Thursday, December 07, 2017

Prison Visits


The paperwork that I got from the prison where Jorge is incarcerated mentions that visits are essential for inmates' morale and rehabilitation. One would think, then that they might make visits feel a little more... possible.

I've been trying to set up a visit for myself, my friend who graciously drove me last time and will do so this time (3.5 hours one way!! She's a saint), and Jorge's grandmother, who hasn't been able to visit him since he moved to the prison farther away. She was his guardian for most of his childhood and it's breaking her heart that she can't see him.

Trying to get all three of us to visit, I called the prison's visiting appointment hotline. It is only available for three hours a week (Tuesday mornings, 7-10 am) and you can only make appointments two weeks in advance. If you don't make an appointment, you can show up for "open visiting" but it seems to be first-come first-served (I can't get a straight answer on how it works) and as it's 3.5 hours away, that's not idea.

It took me a while to get everybody's drivers' license information, and I had it ready and called shortly after the window opened on Tuesday. Busy signal. I tried again. Busy signal. I had to call SEVENTY-FOUR TIMES before I could get through and make the appointment.



This leads me to a number of frustrations:

The three-hour-a-week time period to call doesn't work for anyone who works Tuesday mornings and isn't allowed to make a phone call.

If you are allowed to make a phone call from work Tuesday mornings, it's highly unlikely that you'd be allowed to stay on the phone for over an hour hitting redial.

If visits are important for rehabilitation and morale, shouldn't they be, well... important?

I'm furious, but we got the appointments. Now I just have to call Saturday morning to make sure the prison isn't on lockdown. If anything happens, we will have made the whole drive for nothing.




Monday, December 04, 2017

Abuela

My student who is in prison, Jorge, has a very dedicated grandmother. We’ll call her Abuela. Abuela took over raising him when his mother couldn’t, and like all of us, she’s made her mistakes and had her struggles, but there is no doubt that she loves Jorge and her other grandkids and will do anything for them.

Abuela came to the United States as a young woman; I believe about 18 or 19, with a toddler. I may be a little off on the ages, but I know that Jorge’s mom would be 38 if she were still alive and Abuela is only 54, so she was a young mother.

I don’t know much about her history before she came to the United States, but I know school was not a part of it. Abuela was not taught to read or write in any langugae. She cannot speak English, although she can understand some, and she cannot read and write in Spanish. She is an intelligent woman who never had the chance to study.

When I had Jorge in my class, he forged his grandmother’s signature on permission slips because she couldn’t write her name. I knew this, and I just didn’t know what to do. I’d call her to make sure she knew about the trip and would get verbal permission in my not-great Spanish.

I’m now trying to help Abuela go see Jorge in prison. The prison he got moved to has a very difficult appointment system, that is hard for me to understand, and Im’ a native English speaker with a college degree and a teaching credential.

In trying to make appointments for us, I had to get her state ID card number, which she has memorized and was able to get to me. I had asked her the day before and she had time to prepare. But when I asked her how to spell her first name (there are two possible spellings), she paused. She told me to wait a minute, and went and got her granddaughter. Her granddaughter had to spell her grandmother’s own name, because Abuela didn’t know how.

I say this not to shame her, but for the exact opposite reason. The fact that this woman has been able to survive and raise children in a country that does not welcome her, where she doesn’t speak the language, and without ever having been taught to read or write: THAT is bravery. She is a hero.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Talking to Teachers

I had the distinct pleasure last weekend of speaking to the Yuba City area chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional society for women educators. I was a little intimidated because in this group of mostly retired educators, there were literally hundreds of years of experience altogether. And here I was, only having spent eight years in the classroom, talking to them! I felt like I should have been the one seated and listening.

The experience, however, was amazing. I was so honored by the compliments on my book, because I knew that these people understood. These were not empty words of flattery from people who say, "Oh, I could never do that!" These were people who had been in the trenches themselves, who knew the exhaustion of teaching, the feeling of finally maybe not being tired on your LAST day of vacation before you go back. They understood what it's like to not be able to sleep because you're so worried about a child who's not related to you, or to dream about your students every night.

I've spoken in Yuba City twice now, once at a church and once at the Delta Kappa Gamma meeting. I knew someone who invited me to speak at the church, and I liked her, but I wasn't sure how it was going to go - if they'd be shocked at the conditions in Oakland or if they just wouldn't be able to relate. (If you don't know, Oakland is extremely urban and Yuba City is extremely NOT urban. It's in between Sacramento and Chico, surrounded by a whole lot of beauty but not many people or cities).

What I learned is that we've all taught kids in poverty, and kids dealing with urban poverty and those dealing with rural poverty have more in common than different. We've all had students who don't have enough to eat, who have been abused, who have been neglected, who don't know people love them, who think they're stupid, or who think they're bad. In this community that is so different from Oakland, the teachers are the same. We all got up every day trying to make a difference. It was such an honor to be able to talk to others who have done this.




Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Grieving Behind Bars"

A friend sent me this article called The Singular Sorrow of Grieving Behind Bars. This friend has been with me to visit my former student "Jorge" who is in prison and knows how much he can relate to this. Jorge's mother, never a stable person, died two years ago at the age of 36. He is in prison for 19 years and could not attend her funeral and could not attend the mass said for her on the one-year anniversary of her death. (I was honored to be invited to that and took pictures to send to him of the altar with flowers and her photos).

It made me think about how hard grieving is. I mean, when a person has support, community, and ceremonies for closure, grief is still really really hard. The hardest thing for humans. Now I try to imagine doing that while locked up, with no family or friends, and no freedom. No closure, no ceremonies, no ability to see the person one more time or be surrounded by others grieving.

I don't know if I could do that. I mean, I don't know if I'd *ever* get past that loss. I think it would calcify and fester and I'd be a meaner, more bitter, more dangerous person than anything that got me locked up.

What do you all think?

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Teacher in Training


My seven-year-old niece is practicing being a teacher. Many of us did this to some extent. I'm pretty sure I forced my sister and brother to sit still while I read spelling words to them that they didn't care about.

Later, when I really was a teacher, I would see fifth-grade students come into my third-grade classroom and help kids in that same way, the "I really feel special acting like a teacher," way.

It's really fun to see kids do that. It's very special to see that the relationship is so important that they imitate it and aspire to it.

My niece, S, is very committed to her teacher role, not even slowed down by the fact that she doesn't have any siblings. She has been a teacher for her stuffed monkey, my parents' dog, and lately, a collection of stuffed squashes she was given.

It's really fun to see how excited she gets about playing school. She writes out schedules that are better than any school I've ever seen: "Hello, Drawing, Snack, Recess, French, Art." She writes poems for her students that are more creative than any I ever wrote for mine. 
She writes encouraging notes to the parents of her student (my parents' Golden Retriever): 
"Your dahter is a bad student. 
A. She is stinkey.
B. She dosen't do any work.
P.S. She needs a bath.
P.S. I'll help."
And she's very patient with her youngest students, baby stuffed squashes. She even told her mom that they can't really read, you know, because they're just babies!

I wish I could be excited about S wanting to be a teacher. Clearly, she has years to change her mind, but I would love to foster this love and get her really excited about being a teacher. How do I tell her one day that being a teacher is amazing and rewarding, but she'd better marry well because she won't be able to afford to live? How do I tell her that she'll have so many ideas for how to inspire her students, only to have to spend weeks giving them standardized tests?

For now, I'll try to enjoy it.  She really is very gifted. And she loves Halloween! She's be a wonderful teacher.




Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Take Time to Listen to People of Color

I recently wrote an editorial for my local paper, prompted by some hateful vandalism in town. 

It can be found here, on the Alameda Sun's site. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Supporting DACA

My latest post on Medium: Why Supporting DACA is the Right Thing to Do

After I wrote it, I was fortunate enough to have a former student named Dat, a 24-year-old Vietnamese American young man, write his own take. Although Dat was born in the United States, his parents weren't and he is closer in age and relationships to many of the young adults who will be affected by this. Here is what he has to say:

I support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy because it presents an opportunity for kids without homes to grow up with a chance. Most immigrant kids have come to the U.S with their parents in search of a better life away from the impoverished country they once came from. DACA individuals are law-abiding citizens, illustrating their commitment and determination to stay in the U.S. To have DACA rescinded is detrimental because these are individuals with no home back in their native countries. They came at an incredibly young age to lay a foundation and build a life here in the U.S. There is no reason to repeal this policy because DACA recipients work, pay their taxes, pay their dues, and have no criminal record.

All anyone ever wants is an opportunity to flourish in an environment that allows them to do so and to have their own kids to grow with that same opportunity.