October 8, 2015

In Lak'ech Ala K'in | I am Another You. You are Another Me

I'm spending the morning in high school. Everything is much smaller than I remember ... except me.

La Clase

My friend Jackie Madrigal pioneered a US Latino Literature class at Shawnee Mission North High School in Mission, Kansas. She invited Chato Villalobos and myself to be guest speakers to help put some faces to Latino literature and to talk about the Latino Writers Collective and our writing processes. Both Chato and I are honored to be asked. Her curriculum is thoughtful and hits all the major notes in the rather large genre.

As this day grew closer, my social anxiety started to wrap itself around me. In fact, last night I spent some time thinking about how I could get out of this gig. Chato could do the presentation himself. He's a police officer and therefore automatically much more interesting, right? Besides I have to work that afternoon and there's a chance I could be late. My tummy still kinda hurts from when I was sick last week. Also my car is pretty old and I don't like to drive it more than necessary ...

The lovely Jackie
Well, none of those reasons overcame the importance of being in the classroom and talking to young people about writing and Latino literature.

So there I here I am. The lockers are small. The chairs are small. The hallways are wide but small at the same time. I am Alice looking for the bottle labeled 'drink me' just so that I can get myself to a reasonable scale in my surroundings.

Jackie looks beautiful in her white dress and long legs. Her smile is as welcoming as her spirit. For some reason I'm reminded of Sister Mary Magdalene who wore thick glasses and taught math. She's the physical opposite of Jackie but they both love to teach and maybe that's why sister pops into my head.

Why did she pick that name -- Mary Magdalene?

The classroom is empty. Just Jackie, Chato and me are there. Thank god. I have time to wrestle my social anxiety down before the students get here. Jackie puts out some pan dulce and just before I inhale it, I scrape some of the sugar off the top because that makes it healthy, right?

Breaking Pan and Literary Piñatas
Jackie introduces us to the class and she's letting her passion and emotion come through. It's touching how much she loves these students, Chato, and the work she's doing. That must be a pretty awesome thing to be paid to do what you love. I can't say I feel the same way about pointing people to the restroom at the library but I do feel that way about writing and how it literally brings me closer to people. My anxiety is gone and I feel silly for almost letting it keep me from experiencing this moment.

I need to do more of this.

Immediately I get asked about being a farmworker. I'm not ready. I usually dip into that pool of water slowly. These guys are ready. They've been reading about Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. I talk about getting dressed up in my farmworker gear. I talk about the dangers of working around so many different kinds of blades that must always be sharp -- dangerously sharp. I talk about the heat, the wages, the affect it has on trying to go to school, I talk about the mice and snakes, the sun, always the sun.

Brown Eyes in Blues
Chato talks about being a police officer. He shares stories of his youth, his time in the academy, and his time on the streets. He shares stories about the hermanos at the Westside CAN Center and how all of it influences his writing.

I'm starting to think that we're doing waaaay to much talking but then I realize, this is how they find out the intention behind the work. This is how they get to know more about how their own writing. We share our writing process, tips and tricks that only we know but somehow affect the way the work is performed. I talk about how I put the titles of my work in different fonts so I can easily identify them and pick fonts to help me quickly convey the underlying intent of the work.

We both read out most intense pieces because the students are ready to hear the word. Chato reads Brown Eyes in Blues. That piece always wrecks the place. The students are in awe. I read Madre de los Campos. We alternate more work selecting pieces on the spot that rise to the emotion and intention in the room.

Chato cuts the intensity by reading Chela. The students love it because it's about beer and/or a woman. I read I'm Big and I'm Brown All the Way Down. It's sassiness acknowledges I'm okay with being fat and that I'm also gay. It's important because statistically speaking, I'm not the only unicorn in the room.

Miguel being sassy
They love our humorous poems as much as the others. I'm glad they get to see poetry isn't all about sonnets and flowers.

I want to tell them about the oral tradition we're carrying out before their eyes, but I think they know. The see how the stories we're sharing from our lives expand to include their lives as well.

The students ask a few more questions, this time more specific. I try to look at each of their faces without staring or making them feel singled out. I just want to feed my soul on their energy. Chato and I are putting out so much that just seeing a smiling face or raised eyebrow replenishes us.

Before we know it, it's over. Announcements come through the PA as we take photos with the students. I wanted to take more photos during out presentation but it felt like it was more important to stay present in the moment than to try to capture it by moving around the room with my phone pointing in all sorts of crazy directions.

I never found a way to scale myself down to a reasonable size in order to feel as comfortable as the students. That's probably because I'm a grown man. And high school isn't really comfortable for anyone especially for an old fat queer Latino with social anxiety.

But today was a good day because a wonderful instructor cared for her students and Chato and I were privileged to be part of her caring.

Miguel, Jackie, and Chato