Many times in my life, I’ve had a warrior’s cry in my chest that echoes back to the young people I call my kids. My kids, those fragile beings in a wild and wicked world, are not from my body. They were born from a womb that I’ve never had the courage to mimic, but I know them as my kids nevertheless. We sit in a walled-in nest of concrete blocks that are tucked with feathered care, like an empty nester trying to fill the holes and crevices of the hearts I can’t ever own. We read, we listen, and we hurt together when the howling winds of society slam against our door.
In the heart of every teacher is a core built from puzzle pieces. It starts small, but with every year, grows in city blocks, reaching out, expanding from the heart to encompass each smiling face of every living soul we’ve called our own. But sometimes, those pieces explode and send out shockwaves that rock the very center of our identity.
Every time I watch the news, I think, that could have been them. That could have been her. That could have been him. My mind creates the slide show.
Two teens are dead after a 16-year-old gunman shot 5 classmates and himself in 16 seconds, cops say.
Plip. New frame. Smiling face on a puzzle piece of my heart.
“If it comes down to it, you hide in the closets. We will barricade the doors beforehand and I will stay outside of the closets as a distraction. You must utilize the resources in front of you. Use textbooks as shields inside of the closet door. Don’t come out, no matter what you hear. You stay there until someone can unlock the doors. And remember, you can’t make a sound. You have to be quiet. Please…”
The El Paso shooter told police that he was targeting Mexicans.
Plip. New frame. Smiling face on another puzzle piece of my heart.
“For my project, I wrote about stereotypes. I’m proud to be Mexican… I’ve heard the ‘Build The Wall’ comments in the hallway and students being hateful … I am a Mexican-American, but I am not an alien. I am a Mexican-American, but I am not a wetback. I am a Mexican-American, but I am not illegal. I am a Mexican-American, and I am not lazy or looking to mooch off the system. My father works hard and my mother works hard. And you know what? I’d venture to say they’ve had to work twice as hard as some of your parents because of the assumptions people make about them. “
Woman escapes after man uses Tinder to lure her into being kidnapped, sexually assaulted.
Plip. New frame. Another face, taking up residence on a puzzle piece.
“I remember you telling me that first day about what happened to you when you were younger… And I need your help. There was this party I went to…and I thought they were my friends. But things got out of hand. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to feel. It is all my fault…I see two of them in my classes, and my head is all fuzzy and I can’t stop running through what happened and what they did to me. I just need your help… ”
Two Black transgender women were killed last week. Thousands showed up to protest.
Plip. New frame. Smiling face on yet another puzzle piece.
“I wanted to talk to you before the conferences tomorrow with my parents. Please don’t call me by my chosen name and pronouns. It hurts me to ask you that because you’ve always been one of the few people who never slips up with my dead name and who cared enough to get it right the first time…But you have to understand. They can’t know who I am at school. They think it is a phase. They think I’m just confused. They won’t let me do anything about it…So I need you to let them believe that I’m just normal. And yes, I know I am normal… We both get that. But they don’t. And they won’t. “
"Say their names": The list of people of color injured or killed in officer-involved incidents is still growing.
Plip. New frame. Smiling faces scattered across the puzzle of my heart.
“So what happened? Why did the two of you get sent to the office and why are there such terrible comments on this substitute’s note?”
“Nagel, you should have been there. This guy told D-man that he might as well give up on his dream of going to college because he was too dumb to get accepted! We couldn’t just let him talk to our boy like that.”
“Yeah, and then he wouldn’t let Jarmaine go to the bathroom because he said he didn’t trust him not to go sell drugs! You know how effed up that is? We’ve had this guy before and nothing ever happens to him even though he says stuff like that all the time.”
“What was his name? He won’t step foot in this room again, and we’ll see what we can do about making sure he doesn’t step foot in this school again.”
Their faces flash past my mind’s eye and I think they could have been mine. And although they’ve rarely been mine, they’ve always been someone’s baby. Someone’s kid. Someone’s student. After a while, the fear congeals into a sick mess of hurt and agitation. It starts to transform into a wasp-sting of anger and bitterness. Eventually, it evolves into rage. When that rage bubbles up, let it. Harness it with a lasso braided and knotted with passion, and use it to chase justice.
I’ve written and yelled and screamed in agony about the faces that flash by whether they are or aren’t mine. Because they’re someone’s and that is enough to justify the fire that is lit below my skin. So keep on writing to your local, state, and national leaders. Keep on reading stories that represent who our students are. Keep on flipping the script on the status quo and the literary canon. Keep on marching the streets, using your teacher voices to chant for the lives and futures of our youth. Keep on hugging and wiping the tears for those who need you. Keep the fire on high and don’t let it sputter…because the headlines keep coming, and they won’t stop until we make them.
I see you.
I hear you.
I love you.
I support you.
Keep fighting for the puzzle pieces in your heart, and don’t stop until our kids can breathe in a future free from headlines with smiling faces that just can’t smile anymore.
Danielle Nagel-O'Rourke teaches at Moore High School and also currently serves as one of our OKCTE Geraldine Burns Award Coordinators.