Two Gifts from a Week Full of Mondays
This past week was one of those weeks which I call “a week full of Mondays”, with stressful, heavy long days punctuated by moments of opening. These openings were brief moments packed with tenderness that I was privileged to feel and to touch only because I somehow allowed myself to do so… So I guess the good news is that I feel that the path of meditation works: it walks on me, treads on me ever so gently reminding me that my task is to be there with my walking or dancing steps, but moving, always moving fully present with every step.
Framing: Three days without a working toilet in my pre-k classroom, and the cold weather that prevented us from going outside to play framed the week. The kids seemed restless, talkative, clumsy, careless with each other. On my part I was dealing with feeling sick, and not having had enough sleep. So by Thursday, I was really tired and painfully aware of how short my supply of patience and energy felt. This provides some context for the remainder of my Thursday after work visiting with a friend and then at choir rehearsal later that evening, and for Friday.
Thursday after work. My friend and I just chatted about our week, our day… and as it is with me, when I relax in the presence of someone I trust, I allow my questions, topics, jokes, laughter, sadness to flow without too much mental editing. Within the stream of our conversation I had asked a question which I cannot remember but to which he answered with a simple: “I don’t have a dad”. I followed with: –He passed? Died? And my friend’s reply was: –No. He had surgery and is now a woman. There are no words that can completely or remotely adequately describe my experience(s) at that moment. My-Mind-Heart-stopped. I felt time and things around me slowing down like when witnessing a car accident. I turned away from my friend. I looked away in order to hold myself without pushing thoughts, comments, feelings away. Blank. I needed to look away in order to hold myself without giving in to the thoughts, and feelings that were mine and mine alone. I needed to look away to my own reflection on the glass window panes that surrounded us so that I could feel and hold the sting that I heard on his voice when he uttered the phrase that I myself had uttered so frequently before: –I don’t have a dad.
And then, my gaze returned back to him and I just wanted very much to hold him, soothe him, take any sting from pain or anger away from him. Protect. In truth, I knew that these were/are my interpretations of what he had said. He never said to me that he was feeling pain or anger as he was speaking to me. But my heart-felt reaction was that I wanted to provide comfort, and space. And later on, I wanted to provide assurance: I wanted my words and my whole being to reflect to this other human being in front of me that the wholeness and light of his presence, his worth and the value of his being on this planet were not at all diminished by the content of any of the stories that contributed to his being the person that he is today. I wanted to convey to him that even if he were to take the same path as his dad, his integrity and worth would not diminish. And then, slowly, time and things around me recovered their usual speed. And as they did, I knew that I had been punctured and blessed by something precious. An image of a cartoon by Argentinian artist Quino came to my mind. In the cartoon strip there are very young children talking among themselves saying, What does a turtle have to do to be a turtle? A dog, to be a dog? Why do I have to go to school to become something? Instead of comforting my friend, touching his hand or sharing a gesture that would indicate that I SAW HIM through that and other stories that he has shared with me, all I managed to do was to say: Isn’t it amazing? we are the only creature always striving to be or become something that we are not. Breathe. I am not talking about not going to school, nor stopping our personal search and growth. The image of the cartoon in question represents the extent that we will go as humans in order to find our core, and/or be at ease with who we think we are.
Friday. Then, Friday came and I went to work. The kids were still wild, seemingly regressing to an emotional and social state reminiscent of where they were at beginning of the school year (perhaps related to two new students I got in January and their effect of the chemistry of the group). I was still tired and feeling somewhat ill. And then in the morning, bam!!! Someone had gone to our bathroom, and thrown dirty (poopy) toilet paper in the waste basket and floor. The smell. I noticed. As a group, we had been talking about this habit since August, the beginning of the school year, but there has been a relapse on the behavior and on not coming forward and telling the truth. So, in the morning I picked the toilet paper up, threw it in the toilet. Then, I congregated the group, and we talked about it. We agreed that we would be more careful and we recalled where the white paper goes after it is used, and what we have to do (flush and wash our hands). We moved on to work on our projects, and then we went to lunch, did music, and had our rest period. And then, again, bam!!! The waste basket in the bathroom was full of poop-laden-smelly toilet paper.
At that point, for my aide and I, the most important thing became trying to find out who had done it so that we could work with that particular child. And for me, it was also important to bring the group to the understanding that accusing a person likely to have done the deed would not necessarily relieve the group from having to act responsibly and that telling the truth is important, no matter how scary it feels. These are tough lessons even for adults to live by, so I felt for my kids. It was time for bad cop, good cop. My aide and I took turns asking them to let us know who had done it. We wanted the child who had done it to come forward with the truth. I said that if the person who’d done it would come forward and let either one of us know, nothing (bad) would happen. I also said that if nobody stepped forward, then I would have to let all parents know about the incident, so that they would take the retraining of the desired behavior in their hands. It was at this point that one of the boys started to cry. He had done so in the past when we have said that we would send notes home, or sad faces for everyone.
His crying somehow indicated to me something positive, i.e. that his parents actually read my notes and that they are actively involved in educating their child as a whole person. On the other hand, on that day he seemed brittle, anxious. I decided to take him out to walk with me in order to calm him because I had a very strong sense that it had not been him who had thrown the dirty toilet paper in the trash can. So I told the aide to handle the room: she was to allow them to be on their own to talk and when the person who had done it was ready, they should come to get us. She simply had to wait outside our classroom door. I took the boy by the hand and we started walking down the hallway. I prayed: please get me out of my way so that I can say what’s needed to be of comfort.
However, what I wanted to accomplish with the group and with the boy I had by the hand was easier said than done. As soon as the group saw me walking away with him, they wanted to escape too, so other boys started to cry to no avail. The aide, more like the other teacher, stayed with the group while I left with the little boy by the hand. Deep breath. My mind was frozen watching his tears and sobbing. I wanted to hug him, but I did not. Instead there was an exchange of words and gestures, mostly in Spanish and with translation because to top it all, he is one of the kids in my bilingual class for whom Spanish is not dominant, and I am never sure of how much he is really processing/understanding in any language. The exchange went something like this as we walked hand in hand up and down the corridor:
[While my walk with the boy was happening, the aide came out to stand by the door, and about three time a kid would come to get us saying so-and-so did it. After the third time, I went back in and I said: I do not want to hear: —he/she did it. I want to hear: –Teacher, I did it… Silence fell on the room as the understanding of what I wanted dawned on them…]
Me: –I know I am ugly. I think I look ugly when I am scolding you. Are you afraid of me?
Boy: (He nodded yes glancing at me, and not holding his gaze.)(I felt stung by my own long held beliefs of being an unattractive ugly person not just physically…)(Breathe….)
Me: –I am really sorry that you are afraid of me. I don’t want you or your friends to be afraid. I want to know the truth. And then softly, sweetly: Was it you that threw the dirty paper in the wastebasket??
Boy: (He looked up, held his gaze and nodded No.)
Me: –Then you have nothing to worry about. You should not be afraid and crying; nothing is going to happen because you told me the truth, your truth. You did not do it. You know what to do with the toilet paper.
Boy: (Still sobbing.)
Me: –I need to know who did it so that I can teach him or her to be a champion like you.
Boy: (Furtive glance at me, with the beginning of a smile)
Me: –If the person who did it tells me the truth, then I don’t have to talk with your moms and dads because I can teach him/her what to do with the toilet paper. But I know it is hard to tell the truth because I look mean and ugly. So you are very brave for telling me the truth, your truth. You don’t have to be afraid.
Boy: (Crying stopped, glance, serious look followed by a quick smile.)
Me: –If the person who did it does not tell me the truth, you also don’t have to be afraid because you have already told me your truth.
Boy: (Kept walking, and then yelled): –I don’t have to cry??? I don’t have to cry…
Me: –Why not? (Me sounding hopeful…)
Boy: –I don’t have to cry…I didn’t do it…I am a champion…
Me: –(Relieved because he had understood deeply…) You got it buddy!!! Can we go in there now? (He nodded yes.)Will you cry? (He nodded no.) (We walked together into our classroom.)
As we were walking in, my aide told me who had come forward. I was a little girl that has been with us from the beginning of the school year. I thanked the girl profusely in front of the group. I told them that she was very brave for telling the truth in spite of being scared. I told the group that I knew I looked ugly when I was angry, but that they should not be afraid of telling the truth. I said that since the truth was out I could now help the girl, and that moms and dads did not have to become involved. I instructed the aide to have the class sing and dance, to dissipate or move fear around before we resumed working on our projects. I asked the girl to come outside with me.
A bit of our exchange
Me: –Thank you for telling the truth. You are very, very brave. Now tell me, what happened that you threw dirty paper in the trash can? Is this how you do it at home? (This could be true in homes without proper plumbing or septic systems…)
Me: –When you’re at home, where do you throw the paper after you are done?
Girl: –Inside the toilet, in the water.
Me: –And then what happens?
Girl: –I flush.
Me: –So what happened today?
Girl: –I forgot… a mistake…
Me: –What can I do to help you with this so that it does not happen again?
Girl: –Happy face… I don’t want a sad face…
Me: –You are not getting a sad face today at all. If I put a sign in the bathroom with a drawing of the paper going in the toilet, will that help you remember?
Girl: (Big nod yes with a big smile on her face…)
And then back in the classroom, I announced: We all make mistakes. We all forget things. I make mistakes and forget things… it’s okay to make mistakes and forget things. What is not okay is to blame others for something that I forgot or for a mistake I made. And I know that sometimes telling the truth is very scary and does not feel good. But now, now we need to pick up our projects and line up. It’s time to go outside. (I needed time out.)
I pray for space… I pray that I can get out of my way, so that the words from my heart can flow. I pray with gratitude for the friend and students that like true teachers forced me this week to step outside the institutionalized-rotten-roles in which we all fall so that I could simply be: human-frail, human-brittle, human. Not a role. Not a category. I pray again with gratitude for the friend that punctured my arrogance, softening me with his shared truth. I have yet to milk all of the deep-felt understandings that stem from these two gifts for they both touch upon the notions of roles I play, how I play them, the beliefs I/we carry around from childhood. And the gifts also touched on the need to be fully present to ourselves so that I/we do not shut down and start acting from the constructs and concepts that I/we have adopted as the truth about me/us. In gratitude for the dharma that is in all, and for the ability to be touched by it.
I wrote this on a week of Mondays that marked the end of this dön season. May it be of benefit.
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So on this Saturday morning I woke up feeling a little under the weather, and a little embarrassed about something that happened at work yesterday.
Briefly: I left my room to take my kids to lunch, and according to the clock in my room, I had less than three minutes to get to the cafeteria. I was late. We got there and the kinder students were late too, still going through the lunch line with about half of them still in the hall. So we got there. I saw the kids before us. I understood this: They were late. They were there in line before us. We were there. We stood behind them. When I saw them there, we waited our turn behind them. Period. So, when our turn to start getting our lunches came up, we started going through the line. Simple. I was in the area where kids get their trays and food, supervising. The last two or three kinder kids were going through the register with 12 of my 15 kids right behind them. And as I was turning to call on the last of my kids to come get their trays, I was pushed by another PK teacher’s kids, who were (only from my perspective) cutting in. I told them that they needed to wait their turn, and called my kids, but nothing happened because the other teacher came to the line, yelling that she had told her students to cut in because I was taking their turn. She said their lunchtime is right before ours. That if her students didn’t cut in, they would not have time to eat, because her time to pick them up was also earlier than ours. I told her that I understood, but that I had gotten there thinking that I was late, found the kinder line and waited for my turn to go.
She did not hear me or perhaps she did not understand me when I said that I thought I was late. So, she kept yelling that my kids needed to stop, that I was wrong. I tried to reason with her (my mistake). I said, “but look, I only have three kids left. Do you want all my kids to put their trays back and not go through the line?” She started saying that this is not how the cafeteria line works, that she was going to talk with the assistant principal about this… In the meantime, the ladies at the cafeteria had to stop working because we were standing there; the other teacher would just not let the line move, or the ladies continue serving and processing payments. Somehow one of the ladies got a word in and said for us to let this be, because all they needed to do was serve whatever kids were there. I rushed my last kids as the other teacher moved. I thought she was going to the office. I braced myself for the worst.
As I was walking to my room to eat, my steps were intercepted by the other teacher where two of the hallways meet. She said that she didn’t think I had understood what she was trying to tell me. And then she started on what that was: that I had gotten to the line earlier than when I was supposed to be there, and that in so doing I was cutting short her kids’ time to eat. I tried then, to soften my voice and say that I had heard her and understood her before, and that I was sorry. I tried again to say that I had I left my room because according to the clock I was already late. And that when we were both at the serving line, we needed to keep things moving. And then, a third teacher appeared, our team leader.
The team leader got there when the other teacher started saying that I wasn’t making any sense and that she didn’t want to waste time talking to someone who was so wrong. She added that she did not know what I was doing but that by American time and clocks, I was just wrong. When she found me in the hallway and started things all over again I felt my thoughts stop, or at least slow down. I felt my face trying to soften into a smile as I tried to talk to her…and then, I just stopped trying to talk, and I let her keep on talking. I felt the wordless sense of it’s no good. You cannot make her see your point of reference any more than she can make you see hers. And you were both yelling…
But it felt strange. That wordless sense or moment of sheer-space that cut through my thoughts or the tsunami of my discursiveness, was simultaneously surrounded by: my feeling cornered, my wanting to defend myself, the sadness I felt for contributing to the stress in my team leader and the other teacher. [My phone rang as I was writing this. It was one of my teacher-friends from my first school. Something is going on with her. Synchronization.] A moment of bitter-sweet presence. And then I was haunted. I felt the thoughts of not wanting to be there, of feeling sorry for the other teacher because she seems to believe that the school system actually works… I felt the thoughts of: Well, if this had happened ten years ago I would have talked her until she’d be quiet in order to make her see. (Can you say: aggressive?) But all I could do then was melt into the insecurity and discomfort of that moment, and the disgust I felt for myself: Who do I think I am wanting to go deeper with the Dharma, and even train in a seminary setting, when I am here now in the aftermath of yelling?
Who I am, and who I think I am is not as important as the lessons to be derived from this. I can be grateful to the other teacher for the mirrors she provided, for the lessons she helped me access (though I don’t have to like them). But now, I need to turn my mind to my synchronous friend, the one who called me, because clarity seems to be like this: one instance of enlightened society at a time.
(The following was typed from the notes I wrote today on the back of a book. They were really the beginning.) I wonder…I just do…and I am thankful that this human mind has had the inclination to seek from a very early age because when I look at what happens / has happened when I forget to seek, to allow myself to feel the yearnings of this heart, I am saddened by the results: a harsh and very guarded aggressive person just like anyone else… So ultimately, perhaps I am grateful to the moments when I remember, and to those people and/or situations that help me remember, or help re-mind me (as if I had lost my mind-heart, and, through the encounter with them, a joining of mindfulness and self could happen…as if they had ever been separate).
Today was a day just like any other but it was also slightly different. It was another Tuesday, and where I work Tuesdays mean having faculty meetings at the end of our day: long faculty meetings. So we started our meeting around 3:10 in the afternoon and we ended around 4:40 pm, and this was not too different from the previous Tuesday. I went in hoping that today’s meeting would end soon, but it ended late; however, the end had a totally different feeling this time. If you had asked me what feeling it was right there and then, I do not believe I could have named it, or even understand that I was feeling somehow different about this meeting. It was hours later that things dawned on me, and I am grateful for this little dawn, or awakening.
Before fully writing on this page, I want to “place” or situate myself.
- I am currently taking a class at the center: Basic Goodness: Who Am I? In this class we have been working with the notions of skandhas, ego, karma, meditation, embodiment, aggression, gentleness, and authentic presence, to name a few. This class has served as a sort of energetic “brillo pad” needed to reach my ability to relax albeit, briefly, from the strong noose of my beliefs and fears. Not particularly the theme of this entry so I’ll go on.
- The school year started on August 26th. On September 20th, at 4 pm, the principal officially told me that I would have to move to another school in order to teach Bilingual Ed., and thus keep my stipend. I was relieved; the wait was over. I was also very sad; I loved the kids I had.
- Monday Sept 23, my kids’ new teacher came and stayed with us for the whole day. Tuesday, she came back but needed to finish packing her room. On Wednesday Sept 25th, I called my new school and said that I would be coming for a visit, to see my room. This was the first time the principal at my new school had heard that there was a bilingual teacher coming to the school. They really looked surprised when I showed up that morning. On the 26th and 27th, we both packed as best we could. The principal at my original school did not allow us a sub nor to split the kids so we could finish setting up our rooms.
- On the week starting September 30th, a truck from the district came to pick my things and take them to my new school. Since then I have been cleaning everything that was left in the room which had been used for some years as a holding area for kids in the mornings before breakfast, and as a storage closet for extra furniture or things teachers did not want in their rooms. I needed to clear some space. I consider myself lucky because I was given the entire week to clean up and set up, and also to visit my new kids while they were in class with their teacher: a classroom with only one adult and 25 Pre-K students. I start class this Monday the 7th.
- Whereas I experienced the school I am coming from as getting progressively fast paced and pushy, my new school seems laid back to the extreme. I have no computers in my room, my badge still does not work, and while there are other things to talk or think about, this also is not what I want to share at this moment. Though I felt it necessary as a preamble.
There is an opening, an almost elemental parting of energies, an allowing things to come through. For instance, this weekend I felt autumn waltzing into my apartment. I reorganized many things that had been in disarray for a long time, and I have just been happy. I feel a sense of lightness, and relief. Yesterday, I was bubbly with the sensation of love for my niece Camila. While I was cleaning and listening to the Cranberries, I felt lucky to have had time to spend with her. And I felt proud of her, and her life. And I felt her absence, and I wanted to go out with her.
While experiencing all this joy, I also had the sense of knowing that I just have around 200 dollars to end the month; the sense of being anxious about starting tomorrow with my new classroom; the sense of really wanting the tools I have grown used to for teaching: a projector and a document camera; the sense of knowing that there are phone calls to make, credit to be asked for; the sense of knowing that the US government is shut down… But it all seemed workable.
This past Tuesday, while in class at the center, I was touched by an insight as we were being guided into meditation by one of our teachers. As we/I heard the words that prompted us/me to be aware of our bodily sensations, of our feelings and emotions, and of our thoughts I was briefly visited by a memory of my brother. From this memory of having seen him around a year and a half ago (though we did not talk during that visit), my imagination jumped to 1) his getting back to me and yelling at me again for having allowed my niece to stay with me in 2010, and 2) to my very visceral (albeit imaginary) defensive/aggressive/scared reactions to the words I imagined him saying, and that I imagined myself hearing…
And then, a moment of clarity: I understood that I had imagined all of this in the space created by meditation; and I felt sad. I felt sad 1) to see that in my heart/mind I am afraid of him, my brother, and 2) that in order to deal with this fear, not simply of him, but the fear of being afraid, I cower when I am around him and I resort to pushing him (even the thoughts of him) away. And I was sad to see how in order to feel the layers of fear, how to genuinely feel the aggression and the fears that led to it, I needed
time that evening; time spent being guided into meditation, time where I felt safe enough. I was sad because often we need time, but we don’t give it to ourselves, or we just don’t seem to find it. I felt a sad because, I believe I am one of the lucky ones that has found this small space-time called Shambhala, or Buddhism, or perhaps it is just called practice; but nonetheless, I am one of the lucky ones.
Aspiration-I wish others had this small window of time-space. I believe having this small respite, and the willingness to slow down and look, or feel, could avert wars, could avert abuse, could avert destroying our environment. But all I can do is wake up as much as I can, and take myself (sometimes seemingly kicking and screaming) to the places where I can see myself clearly: Sometimes, as a mess of very confused images and fears. Sometimes, as a very warm and funny person. Sometimes sad. Sometimes peaceful. That’s me. That’s how humans, all humans, any human seem to be. And what we need is time to connect to our true self, to the space where we can feel, be and fully experience how soft, and vulnerable we truly are.
So here we go…several months after my last entries, but who’s counting?
Perhaps I could say that this note is an attempt to continue looking deeply at my experiences as a teacher in public school, and in so doing create space, or the possibility of freshness and vividness. Perhaps I could also say that my looking at my own experiences and at myself as I live my life, can help me understand and empathize with others a little better. Perhaps too, this could serve as an opportunity to open this heart a little more towards myself and others in similar circumstances, and to practice the Dharma.
The new school year started the last week of August and tomorrow, Monday September 16, the 4th week of our school calendar begins. I teach PK, and most of the children in my classroom are barely 4 years old or about to turn 5; and for most of them, this is the first experience away from mom and home.
Setup. Like everyone else I started the school year setting up my room. The school I teach had been promised new furniture which was supposed to arrive in December 2012, then in January, then before the end of the year. So as the school year came to an end we were asked to empty all file cabinets, drawers and to empty all shelves from our school materials and personal belongings because the furniture would now be arriving in the summer. However, when we came to set up our rooms, in August we found that the furniture had not yet been delivered. No biggie.
In order to make extra money at the start of the school year to help float me(financially speaking)and to purchase some materials for the new school year, I worked ten hours on the PK registration process. I was counting on that money to appear in my paycheck at the end of August. However, due to causes, conditions, errors, circumstances out of my control, this did not happen and now, I am waiting for that extra cash to appear on my next check. Already straining for money and it’s just the second week of the month. Breathe.
As teachers, we had to choose our new insurance packages over the summer. The cost of medical insurance went up for everyone in the nation, and because of this, and the fact that our whole insurance package changed, I now receive $100 less in my take-home pay than I received during the last school year. Scary. Saddening.
All bilingual teachers in Austin receive a stipend of $1000.00 paid in two separate checks in the middle and end of the year. While working on registration, it became clear that our school was not receiving enough candidates for the bilingual PK program. I was about to start the year with 8 students, when the ideal is to start the year with a minimum of 15 kids per teacher. Being the last person hired in the grade, my class was split between the other two bilingual teachers, and I was asked to teach a general ed PK class; which is what I am currently doing. I was told to not put too many more things up, because I might have to move. And, I felt I had to take down the elements that revealed blatantly that this would have been a bilingual education class. No biggie, right? I have been trained to adapt. Sigh. Concerned. Saddened.
Concerned. It is my understanding that if I remain at my school, not as a bilingual teacher, but as a general ed teacher, I may not receive the bilingual stipend even though I am Certified to teach Bilingual Ed. Maybe, exceptions to this can and do happen, but I still do not know what awaits me. I may have to move to another school where a bilingual teacher is needed. Or perhaps, those who make teacher placement decisions might allow me to stay at my current school teaching general ed, while keeping my stipend. I am concerned. First because I do not think I can make ends meet this year while bringing home less money than I brought last year. Sigh. Breathe.
Saddened. It all becomes jumbled when I attempt to tease all the strands apart. Feelings regarding thoughts and seeming circumstances; feelings about feelings and thoughts that I do not want to acknowledge even to myself; sadness that all this has begun to affect me. The sadness comes because of any and all of the following.
1) I miss teaching bilingual ed.
2) I wish I weren’t afraid for my financial survival.
3) I feel like in a Sci-Fi episode of sorts: in suspended animation…in some sort of bardo.
4) If I leave, the kids that I am currently teaching will become someone else’s students. And while I am sure they will adapt and perhaps even benefit from this, the experience might be unsettling.
5) By now, I have emotional ties to the kids.
6) Regardless of whether I stay or move to a new school, I have a lot of (physical and emotional) work to do.
Concluding thoughts. I can only feel and think what I feel and think. I need not push away or ignore the stress I feel. I need not be afraid of feeling lots of tenderness for the little kids in my room. I need not pretend that I am not concerned for myself financially. I need not silence that I truly believe that we could bring some sanity into the world(s) we inhabit. I have always held in my heart a space for those who teach. And after working for three and a half years in the US, even more so.
Tears rolling down my cheeks while I wonder about this dark-aged, sci-fi-like, topsy-turvy world of public education where:
1) Warfare seems to receive more attention than education
2) It’s acceptable to not even give yearly cost of living raises to those in the teaching field for over 4 years
3) It’s acceptable to ask teachers to be efficient with our use of time, while at the same time making us do and undo our rooms with promises of furniture that was supposed to come last year; or, when we could simply be moved to a different assignment yet to be confirmed in the fourth week of the school year
At least the tears rolled a little washing my eyes so I can see: the sun is out; my heart still feels; and Dharma is everywhere for the learning.
May all beings be happy…