9/11: Fifteen Year Reflection

I’m intentionally posting this a few days before September 11th, so that it won’t be perceived as a response to anyone in particular who chooses to share that day…. I’m usually too busy with the beginning of the school year to voice many of my 9/11 thoughts, but I always think about it. It’s a day of mourning that I feel even more intensely as time goes by. Obviously we honor and mourn the lives lost. But I feel like those individuals weren’t the only losses that day… I feel like my generation lost a lot of our innocence, and our country started losing our grasp on what it even means to be an American.

Every year, among the reflections on September 11th, I see people speak nostalgically about how our country “pulled together” in response to the attacks. How there was a great sense of unity in the days that followed. But as much as I want that to be true, I just don’t see it that way. Even at the time, I didn’t see it that way.

I was in my senior year of high school, and working on our school’s newspaper that semester. A month or so afterward, I remember writing an editorial for the paper about patriotism. (Part of me wishes I could see a copy of it now, but most of me is glad I don’t have to cringe at younger Kristine’s words… So if anybody weirdly has access to those archives, please don’t share them!) I was really bothered by how trendy patriotism had become. Flags on everything. Everyone was making a quick buck by marketing red, white, and blue. Consumers felt like they were taking a stand and fighting terrorism by wearing tshirts bedazzled in stars and stripes.

I remember struggling to write the editorial and articulate why it bothered me so much. It’s not that I was anti-flag; something inside of me just felt like the entire concept of patriotism was being cheapened, and something else was being missed. My instincts said  there were bigger issues to be grappled with, questions to be asked, values to be examined, stands to be taken… I don’t think I ever successfully figured out what those bigger issues were at the time, but I sensed them there, buried under an enormous pile of flaggy paraphernalia.

(Incidentally, I recently learned that the earliest flag desecration laws, passed between 1897 and 1905, were intended to keep the flag from being used for commercial purposes or political campaigns. Using our nation’s symbol for personal gain was considered unpatriotic.)

Maybe in 2001 I didn’t have the language to talk about what I was seeing, because I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. I was a raised-in-the-90s kid, and my world seemed like a pretty good place. The economy was good. War was something we read about in history books. I knew racism wasn’t dead, but I thought we were quickly heading in that direction. I had my religion; other people had theirs; and I only knew it as a positive force in any of our lives. Maybe the 90s weren’t really as idyllic as I remember them, but it was easy to believe from my little bubble. The world’s major problems felt so far away, in the international news segment, far removed from my world.

Then it all broke. The happy world I’d always known, where everybody holds hands and chases the American Dream together, was gone. And it happened so fast!

Suddenly, Americans turned their backs on each other. Anyone who looked like they might be either Muslim or Middle Eastern became the enemy. In August, they’d been Americans like any other, but in September, they became dangerous. One day, they were just living their lives like any of us; the next, they carried the burden of an entire nation’s fear, anger, suspicion, and hate.

I was shocked, scared, and saddened by the September 11th attack. But I was no less shocked, scared, and saddened by the series of attacks that we made on each other afterward. The attacks — variably physical, mental, and emotional — that our Muslim, Middle Eastern, or I-dunno-they-just-look-like-bad-guys neighbors had to endure. Technically, I did know that Americans were capable of this; I’d studied the Japanese-American interment camps of WWII. But that was our grandparents’ world! I thought we’d learned from our history, and become a nation of better people. I couldn’t believe the same racist blame game was happening right before my eyes.

Except I’m using the wrong verb tense. Those attacks aren’t in the past; they still happen. My naive 2001 self might have assumed it would all settle down, but look at our country today…. While my high school self didn’t know modern America could be so deeply divisive, today’s high school kids don’t know it any other way.

When we were all trying to make sense of the attack on the twin towers, I remember being baffled at why Al-Qaeda called us an anti-Islamic country. I’d never had reason to give Islam much thought one way or the other before. It seemed like such a wild accusation against my united-we-stand country. #ePluribusUnum

But here we are, 15 years later, and it feels like the terrorists are winning. Every time they attack, whether it’s a legitimate terrorist or a lone bad actor, we respond by lashing out at our Muslim community. We’re letting the bad guys mold us into the monster they always said we were. Which provokes further trauma and terrorism. Rinse and repeat.

If anybody had asked my teenage self to define “American,” I would have thought it was a crazy question. An American is someone who lives in America–what else could it possibly be? I thought the United States was like the Olive Garden, “When you’re here, you’re family.” But for the last 15 years, I’ve felt the question buzzing in the air. I’ve seen the hierarchy emerge, where some people are considered “more American” than others. I’ve seen those with darker skin pigmentation, or those who identify as any religion but Christian, forced to carry a higher burden of proof as to whether they’re truly American. Whether they truly belong.

Late 2001 was when I started hearing debates between civil liberties and security, and feeling pressure to choose a team. Again, this wasn’t the America I thought I knew. I thought we could have both. Maybe I was naive, but I thought the US aimed for a healthy balance between the two. That balance was thrown dramatically in 2001, and now I live in a country with fewer civil liberties than ever… and I don’t feel any safer. Who’s winning?

I’m afraid I don’t look back on September 2001 with any warm and fuzzy memories of unity. I only remember it as the day our communities splintered. As quickly as we plastered the flag across our tshirts, our hearts started forgetting what it means to be American. So, here we are, and I have to look to the future instead. I have to hope that we can eventually come back together, remember why we’re all here, and what ties us together.

School Eve

In honor of School Eve, which some people refer to as Labor Day, I’m having a small party with my laptop and some pumpkin spice hot chocolate. We’re gathering to welcome Ms. Napper back, and say goodbye to Kristine. It can’t be a long party, because Ms. Napper has a to-do list that’s seventy miles long. Laptop is keeping us all honest by leaving Charger at home, so the party can’t possibly outlive Battery’s life.

Ms. Napper letter magnetsThey say there’s nothing like the first day of your first year teaching, and they’re right. I’ll always remember the off-the-charts anxiety that I walked in with that first day, no idea what I was getting into…. These days, the first day anxiety is because I know exactly what I’m getting into.

Anxiety isn’t nearly an all-encompassing enough word to describe it though. The truth is, if there’s a feeling, I’m feeling it. All the feels.

I know by now that there’s room in my heart for countless hundreds of kids. I had three student run-ins just this weekend–one who will be in my class again this year, one who is just now leaving me for high school, and one that graduated high school already. Every one of them made my heart smile! Also, every one of them saw me and reached out to connect before I even saw them, so I think that means Ms. Napper is doing something right. (Although I guess I don’t know how many other kids might have seen me this weekend and hid….)

There’s a very real part of me that loves the first day of school. A perk of teaching ESL is that I get many students for more than one year, so the first day of school is like happy reunion time. “Hello!! How are you? How was that summer Cali trip? How’s your new baby sister? Do you have pictures? Love those new shoes! When did you get so much taller than me?” Even with the new 6th graders, there are usually a few shades of family reunion, “Wait, you’re Maria’s cousin? Does that mean you’re Brandon’s little brother? I love your family! Haven’t I met you at conferences before? You were tiny then, but if I remember right, you weren’t shy….”

There’s some magic where we all like each other more on the first day of school than we ever have before. A little magic happens over the summer, and the kids are slightly more mature. They’re refreshed, full of hopes and goals for the school year, because this is the year when they’re going to get their act together and fix whatever habit was holding them back last year. It’s good energy, and I try to make the most of it. Also, now that it’s a new year and they have a new set of teachers to figure out, I’m the familiar face, and there’s nothing more comforting to the nerves than a familiar face. We don’t have to start back at square one in my class; we can pick up where we left off. We already know each other’s strengths and limits; we know how far we can push, and where we should tread lightly. We have a bank of shared memories and struggles and inside jokes to pull from, and they make us stronger.

I really do love my kids, and it’ll be great to see them this week.

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The kids get even more wacky when the wi-fi goes down… How could you not enjoy these weirdos? 🙂

All those goals and hopes and dreams they’re coming with? I have them too, for the kids and for myself, times a thousand. Here’s where the anxiety starts creeping in. I have a million and one ideas for how to better teach and support my students this year, and I want to make them all happen. I spent all last year pushing, pushing, pushing to get my schedule set up a certain way this year,  believing it would allow me to do better work. After a little more pushing last week, I got my way! My teaching schedule is (almost) exactly what I’ve been asking for. And that’s great, but it means now there’s even more pressure. I have the structure and the responsibilities that I requested, so now it’s on my shoulders to make the most of those opportunities.

My kids deserve the best, and I want to give it. My colleagues too. I work with so many incredible people, and I’m sure I spent more time than I should have last week just chatting with many of them, but you know what? Enjoying socializing too much with your work family seems like a pretty good problem to have. I know that my fellow Whitford teachers also want to give their ESL kids the best they’ve got, and as a specialist, I want to support them in that. It’s part of my job, and with increased staffing this year, it’s back on my priority list, as it should be.

“My job is to serve the public, not save the public.” A very smart educator friend told me that years ago. She’s right, and I believe it in my head, but it’s hard to convince my heart. No matter how many good intentions I’m overflowing with, my supply of time and energy is still limited. So limited! I’ve reassured my newer teammates a hundred times that every year we come into this job with a thousand goals, and we accomplish like six of them. The other 994 get put on next year’s list, along with three hundred more that we think of over the course of the year, and that’s ok, not a reason to beat ourselves up. But secretly, I’m telling this to them because I need to hear it myself. The unmet goals eat at me. My shortcomings taunt me. My failures, insecurities, and unsolved problems are always in my peripheral vision. Because those things aren’t just about me, they all come with the faces of kids I love and want to do better by.

My greatest wish is to be able to spend time being both Ms. Napper and Kristine on a daily basis. That’s what people don’t understand about teaching when they make comments, sometimes in bitterness and sometimes in fun, about how “It must be nice to get summers off.” Let’s set aside the fact that I’ve never had an entire summer where I didn’t work, mostly unpaid hours. Even if that weren’t the case… Summer is when I find Kristine again! I miss her during the year. It’s exhausting to go all year without ever clocking out. This job follows me every minute of the day. If I’m not working, I’m feeling guilty for not working, and feeling the weight on my shoulders getting even heavier. We’re set up for failure, because the to-do’s aren’t just more than anybody could do in an 8-hour day; they’re more than anyone could do in a 24-hour day. And none of it’s menial, mindless work. It’s mentally and emotionally draining. I would try and explain how physically taxing it all amounts to for me, but I can’t even put it into words anyone would understand. I know that teachers aren’t the only workaholics around, but I don’t think it would be hard to make the case that we’re the lowest paid workaholics.

I say all the time that I have no idea how people manage to be both teachers and parents. Endless respect for those who do. I’m barely even coherent when I get home every day. I can’t imagine having anything left to give to my own kids.

This year is particularly frightening for Kristine, shoved back into her summer closet, because Ms. Napper (re)started a master’s program. I’m glad it’s happening, and it’ll hopefully be done in a year. But it’s another huge time commitment. Another energy commitment.

I’ve been really trying to find small ways to let Kristine out during the school year. That’s why I joined PDX Vox and let the choir thing back into my life in 2015. I’m not giving that up! I refuse. Singing makes me happy, and my choir community is just the greatest group of people. But even so, it’s a struggle every Thursday night, when I want to be fully engaged in rehearsal and the people around me, but my brain just won’t keep up.

Same reasoning went into starting this blog last January. I almost forgot how much I need writing to feel like myself. It gets all those thoughts and feelings that swirl around chaotically in my head, and puts them somewhere external, tangible, and manageable. I need this! And I’m afraid that personal writing, meaning this blog, will take a back seat this year. If I’m sitting with my laptop, the school work, and the other school work, is always going to feel more pressing. I’m not saying goodbye, because I hope to keep making time for my blog this year. But I’m afraid it might be a ridiculous hope.

I hate feeling my own thought processing slow down during the school year. It’s only been a week of preservice, no students yet, and I can already feel it happening. My brain gets smart but my head gets dumb. I can’t hold onto a thought long enough to complete it, and it just turns into a mess up there.

I’ll post this in the morning, as I head off to First Day #1. (6th graders come for the first first day. The 7th and 8th will join us for the second first day.) Ready or not, it’s here. My head and heart will be fully in the game, and it’s going to be a good year. I’ll do my best not to beat myself up for all the ways I don’t succeed this year, and I hope others will be kind and forgiving with me as well. I won’t have much left to give outside of school; I tell everyone that “I’m really only a good friend in July.” But please don’t allow me to rely too heavily on that excuse, because I also need friends the rest of the year.

Pumpkin spice and scarves and boots will have to be enough for me now. Luckily, Kristine and Ms. Napper both share those not-even-guilty pleasures.