, there were robots placed outside homes to insure that no one left them during the lockdown. In this case the State managed to flatten the pandemic’s curve. In Italy this has not happened yet where the death toll continues to rise, as in Spain, the UK, the US, and elsewhere. “We are all Greece,” said the PM on television Sunday night, as the Greek state went into further lockdown. Can we hope that “during such a crisis, in contrast to individualized ‘survivalist’ panics … state power (and coercion) [is] being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions”? (Sotiris), i.e. “#22 The law requires obedience for the promise that it is there in good faith, to protect our flesh & bone vulnerabilities” i.e. “So many refugees assume the free world will welcome them, & so many have found death” (s[r] #24).
i.e. “Films for Action” (Facebook)
“A letter from the
virus to humans”
“Stop. Just stop. It is no longer a request. It is a mandate. …. Our obligation is to each other, As it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten. We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions, to bring you this long-breaking news: We are not well. None of us; all of us are suffering. Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause. Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan. Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India. You have not been listening.”
A system, whether a camp, institution, city, country, is constructed to function. Our biological and social eco-systems are meant to provide us with the privilege to get on with our lives. “In sickness and in health” goes the adage of the marriage vow partners take in a promise to look after each another; our marriage with the planet is in trouble. My friend’s marriage in “The Wig & The Scream” failed in a large part because of a partner’s refusal to admit to what endangered it. Our planet is telling us something with this novel Corona, or Crown of viruses, hitting us in the lungs: we will gradually stop breathing for lack oxygen if the mucus hardens and blocks our passageways. My daughter, now at home with me, joins in for an almost daily yoga practice with Victoria who has moved her onsite lessons online. She reminds us to concentrate on our breathing, and at the end of the practice tells us, “Let your breathing connect with the larger pulse of what is outside of yourself.”
Superstition Review Founding Editor Patricia Murphy and Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hagerman are preparing for the ASU Social Embeddedness Network Conference being held online Tuesday March 24. We had planned to collect video at AWP but we could not attend the conference due to COVID-19.
We are presenting on the following topic.
In our 45 minute presentation we will describe ways that we have created publishing opportunities for over 1200 international authors and artists, and how we support their careers through our blog and social media. We will discuss the way we invite international contributors into the “SR family” by supporting them on social media, sharing contributor successes, further collaborating with contributors in extra blog posts, and even just our friendly and professional demeanor through emails. We will include video interviews with several community members from around the globe.
We are asking anyone with experience with SR (as an intern, a contributor, a reader, or supporter) to drop in to our Zoom Room from 11-12 PST on Friday March 20. We will have a series of questions for you, and will also welcome any questions you have for our editors.
thirty hours a week as a tutor at an elementary school in the West Contra Costa
Unified School District. The school is struggling – it’s had four principals in
less than three years. The last one left suddenly, just before Thanksgiving, with
no explanation or apology. The school was without a principal for more than two
months. There’s huge turnover among the teachers, too. The district has managed
to create a budget deficit of almost fifty million dollars, so massive cuts are
coming. Morale is low, and the kids can feel it. They think it’s their fault.
students are children of color, and all of them have a cognitive disability.
About half have a diagnosis already, and the other half have yet to be
evaluated but exhibit signs of dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and other processing
disorders. All of them struggle with school in general, and reading and writing
in particular. All are at least three grade levels behind in all subjects, and
all are from low-income families. There are shootings in their neighborhoods. They
are faced with racism and bias, overt and subtle, every day of their young
lives. Many of their parents were not able get any higher education, so they,
too, have mixed feelings about school. My bilingual students have ESL issues,
and often their parents speak little or no English. A few of my students are
functionally illiterate. One third grader has trouble recognizing not just
letters, but numbers. Several of the fourth graders can read maybe fifteen
one-syllable words. Every week, at least one student looks at me and says, “I’m
dumb, Miss Brie.” Or, “I’m dumb at reading.” One student, a fifth grade boy,
confided: “I’m bad. I was born this way.” When I hear “dumb” or “bad” I say no.
No, you’re not. My students are stressed at school and stressed at home. There
are so many obstacles for them. So in the short time I spend with them every
day, I try to be kind.
co-worker and I started bringing snacks, because we noticed the kids are always
hungry. They are happy to get one Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookie. Or a
handful of popcorn, or a tangerine. Or a sticker, or one of the plastic trinkets
that my co-worker gets at Daiso Japan. Or some one-on-one academic attention,
or just five minutes of listening to their tribulations. They’re so innocent,
and also so hardened and cynical.
I frequently go to work worried about my own problems: It’s not easy parenting two teenage girls. They attend a large urban high school in a town that used to be middle class, and is now frighteningly affluent. My husband has a couple of chronic medical issues, both of which have no cure. Our medical bills are astronomical. Oh god, our property tax is due next month. Why is our electric bill so freaking high? I’m still taking an anti-depressant because I’m terrified that my suicidal depression will come back. We haven’t taken a vacation in years. I haven’t published enough. I don’t really need my MFA, why did I bother? And so on. However, after a day at my job, I know – again – that my life is ridiculously easy: We own our own home, and there’s no landlord hassling us for the rent. Incredibly, we have two bathrooms in our house. I have two beautiful children and a husband I love. Our neighborhood is safe. I may face sexism (what woman doesn’t?), but I do not face racism. I’m educated, and have spent time in other countries. There are trees on our street. I can pay my bills. There’s a wall of books in my bedroom, and I love to read. In short, I am fortunate.
any of this have to do with writing? Not much, at least not directly. Indirectly,
however, there is a connection. For example, sometimes I wish my students loved
books, even just a little bit. I want to talk about books with them, and books
just aren’t part of their world. Even while wishing this, I think about how
hilariously funny, and very smart my students are. And I think about their many
extenuating circumstances, of which I’m hyper-aware every day in the classroom.
I know that when a kid comes into our classroom pissed off and acting out, the
thing to do is not to reprimand him, but to take him aside and ask him what’s
wrong. This often works. One time, the kid wouldn’t talk at all. He shook his
head and sat down in a chair, and tears started rolling down his face. Sometimes
all a kid needs is sympathy, a kind word.
What I’m getting at is this: It’s not reasonable for me to expect my students to love what I love. Why should they? They love Fortnite, and Roblox, and Takis, and NBA YoungBoy, and Lil Nas X. Not books. Rather, the equation works like this: I teach my students a bit of what I know about reading and writing – because they’re in school and they have to learn. In exchange, my students allow me a glimpse into their world. They let me get to know them. That’s the gift they give me.
Growing up, I never thought I would be a teacher. I thought that teaching would only distract me from my real work, writing. But, weirdly, I have been writing a lot lately, in big bursts. Long shitty drafts. Maybe this is because, although my job can be emotionally exhausting, it gives back to me, too. As I suggested above. When a kid runs to say hi to me in the morning, for example. Or when the sixth graders all cluster around my desk at the beginning of class. Or, in general, by opening so many more windows on the human experience than I could have ever have found otherwise.