Shape

I need to be corrected distantly, to know my door from the wall, and closely, to know my own hands, and the whiteness of the price tag paper from the ink of the $7.95, which is too much to pay for paint, lo though the shop is cool like a cave and slaves were chained in the basement, I taste dust past spoilage.

It’s $35, which I just pay, because a year ago I left my groceries on the conveyer belt’s west end and lied that I would call my bank Four years ago I thought about buying gallons of juice or not, bearing four pounds upstairs, and over time, juice pulled my hand out of my elbow, and I was off to physical therapy, extreme cold and sonogram waves and spiderman tape pulling my joint apart.

I miss Brooklyn like home but my inherited couch, idle roommate cracking a yawn, my darling cat, none are any longer within reach, and the reach doesn’t matter because if they were closer they can’t be grasped.

Corrections for distantly and price are toric: curves, multipled, to change views.

MATH

The Euler characteristic is the space a shape needs, no matter how it is pulled, tweaked, nudged, dyed, snipped, disappointed, enraged, rehydrated, disenfranchised, unsung, completed, gaslit, broken out, broken in or misinformed. No matter how it masturbates, overeats, loses consciousness, bleeds, forgets, or yells, “And another thing!”

Topology is what is no matter what you do to it: angry, intimacy-shy, self-preserving, free with shrugs and reluctant to promise, wary of texture, amenable to black dresses and yellow paint and ceramic surfaces and immersion in water and shoulder locks.

A donut and a coffee cup are identical, topologically. Not thinking about use, or ingredients, tints, questions, answers.

A one liquids into the other, geometrically.

ENGLISH

I am selecting “Safari” and typing “nyt” mouse I am, for a treat.

I am going to get more pencils, crouching next to you who put your head down, “are you tired or sad?” words we learned, slapping cards with names on a desk for attendance, “not here,” student volunteers, “good, good, good,” I say, “nice snake.” Bathroom passes, entire life bathroom passes, sign like a doctor at bottom, date, look up at time (mostly kids aren’t telling time in English via clock with hands), the micromoment I locate your name in my head, you are…. “Miss!” “Miss!” “Miss!”

I am what people who voted Republican have done.

I am never actually believed I’d turn 50 with student loans, in the file, “no, really, America wouldn’t.”

I am I don’t what I think I am I’m not.

In the hammock, unborn, hanging a curve to the earth, on rickety porch planks, expecting to fall, someday, baby.

I am what used to work.

I am must needs be schoolteacher, saving the souls of your childrens and knowing you can treat me any way. Any way. Free shrugs. Tears are lucky. Just let me forget things, evaluate that I gave a shit all the time.

A century of students in and out my room, one shows photos with a gun it looks like he can barely bear, and he is six foot five. Mothers in hospitals who will never get visits from their daughters who cry on the desks in my room.

And I live with rocks in my shoes: they should never have come, it is ill, it is wrong, live in garbage, live with poisons, live under guns, live without knowing to read, without roofs that keep rain out, find a job after they stop hiring you at the factories, factories for young women, fast, pretty, ten fingers. There is no better, live under a few rich masters who drive drugs through your home like waves of cattle with blades for feet and knife ears and poison spit.

MATH

Topology does not include when you pass through yourself. Or open holes. Or fill holes.

ENGLISH

I allow myself, sit next to the girl holding the crimped tube, and she holds my hand, I can have this thing. Finished with her sister’s hand, she has mine.

Her hands and nails are blunt. Both our faces are covered, I still wear a mask, every day, all day, I just do, nowhere else, but school with them.

She holds my left hand, and I am still. I nod at kids, get a book, get headphones for listening, and I sit real still. It feels so good to sit. Home, it takes an hour or two for my legs and feet to return.

Circles, dots, then double arched petals on the center of my hand, back. Half lowers under my nails, short and ragged, three dots toward the main flower.

The Muslim kids leave to pray during Ramadan. When Ramadan ends, they are to stay in class. Sometimes they take the corner and go to the floor.

The folded tube is flat. The substance makes black trails.

I never say anything. Hello how are you bienvenidos yo no say; caliente frio school tomorrow, snake, sneak, snack. They like to call out the wrong answers when we review, humor hard to reach without words, but snakes don’t have six legs, caterpillars eat chihuahuas.

She shows me a flat tube. Design complete or is it gone? Two weeks. That night the top, the black, flakes off and the stain is left.

Image: A Bejeweled Maiden with a Parakeet, ca. 1670-1700, India, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unbearably On The Nose But True Symbol Story

I raised these butterflies, if by “raised” you mean paid for them, and carried them processionally around the arc of desks in my classroom, so each student could see them.

See? Mariposa. Mariposa. (For the Spanish speakers.)

Then I had seven painted lady butterflies in a cylindrical mesh cage.

Honestly I was surprised they became butterflies, too. My expectations are at a low ebb.

It hit me like a ton of bricks that the butterflies wanted to fly.

Oh damnit, I thought. I have to let them. I have to free them.

My classroom windows open to the length of a Crayola marker, which we use to keep them propped. Almost all my books are paperback, I realized.

I unzipped the butterfly habitat and set it next to the open window. I was going to have an emotional experience. My last class of the day had been so excitable I gave up on reading Romeo & Juliet and handed out random books. They quieted and got to work. I didn’t need to get angry. They just weren’t in the right space to read that day, and I was tired. I recalibrated. Romeo & Juliet would go on.

I sat with the butterflies. The air was cool. It didn’t seem like California out there. It wasn’t.

I sat and looked at them. Through the mesh, their beauty could get lost.

Finally one walked to toward the window.

As nothing happened, the bravest butterfly sat there with the wind ruffling his wings.

And sat there and sat there.

I lay my head on my arms on the windowsill and watched.

It felt so good to do nothing.

I had begun afraid of losing them, feeling the classic signals of loss, wanting to grab, keep.

Six of them stayed put, and one of them thought about leaving. They’d been mailed, jostled, stared at, transformed, broken out, and settled quietly in a still home.

Finally the one jumped out there like a kamikaze pilot and went flip flopping on his way. There are no trees or buildings for a ways, so I could see him go, go, go. He started small, right by my nose, and then got tinier and tinier.

The next day, a student wanted to “let them go.” We watched and watched. A student blew on them. They stayed and stayed until just one more jumped.

There were four left. I took them home for the weekend.

When I got home, I put them on the porch, thinking it would be nice for them to get some fresh air and sun.

Then I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 9 the next morning. (This is how your public school teachers are. Sleeping 14 hours.)

With a start, I realized I had heard big wind in the night, and I ran out to see if my butterflies were frozen or blown away.

They were in their habitat. And still.

I took them into my bathroom. They warmed. They started stretching their antennae around.

This morning I unzipped them, set them next to the flowers I planted. These are flowers. Check them out. I left them there, unzipped.

Maybe they will go? I wouldn’t?

Veracruz

Maundy Thursday, I felt an urge to run. It was not my panic urge to run, which is chemical, biological. It reminded me of the people in the book I just read about exorcisms. The people who flinch when you set a crucifix on the nape of their neck. I just felt, not here, I don’t want to be here.

I don’t believe in demons, exorcisms, or any of it, but I don’t know if they believe in me.

The service is also my favorite. Foot washing, always delightfully awkward, especially among Episcopalians, and the biggest communion of the year, and the stripping of the altar.

Pandemic years, I stripped my mantle and washed it, the way they wash the altar. I once washed the feet of my cats. They weren’t happy about it.

This year I went into Maundy Thursday crushed. There’s no way out of this school year but through. There’s no way out of the pandemic. Just through.

I was just explaining “through” to my students, when we wrote, “Butterflies go through metamorphosis.”

I spent $40 on caterpillars who will turn into butterflies. I’m trying to spend less on shit for my kids, but then is $40 worth getting to show them the caterpillars every day? Especially the first time? When they realize what I’m saying about butterflies (mariposa) as they look into the plastic container that would usually hold marinara for breadsticks?

It’s a lovely look in their eyes. Oh!

The caterpillars arrived tiny, and they are now three times as big. They arrived living in a mound of caterpillar food that has quickly eroded with their eating and eating.

Last week, I sat with a student who was suicidal and cutting. And I led my students out of our classroom so the police and their dog could search our belongings. This week, a student at a nearby middle school was stabbed and killed by another kid. One of my students has a sister who goes there. “I was nervous at first,” he said. “But then I heard it was a boy.”

“So how are you doing?”

“Things happen everywhere, all the time,” he said.

Which describes how I felt. I think I’m on about a two-day delay as far as processing trauma. It wasn’t until I was at Maundy Thursday that I saw a stabbing in my mind, and I thought, oh, my God, his teachers. His teachers. His teachers.

Now, at my school, all the bathrooms are locked, except one set that is guarded all day.

I told myself I could leave if I wanted to, but I stayed at church. The crowd was smaller than I remember. Of course, I haven’t been to church for the holidays in years. Foot washers were also a smaller minority than usual. Another woman walked up to the front at the same time as I did, so we washed each other’s. She wet a towel to gently rub mine, so I did the same for her, figuring that was what she was comfortable with. She forgot to dry mine, so I just traded places with her, and knelt on the wooden floor of the cathedral, and made wet prints. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s been a long time.”

I bought this book, Enrique’s Journey, about a kid who travels from Honduras to the U.S. I wasn’t sure I could actually read it. I know, intellectually, that my students have suffered. They wouldn’t try to get here if they hadn’t suffered, if their families hadn’t suffered a great deal. But to read specifics?

Sonia Nazario does a wonderful job telling the story. I was engaged and intrigued and amazed.

This is the part that haunts me: “people in the Mexican state of Veracruz care for the migrants who come through: “the towns of Encinar, Fortin de las Flores, Cuichapa, and Presidio are particularly known for their kindness…. Here, in rural areas, 30 percent of children… eat so little that their growth is stunted.”

Still, these people “have watched and worried as their own children struggled to reach the United States. They know it is harder still for the Central Americans to make it.”

People of Velasquez Nazario describes:

Priest Ignacio Villanueva houses and protects migrants in the church. He argues with the police who have tried to come in and arrest them.

Leonardo Santiago Flores tosses oranges, watermelon, and pineapples to migrants on the trains.

Maria Luisa Mora Martin, who is over 100 years old, sends her daughter with torillas, beans, and salsa to give to migrants.

Raquel Flores Lamora gets up every night to toss food and clothing to migrants. Sometimes the clothing is from her children who have immigrated to California.

Gladys Gonzalez Hernandez takes crackers, water bottles, and pastries to give to migrants. She’s six. Her dad takes her because he wants her to “grow up right.”

Esparanza Roman Gonzalez, and her children Jesus and Magdalena bring bread, tortillas, and lemonade to the train.

Priest Salamon Lemus Lemus houses up to 600 migrants in the church where he works. Church members have organized to protest police treatment of migrants.

Luis Hernandez Osorio picks up donations, deals with the police, and recruits new donors.

Alfonso Pena Valencia guards the church and the migrants every night.

Maria del Carmen Ortega Garcia has had 17 migrants stay at her home.

Francisca Aguirre Juarez has hosted 80.

Baltasar Breniz Avila told the police that a migrant was his cousin from the country.

When police beat and incarcerated 15 migrants, including a pregnant woman, residents of El Campesino El Mirador took rocks and sticks to city hall. Eight police officers were fired.

Today at Good Friday services, the priest spoke about how Jesus had to blah blah blah and how we don’t pray like we blah blah blah and I thought it nonsense. The Jesus I imagine (spiritually and historically) wouldn’t say anything to people who are crushed. He would just stay.

I thought through every painful memory of the last year, and felt the crush of it. It’s less than some people’s, and more than other’s, maybe, I don’t know. I just know it’s heavy. And that to sit with it, together, is good, even if some of the talk sounds wrong to me. Kissing the cross is not wrong. Singing “Were you there” is right. The cello solo is so right I always choke.

Image: Hacha in the Shape of Bound Hands, 4th-7th century, Veracruz, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Random House, 2006. The portions I reference referring to Veracruz are pages 104-119.

Going Back

This week, one of my male students from Afghanistan was bent over during class. He was really quiet, and wasn’t doing anything.

I sat down next to him. “You are sad about leaving Afghanistan?”

These last few weeks, we have been learning words for emotions. I chose these for our core words: joy, depression, grief, trauma, counselor, meditate.

He nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry” is one of my most-used statements as an ESL teacher. That and “lo siento.”

I’m sorry I didn’t give you headphones. I’m sorry I forgot to write you a bathroom pass. I’m sorry I stepped on your foot. I’m sorry you are feeling sad.

“Do you have your family here?” I asked. Our core vocabulary includes “family,” numbers below ten, colors, please, thank you, bathroom. The gestures thumbs up, one finger for “wait,” and the word “good,” which I always try to make the word I use most. I give people thumbs up like a hundred times a day now.

A funny thing about lack of language is that my students respond in the affirmative to absolutely everything. Yet I still ask them questions like, “Do you pencil?” and they nod, just the way I did when I was in Paris, my sole experience of going without English for any period of time. A nod means, yes, I have a pencil, and also, yes, I do not have a pencil, could you get me one, miss. A nod means, yes, I need headphones, and also, yes, I can do my video lesson with my own headphones.

Teaching ESL is like falling onto the bedrock of communication itself. I began working with language constraint years ago, for artistic purposes, and for fun. Only using words without the letter “e,” or combining one text with another to try to make some (albeit odd) sense. When I am at school, and only then, my mind is in a place where I communicate with the most basic blocks of language, and my eyes (no nose or mouth yet), and my body language, and my tone of voice.

My student told me he has ten members of his family here, and twenty more back in Afghanistan, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles.

We know more now about how little we can fix.

I said I was sorry. I said I hoped things got better in Afghanistan.

He said, Taliban.

And I said, I know. It’s very sad. I know the odds of anything be better, any time soon, in Afghanistan, are in contrast to how long nothing has been okay in Afghanistan in my lifetime.

It’s sad, because the people of Afghanistan are good people, I said.

Yes, he said. They are good people, he said.

I mean, most people are good people, if you catch them on the right day, if they haven’t been starved or abused. I’d say that about any country, any place.

They are strong, I said.

Yes, he said. Strong.

I sat there for a minute.

Another hour, another young man sat on the edges of the classroom. I let the students choose where they sit, usually, and though most of the desks are in a big horseshoe, there are always a few by themselves on the side for people who need space.

I went and sat by this kid. His head was down. Then he sniffled, and I realized he was probably crying. I sat next to him. I touched his shoulder. (I don’t touch the students from Afghanistan at all because I don’t know how they’d feel about it, but my students from Central America all seem fine with it.).

I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry you’re sad.

I brought him chocolate.

I went back to the rest of the class.

I noticed later he had moved to the little hallway area that is part of my classroom, around a corner. I got him kleenex. I asked the sweetest boy in the class if he would go talk to the crying kid. He went.

Later I saw that the female student in that class who drives me the most insane (talking, roaring with laughter, distracting whoever’s near her) had gone out there, too. In a great show of growth for myself, I have described this students as “too much fun.” Along with being “too much fun,” she also has super great social skills.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked her, when she came back to her desk.

“His dad,” she said. (Again, using some of our core words, right?)

When I taught students who were black, their sorrows seemed to choke them, choke us, poison us. I was part of that poison, being white, and that maybe made things harder. I think it did.

The sorrows of my ESL students are also great. They seem to move in a gentler way, though.

When they get skilled in English, they become teenagers with me. The work is boring, nothing is good enough, whatever, miss. It’s bittersweet. A kid who just went teenager on me revealed he liked Captain America, and I got my revenge on him by assigning him English lessons based on Captain America video clips.

“Really, miss?” he said. His “Really, miss?” and the occasional snarks that contain English that reeks of authentic, organic, breathing midwestern American English delight me. When he started with me, he would say, “Me no English,” and “Gracias, no,” when I handed him something to do. He was easily discouraged. Now he has more English vocabulary and intuitive understanding than anyone in his class. He’s different.

He’s also my only student to always call me by my name. I hassled him about it a long time ago. Students always call teachers “miss,” which is fine. But it’s kinda nice to be called by my name.

The kid looked at his Captain America lesson, then called me over. The district web browser wouldn’t let him do it, probably because the movie is rated R. “Oh, its’ fine,” I said. “I will find another one for you.”

I found one. “Miss Schurman!”

“You’ll love it!” I said.

At the end of the day, I was going to make all the copies for next week. I had already tried once to make copies, during my lunch, but the printer had malfunctioned. Twice. At the end of the day, my computer refused to load any google docs, and when I restarted it, it went to the PC equivalent of the beach ball of death.

Obscenities flew out of my mouth and I actually smacked the computer, and was a hair’s breadth away from destroying it.

It is a laptop that will only function when plugged in, so it sort of deserves to be killed.

I mean I felt violent.

I’m just going to go, I’m just going to walk away. It’s enough. It’s enough. I need to make these fucking copies is that too much to fucking ask that something work to get something done

But on the other hand I didn’t want next week to be pre-muddled by not having copies, by placing a bet that I would be together enough, and the computer and printers would be together enough, to print things on Monday.

I went to rip down all the visuals from our unit that was over, the words anxious, frustrated, grief, meditate, counselor, angry, joy, restless, jealous, lonely.

I went on with some other work, and eventually my computer returned to sanity, and I found another printer to use, and everything for the week got printed.

I think.

I still can’t believe Will Smith hit someone at the Oscars. As someone who gets up in front of people and tells them things they may not want to hear, I felt an immediate fear for Chris Rock.

I like Will Smith, everyone did. I love his wife’s show, and have loved seeing him, and other men, talk in a vulnerable way about difficult issues. If this guy could lose it in a way that disappointed most of the planet, a guy who had already gone to therapy and done ayahuasca and learned from his daughter… a man who has accomplished so much through the mess or racism and the challenges of growing up with violence….

Anyone could. Anyone does. Everyone does. And I’m sorrowful. Sorry.

Lo siento, computer. Lo siento.

We’re not going back.

Image: “The Burning of Sodom” by Camille Corot (1843 and 1857) seemed the wrong image for walking away from painful places, whether they be pandemics, wars, or other trauma. Those painful places weren’t Sodom, with all that cultural baggage. But I do like the image of walking away, pained. (Image is public domain.)

I also wanted to add that the para who works with me, and our school’s counseling staff, and other teachers are very skilled and helpful in supporting our students, and each other, emotionally. That just didn’t fit into the way I framed these particular stories for this particular piece.