Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Cousins of Prison

When I was little
I saw the world in black and white.
There were good guys and bad guys.
Good guys did the right thing and
the bad guys went to jail
where they belonged.

It was a simple way
to keep the world sorted.

Today in class,
I read a story called Your Move
about a ten-year-old kid
influenced by gang members.

We were discussing the characters
and there was an avalanche of stories
about family members in jail...
cousins, brothers, fathers
with a corresponding tale
of wrong place, wrong time.
Bad choices.
Bad influences.

I thought of my ten-year-old-self
carefully categorizing the world
with my confident vocabulary
of universal justice.

What words would I have used
had it been my cousin locked-up?
What neat definitions would I have used
to figure out right?

Because the kids I know
also know
that prisoner is just one label
a person gets along with
son and dad and uncle
and the so many other roles
any person takes in this life.

I can't help but wish
the kids I know had a childhood
to keep the mess and complications
of the world
at bay a little bit longer

As my room of girls
hurtles towards adolescence
I know they will all make bad choices
as any person does.
I only hope that the consequences
are not so dire
that a sixteen-year-old-self
can't recover.

We're born where we're born--
some of us learning
the nuances of this life over years.

Some of us visiting
our cousin in prison.

Monday, June 26, 2006

For Malaika

in celebration of over one month of life

Here is a picture
just in case
the journey is too long.

Tomorrow the quilt will
travel to Minneapolis
to be received before
a road trip to Milwaukee
then boarding a flight across the ocean
to a wedding in France
and finally hopping over to Stockholm
where this quilt will
find Malaika.

May it carry love and blessings--


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Standing Room Only

When I first met my husband Todd
he practiced all the time.

When friends learned that he
was a musician they'd ask,
Oh, where does he play?
Well, he doesn't actually play...
I'd explain.
He just practices a lot.

It's hard out there in the world
for a jazz guy
playing bass clarinet.

He put together a nonet of instruments
and began to cobble together gigs
getting his compositions off the page
into the horns and out to an audience.

It was the finding an audience...
sending emails
posting fliers
the practice time cut down
to hit the pavement
looking for new venues
getting people to come out
away from the cable tv
in support of local music.

There's been many a performance
spotted with supportive friends
We love your stuff people continued to say
but not enough tickets sold to pay the band.
More often than not, Todd Marcus
lost money from a performance of
The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra.

Yesterday, all day,
I worried about turn-out
for the release of the CD.
I kept imagining an audience of five people
all friends, nodding along with the music
representing the faithful.

But I stood at the CD sales table
and watched face after face after face
of unknown person stroll inside.
Filling up the room
standing by the doorway
while staff scurried for more chairs.
People were turned away
when the room hit maximum capacity.

Then they bought CD's too.

After the years of hard work
this blessing
screamed out
like the first solo of the night--

from the bass clarinet.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Test, Redux

Today was the day
the state posted the results.

I nervously clicked to the website
of disaggregated data
by gender
(I teach only the girls
of our fifth and sixth grade)
my performance
is measured by them alone.

Despite all my rantings and ravings
about high stakes testing
no child left behind--
when the scores come in
I go looking for validation.

I pull up the graphs
the percentages translating
to scores on my own personal report card.

This is how we determine success
for students, as teachers and schools
whole systems...
the newspaper tells everyone
how they fall out.

Here is the conundrum:
how do we hold kids and schools to excellence
while still giving them room to grow
and work at their own pace?

I sat at yoga tonight
unable to find neutral
so much more difficult than a pose
yet after months it still remains elusive.
I thought about learning anything new--
reading or algebra
reaching hopefully for the moment when
the curtains of the universe open
and Ah Ha!
it all makes sense.

It's hard work and time and repetition
and, I think,
a dash of mystery
a hint of magic
to catapult you into understanding.

The test says I left two kids behind
but in my heart I know
they are all at different places
on a journey
figuring out the world.

My success should not be measured
by scores but
do I keep them walking,
looking wide-eyed
at the world,
and do they,
from time to time,
look up and sigh, Ah Ha!
I get it.

That's all I need.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Kitchen Elves

This week my parents came to help on our house
and made big strides
while I was at school all day
they were assembling cabinetry.
I would return in the afternoon
to see the magic of their work
to turn what was once a leaky room
into a kitchen

Their amazing progress...

With such big headway at the house
and the temperatures rising
I took the weekend off
to swim at the quarry
north of the city

And today I worked on some of my own
kitchen magic
by trying my hand at a fruit tart
while dreaming of the counter space
at my kitchen in progress.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Kindness of Children

Nisha came to school today
with new glasses.

She brought her old ones back
to give to Brita.

Someone stepped on her pair
when she left them on the floor
months ago.

She's been squinting ever since.

Today she saw the world more clearly.

And no one laughed or snickered
we all said, "good for you!"

What a privledge
to witness a heart so big and gracious
assessing twelve-year-old resources
to give this bold gift

We can all change the world
in our own way
if we would consider it

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Spackle Guy Madness

I've continued to work on painting
the house, especially this week
when I've been on hiatus from school.
Since this is a rehab
the walls are in various degrees of perfection.
There's new dry wall with no marks
there's old plaster with dents and grooves
and there's walls with big old pock marks.
When you paint, all these rough spots
are easier to see.

Me, I'm not a big detail person.
I don't pay that close attention to the walls.
There's walls in our current apartment
where you can see the patch tape through the paint.
Doesn't bother me.
Don't hardly notice it.

My husband, he notices.
He's the detail person.
So he also notices all these craters
in our new home and can't bare to
think of looking at them years from now.

So even now, after all the walls are painted--
he's spackling.
He's filling every small hole with white goop
and once he sees one legitimate ditch
ten others appear.

Last weekend this sent me into the worst mood ever
because each spot needs to be sanded down and repainted.
It feels like ten steps backwards when the
living room was done and now has
huge swaths of white plaster
that have moved in
waiting to be massaged away
so the wall can be painted.

"Why are you in such a bad mood?" Mad Spackle Guy asks
"Because this is the THIRD time I'm painting this wall.
And it might need a FOURTH time!
Put down the spackle knife. Please!"

This Saturday I took the morning off to have
breakfast with a friend
and returned to the house
to see spackle madness again.
Walls I had repainted over the week
were dotted with white patches.

"I can't leave you alone for a morning
and you start spackling!
You have lost your mind!"

And we laughed--
because Mad Spackle Guy
doesn't even like to spackle
but he does like things done well.

To make up for all the spackle
Mad Spackle Guy
taught me how
to install interior doors.
I was smitten.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Darkest Baltimore

I took the day off from painting
to go to the eye doctor
and then spent a few hours
running errands
with my eyes watering from
the pupil dialation

I ended up at Barnes and Noble
picking out some books for me
and my class
while drinking coffee
in the middle of the day

An older guy from the next table
came over to chat
"Exscuse me, do you work at the Hopkins library?"
"Do you live in Roland Park?" (VERY nice neighborhood)
" look so familiar. What do you do?"
I'm a teacher.

At this point he begins asking me questions
about No Child Left Behind and
George Bush (who he doesn't like) he assures me
and standards and public education

I answer as best I can, trying to be properly
fair and balanced
talking about the importance of having a high bar
while also explaining that many standardized tests
are mostly a test of class
and the more you were read to or talked to
before school even starts
the better advantage you have
not counting the stress of poverty
and violence some kids face

He's amazed I work at a city school
and asks me to explain where it is
none of the cross streets ring a bell
so I pick out a notable neighborhood, Bolton Hill
and explain it's just a little west of there

"Yes. Things start to get really bad past Bolton Hill
I mean it's pretty unsafe there. I wouldn't walk there
even in the daytime. That's deepest, darkest Baltimore."

If you don't know Baltimore, you don't know that
Bolton Hill is primarily a white neighborhood
with this imaginary line down Eutaw Street
so that when you cross over, the neighborhood
is mostly black.

Because he's older and I'm automatically respectful
plus I'm not quick in the moment
and I believe he has good intentions
I let the subtle racism slip by

But what I would like to say
is that it's not so scary over there
across the invisible line.
Kids ride their bikes around the block
and laughter drifts down from the playground
people sit out on their stoops and chat
walk up the block for a snow ball
and grill food for dinner

What makes a neighborhood
good or bad?
Is it geography
race, class?

Or is it something else
we can't put a finger on
or find a word for
but we carry along
in the deepest, darkest corners
of our heart.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bad Baby

Earlier this week
between rounds of painting
I went to see the
Best Friends recognition ceremony

It's a group for girls at our school
that is anti-drugs, alcohol, sex
and they talk about making positive choices
with relationships and their bodies

And they learn a dance
which they perform
creating costumes with
black tights and gold sequins
and with lights on a real stage
so there is a hint of magic
when they pull out the stops
to perform

So I dragged fellow teacher and friend
Ms. Kathleen along
We walked in as the girls were lining up
and they ran over to give us hugs

So did B.B.

Now B.B. is younger sister
to the twins in my class
I know a lot of cute kids
but this is one cute kid.

She's also a handful.

From well as I could tell
the twins were 'watching' her throughout
the day through their dress rehersals
and now six hours later
everyone was done with her

Go see Ms. Emily and Ms. Kathleen!
the adults said
and so we grabbed the hand of B.B.
and fellow first grader Mya, heading to the auditorium
After negotiating where to sit
I realized I had been caught completely unawares
and was unprepared for babysitting when the
I'm hungry
I'm thirsty
I had no snacks stashed away
No crayons or coloring pages

Babysitting is like teaching
and being prepared is half the battle
It's mostly about prevention.

To change the subject
I asked B.B. about her nickname
What did it stand for?
Bad Baby she whined
"Oh, I guess we'll stop calling you that"
No. I like it.

And so we sat through dances
and endless essays
of all the reasons to not smoke
while shushing and taking
trips to the bathroom

but watching my girls
all lit up
and twirling across the stage
with B.B. dancing every move
at her seat

the always wanting to be older
the always wanting
to participate in
the magic