Monday, March 28, 2016

Puzzle Pieces

I have a young man in my class this year who might just be the hardest-working man in the 7th grade. He is, for lack of better words, just an incredible kid. He pays attention in class, behaves at all times, and respects his classmates. He is generous to a fault, helpful, and kind. He is not especially popular amongst other kids, but rarely do I see any of them turn him away. He knows and addresses each teacher -- whether you have him or not -- by name. He is the purest of spirits and the biggest of hearts.

And I'm worried.

See, this kid struggles academically. He works hard to focus in class, and he constantly worries about his grades. When he gets a poor grade, he immediately comes to tutoring to fix it. He will sit and work for hours at a time. He reviews his notes. He studies my anchor charts. He can spit out words like "appositive phrase" and "subordinating conjunction" and "dependent clause" with the best of them. He can define them. Mostly, he can recognize them. And he can sometimes create with them, but only in isolation.

See, this kid's brain doesn't work like others. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. He has the pieces. He knows what to do with them. He's constantly checking the picture on the box. But as he works, it's like someone dumped all the pieces from the other puzzles on the shelf into his box. And his brain isn't built to sort all of those pieces. It just isn't. So instead, he picks up a piece, he looks at it, and he knows two things:

A) It's a puzzle piece.


2) It's in the same box as the others.

Therefore, it must fit. So he looks at all of the holes in the puzzle, and he attempts to place it in there. Then, realizing that this piece fits none of the spaces, he finds another piece. Maybe a bright orange piece, but the puzzle is clearly an evening sky. And he picks them up, piece after piece, trying them even when it is not logical.

But it is logical to him because they're in the same box. And if they're in the same box, they must go together.

Tomorrow, he has to solve a hell of a puzzle. He's tried 3 times before, but it's as if each time he attempts a solution, it gets worse. Every morning, he greets me. Then he begins the worrying, the fixating, the doubting. See, the worst part is that he knows he can't solve it. And he knows what it means to fail in the attempt. His fear of failure is paralyzing and frantic all at once. He knows that before he even takes the lid off the box, he'll find pieces that don't make sense. Except that they're all in the same box, and if they're in the same box, they SHOULD fit.

For the last two weeks, I have sat with him in tutorials as he prepares for tomorrow. He reads and then looks at the answer choices. We talk through possibilities, but we keep finding odd pieces that have no home. He struggles for the pieces, nervous and searching my face for clues that he might be right. I struggle to hold back my tears, heartbroken and searching for the way to make things alright.

To make the impossible feel possible.

To find the boiling sun in a midnight sky.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Weight

There is a 20 pound cat on my chest.

I lay on the couch, and this is where she curls up. On my chest.

It is nonsensical. She is a cat. I am a human. I should force her to go elsewhere. This is what it is to be in charge, to be the master. But if you've ever owned a cat, you must realize that you are never the master.

It's hard to breathe. Every movement, every breath, feels heavier and heavier. But there is a comfort to the weight. I have grown accustomed that as soon as I am still, she will find me.

It's a fine line between being trapped and being grounded. But her presence is more the latter than the former, like putting a big rock on the end of your kite string to keep it from floating away into the unknown.

It is hot and uncomfortable. I shift and squirm to try to find some relief without being the asshole that throws this lovable fat cat across the room. The tv show has ended, but I cannot reach the remote. So I lay in silence, listening to her rumbling purr, deep and endless, thinking all the thoughts I won't give time or energy to all day.

And just as I'm about to give up, to cast her aside, to push her away -- she turns her sweet face to mine, stops her purr, and sighs the deepest, most human, sigh she can. And I bury my face in her fur and sob. I cry hard for a few moments, sniveling and ugly. I let go of all the things -- all the hateful, jealous, frightful things I've locked up, deep inside me.

She doesn't meow or whine or run away. She just lets me sob, soaking her fur with my fury and fear, until it is exhausted. Then, she clambers down into the floor, taking all of her weight and my own, leaving me lighter.

And I can breathe once more.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eye on the Ball

If there were one defining phrase to describe my mother, it would be "eye on the ball".  I've watched her hit screaming liners and home runs. I've seen her hit drives so pure and sweet they could sweeten all the iced tea of the South. She played basketball during the 6-on-6 days, playing only defense for entire games, always with one eye on the basketball and one on her man. She preached to me, all my life, the dangers of losing sight of either.

Keep the game in front of you. Keep your eye on the ball. These were not just lessons for sport. For my mom, they were rules to life. My mom is a survivalist. Survivors do not look back at the bear chasing them down; they put as much distance as possible between it and them.

Forever, I thought my mom hoarded secrets like my dad hoarded tools or knick-knacks. She never spoke about her childhood or family or life before all of us. Even as we grew, she never seemed wistful or sentimental. Never looking at old photo albums or reliving moments when we were small. Those qualities were purely Dean. Instead, Wanda was looking forward, waiting for the next turn, the next game, the next crisis. She was the mover, I thought, while my dad was the shaker. 

As a child, I was eternally frustrated and confused by this particular quality of my mom. I was left constantly wondering and guessing about what she did not say and did not share. I felt I was always running behind, and my mother has never been one to look back. Privacy seemed to be her greatest weapon. She did not offer; I did not intrude. And this was our dance of life. 

Even as my dad got sick, she kept their problems at bay as long as she could. As he worsened, even in the final months, she tried to stay focused and look ahead. I think that only as she saw the future dwindling, she began to look back. Since Christmas, my mother has changed. She talks more: about politics and world events, about fear, about her past. Each visit, I learn new things. Some she gives freely. Others require questions. But there are no more secrets. 

Tonight, as we cooked dinner, she talked about her life before Dad. Before all of us. It was deep and wide, swimming with nostalgia and regret. I leaned on the kitchen sink, watching her as she stirred and spoke and then looking out the window when it felt too much. It was a beautiful and intimate reflection, and I suddenly was aware that it was less conversation and more confession. My mother doesn't have a storage shed full of knick-knacks and tools to give me. Instead she has left me this: herself. 

And I began to wonder if I had been locked out all those years or just too afraid to turn the doorknob? 

Monday, March 7, 2016


My 7th period class came in today, and they were so unbelievably, alarmingly quiet. Sober, subdued, and silent. Although there are only 11 of them, they can turn my classroom upside down and inside-out just as fast as my largest class. But not today.

When I asked them if everything was okay, they just stared back at me -- their eyes glazed and defeated. Like zombies who had even lost interest in brains.

Finally, one of my boys said, "It's just so... so... Monday."

I couldn't help but smile. He was right. Even outside, the weather seemed to feel it too. Dark. Ominous. It looked like rain all day, but it couldn't quite gather the energy.

I was all up in my Monday-feels today, too, although it wasn't quite as bad as 7th period, I think. Mondays are for waking up late, forgetting to put on deodorant, wearing the wrong shoes, and hitting every red light.

If both copy machines at work are going to break down, it will surely happen on a Monday. If your bag of garbage is going to split and pour out onto the sidewalk, it will happen on a Monday as it did today. It's science. Or voodoo. Or both.

Mondays look like traffic jams and smell like burnt popcorn.

Mondays. Damn you. Mondays.