On the Occasion of My 100th Rejection

Yes, that is me and poet, Terrance Hayes.
I was so young, newly mfa'd and ready to be the writer. 
This past week, I finally received my 100th pass as a writer. It is a milestone I am celebrating, because if I'm not getting my work out there, I am not establishing myself as an emerging writer. As Los Angeles poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo of Women Who Submit helped me realize in her article,  "Building up to Emerging," getting my work published is part of building my career as a writer.

This journey started many years ago. After completing my mfa in writing, I set out to find an agent. I wrote a query for Through Eyes Like Mine, researched agents and agencies and sent out a dozen queries. I landed with Judy Heiblum at Brick House Literary Agents in 2006. She believed in my book, sent me wonderful edits, and then, just before sending my manuscript out, she moved to Sterling Lord Literistic, a big New York agency. My book was passed on by lots of editors at big houses. But the book didn't move, and Judy didn't see my next book, Overdue Apologies, as different enough that it would get picked up. My manuscripts quietly gathered digital dust on various computer hard drives.

I spent a couple of years teaching, started blogging, and spent the next few years of my post-mfa-life teaching and trying to start a family. In 2009, I finished up NaNoWriMo and was walking my students through the self-publishing process. That was when I realized, I could do this. It wasn't all that hard to put a book together and get it out into the world. I enjoyed designing covers, working with writer-friends who are great editors, and let my agent know I was going to self-publish Through Eyes Like Mine in 2010. She wished me luck, and I launched the book in Bend and Portland with readings and signings. It felt like a wonderful way to get my book in people's hands and onto shelves. It opened up readings at museums and in classrooms and at book clubs, but it was a lot of work.

Three years later, in 2012, just before Kiara was born, when I knew motherhood could put writing on pause for a while, I quickly and quietly self-published Overdue Apologies. I didn't schedule a book launch or readings or signings. I didn't have the time or energy as a new mother. But the book was out there and done.

It wasn't for another four years that I would connect with Women Who Submit, a group of LA writers who encourage submitting work to counter underrepresentation of women in literary spaces. That's when I started submitting. Since July of 2016, I've submitted to 106 journals, contests, presses, residencies, and agents. I've published or have forthcoming 16 pieces (poems, essays, excerpts) since then, was shortlisted for the 2040 Prize, and a request for a book proposal for Dispatches from a High School Feminist: Rising Up from Rural Oregon. For now, I'm trying to go traditional with this next book, but if things don't move, I'm not afraid to give it another go on my own.

Thanks to all of you for following this journey, for reading my books blogs. I know it doesn't seem like it's still the beginning, but as a writer, I'm working on building to emerging.


My First Day of School: As a Parent

This is my sixth "First Day of School" post. Click HERE to read others.

Summer vacation has flown by, and over the past week I've been getting ready for the start of the new school year. As usual, there have been the preparations in my classroom, and the making of copies, and the bracing for the coming break-neck pace of life during the school year.

But this year, we're also getting ready for Kiara's first day of kindergarten. While I prepare for my middle schoolers, I imagine her kindergarten teacher seeing her name on a roster the same way I have looked at my students' names over the past 21 years. He or she is preparing the classroom and writing Kiara's name on a card for her desk, and making copies of information for us, and bracing for the coming break-neck pace of life during the school year.

I'm so thankful to be a teacher, because I know how that teacher feels, and I can't wait for my girl to start her educational journey at our neighborhood public school. Thank you, teachers, for all you have done to prepare for tomorrow. I'll try not to cry and to let her go have her experience. And then, after kindergarten orientation, I will head to school and greet all of my new students.

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


I Asked for Help and the Interwebs Responded

Yesterday, I was at a loss. I was overwhelmed by displays of hatred and violence and I wrote how I needed help explaining displays of ignorance and intolerance to my kids.  Today, answers came through and some of you asked me to share them, so here they are.

First, Ashley Cassandra Ford, a writer at Refinery29, posted this on Instagram. When I saw it I was happily waiting for my coffee with my kids. I love the idea of smiling and living my life full of joy and using all of my time and resources to counter hate and terror.

Then, another writer of color, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, shared her plans for the day, and her work as a writer and educator reminded me that the resistance is in our art, our writing, and our teaching.

The rest of my day was spent getting Kiara ready for her first day of kindergarten, back-to-school shopping, and a popsicle meet-up at the park for our neighborhood public school where she will continue her Spanish education.

As I sat down to do a little writing, I came across the twitter hashtags #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and #CharlottesvilleSyllabus. Check them out. So worth looking at as a mother, a teacher, a writer, and an activist. We have to illuminate the past to understand what is happening today.

I will continue to seek joy, to write the truths of my American experience, to teach my children and my students how to be kind and helpful and brave. And on Tuesday, I will continue the work of empowering my students to read critically, question thoughtfully, and find their own voice within this grand cacophony. There is work to do, and we are ready to get it.


Help me, please.

In the wake of white supremacist gatherings, rioting, and violence, will someone please help me explain these things to my kids.

Help me explain to their cousin, who is the best basketball player my kids have ever known, that she will likely be paid less because she is a Black woman, despite the fact that she will work harder and be more educated than her peers.

Help me explain to their cousin, who can play any tune by ear and analyze NBA efficiency statistics in his sleep, that he should develop a healthy fear of the police because he could, at any time, be targeted because the world sees him as a tall, Black man.

Help me explain to their cousin, who plays shortstop and point guard like his dad, that the Japanese Internment memorial he attended earlier this year illuminates the same America that marches with torches and claims an America that wants to drive people like us away.

Help me explain to their cousin, who already writes poems and stories, that people will not expect her to speak her mind, to exude confidence, to preach because they think she should know and keep her place, and that if she dare speak the pidgin her mother speaks, they won't listen at all.

Help me explain to my daughter, who is equal parts princess and soccer star, that there are people who will tell her, "Go back where you came from" even though she was born here, but she speaks Spanish and her racial ambiguity provides her with some privileges, but she will never know when her passing-privileges will be revoked.

Help me explain to my boy, with inexplicably long eye lashes, that there are people who do not see him as American, because he is brown, because the names Ichiro and Nakada identify him as "other," and that the immigrant status of grandmother on one side, and great-grandparents on the other, some how make his citizenship worth less.

Help me explain that people in this country hate them, hate us, because we live in cities, and we value diversity, and we want to help others who have come to our country for a better life, and some people are threatened by the expansion of the American Dream.

Tonight, with images of burning torches and hate-filled faces peering at me, I need help explaining it to my family, but next week, I will also need help explaining it to my students, to the black and brown and white faces who gaze up at me when I ask a question. They hope I will have the answers, but I don't have them, and I don't know who does.


My Graduation Speech for the Class of 2017

It has become a tradition of mine to write a speech for each of my graduating classes at Emerson. Our award-winning speech and debate program has elevated the standard of the form, and I use this as a model as students craft their own unique oratories for the occasion. My first was about the value of living in the moment, something I learned from the class of 2015 after my mom passed. Last year, I wrote a speech for the class of 2016 after a scare with an open-shooter on the UCLA campus about sharing our stories. This year, my speech is about the hope my students provided in the wake of challenging political times.

Be a Trumpet

           When the bell rang and the 2016-2017 school year began, I started my twentieth year teaching. In many ways, it was like every other year, but it was also completely different.
            One new thing I did this year, was start each week with a quote and a question. Every Monday, my students would walk or stroll or bounce into my room, and some would immediately write answers to the question of the week on the board. Then, we would discuss the questions and quotes during class.
            American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” I kept this is mind while selecting quotes and we heard blasts from Nelson Mandela, John Wooden, Gloria Steinem, and Michelle Obama.
            My students sounded off to these words, and our conversations cracked my students wide open. They shared answers to questions like: what do you hope, what is your biggest fear? They shared their thoughts about technology, school, their parents, and friends. We discussed oppression and prejudice, politics and depression, love and betrayal.
            I participated in these conversations too, but mostly, I listened, to you, my students, these graduates, as you shared your brave and unique perspective of our world. You took time-worn themes like carpe diem and nature versus nurture and made them new again. You applied the golden rule and taking a stand to today’s triumphs and challenges.
            Some days, you reflected on election results, or executive orders, or you shared your personal experiences as immigrants, or children of immigrants, as Christians, Muslims, or Jews, as girls, boys, or some gender in-between, and through you I heard from America like the blast of a trumpet. Because this year, unlike any other, America is struggling to figure exactly what kind of country we want to be.
            As we read To Kill A Mockingbird this year, the scenes just after the Tom Robinson verdict spoke to me in new ways. Jem was brought to tears by the outcome. He thought he knew his neighbors. He thought they were good folks: that they were kind, and just and fair and now he wasn’t so sure anymore. This made me think about this year’s election results, about my friends, my neighbors, and my students. Because in much the same way Atticus tells Jem that one day, when he can sit on a jury, things might change, I look at you and see that same hope Atticus saw in his son. In your empathy, and your compassion, and your ability to think about how to see things from someone else’s point of view, I see a brighter future.
            In President Obama’s farewell speech, he also looked to Atticus from To Kill A Mockingbird. He said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In our classroom discussions, you breathed these words. You saw our world and one another with a compassion the rest of our world could learn from. And, you are looking forward to 2020, the next presidential election, when many of you will be voting for the first time.
            So, that’s what I’m counting on. This group of graduates has spoken to me like the blast of a trumpet about Feminism and privilege, about hard-work and determination, about fairness and justice. As you make your way across this stage and into a world, a country, and a city grappling with its identity, you know who you are, or at least you're honest about trying to figure it out.
            I believe that whatever experiences life hands you, you will be thoughtful. You will determine what is real and what is fake, and you will work toward what is right.
            It has been such a privilege to get to hear your voices, to listen to and read your stories, and to learn from your many different points of view. Now, it’s on you. Carpe Diem, and be that trumpet. Make your lives, and our world, extraordinary. 


Is It Teacher Appreciation Week?

Kiara and Gabe's teacher bouquet. 
I think it’s Teacher Appreciation Week, or Teacher Appreciation Day, or maybe it was last week, or yesterday, or maybe not. No one seems to know. No one seems to be able to schedule this thing. Obviously, this is not something run by teachers.

Last week, I helped my kids thank their teachers. We gathered flowers, gave fruit, made cookies, and cards, but these little things are so small compared to all teachers do for my kids. I appreciate them today and every day. I hope they know this. Because without them, I couldn’t be a teacher. I couldn’t work alongside some of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met.

Just this week, these are a few things my colleagues have done: helped students struggling with family substance abuse issues, advocated for safe gender-neutral bathrooms in their school, proctored tests that attempt to make students into a number, created and taught review lessons for AP exams, provided lunches and snacks, coached teams of athletes and poets, produced and directed performances, given high fives and smiles, graded papers, taken attendance, entered grades, answered emails, scheduled field trips, and planned these last weeks of school when all of us are just ready for it to be summer.

They all keep me going. There are amazing teachers at every school, and there are students who need amazing teachers at every school. So, to all of the teachers who inspired me back when I was a student, and to all of the teachers who do their jobs with professionalism and integrity day in and day out, and to all the teachers grinding it out every day: thank you. I see you and appreciate all the things you do for our schools, our students and their families today and everyday. Unless today isn’t Teacher Appreciation Day. If that’s the case, then forget it.


Still Learning...

When I left school today, I was pretty disheartened. Even though I'd collected amazing poetry collections from most of my students, too many in my sixth period class turned in whispers of what they could have done.

These students are still teaching me...
Then, after an emergency faculty meeting after school, and a visit from a brilliant former student, I got in the car and checked in with my partner. We confirmed daycare pickup and evening plans, and when he asked me how I was doing, I took a deep breath. I tried to tell him I was OK, but I wasn't. I was tired and doubting my effectiveness as a teacher. He reminded me that it was that time in the school year. It comes in flashes all year long, moments when I wonder if this is the career for me, if it's worth all of the hard work, if I should look to some other profession. And during testing, it's often the worst. I told my partner he was right, and he assured me that, by the end of the year, I would be sad to see all of my students go.

I made my way to a nearby high school where it was senior day for some former students. There I was greeted by a group of seniors I'd taught and who were getting ready to finish off their high school careers. I visited with their parents and with them, and by the time I had to leave, I was so buoyed by our conversation, I had forgotten all about how I'd felt earlier in the day.

I'm a teacher, and I love what I do. It is exhausting and frustrating, but it is also endlessly rewarding. I learn so much from my students and my former students keep teaching me as well. Today, they reminded me that what I do matters. That years down the line, it still matters, and I love them for it. They are the reason I teach and today they helped remind me of that.


On the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066

My dad turned 86 this past January. He was 11 when FDR signed Executive Order 9066 ordering all Japanese living on the west coast inland. Today is the 75th anniversary of that Executive Order.

1936: Azusa, California.
Back row: George, Henry, Minoru, Saburo, Yoshinao, Yoshio
front row: John, James, Kagi (my grandmother), with Stephen and Hannah, Ginzo (my grandfather), and Grace. 
This is his family in 1936, before Pearl Harbor, before the older boys went off to war, before the rest of the family packed what they could carry, before they left behind their Azusa farm, before they made their way to the Pomona Assembly Center.

1942: A train stop on the way to Heart Mountain.
Dad, Uncle Jimmy, and Auntie Grace are on the right, looking out the window. 
In August of 1942, they arrived at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. My father's older sister, Grace, happened upon this photograph in a World War II commemorative calendar. That's my dad, the little arms of either my Auntie Hannah or Uncle Steve, Uncle Jimmy, and Auntie Grace looking out the train window. Dad remembers this as a long ride. Trains carrying goods for the war took priority on the rails, so their train made many stops, waiting for other trains to pass. My dad decided to take his marbles with him. I wonder if those glass spheres survived the journey or were lost and rolled away.

1942: Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
back row: Hannah, Yoshio, Yurikichi Ikehara (cousin), James
front row: Stephen, Ginzo, Kagi, John (hiding), Grace.
This is a family shot taken at Heart Mountain. The family is older and smaller. Yoshinau, Sab, Min, Henry, and George were all in the service. James got permission to attend the University of Illinois. As you can see, my grandmother is in a wheelchair. She had MS and, as you can imagine, the camps were not ADA compliant. The winter was particularly hard on her with lows below zero on many days. They requested to relocate to a camp at a warmer location. The authorities approved the move, but said the family was responsible for transportation and the costs incurred. So, Uncle George took a leave from the army, acquired a truck, and moved the family to Gila Rivers, Arizona.

1943: Gila Rivers, Arizona.
Yoshio, John, Hannah, Kagi, Ginzo, Stephen, Grace. 
While the family was in internment camp, the Department of Agriculture confiscated and sold the family's farm equipment. Their trucks were left behind because the family had sealed the tires in a basement. Uncle Sab and Uncle Henry took leave and went to the farm to drive the trucks to a friend in Colorado, but they were stopped by local police. Although they were released a couple of days later, they weren't able to deliver the trucks. So, Yoshinao asked for a leave to settle this business and visit the family at Gila Rivers. There, he was reunited with an old girlfriend. They married a year later. That is one silver lining Uncle Yosh talked about from this era. 

The caption on the Online Archive of California reads:
"Mr. G. Nakada of Azusa, California states he has had no difficulty
selling his products. He is the father of 11 children,
7 of them serving in the U.S. Army." photo by H. Iwasaki.  
photo by H. Iwasaki.
Dad is in the hat and striped shirt.
photo by H. Iwasaki.
Dad rarely smiled for the camera, but here you see his charming grin. 

In 1945, the family returned to their farm in Azusa. These photographs, part of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, show how well this Japanese American family adjusted once they were back home. My dad, however, doesn't really remember it that way. He got into fights whenever someone called him a Jap, and he fought quite a bit.

There is much being written right now about FDR's Executive Order 9066 and comparing these injustices to our country's current shifting immigration policy. In the Japanese American community we like to say, "Never forget" and "Never again." This is just one family's story, and I hope we will do all we can to hold up the promise of "Never again."


Black History Month: If You Build It...

Last year I gained so very much from helping organize our school's Black History Month assembly. You can read about my experience in these three posts. But I was a little hesitant to try it again. It was a lot of work and stress, and without a parent really pushing me, February would have come and gone without an assembly for Black History.

But then there was the inauguration of Donald Trump, and his relentless attacks on people of color and immigrants reminded me that it is easy to do nothing. The challenge is to stand up. So, our Charter Board calendared another Black History Month assembly and preparations began.

This year a colleague worked alongside me which made things so much easier, and students who had attended last year's assembly knew the possibilities of what they could perform, so getting kids to participate wasn't nearly as challenging.

And then, there is our Speech and Debate program. A colleague started a team several years ago, and now, we have students who compete and win in a very competitive local league. We have even had students place at the National tournament. So when these students signed up to participate, it elevated our performance level and brought a new diversity of voice to the program.

Our students are so very talented. Musical performances of "The Drinking Gourd" on clarinet by a recent immigrant from China, a duo's original rap, "Summertime," Parliament Funkadelic's "We Got the Funk" by the Emerson Super Band, and Michael Jackson's "Man In the Mirror" got feet tapping. But the words of Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and Lupita Nyong'o brought to life by a talented group of orators brought down the house.

We still pushed our students to think. We urged students to think about why we need Black History, viewed clips from Ava Duvernay's 13th documentary about the persistent effects of racism, and teachable moments based on the request: "Don't Touch My Hair."

The talent and hard work of our school community and high expectations of our students really stood out to me this year. I'm so thankful to be part of a school where celebrating diversity is about not only celebrating culture, but demanding more from our students. Acknowledging places of privilege and identifying opportunities to stand up as an ally: this is what it means to resist.


Supporting Public Education in the Era of DeVos

Today, while I was proctoring the interim assessment I'm required to give by the district, the US Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. I heard this news during nutrition, my 10 minute break between third and fourth periods, while students were coming in and out of the room, finishing up homework and studying for tests. I wasn't particularly surprised and went on with my day.
Woah, Betsy. 

I wrote postcards against this nominee. I called Republican senators who might be swayed. I am highly invested in this fight for our public schools. But the vote came down to 50-nays, 51-ayes and the confirmation carried.

To be honest, I was surprised by the unity of the Democrats. DeVos's reform agenda is aligned with many DFERs. These Democrats For Education Reform, like Senator Booker who sat on the Alliance for School Choice board with DeVos, are pro school choice, private charters, testing, accountability, and vouchers, and also anti-union and anti-teacher. President Obama's two prior picks championed many of the same causes DeVos favors. She takes things a bit further with vouchers and lacks experience in public education, but, to be honest, she isn't very different than Sec. Arne Duncan or Sec. John King.

So, guess what I will do tomorrow? Well, after this interim assessment is over, I will go back to my public school, my classroom, my students, and I will teach. For now, things will carry on as before, and I will continue to believe in my job, my students, their families, and our schools. That is the true narrative of our public schools. There are amazing things happening inside our schools if you take the time to look beyond test scores or aging facilities. I see them every day. The "fake news" of our failing schools is a story that has run its course. If you want to know how to fight back against DeVos and for our schools, invest some time and/or money in a public school, and then, send your kid to one.