The First Day of School 2020

Y'all, I've been writing first-day-of-school blogs for a long time. 

I almost didn't write one this year because nothing seems to matter, but then I watched Michelle Obama speak, and I felt something I haven't felt in such a long time, something these Obamas seem to be able to provide for us precisely when we need it. She gave me hope. 

So I'm here, on the night before the first day of school, the first day when I will see so many of my students and although this year feels so different from so many others, it still holds is hope. 

There is so much promise in a new school year, and I just want to do my students and this moment justice. My students and their families deserve schools that truly invest in them and their education. We can take this pandemic and make sure the education we provide is better. We can make certain our concern is more rooted in people and how they are doing and what they need and how we can help. We can amplify voices from our country's history and present who demand to be heard. We have so much work to do. 

My kids both have their first days of school tomorrow as well, and during this unique time, I will get to see them through it. So many of my other kids, my former students are wading through their first days and it isn't what any of us imagined. 

It will still be hot in Los Angeles. There will be people getting sick and dying. There are so many worrying about power, and access, and food, and housing, and exposure, and we will show up in these little boxes on networks that spread across the city in ways that keep us from being in closed spaces together.

We will say our names when they are called and be marked present. We will consider who we are and the stories we have to tell. We will breathe through the first-day uncertainties and have our first day of school.

Look for some light around the edges: a smile, a kind gesture, a promise. Keep your eyes open. It might be hard to find, but I'll be looking for them all day long. Hold them all up, small or grand. Lift up all the signs of  hope. 


For the Class of 2020

For the past five years, I've written graduation speeches for my eighth graders. This year's graduation speech was a little different, mostly because the end of this year has been so different. But here it is, my model for my current eighth graders. It has me thinking so much about all of the graduates and all of the graduations worthy of celebrating. So before Obama and all of the other amazing graduation speeches get made, here is my offering. 

Class of 2020 Graduates,

You made it. You are here, but I’m not ready to let you go. 

You didn’t get all of the moments this year had in store for you; didn’t get all of those lasts: last Academy Day, last projects, last dances, last field day, last classes, last days of school. Well, we had these lasts, but we didn’t know them while we had them.

Instead, we’ve had something else. We traded in classrooms for Zooms. We learned how to connect with one another through a screen instead of face-to-face. We searched for the motivation to get up every morning to head to school without even opening the front door, and to complete assignments that you might learn from but that couldn’t hurt your grade if you chose not to complete them. You had to get used to so much change so quickly.

A graduation celebration 1992 of four racially ambiguous kids
High School Graduation: June, 1992. 
Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

You are here, and you have helped build something new.

It isn’t what we expected, but it is ours and we are here to celebrate because you have earned it. You put in two and a half long years on campus: days learning and growing, struggling with teachers and classmates, watching the clock and waiting for that 3:00 bell. And each and every one of those days in all of those classes count.

And now you’ve survived something new. For twelve weeks you have shown up in so many new ways. You found your way onto on screens and into chats. You turned in assignments, checked in with friends and teachers in new ways and adjusted to new ways of being at home with your families.

You read the news and felt anger, anxiety, fear, and loss. You witnessed tragedy from near and far. You worried about friends and classmates and endured constant change and uncertainty.

American author Maya Angelou says, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

You have done this. You have taken this unprecedented situation and learned about yourself as people and as students. You’ve learned what to do with hours upon hours upon hours at home. You have grown up in these few months and learned more than we could measure inside the halls of our schools or the walls of our classrooms.

Our school’s namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “The way to mend the bad world is to create the right world” and you, the class of 2020 are truly making your own path. You are carving out new experiences and are already shaping a new, post COVID-19 world.

I might not be ready to let you go, but you are ready. You know how quickly everything can change and your adaptability during this time has inspired me. You have brought me hope. So thank you. Thank you for sharing so many of these long-short days, your thoughts and dreams of what tomorrow might bring. 

You have helped mend the bad, and I cannot wait to see the new, right world you help create.


The UTLA Strike: One Year Later

A panoramic view of the crowd in Grand Park: downtown LA.
One day five of the UTLA strike in 2019, it finally stopped raining. We all showed up at our schools for morning picketing and although our negotiations team was still hard at work and a resolution was not yet in sight, the clear skies made the day feel different.

One reason was that at our site, NEA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz was on the line with us that morning. She has taught at Emerson for years, had served as the UTLA West Area Chair, and was a prominent leader in UTLA leadership's Union Power team. She had asked me if I wanted to speak at the downtown rally that day about class-size. I said yes, and this is the speech I was honored to present in front of City Hall and the massive crowd of educators and supporters in Grand Park. It's only 350 words; just five minutes on stage, but it is a moment of Los Angeles beauty I will never forget.

A large crowd of educators and supports at a strike rally
The view from the stage...
My name is Noriko Nakada. I’m a parent of a first grader at Grandview Elementary School and a teacher at Emerson Middle School and a proud UTLA West chapter chair.

Look at this crowd. I have been standing with you shoulder to shoulder in the rain, on the line, on the train, in our streets across this city, and all I can say is you are beautiful. 

Ten years ago, I sat in the street on Beaudry. It was 2009 and the district was handing out pink slips like sticks of gum. UTLA had to do something. We were tired of the district balancing its budget on the backs of UTLA members. We wanted smaller classes and more support services: school librarians, nurses, and counselors, so we staged a one-hour work stoppage, and a small but mighty group of UTLA members sat on the street in front of Beaudry and we were arrested. It was all we could do. It was something small and mighty.

Now, ten years later, there is nothing small about our mighty, mighty union!

Where we got to see some of our favorite teachers!
And guess what we are still fighting for? Smaller classes. This year my eighth grade English classes average 40 students, and that's lessrthan Ms. Shanley's math classes down the hall that have 50 students. Teachers and students, we know what 40 looks like, but for all of our parents and community members who don’t know, this is what 40 is: Abby Amy Chris David Akira Ashley Darius Eres Ethan Evelyn Grace Gabe Henry Irish Irene Isabelle Jordan Jojo Juliet Julia Jose Kailyn Karla Kiara Leslie Laila Luna Mia Marcus Maya Nicole Neve Reece Riley Sophie Seth Veronica and Zach.

And that’s just fourth period.

They are the ones we are fighting for: more of us to serve more of them, so at the end of this we can all breathe in our classrooms and be able to say 20 or 25 or 30 names a little slower and get deep into the work we do which is to TEACH.

And soon, very soon, we will be back to teaching because I believe that we will win. I believe that will we win. I believe that we will win!


A Year After the Night Before the First Day of the Strike...

This winter break, it was hard to not remember how we were feeling a year ago. We are a two-UTLA salary home, so the looming strike brought a whole lot of worry and stress along with sign-making and rain-gear gathering. All we had to say this year was, "Aren't you glad we aren't getting ready to go on strike?"

photo by ESA alumni Sophie Sanchez
And we are glad. We are proud of the gains that came from the strike: class-size caps, movement on teacher-librarians, nurses, the end to random searches, and increased charter school regulation. It was also amazing to feel supported by so many in our city and across the nation, and then to see educators in Denver, West Virginia, Oakland, Sacramento, the Carolinas, New Haven, Washington State, and Chicago using strikes to demand more for our public schools.

But this year, as I look to celebrate my parents' birthdays over the next two days, commemorate the strike, and start the second semester of the year, I'm also seeing how much remains to be done. Public education continues to be threatened by underfunding, the "reform movement" pours money into campaigns to undermine our schools, and we still need more of the public to lean back into our schools.

My students this year are wonderful, but so many of them are sad and recognize their mistreatment in this system. They deserve so much better: smaller classes so teachers can give them more, counseling services to help heal trauma, safe and clean schools where they feel loved and valued as learners and people, not as attendance dollars or test scores. And that's just what I can think of in these waning moments of winter break.

Tomorrow, I will stand at my door to welcome my students back, and the amazing thing about teaching, is they will show up ready to give so much. They give me new perspectives and insights. They remind me what is really important and give me hope.

They want a better world, and they inspire me to try to create it with them. Let's work to give them a 2020 that turns things around.


Blog Round Up: Is This the End?

Why do the kids look so little here? 
It's been a decade for the blog, and here we are 260 blog posts later...

For the year, readership, is down. Where did I go wrong? Have I forgotten what readers really want? I don't know, but this year was about the UTLA strike and those were my most read posts. The others introduced the re-release of Through Eyes Like Mine, and Overdue Apologies and the publication of I Tried.

I posted 16 times this year, and there are still a few hundred of you playing along, so here are the top posts of 2019 revisited:

My culmination speech for the Class of 2019 about our teacher strike and standing up for what you believe was my third most-read post.

In second, was my post about the start of the strike landing on my parents' birthdays: "Celebrating John and Sue's Birthdays."

And my most read post!!! "On The Eve of Spring Term" captures the anxiety before the UTLA strike and the start of the second semester.

Whew. It's been a good one, and although blogging still sometimes feels like screaming into the void, I'm not ready to shut her down just yet. Thanks for reading along with me, y'all. Let's make even more of this next decade.

Fifteen Books I Loved This Year

This year I tried to do something a little different reading books in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and YA each month. I fell short, of course, reading 35 all told, but I read more poetry this year than ever before, and honestly, this was an amazing year for nonfiction. So many great books. Anyway, these are my favorites this year.

Young Adult

P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My students were reading these last year, so I picked up To All the Boys I Ever Loved before the Netflix adaptation came out and I loved it. I have a soft spot for YA romance and really appreciate having this multiracial (Korean-white) family and all of the ways race and feminism play subtle roles in these books. She has a way of sneaking in the loss of a mother, father-as-real-person, slut-shaming, and sex double standards into a light, fun read. The ending was satisfying although I really wanted to see Lara Jean visit Korea, and head off to college where she realizes she’s always only dated white boys. 

--> --> All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

I read this in one sitting on the flight from Detroit to Los Angeles and loved the dual narration. Jason Reynolds captures the POV of a young boy badly beaten by a police officer, and Brendan Kiely writes the POV of a classmate, a white “All-American Boy” being raised by his mother after his father is killed in Afghanistan. The alternating perspectives allow for lots of entry-points and takeaways on police brutality, Black Lives Matter, activism, and standing up as an ally. 


Bone Confetti by Muriel Leung

These poems are haunting and lovely and make me rethink grief and mourning. Her use of various poetic styles create an aesthetic uniquely her own.

--> The Tradition by Jericho Brown

Brown’s sacred use of language makes me want to revise every sentence I’ve ever written. I love his new form: the duplex. The repetition and contradictions within them seem to set every poem up for profound paradox. 

--> When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

These highly conversational poems that are both lighthearted and heavy. Chen reminds me what it is like to live and love in a world with so much pain and uncertainty, possibility and heartbreak.

--> Nonfiction

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

This memoir captures with love and truth, the lies and complexities of relationships in such a raw and tender way. The beginnings and ends of this book truly sliced me open and made me feel like I have to do better for Kiese and for all of my students who are living with the trauma of this county pulsing through their veins.

--> How To Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

These essays cover so much territory and the later ones really engage me as a reader, writer, activist, and human being. The final essay with its questions about the end of the world and the point of writing will stay with me for a long time. A compelling voice from many points of intersection, it hints at what I'd wanted from my MFA experience. 

--> Know My Name by Chanel Miller

I remember reading Jane Doe’s victim impact statement. I sat at the dining room table as my kids played around me on a spring Saturday when I was solo parenting. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I had to stop to catch my breath and wipe away the tears. To read Chanel’s story years later, of surviving and of standing up for all of those who are touched by sexual violence and the ways victims are again victimized during exams, and by our courts is required reading. 

--> The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

Wang illuminates Schizoaffective Disorder diagnosis by showing just how measured and even and sanely she writes. She challenges the reader’s understanding of schizophrenia and balances a line between showing how well she’s living with the disorder while at the same time revealing how life-altering a diagnosis of one of the schizophrenias can be. She forces me to rethink all I know about psychosis and reality, and how I keep my feet rooted in reality/sanity.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

I had just finished listening to the Thunder Bay podcast when I started reading this, so I was already thinking about indigenous lives and the ways we ignore their stories. I love Mailhot’s honest POV, her perspective being hospitalized, and the way she captures mental illness and the struggle for sanity, and health, and love, dignity, and healing.


Sula by Toni Morrison

I revisted this book on audio to soak in the voice of our lost literary giant. I first read this book in college when I was reading everything Toni Morrison had written, and I remembered a little about the friendship between the two girls, Nell and Sula, and about National Suicide Day, but had forgotten or blocked other parts. It is a haunting book and I wonder if I will hold on to their stories this time or if, again, it will be to hard to hold on to their sadness.

--> Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

I had to read this after hearing Alexander Chee lecture on it at Antioch’s winter residency. The shifting narration carries with it such a wide scope of this family, its struggles, and the generational traumas buried in the secrets we all hold.  

--> Graphic

They Called Us the Enemy by George Takei

This graphic novel does such a good job personalizing and positioning the Japanese Incarceration during World War II. The images are clear-eyed and capture both the injustice and childhood innocence of Takei’s story. There are so many points of intersection with my own father’s experience, but also see divergences that made Takei’s experience very different the Nakadas.

--> Good Talk by Mira Jacobs

This books beautifully captures Mira Jacobs' East Indian American experiences through the questions of her young, brown son during tough political times. She weaves in her family’s story, her search for love (arranged marriage, love marriage, or American marriage?) and how her view of the world changes as she becomes a wife and the mother of a curious, smart, sensitive boy. Such an honest depiction of what so many women and women of color, and mothers go through when asked tough questions by the little ones in our lives. 

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