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Valentine's Day: Excerpt from Strings in our Hands

“Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday, especially in Guatemala,” I announced after showing up to work my shift at the library’s Learning Through Play program. I slid my calf out along the carpet to reveal black tights dotted with red and pink hearts. It was. It was Saturday. It was Valentine’s Day. Weekends were where I made up extra outreach hours I was missing to stay on track to finish my requirements as an Americorps volunteer. It was Valentine’s Day and just another day I rushed to work after the gym. Somehow despite, or to spite, “single’s awareness day” as I heard it called in college one ice cream laden movie night, I loved Valentine’s Day. “It’s so fun in the classroom,” I had often explained. And that, simply, was why. The fact that I now owned several shades of pink clothing made the day even better. “In Guatemala, it is celebrated as friendship day,” I clarified.

Learning through Play was a session designed to encourage parent interaction, specifically around process activities. It was scheduled three times in the winter at the library and included dramatic play, large and small motor activities book displays and apps. This was the second session. Unlike working at the Children’s Desk, I was not able to check e-mail or choose distracting personal things to do except for spending time in my own head. I sat down behind the folding table next to the cart with extra supplies ready to spend a few hours musing.

Bills popped into my head first. Receipts would pile up in my purse before I shoved my hand inside to remove a cluster of paper. Most disheartening was that sacrifices I made to save money in Guatemala like the dentist, clothes, my glasses, were catching up with me anyway. I had sacrificed for no reason.

My stomach grumbled. I sipped some of the coffee in my thermos. It was cold because I had poured it from my coffee maker before I left for the gym. I let my fingers linger over the photos inside the plastic case on the “decorate your own” tumbler. Most staff sipped coffee or water at the desk. I would have to wait for food. After so much time starving my sense of self in the name of someone else, my metabolism was out of whack. Most of my sacrifices seemed that way now, including education instead of an MFA. I should have considered the importance of myself. I had lived in kind of an anorexic state, including as a learner. I was trying to find balance. My mind drifted to the seed catalogues and the garden my dad was already planning.

I shook my head, glanced at the clock and then began to watch the parents with interest, and tried not to look like I was watching them. Since we began the second twelve week series of playgroup, I was less clear about the role of coaching parents in a library setting. Why I was there in that particular program, what its objectives were and how they aligned with the library’s objectives were less and less clear to me. Conversely, the program didn’t know who I was either. I mostly stayed at the table marking down the number of attendees unless the rice or playdough stations became too messy and then I cleaned. I maintained a nonintrusive, safe distance. For spring semester, there was a new intern for the teen services. She was learning about the library that day, and she came to sit down next to me.

“Can I watch for a while?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

“So what exactly is this?”

I explained the purpose of the program and the early literacy components it supported. Having completed some of the online coursework offered to the playgroup facilitators, I used the specific library vocabulary in my thick teacher accent to answer her questions. I took a sip of coffee and congratulated myself for what I had learned so far. She didn’t stay long. I was relieved to see René at the door. René had stopped by to look at some of the new multicultural literature. She was always making lists, and these were more books she could use in the multicultural storytime next summer.

“It’s fascinating,” I told René. “The conversations between caregivers and their children are key to learning and practice. When I had the chance to interact one-on-one with parents, as the program provided ideally twice for each child, they could see that for me engaging their child was difficult too,” I continued. “The concept of ‘expert’ is ridiculous, but our experiences complement each other. We really work well as a team co-teaching the child. I want them to see me as a learner like them.”

“I had that experience in workshops,” René confirmed. “I don’t remember very much if I just listen either.”

“Plus, I said, thinking back to the often illiterate Mayan women I worked with in libraries the past five years, “It’s not a natural thing for everyone to put a book in front of someone and ask them to make up a story to the pictures.” René and I were tucked away from the Children’s desk, and somehow I still felt the need to whisper. “If you say it’s easy, you’re setting them up to feel bad, if when they sit down to try it, it isn’t. Although my dad was excellent at make believe and never acknowledged it as a real skill or a ‘smart’ skill.”

“It’s not honest,” she replied, paging through a book about a Harlem bookstore.

More and more I was thinking about my father during playgroup and all the unseen ways he was an essential teacher in my life. I didn’t see it, and he still didn’t really see it. My mom was the leader, the “smart” one. He avoided that place, “teacher”. It made me ache.

“You know,” I said. “I unexpectedly found success using African American literature with the Guatemalan staff. Themes of poverty and lack of opportunity were an easier connection to make often times, than using a book that was in Spanish, but from México.”

She bobbed her head quickly, “Yes. Yes!” Her arms were full. She sat down in a cotton’s whisper with a sloping pile of folders. Bright emerald diamonds exhaled around her arms and over the chair.

“How’s it going?” she asked. René knew how it was going. She recently started sending me job openings she received in e-mail feeds.

“I love my dog,” I smiled weakly. “He’s my Valentine.” That was pretty close to being true. I had brought him home to my apartment the day before Valentine’s Day after mooning over him twice a day for almost three weeks in the Panajachel market. He cost 300 quetzales, a little less than $40. “If I buy him, it’s Q300 I won’t spend on the library in Santa,” I had told Carlos. He knew how much the library meant to me. He was the library coordinator for Santa Catarina who forwarded my original application to Child Aid. “It would be a selfish thing.” I didn’t realize until after I had carried his soft but stained little body home in the crook of my arm, the chain reaction I started in regards to learning about myself.

“I can’t believe no one took him! What if someone had taken him?!” my dad reminded still. It was a miracle Solo didn’t get taken home by someone else, but Child Aid hosted their board retreat in Guatemala that year, and I traveled for a week with them. I hadn’t had a choice but to wait that last week, but I couldn’t deny that Solo was an opportunity I almost missed because of work.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” René offered.

“Oh good,” I chuckled. “Then there’s one of us.”

“How’s the writing going?”

“I’m working. I have several things sketched out, two books actually. Sometimes I’m too tired. I leave gaps where I need to. I’ve got to give meaning to this year somehow. It’s such a disaster.” I commanded myself to write. I commanded myself to the gym. “Push through. Head down. Pull,” I repeated to myself. I listened to my dad lament the loss of his physical stalwartness. How many years could my ever whitening knuckles hold on?

“I have some information and possible activities for the outreach programs.” She was getting down to business now. A half hour was not long enough.

I had signed up to help facilitate, Lunar New Year and Mardi Gras. I liked working with René. There was a mutual admiration of skill set. “It’s like you’re inside my head,” she often said.

“These folders are pretty straight forward. I have a lot of volunteers for Lunar New Year. For Mardi Gras you are doing the jester table, but I hoped you would have time to pull some books too. We will meet in the next couple of weeks for Day of the Book. I know it’s in April, but it’s a big one and most times the curriculum materials they send don’t come out until the last minute. I don’t want to be limited to the suggested book lists either, so we have to be prepared.”

“Are you looking for S.T.E.A.M, science, technology, engineering, art and math?” I asked proudly remembering each one. I knew I couldn’t legitimize my ideas without the language. I gave myself a mental gold start for knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them here at the library.

“As much as we can.”

“I should write some of those books,” I said to René; I commanded myself. I was noticing definite diversity gaps every time I was asked to pull books.

“You should.”

“I almost studied English you know. My English professor freshman year suggested I switch majors,” I commented

“Why didn’t you?”

“I thought it was selfish, that I could do more for people teaching. I’m not convinced now though,” I continued. “The way I feel in writer’s workshop, supported and learning in a group co-creating, it’s nice. Sometimes I read agent’s websites, and they read like advocates for a real sociocultural impact. I’m sure it’s not 100% that way, but. . . I don’t know.” I paused. I didn’t know how to finish. “Nothing can ever be one hundred percent altruistic.” Was that Robin Norwood or Adam Grant? All the books I had read were blurring together.

“I’ve thought I missed things, but most come back around. Learning new things can do that.”

“It’s sort of like in my teaching. Feels like teaching. I’ve been a storyteller the whole time. I have to be careful though and wrestle against my habit for academic text. I need to own it. The story.” I had been repeating that to myself also, since the impromptu writing retreat at Amy’s cabin up north. “In my heart, I know I’m tired of telling others what to do before they asked.” That was probably somewhere close to the root of my current state I defined as underpaid professional confusion, feeling very much like a substitute until someone better came along.

“Something will! I’ll keep sending you stuff.”

“When I taught at the international school a teacher asked me ‘What was the most important decision I ever made?’ I said, ‘Learning Spanish,’ because it really opened doors for me.”

René nodded in agreement. Her Spanish opened doors for her and for countless others in the town.

“Now I think maybe it was the other decision, the college major.”

“You know what. I love being able to give you the opportunity to share your gift in these programs. You’re a storyteller and this is your story. If you need to find a new medium to write it in, then do it!” René’s ponytail ringlets bloomed open for emphasis.

“I suppose there is more value in acknowledging confusion than denying ignorance.”

“Absolutely!” She sprung up. Her curls bounced atop her head. Their malleable shape was as whimsical as Chris’s longer tresses, almost like Tinkerbell, or some other such fairy. Fairy godmother? Maybe she had some pixie dust she could sprinkle. I breathed through my teeth. I would still need to provide the happy thought.

“You dyed your hair,” I noticed the blondish highlights running along a muted mahogany tone. I was trying to mention complimentary details every time I could.

“Yeah. Great color for winter.”

“I bought a new sweater finally on sale. It has this cool fading around its cables. Distinctive. My dad was sure I’d pick the white one.”

“Why’d you pick the blue one?”

“Don’t know,” I lied. The truth simmered under the surface. “I wanted to stand out?” I stated my answer in the tone of a question, but I didn’t guess. I knew.

“I have to go. I have another meeting. E-mail me if you have questions.” I loved how René took the time to ask about me. She was illuminated by energy, a contrast to the dull light of February or an office. I wanted to keep staring at her like I used to stare out my bedroom window waiting for my mom to return from her graduate coursework for a Master’s she never finished.

After René left, I started to page through the folders. Many worksheets were familiar from the multicultural storytime and her Faces of the World International fair. I hadn’t hosted my Guatemala table last fall. I created a storyteller table instead. Maybe for Day of the Book I would wear my guipil. I shifted my legs in the stiff plastic chair. I always had a chronic ache down my left leg when I sat too long after a hard spin class. The heart tights weren’t that comfortable either. They were actually meant for little girls to wear on Valentine’s Day.

By April, one year after returning home, it might feel nice to wear my traje or bring in the backstrap loom. Both contained math, engineering and art. I felt my heart skip a beat in anticipation. Once upon a time I decided not knowing my students as learners was the problem. That was only part of it. Not knowing myself as a learner was the other.

“You can ask your reader to work hard, but you have to show them how.” My writing instructor’s voice popped into my head. Shared teaching and learning contributed to a multiplicative effect. From the first time I sat down in the backstrap and felt lost in the tense loom around me, there was comfort in seeing the frame that restricted me. I may have been an unpracticed author and editor when I composed my Master’s thesis, but that metaphor for the institution of education held. Read like a writer so learn like a teacher?

I shifted in my chair and stared at the doorway. There were no windows in this room. I could only imagine the view from the curved, wooden desk of the wind’s force pushing unweighted tree branches. It had been a slow day. I had a book in front of me René recommended, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I pulled the book towards me. The boy was struggling with identity, like me. When I flipped through the pages, a list towards the end stuck out. The main character listed fifteen different tribes to which he belonged including Spokane Indian, poverty and cartoonists. This teenager was my new role model.

“I realized I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness,” he wrote ahead of the list. “And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay,” he concluded after. The novel made things clearer to me than countless articles I had read lumping teachers, their backgrounds, their beliefs, their actions, as a homogeneous group. I saw “teachers” with no community, and communities that did not identify as “teachers”. Mostly I saw a world full of teachers who matched more than they didn’t, but who weren’t communicating with one another, not even seeing each other.

That was the irony of this library position. The down time frustrated my hard working sensibility but I would never have come across helpful titles, if the new book shelf didn’t stare at me during idle times from across the carpet aisle, or if I wasn’t asked to decipher the shelving assignment, leading an excited child or dutiful adult through the toy explosion where toddlers were underfoot. I wasn’t reading books for adults, but I didn’t feel much like an adult these days anyway, still sleeping on a twin bed and eating my dad’s peanut butter. As my torso sunk between the two twin mattresses I recently pushed against each other so the dogs could sleep together and with me, the mismatch with my surroundings was obvious. I looked at the clock. I only had half an hour to go. I should probably sweep up the rice and pick some playdough out of the carpet.

Last year was the hardest to love February fourteenth. It rang with regret when Ana, the librarian I trained for the library in Santa Catarina announced she was getting married. I mourned every bit of time we spent learning together, working for something more, for the students, for the village. I almost cried right then in the close darkness of her mother’s sick bed. Those selfish tears showed me that the girl’s life trajectory I knew first as a twelve year old folding origami cranes out of recycled paper, and by proxy the projects I had used to define my existence all of a sudden had a shelf life near expiration. I was living and dying, writing, stories, for others. The character reflections from my workshopped fairy tale sifted over me. Who is the speaker? What does she want? What does she fear most? How does she change? What will she do if she gets what she wants?

In this library program, I was the character written without dimension and thrust into the story uninvited. That “teacher” defined by my past classroom lives played out in academic articles, novels and public opinion was a fiction read in black and white. I had shades of gray, but like the hairs hidden by a typically dishwater blonde head, no one could see them, nor did even I look. I felt the desire to give my words rhythm. It had been awhile, but I could do it again.

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