Two Poems on the Occasion of my 45th Birthday

Last night, as part of my birthday weekend celebration, I attended Get Lit's annual Classic Slam with writing friends and teaching colleagues. Get Lit is a wonderful program that believe in the power of words to change the world, and listening to these young people perform every year is convincing evidence that poetry is changing lives. Their format involves students claiming a classic poem and then writing and performing the classic and their response. It's a wonderful way to use amazing poets as mentors for young writers, and I use this format quite a bit. One of my favorite classics is Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B." Below is his poem and a recent response that captures life for me right now.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

      Go home and write
      a page tonight.
      And let that page come out of you—
      Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.   
I went to school there, then Durham, then here   
to this college on the hill above Harlem.   
I am the only colored student in my class.   
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,   
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,   
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,   
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator   
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me   
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.   
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.   
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.   
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.   
So will my page be colored that I write?   
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.   
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Theme for English B
            after Langston Hughes
It is never simple.
I am 44, almost 45
having lived through the years of our 44th president
and now trapped in the reign of the 45th.
I live in a blue state on a blue coast
where we often feel we safe
but are under attack.
I pick up my kids and drive home.
Head down Slauson, take a right
just before Crenshaw.

It’s not easy to know
what I know of you
and you of me
on my new street
a few blocks from
Nipsey Hussle Square.

Well, I like to read, watch shows,
eat well, and drink well too.
I like to run and jump and play
and maybe you do, too,
but in different ways than I do.

I miss my mother
and love my children.

As I sit and write this page,
I’m not sure anymore
what is true
for you or for me.

This is my page for English B. 


Celebrating Sue and John's Birthdays

Some love stories change the world; their story made mine. 
Today is my mom's birthday. We lost her four years ago, and some days it feels like she's still here. I can still have conversations with her, still imagine what she'd have to say to me about politics, movies, and current events.

She wasn't thrilled that I chose to be a teacher, but she grew to respect my work and the profession. That's what's hard about the conversations I have with Mom in my head. She would have evolved and changed over these last four years, so by now, on the night before her daughter goes on strike, she would support me unconditionally. She would tell me to go to bed, and to take care of the kids, and of David, but mostly, to take care of myself.

Tomorrow is my Dad's birthday. He's turning 88. In Japanese culture 88 is a beiju year, extra-special. 88 is rice age, and for my father, whose middle name, Hachiro, means eighth born son, I hope this year is particularly auspicious. I hope it means fading clarity comes into focus and confusion cuts to sharpness. But until that clarity and sharpness returns, I've started imagining conversations I would have with the Dad of ten years ago about what's happening right now.

Back when their words came through more clearly...
If my Dad's memories were still clear and his wit was still sharp, he would remind me that standing up and speaking out for what is right holds the upmost importance. He would tell me about his time in Japanese internment camp and wonder why people didn't stand up, didn't do something to help. He'd say we have to do something about the terrible things that are happening right now.

I will be walking the line tomorrow with these words from my parents on my mind. I will check in with myself more than usual. Instead of thinking shikataganai, or it can't be helped as many said about the Japanese incarceration, I will be standing up and speaking out about my large classes, and the lack of a full-time nurse, and that our library is closed and outdated because we haven't had a teacher librarian in a decade. I will insist that the hedge-fund manager who is unfathomably at the helm in our district resign, and that we find someone who can truly lead our district and serve our schools, our communities, our students.

For my mom, I will take breaks and make sure my daughter has snacks and dry clothes, and I will make sure I take care of myself too.

For my dad, I will stand up and speak up for what is right.

These two days mark the beginning of the lives of two people who made me, and living my life in the their wisdom is how I honor them.


On the Eve of Spring Term...

The last night of a vacation is always tough. No more travel or sleeping in. No opportunities for exercise each morning, or going out for brunch, or spending time with family and friends. 

Tomorrow, for the first time this year, we will head back to school. My son will head off to daycare, my daughter will join her first grade classmates, my partner will head off to the high school he serves, and I will go to my middle school. We will greet students, teachers, and support staff. We will catch up on vacation news, and then we will talk about this strike.
Team Nakada-Gantt is #Red4Ed
It’s coming, because our district wants it. They want to break the union and public schools as we know them. They want to pretend our demands are unreasonable and that the district can’t afford them, but billions in surplus tell us differently. They want the public to turn on teachers; to see us as selfish, but the outpouring of support from parents and families has galvanized our ranks.

We don’t want to strike, but we know we are standing up for what is right. It is the right thing to do for education professionals, for families, and for communities.

We are doing this for our students, the ones I am excited to see tomorrow morning, and in each class period throughout the school day. On break, it’s easy to forget all I learn from my students, all I gain from getting to share the classroom space with them, and tomorrow they will help me remember. It will be so good to see them. They will remind me how good it feels to get started reading, writing, speaking, and listening with them. They will remind me that a quote, a question, and a song can crack our lives open and make us remember the things that are most important. They will remind me of my favorite Anne Frank quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

This strike will be hard for so many. It will be hard for teachers who are rewarded daily by the work we do at our schools. It will be hard financially for families risking so much. It will be hard for parents wanting to make the right decisions for their children. It will be hard for students who want to learn and see teachers outside, fighting for just learning conditions. And I’m sure there are thousands of other ways this will be a challenge that I haven’t thought of yet.

So, I hope the district sees these hardships, sees the communities they are supposed to serve, sees the students who breath life into our schools and make an offer that will help provide the schools our students deserve. They could do this tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But until that offer comes, you will find me on the line.


My Poor Deserted Blog...

How can I do a blog round up this year when I barely posted here?

Well, I posted once in June. Thank you for reading my culmination address to the class of 2018. It was my most read post of the year and the only post to make my most-read all-time list.

Then, I posted to the blog three times in the last two days. I had to get my favorite books and publishing summary for 2018 out there. Then, I had to tie together two ideas that have been on my mind for the past few months: Lynell George's Image/After: Los Angeles Outside the Frame and the upcoming UTLA strike.

If you kept up with this barrage of posts, thanks so much.

I had a few other blogs in drafts. I was going to write about teachers and gun-violence and the ridiculousness of arming teachers, but I didn't. I was going to write about my niece's journey to play division one basketball, but she got hurt, so I didn't pursue that either.

Laters, 2018, from Team Nakada-Gantt (and Jane). 
I did start editing the Breathe and Push column for Women Who Submit, an organization which supports women and nonbinary writers submit their work into the world. A few post that might have gone up here went there, so if you'd like to read any of those, you can find them on the Women Who Submit website.

2018 was a full year. I wrote about running my first marathon on Throwing Cookies and was able to get up to the Wellstone Center for Writers three times. My time and the space there has helped me bring three manuscripts to completion.

I will be looking for representation this year for Rice Paper Superheroes, a young adult novel that follows the Nakamura family from the Sawtelle Nihonmachi to Manzanar and back again.

Dispatches from a High School Feminist: Rising Up from Rural Oregon, is the high school memoir that will complete the Through Eyes Like Mine trilogy. I hope to release that this summer.

And finally, Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: One Family's Experience with Mental Illness has moved from poetry to prose and I will be looking for a publisher for that as well.

After a move in August from our Mar Vista condo to a Home in View Park Heights, we are settling in and loving our new space and neighborhood. What is on the minds in this two-teacher household most most is the upcoming UTLA strike. If you have followed this blog you know my commitment to public education. This work stoppage could turn the tide for our schools, not just here in LA, but in our nation. Let's hope our city demands that our district do the right thing and fund the schools our students deserve.

With that, 2018 moves today from the front window and into the rear-view mirror. Happy New Year, y'all.


Reading LA: After/Image by Lynell George and the Upcoming Teacher Strike

I have had Lynell George's book After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, sitting on my coffee table since I read it this summer and we moved to our new house in South LA.

It's a perfect coffee table book. It's pages contain gorgeous images of our city, but the essays also draw you in, make you ignore dinner party guests around you and demand that you enter their world. Then, upon looking up, these words help start a conversation about gentrification or displacement or neighborhood politics.

That is what this book did for me as I packed up our condo of 12 years and made a move from one LA neighborhood to another. 

George’s writing illuminates Los Angeles in many of the complex ways I have come to love and hate this city. It is about the beauty you have to look inside cracks and through buildings to see. It is about the change in this city that comes from power and money and in the name of development and not from the people, the community, the history of this place. 

Last year Colson Whitehead’s quote, “Be kind to everyone, make art, and fight the power” helped me through the year. This year the quote ringing in my ears is from Lynell George:

“How do you protect not just a neighborhood’s unique character, but the people and their imprint, their story, and their struggle. [...] How do you want to contribute to the story of the city? How do you want to influence and shape history?”

As much as moving and this book got me thinking about the history of our city, I couldn't help think about how much of LA's history is tied up in our schools. Los Angeles public schools are some of the only structures that have managed to hold their ground, to refuse to be uprooted and demand the city evolve around them. I teach with teachers who attended my school. I teach kids whose parents went there. And my school, which opened in 1939, isn't even close to one of the oldest public schools in our city. 

But as the teachers of LA ready for a strike, as our public schools endure yet another attack from privatizers, these historical spaces are at risk. Holding onto our communities is about our homes and our streets and our schools. The work educators and public education advocates are doing to save schools that have struggled to serve our neediest students shows their willingness to shape and influence LA's story. 

As we head into the new year, I urge my Angeleno neighbors to read After/Image. Ask yourself some of its hard questions, and then stand with our schools, our city and all of its people this winter. 

The story of our schools and our city waits to be told. What will we say? 

Publishing Round-Up for 2018

I have been committed to building emerging over the past couple of years. With the help of Women Who Submit, I'm still submitting (although not as often as I did last year). Here is a summary of the work that found homes this past year.

"Why I Read Books by Women of Color"
I subscribe to My Lit Box, a wonderful company that curates beautiful book boxes with titles by women of color and other literary goodies. They also have a blog and published this essay, "Why I Read Books By Women of Color."

I also took on the role of column editor for Women Who Submit's "Breathe and Push" column which explores tough times and how artists can continue to create. The following essays appeared there:

"Learning to Breath and Push Through the Darkness" is an introduction to the column and explores civil rights advocate Valarie Kaur's of breathing and pushing.  

"Finding Light in Stephon Clark's Name" looks at current activist movements to help find light during dark times. 

"When Survivors Speak. Who Will Listen?" recalls my classroom's visit with Holocaust survivors and connects to the current global refugee crisis. 

"Moving In LA: Before and After" is all think or write about as my family moved from Mar Vista to Park View Heights this past summer.  

"Why LAUSD Teachers Might Strike" speaks to what writers and teachers all over LA are grappling with as the nations second largest school district braces for a teacher strike. This essay will also be reprinted in United Teacher, the UTLA monthly publication. 

Long ago, when LAUSD was laying off teachers en masse and imposing austerity measures our public schools continue to work within, I participated in civil disobedience in protest of these district decisions. This essay, "Education in Resistance" is about that day and it appeared this past winter in Entropy

I tried to find a home for this flash essay about the summer of my brother's hospitalization for a couple of years and it finally found a home with Thread"Swing" is excerpted from Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop, a memoir about my family's struggles with mental illness.  

This essay, "Late Night Phone Calls", also from Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop, was published in the Santa Fe Writers Project's summer issue. 

The rest of this year was about poems. "Sacrifice" appeared in The Rising Phoenix Review's Disarm issue which focused on poems addressing gun violence. 

"Not Your Job"
"Gaps"  and "Marbles" were also published at The Rising Phoenix Review. These poems are part of a chapbook I worked on this past April about my father's life including his experience being incarcerated during World War II. Both of these poems touch on that experience. 

Queen Mob's Tea House published "Caged" a poem about children seeking asylum being held in inhumane conditions. 

Finally, Mutha Magazine published this little poem about my little girl. "Not Your Job" after Caitlyn Siehl

Thanks to all of you for reading along this year and to the wonderful editors I had the chance to work with. Here's to another year of emerging!


My Top 13 Books of 2018

I didn't read all that much this year, but here are my top if you are looking for titles to add to your to-read list:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Ng creates worlds and characters so beautifully, and the plot of this one left me in awe. This book had me reading to find out why Izzy, really, the least developed of the characters, burns the family house down. Ng handles issues like abortion and transracial adoption so deftly and makes photography and the art of creation a beautiful commitment. The themes of carefully curated lives and communities held up against nomadic, untethered living caused me to reflect on the life I’ve created for myself and my family.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
This beautiful illustrated memoir begins in the raw space of the birth of the author’s daughter. In these early moments of parenthood, the author poses new questions and seeks understandings of her parents who came of age during the Vietnam conflict. It spans decades and renders beautifully historical times and places and portrays characters complete with flaws and tenderness.

When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrice Khan Cullors and Asha Bandele

This memoir about the politicization of a young Black woman growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the middle of the war on drugs left me breathless. The accounts of police brutality and targeting of her family showed the absolute privilege my family has had as we have grappled with mental illness. Her refuge in a public school, however, did give me hope and reinforced the role that educators can play in providing spaces where young people can learn about their oppression and how they might begin to fight back. In order to survive and fight for her family, Patrice had no other choice than to fight back.

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
This novel in verse captures a high school sophomore finding her voice in a city and family that feel they own her. Through close relationships with friends, her brother, and a first love, Xiomara learns about the power of speaking her truth. That is what helps her discover her place and access her agency. This book won the National Book Award for YA lit. 

Simon and the Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertolli

Loved this YA high school love-story/mystery which explores coming out and falling in love from the pov of Simon, a young, mostly closeted drama kid. The use of tech and how social media storms rage in these social settings makes me so glad I’m not growing up today. A wonderful read for kids of any sexual orientation to make some sense of the unique scenarios LGTBQ kids experience and must navigate.

Mean by Myriam Gurba

I first encountered Myriam as a poet, and this memoir captures her same sensibility: beauty and tragedy accompanied by unapologetic humor. She will look you right in the eye and say something because it is exactly what she thinks. Her accounts of abuse and rape haunt and explore survival and guilt and make sense of the messed up ways people treat one another. Her multiracial perspective and queer identity illuminate a perspective uniquely her own. 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

This little book tells the familiar tale of Japanese American removal and internment with haunting and intimate detail. The unnamed family and main characters navigate a strange world without their father. There are so many lovely moves and small moments that bring this historic period to life.

Hunger by Roxane Gay

The vignettes and fragments that make up Gay’s memoir of her body reveal just how profoundly sexual violence can impact a survivor. Gay’s use of repetition effectively captures how little time we really spend reflecting on our bodies and the prejudice and abuse the morbidly obese face. I thought a great deal about my mom and her battles with her body and all she hungered for while reading these essays.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Nic Stone's story shows a young Black high school boy navigating a world where even his best intentions can be misread by police. It explores police brutality, class, and race through Justyce’s school year with a little speech and debate thrown in. Complex relationships with his best friend, his mother, his speech and debate partner/love interest, and the white boys at school weave a compelling story and his letters to Dr. King give voice to Justyce’s view of the world in all of its injustice.

A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

This novel in verse explores violence and grief through a single elevator ride. The voices and choices that this young man faces after the murder of his brother confront him at every stop from the top to the bottom floor. The ending is masterful.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

This nonfiction work reads like a novel and tells the story of Sasha and Richard, two Oakland teenagers who are brought together by a high-profile hate crime. The story reveals how both Richard, the perpetrator, and Sasha, the victim, are recover from a devastating incident on the bus. Explorations of gender fluidity and the criminal justice system show how changes in the way we handle crime and punishment can serve our communities.

To All the Boys I Ever Loved Before by Jenny Han

This fun YA book explores the teenage love and innocence of a young half-Korean girl. Being raised by her white father after her mother passes, Lara Jean and her two sisters navigate growing up and falling in love.