Taking a picture of a teen is like taking a picture of Bigfoot. The Loch Ness monster. Chupacabra. Results are hard to decipher. You get a blur of hair or a running body. You get the back of one standing with others, a line-up of sorts, in reverse. They’re all dressed alike, same height, same hair.
Mine gets on a tire swing and for a split second, I see her little-hood oozing out in her smile. She sees the camera and immediately gets back into her grumpy character where everything about life is horrid, brows furrowed, braced teeth gritted, and a small grumble eking out “Mo-O-m! Ugh! I hate pictures!” because she also hates speaking.
I got what I could, sifted through a hundred photo bursts, and found a glimmer of hope, one capturing the essence of who she really is deep inside all of those defensive teen-aged layers–even if that first teen year is the only layer there. It’s tough and almost impenetrable. Almost.
“Get one of me with Dad.” We stand, stiffly posed along the bank of the San Gabriel river. The light is perfect. We’re both not grumbly middle-aged parents. We’ve shed our own layers for a while.
“Give us a warning, at least,” I remind her, because we know she’ll capture us mid-yawn. Eyes closed. Mouths opened.
Brows furrowed with a small grumble starts out a whiny “F-i-ah! You’re taking selfies! Take the picture so we can move on and let other people get a turn.”
Laughter ensues, she shows BFF the screen, pretends to run, but first returns the phone and then runs. We take a look and there we are. It’s a good one.
Even better are the selfies. There she is. They’re good ones.
All layers–the one layer–shed because she played. Dimples in their original location. Braced teeth. A sparkle in her eyes. She’s still there.
I must have been born with a magnetic plate in my head that attracts flying objects, magnetic or not. If I believed in alien abductions, I’d blame it on that too, but I save that one for my pinkie toe and other stories. Stay tuned. Ever since I can remember, anything launched into or sticking out of the air, finds me. The top of my head. My ear. My face.
The last day of eighth grade, brothers in our friend group, the only ones with access to a pick-up truck, invited us to their house to fill water balloons after our end of school year celebration. Officially, even though it’s summer break, we’re Freshmen. Fish. Stinky Fish. Why do they even call it that? Not wanting to be left out, I tagged along. I wore my favorite jams shorts printed with tropical fruits and a tank top. My new summer outfit.
I was supposed to go home right after school to watch my younger siblings, but I convinced them to stay put and not tell Mom where I ventured. “I won’t be gone long and I’ll be home way before she gets home. Don’t tell!” I took off with a friend and made it to the party house.
The plan was to fill the balloons, load them-and ourselves-into the the bed of the pick-up and drive around town catching the new unarmed sophomores unaware. My bestie had a crush on one of them and on one of the drivers, so this was more of a flirting opportunity for her than anything else. Summer teen romance with a side of a third wheel.
We filled buckets with water and loaded them with water filled balloons. The brothers got inside the truck cab while the rest of us climbed up the back and sides to find our places. We drove around, our pent-up and hopeful for high school energy oozing out of us hollering “Ninety! Ninety! We’re the Class of Ninety!” No one heard and no one cared. Except for us. And those sophomores.
We made our way to the only park in town. That’s where we found them. They walked toward us and then, “Fire!” We all scrambled for water balloons and began to aim. Mine didn’t ever go far. Not only do I not throw like a girl, I can’t hold on to any type of sports equipment and water balloons weren’t any different. The others, faster and with better aim launched balloon after ballon at our opponents. They didn’t need my help throwing them, so I started grabbing as many as I could hold and distributed them to the others.
With nothing in their defense, the sophomores devised a clever plan. Evenings had been rainy. The unpaved parking area where we sat in the truck bed was…muddy. They picked up handfuls of mud. Sticky, clay-like mud that holds its shape when cupped into the palm of a hand and shaped into a ball.
“D-u-u-u-ck!” One of the guys yelled.
I sat near one of the buckets, so I didn’t see the commotion. I kept handing out water grenades. “D-u-u-u-ck!”
The girl in front of me ducked. I didn’t.
Everything went black for a split second. I reached for my glasses, but almost couldn’t find them. “My glasses, where are my glasses?” Still unable to see because I kept my eyes closed, I felt around for them. I took them off and noticed mud where the lenses were supposed to be. My face throbbed. Chunks of mud decorated my new outfit.
I’m not crying. I’m not crying. I’m NOT crying.
The truck peeled out and we were back on the street, pitched mud balls hitting the side of the pick-up. Most of the other kids laughed and pointed while I tried to figure out if the lenses to my glasses popped out or broke.
“You look like a raccoon!”
One of the girls, in between laughs, asked “Why didn’t you duck down?” I didn’t think I needed to. They aimed for her, not me.
“I’m going to get in so much trouble,” I managed to choke out. I pulled chunks of mud off my glasses and found the lenses. Mud clung to my hair. When I almost figured out what happened, a bucket of water came at me.
“Why did you do that?” one of the girls fussed at one of the boys.
“I was just trying to help her get the mud off,” he explained.
“You didn’t have to dump the whole bucket of water on her!”
Some of the mud washed off. Still intact, I wiped the lenses with the bottom of my tank top. I held my composure, but throat tightened. “Just take me home now. I’m going to get in so much trouble.”
I climbed out of the truck and walked up the driveway. One of my sisters ran outside when she saw I was home as I headed to the water faucet in the backyard. I gave her a look and put my finger up to my lips. I turned it on and hosed down my hair. I was already drenched. I put my outfit in the washer, cleaned myself up, and put on my responsibility cloak.
I heard about high school freshman initiations. I watched them in movies and read about them in books. I didn’t know they existed for summer breaks. Later, I managed to laugh about it, but I still have that taste of mud in my mouth.
tests await commands to start
You got a baby trash can?
Trash can? I moved it
to the front
box of tissues
bathroom sign-out sheet
He mumbles, looks around
making sure no one hears
or at least he tries
I walk to his desk
You got a baby trash can?
a little tiny trash can?
You see, I got sunflower seeds
eat em when I'm bored
I don't wanna
put em all over the table,
Yeah, I know,
I get it
I eat them on long road trips
so I don't fall asleep
while I'm driving
Testing binder in hand
I walk to my office
looking over my shoulder
letting everyone know
I'm sort of watching
Yank, yank, yank, yank
Use paper towels
that's all I've got
take a bathroom break
if you need more
He sets his desk
as if breaking bread
computer plugged in-
he forgot to charge it
a bag of sunflower seeds
slouches agains the testing divider
paper towels stacked and ready
Today you'll be taking...
He snaps the first seed
Spring’s second day brings a storm. Just like that, didn’t even have time to completely let it in. I rush out the door, vowing to squeeze in a quick walk before the rain comes down. If it decides not to stand us up. The air is heavy and thick with humidity, the scent of rain wafts around me. I remember when I’d run away from storms, and now I’m walking out the door to possibly meet one.
I’m listening to my audiobook, but thunder rumbles and growls, distracting me from the story. No point in trying to listen. Large storm filled raindrops plop ahead of me. I quicken my pace. I can probably make it home without getting drenched. My husband, always a storm tracker, but not never a storm chaser sends me a message. “I’m near the Little Free Library, not too far,” I reply. “There’s lightning, I’m coming to get you.”
So much for my walk, I’ll do some yoga later. My husband paces from one room to another, phone in hand, like an expectant father waiting for the sky to deliver. Sure enough, sheets of heavy rain start coming down, the wind picking up and slamming the windows wet. I sit down to write, I’m feeling a poem today. About the weather.
The rain has stopped, and the sun stands tall, saluting as the rain exits. I notice, but work with words stirring up in my head, until…
“At around 6:01 pm the national weather service reported a tornado on the ground near Jarrell…” my husband reads from his phone.
I keep writing.
He continues, “A confirmed tornado was reported over the I-35 flyover…” Not far from where my son works.
“He probably didn’t even notice,” I mumble.
“Call him to see if he’s okay.”
“I’m writing, you have your phone in your hand, you call him.”
He didn’t say it, but he was planning to go back to the radar that lives on his phone. He calls to check. “Are you okay?”
Nope, he didn’t, notice. Just a gust of wind and loss of power. Going home early.
We watch the news replay. It was right there. Close call, too close. It went right over his building.
“Are we going to die? We should totally go coffin shopping. I want my coffin to be long, the taller the coffin, the taller people think you are,” ‘tween interjects.
And, as quickly as those sheets of rain came down, the sun came out, and the storm went by, my words disappeared with them.
I stopped shopping at malls years ago. Too cumbersome. I got an Amazon Prime membership, so that’s where I’ve been since. My shopping trips usually consist of the grocery store, Target, Costco, occasionally Old Navy, and book stores. That’s about it. I hate shopping. My daughter gets lots of hand me downs from her older cousin and she isn’t into many of the current fashion trends. She prefers thrift stores.
A few weeks ago she requested a trip to Hot Topic to spend a gift card she received for her birthday last June. That’s how often we shop, almost a year later, and I haven’t taken her to use it. We browsed where she wanted to browse.
I knew better than to look for anything for myself, other than popping in to get my freebie from Bath & Body Works along with a scented candle. I bought her mall pretzels, stopped at a shop for a bag of crystals which will wind up strewn all over her desk, pairing up with the the other crystals of the same sort she already owns, and left.
I could use a new workdrobe, a new wardrobe I can wear to work. I’m getting tired of the same clothes. I look behind me and decide to come alone another time so I can have some peace and quiet while I dig into clearance racks.
She requested another trip to the mall this week. She’s enjoying shopping now, but thrift stores are her favorite. This time she requested a trip not to Hot Topic, but to Build-a-Bear. Yes, the ‘tween wants to go to Build-a-Bear. To build a frog.
“Didn’t you get rid of that Disney princess pup you got when you were five? Didn’t you say that place is so lame and only for toddlers and kindergarteners? You’ll probably toss it into the Goodwill pile in a few weeks.”
“Well, they didn’t have frogs back then. Bears are lame. Frogs are cool. And I will not put it in the Goodwill pile. It will be my emotional support frog.”
Before I listed a million reasons why she has no need for another stuffed critter, I reconsidered. It’s spring break. She’s been working so hard the past two years. She missed out on her end of fifth grade field trip and end of year celebration. She started middle school without her friend group January of last year following a rough semester of trying to learn from home. There wasn’t much learning going on.
What’s one more stuffed critter? I invited her best friend since kindergarten. Both had already researched the frog. I thought it was only available online, but that’s the blue tie dyed version. The green spring frog is what they wanted. Apparently, these are a hot item with teens right now. Sure enough, we arrived and there was a pair of middle school aged friends watching their frogs get stitched.
“We can go to a thrift store to buy the clothes because these are overpriced,” she explains to her friend. I’m teaching her valuable life skills. We made our way to get pretzels and made a pit stop at Hot Topic. More 80’s style pins, but of Moth Man. I didn’t even ask. On the way home, we found a Savers tucked a few blocks away from the mall, a blink and you’ll miss it type of location. We stopped and she found newborn sized clothes for the frog.
And that’s day one of Spring Break ’22. I can handle one more stuffed frog. It’s the trip there with a friend that counts.
As I worked with a small group of students using the button maker, another student came in, hunting me down. What’s so urgent?
“Mrs. Garza! I have to show you this!”
She holds a folded red bandana. Usually students either show me their own copies of a book I recently added to our collection. A published piece of writing from language arts class. A LEGO mini-figure. A new mani. A second ear piercing.
Walking toward the desk, she slowly unwrapped the bandana. “Look what I have. I need to be careful or it’ll break. It’s over a hundred years old.” Leaving the bandana on the table, she cradled it. A book, but not one I recently added to the collection. It was old. Over a hundred years old. A yellow envelope peeked out from underneath the front cover. I almost didn’t want to touch it, but I couldn’t wait to hold it.
Leather. Old leather, with pieces so worn they had fallen off. I needed gloves to handle it and here she was, brining it to school wrapped in a bandana and plopped into a backpack. Our new library bound books can barely take the brunt of a middle schooler’s backpack. “Where…”
“I got it at a garage sale! The lady gave it to me. I didn’t even have to pay for it. She said it belonged to her grandfather.” Another story about an hour after the previous grandfather story. Must’ve been National Grandfathers Leave Something Special to a Loved One Day and I didn’t get the memo. “Look at the letter!” she exclaims excitedly. “It has actual writing from the 1800’s.” Definitely an artifact because it’s actual writing. Opening the cover, she explains how the page had fallen out, or rather, broken out. There it was, a note with actual writing on it.
I tried not to gasp. I’m not sure if the book is worth anything, but the page was glued onto a sheet of paper which was glued onto an envelope. Yikes! I’m not an archivist, but this one may or may not be worth taking to an archivist. Wanting to check the publication date, I tried to open the next page to find information. It was too brittle. Not wanting to damage it, I opened pages that wanted to be opened. The print is still in decent condition.
I imagine I would’ve fallen in love with this book had I been able to see it back in the 1800s. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. I saved the title for last. A book of poems by John Milton. I spoke a little of what I remember about John Milton, which isn’t much, and his famous Paradise Lost. I asked for permission to take pictures. I suggested she check into having an expert take a look at it. What thrilled her most was the note written inside and the fact she got it free. At a garage sale.
This was a second story to add to my collection in the same day. My campus was without a librarian last year and library activities halted. It’s taken me a while to get the flow of it, get to know the teachers, and get to know the students. They are coming in more frequently now, teachers and students. And they’re sharing their stories with me. Even if they were free from a garage sale. I call that a win.
“Everyone has a story to tell. All you have to do is write it. But it’s not that easy.”
We received two shipments of delayed book orders I placed last semester. Supply chain issues. I’m new at my campus after spending my first five years as a librarian at an elementary school. I went back to the middle. What people don’t know is there are more steps to getting books onto the shelves than what meets they eye. “They already come with the barcodes, why can’t you just scan the book and check it out to me?” Not that easy. Not that quick.
First, I have to make sure I received everything. Publishers make mistakes, so I have to check that all of the pages-of the correct book-are in order, match the cover, match the correct series, match the genre. I load the records. Not only that, I have to go through each record to check for errors. This is the ELA teacher equivalent of grading papers. It’s time consuming. Sometimes I edit records and change genres to match what we have at our library. Example: mystery books are labeled suspense books on my campus. When everything is ready, I send the records to our district systems librarian so they are added to our catalog.
I lay my hands on each book, label them with corresponding genre stickers, print new call numbers if needed, stamp the inside with the date received and label them with our school’s address. Then I pay for them. Well, the district does, but I have to enter financial information on a program that never has liked me. Each book is inventoried and the final touch is a bright yellow NEW sticker above the call number.
They’re enticing. So much so that I want to check all of them out and keep them to myself.
These aren’t the only stories I get.
Yesterday, I chatted with a student while she worked on a 1,000 piece Harry Potter puzzle I set up in our maker space. “I love puzzles. I have so many at my house. And I love books. My mom does too. That’s why I love coming here.”
“What do you do with your puzzles when you finish them? Do you pull them apart and swap them out or do you display them?”
“Modge Podge. I pour Mod Podge on them and attach them to canvas so I can hang them in my room.”
“Cool,” I say, pointing to my Wonder Woman puzzle displayed above the graphic novels. “I do the same, but I use foam core on the back. Heat the blade of a box cutter and it slices right through to trim it.”
We continued with the conversation of books. She described a tattoo her mom wants to get: a girl holding a stack of books ascending a staircase with one side of her parted hair turning into a bookcase. I oohed and ahhed, imagining something similar to what I’ve pinned to my Pinterest boards. “My mom also has tattoos her grandfather drew. He would be my great grandfather. He escaped Germany during World War II and he drew a lot during that time. He came to the United States. I’m half Jewish.”
“Your great grandfather fled Germany during World War II?” I had collaborated with this student’s teacher to prepare them for a unit on the Holocaust. “Does your teacher know this?”
“Have you written this story? Have you told it?”
“You have an important story to tell.”
“Yeah, my mom says her tattoos tell stories. One arm is for the tattoos her grandfather drew. Her left arm is for her vacations. She loves fish and the beach. She has a mahi-mahi, a catfish, and a turtle. One time, we went to visit my grandfather in Oregon. We went in a red van so she has a red van on her arm too. I’m not sure where we’re going this summer, but I think she’ll add another fish.”
She continued adding pieces to the puzzle.
“Thanks for sharing. I think you have a good story you need to write.”
I went back to the third cart of books awaiting processing. Of all the new stories that made their way into the library this past week, this has been my favorite.
I’m so nerdy, subscribe to a sticker club. It’s like an ’80s sticker store, but in the mail. I purchased a year’s subscription for my mini-me two years ago as a birthday gift. I didn’t cancel the subscription, but decided to gift it to myself. Plus they offer a teacher discount, so how can I cancel? I’ve been hoarding stickers ever since. I don’t want to use them, but I totally need to use them. I have no business buying a sticker album either. Yes, they sell those too.
Every month, I receive a shiny holographic envelope with another sparkly zippered pouch packed with stickers. Oh happy day, snail mail, my favorite! I’m sure I can repurpose the envelopes, so I hoard them along with my stickers.
Last week, I received a badge machine I ordered for our library’s maker space. Bingo! I packed up my sticker stash and envelopes. I’ve never used one, so it was time to play. I cut out circles from the envelopes and the front page of the ‘zine that comes with each pack. The covers have fun prints, so I read them, rip the cover, and save them along with everything else.
After several failed attempts at making a badge and before deciding to send it back, reading the directions might help. I left out the important metal base. Went back to try again and alas, awesome, shiny, 80s style buttons. I decided to make a few for students to see if they’d like them. I wasn’t sure if they’d go over well. My idea of cool stuff is not their idea of cool stuff. Once spotted though, our regulars all wanted one.
Taking it a step further, I decided to make some donning the covers of popular books. The backgrounds aren’t shiny because we print them out, but sure enough, students are looking for their favorite titles. My library assistant made a template so all we have to do is place the image of the book cover on the circle templates, print, and cut them out. We have books on the 2022 Texas Lone Star Reading List ready to print. One of our student aides has learned how to make them and the task is now hers to supervise others.
I’m hoping these will motivate students to read. Even if they don’t, it will bring them through our doors so we can have a little bonding time, chatting. About books. Or stickers. Or about what it was like growing up in the 80s. (Hello, primary source, here.) And they’ll leave with a mark of library coolness.
Two students came in this morning to print flyers they made for next week’s Spirit Week, kicking off spring break ’22 (is it really that time already?). One of them is a student library helper that has taken on the task of checking out books to students so we can work on more pressing issues. Like making sure no one tries to bite a Chromebook. True story, but not under my watch.
One of the scheduled spirit days is “Dress as Your Favorite Decade.” They asked if I’d be participating. “Heck yes! Totally the 80s for me.” Then I began reminiscing. They asked what it was like and how I dressed. My answer? Pretty much like I do now, except everything was neon. Big hoop earrings. Side pony tails. Leg warmers. Fingerless gloves. Rectangular sunglasses. Rubber bracelets stacked from wrist to elbow. Miami Vice jackets with huge shoulder pads.
Miami Vice…my celebrity crush was Don Johnson, among many others. “Ooh, Ms. Garza, was he cute?” They proceeded to Google him. “No! Not yet! You can’t Google the Don Johnson now. You have to search for the 80s Miami Vice Don Johnson, they won’t look the same. Don’t do it!”
Too late. They give each other an odd look. Sure enough, it’s not the Miami Vice Don Johnson. We dig a little deeper and find one of Crockett and Tubbs donning their signature pastel t-shirt and suit combos. Sigh… “I know, he was way too old for me.” My library assistant chimes in, “But if it’s a celebrity crush, it doesn’t matter.” I mull it over. “True, but look at him now, ewww! It’s just ewww! He’s old enough to be my dad! Gross!” They agreed without having to agree with me. “Okay Ms. Garza, we’re going to come check out your outfit.”
“The flyer says you’re giving out candy if people participate. I’m totally going to get some candy!”
I print their flyers. We chat a little more about how we plan to dress up and other 80s celebrity crushes. For about ten minutes I was 13 again, swooning over a Google search instead of a poster in Teen Beat magazine.
I know, everyone is “celebrating” this once in a lifetime palindrome of a day. And I like palindromes, so much so I was fascinated with one of the characters in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, who spoke in palindromes. The character, one of the daughters in the story (her name escapes me-it’s been years since I’ve read it), renames Emily Dickinson no snikcidy lime, one of my favorite poets.
I found myself trying to make sense of today’s oddity. I like oddities. We tend to find each other frequently and sometimes, people find me, odd. Never mind them. It doesn’t bother me. Usually.
I had to walk back into the house twice this morning for forgotten items. My watch, oh grand teller of time. And my H20.
At work, we started day one of a two day testing session, the bane of my existence. No matter how far removed you are from the classroom, you still manage to get suckered in for testing.
During lunch, I messaged my husband and suggested we do something to celebrate. Maybe a dessert. Maybe something out of the ordinary for a weekday with the kids, but what, I wasn’t sure.
Later, I got a message. My husband and my nineteen year old suggested we go out for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Dos Salsas, where two different salsas accompany your chips before your meal. To top it off, it’s also National Margarita Day. Margarita is my signature color and if I were to choose a middle name (my parents didn’t give me one), it would be Margarita. Why the heck not, I’ll have a margarita today, three days before the weekend officially starts.
No one complained about the choice of restaurant. We didn’t argue about the possibility of sharing oversized meals and this time I ordered what I wanted without thinking twice about adding a margarita. I didn’t balk at a shared dessert of fried ice cream-we rarely order dessert. The kids didn’t fight over the last bite of it either. We all got along and genuinely enjoyed our meal together.
And that’s the point. Being together. This felt like the first normal restaurant meal we’ve had in two years. We’ve been back, but someone always stayed home, and usually for pandemic reasons. I know we’re not “back to normal” yet, if that’s even a possibility, but it felt like we were all back today. 2/22/22. Two years (mostly) later. Two long, hard, bitter years.
Do we always do this? No. Have our dinners always turned out this way B.C.-Before Covid? No. But it sure did feel good to have my family back for a few hours. It’s giving me hope that we’re at a place where we can move forward and take all the things that got thrown at all of us and actually process them. For us adults, we had to put on our business as usual attire for the sake of our kids. But I think it’s important for them to know that it was far from business as usual.
I think today is a perfect day to use as a turning point. We can fully come out of where we have been and reflect on everything we’ve learned. We can share our gratitude about how it wasn’t worse even though it got rough. We can show how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same.
Dos Salsas is still there. Mom still likes a good margarita. It’s okay not to split a meal, but totally okay to order dessert. Celebrate odd days such as these because they only come around once in a lifetime.