Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the tag “education”

Young Writers Program

Since my father died, my inner light, the one that helped me see and feel, went out. I lived in a dark space, not unhappy, really, just dim. Shapes had lost their outlines, love had lost its purpose, and all the things that used to matter to me no longer did. Like a moth at twilight, I flitted silently, aimlessly, looking for any bright spot to move toward, searching for a spark that would brighten, however briefly, the nebula of my inner space.

Then I met them, those vulnerable teens struggling to find meaning in a world of uncertainty, the sons and daughters of mostly Mexican immigrants attending SOS, an alternative Watsonville high school for children who would otherwise fail. The message they heard every day was one loud assault. You are not wanted. You are not loved. You are not smart enough, white enough, or rich enough. You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from. An immigrant myself, I had heard similar messages as a child, but never ones as potent and deadly as those blasting through our country today, landing on young minds like missiles of hatred and defeat.

As part of the Young Writers Program, I was one of the volunteers asked to help the students write about, of all topics, social justice – something they had never experienced. But they had all endured social injustice, and their stories were poignant testaments to its belittling and bewildering consequences.

M was the youngest of thirteen children, a large boy with stooped shoulders and soft brown eyes that darted away when someone spoke to him. He had brothers who had been or were in gangs, and a mother determined to keep him from that path, a mother so strict that he seemed to flinch when the teacher admonished him in any way, in what had to be a learned reaction. He told me he couldn’t write, but then he did, about racism in law enforcement. It took a while for him to get started, and when he finished, after several weeks of effort, he was proud but reluctant to make many changes. Changes would have implied criticism, and criticism would have meant failure, a trigger to total shut down. So I let him shine, as he should but probably seldom did. “I am responsible for everything I do because I am a student,” he wrote, “so why not the police?” Proud that he had finished first, he opened up and helped his friends with ideas and suggestions.

Beautiful J, with long brown hair, chestnut eyes and an easy smile, usually sat next to M. I could tell that he liked her, a lot, and her cheerful banter put him at ease. His sarcastic observations, delivered in a random, laconic way, were funny, and she always laughed. She tried to explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor, which he already knew but pretended not to, and he made up silly examples to entertain her. I was startled when J told me that severe anxiety had kept her from attending a regular public school. Even here, she had started and stopped several times. Largely home schooled, she lacked grammar and spelling skills, yet excelled at expressing herself easily and fluidly. She, too, wrote about police prejudice: “One time my father got pulled over because he is the color of Nutella. The officer asked him, “Did you steal something today?” And my dad answered, “No, I’ve been with my kids all day.”” The police made them all wait in the car until they determined he was not “the dark man in his late 30s” they were looking for.

B, I was told, was “special needs,” and a solid-looking woman sat nearby in the classroom, assigned to him for what seemed to me no apparent reason. He had a mischievous smile and an innocent eagerness, the complete opposite of what I had been told to expect. He said he wanted to write a poem, like rap. He did several drafts, and I helped him find the words that rhymed and rearrange them in poetic order. He was thrilled to pour out his view of the politics of hate he sensed all around him, the reality of living in a community where a knock on the door could be the Feds, and no one was safe, not even in school. His pride in the poem he wrote was so real and so moving. On the last day, he read it out loud to the class. “We will rebel/We will never let them kill/What our people have done/And the freedoms we have won.”

When F joined our group, the session was almost half over. At first, he said nothing and sat with his head bowed, his golden-hued face and almond eyes half-hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. As he slowly began to trust me, he poured out a story of his arrest for tagging, and how to him tagging meant freedom and excitement and self-expression. I suggested he write about it, as it was what mattered most to him, and he was surprised that I thought so. I sat next to him at first, and he dictated while I scribbled down his words. I told him writing was just that, putting on paper the words that come from your head and heart. This essay, he wrote to me later, was the first he had ever written:

“Instead of putting us young graffiti writers in jail or on pointless probation, why not encourage us to express ourselves by creating our art somewhere safe where we won’t be judged as criminals by authorities? Why not give us sketchbooks and pens and let us draw? We could spend probation hours drawing and learning instead of picking up trash. When we are treated as criminals, we eventually become criminals.”

If F fails to beat his second offense and gets charged as an adult instead of a juvenile, he will go to jail. What a terrible waste of a gifted and passionate artist. The path from drawing on a wall to surviving as a gang member is not that long when the odds have always been against you.

What these kids needed to hear was that their stories were unique and interesting. Their stories mattered. Their lives mattered. As the weeks went by, more and more students failed to show up for class. The fear of ICE in this farming community left a trail of shattered faith and family chaos. All the good done by Charmaine Ryan, the remarkable teacher whose whole life is dedicated to helping these most fragile of students, could not shield them from the forces of racism and hatred.

A was another beauty, intelligent and verbally engaging, but her haunted brown eyes held the secret shame of sexual abuse, the private injustice that cannot be rectified. Her mother left when she was four and never returned. Abandoned so young, she and her brother went to live with an aunt, and it was there that an uncle began molesting her. When she finally had the courage to speak up, no one took it seriously. No one wanted to believe her. After all, he was family, and you don’t expose family, especially in the Mexican culture, where family is everything.

The best educated of my group, A prided herself on being a good student. I asked her why she wasn’t at a regular high school. She told me that she, too, suffered from debilitating anxiety that made navigating a typical school environment, especially as a Mexican American, impossible. She had internalized fear, her own post-traumatic stress disorder, and it kept her trapped. “I wanted to leave/I wanted to fight/I knew it wasn’t right/All I feel as I run down the hall…/The fear of his hands on me as I fall.”

After the class ended, I would remember their trusting eyes as I read and reread their thank you card: thank you for your time and kindness, thank you for pushing me to do better, thank you for all the help…I needed it. What they didn’t know was that I was the one who needed help. They were the ones who made me feel alive again. They were the ones who helped me know that my own life mattered. Thank you, gentle souls, for letting me share your light.

To learn more about the Young Writers Program, go to youngwriterssc.org. Volunteers are always needed. You can also help by purchasing a book of students’ writing at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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French Lessons

Scan 10He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.

The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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