Locked Down and Out

When you work in education, you know they’re coming — the fire drill, the tornado drill, the lock out, the lock down. Because I work in an autism center, I get warning about the noisy fire drill. (It’s coming at 9:15. Make sure your kids have noise canceling headphones on.)  Everything else is a gamble.

When we had a lock down drill last week, I was not at all prepared. It was snack time for the kids. Not all adults needed to be on deck. I went to the bathroom, the cushy one, private, with a hand rail, the one we take our boys to when they need something changed. Mid-stream there was a knock at the door.

“There’s someone in here,” I said, mildly peeved.

“We’re in a lock down,” the voice on the other side of the door said. Then the voice disappeared. Nothing to add. Talk about Doppler effect. Maybe it was there in the distance. The word “drill” would have eased some of my anxieties. I just didn’t hear it.

I wiped, pulled up my pants, and considered. It probably wasn’t the real thing. True, we have angry parents. True, there is a high school nearby. True, our middle school kids are…well… middle school kids. True, our awful American society is prone to guns and divisiveness. True, if this were the real thing and I walked out of the bathroom, I’d be a sitting duck.

But who wants to die alone. More importantly, who wants to live alone?

I left the bathroom and fled to the home room.

Amen. The door was still open.

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We’re All Orphans

The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Until the local literary hub, Lighthouse Writers, brought the author to Denver, I wouldn’t be able to tell you Adam from Johnson. Now I just want to slap myself in the head for not paying attention. The Orphan Master’s Son is a master work. It is a must read in this world of shifting truth. It is part thriller, part comedy, part Bildungsroman, part romance. It is about what we believe and what we want to believe and what we have to face. It’s about what we have tattoed on our veins. It’s about heartbreak and hope. The only character here who is not heroic is Kim Jong Il, the “Beloved Leader”. The main character Jun Do (John Doe) broke my heart on every page. He does not want to believe he is an orphan, but he is. He wants to believe Brando will live forever, but maybe he won’t. He wants to believe Sun Moon made it to America, but maybe she did not. I loved and bought this story hook, line, and North Korean sinker.



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Public Works

I’ve always wondered what it means…public works. Who is the public, and who are the works working for? The people or the politicians? Those who live under the umbrella or those who make the umbrella? I have to use my favorite Denver park as an example.

Who couldn’t like Cheesman, its rolling landscape, its meadows, its cottonwoods? Who hasn’t played a game of volleyball there, ridden a bike up and down its loop, finished a 5K, watched a parade or attended a concert there? The grand pavilion has one of the best views in the neighborhood. If you look to the west, you can still see the mountains. The pavilion has sheltered wedding guests and drunkards, the magical and the moribund, the protest rally and the waltzers and classes of lindy hoppers. I remember when The Denver Post and Bonfils put on summer musicals in the pavilion. This old six year old was impressed.

But did the public want the park? Did they vote for it, agree to pay taxes for it? No, not exactly.

The place used to be another type of public institution — Prospect Hill Cemetery. Opened in 1858, the graveyard was segregated by race and religion. It served its purpose. It gave the public a place for their dead. Until Denver developers decided the place was standing in the way of progress. The city kept stretching east and west. Colorado Senator Teller lobbied Congress to change Prospect Hill’s designation from cemetery to park, not because the poor public willed him to, but because Denver’s movers and shakers wanted him to. When the designation was changed, the city, in a very public friendly way, told the families of the dead that they had 90 days to move the bodies (at their expense, I think). Some races and religions quickly complied, but more than 5,000 bodies remained.

The city hired a less than scrupulous undertaker E.P. McGovern to take the last remains to Riverside at $1.90 per box. The city did not make a designation on the size of the box, did not supervise the undertaker well. E.P. got tired, started breaking up adult bodies to fit in children’s coffins. He could spread one body out over two to three boxes. What a way to make a living.

When the city “discovered” McGovern’s less than best practices, they canceled his contract and promised an investigation. No investigation came, and, though exposed grave sites remained, though some sites had yet to be discovered, the city did not award McGovern’s contract to anyone new. They moved forward with its plans for a new park. (That’s why, every now and then, when something needs repair, has to be dug up, the city still finds bones.)

Yes, Cheesman is a fine public place. With a tainted, less than moral history. Still I enjoy it. As do my neighbors. And the resident ghosts.

What to Leave Behind, What to Take Ahead

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The new year makes me me dizzy. It all looks like the same path. I can never tell if I’m making a step forward or a step back. The same lamp posts glow on either side. The same snow falls in both places. Have I changed, made progress or am I stuck in the same loop? Am I the little girl I’ve always been or am I just an old woman dragging a long dead child behind me? Should I progress, make resolutions? Or should I fall behind and admit failure’s long history?

In its annual plea for funding, Ruminate Magazine sent out a quote by Sister Marcina Wiederkehr — “Show us the face of surrender that we may know at the end of each day (each year) what to let go of and what to keep.”

I am going to listen, surrender, and just pick a path. These are the things I think I can get rid of — the myth of progress, the belief in control, and the privilege of self criticism. What I hope to keep is curiosity, kindness, and the right to ruminate.

Blessed New Year!

A Jury of Peers

The jury summons came during Thanksgiving week, and I was not at all grateful. It meant I’d have to take a day off, find a sub, create plans in the middle of a seasonal unit I have always struggled teaching. It’s all about gingerbread and “holiday” traditions and how the heck do you teach that to kids who can’t even say mom, let alone Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. The material is unengaging and hard to supplement. Now I knew I would have to try to help someone else through the morass, someone who might not understand or care or even show up.

I am supposed to report tomorrow. I had at first thought I wouldn’t need to. Denver lets you call on the business day before your summons date. The number I called on Friday listed juror numbers for civil matters. That pool didn’t include me. It was 3616 – 6595. (I’m 2529.) I celebrated for a whole day.

Too bad I didn’t realize there was a pool for criminal matters, too. I checked that pool this morning (Sunday) and…I’m in it. I have to report by 8 AM to the new Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse. I’m feeling this good about it —

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I’m feeling like I have too many teeth and don’t know which ones to speak with and which one’s to bite with. I know it’s the law. I am compelled to follow the law. But all of it seems so unfair. I may be called to sit judgment on someone who is not at all my peer.

I took a quick look at tomorrow’s docket — 212 pages. A majority of the cases seemed to be reviews or arraignments. About 30 belonged to the drug court. Most surnames were Hispanic. Most given names appeared to be male. There were four jury trials listed — maybe one sex assault, maybe one murder, and maybe two frauds. All of the accused were male. Two had Hispanic last names. One seemed to have an Eritean name. Yep, if this old white middle class lady sat on any of these juries, it would not be just. It would not be a jury of peers. I’m not the same sex, probably not the same age or class or ethnic background. Yep, if I were chosen, I’d probably hang everybody. Including myself. For supporting a troubled system. For being complicit.

I’m going tomorrow. Because I’ll be arrested if I don’t. Because it’s my civic duty. Because I have to show up, have to complain, have to call for change.

Neighbor

I’m excited. I’m #355 in the Denver Public Library’s hold queue for the DVD “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It surprises me that I have been and am willing to wait that long for a Fred Rogers documentary.

When his neighborhood was first broadcast nationally, it was 1968. At 11, I was well past his target audience. My TV time veered toward the worst — riots and war and bad politics. When I did dip into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, it was only with a huge dose of pre-teen mockery. Puppets? Really?! Queen Sara Saturday? Prince Tuesday? King Friday XIII? And this neighborhood?! It looked nothing like my suburban block. No music stores. No bakeries. No friendly tinkerer in his workshop fixing whatever needed to be fixed. No constant mailman or delivery man. (Mr. McFeely? Our mailman was Mr. Cold and Nameless). We had no beat cops, nothing that could be called an institution. Businesses? We had chain grocery stores and strip malls that kept getting further and further away. You needed a car to get anywhere. Buses and trolleys were exotic.

As an adult, I’m finally getting it. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was never the world as it was, but the world as it could be, a mixed use, human centered place.

I no longer live in the suburbs. I live in the heart of a city, Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s still not Mr. Rogers. Distances seem to be shorter. There are no music stores, but downtown and the symphony is about a mile away. If I’m feeling lazy, I can take a bus there. If I’m feeling rich, I might take a bus. I can walk to my grocery store, but not to the places where I buy my clothes. There are no tinker workshops. (Do we repair anything anymore? Don’t we just upgrade or throw away?) There are far too many apartment buildings with the occasional coffee shop or restaurant thrown in.

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Even Denver’s longest commercial boulevard has little to offer in the way of place or mixed use sustainable development. Okay, there is East High School, the block that houses a restaurant, independent bookstore, vinyl record store, and film center, as well as the city’s massive and beautiful recreation center.

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But most shops along Colfax are forgettable, national chains, gas stations, quick stops on the road to somewhere. Other stores have a short shelf life, all glitter and gold that fades quickly.

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One thing my Capitol Hill neighborhood and Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood have in common is a wealth and diversity of people that you can and will meet on the streets, people you must learn from, live with, and have empathy for. The postman, the Fed-Ex lady, the UPS kid, the punk rock concert goer who parks you into your garage, the woman in a head scarf waiting for a bus, her children, the drunk walking down the middle of your very busy street, the paramedic that comes to rescue him, the cat lady, the dog man who won’t pick up after his pet. They are the neighbors. Yes, the neighbors. And each and every one of them is mine.

 

What to do? Grow or Metastisize?

It’s fall, and, though it still feels like summer in Colorado, I started taking down the garden. The pumpkins came first. They are, as usual, my biggest failure. They take up a quarter of the backyard. They tendril around the sunflowers, the corn, even the raspberries, and reach their green hands toward the sun. Then something stops them — a mold, a heavy rain, a light hail, and those damnable squirrels who eat both the fruit and the flowers. (So many rocks I’ve thrown at brown shivery tails and mouths filled with yellow bloom. I need better aim.)

As I pulled at vines that still popped with wetness, I wondered why I keep trying. I remembered my father. He and my mother, both from Missouri, were flummoxed by Colorado in general and Denver in particular. They expected green and got brown, food and got dust. My father tried. He wanted each of his children to grow a garden along the slopes of our suburban backyard. I don’t know what assignments my older siblings got, but I got pumpkins. My father —  sometime between the spring planting and the fall harvest — got cancer. I don’t remember any patch flourishing after that…except for mine. My earth grew some pretty big pumpkins, some great globes of gold. Really great goblins of rot. My mother and sister opened one. The giant body was full of tumors., little babies feeding off the chaos and death of their parents.

I’m being melodramatic, but I do have to wonder why I plant anything. When do you call it good and growth? When do you call it bad and cancerous? When do you let the life go? How do you recognize death? When do you pull the roots from the ground?

 

Secret Agent Nan

This may be a draft letter to my union. It is a small rant that no one will probably hear.

There is a cold war going on in education, and, during every moment of my day, I feel like an enemy agent. The whole system is getting untenable, unworkable, and downright dangerous. (And I work for an “innovation” school where everything is supposed to be revolutionary and experiential and groovy.)

Here’s my gripe. Class sizes are too big. Too much is expected out of the classroom teacher. Backbone workers like me are treated as expendable. There is no job security and no reward for loyalty or hard work. (A teacher’s aide is a teacher’s aide for life.) Innovative ideas are treated like property — to be bought and sold and “replicated”. Forget the term “grow”. No one wants to grow kids here. They just want to expand and exploit.

Exploiting an adult like me is unconscionable, but exploiting kids is a sin that should be punishable by some sort of hell. I work in special education, and the way our district treats our kids deserves the deepest rings of hell. They are placed in centers willy-nilly. A medically fragile girl may be placed with a boy who likes to bite and pull hair. Early intervention has no meaning. Warehousing seems to be the wave of the future.

That’s unacceptable. Things have got to change. But this secret agent just wants a new job. Or a new country.

 

Bloom or Be Planted

I’m a bad employee, not a shirker, always on time, always doing the work required, but a bad employee nonetheless. Call me the seed that refuses to land, I don’t know how to be happy, how to bloom where I’m planted.

In 2004, I quit the most lucrative job I had ever had and spent some time exploring. My husband and I considered owning a B&B. We travelled to mountain locations, toured establishments held together by packing tape and twine, all with great views and great breakfasts. Too much work, I concluded, too much cooking, cleaning. And if we’re successful, think of all those people. It’s not work for someone who generally likes to be alone.

I also looked into teaching. I volunteered in a classroom taught by a man named Beam and worked with a kid named Tyrone. This is how I met Tyrone – squirming in his chair, testing personal space with his left leg, pushing boundaries with his right hand, revolving slowly from upright to upside down, at rest at last, neck and head dangling. Perhaps Mr. Beam noticed. He was reading the BFG to an audience of contortionists. Perhaps he knew which ones to ignore, which ones to correct. Tyrone would not break his neck, but Alicia would knock out a tooth if she threw her head to the floor like that again. When Tyrone and I read together, he would do anything but look at the words on the page. He liked to talk about farts, burps, and boogers. How could my meager store of phonics rules compete? I was never like Tyrone. I wrapped myself in reading. I was rapt and raptured. I could never, would never try to look at the world upside down.

I quit Mr. Beam’s class, confident that I was just another wrong resource thrown at a problem poorly understood and difficult to fix. “My sister,” I wrote in my journal, “will be the only teacher my dad could produce.”

Four years later, I found myself working in education. There are things I hate and love about it. Recess duty kills me. If I’m outside, I just want to play, but know I need to watch. The kids, anyway, are there to learn how to play with their peers, not me. Academic rotations can be heady. There’s nothing better than watching a brain think, question, connect. I’m allowed some freedom and get to teach some Fridays.

But the pay is simply lousy. I love that I’m not a teacher and hate that I’m not a teacher. I’m accountable, responsible, but not respectable. Every summer I wonder if I can make it through another fall-winter-spring.

That old attitude is coming back. Bad employee, I feel myself drifting again, a seed in the wind. What shall I do? How do I figure out the equation?

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Viral

Someone followed me today. They were called Lacy Fronts. I removed them quickly thinking they had something to do with lingerie and large breasts. Then I realized that lacy fronts is a wig style. I never took the time to notice motivation. Lacy Fronts never took the time to notice that my name was Wigington, never considered that the name might have more to do with wicca and forests and England than beauty and hair production.

Laurie Anderson is right. Language is a virus. It sticks its toes and and fingernails into everything we do. And we misunderstand at every junction , elbow, and ligament,

My heart is heavy with misunderstanding. Thursday and Friday were Colorado’s  Red for Ed days. Me, my mother’s daughter, could not seem to rally and participate. I am, after all, not a teacher, but a paraprofessional, paid only $16 per hour to do what she’s smart and good at, paid not to think of the children, but the organization and school. There are hierarchies everywhere, and I am at the bottom of most. All these rallies do nothing for me or the kids I serve. I only feel myself and them sinking lower, yet lower.

On Friday, my district’s Red for Ed day, I put on the reddest shirt I had — a Thing 2 Doctor Seuss ensemble. I went down to the capitol because I live in the capitol, because I want change.. But what change happened. There was a sea of red. But who saw?

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