A Nation that Produces an Immensity of Pain

“The immensity of the pain that Roof has inflicted upon Charleston is not contained by geography. It conforms perfectly to the contours of the nation that produced him.”

—Jelani Cobb, “Prodigy of Hate” in The New Yorker

In Memory of Claudia

My little bird, Claudia, passed away today. She was a spunky, beautiful, loving parakeet filled with song and vivacity. When let out of her cage, she would swoop and dive bomb about our apartment, a little green hornet.

She had the softest tiny belly. She loved sitting on my shoulder, grooming me.

We got her to provide companionship for my white-fronted Amazon parrot, Vincent, whom I’ve had since I was a little kid in San Diego.

She loved Vinnie as much as we do, and would selflessly groom his forehead and sing to him. She would boss him about and eat the food out of his bowl.

Four years ago, we purchased Claudia from a Pet Co downtown and brought her back all the way home on the A train.

In the middle of the night in one of the first months after we’d gotten her, she somehow got herself skewered–literally–on a toy hanging up in her cage. She was hooked onto it like a fish, flapping around in pain and fear. We managed to disentangle her, and I poured hydrogen peroxide on her wound.

We were terrified over the course of that week that she would die, but she was resilient. She was a tough little one. My NY bird.

Because of this resiliency, when she began getting sick over the past month, we didn’t think much of it. I was worried, of course, but I assumed that she would pull through whatever was ailing her.

And she did seem to get better, for a while. But suddenly today, she took a drastic turn for the worse. She was having difficulty breathing, and eventually moved to the floor of her cage, hiding under her food bowl.

When a bird does that, you know things are bad. Birds are good at hiding when they are really sick.

She passed away before my eyes this evening. It was awful. There was nothing I could do to help her.

Whenever I tell people that I have birds as pets, they seem to think it’s weird. And I’m sure that it must seem silly to you to grieve over a parakeet. But birds are wonderful pets. They have vibrant, unique personalities and are filled with the joy of living.

My wife and I have been sobbing all night, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I loved that little bird. And I am going to miss her terribly.

The Toughest Gamut

This last week has been perhaps one of the hardest thus far in my 1st year of teaching. It started in the very first minute on Monday and continued more or less unabated thereafter: insults, fights (one of which erupted in the middle of the sidewalk in front of all the parents at dismissal), yelling, and an uninhibited and calculated disrespect of myself and any other authority figure in the classroom. Some of my students spend their time in school determining how to best undermine my lessons (and goodwill) in any manner possible, and they will even coordinate their efforts. It is probably this latter behavior that most drains me.

The moments of breakthrough are few and far between with my students. By breakthrough, I mean for example moments such as when I watch a student perform various types of acting out behavior–such as ripping up papers to shreds, complaining every time I ask her to do any work, or stomping around the room and kicking things–and I recognize that something has happened to her that she needs support with, so I talk to her quietly about something that happened at home that morning and recognize that it is nothing personal against me (sounds so simple, right? Try doing it when you have 4 other students screaming for your attention and understanding). Or another moment of breakthrough with a student who has refused to communicate with me in any way except insults and blatant disregard since I have known him, but then on Thursday I actually got him to have a 2 minute conversation with me. And then he got suspended after that, so all progress has been subsequently lost. But maybe I might be able to have another conversation with him again.

In other words, extremely limited breakthroughs that take an extreme amount of effort and self-control. I’m not going to make much academic impact on some of my students. I understand the need for gauging the effectiveness of a teacher by test scores, but when you have a student taking a 5th grade state test when he reads at a pre-primer 1st grade level and he gets his test read to him but his working memory is extremely limited–well, exactly what kind of improvement are you going to see on that test? The kind of impact I have had on my students has been that I have taught them to stay in their seats 80% of the time and not to stand on tables and not to run down the hallways 95% of the time. I’m not joking or being facetious. There have been a number of different people in the building who have come up to me and told me that they are amazed at how much some of my students have changed. They used to be literally running around the entire building all day long and even terrorizing teachers by cornering them and threatening them physically. Now they sit in my classroom and spend the majority of their time insulting me and insulting each other. So that’s improvement.

But it eats away at my energy. It burns me out at the end of each day. I am sometimes left literally shaking with anger, stress, and despair in the middle of lessons, the moments when I have tried everything that I can think of but I just no longer have the will to fight or to see beyond the displays.

1st year Teaching Fellows are assigned an advisor from their graduate program who comes to observe lessons, lend support, and ensure that the school is treating them decent. My advisor has been great in giving me pep talks, because I am invariably a cynical and critical person, and I can be pretty hard on myself. She came into my school on Friday and arrived early during my prep, and talked to me the entire time, and I think some of my students overheard the conversation and decided that they wanted to put on a show for her. So during the next period, as I began my lesson, several of them really put on a show. I mean yelling, swearing, talking back to me, etc.  This continued unabated the entire lesson and into the next. I think that in some weird way, they wanted to show off to her, to show her how tough they were. It was disturbing, but I think what was encouraging was that there were 3 students during this performance who kept on track and attended to the lesson. So I taught it to them, and as I circulated and began working one on one with them, one of the others began doing their work, and then another, and finally the loudest of them all took out his paper and did a problem or two by the very end of the second lesson. My advisor stayed the entire time and worked one on one with one of my students who had walked out of my classroom upset. I have taught some of my students who have anger management issues to take a chair and sit outside of the classroom when they are angry until they cool down, and then they will come back into the classroom. My advisor was impressed that my student knew to walk outside, and then promptly returned ready to work a few minutes later. I didn’t even notice it, as this has become a frequent daily occurrence for a number of my students.

My students love to complain about the fact that I rarely take a day off. I think they overheard some of the conversation I had with my advisor, where she was talking to me about other 1st year teachers who have had nervous breakdowns in the classroom or quit, because they told me that they were going to make me leave. I told them that I liked them too much to do that. And I told them I would never take a day off even when I’m sick because teaching them was too important to me.

Which is a bunch of bullshit, but I’m not going to let them run me away into despair. They have been taught by their lives that the only manner in which to gain power is to destroy. But there is a deeper power. The power to create. The power to envision. The power to nurture. This is the only power that lasts.

My god I hope that I can heed my own dictums.

The Battle of the Bereft

Last weekend a friend was visiting, and of course I began discussing my students, because what else do I have to talk about now? I talked about their problems, their behaviors, their tough home lives. So he challenged me to say what they were good at. And in that moment I realized just how bereft my understanding of them is. I couldn’t think of anything. Not one thing. I wanted to weep.

When the entire world tells you you are worthless, in what place do you claw to find succor?

I watch them clutch empty-hearted at the manufactured dreams of the complacent, and shit on the very fabric of their own existence.

Dreams of graduation into comfort seem to be the defining tunnel vision of my own survival. All I can envision are green trees, rolling hills, an empty swatch of air and bird ringed silence across my bedroom window. A river, somewhere, without the brown slogs of industry.

Already, I have abandoned them. To leave them to their trash strewn streets, the steps of apartment buildings that serve as the template for passing the time. To their endlessly working, endlessly shopping mothers, who give them whatever they want whenever they can.

In this ghetto of the soul, it’s all about power. You take it any way you can, you drag down those who might love you and beat them into submission.

This is the game we play, whether in the streets or in the classroom. Who is the powerful? Who is the one who will lead by the blood on his hands?

I am too battered right now to step away from the battle. I see only red before me. I am angry. I am filled with despair. And this is when I know that this is the only fight worth


Gaining the Loss

The rule of the cosmos: you can’t ask for anything. You’ve got to just take what you need and give what you have. Seems to be the way things work, more or less. Like, if I get a little bit too screechy, needy, desperate for love and attention, then all I can hear is the veritable waves on the shore in the shell held up to the ear. So I have to regroup, sit down in the empty night space and meditate on my nothingness. How I have nothing, I am nothing, I will gain nothing. I’ve got to keep it all in perspective, somehow. Clam up, button the hole, and just observe, just watch the way the world works. The way that light seems to be generated not by light but by some other order of power. How all of the good things in life are really just a residue of extreme evisceration. The trickling out of beauty from the suffering awareness of despair.

So how to live life in this full declaration of madness? The masses recline before the injection of beauty. So dawn it upon them in full, without shame or fear or denial. There is nothing to lose. There is nothing to gain. There is just what you allow yourself to be, here, in this place of moment.

Hallowed Lives

To possess something of depth, there must be a relevant soul-searching ream of pain, as what has built up and calcified is scooped out, cleared out, cut out. Leaving the space for the blueprint of something new. In the erection of new life structures, you think of the manner in which windows will capture light, the space needed to sustain love. Policies are put into place, expectations are clearly set. From out of the hollows of your aching heart are formed crystals, that when dug up form the diamond terrace of your realized dreams.

The people in our lives are designed to mold us into who we want to be. To support, construct, motivate. If we are not here to enact something better, than what would be the point? Together, pressing the clay of our vision into higher planes.

All that exists is a matter of process, timing, development. We must wait, patiently, for the universe to unfold into itself, riding the waves of our suffering as we hollow our lives in preparation for the future.