As I bid goodbye to the security guards and make my way through the crowd of students who always linger for a few minutes after school, smoking cigarettes and teasing each other, I feel alone and broken, enraged by the confirmation of an unqualified, miseducated billionaire to lead the department for which I work and on whose decisions depend the lives of millions of America’s children. I long for peace of mind. So, I take the train in the opposite direction from school and home, to the Upper West Side, to see my papa.
(My father died years ago, and even when he was alive, he hadn’t been there; not as in he was home late from work and never spent much time with me, but as in he walked away from me while I waved and signaled from my mother’s womb that he should stay and help me grow. The man I went to see is my uncle, who has fathered me so well for so many years that he is my papa still, for always.)
I go to see papa because there is nothing in life for him but art, family, and being good, and because having received the news of the confirmation of the new Secretary of Education at work, in a public high school, surrounded by fellow educators experiencing the first four stages of grief simultaneously, with the fifth one nowhere in sight, I can think of nothing to do but go in the direction opposite from engagement in anything of political nature. Even revolutionaries need respite.
My uncles, my mother’s two younger brothers, who look more like twins with each passing year, are sitting across from each other, as they have done for decades; first, while creating Armenia’s most ingenious animated films, then across the ocean while they waited to be reunited by the grace of America’s immigration and refugee asylum laws, and for almost thirty years now, across the table they share to make art, the only thing, it seems, that’s ever made sense to them.
They show me their latest art works, and I struggle, as always, to find the words to express my awe about their gift and wit. They tease all my baking and marching, and want to know about our impending trip to Jamaica. They ask about the kids, and let me go on and on about how funny they are, how wonderful. I spend most of the time talking about the last parent teacher conference at my son’s school, where I was told glorious stories of his successes and progress, his advocacy for himself and others, his stamina and determination not to give up on work until he understands it well, his way of looking for solutions, and all the ways that make him an example of hard work, dedication, and courtesy.
“Bah, Maryam jan. You did that,” papa says, reminding me how far we have come since the days when my boy couldn’t be understood, wouldn’t be consoled, when I had adopted him after five and a half years of almost complete sensory, social, and intellectual deprivation.
He is a lion now. But I didn’t do that. America did. America’s intelligence, compassion, and laws did that.
After five years in three of the City’s best public schools, it was evident that the public education system, the competence and dedication of individual teachers and staff notwithstanding, was not able to offer Daniel the kind of individualized instruction, attention, and support that would help him learn, and become socially and intellectually capable. Because of IDEA, which guarantees students with learning challenges a free and appropriate public education, we were able to place him in a wonderful independent school, where he has thrived far beyond the expectations of even his most optimistic supporters. For the first time in his life, Daniel sees himself as a learner, wants to learn, and is beginning to understand how he learns. He has friends. Younger students at the school see him as a leader.
What will Betsy DeVos do to my son? Will the funding that allows him to attend this school that has been his salvation be slashed? Will his needs and rights matter to her? Will she really lack the integrity and wisdom necessary to understand that the education system cannot succeed without catering to the needs and dreams of its most vulnerable students? What will happen to Daniel? What will happen to my students? Will I be able to teach? Will they be able to learn when all the supports we have worked to put in place are jeopardized by policies that fail to recognize the responsibility of the department of education to ensure the rights of all students to a free and appropriate public education?
As a public school teacher, it is my dream to see my son and all students who struggle with learning to receive the kinds of services that are worthy of our children’s dignity and promise. This can only happen with better research, a more thorough understanding of vulnerable children, more funding, more resources, and professional development opportunities. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos was a move in the direction farthest from such a destination.
That’s why I march, I tell my uncles. No, my marching, chanting, phone calls, and signs didn’t make a difference in this incompetent, dangerous person’s confirmation to one of the most important jobs in our country that requires the compassion and intelligence she lacks. But none of it was in vain: Some senators shifted positions, constituents were heard, parents stood up for their children, students began to understand their rights, and many people, who had previously not known or cared much about public education, awoke.
And so, we’ve stumbled into politics, not because I had meant to lead my uncles down a path they prefer to avoid, but because the personal is political and poltics is personal, and because all paths lead to truth. Today’s is that jackals have descended upon us, and we have found ourselves in a reality show in which the ratings and standing of our nation depend on our ability to battle unimaginable demons, so that our democracy, our laws, our values, our Constitution, and our children can survive.
Papa lights a cigarette and puts the finishing touches on an ornamental detail, a miniature wood carved balcony of an old Armenian building.
“Chegeetem, Maryam jan,” I don’t know, he says. “I only know that I saw the Soviet Union fall apart. It was the most magnificent event I had ever witnessed. No one thought it would ever happen. It had never seemed possible. But it happened. We saw it happen. You were there. You know.”
Yes, I do know. We persist. We rise. We resist. Until the walls and demons fall.