In my closet is a small jumble of old purses that are now much too tiny to carry my requisite daily load of wallet, keys, sunglasses, broken crayons, toys, diapers, wipes, snacks, and changes of clothing for four children. Basically, they are purses that I haven't used even once since I had kids. In this way they serve as an interesting time capsule because-- and this will come as a huge duh to anyone who knows me-- I did not empty them out before they were relegated to the closet. Today I dislodged one of these tiny purses from its resting place and a piece of paper slipped out. A poem was written on it. I read words--my own words-- that I had not read in almost four years, and went whooshing back in time.
Four years ago I was just beginning a new job in Sunnyside. I was teaching English to elementary school students, and although I loved the work it was a very challenging experience. I was assigned to a portable, isolated from the rest of the faculty, and did not share a planning period with any of the grade-level groups. I ate lunch alone a lot. The culture shock was pretty significant, too, as I had just moved from Seattle, where I had been living and working in very diverse but safe neighborhoods. Sunnyside really only had two ethnic groups to speak of: the white middle class minority, and the impoverished Latino majority. Gang violence was always looming, either as a threat (lockdowns, being unable to wear my favorite red headband) or as an actual presence (teachers gossiping about the dead body found in someone's yard, students missing school for funerals). In some ways I had never been as frightened as I was when I started that job. Not that I feared for my safety; I was terrified of letting my students down when they already had the deck so heavily stacked against them. But it was a wonderful time in my life, too. I had just become pregnant with Geneva, I was making new friends, and Avery and I were living cozily in the back room of his aunt and uncle's beautiful empty farmhouse on the Yakama Reservation. I was happy, but I was exhausted. I worked long hours, and when I did come home at seven or eight at night I brought all of my work anxiety with me. I needed some sort of outlet, so one day before I left my classroom I sat down, grabbed a sheet of notebook paper, and just started writing.
That sheet of paper is what slipped out of my old purse today. I decided to share it, not because I think it's a great work of poetry (it's really not) or because it shows what an amazing teacher I was (I really wasn't). It is just a very specific and very true snapshot of where I was four years ago, after my whole life had just changed and before it changed again.
One young boy's tongue sticks and stops.
His face burns red as he shakes the English words
out of his head.
numbers tumble from his fingertips
I see him clearly for the first time,
Geometry our Lingua Franca.
Glowering girl straddles her chair,
scrawls hearts upon my wall,
mouths pendejo in the air,
carves bitch into the bathroom stall.
She's learning her lesson well
that no one ever cares for grades the way they do
for love and hate.
A curious boy with a pen-and-ink voice
takes my joys and troubles home,
like stray dogs.
Dear Mrs. Zoglman,
How old are you?
What makes you happy?
When is your baby due?
I know the kids in class make you mad,
but Mrs. Z, don't feel bad.
Sometimes I get angry, too.
It hurts to remember
an empty-chair day,
though she never spent much time in her chair anyway.
Her brother was shot
Too-big child, a head above the rest,
moves underwater slowly,
forming perfect empty letters.
Not language; art.
Her voice caresses every foreign syllable.
Not speaking; part of a song
she's been singing for two years
without knowing the words.
I can smell the buses leaving from my classroom.
I sit at the smallest desk
so still that the lights
automatically shut off.