Monday, May 23, 2011

what headlines don't know

A name and a few numbers cemented to the pages. No color, no raspy voice worn out from years of storytelling and the shouting of opinionated slurs, no smell of stale pipe smoke…no life. The headlines and ink smears have been robbed of the adventure and the love and the music that you are.

They tell us the world is a cruel place and our hands must be used to climb the ladders of societal success, trumping over all others so we can be the best. But you have showed us that hands are made for healing the pains of the world. The best hands are those calloused with labor and love. Worn from days of becoming one with the soil we walk and the plants we consume; warm from the touch of another souls’ skin no matter how dirty or torn. A hand should never fear what is different or unknown. A hand must constantly reach out and embrace every ounce of life if we are to understand our relationship to all that is beyond the stars.

They tell us that our eyes should be open, always on guard for those trying to cheat and rob us. But you taught us to close our eyes and dream. You told us truth is found in the places eyes can’t see, and you reminded us that our hearts will guide us on journeys through untamed fears and uncertain worlds. You reminded us that if we listen, if we trust, we will reach the precipice of light, and there we will see the potential of the world and all that we can be. We will see our connection to all that feels the graceful brush of the wind and the violent fury of the currents, and this vision incites a power within us that allows our dreams and realities to be one.

And so it goes that they tell us our feet are made to sprint through life, moving from this stage to the next until there is nothing left. Hurry! Run through childhood, run from your imagination—it will only slow you down—run through college and while you’re running be sure to pick up a degree that will guarantee you a job, run to the house and the fence and the mortgage…never slow down. And then the race is done. But you said, “Wait dear child. Don’t forget to walk. See that snail? It’s in no hurry. Just taking its’ time to get from here to there, enjoying every ray of sunshine and every centimeter of shade. You know we get energy from the sun, but some people are moving too fast to feel its’ warmth? Once you get moving too fast you’ll forget that your mind was made to create. Never abandon your childhood because children are wise and pure. They know the world. The preservation of childhood is our greatest hope.”

And when it comes to love they say guard your heart, don’t let anyone too close. But you would simply laugh at their words and say you wished they had the joy you have. You told us never to forget to love. Love everyone and everything. Every blade of grass, every insect, every person. Take time to massage the pregnant African Fat Tailed Gecko, and time to come home early from work to dance with your love. Take time to listen to the stories of your neighbors, and time to play in the mud with your kids. Take time to climb a tree, and time to cast a line in the river.

You have defied what they teach us in school for your life proves myths are all but false and legends are walking among us, inspiring strength and passion.

With a wisdom as ancient as life itself you took me to the woods and taught me to listen to the spirits of the forest. You told me each living entity has a soul, a soul that is constantly speaking and growing and connecting to all that is around it. “Be sure to thank the trees and the water,” you told me. So I learn to appreciate life, and when the world becomes too much I go to the trees and I find comfort knowing they understand. As I sit in the forest I thank the trees just as you taught me to do when I was young, and I feel their spirits emerge in the darkest of nights, teaching me black is not bad and illuminating a world of comfort and peace, where most people find nothing but fear.

And your experiences taught you life is hard and not always fair, and people hurt each other, but through your stories of war and racism and abuse, all I learned was love would prevail and good was stronger than bad. I knew this must be true through your tears. Each tear told stories with depths greater than the seas. Each tear was evidence that you heard and felt the histories that have destroyed so many lives. Whereas textbooks would neglect those faces, you would forever carry them with you and pass them on to us, and us onto all those that we meet. A single man’s tears for the world are songs of resilience proving the necessity of justice and compassion and change. So we collected your tears and use them to propel us forward with conviction and strength, eager to fight for those who are too often unheard and unseen. And we too cry as we learn histories untold and unchanged, but you lived by example, proving to us that crying is evidence of humanity, not a sign of weakness. So we cry, just as we laugh, with all those who share this earth.

And you had that chair and that pipe and that stove and those opinions in that room you and grandma filled with love. “The world is crazy out there. Don’t go get yourself killed,” you would advise me. “I wasn’t planning on it,” I would reply, and you would worry, and then you would tell me I won’t always be a communist and someday I may want to get a gun because who knows what the future holds, and I would argue I’m a pacifist, and you would worry some more. You would tell me this man is corrupt and that man is a liar and the world is doomed if things continue as they are. And I’d get you some coffee and you’d tell me I was a good kid and I’d be alright and I knew you still had faith in people somewhere beneath your haggard beard and your torn flannel shirts. So we would switch the topic to your cat and what a good cat he was and how smart he was and how you needed to chop more wood for your stove because the cat likes to have the doors open so he’s free to go in or out despite the freezing temperatures. And we would laugh. And you would tell me not to get killed in the crazy world, and I assured you even if I died, it was a beautiful ride and you said the same for yourself.

It was always then, after the politics, that you would tell me no matter what’s happening in the world if you can find someone to share the evolutions of life with then the world will forever be flourishing with beauty and color. And you’d look into the distance as if she was there dancing in the room with us. It was the same look I remember as a kid—the look of unconditional admiration and love. A love so true that that all those around you could feel it. An unwavering love that makes Disney princesses fall to their knees in prayer for something that real and good. And for the two of you every day was an adventure, a blessing necessary of thanks to all the gods that ever were, or ever will be. Once more your bodies are intertwined among the stars, never to be separated again.

Now, like a Cherokee myth, you have vanished from this world but your life beats on through the vibrations that guide us. Just as we used to dance for the rain with dirt on our faces and braids in our hair, we now bow our heads to the ground in gratitude for the songs you taught us to hear in the smallest of pebbles and the grandest mountain peaks, and the rains fall to fill the wells and we know you’re here.

--with hope in their heart

Monday, May 9, 2011

Anything is Possible

Nights like this I can never forget
Feather breath tickles my cheek,
Lips brush my ear, and laugh lines deepen from streams to rivers
We sit in my car on the side of a mountain
Evading time, crickets are our only reminder of the outside world
You are a walking mystery
Secrets have embedded themselves in the mazes of your fingerprints;
Treasure maps for the forgotten stories
buried along the ridges in
the canyons of your palms,
A life-time of tales hidden in every lifeline
"Me" becomes "we" and we are limitless
I limit less and let you hold the box inside of my chest labeled
"handle with care"
Kissing not my lips but my soul our
Childlike spirits for a moment believe once again in the idea of
"anything is possible"
Anything is possible
Ours to conquer in our world we have compacted into the confinement of
these car doors
Fingers play hopscotch along spinal chords
Smiles are scribbled into the dew
As my head rest in the crevice of your neck, I am reminded of what
happiness feels like
Suspended between twilight and our intertwining breath
Magic is real
The insecurities i casually wear on my face like makeup can not be
seen on the dark side of the moon where we sit and exchange fears,
hopes, dreams
Minds beautiful pieces of work hand sculpted by God to be in his prize
art gallery
You are real.
But nothing last forever.
Our snowflake was beautiful, but melted with the first "Hello" from the sun
Wings are clipped, birds are re-caged
Smiles are erased
In our world anything was possible


Monday, May 2, 2011


DISCLAIMER: This is all my opinion. These are conclusions I have made after careful reflection upon my own experience and observing others. In no way do I claim these things to be Truth, however realistic to my worldview they may be.

it’s not that serious, seriously some people take religion way to serious
there’s so much more than religion
religion only exists to create some form of foundation in a chaotic world
but it should not rule over a person’s life

religion is a tool
a tool people can use to get their lives straightened out
to find purpose where it seems nonexistent
a place to extract hope from
in order to get through the day
it can have a major influence on our day to day lives
but it should not be the center

so many times I have seen religious people put legalism in the center of their lives
rather than the faith they try so hard to live out
thinking about things is a good thing
being intentional about the things you plan to do
the words you say
how you treat others
is important
constantly striving to be better
and requires some form of contemplation
but some of you need to chill out
it’s really not that serious

thinking is one thing
talking is another
but at the end of the day
doing is just as good
give more respect to verbs that require physical action
put to use the body that God has given you
use your mind
but do not neglect the rest of the body in doing so
please remember that there is a bigger perspective
there’s so much to learn by the end of a life
and you only have one lifetime to work with
that’s not enough time to become perfect
or to concretely solidify all the worlds so called ‘truths’
doing things
making mistakes
gaining new experiences
taking risks
is just as important
if not more
gain a new-found gratitude for the lessons learned while doing something

take doing as serious as reflecting or praying or questioning

when you’re stuck
and don’t know where else to go
when you feel like your in a ten foot hole with no way to get out
your mind has become foggy with all the chaos and confusion of the day
your heart is numb to feeling because of the obstacles you’ve faced
your soul feels starved for love, hope, joy or what have you..
try doing something
it may help you get your joy back
maybe you’ll even find a new purpose
a new dream

whatever the case
never sit still for too long
never neglect the power of Doing

-- a thinker attempting to do

Sunday, May 1, 2011

powerless, still . . .

(all names have been changed to protect the privacy of the indivduals)

With deep-set eyes and a broad smile, Derrick Hayes was perched upon his baby blue bicycle just inside of the iron gate and barbed wire fence of the high school in South L.A. where I teach. I didn’t see him at first; my attention was on Ms. Jones throwing her arms around Sean, a ranking gang member who used to attend the school.
“Hi, Ms. Cirelli.” Derrick’s warm voice caused me to turn and see him grinning in the afternoon sun. His hat tipped to the side, he was wearing bright blue sneakers and a blue t-shirt.
Derrick was in my first class of students, ever. I started my teaching career with two periods of U.S. government and three periods of CAHSEE prep, a class designed to prepare students to pass the high school exit exam. Derrick was in one of my 10th grade CAHSEE prep classes. He was constantly in trouble, but from the first day, I so badly wanted him to do well.
In my class, Derrick had good days and bad days. Often, he would attempt the English assignments, but when it came to math, his position was firm.
“I don’t do math.”
“Okay, well just try the first problem. Here, we can work on it together.”
“No. I don’t do math. It’s just not my thing.”
However opposed to math he was, Derrick wanted to be in school. His behavior consistently threatened him with expulsion, and although he almost never got into fights in my class, I often found him in the office during my conference period. In the first few weeks, he would simply leave my class whenever he felt like it. I didn’t know how to stop him from doing this, but I did my best to respect his time by creating meaningful assignments.
Eventually, he started staying in class for almost the entire two-hour period. One day he asked if he could go to the office to speak with the vice principal, Mr. Garcia. I told him he needed to stay in class. We were covering important material, and I attempted to impress upon him the importance of the work. I have to speak with him now, Derrick insisted.
“What could possibly happen between now and the end of class?” I asked.
“Mr. Garcia is going to sign the papers to send me to Crenshaw High.”
There was a chilling combination of desperation and defiance in Derrick’s expression and tone that startled me. At Crenshaw High, gang affiliation runs deep and threat of violence has shut down school events. I allowed James to go give Mr. Garcia the paperwork from his parents that would allow him to remain at our small high school. Derrick wanted to stay in school. But he also wanted to stay in his gang.
One day, our class was reading a short story about a boy in the 1950’s in a fictional New York gang. In the story, the boy is dying and reflects on his loss of identity ultimately leading to his death. Derrick volunteered to read. It was the first time he had volunteered to do anything in class. Stumbling over a few words, he alternated with two other students to read the story in its entirety. The class listened in perfect silence.
Afterwards, I allowed the students 15 minutes to free-write a reflection of any kind before they began the rigorous literary analysis assignment. I had been nervous about using literature that would hit so close to home, and many of the students seemed grateful for the chance to emotionally process before attempting an assignment. Derrick wrote nothing, but spent the time carefully drawing the symbols for his gang over and over on the lined paper.
Kneeling beside his desk, I quietly thanked him for reading and asked if he was okay. He nodded, and kept drawing. In response to a character whose dying action was rejection of a gang identity in favor of individuality, Derrick quietly asserted his identity as a part a group.
There were other days when such assertions were less than quiet. My classroom was on the second story of an old, brick building with windows facing the street. Over the barbed wire fence, the crank-open windows faced 8th Street. Once, someone looked out the window and commented that some Bloods were walking down 8th Street. Derrick jumped up from his desk and started yelling slurs out the window, vociferously claiming the territory. Half the class leapt from their desks to crowd around the windows.
My heart raced, but when I went to the window, I was relieved to see only a few young teenagers walking by. Ordering everyone back to their seats, I again knelt by Derrick’s desk.
“Not from my classroom,” I said as firmly as I could.
Derrick nodded.
Because of Derrick’s affiliation, and recent activity targeted at our school, it was deemed unsafe for him to remain on campus after school. Detention was therefore not an option, and he was permitted to leave 15 minutes before the last class of the day let out. The only thing I had to shape Derrick’s action in class was respect. I used every accommodation I knew as a 2-month-old teacher – preferential seating, special classroom jobs, rephrased directions, breaks outside, etc. It was difficult to track his progress since he completed so little work, but the work he completed seemed to increase day by day. When he wrote an entire paragraph, I was nearly bursting with pride.
Still, during my conference period, I would run into Derrick without fail either in the office or sitting outside his history class, doing work alone on the benches. It seemed to be a good strategy for him, until one day when a new student arrived, and a significant altercation occurred. Ms. Acosta, the fiery, well-respected, barely five foot history teacher was standing in the door of her class, physically blocking Derrick’s tall frame from whoever was inside.
“Please go get someone from the office right now,” she calmly but urgently asked me.
My eyes begged Derrick to calm down, but I went to retrieve a security officer.
The incident was resolved, but I knew Derrick’s expulsion was hanging by a thread. Several of the other teachers were working hard to keep him on track, and as a brand new teacher trying to figure out everything from lesson planning to classroom management as I went along, I felt powerless to make an impact.
A week or so later, the administration informed me I would be switching all my classes. The 9th grade English position needed to be filled, and I was selected to take over. Although I had only been with my current students for two months, I was already very emotionally invested. But the decision was for the good of the school overall, so I had not choice but to oblige.
At a staff meeting two weeks later, the principal announced that Mr. Hayes, as he referred to the students, had been let go. My heart dropped. Why? I thought. During the last several meetings Mr. Lopez, the principal, had used Derrick as the poster child for students who were turning around, an example of the school’s progress. Now, without warning, he was gone.
I carried on teaching the 9th grade for several months, which brought a new set of challenges for which, again, I was radically underprepared.
When I next saw Derrick, it the day of a ceremony for the 12th grade students to reveal the colleges they planned to attend. James, an affiliated student I had in one of my old U.S. Government classes, planned to attend U.C. Santa Barbara. Aside from greeting him in the hall, I hadn’t kept in contact with James, but I knew he was doing well and was proud to see him unveil his post-high school plans.
Seeing Derrick and Sean back at school surprised me.
“Derrick! How are you? What are you doing here?” In the back of my head, I remembered Derrick was not allowed on campus after being expelled.
“We’re here to support the homie,” he replied, nodding towards James, who was grinning widely.
“That’s right! That’s awesome.”
Before I could say more, something called my attention to the other side of the building. When I walked back, the vice principal was locking the two boys out. James continued to talk with them through the iron gate, practically pressing his face against the metal. Derrick biked in circles in the street.
Fifteen minutes later, I was getting lunch at the celebratory barbeque, and Derrick wheeled in, triumphantly maneuvering between lunch tables to greet old friends.
“He’s not supposed to be here,” one of the other teachers grumbled. Someone went to alert the administration. I anxiously worried an unnecessary confrontation would spoil the afternoon. Please just leave, I thought to myself.
“It’s okay, he’s nice,” one of the students explained to a new teacher who looked nervous.
Yeah, I thought to my self, he’s a good kid. He could have done so well. But when he leaves, he’s not going back to school somewhere. It’s the middle of the day. He seemed carefree, but I knew otherwise. Derrick’s father had been in the hospital with cancer the last time I saw him. I wanted to ask him how his dad was, I wanted to ask him if he had changed his mind about dropping out of high school. I’m sure being expelling from our school couldn’t have helped him make his decision. He knew the trouble that was waiting for him at Crenshaw High. I wanted to ask him where he was living. I wanted to ask him to come back.
I hated the blue t-shirt. I hated the blue sneakers. I hated the vice principal for locking him on the other side of the gate. I hated myself for not knowing what to do when he was in my class, and even more for having no power to do anything now. My body ached as he sailed away. A few minutes later, one of my own freshman was being restrained by security and a substitute teacher. His face was twisted with the pain of being powerless. I had no idea why he was fighting, but I wouldn’t have any way to find out until the following week when I had him in class. I put my fruit down and herded ravenous students away from the scuffle.
When I joined Teach for America, I thought I would be part of a movement to provide educational equity. In some ways, I do feel like I’m part of that movement. However, the stories I read of TFA classrooms lead to high achievement and students whose lives were turned around seem to mock me now. “Lisa, the 5th grade student who increased her reading by three years in just one, is why I Teach for America,” the stories would end.
“Carlos, the 11th grade student who couldn’t write a sentence and is now applying to college, is why I Teach for America,” a story in our training manual concluded.
During training, we also heard stories of teachers who didn’t do such-and-such, and never reached a certain student. These teachers ominously told us they were still haunted by their failures.
At the time, I thought perhaps this was all a scare tactic to shape all our actions into uniformity. But now, these are the stories from training that resonate with me the most. Maybe it’s cynicism, but I think it’s the soul-numbing reality that propels me forward each day.
Derrick is why I Teach for America.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Labor Pains

I would like to announce a death in the family
Today loved ones we bury a friend, daughter, sister, lover, and visionary who
has selfishly taken her own life for the sake of her dreams
You may approach
If you dare--
this broken alter to share fond memories of the girl you once knew
give thanks for moments of laughter
respects for moments of pain
pauses-- that validate the space shared
but be mindful that this is a new kind of sanctuary
and all these illusions will too be buried
packed tightly into a treasure chest
nuzzled closely beneath her bruised ribs
these memories
suffocated by insecurities rooted in comparison and
ignorance founded upon capitalism
will finally be put to rest

instead, if i may propose
we take this time,
while her soul is suspended in purgatory to speak new truths
ones that once buried will resurrect our dear friend
bringing her forth form the soil
time will breath life into these truths
multiplying and manifesting their roots deep into the land of our ancestor
both slave and oppressor runs through these veins
with this understanding
no one goes guiltless

there will be an emergence of a spirit
beauty will radiate from her being
rivers of life from her womb
stars of love will shoot from her eyes and
her feet will guide the way of her divine purpose
her heart, though scared
will sing songs of freedom to caged birds
reminding them not to believe the shadows
that allude to bars and low ceilings
but to transcend and take flight
her hands will heal freedom
love liberation
and embrace truth

my friends
this is a death that i have long awaited
finally the soul who had believed the lies of a distorted reality has passed
yet we can nurture a planted seed to life
the sun has warmed the earth soaked with our tears
the moon will crystallize them
and just when we thought we had lost something so precious,
the earth will give birth to something wonderfully sacred
something that we all helped create
don’t wallow in disparity
don’t fear blood that gives consciousness
soon the fruit of our work will be birthed
that crippling jab in your side is nothing more than labor pains
a bitter foretaste of the miracle to come

push harder
pleasure is misunderstood without pain
take a deep breath
air is necessary for growth

Take a deep breath.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stay Up

Stay up for the stars. Bright futures through bars
Magic School Bus type of cars swerving through the hood,
watchin’ cops helpin’ when they should, smilin’ cause they could,
protecting- I wish they would.

Stay up above the line.
Break the mirror reflecting time
stopped by mama smokin’ dimes, women strippin’ for a shine,
babies sexin’ when they’re nine, kids stealin’ to look fine.

Stay up beside the truth, potential in your youth.
Freedom for fantasy, pencils for sanity, lyrics preaching fire that burns beyond the choir,
fingers to hold, fists to unfold,
faces growin’ old, stories bein’ told.

Stay up with the trend, and drive by it with your friend.
Know what they do but be only you.
Feel the pain and use it, don’t abuse it.
See the world with you in it, healthy, happy, that home-run hit.

Crush their comments with what’s honest, trust you without the complex.
Grab your shovel and get digging ‘cause your treasure is worth seeking.
Glitter, gold and faces don’t pay for how you live more, it’s a power only you store.
Don’t let bolts and bullets stop moves, let your smile come and unlock you.

Stay up mothers
Stay up fathers
Stay up kids
Stay up


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Different Seasons, Same Journey

Today I realized that I have reached a new level of adulthood. My 'Legalize L.A.' t-shirt has been replaced by slacks and a tie; the Cuban flag pinned to my bedroom wall has been removed to make room for framed pictures of friends and family; the piles of dirty clothes that once hid my desk are now contained in a hamper that matches my furniture set. (I am one step away from joining a fight club)

It is interesting how much life can change. So many of the things I purchased years ago have been buried in plastic containers. As I organize the junk that has taken over my closet, I remember how much I 'needed' to buy the official Barca soccer bag. It is sobering to see how wrong I was, and frightful to consider how wrong I still am.

Teaching high school has provided a unique perspective of 'growing up.' I see kids everyday who are excited and nervous to begin applying to college. Hearing their questions constantly causes me to flash back to a time when college was some distant, grown up dream. A dream that existed somewhere between playgrounds and cubicles. How little things change.

In those moments that I feel 'grown up,' I see my students' innocence in me. Their excitement and nervousness towards undergraduate life is mirrored in my emotions towards graduate life: the childlike curiosity of the unknown.

Sometimes I wonder if I have at all matured since I was 17 - different seasons, same journey. It will be interesting to find this post buried within long neglected digital containers. Maybe then I will have a new perspective.