Happy Birthday, America

“So, tell me about your country. What’s it like?”

“Oh, Ms. Napper, my country is very good. In my city, there is water we  can drink. And there are wires that carry electricity to the houses!”

<unsure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that!>

“But I always dreamed about someday coming to America… And now I am here!!”

One of the cool parts of being an ESL teacher is getting to welcome new families to the United States. Being part of the unofficial welcome wagon.

I’ve been able to listen to kids say their very first complete sentence in English. Then later, an entire story. I’ve sat next to them while they used a computer for the first time. I’ve introduced them to April Fools pranks. I’ve hosted their first viewing of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve taught them the gist of baseball. (One of the sportsiest things I’ve ever done!)

Some of the firsts are less fun…. I’ve helped brand new arrivals get through their first lockdown-drill-in-case-there’s-ever-a-shooting-here-at-school. I’ve reassured kids freaking out about their first experience with standardized testing. I’ve helped them grapple with being called a terrorist for the first time.

With all the time I’ve spent introducing kids to their new country and culture, you’d think I would have found an answer to my own existential America question a long time ago. But, I didn’t. I just kept wondering.

My question is about the phrase “proud to be an American.” What does it even mean? Am I proud to be an American? What does it mean if I am? What does it mean if I’m not?

I’ve always been grateful to be born and raised in America. I know that’s given me a lot of privileges and opportunities that I wouldn’t necessarily have in other places. I’ve appreciated the contributions of everyone who came before me in American history and made the country what it is–including soldiers, yes, but also scientists, lawyers, political leaders, activists, artists, etc, etc!

But that’s gratitude.That’s different from pride, right? I take pride in my accomplishments. I’m proud of things I’ve achieved, and work I’ve done, and anything that I’ve given my best effort… but being an American? I was born into that. It was happenstance. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of being proud of a privilege that was just handed to me without doing anything to deserve it.

This year, though, I think I’ve started to understand. Like the fish that doesn’t understand “wet” until it leaves the water, now that I’ve lost my pride in being an American, I’m beginning to see what I once had.

This year my kids studied “The New Colossus,” the poem found at the Statue of Liberty. I know we’ve all heard the “send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” lines a million times. As we should–they’re beautiful and speak to my soul. But what about this part, describing the statue?

“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world wide-welcome…”

For many around the world, America has been a shining beacon in the darkness. Whether we truly deserve the role or not, we’ve given hope to struggling souls. Like the sweet child (now an adult) I quoted at the top of this post, growing up with the dream of coming to America, where opportunities and a future would open up for her. We’ve offered a home to all kinds of “exiles.” We’ve offered the world the American Dream, the idea that a person can work hard and improve their individual circumstances. We’ve offered the American Experiment, the idea that democracy works and we can govern ourselves (kinda). These things might be more of a reality for some and more of a myth for others, but even just the ideals had power in their own right.

America has stood as a beacon of hope on the world stage. And I have taken pride in being a tiny little particle of that light. It was a worthy, ongoing cause, and I believed in its inherent good. I was proud to help keep it moving forward.

I was proud to be part of a nation that proclaimed and at least attempted to live by values closely matching my own. Freedom. Equality. Equity. Unity. Humanitarianism. I embraced these and many other American values, and could hold my head high under a flag that represented my own beliefs.

I would even say I was proud of generally using my freedoms responsibly. To better myself and serve others, without stepping on others’ freedoms. Having the privileges of being born an American doesn’t make me special, but what I do with those privileges does reflect my character. Without consciously realizing it, I took some pride in that.

So here I am, finally working out my definition of being “proud to be an American,” a little too late to enjoy it.

Now I just feel ashamed of America, of what we’ve done to it.

Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe all that American pride was always misplaced. Our country was founded on genocide and built with slavery. We never repented of those sins; we just continued morphing them into different means of the same oppression. We also have never properly valued education, preferring to raise a population in blissful, unquestioning ignorance to the world around us. So, really, how long could we keep convincing anyone that we’re the good guys?

Still, right or wrong, I always believed we were riding the slow train of progress towards “liberty and justice for all.” There’s no reason to believe that’s true now. We’re facing the opposite direction, and picking up speed.

Instead of Lady Liberty shining her beacon of hope for the world to see, she’s giving the world the middle finger. With the entire world mad at us, I’m just praying they find a way to punish us and save the world from our fascist leadership, without actual warfare. (I imagine that same prayer has been coming out of the Middle East for a long time, though, and that’s never stopped us, so…I realize I’m asking for a miracle that defies karma.)

Our freedom is being pulled out from under us so fast that it makes the head spin.

  • Endless attacks on legitimate news sources are quickly limiting our freedom of the press, which in turn limits our freedom of speech. #fascism101
  • If the attempts to defund Medicaid succeed, then I completely lose my freedom. The Supreme Court didn’t decide that I have a right to live freely in the community until 1999. If that is taken away again so soon, how many generations do you think it’ll take to get it back?
  • With it so unsafe to be Muslim in America, freedom of religion is little more than lip service. The irony being that religious freedom is most intensely threatened by the religious. Our least religious president in history has tapped into the most bigoted and intolerant of Christians’ hearts, and is fueling their hate and fear to attack another religion… All eastern religions, to some extent. These aren’t people who can tell the difference between a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh.
  • Remember the lies told about how we aren’t targeting all immigrants for deportation, just serious criminals? Tell that to the families that are being ripped apart over the crime of driving a car, the crime of being a student, or the crime of dropping a child off at school. Here in the United States, they remain “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
  • The same surveillance technology that is being used to target immigrants, is being used to monitor all of us. Any sense of privacy we enjoy, is a delusion. There’s no freedom from Big Brother.
  • The administration’s tax plan will further widen the gap between those economically on top, and the rest of us. That limits all of our freedom as individuals, and threatens our nation as a whole.
  • Brutal attacks on our education system promote widespread ignorance in our people. It’s much easier to manipulate, control, and exploit an uneducated populace. When people can’t even see their freedom being taken away, they don’t fight back.

Who do we blame for this shameful failure to live our American values? Do we blame Trump? Do we blame the corrupt party leaders that are pulling his puppet strings? Do we blame Russia? Yes, of course, we blame them all. But if democracy is working at all, then we have to mostly blame ourselves. We did this. The one American value that I’ve never been able to get behind is the heavy focus on individualism. Maybe that’s what got us here. So busy focusing on ourselves, we forgot to take care of our country.

Happy birthday, America. I’m sorry we forgot to bring a present.

Ten Years Of Teaching

This week I wrapped up my tenth year teaching. As these things always do, those ten years feel like both ten minutes and ten lifetimes, all at once.

I think my ten-years-ago-self would be proud if she could see me now… I was so young and scared when I started teaching! My student teaching experience was mostly horrific. (Except for, tellingly, the ESL part… Thanks, Glori!) By the time I earned my teaching degree, I wasn’t sure I wanted it anymore. I really didn’t know if I had what it takes to be a teacher. I knew I lacked a lot of skills, and wasn’t sure my best efforts would be enough to pick them up. But what else do you do with a brand new teaching degree? Especially when the last two years of your education was paid for with a grant, contingent on your agreement to teach for at least four years? So I got myself a teaching job…

I thank God regularly that I landed at Whitford! I did have a LOT of growing to do as a teacher, but in its wacky way, Whitford gave me what I needed. I spent my first year in the cave we call C15, lacking both windows and walls, and I can’t imagine a better place for my first year. I shared very tight quarters with Betsy and Jake, and spent my time soaking up as much mentoring and wisdom as I could squeeze out of them. I made a shameless nuisance of myself by asking a million questions a day, but probably learned the most from just watching them teach and interact with kids. We also managed to have SO MUCH FUN all of the time. I don’t think there’s ever been a team of teachers at Whitford that has more FUN at work than we did! Thank goodness I learned quickly that teaching is supposed to be fun. It’s one of the easiest barometers to measure how my classes are going. As long as I’m having fun, something must be going right. 🙂

The other best possible thing for my professional development happened that year–the equity team was born. I didn’t know why I was going to that very first meeting of the equity team; I mostly just went because Betsy told me to. (And truly, “because Betsy said so” is reason enough to do things.:)) Then I kept going because I realized how much I had to learn. I talked as little as possible during those first few years of meetings. I was just soaking it in and thinking deeply. I learned to see and hear more clearly. I found the courage to engage in hard conversations. I became the teacher that my kids needed me to be–one who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but can help them navigate the complexities of race, culture, marginalization, etc. I learned how to make my classroom a safe space, and myself a safe person. I’ll forever be refining those traits and skills, but I’m so grateful that I started my career in that ideal learning space. And with all the things that have come and gone in ten years, I’m grateful the equity team still stands! I’ve needed that group of people more than ever this year.

That first year, the 6th grade classes were the highlight to my day. They were new and lost and scared and hopeful, just like me! We grew up at Whitford together. By the time they were in 8th grade, our third year together, they’d claimed such a gigantic place in my heart! It wasn’t the exact same group of kids of course–plenty had moved in and out during those three years. But it still felt like a sweet little ELD family, and I truly enjoyed being with them every day. I remember that last day of school, year three, crying my eyes out. It’s always hard to say goodbye at the end of the year, particularly to the 8th graders. But that year, I wondered if I would ever love another class as much as that one. They were my first group that I’d spent three years with. Did that make them irreplaceably special? Were they just a uniquely amazing group of kids? How often would I get a group of kids I enjoyed that much? Would I be disappointed in future years? Would it make me a bad teacher if I had favorite classes? The questions all seem silly, but I was legitimately (and secretly) concerned!

I don’t worry about those things anymore. It turns out that learning how to teach, meant learning how to love. I don’t remember that being covered in teacher school! But I’ve found that the kind of love required to do what I do, isn’t simple, easy, rainbows-and-butterflies. Instead, it requires me to stretch in ways younger-me couldn’t have dreamed of. I know that I’ve been described before with words like tender-hearted, soft, sensitive… and those words usually seem to carry a connotation of weakness. But now I know that I’m all of those things, and I’m strong. Because stretching my heart to all the places my kids take it, requires incredible strength. I’ve found that my own capacity to love is much bigger than I imagined.

I’ve learned to love kids who come from completely different worlds than me.

I’ve learned to read the most challenging behaviors as a kid asking to be loved, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re asking for.

I’ve learned to be generous with my love–if there are strings attached, then it isn’t love, it’s something else.

I’ve learned that love demands vulnerability.

I’ve learned to try a million different ways of sharing love, until I hit on the one that a particular kid is able to receive.

I’ve learned that love usually requires investing some time. And there’s no better investment.

I’ve learned that love can be transformative.

I’ve learned that love doesn’t always lead to the hoped for transformation. But I think that even then, it still matters. I hope it does.

I’ve learned to love loudly. Sometimes I have to get in someone’s face.

I’ve learned to love quietly. Sometimes physical presence is the only gift I can offer.

I’ve learned to let God tell me how to love. He knows what the kids need better than I do.

I’ve learned that kids test your love. They test boundaries, they test rules, and they test love. I’m getting better at recognizing those tests when they’re put in front of me.

I’ve learned that kids will usually let me retake the test if I don’t pass it the first time. It’s ok to revisit a situation and admit that I didn’t handle it the way I should have.

I’ve learned to love with laughter.

I’ve learned to love fiercely.

I’ve learned to love stubbornly.

I’ve learned to love patiently.

I’ve learned that discipline and love work a hundred times better together.

Looking back, my first ten years of learning to teach more effectively, were all about learning how to love better. It was right there under the surface all along, but this year got me thinking more intentionally and deeply about this love stuff. A student who survived a great deal of childhood trauma and missed out on attaching to a parent when he was young, straight up asked me “What is love?” I feel like we both learned a lot as we explored that question through the rest of the year…. At first, I felt so inadequate to help him navigate something so profound and so fundamental. I still feel inadequate. But we don’t take on these challenges because we’re ready for them. We take them on because we’re there. And because love.

I can (and will!) spend days telling you about the problems in my profession. Mostly, it would fall under three umbrellas–the lack of time, money, and respect. And I don’t want to downplay any of those issues, because they’re real, they’re driving away incredibly talented teachers, and they’re hurting our kids.

I badly want to see improvement in all of those areas, because the truth is, I wouldn’t rather be doing anything but teaching. It’s pretty uniquely wonderful that when I go to work every day, I get to spend time with people I love. Plenty of people work with people they like, people they enjoy, people they appreciate. But I wonder how common it is to spend your workday surrounded by people you love? I’m lucky to have amazing colleagues that I count among my nearest and dearest. But even if every one of them went away and were replaced by a horrible monster, I’d still have my kids. And after ten years, I’m confident that there’s no such thing as a class I can’t love.

This is where I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to wrap up year ten with a neat little bow of warm fuzzies. But, unfortunately, I started teaching in 2007, which means I hit year ten in 2017. And nothing is simple or sweet in 2017. As I closed out my teaching year, Republicans revealed their latest plan to get rid of Medicaid. They’ve been coming up with these schemes since before I was born, of course. But they’ve never been more set up to succeed than they are right now. In preparation for federal cuts, plenty of states are already cutting off people like me from services. If that happens to me, I literally don’t have a way to get out of bed and into my wheelchair in the morning. My greatest fear–being locked up in some care facility–could easily become my reality. It could be coming sooner than later. And then I won’t get to teach anymore.

I know a lot of incredible educators who are finishing a very rough year and asking themselves, “Can I keep teaching? Can I really keep doing this?” And a part of me is wondering the same. But, unfortunately, I’m more worried about, “What if I don’t get to keep teaching? What if I’m not allowed? Then what?”

Please try to understand….

“Kristine, you were in my dream last night! And it was the craziest thing, you’ll never guess…..”

I silently finish their sentence, “You were walking!” But maybe just this once, it’ll be anything else..?

“…You were walking!”

As predictable as the sunrise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation.

I know people can’t really control what they dream about. But why does everyone seem to have these Kristine walking dreams? And does it surprise people that I never have that dream? That everyone has it but me? I have frequent anxiety dreams about my chair breaking down. But unless the chair plays a key role in the dream, I’m not actually aware of whether or not it’s there. I assume it is, because why wouldn’t it be? (I also assume my elbows and all ten toes are there, although I never stop to check.) Just like in real life, if the focus of my dream is interacting with the people and things around me, I’m not paying much attention to how I’m getting around. Who puts that much conscious thought into how their body is moving through space?

A well-meaning man came up to me at church this weekend, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, “When are you getting out of that wheelchair?”

I was taken aback. “Not any time soon….” I sputtered.

“Well we sure would like to see you get out of it.”

Speechless. I was completely speechless. (Also–who was this “we”??) My instinct from childhood was to smile and pretend that was a kind, thoughtful thing to say. But I’m done with rewarding people’s ignorance, so I didn’t do that. My worn-out-teacher-in-May instinct was to snark and snap and tell him exactly what I thought. But I don’t want to be rude to a well-meaning old man at church, so I didn’t do that either. Instead I just looked confused and didn’t say anything. Eventually he walked away.

(If I’d let the snappy voice talk, it would have said, “Are you wishing me dead?? Because I’m not leaving this chair until I die. And I have a lot more living I’d like to do first. Leave me alone.”)

And one more story…

A couple months ago, I might have had a minor emotional meltdown at church… It was the same weekend that I wrote this post, so there’s a kinda-sorta idea of what was going on in my head at the time. Then the third hour lesson just hit all my buttons, and once I started crying, the floodgates were open and I couldn’t stop. I pretty much bawled my eyes out for 45 solid minutes in a room full of women. And I’m not a cute crier, so by the time the class ended, I was a red, puffy, snotty mess, thanking the heavens for waterproof mascara.

That day again confirmed my suspicions that I have a prickly, defensive, off-putting aura, because as I sat there after church, sniffling and trying to get it together, the room of ladies all filed out without saying a word to me. Nobody asked me if I was ok. Nobody offered to listen if I wanted to talk. No hugs or pats on the back. Nada. (Not the first time this has happened to me. There are some people who can cry, and the whole world falls over themselves to offer comfort and love. But for some reason, when I cry, people tend to back away and just give me space. Whether or not I want it.)

Except for one person. When the room was nearly empty, one very nice, older lady came and sat next to me. For a while she just sat there with that “I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say” look on her face. (We’ve all been there.) That was fine–very much appreciated, actually. Then she started talking, and stumbled through some comment like, “I just wish you didn’t have to be in that chair…” I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something like that. To her credit, she immediately recognized how awkward her comment was, apologized for not knowing what to say, patted me on the back, and went on her way. I didn’t even resent her weird comment, because hey, at least she tried. I appreciated one person caring enough to try.

It was revealing, though. Is that why people back away when they see me being emotional? Do they just assume I’m crying about being in a wheelchair? And they don’t know how to deal with that, so they’d rather not? That’s such a weird thing to assume! I was upset about a lot of different things that weekend, but none of them were related to my disability. As if I were a one-dimensional person, and that was the only thing I thought about?

Can we all please accept that Kristine uses a wheelchair, and just be ok with it? Stop trying to wish it away. If I want to wish it away myself, I can–I’ve earned that right. I usually don’t, though. There are so many bigger and better things to spend my wishes on. But nobody else gets to make that wish. It’s everyone else’s job to just love and accept me for who I am. I’m sorry that’s apparently so hard to do, but keep trying. If I can learn to be ok with me, then you can too.

Here, I’ll even help you get started. Think of something you like about me. Anything at all. You’re here, reading my blog, so I’m going to assume there’s at least one thing you find mildly likable about me…. Whatever that thing is, if I weren’t disabled, that thing wouldn’t be the same. I’d be an entirely different person. My disability has influenced every single experience, every relationship, every opportunity, every challenge, every everything, since the day I was born. Directly or indirectly, it’s woven into the fabric of everything that I am. And I don’t want to be someone else. I have my flaws and my “opportunities for growth,” but that’s ok. I’m good with me.

I’m really tired, though, of having to work so hard to help other people be good with me. Yes, I know you grew up in an ableist world, not even aware that ableist was a word, and my disability makes you more uncomfortable than you’re willing to admit. I get it, but that’s not my fault. It’s not my job to take your hand and be your disability acceptance coach. I’m busy living my own life, which both does and doesn’t revolve around my disability. If you want to be part of my life, you need to be ok with that. All of it. You need to be ok with talking about disability, and with talking about things other than my disability. One without the other is weird.

Ask questions. I have answers, stories, and opinions, and I’ll probably tell them to you. But don’t project your feelings and assumptions onto me. Nobody benefits from that.

Staying Home For Mother’s Day

One night in college, a group of friends and I were taking a personality test together. The test told us to visualize a cube in a desert, and then kept giving us new elements to add to our mental image, while we wrote descriptions of what we were seeing. Afterward, we looked up the different symbols in this book to find what our interpretations revealed about us.

One of the steps was “Add flowers to your desert. Describe them.” My mental picture filled up with hundreds of little red flowers, scattered all over the desert. We found out afterward that the flowers were supposed to represent our children. The book said that my plethora of scattered, red flowers meant I would have “many children from many different fathers.” We all laughed at this–it’s particularly funny when you keep in mind that we were a churchy group of BYU kids–and I made jokes about my secret wild side and lineup of future baby-daddies.

Then one person said brightly, “Maybe it’s talking about your students!” I was almost done with my teaching program at this point, just a few months away from graduation.

I think I mumbled something unintelligible in response, and I definitely exchanged a bitter look with Emily. She was the friend I could count on in the moment to “get” me.

As a Mormon girl, I’d heard all my life about how children and motherhood were the ultimate fulfillment, accomplishment, happiness, and reason for existing. And as a Mormon girl in a wheelchair, nobody ever expected me to have children or be a mother. (You try living an emotionally stable life with those two messages constantly coming at you.) I resented everybody’s assumptions about me, but at the same time, I was pretty sure they weren’t wrong. Regardless, I appreciated when people at least pretended that family life was still within my realm of possibilities. It bothered me that at basically 20-nothing years old, it had already been decided that I’d live my life alone, but hey, I could “mother” other people’s kids. As long as I kept quotation marks around the word “mother.”

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Now, here I am, ten years into my teaching career. My desert is filled with hundreds of little red flowers… And the thing is, I love those little red flowers. Love them like they’re my own.

I feel like that’s a dangerous thing to say. I can see the judgmental thought bubbles that many people have in response. Some want to condescendingly tell me that I don’t really know what it’s like to love kids as my own, that you can’t possibly know unless you’re an actual mother. Others feel sorry for me, as they always do for someone who “pours herself into work because she doesn’t have much else or anyone at home.” Still others want to kindly warn me against getting too personally involved, that it’s best to maintain some emotional distance and boundaries and whatever.

Those people might all be right. Or maybe they’re all wrong. Probably somewhere in between. I don’t know, and I don’t care too much what they think anyway. Thirty-something Kristine doesn’t need other people’s approval as desperately as twenty-nothing Kristine did. And if she wants their advice, she’ll ask for it.

But here’s the understatement of the century: It’s hard loving other people’s kids. So, so hard.

I want my kids to have all the best that life has to offer. All the opportunities. I want every door open to them, and I want them to always know that they’re supported, loved, and safe. I give everything that I have to give, but it never feels like enough. How could it be? I might love them like my own, but they’re not mine. I’m just their English teacher. I play a tiny role in their lives, 47 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years at the most. No matter how much I wish I could do more, my influence is actually really small.

I think I mostly succeed at letting them know they’re loved, but everything else? Not feeling so successful. And even that, is sometimes questionable…. I recently asked a kid straight up if he knows that he’s loved. He gave it some thought, then answered my question with a question, “What is love?” That, of course, was quite a conversation…

I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. Most have had the cards stacked against them since day one. None of my students’ families came to the US because they had a fancy job in the tech industry waiting for them. They all came to escape from something. (Also, for the record, I’ve never met a family that showed up expecting a free ride, or for things to be easy. They all came ready to work, ready to contribute, and hopeful that life would be better for their children.)

I don’t have a magic wand that can undo trauma. I can’t give the kid whose single parent is working two jobs, an at-home parental presence to make sure they do their homework, eat regular meals, and go to bed at a decent hour. I can’t give them an educational system that’s funded, staffed, resourced, and designed to meet their needs. I can’t end racism. I can’t silence all the messages of “you don’t belong here,” “you’re not good enough,” and “your future is already decided.” I can’t promise that they, their family, loved ones, or home are safe. I can’t protect them from the very adult problems that their kid-brains aren’t prepared to deal with. And I definitely can’t make their choices for them.

But I wish I could.

Of course, it’s getting worse, not better. The kids know the country has turned its back on them.

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I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. But I also teach incredible kids. Incredible, funny, smart, creative, kind, strong, beautiful kids. They deserve so much better than what we’re giving them. They deserve so much better than what I’m able to give them.

It’s such a cliche for the childless Mormon woman to stay home from church on Mother’s Day. I usually don’t. Every other year, I grit my teeth and get through it. But this year, I can’t. I’m not strong enough right now. There are way too many pictures floating around my brain of my kids’ faces, kids who aren’t really mine, who I’m unable to do enough for. Not enough to make a difference. It’s not that I’m feeling guilty, exactly, for being unable to singlehandedly change lives. Just sad. Really, really sad…. And I have to save my game face for Monday.

I do love my little red flowers in the desert. Love them deeply. But if they give out Mother’s Day flowers at church? Please, nobody bring me one. Don’t need it, don’t want it. Not this year.

I’m Not Jennifer

My name is Kristine. See, it says so right up there ^ at the top of the page. Sounds like Christine, but spelled with a K, just like every other name in my family. We’re basically the Kardashians.

Variations on my name were huge in the 80s, so nobody can remember which one I am. I’m regularly called Kristina, Kristen, Kristy, Krissy, Kirsten, Krista, Kris… and every possible spelling variation of each name. But who came blame people? It’s not their fault all the 80s parents were reading the same baby name books. Besides, I’m just as bad with other people’s names. When I have a Marco or Marcos in my class, I have to just say one randomly, figuring nobody will hear the difference. Irene and Ilene have to be very patient with my efforts. And for reasons I don’t even understand, Brandon and Bryan are interchangeable when they come out of my mouth.

So, yes, I will answer to Kristina, Kristen, Kris-anything….. and, Jennifer. I also answer to Jennifer.

The Jennifer thing has been happening all my life. I run into someone that I’ve only met once or twice before, and they make that face people make when they’re trying to remember your name, then they finally come up with, “It’s Jennifer, right?” I haven’t found a non-awkward way to say, “Close… Kristine.”

Do I just have the face of a Jennifer? I guess living in a world with Aniston, Garner, Lawrence, and Lopez, that’s not the worst thing. Or do I have a twin running around somewhere named Jennifer?

Those were my questions for many years, but now I’m actually pretty sure that the doppelganger theory is the right one. Because I think I met her. On Amtrak.

I had just gotten on my train in Portland, and one of the workers asked, “Are you headed to Vancouver again?”

“What? No… Everett.”

He looked confused, and looked at me closer. “Oh, sorry, you look a little like another passenger that used to ride regularly.”

“Was her name Jennifer?” I asked mostly for my own amusement.

Now he did look surprised. “Yeah, well, Jenny… How did you know??”

“Seriously? There’s a Jennifer who rides this train and looks like me??”

“She used to! She was a makeup artist. Traveled back and forth to Vancouver for a while for some work thing.”

“Weird…. Wait! A makeup artist in a wheelchair? Going to Vancouver? I think I rode with her once!!”A couple years earlier, there was this lady who was very concerned about her giant makeup case, refusing to let it out of her sight, saying Amtrak had lost it before.

Guys, that had to be her! That was my Jennifer! She’s the person everyone apparently meets before they meet me, and then can’t keep us straight! The world finally makes sense.

I wonder if my makeup artist doppelganger ever gets called Kristine. Or if she’s connected the dots and realized that we’ve met before. I hope we meet again someday. Now that I know she’s a real person, I’m dying to compare notes and figure out which of us is the evil twin.

Words I Can’t Say

There are two ideas about schools that people love to repeat with a sad shake of their head, and neither one of them has much basis in reality…

  1. Schools don’t do the Pledge of Allegiance anymore.
  2. God has been taken out of schools.

These are pretend problems invented by people who want to distract us from the real problems. But let’s talk about them…

Oregon, like nearly every state in the country, has laws requiring that public schools give students the opportunity to recite the Pledge. We recite it weekly in accordance with law, and at school assemblies in accordance with tradition.

And do you really think that God left schools just because we obey the constitutional separation of church and state? You think God’s bitter because we’re rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s? It was his idea; I’m pretty sure he’s cool with it. No student or teacher is stopped from praying. We don’t sponsor prayer, but we both allow and accommodate for it. Kids wear and carry religious symbols, books, etc as they choose. Open and respectful interfaith conversations happen all the time. I have very good reason to believe God approves.

So here’s the thing. We also have the right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

I had never exercised that right before, although I’ve always been grateful to know I have it. I’ve read enough about the world’s dictatorships to know that forced loyalty is no loyalty at all. So I’ve always freely, willingly, and sincerely recited the Pledge to an imperfect country that I believed was riding that long moral arc towards justice.

The last time I said the Pledge of Allegiance was Monday, November 7, 2016. I have no idea when the next time will be.

After so many months of feeling the earth shake and my foundation cracking, desperately trying to stop a force much bigger than myself, the ground finally fell out from under me on November 8th. Since then, I’ve asked so many questions that I never before imagined asking. Way more questions than answers; little certainty about anything. But there was one thing I already knew for sure that very night–I can’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance right now. It would be dishonest.

I feel deep loyalty to the country that I was born into. I feel even more loyal to the US that I lived in, say, two years ago, than to the US I was born into; it got better with time. But I feel no such loyalty to the country I’m living in now.

I can’t call it an indivisible nation, when we voted for an agenda of division. I can’t claim liberty and justice for all, when we voted to severely limit “liberty,” “justice,” and “all.” I can’t lift my voice in ascribing values to a nation, when the nation rejected those values. I can’t pledge allegiance to a country I don’t even recognize. My word and my honor mean more to me than that.

It’s been five months, and I really miss saying those words. I miss believing them. I didn’t even know how much the Pledge meant to me until it was gone. I’m painfully wishing for a day when I can recite its words in good conscience again, about a country that’s at least trying to realize the ideals it proclaims. But until I’m living in a place that resembles the US I know and love, I’ll continue exercising my right not to pledge false allegiance.

I also believe that you can’t take something away, without somehow filling that space. I lost my faith in many things on November 8th. I have serious concerns about the systems and institutions and “democratic” processes that allowed this to happen. I have serious concerns about human nature. (Trust me, I hate it when I get existential more than you do.) I’m having a hard time trusting anyone or anything.

So I had to ask myself what I do have faith and trust in…. I still have faith in God. I still trust God.

I understand why people object to the “under God” line in the Pledge. It definitely implies some mixing of church and state. I also think God himself might object to the arguably vain usage of his name to separate ourselves from the Communists during the Cold War. But all of that aside… it might be the only phrase from the Pledge that I currently believe to be true. I still believe we are under God’s watchful eye and care.

So that was part of my November 8th decision. When others are reciting the Pledge, I take that moment to say a quick, silent prayer. I pray for the country. I pray that we can make it through the storm and someday be better for it. Mostly, I pray for the people suffering right now. I pray for those being threatened. Those whose lives are falling apart. And more than anything else, because they’re right there in the room with me, I pray for my kids and their families.

(I can personally guarantee that there will always be prayer in school, because I’ll never stop praying for my kids.)

So I show my love for country by refusing to pledge any allegiance to this dark shadow of America. And I resist by praying instead. We live in a day when believing in science is an act of rebellion. Maybe prayer can be a rebellious act too.

Is the bus accessible?

I hate flying. Like, I really hate flying. Words like “nerves” and “anxiety” don’t even come close to covering it. “Sheer terror” comes much closer. And my fear has nothing to do with thinking the plane might crash–that possibility doesn’t even bother me. So what if the plane crashes? I imagine it’s a pretty instant death on impact. (If I’m imagining that wrong, please don’t tell me.) No, my fear is about the fact that my chair will be broken every time I fly, and I’m just waiting to find out how bad it’s going to be this time. Hopefully it’ll just be minor, mostly cosmetic stuff. But is this going to be the time that the plane lands, and I’m left without an operating chair? No mobility, no way to leave the airport? There’s no emergency service to call in those situations. It can easily be weeks until anyone comes to even look at the broken chair. Weeks that I’ll spend wishing the plane had just gone down!

I haven’t flown since college, and that was ten years ago. When I moved to Portland, somebody asked, “Are you going to take the train up to Seattle for the holidays?” I was confused. People travel by train? In the 21st century? In the United States? I had no idea.

Turns out, people do travel by train! I travel by train! I love the train! I can stay in my chair, so nothing is getting broken–not the chair, and not me. I can even move safely and easily inside the train–dining car, bathroom, the train is my oyster! It’s a lovely route between Seattle and Portland, lots of pretty coastal views along the way. The station is loaded with charm and magic, straight out of Harry Potter. And it’s the most relaxing thing in the world to settle into my lil’ nook in car three and lose myself in a book, until the rhythm of the tracks usually lulls me into a nap.

Cue my extreme disappointment last week, the day before I was scheduled to take the train for spring break, when I got an email from Amtrak. Due to mudslides, the trains weren’t running, and “alternate transportation” would be provided. There was a phone number to call and discuss this alternate transportation. I immediately called it. I assumed they were putting people on busses, but would the bus be accessible? Would I be accounted and provided for?

The phone number was just Amtrak’s national number. After repeating “agent” to the phone tree–sorry, Julie, her name is Julie–a few times, and waiting on hold for nearly half an hour, I finally got to talk to a human. This human confirmed that “alternate transportation” meant bussing.

“Will the bus be wheelchair accessible?”

“Yes, it’ll pick you up at the same time as the train would.”

“Ok… but is it wheelchair accessible?”

“Just like the train, same time….. oh, wait, did you say wheelchair?”

“Yes. Is the bus wheelchair accessible?”

“Oh…. Let me check on that…”

<another ten minutes on hold>

“You purchased an accessible space on the train, so your needs will be accommodated for.”

“Great. What does that mean?”

“It means that they’ll accommodate for your needs.”

“Is the bus accessible? Is there a lift to get my chair and me onto the bus? Is there a designated space for my chair, where it’ll be secured to the ground??”

“Well, you might not be the only passenger in a wheelchair, you know.”

“Right…..” (???)

“Your needs will be accommodated for.”

“They’re not going to try something crazy, like thinking they can just carry my chair onto a bus, right?”

“Well I don’t know about that. I just sell tickets!”

“Can you transfer me to someone who can answer my question?”

“Um….”

“How about Portland? Can you transfer me to the Portland Station? So I can talk to the people who will actually be there tomorrow?”

“Yes! Portland! I can give you the station’s phone number.”

She sounded very relieved to be getting off the phone.

I called the Portland number….. and it rang, and rang, and rang. Nobody answered, no automated message or voicemail kicked in. It just rang…. I hung up and called back. And again. At some point, I got a busy signal! (Sidenote: when was the last time you heard a busy signal??) Then I became very persistent, figuring that when they hung up from that call, they’d be able to take mine next…. Nope. Eventually the busy signal turned back into endless ringing. I called throughout the afternoon and evening. Nobody ever picked up.

The next day, I showed up at the train station hoping for the best, because what else could I do? I was there several hours early, because Train Day has become a tradition with my friend Jill. We always hang out for a while before I leave, and it’s always an adventure, even when we just hang around the train station. (Everyone there knows our tradition. The coffee shop guy welcomes us back. The guy loading bags onto a cart asks if I’m heading to Everett. The train station is our Cheers bar.) With hours until the trip is scheduled to start, I figure they have plenty of time to figure out what they’re doing with me.

I asked the guy at the ticket counter about the busses and accessibility.

“Yep, the busses will be pulling up here, and taking everyone where they need to go.”

“And is there an accessible bus?”

“Oh… well…. let’s see here….”

He stumbled around and looked at his computer screen for a while.

Finally he asked, “Could you travel tomorrow? The trains will be back up and running tomorrow.”

“No….” (Seriously? I’m here with my luggage. I have a ticket to travel today. It’s your job to transport me today. Do you job, please.)

“Ok. Well come back at about 2, and we’ll figure something out.”

“K. Come back… here, at 2? To this counter?”

“Oh, you know, here.” He gestures to nowhere in particular.

As we walked over toward the baggage check, Craig the red cap crossed our path. Perfect! Craig always comes through for me.

We asked Craig about accessible busses, and he assured us, “Oh, we’ll figure something out. Worse comes to worst, we’ll get you your own special cab, just for you.” That didn’t sound so bad! Hearing that there’s a Plan B made me feel a little better, but… why didn’t there seem to be a Plan A? Why was everyone confused when I asked about accessible buses? Mudslides happen and train tracks get shut down semi-regularly around here. I couldn’t possibly be their first passenger with a wheelchair in this situation!

Craig offered to take my bag, and we gave it to him. I walked away without a claim ticket, or any evidence that I ever had a bag. But it’s Craig, and it’s Amtrak, and for some reason we just trust this system that they always seem to be making up as they go along. Craig told me to come back and meet him around 2. “Meet you where at 2?” He made the same nondescript gesture toward the station in general. Ok…

Jill and I left to have our Train Day adventure. We picked a direction and walked, letting the universe take us where it would. And it worked! When the wind picked up and we were done with the outdoors, we stepped into what looked like a bakery. They greeted us at the door with “Two of you?” and we nodded. Next thing we knew, we were being seated under this tree….

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We really didn’t intend to enter a restaurant, or an enchanted forest, but that’s where we ended up. So we went with it, and had an amazing brunch!

Back at the train station, Craig found us, and they finally decided that yes, they did have an accessible bus for me. I have no idea why that was such a big question mark, but whatever. They got me on the bus without drama, and we all headed to Seattle. Not nearly as charming and atmospheric as my train ride, but it got the job done.

Except my final destination wasn’t Seattle, it was Everett. So when the bus let everyone off in Seattle, my little circus started all over again!

“Where do I go now? How do I get to Everett?”

“There will be a bus.”

“Is it accessible?”

“Some of them are.”

“Is the bus to Everett accessible?”

“Tom will figure it out.”

“Where should I go now?”

“You can wait inside if you want. Or right here.”

I decided to stay right there, under their noses, where they couldn’t forget me.

A few minutes later, another guy came and sat down next to me.

“So I’m driving this bus over here to Everett. Do you have your own ramp that you bring with you?”

“No….” (He thinks I carry a ramp that will get me onto on of those giant buses with me?? Where did he think I was carrying this 30 foot ramp??)

“Do you stand up and walk onto the bus?”

“No…”

“Well what do you usually do then?”

“I usually take the train!!”

“Well I understand that. But I don’t think this bus has a ramp for you.”

“So how are they getting me to Everett?”

“I don’t know. I’ll talk to Tom. He’ll figure it out.”

He and Tom walked around pointing at things and looking at clipboards.

A guy in red took over the spot on the bench next to me. Apparently he was the red cap, although the lack of a cap on his head seemed off to me… This guy pointed to the bus that the other guy had been talking about, and said, “I think that’s where they’ll get you on, right there.”

“So this bus does have a ramp?”

“It looks like it. Probably.”

“The driver just said that it doesn’t.”

“Well I can’t imagine what else that door would be for.”

(Why are we guessing?? Why doesn’t anybody know?? There’s a bus ten feet away from us, and nobody knows if it has a ramp. Nobody opens the door to see what’s behind it. The existence of a ramp is treated as an unsolvable mystery.)

Up until this point, I’ve been mostly maintaining my teacher voice. The voice that says “I’m not upset or angry. I’m calmly stating the expectation, because that’s my job, and you will follow through, because that’s your job. There is no ‘or else;’ you’re just going to do it. I’ll wait. I can wait all day.” But I can finally hear hints of my teacher-in-May voice creeping in, the one that isn’t so patient and has HAD IT with all of the stupid.

“Why is this so complicated?? I know that I’m not the first passenger to come through here with a wheelchair!”

“Nope, you’re not.”

“Then why is everyone acting like today’s their first day on the job?? Why doesn’t anybody know what to do??”

“Oh, because we’re just like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off, running around here. Haha!”

“How am I getting to Everett?”

“I’ll go talk to Tom.”

Everyone seemed to have a lot of faith in Tom. But all I saw was a guy with a clipboard who liked pacing and pointing at things. I’m sure Tom is very good at his job, but his name was starting to irritate me.

The red cap came back and told me, “Tom’s going to call you a taxi. Or if he doesn’t, I will.”

He led me down to the other end of the curb, and we waited. I don’t know what we were waiting for, but at some random moment, the red cap said, “Ok, I’ll call.” I don’t know why he couldn’t call earlier, or how he knew that Tom hadn’t called. Whatever! He made the call. He wrote up a voucher so that the cabbie could collect his fare from Amtrak. The taxi took me to Everett.

(Sidenote: they definitely paid more to send me in a cab from Seattle to Everett, than I’d paid for my ticket from Portland to Seattle. Almost as much as my round trip ticket!)

The whole time they were scratching their heads in Seattle, I was mentally debating about how much I was willing to put up with before calling my dad. He was waiting for me in Everett. With traffic, he probably could have made it to pick me up in about an hour, maybe less. I was never in danger of being stranded at the bus station. But I didn’t feel a need to tell them that. It’s not my job to accommodate them and make their lives easier! I bought an accessible ticket from Portland to Everett. There was no reason for everyone to seem so surprised when I showed up expecting accessible transport from Portland to Everett.

I guess another one of my teacher faces is the one that says, “Looks like you need to solve that problem. I’m not doing it for you. Be a problem solver!” I wasn’t going to bend over backwards so that they could get out of providing me with the service I’d paid for. I wasn’t going to apologize for expecting the service I’d paid for.

I just want to point out two things:

1) It’s been 27 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, and I still can’t get a straight answer to a simple question like, “Is the bus accessible?” Even from really nice people, working in a well established system, disability is still a surprise that they don’t know what to do with.

2) For everyone that’s gung-ho about building walls, how about you leave Mexico alone, and do some wall building along the train tracks? Mudslides get in the way of train travel every single year. It seems like a predictable and preventable problem…

(You thought I was going to get through an entire blog post without a jab at our ugly, Trumpian society, didn’t you?)

Another glimpse into my teacher heart…

Some people may have seen this recent facebook status of mine…..

“If I talk about it, I might cry…”
“That’s ok. You won’t even be the first kid today crying in here!”
“Other kids come to your class to cry too??”

(I always think it’s cute when it dawns on a kid that they’re not the only one who spills their guts to Ms. Napper.:))

Yesterday was an intense day. Two different kids had been holding onto stuff for a very long time, and I finally broke through their walls. With the student quoted above, this wasn’t our first intense conversation. He’d told me all kinds of heartbreaking stories before, but always with a straight face. I can’t express how disturbing it is to listen to a child tell absolute horror stories, one after another, with nothing but stoicism. He’s told me multiple times, “I don’t cry,” to which I’ve always responded, “I get that, but you can if you need to.” So yesterday, he finally delved into the stuff that does make him cry….

Not me, though. I really don’t cry. At least not in the moment, not with the kid. In the moment, I’m very emotionally present, warm, caring, open, etc…. but I’m also strong, calm, and in control. I learned a long time ago how to avoid freaking out, even when listening to stories that fully merit freaking out.

Later. I cry these things out myself later. In fact, the more intense the emotion, the longer it takes me to process and be able to cry about it. When the second conversation ended yesterday, and I was left feeling drained and vaguely numb, I knew it would all leak out my eyes eventually, but I had a feeling it would take a while.

It almost happened on the bus today. I blinked it back and avoided a scene. But wow, not when or where I was expecting it!

The driver was a talker. He drives me somewhat regularly, and he always has a lot to say. One of his favorite themes is his daughter, now a young adult, who he raised as a single dad. He’s so proud of that girl, says she’s doing everything in her life right. It’s very sweet. Today he went deeper, and among other things, talked about his lifetime of dealing with drug addiction. Now I understand all the times he’s said, “I’ve done so many things wrong in my life… but I raised my daughter right. She’s my one great accomplishment.”

He told me that his daughter calls him out of the blue sometimes just to thank him for being her dad. He says that she called him recently, after watching another drug addicted man completely neglecting his child, and said “Thank you for protecting me from harm.” (The driver got choked up just telling the story…. Seriously, everyone cries around me!)

What a powerful line. “Thank you for protecting me from harm.” That was when I had to put the brakes on my own waterworks…. Because suddenly I was thinking of this kid and all the stories he told me yesterday. All the stories he hasn’t told me yet. All the times he needed someone to protect him from harm, and nobody did…. And my heart hurt. I wish I could go back in time, scoop up that little baby, and take him somewhere safe. I’m doing everything I can to help him avoid unnecessary harm in the future. But there’s so much beyond my control or his….

It’s not just this one kid. It’s so many of them. So many that I desperately want to protect from harm. So much trauma that I wish more than anything I could undo. It kills me that no matter how much I try to give and support and love, my actual realm of influence is pretty small. I know that I do make at least some difference, and that difference matters. But I also feel the weight of all the needs that are beyond me, or that I failed to meet, or even failed to notice…

And it kills me to see it getting worse, not better. I’ve said it a thousand times, but get used to it, because I’ll say it a million more. We live under a regime now that was elected on the promise of adding trauma to my kids’ lives. Our President insulted my kids and their families, and promised to make their lives hell. And a large enough minority of Americans said “yes please!” So now it’s happening. And as promised, it’s hell.

When I decided to pursue my teaching license in ESL, I remember very specifically thinking about all the families that come to the US, seeking a better life. I was watching so many of my friends traveling to third world countries and getting involved in all these make-the-world-better projects. And I was excited to finally figure out the role I could play! When families left these tough situations and came to start a life full of opportunities for themselves and their children in this country, I could be part of that process. I could help with the transition. I could be part of America’s welcome wagon. It felt so right….

I remember trying to express all of that in Spanish during my interview for my education program at BYU. I didn’t know they were going to test my claim on my application that I spoke “some” Spanish, so I wasn’t prepared at all! When the interview team turned to the Latino at the table, and he asked me in Spanish why I wanted to teach ESL, all I could do was speak off the cuff, from the heart, and something like my last paragraph is what came out… It was a linguistic struggle for me, and I’m actually glad I didn’t have time to prepare. I would have overthought it, and not done as well. Instead, I just jumped in, hoping for the best, and it worked out fine.

My Spanish abilities have grown a lot since then. And now instead of expressing idealistic dreams, I’m using those language skills to listen to trauma unlike anything I can remember hearing in English. (Nobody told me this was where all those verb conjugations and vocabulary lists would take me!)

But America’s welcome wagon is looking pretty shabby these days. I can’t make any promises to these hurting kids that they’re safe now, that the worst is behind them. I can’t protect them from harm.

I know that life isn’t meant to be easy. I know that our struggles are what make us strong. I would never want to protect my kids from struggle… But struggle is one thing, and harm is something else.

The limited power and limited time I have with any of my kids is tough. I love them like my own, but they’re not my own…. This is where I have to learn trust, which is not my strong point. I have to trust the kids to grow up and make good choices–preferably sooner, but I’ll settle for later. I have to trust the other adults who will come and go from their lives, to pick up where I leave off. And more than anything, I have to trust God to watch over them and take good care of them. It’s so hard. I know that God is there, and that He loves these kids even more than I do, is more aware of their needs than I am. I can say that confidently, because I feel him giving me just the right nudges and flashes of insight to support kids better than I would on my own. But he also lets harm happen! He lets terrible people make terrible, harmful choices. And maybe someday, in a future lifetime, I’ll understand why these things had to happen without God intervening, but right now it’s well beyond my comprehension.

No matter how many times the answer is “no,” I have to keep asking…. Please, America, and please, God, protect my kids from harm.

Something I Love About Her

One of my favorite humans on the earth is this girl right here….

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That’s my beautiful niece, Makenzie. It’s been a little over three years since she made me an aunt for the first time, which was reason enough to immediately love her times infinity.

Since then, I’ve found about a million things to love about her. I love her huge smile and infectious laugh. I love how gentle she is with animals. I love her endless amounts of energy. I love that she enjoys building things. I love her singing. I love her look of deep concentration. I love that her vocabulary seems to quadruple every time I talk to her. I love her imagination. I love that she counts things, and gets creative with the numbers after ten.

So let me tell you another thing I love about her. Through a story or two….

The last time they came for a visit, one of our favorite games was “Aunt K’stine, Come Scare Me!” The game basically consists of her inviting me to come “scare” her, and then screaming as I chase her around the house…

Eventually, Grandma got sucked into the game too. Kenzie started leaping into my mom’s arms and yelling, “Run, Grandma, run! Aunt K’stine is coming!” Then my mom would have to run around the house, carrying a shrieking three year old.

After about a million rounds of this, Kenzie wasn’t slowing down of course, but Grandma had to tell her, “I’m sorry, but I’m getting tired. I don’t think I can run anymore.” I wasn’t sure if Makenzie registered this. She didn’t seem too phased.

The next round, I chased her around the house a couple times, and again, she leaped into Grandma’s arms. This time calling, “Walk, Grandma, walk!!”

Yep, she was listening, and she heard Grandma say she couldn’t run. So we kept playing, with Grandma walking, Kenzie shrieking, and Aunt K’stine slow-motion chasing. 🙂

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I think they like each other….

This is my other favorite little human in the world…

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That’s Carson. He’s my cute-as-a-button nephew, and he’s just past the year and a half mark. He spends his days following his big sister around, and mimicking everything she does. They adore each other!

The other day, as I was Skyping with them, Makenzie started climbing up on the coffee table, and jumping from there to the couch. Big jump, but doable. (Mommy and Daddy were both right there, and they seemed fine with it.)

Predictably, after a couple jumps, Carson climbed up on the table, and was eying the couch, ready to make his own big leap…. There was no way that was going to end well. He’s a strong lil’ guy, but still just a lil’ guy!

As my brother started to say, “I don’t want you trying it, Car-guy…”, Makenzie was already on the ground, pushing the coffee table up against the couch. She fixed it so that Carson could jump without hurting himself. Then they both got to work jumping together.

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Do siblings get any sweeter?

I LOVE that Makenzie is such a natural at adapting to the needs of others. Grandma can’t run? That’s cool, we’ll walk. Carson can’t make the big jump? That’s cool, we’ll make the jump smaller. These aren’t reasons to stop playing, or leave someone out. We just adapt, and get back to the important business of having fun.

I hope that’s a character trait she never loses. Kids are so much more natural at making accommodations than most adults! Unless you live with a disability or spend lots of time around it, that talent seems to go away. People get set in their patterns of the way things are done, and it’s hard to imagine any other way.

I have to roll my eyes when people get all weepy about seeing kids with wheelchairs–the “poor little dears” are “too young to have to put up with that.” Whatever! Being a kid with a disability isn’t so bad, at least not most of the time. The other kids just think your chair is a cool toy, and they’re not wrong. It gets much harder in the adult world, but as a kid, playtime is just fun. When an obstacle comes up, you change your course and go around it. No big deal, that’s part of the game.

Keep it up, Makenzie! Keep listening to others’ needs, and problem-solving so they can be included. The world needs loving, kind, creative people like you.

Props To Immigrant Parents

I know it’s a time-honored tradition among teachers to complain about parents. Everyone knows “that parent,” the one that thinks their Little Darling can do no wrong and that attacks their teacher for holding LD accountable for any of his/her actions. I don’t feel like “that parent” was as common when I was a kid as they are today, but that could be a mix of naivete and nostalgia talking. Whatever.

Me, though, I’m lucky. My students have amazing parents, and I have buckets of respect and admiration for them. My Spanish never feels strong enough to fully express those sentiments, and it’s the same problem when I’m using an interpreter to speak to parents in other languages–something just seems to get lost. So I hope that my high regard comes across through the way I treat their kids.

I’m going to speak in many generalizations in this post. Please be aware of that, and know that I’m aware of it. I don’t believe in lumping groups of people together; everyone has their own unique story. However, in my ten years of teaching and working with immigrant families, there are things that have shown up way more times than I can count. I want to honor those stories, hopefully without stereotyping or cheapening them.

Parents sacrifice for their children. All good parents, to some extent or another, sacrifice for their children.Mine certainly did, and continue to! But I’ve never seen better examples of sacrifice than among my students’ parents.

There’s this nutty idea out there that people come to the United States to have a free ride and be taken care of. So ignorant!! When my students’ families moved here, most of their parents knew perfectly well they were trading one hard life for another. They left behind their homes, neighborhoods, all the places they could move about freely without worrying about language or culture. Back home, they could blend in, which is a luxury people in the majority culture never really appreciate.

Coming to the United States meant leaving behind family–it seems like every couple of months, I have another kid coming to school sad about the death of a grandparent they never got to meet. Many families don’t have the paperwork that would allow them to go back and visit. It blows my mind. I know an awful lot of people my age who wouldn’t dream of raising their kids in a different state than at least one set of grandparents; it’s hard to raise kids without your built-in village. Imagine picking up your baby and saying goodbye to your parents, knowing it’s likely forever. Never getting to take your kids to visit grandma and show them the house where daddy grew up, the street where mommy walked to school. No matter how dire the situation back home, it’s still home, and leaving is tough.

In the United States, these same parents will work around the clock, trying to keep rent and bills paid, food on the table. I know kids who literally go days without seeing their parent(s), because they’re always at work. Endless hours on the job, yet many will never climb any ladders into better positions or receive benefits beyond a basic income. Some will be cheated out of pay, and find themselves without options for legal recourse. They’ll spend the rest of their lives paying taxes into the system, and never collect a social security check. And they’ll do all this in the constant shadow of fear that ICE is going to show up at their door and take it all away.

Why choose to be poor in a country that doesn’t want you, where the language and culture always seem out of reach, where there’s not much future for you, when you could have stayed home and at least been a more familiar flavor of poor? For your kids. And for their kids. Whether those kids are being saved from drug traffickers, or abuse, or gangs, or violence, or extreme poverty…. I meet kids who haven’t been to school in years, because it wasn’t safe, or just wasn’t available. Getting your children into the United States means getting them the right to an education, regardless of social class or ability, and that’s reason enough to hope their future will be brighter. Safer. The generation after them will have even more reason to be optimistic. It’s never going to be an easy life in the United States for that first generation, but if it means giving your kids a chance, you do what you can.

When parent conferences happen, I don’t have to suffer many attacks from “that parent” defending Little Darling. The parents in my classes almost always start by asking ¿Como se comporta mijo/a? (How is my child behaving?) We’ll discuss academics in a minute, but first and foremost, they want to know if their child is being polite and respectful. Even when my report is glowing, there’s still a good chance that I’ll watch the parent turn to their child and lecture them about the opportunities they have and their responsibility to work hard, to be somebody, to go further in life than their parents ever could. I know the kids have heard this lecture a million times, but they don’t roll their eyes. They repeat the same phrases when their parents aren’t around; they’re listening.

Somehow these moments always take me back to high school English, reading The Great Gatsby and writing essays on the American Dream. But how much could Fitzgerald really teach us about the American Dream? Like most of us students in that AP classroom, he started out with all kinds of privilege. I remember that even as I wrote my essay, I felt like I was missing something. I could say all the right words to define the Dream, but I couldn’t quite grasp its significance or connect the bootstraps talk to my core identity as an American. It didn’t fully resonate for me yet.

It wasn’t until I was the teacher in my own classroom that I finally had a solid answer to the long-ago essay question–YES, of course the American Dream is alive! As long as we have immigrant parents willing to bet everything on America and the chance it offers their children, the American Dream lives. As long as the “tired…poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free” keep accepting our invitation, the American Dream lives.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many thank yous from parents. Not one has ever given me a Pinterest craft project or a Starbucks gift card. (I don’t care about the artsy crafty teacher gifts anyway… although I’m happy to accept gift cards if anybody’s feeling generous!;)) I do occasionally get some amazing tamales. (Tamales are better than Starbucks anyway…) But the thanks is soooooo sincere. Sincere, and even laced with a little insecurity about being able to offer their children enough support in school. They just want all the best for their kids, so they trust that the school is providing it, and they’re full of appreciation for anything and everything that I do…. This, of course, makes my guilt-reflex kick in hardcore, and I walk away feeling inspired to find ways to serve their kids better than what we’re already doing.

Without kids of my own, and most likely none on the way, I get to throw all my mothery energies into my students. For better or for worse, those instincts need some sort of outlet. 🙂 I feel lucky that these parents share their incredible kids with me, and I learn so much about parenting from them. I love listening to the kids talk with pride about their families, where they came from, and how hard their parents work for them. The toughest kids turn into total softies when they talk about wanting to make their moms proud.

I hate that my students’ parents have to take so much shame and scorn from society. The people at the top who are hogging all the wealth just point their finger, and suddenly all of our middle and working class problems are the fault of the mom who’s working two jobs and still can’t afford to replace the clothes her kids have outgrown. People like to say she “doesn’t care” about her kids, because she can’t make it to school events. And then they get really comfortable on their moral high ground, and say that she should have come to the United States “the right way.” Never mind that the United States doesn’t offer any legal pathways to people like her.

(Note 1: My European ancestors sailed across an ocean, committed mass genocide, then went back and rounded up some Africans to care for their stolen land. If that’s the right way, color me unimpressed.) (Note 2: Put in a situation where there’s no legal way to give your child a safe upbringing with hope for the future…. are you really going to tell me you would do anything different than these parents have done? You wouldn’t take the same risks for your own children?)

I teach beautiful, funny, smart, kind, hardworking, fantastic kids. And fantastic kids come from fantastic parents. Think how great America would be if we really tapped into this resource and all they have to offer.