Friday, December 12, 2014


He comes in swinging his arms crazily. He throws his coat on the floor. No backpack, so a notice for parents, a fund raiser form, a page of homework join his coat. They float around the hood and arms like snowy fallen leaves. His eyelashes are so long and thick and curly. He is mesmerizing to look at. Dark skin, silky curling hair close to his little head. He is eight.

He's off. Really off today. He avoids sustained eye contact and discussion. He bugs the other kids. Calls them names under his breath, sits too close when they play video games, shouts insults when they lose a player or miss a point. They are annoyed. He's on their last nerve. I call him over to me. I ask him what's going on. Nothing. Nothing. That kid called me a name. He said I'm HOMELESS!

To my shame, I respond, "Well-- ARE you?" He says, quickly, NO! So I respond, "Well-- then who cares what he says? You know what's true. Ignore him." Oh, stupid, stupid adults. As if IGNORE ever works, is even possible. As if  being called homeless by another kid is just any insult-- as if it's random or baseless.

He's even more agitated. I'm annoyed-- busy. Freshly back, emails demanding important answers and reports and statistics are weighing on me. He seems babyish to me, spoiled, demanding attention. It's because he's so beautiful, I think. He's used to women fawning over him, being easy and indulgent. I need to make him take responsibility for his actions, hold him accountable.

He's yelling again, and this time the other kids are starting to threaten him. I call him over. He immediately starts to cry. I can't stop admiring his beauty. It's ridiculous. But truly, this child is so incredibly lovely. He is crying, tears coming fast. I hunch down to him. HE SAID I'M HOMELESS! He shouts in my face. HE SAID I'M HOMELESS! I straighten up. I ask him for his Mom's phone number. "This has gone on long enough," I say. "Enough. You need to get a hold of yourself. Come on. This isn't how we behave. Not in the library. Not here." His shoulders start to heave. I remember his last name and find his number. I call Mom. I tell her he's having a bad day. It's just a bad day for him. He's usually wonderful. But today he needs to go home and calm down. Mom thanks me for calling and says somebody will come to get him.

He is LIVID. HE has to LEAVE?? THAT KID CALLED ME HOMELESS! I DIDN'T DO NOTHING!!!! I sharpen my voice, threaten him, say, "if you don't come over by the window and sit with me right now, and wait for your Mom with me, I'll have to tell her you can't come back for a couple of days. Come on, pal. Come with me. I want you to come back tomorrow when you are having a good day. You know I love you. Come on."

He flounces over to the window, tears, anger taking him over. He's almost beyond the point of control now. We sit in the window seat. I try to calm him down. "You'll come back tomorrow, bud. It's going to be okay." And that's when he tells me that they have been kicked out of their home. That dad assaulted somebody.

An adult collects him, calls me Ma'am, thanks me profusely. I'm profoundly embarrassed. I'm not Ma'am. I don't deserve thanks. But I don't say that-- I say, "Thank you so much for coming to get him. He'll have a better day tomorrow."

And then tomorrow comes and he's the first in the library. Alone, coat on the floor, papers strewn across the carpet, he says somebody called CYF and they have to go to the shelter. He is quieter, chewing his collar. He won't play the game of dreidel I play with 6 other kids. He stays on his computer, or hangs around a little girl, another agent provocateur, they like each other. He's not shouting today, his arms aren't swinging. But he's devolving just the same. He baby talks. He can't find words to respond. He's furious that I won't be at work tomorrow. Do you have a doctor's appointment? he asks. "No," I tell him. Then WHY? I explain when I work Fridays I don't work Saturdays, and the opposite. He is not absorbing that. WHY? he wants to know. WHY?

The evening wears on. Finally, we are closed and he's still here. I make another call to Mom, and this time she answers. She tells him to walk somewhere. It's dark and cold. I make him zip up his coat. I pull his hat over his ears. Pulling the hat down is the only thing I have truly done to help him in the last two days. And he's gone. Out the door, while the Pittsburgh skyline blazes red and pink and sugar orange. I lock the doors and look for him, but he's melted into the night, with his coat zipped, and his hat pulled down tight, and all of his school papers leaving a trail behind him like glowing pebbles on a forest floor.

Note: identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the child.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In honor of Malala-- Nobel Prize Laureate


Malala Yousafzai, the world's youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is possibly one of the most inspiring, strongest women in the world. She faced down the Taliban, weathered a bullet to the head, came back and recovered-- and then told them, "I am stronger than fear." She's not even 20.

As a person who recently had a relatively minor brain surgery-- no Taliban bullets here!-- I can nevertheless tell you that surgery on the head is no joke. She was brave before they shot her. She was brave during her recovery. And she's brave now. In her honor, here are a few quick book recommendations about strong girls in adverse situations. Both of them are written in prose poetry, and both celebrate courage, determination, and love.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Amira is a Muslim girl who lives happily with her family in the Darfur region of Southern Sudan. Their family has a deep connection and love for the land they farm and the animals they tend. Amira is very close to Dando-- her father-- and Muma--her mother. When her baby sister Halima is born crippled, Amira takes it upon herself to watch over and guide her. The two sisters are great friends.
Then the Janjaweed, government forces in the civil war in Sudan, descend on the village, burning and murdering. Dando is killed in front of Amira's eyes. Muma and her daughters flee on foot to a Displaced Person's camp, where they try to exist in their deep grief and shock. Amira loses the ability to speak, until a visiting teacher gives her a red pencil. Amira draws her father, her goats, her village, and the English letters she learns, one by one. As she gives form to the trauma and loss she has experienced, her voice returns, and Amira decides she must go to school. For her sake-- and for Halima's.
This book is exquisitely written in short prose poems. It is illustrated throughout in Amira's drawings, done by illustrator Shane Evans. This is a quick, affecting read that will leave you with wonderful visions of African moons, multicolor toobs (pronounce TOE-B), the Muslim attire the women wear, and possibilities within hardship. It is studded with beautiful Arabic terms and includes a glossary and pronunciation guide.
The other book I recommend is Serafina's Promise by Ann Burg.
  Serafina works alongside her mother on their family farm in Haiti. She travels far for heavy buckets of water to feed their struggling hillside crops, and helps to care for the family. Serafina's mother lost a child-- Serafina's baby brother-- who died of starvation soon after his birth. Serafina vows to work hard enough to help the new baby her mother is expecting survive, but her secret hope is to become a doctor. She wants to be able to heal children who suffer and who are sick, so that no child has to experience what her baby brother Pierre endured. There was a beautiful Haitian woman doctor who tried to save Pierre, who deeply impressed Serafina. More than anything, she wants to go to school.
But school is not free in Haiti, and tuition and school uniforms are beyond her family's reach. When the earthquake destroys their farm, Serafina struggles to find the doctor she admires so much to save her mother and the new baby. This book, again, written in short prose poems, spangled with Haitian Creole, shimmers with beauty. The characters' love and devotion to each other, Serafina's courage and determination, and ultimate triumph are super rewarding to read.


Friday, December 5, 2014

How I Breathe

Breathe them in
each brown cheek
each braid, each small twist with bright ballies on the ends
each long-lashed big brown eye.
Breathe them in.

Let them find their way from your eyes, your nose
your mind
down your nervous system
down your blood stream
pump through your heart
into your tiny cells. Magically, they live there now.
They are yours.

Breathe. Breathe them in.

Breathe their questions and their answers
Breathe their coats, thrown on the library floor.
Breathe the way I feel when they play video games I wish they wouldn't
Axes and guns and knives pooling blood on the screen
Breathe in my questions, my discomfort.

Shout their names when they arrive
Bug them mercilessly
attack if they don't greet me back
hug them too much, smoosh them, spin them all around.
Dizzy, discombobulated, grinning, they mutter,
"Hi, Ms. S."

Watch them. Watch them build. Watch how the figure it out.
Admire the way, missing marbles, they use mini-Legos on the toy
making something new out of what was broken.
Watch how they answer back, smartly
refusing to take shit. Or how they retreat, quietly,
building an inner world, a safe place, nurturing hurt.

Fuss at them. "We don't say the "N" word. EVER."
"We don't use the "B" word. EVER."
"What do you mean you don't have homework?"
"Let's do your homework."
"Go get your movies at home and bring them back. Right now."
"Zip up that coat!"
"I know you did not just say that to him. Say you're sorry. Right now."

Breathe. All that beauty. Glory in it.
Thank God for His creation. These. These ones.
Know you can't protect them. Breathe.
Breathe in. Let it out. You can't fix it. You can't.
But for right now--. For right now.
You can-breathe them in.