The Great Divide

As long as I can remember I have lived in two worlds. I grew up in a small desert town where a large tree down the street was considered one of very few mildly entertaining places to hang out. You might use the word “dusty” to describe Waddell, Arizona at the time. It was a quiet, middle class neighborhood, but more diverse than most places in Arizona, which tends to be divided geographically by race and income. I went to elementary school with the children of power plant workers, migrant farmers and truck drivers. It was a pretty simple existence that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I loved visiting my mom in the city. There was noise and grit, convenience stores, loud music, rambunctious cousins and the occasional drive-by which I was never awake for, but heard stories about the next day or the following weekend. I would go home to the burbs after a visit to what I thought was an oasis of gas station Cheetos and stolen cable, and I would not utter a word to my friends about the secret weekend life of a wannabe city kid.

There’s this geographic split in my brain, but the more enduring one is quite literally ingrained in my skin – I am biracial.

Most of us are these days, so it’s nothing terribly special or glamorous, but it does come with a certain set of weird internal struggles that are both mundane and life changing. My dad was a child of a surly Mexican man and a mild mannered Swedish woman. My mom is the daughter of two Chicano parents who raised five children in easily one of the worst neighborhoods in Phoenix.

So here I am, kinda white and rural, kinda brown and city. Never enough of either to really fit in anywhere. But that’s not what this blog is about.

I would identify myself as a person of color (POC) because not only am I quite literally brown, but I cannot deny that I have the blood of Native Americans, Mexicans and all sorts of Mestizo in between-ness that began shaping who I was before I was a tiny dot in my mother’s womb. I have also experienced white privilege. I don’t speak with an accent, my parents are “Americanized”, the schools I went to were pretty OK, and almost all of my friends were white, which has a way of giving you privilege through osmosis on certain occasions.

I am a minority person who’s been able to experience certain aspects of white privilege, but I have also experienced the flip side. I was looked over for advanced classes early on. Even though I had almost perfect grades throughout middle school. I saw mediocrity lifted up above me and I didn’t understand why. One of the first times I became conscious of my skin color was at the mall. I used to shop by myself while my grandpa sat on a bench and judged people. I distinctly remember the laser focus of the Claire’s manager on me as I perused the selection of cheap sweat shop jewelry. I naively wondered, “Why are you staring at ME?” I looked around at the other people in store doing the exact same thing I was, but she was staring me down so intently that I left sans hemp choker (ahh… the 90s). And even now, as a fairly confident 32 year old woman, shopping at high end stores is the worst kind of social experiment. I’m just ignored because I don’t look like money.

We have to remember that racism and oppression isn’t always bombastic like white robes and swastikas. It is quiet and pervasive like cancer. Just because you don’t personally see it, it doesn’t mean it is not there slowly poisoning the whole system.

We are in what feels like an apex of senseless violence and hatred in this country I have passionately defended during anti-American rants while living overseas, the country I have been embarrassed by, the country that has equally betrayed and coddled me. The fissure in my identity caused by the duality of my life burns furiously, making me go inward and ask, “Which side are you on?” It’s all grey area until it’s your child, your spouse, your friend, your city, your race. That grey area of indifference is just as powerful and evil as a gun in the hands of mass murderer or a racist law enforcer.

We have to examine with great patience, emotional intelligence and great detail what made US this way. WE have a problem. It’s not mine, it’s not yours, and it’s not theirs. This is our problem.

It has always been this way. You just get to see it streaming live now. Manifest destiny was built on the backs of brown people, black people, Asian people, young men and women uniforms, not yet old enough to drink, but old enough to die for a rich old man’s politics.

manifest destiny

 It was always bloody, always violent. Now it is ever-present on the tablet your child uses to play Angry Birds. Will it make a difference when we see it up close? Or will we continue to say “It’s not me. It’s not my neighborhood. It’s not my race. I follow the rules. It’s not my problem.” It is your problem and if you don’t think it is, you are a part of it.

 

Ambition.

First grade was a big year for me. My teacher was notorious for “being mean” at my elementary school, which may be the least desirable quality of any adult though the eyes of a six year old. I can say with full confidence that Mrs. O was not mean at all, she just had high standards. An unexpected side effect of being in Ms. O’s 1st grade class was the elementary street cred you garnered among your peers for being in the mean teacher’s class and being alive to tell the tale. Ms. O facilitated my Big Year in a few ways. I started writing for fun that year and she praised me for it, which was a great motivator. Performance-based praise continued to be the great motivator for the next 15 years, and for better or for worse, I felt very defined by those reinforcements. One of the other things that happened that school year was my first failure. “Failure” being very loosely defined here – I got a D on a spelling test.

noone cares

I know a D on a spelling test when you’re six isn’t Enron level failure, but for first grade Liz it was a big deal. And clearly it stuck, because here I am writing about it at the age of 32. Spelling was my jam back then, and after having overcome the great lowercase b versus d confusion of kindergarten, I felt like being a good speller was a triumph and often resulted in stickers and/or “Excellent!” stamps, which is very gratifying. As you can imagine, no such gratification accompanied the 60% on my poorly executed weekly spelling test and I was crushed, but determined to kill it going forward. Focus. Color inside the lines with NASA grade precision. Read a chapter book (Charlotte’s Web). Write a story about a unicorn. 

1991 was my year, spelling test be damned!

overachiever

That cutesy memory of the first time I was disappointed in myself is just a snapshot of a single life in this universe and a microcosm of the collective existence of my peers who are driven by ambition.  I always thought of ambition as a really important and positive force in a person’s narrative. About two years ago I started reconsidering the idea that this constant thirst for something better, higher, stronger, more prestigious is anything more than an ego driven hamster wheel.

ambition

A year into my first corporate gig (after a decade in nonprofits) I was promoted from a front line staff role into training. Suddenly I was part of a very strictly defined corporate structure with a culture to match. If I can borrow the cliché, I was feeling very much a fish out of water. The things that used to fuel and gratify me (doing a “good job”, serving others) did not seem to be highly valued. (That was my perception at the time.I am not saying that it was reality.) I felt the pressure to be ambitious – fiercely ambitious. Prove your worth. Go to the happy hour and make sure that a certain person sees you. Talk to people strategically about your intentions. Be aggressive. Be vocal. Be visible. Everything is intentional! It’s just business. 

dude2

Listen to The Dude.

It’s hard not to get swept up in the undertow of comparison. The titles. The salaries. The judgment. The reviews. I was suddenly looking at myself and feeling the way I did when I was looking at my spelling test in 1st grade. Why didn’t I do better? Why wasn’t I more professionally focused right out of college? Why did I continually seek low/no paying positions?

After college I joined organizations where I could be of service rather than jobs that served some sort of ambitious agenda and I was very fulfilled, so why did I feel suddenly unsuccessful?

After a few years in this new environment I started to sound like a version of myself that existed in an alternate universe ran by the boss from Office Space. I am sure I annoyed some of my friends, and please be assured that I annoyed myself as well.

tps

I have had the opportunity to put serious thought into what’s next for me. I hereby decide to forego the baggage that comes with blind ambition. Making goals is immensely important, of course, and growing is still essential to my existence. But being laser focused on climbing a rock wall that never ends is absolutely useless and supremely exhausting. Some may call this simplistic or naïve, but I am going to give myself the same advice I would give to my little sister – just do your best and always be people-oriented. You can’t really go wrong with that.

terrific

 

My Life as an Impostor

I’m a poser in a bunch of arenas, but the most obvious one to you, my reader, is that I am not a real blogger. I cannot even recall how many blogs I have created with all the positive intent in the world to write, even if just for myself. I write a few posts and then it trickles down to a rusty puff of poorly designed and cold-heartedly abandoned web space.

I’m writing all the time time…in my head. I have written volumes of content. It’s just bouncing around between my brain cells along with Ariana Grande songs and the story line of Orange is the New Black.

Anyway, this blog isn’t about me being a lazy writer, it is about me being a 31 year old girl, er, woman.

Thirty was easy. Everyone makes a stink about how sad leaving your twenties behind is, but it wasn’t that hard for me. The twenties are fun, but crazy and insecure and lack dental coverage. I was happy to cross the threshold into my thirtieth year, with many accolades in tow, including a degree, life experience, travels, health insurance, the illusion of an adult corporate job, and a Netflix account under MY name.

Thirty was great. I had a good ol’ time doing Zumba, watching documentaries on space exploration and deciding on pursuing a Master’s degree. Then 31 came and my roommate left me for Chicago (and took her dog, how dare she). Living alone does two things: (1) reminds you of all the kitchen gadgets you don’t own (I opened a can with a butter knife recently) and (2) gives you a lot of alone time to think. Now more than ever I feel like I am impostor. I am an adult who owns many throw pillows, but I do not FEEL like an adult. My dad, my mom…those are real adults.

They know those secrets that only non-impostor adults know and don’t have to Google…like how to change a tire or make stuffing from scratch.

I refuse to believe that being an adult means getting hitched and having children, because I know that these milestones don’t magically make you a responsible, contributing member of society…despite the tax breaks. Plus, what if I choose to never do those things (mom, don’t cry)? Maybe this is it!

For now I will just strut around in my ill-fitting “business professional” work clothes and make a conscious effort to eat more vegetables and drink dark beer because that’s what adults do.

Liz Tries Making Mozarella

It was day 3 in Spain that I was ruined.

My palate, precisely. Well… maybe it was just my standards that changed. My palate had just not be used properly before. I remember the moment it all changed. John and I were on the hunt for an apartment and had exhausted our online resources. We were going to hit the pavement to find our new life, starting with a swinging European flat. Before we set off with heads craned up looking for “se renta” signs in the windows of apartments we couldn’t afford, we decided to get some grub at a café near our hostel, located in the heart of Madrid – Puerta del Sol. I ordered a coffee with milk. Simple enough. It came in a dainty porcelain cup atop a small, shiny saucer etched with the brand name of the coffee.

One sip.

Eyes dilated.

All of life on God’s green Earth flashed before my mind’s eye.

eyes

F@#*! This is the BEST DAMN COFFEE I’ve ever had. I quite literally still have dreams about that moment, lazily drinking perfectly crafted Spanish café con leche caliente and watching the city’s inhabitants float along beside me. I had been a barista for two years. I thought I knew coffee.

I KNEW NOTHING.

Repeat this moment countless times. This happened nearly every day for a long time as I munched through perfect baguettes, savored fluffy tortilla Española, sipped on tangy ciders and marveled at the miracle of Spanish ham. And then cheese happened to me. Goat, emmental, cheddars, brie, gouda, dolloped with fruit, sprinkled with nuts, coated in herbs. CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE!

I-will-never-love-anyone-as-much-as-i-love-cheese

America has failed us. We are cheese illiterate. The good stuff is being kept across the pond. It must be a conspiracy.

One day I went to the tourist market to salivate over fancy charcuterie and generous pours of Spanish reds. I elbowed my way through the crowd of unaffected Spaniards and mouth-agape Asian tourists and saw a prophet dressed in white – chef whites to be precise. It was the cheese god. His perfect Spanish was even better than his amazing English, but of course, this fancy fromage pusher was French. Of course. He had a case of crostinis dressed with various cheeses, veggies and fruits for three euros each. The one that caught my eye was a simple oval bruschetta with a slice of tomato, a dollop of oozy white mozzarella burrata, a healthy splash of olive oil and a large deep forest green basil leaf. OOF. *a drip of sweat falls on the keyboard*

This is delicious burrata.

This is delicious burrata.

Ruined!

Since I left Spain I have been overcome with cheese ennui – day dreaming of my French dios de queso and wanting to find anything that comes close to the delicious things I took for granted in that palate wrecking country! Which leads me to my foray into cheese making, specifically homemade mozzarella.

I’ll skip to the point here. Let me show you what I Googled after my attempt at being a prairie woman.

mozzA few people told me the same thing happened to them. In addition to being green on the cheese making seas, I didn’t have a thermometer (which is apparently very important) and I didn’t have enough citric acid (which helps the cheese curd, so…yeah).

I’ll let the pics do the talking.

Step one: Pour a whole gallon of milk into a pot. You’re not doing it right unless it feels like anarchy.

Milkpour
Step two: After adding stuff and stirring and getting anxious, the milk starts to curdle. This should make you feel dirty.

Curdle

 

Step Three: Separate curds from whey (This is not just a nursery rhyme. Ms. Muffet was a foodie before you had to wait in line for two hours in anticipation of a mediocre hipster brunch).

Strain

 

Step four: Be slightly disappointed at the fact the 1 gallon of milk makes two cups of cheese. Eat dinner at 10 PM cause this took too long.

Caprese

Dinner number two was homemade pizza. Not too shabby.

Pizza

 

Moral of the story: Who cares? It’s still cheese and I’m gonna eat it.

Top Ten Tuesday: Dumb Things I Have Googled

1. Beagle +crazy + running around

Sammy does this thing where he gets a glossed over look in his eyes and all the energy is drained from his normally human-ish peepers into his legs. He is propelled by some mysterious force to run in figure eights around the living room and then culminates this show with a fervent tail chasing scene until he collapses into a trance-like state and catches his breath on the floor. I actually found information on the phenomenon on the ourbeagleworld.com website under the “Psycho Dog” thread.

2. Why do I want to cry during Zumba?

Every once in a while, in the middle of some upbeat electro-latin dance tune I get  choked up. There is no common factor I can find between the incidences. The internet said something about endorphins blah blah blah. Who knows? I might just be crying at my reflection.The only time I remember a real reason for wanting to cry during Zumba was when we danced to the song from the South African World Cup.. That was just because I felt sentimental about the Peace Corps and I had heard that song about a thousand times that summer.

3. Is Biz Markie dead?

No, but his career is on life support.

4. dog + ears + hot

It doesn’t really mean anything.

5. Which onions are spicy?

I singed my roommate’s eyeballs with the overuse of sauteed white onions, which prompted my need for research. Google gods lead me to a Buzzfeed article about onions.

Onions!

 

6. Is all of the food at Cracker Barrel frozen?

It was actually hard to find the answer to this. My guess is yes, but my research was derailed by all of the blogs and discussion threads dedicated to hating Cracker Barrel. It’s fascinating.

7.  Powder coffee creamer + horse hooves

I jokingly tell people that we shouldn’t drink the creamer that is supplied in the break room because it has horse hooves in it. Then I thought to myself, “Did I hear that somewhere?? Is it true?” Google says there are no horse hooves, but there is hydrogenated oil, which is even worse. Apparently it is some terrible crime against nature where the evil food scientists inject metals in oil products making some near-plastic, hybrid, undead food monster.

8. Vegas outfit + not that slutty

I got an error message and then my computer anthropomorphized, laughed at me and poked my love handles.

9. Can plants feel pain?

According to a PRI article the answer is: Maybe?? I am still going to apologize to my basil plant for eating its delicious leaves.

10. What does “turn down for what” mean?

Well, I went straight to Urban Dictionary for this. Feel free to laugh at me heartily for not being cool enough to even turn up with the appropriate frequency to ask myself what I would indeed turn down for.

Why I Still Believe in Teach For America

2012 was easily one of the most difficult, most heart-breaking and most disappointing years for me professionally and personally.

I was supposed to spend the 2012-2013 school year teaching inner city middle/high school kids in LA – something I had left Spain (and job a really enjoyed) for. Instead, I was asked to teach Kindergarten in a rural charter school that had no idea what Teach for America was…or basically anything about me. That lasted a month. I could go on and on about where I went wrong, where TFA went wrong, where the school went wrong and how my plans went ass end up, but that’s not the point of this.

Spanish Teachers

The awesome team I worked with in Spain.

When I was asked to consider coming back to TFA to teach in my home state of Arizona, it was hard to say no. It was mind-boggling to friends and family that I would consider going back to work for an organization that caused some serious trauma in my life. Going back to teaching wasn’t about Teach for America – it was going back for what I believe so painfully in –that our kids deserve better and I want to be a part of the movement. Ultimately I had to say no. I incurred literally tens of thousands of dollars of debt because of my decision to join TFA, so now I have to be an adult with a decent corporate job and work it off. That’s life.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

Let’s start with this. I love teaching. I gravitate towards it. I l have a visceral reaction to teaching – I’m happy in mind and body in front of a group of people, trying to share something with them. I didn’t go to school for teaching, I went for journalism. Life takes you down weird paths and the universe steers you to places you’d never imagine for yourself. My first time in front of a classroom was as an aid in a special education class at Powell Middle School in Mesa (R. I.P.). Powell was a struggling school, with more visits from Mesa PD than was healthy and a population that fought tooth and nail both in and outside of the classroom for basic needs. The teacher in my class was a long term sub that wasn’t too fond of where she was or what she was doing. Those kids gave her a run for her money because they were absolutely in love with their actual teacher who was out on maternity leave. This substitute gave me (and the other aid) every opportunity to teach the class, which we took and ran with at every opportunity. Those children deeply touched me and I am still in contact with many of them

A former student and I at her high school grad ceremony. It has been 8 years since I had seen her!

Me and a former student at her high school grad ceremony. It had been 8 years since I had seen her!

Since then I have been involved with social work-education hybrid jobs including teaching middle and high school English in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer and teaching middle, high and post grad English & culture in Spain. I think it is important for me to point out that teaching in another country is quite different than teaching in the states. For example, when grading papers in Spain, I was discouraged from writing too much feedback because I was “working too hard”. Not that teachers don’t work hard in Spain, but the kids were expected to work just as hard and so were the parents. It was an odd concept for me and I still gave feedback, but my Spanish counterparts were definitely confused by some of my go-getter behavior. Teaching overseas has taught me that all the inane details (aka you must have X number of posters on the wall) that we require of our teachers here in the states aren’t required other places – and the students still did well (generally better) than ours…GASP.

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua - computer class!

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua – computer class!

Anyway, as a result of my brief foray into the world of TFA, I was unemployed for nearly a year, I accrued an absurd amount of debt (thanks to overpriced private school education that I literally got ZERO out of). This sucks…a WHOLE EFFIN LOT. I managed to get almost all the way through my twenties with no debt. Aside from debt, I left LA with an altered outlook on education in this country.

Now back to the point. Why do I still believe in Teach for America? Bottom line is, people aren’t exactly SUPER PUMPED to work in Compton, the south side of Chicago, Maryvale, etc. The best and the brightest hardly even consider teaching as a profession because society has trivialized teachers’ roles in a disgusting way, we value money over EVERYTHING and everyone wants to be comfortable. I am not saying that the best and the brightest aren’t teachers. I have MANY friends who are teachers and they are talented, hardworking, intelligent and creative. But at the end of the day, Mr. Summa Cum Laude from Yale who will live a charmed life as an investment banker doesn’t think twice about teaching. But who is the person throwing money at that senator who wants to defund early education in rural areas? Who was lobbying No Child Left Behind? They are people (and usually people with considerable wealth and/or power) who have no clue about your third grade teacher’s 12-hour days or your student’s school who has him reading 4 grade levels below someone in a richer zip code.

That is a hard truth to swallow, but it is the damn truth.

People gripe about the two year commitment with TFA and how it is perpetuating the teacher mill that low income schools experience. It’s a legit argument. The truth is, I don’t think TFA is trying to create life long teachers; TFA is trying to groom movers and shakers, politicians, administrators, policy analysts. Maybe they won’t teach for more than a few years, but they will carry those experiences and it will affect everything they do henceforth. But why would I want someone who only taught for a few years to be a politician and speak on behalf of educators?? BECAUSE AT THE PRESENT THOSE POLITICIANS KNOW ZERO ABOUT MRS. CRABAPPLE’S DAY TO DAY. Do you want someone who has been there? In the trenches? Lesson planning at 4 AM? Yes. Yes, you do.

Demonizing TFA corps members gets my goat. Ok, I will give you that there some weird political or administrative things that happen at TFA that I am not a fan of (I am a result of them!). But those fresh young faces, right out of college, with a diploma and a million choices at their fingertips chose to forgo that sweet job as an engineer at Boeing or an analyst at Charles Schwab or whatever it is their long list of accomplishments could have gotten them. They chose to teach in some of the most challenging schools in this country. People talk about how TFA corps members just use it as a launch pad into grad school or whatever. THERE ARE EASIER WAYS. I call bullshit.

[At a corps member's wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

[At a corps member’s wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

The people I met in the LA Corps were amazing people, dedicated to a social cause and ready to jump in feet first to an absolute nightmare. Let me say that again –an absolute nightmare. Are they generally ill-equipped? Yes. Do they flounder around and want to quit every day for at least half a year? Yes. Does your average first year teacher also struggle incredibly. Yes. The young people I met lived, breathed, ate, and slept teaching. TFA members generally aren’t used to this struggle for success. They’ve been academically successful, most of them natural leaders and extroverts in general. Because of this drive, they fought with every fiber of their being not to fail themselves, not to fail their children, not to fail the cause. Please take a look at that last phrase. To these people teaching is not just a profession, it is a cause.

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here...

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here…

We didn’t just talk about teaching and lesson plans late into the night – we talked about the big picture. How do you solve it? What is the root of the problem? Are we the problem? Where do we go from here? Are charter schools the answer? Are politicians the answer? How will we continue to fight? For the most part TFA does a great job creating a vision of sustainable change. The idea is that this change will come through corps members in one of many ways. Maybe they aren’t all meant to teach for life. But they will go on to work in many other fields and they will know firsthand what it’s like to be a teacher in a school that the state has long forgotten and the politicians have written off. This consciousness resounds in immeasurable ways.

So if you’re a teacher and you’re anti-TFA, I ask you not to judge until you willingly go to work in a school that is failing, where you might fear for your safety, where the kids distrust every adult they have ever encountered, where you’re constantly judged for expecting more, having vision, and seeing potential.

Don’t waste energy hating an organization and casting disdain on those who would like to see change. Your energy is better spent seeking reform productively. It’s urgent and it’s tragic that we are failing generations of young Americans.

Rather than looking outward to blame, look inward for change.

Crowdsourcing Project

“She can’t be burdened by your heteronormative lexicon.”

Isn’t that just the worst sentence you’ve ever read?!

Though it may seem like I would have heard it on NPR or in line at Whole Foods, I promise came from my weird brain. It isn’t about anyone or anything – it just popped up on the ticker tape that runs through my brain.

I am looking for any text that includes or is inspired by this phrase. Rap. Poem. Short Story. Whatever. You can reply on WordPress, Facebook, in a PM, email or whatever the hell it is you use to validate yourself via internet for social media. Whatever you send me may be used in this blog later, so be aware that ten people may read it.

Thanks!