I’m honored this piece was included in Gargoyle Magazine #71; a publication with forty-four years of heart, soul, and talent. 

The Rose

Ann, a first grader, came bouncing into my classroom in her pink Hello Kitty sneakers. “Happy Valentine!” she exclaimed with a slight trace of a Korean accent. She handed me a fake red cloth rose. 

Ann was in my reading group for English Language Learners. She was an ideal student: eager to learn, respectful, quick to help others, and just the right amount of silly. Her parents were polite and formal in meetings. I often wondered what they thought of the young, loud, casually dressed staff that filled our school. The valentine showed her family was embracing our American traditions, and also was thankful for my role in Ann’s education. 

“You got the rose!” Gina, a special education teacher, announced when she came into our shared classroom. I wondered why she was so excited about a dollar store rose. I loved my work, but as a career switcher and someone who hated Valentine’s Day; I struggled to match the enthusiasm and fashion accessories of my colleagues. 

But that year, something shifted in me. Working in a Title I school, with more than half the students living below the poverty level, I saw how important it was for these kids not only to receive, but to give. Valentine’s Day created equity—with little cards that proclaimed friendship and awesomeness. 

My fifth grade students, who I may have thought too old for these celebrations, seemed to need it the most. These are boys who wake up in the middle of the night to feed baby siblings while Mom works a double shift, and girls whose hands are chapped from housework. They are eleven-year-olds who risked their lives on a journey from El Salvador to Virginia. I understood what that bag of cards and candy represented.

In our writing group, we translated sayings from colorful chalky candy hearts. They teased each other about who signed a card with “l-o-v-e.” (Of course I would come to the wedding!) 

When the dismissal bell rang, I felt the usual fatigue, yet refreshed by a new perspective. I couldn’t wait to tell Gina how “woke” I was. I might even start shopping the seasonal section of Target for holiday flare. 

I didn’t have a chance. With a knowing grin, Gina picked up the rose. “Pull a petal.” 

I pulled one petal, and another, watching in awe as Ann’s gift transformed into a lacy red thong. 

We ran like middle schoolers, giggling down the hallway, to see Sandy— a fabulous first grade teacher nearing retirement. Sandy blushed a red to match her thong when she discovered it. 

“Should we tell Ann’s parents before they give them to her Saturday Korea school teachers?” I asked. Her family would be mortified. We decided it was beyond our responsibility, and too awkward, especially with an interpreter. Plus, it wouldn’t be right to spoil the potential happiness for Ann’s future teachers. 

One thing we like even more than holiday flare is a good story.

This was written as part of a 48 hour competition for YeahWriteMe

Discomfort at the Feria

I lifted my arm, and Jen gasped. She was my best friend from childhood, my partner in most things, and my roommate in Spain.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad” she assured me when I first confessed my new problema.

Under my right armpit was a huge wet spot. It was like a middle-aged PE teacher sweat ring.

“What about the Feria?” I asked. She assured me there would be so many other things happening at the famous spring festival, that nobody would notice. Plus, after a few rebujitos (a dangerously delicious mix of 7Up and sherry) I wouldn’t even care. Still, I bought special deodorant from the farmacia – a conversation none of my classes or guidebooks had prepared me for.

The Feria of Seville was like the prom and a wedding all rolled up in one. It’s a huge deal, with months of preparations building the fair ground, decorating the pavilions, and putting together your outfit.

Up until the sweaty pit, I assumed my biggest anxiety would be over dancing the Sevillanas. According to the website, Andalucia.com “The Sevillana was originally a courting dance where the man sets out to woo the woman in a display similar to two mating flamingos.”

The men do sort of remind me of a cross between a flamingo and a matador. But, the women carry themselves with a stunning grace and confidence – like they were just born to do this dance. They claim the key to the hand movements has something to do with picking an apple, but I feel like something gets lost in translation.

While Sevillanas has evolved into something more casual and friendly, the steps do tell a story, and follow very specific moves and rhythms. It’s a lot tougher to fake your way through than say, the hora at a Jewish celebration.

That Andalusian gypsy music stirred something in me – the desire to write poetry, to talk to strangers in a foreign language, to drink ridiculous amounts of wine, to be more promiscuous. I just had a real hang-up about the choreographed dance, the Spaniard looking deeply into my eyes, the rest of the crowd watching.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. My friends spent weeks before the Feria, teaching us the steps of the dance. Concha, normally more reserved than the others, was like a Russian ballet instructor – cigarette between her fingers, puffing smoke into the air, calling out, “vuelta! vuelta!” Turn! Turn!

Jen loved dancing, and was confident in her body movements. Everyone was impressed with how well she learned. Though for all the shit she took for her short blond hair and careless grammar mistakes, Jen was due for a break.

When the first day of the Feria arrived, I looked in the mirror, and saw an incredibly authentic looking woman from Seville looking back. My traje gitana was yellow with polka dots and lots of ruffles. I loved the manton – a beautiful light blue shawl with fringe. My hair flower was yellow, and so were my chunky earrings and bracelet. I wasn’t so sure about the shoes, chunky-heeled espadrilles, but everyone wore them.

Concha, Pillar, and Rosario were glowing with pride as we took off that first night. They loaned me the dress, took me shopping for accessories, and spent hours at the coffee shop educating me about the customs. (Not to mention those dance lessons.)

We took a walk around the fair grounds. Going to the Feria is like stepping back in time – men on horses, women like models from a middle school Spanish language book. Lights and paper flowers hanging above you.

For reasons I still don’t understand, we left this beautiful surreal atmosphere to go to a botellón. This is basically a group of young adults standing around drinking from plastic cups. I guess it’s cheaper. I never liked them. At the Feria, it seemed out of place.

None the less, I drank my whiskey and Fanta like a champ, as I had been doing for the past six months. Everyone commented how beautiful I looked, how much I fit in – which is exactly what I thought I wanted when I moved to Spain.

I shared the brown eyes, brown hair, and bushy eyebrows of most of the girls from Seville. I adapted a southern Spanish accent, wore tight clothes, got tan. But still, I always felt like a foreigner – wearing jeans when everyone else wore a skirt, wanting to drink cappuccino when it was time for beer, being vegetarian in a country were jamón was like a religion, feeling shy when back home I could chat with anyone.

But on this night, I felt like maybe I did belong. When it was time to return to the Feria, I felt giddy, confident, perhaps even ready to dance. I turned to wave goodbye, and in one fatal step, all of my efforts came crashing down. I was the center of attention – the clumsy foreigner – before I even had a chance to dance Sevillanas and lift up my sweaty arm.

It’s debatable whether it was those damn espadrilles that didn’t fit properly, or a poorly placed empty whiskey bottle – but I fell with a thud that became legendary among all of the spring festival stories shared around the town.

Despite the pain in my knees (or maybe because of it) I popped up quickly, hoping nobody saw. But everybody did, including Jose, my sort of ex-novio, who came rushing over to valiantly help.

The fall was intense, leaving black skid marks from the pavement on all five layers of my dress and crinoline. My knees were bleeding and swollen within minutes. I lost the ability to say anything – in English or Spanish.

“Dolor? Barbara asked as I tried to hide in her arms.

“Si, pain.” I replied, and paused to find the word I was still looking for.

Jose knew. Vergüenza, he suggested. Embarrassment, shame.

Yes, indeed.

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Inclusion Comes Home

Here is my final ‘First Person’ column for the Virginia Journal of Education.  After five years, it’s time for me to pass the torch to another educator and writer.  I look forward to finding a new home for my writing.

“Come give me a hug!” Zaveah commands when Justin enters the classroom. She has, at only four years old, the authority of a Southern grandmother. It is this affection, and sense of belonging, that is crucial to Justin’s success.

Part of my job as an ESOL teacher is to help people belong. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize how important it is for my own child. I’ve participated in many IEP meetings,but that only prepared me for the terminology and the process. Sitting on the other side of the table, listening as experts explained all the ways our son was delayed, was an entirely different experience.

The mothers usually cried during those meetings. I had assumed it was the stigma their home countries clung to about “special” children. Now I know better. It’s the weight of worry and guilt. They ask themselves: Was it something I did during pregnancy? Should I have played with him more as a baby? Will he ever be “normal”? 

The placement recommended for our son was a pre-K inclusion classroom, with a curriculum focused on play and communication skills. I was impressed within minutes of observing Ms. Nelson’s class; the educator in me knew it was ideal.

We worried about how Justin would fit in. He struggled socially, we were making this change mid-year, and he was one of just a few white kids in the entire school.

If you think these differences shouldn’t matter, you’re right. However, there’s no denying they do matter. I’ve heard of kindergartners teased for being slow runners, and children who have nobody to play with at recess. What I later learned was that these things tend to happen more in “top-rated” schools, environments with more affluence and less diversity.

But Justin was embraced, as were we into a school community whose unofficial motto is, “We come as friends and leave as family.”

Sometimes we find a “home” in unexpected places. Within weeks it seemed like the entire school knew Justin. I hope to learn and write more about the correlation between diverse populations and successful inclusion models. What I do know is that in a school with nearly half of the students labeled as “at risk,” children introduced themselves to me, held the door, and couldn’t wait to “help” with my younger son at the playground after school.

Inclusion is so much more than “letting” certain children into the mainstream classroom, or putting a kidney-shaped table in the room for the resource teacher. In Ms. Nelson’s class, it’s difficult to tell which children actually receive services—all the students are engaged all the time.

As educators, we tend to focus on the academic goals of students with IEPs, the legality and paperwork. You can accommodate special education or ESOL students until the cows come home (and your test scores may even show it), but true inclusion requires a shift in perspective. It means teaching open-mindedness and acceptance through modeling. It means filling schools with diverse staff who can do this well.

Justin’s school also has a dual-immersion program that seems to benefit from a sort of prestige among parents and staff. It’s really the inclusion classroom that should be getting the accolades. While the kids across the hall may be learning English and Spanish, Ms. Nelson’s students are learning how to form friendships and how to recognize differences instead of fearing them.

As we search for Justin’s next school, among many other things, we’re seeking a diverse community. It’s hard to explain to friends who have never been a part of a Title I school, or who don’t have an “outlier” child, why diversity is so important to us.

We want to be a part of a community (because it takes families and schools) where students learn to become the kind of children, teens, and eventually adults who know how and when to speak up when others are being bullied, oppressed, or just left out. And yes, I believe that as early as preschool, this work can begin. Ms.
Nelson’s classroom is testament to this.

Friends like Zaveah, Sunny, and Maire seem to innately know when Justin walks into the classroom some days, pushing his heel in and out of his sneakers or biting his nails, that they have the power to help him become grounded again. He is reminded that this is where he belongs.

Come give me a hug.

I’m dedicating this VEA piece to the parents of  the Lower NW DC Education Collective – for their efforts to improve the quality of education in public school, and speaking up for those who haven’t found their advocacy voice yet.

What Luke Didn’t Tell Me

Luke greeted me almost daily, wherever and whenever he spotted me, with “Can I just tell you something?” He was an upbeat, skinny, first-grader with a slight trace of a Vietnamese accent. I adored him, and every little piece of information he had to share with me.

He was in my reading group, and learning rapidly. We saw each other three times a week, for 25-minute sessions. He went out of his way to greet me in the hallways or when I passed through the cafeteria.

Luke was delighted that I always agreed to listen, and told me all sorts of things.

I knew he was excited about the little chicks that were going to hatch in his classroom. I knew which books were on his wish list at the book fair. I learned about an uncle who took frequent trips to Atlantic City; sometimes he came home with gifts, and other times returned in a bad mood.

But Luke never so much as hinted to trouble at home. Or maybe he did, and my intuition was off. It’s the “good” kids that so often get overlooked. Those red flags seem to go up more with students who are misbehaving or not participating. Luke was always so happy, and a hard worker.

So it hit me like a thud when I heard that Mrs. Clark, our PTA president, had seen Luke wandering the neighborhood, “looking through trash bins for food.”

It brought up so many questions.

Was it true? Why was a first-grader wandering around by himself at all? Did an adult tell him to do this? Was the family actually using food from the trash?

Were they really in need, or was it cultural—having recently left a county that so loathed waste and watching their new neighbors throw away perfectly good things. Was this just a case of one man’s trash is another’s treasure?

Though I tried to believe it was a misunderstanding, part of me could actually picture little Luke out and about on his own like that. But I couldn’t grapple with him scavenging for food from the trash.

It’s not what you expect to hear about students in a Fairfax County school, even one that received Title I funding. When we think of poverty here, we don’t think of that kind of dire.

We were all upset to hear this news about Luke. If I am really honest, my first reaction was not how could this be, but rather, why didn’t he tell me? Like adults, our students let some people in, and keep others at bay.

As much as we try, as much as others expect it of us, we cannot possibly know everything about our students. I wish there was another way to say, “It takes a village,” because the phrase has become so overused. But the people at school who jump into action for children like Luke are testament to it.

Really, if it weren’t for Mrs. Clark, we might not have known anything. We sometimes joke about people like her, the uber-involved parent, with her children in the gifted and talented program, her part-time business, her mini van, and those (delicious) homemade cookie bars.

In a different neighborhood, in another era, she might have pretended not to see Luke, for fear of embarrassing his family, or just not wanting to “get involved.” But she did.

When people with financial stability and the knowledge of how the system works speak up for their children’s classmates when something is wrong, they take a step in creating more equity in our schools. They help create a sense of community responsibility.

I always believed my school in Northern Virginia to be a model community for a Title I school. Children of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds formed close friendships. It was a safe place, with supportive and involved parents, even those struggling to make ends meet.

Yet despite this close-knit community, certain families will always remain more outspoken, and seemingly in control at meetings. To encourage everyone to feel more comfortable becoming involved (and seeking help) we started coffee klatches, one in Spanish and one in Vietnamese.

Though I was tempted to find out more, I never asked Luke about his dumpster-diving. I figured if he wanted to tell me something, he would when he was ready. He was in good hands with the support staff at school, who worked closely with his family, guiding them through available resources.

So I treated Luke the way he probably wanted me to—as if I didn’t know everything.

But I did go out of my way to greet him throughout the day, and I relished his “can I just tell you something?” a little more.

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Originally published in the Virginia Journal of Education, 2012 

Peter got up in the middle of Writing Workshop to show us his Michael Jackson impression—complete with the crotch-grabbing. All in all, it wasn’t that bad. You could tell he practiced it a lot. But it was highly inappropriate in our seventh grade literature class and, from my point of view, had no real connection to the lesson.

It was likely a combination of things that set Peter off. His need for attention and lack of impulse control in a class with mostly boys (in all their immature and defiant glory), last period of the day, was almost asking for trouble. This was also my largest class and I wasn’t used to managing so many kids on my own. I’d only worked with small groups, or co-taught. The transition from elementary school to middle school was a huge adjustment for the students too. They had longer classes, and no recess, on top of a more demanding workload and all the social and emotional stuff. Still, it seemed as if all the “worst” boys were just dumped into this period. The type of kids that cause other teachers to make that face and say “Oh, you have so and so…”

Peter was bursting with personality, and likable, but he made teaching impossible at times. Even fun activities that incorporated movement and music didn’t work. Our timed independent writing sessions were nearly always interrupted by Peter, and then a domino effect of other boys misbehaving. When he was absent, the other boys were much better.

There were only a few girls in the class. One was bookish and always on task, rolling her eyes at Peter and the other boys acting out, giving me sympathetic glances as I tried desperately to teach. The other girls were silly and flirty and created unneeded distractions. Getting up to “get a pencil” would be a whole event of hair-flipping, skirt-adjusting and chatting with Peter, who nearly always managed to engage them in conversation on the short walk back to their table.

If he weren’t so influential with the other students, it might have been easier. At times it was as if he had more control over the class than I did—and it drove me crazy. I tried so hard to help him. I made an individual behavior and reward plan, gave him a fidget to hold, let him stand up when he needed to. But he just took advantage, and pushed and pushed until I was that “Don’t Do This” section of the classroom management books: a caricature of a teacher yelling, with smoke coming out of her ears.

Sometimes Peter just got himself so worked up, he didn’t seem in control of his body. Other days, it was his mouth that got him into trouble. During a lesson on brainstorming topics, he wrote (and shared with his group) a list that was so vulgar he ended up with an in-school suspension.

His guidance counselor was jovial, and looked like he could have played pro football, just the type of male role model the kids at that school needed. On top of the suspension, he made Peter call his mother and read her the list.

We decided to switch Peter’s schedule, and moved him from that last period “problem” class to first period. It was mostly girls and a few studious boys. The change was almost instantaneous—he was like a different person. Who knows whether it was the attention he was getting from the guidance counselor, the dynamic of the class, or the time of day. That last period was still my most challenging and exhausting, but much more teachable.

Peter still lacked that filter at times, like when he called across the room, “Hey Ms. Bloom, are you pregnant?” I was, but had not yet told the students. I’m still not sure how he knew. I suspect he overheard some teachers talking.

I wanted to be mad at him, but the class was so excited. Plus I was planning on sharing the news soon, anyway. We spent a good chunk of time predicting whose birthday would be closest to the delivery date, and sharing various “it totally works” ways to predict whether it was boy or girl (something about hiding a fork and spoon, and another about dangling a necklace over my belly.) There were also many name suggestions—none of which we considered.

The irony is not lost on me that Peter won the closest birthday contest. My son is currently obsessed with Michael Jackson, and he too struggles with impulse control, though mostly when cookies or elevator buttons are concerned.

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Here’s an excerpt from my latest column for the Virginia Journal of Education.

Serve and Protect?

Just before the dismissal bell rang, there was an announcement. “All resource teachers and specialists please report to the lobby. Immediately.”

We went dutifully: the reading resource teachers, the ESOL teachers, the art, music, and gym teachers who had finished their last period and didn’t have a homeroom class.

The principal and vice principal were there, at this impromptu emergency meeting in the lobby. They told us there was a situation, and our help was needed. For a brief moment, I felt good about being called on to help (even if it was only because I didn’t have a homeroom class). I wasn’t always in good favor with the administration, and small things like this gave the illusion of cooperation and teamwork.

Our orders were simple enough: stand at your regular bus duty assignment or another spot surrounding the building.

I figured it was a domestic issue, perhaps an angry parent without custody rights that came to pick up his child. I stood at one of the crosswalks. The buses arrived, the dismissal bell rang, yet no students appeared. Then the police officers came, patrolling the perimeter of the building.

Doug, a special education teacher, and I met half way between our posts as we frequently did on slow duty days to chat about our day. Always one of the first to hear gossip, he told me another teacher reported hearing gunshots.

Gunshots.

                (Read the rest HERE.)

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My column from the April issue of the Virginia Journal of Education-

To Tell The Truth

Is a little fibbing really that bad? 

 

 

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April, 2013

donation-box

Every season, I switch my closet out. In the spring, I put my winter sweaters in a big blue bin, and it goes into the storage space until the weather turns cold again.

I try to purge, and create piles. Donate, consign, trash – just like those clear the clutter books recommend.

I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping clutter to a minimum. I donate clothes, and books frequently. When the mail comes, I sort through it right away, and throw out the junk.

Sometimes I accidentally throw away catalogues my husband wanted. Or worse, I tear up receipts too quickly, and panic when we decide to return something. Even if it’s not my fault, I’m usually blamed for “lost” papers.

I used to save everything. I liked making scrap books when I was younger. I kept birthday cards, letters, programs from concerts, ticket stubs.

Not anymore.

It’s not that I’m not sentimental. I’ve just learned to let go of the physical stuff.

Even still, a few items seem to remain in that storage bin year after year. I can’t seem to put them in another pile. It’s unlikely I’ll ever wear the faux suede brown pants and the tight little sweater with the sparkle heart in the middle – a gift from Jen for my 26th birthday when we lived in Spain.

And yet, I can’t seem to let go. Maybe that’s ok. It’s really not taking up that much space in the big blue bin. I realize I’m holding onto the memory, to what that cute little outfit represents.

Sevilla.

The orange trees, Vespas zipping past, the smell of Spring flowers mixed with smell of horse piss.

Cappuccinos, and why is this toast so fantastic?

Red wine, Fanta limon, olives, jamon hanging from the ceiling, cheap whiskey, discotheques.

The Cathedral, The River Guadalaquivir, The Torre del Oro, The Royal Alcazar.

Bar Sancho Panzo, little glasses of cool beer

Tia, hija

A kiss on each cheek.

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In the November issue of the Virginia Journal of Education – my story about Joonbum, the student who never spoke.

Read it here.

 

 

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My latest piece for the Virginia Journal of Education is out. It’s a small dent in a larger conversation.

You can read it here: Demographics Change; So Must We

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