See Ya, 2023!

Today I drove my partner's very fast car down the 101 from Pepperdine back into the city. The sky was hazy-cloudy-gray, and the ocean stretched out to the horizon. The sun was falling toward the sea and the whole world shimmered like it had been dipped in silver. 

2023 has been a year, but I'm trying to let go of judgement. I don't know if 2023 is was better or worse than the one before. It feels like we've had a streak of rough ones, but I do know the year is almost over, and a new one is about to begin. 

Last year started with letting go my position with the Women Who Submit blog. The Breathe and Push column and the numerous writers who submitted helped me grow as a writer and editor. What a wonderful opportunity to serve this creative community for so long. The unexpected gift of letting go, was seeing how Thea Pueschell took the reins in that space and filling it with beautiful intersections. 

January also took our family into Little Tokyo to the Japanese American National Museum where we visited and stamp the Ireicho. I wrote about the experience for High Country News who commissioned beautiful artwork to accompany my essay. It was a powerful experience and I urge all to look back at the names of their ancestors and take time to honor them. 

At the end of February, I joined the Altadena poet laureate, Carla Sameth, for a poetry reading. My first in-person reading as a poet! 

In March, I made my way to Seattle where AWP was being held. I didn't go to the conference, but helped host a Women Who Submit celebration. We heard from powerful voices in our WWS community and opened the call for submissions for TRANSFORMATION, the next WWS anthology. 

I published a couple of poems with The Rising Phoenix Review: "Cat's Cradle" which Rising Phoenix later nominated for Best of the Net, "Pronunciation Guide for my Mother" and a short story, "Birdless Dawn," with Literary Mama. My story, "All That Can Wait," was selected for Made in LA's fifth book, Vantage Points

A few weeks later, on the ides of March, UTLA members found ourselves back on the picket line as part of the SEIU solidarity strike. SEIU won big on the other end, as did UTLA a few weeks later. We celebrated birthdays, attended and coached so many soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball games that we lost count and our minds. We graduated a fifth grader who moved on to start middle school. 

I attended book launches and readings, read some amazing books, wrote a haiku poem on most days, and started reading and studying tarot.

Books you should read: 

Xochitl Julisa Bermejo's Incantation, a spellbinding poetry collection that honors, grapples, and loves this complicated world. 

School Trip a graphic novel by Jerry Craft, which helped my and my students travel to France and re-examine humor and our identities as Americans. 

Rodeo Queen, Tisha Reichle Aguilera's Breaking Pattern, and be transported into the world of competitive rodeo with Adriana and her family and friends. 

Ruth Ozeki's The Book of Form and Emptiness which beautifully gives voice to The Book, Benny, and all the voices he hears. 

2023 was a year that was both hard and fast, so in 2024, the year I'll turn 50, I'm setting an intention for a slower, softer year. The beauty of tonight's silver sunset filled me with gratitude. As the vast ugliness of the world rears its head with wars and vitriol, I hope some shimmer of beauty sneaks up on you in these last moments of the year. Happy New Year. 


What's Up With Dress Codes?

I thought I was going to write another back-to-school essay about the start of this school year. I was going to praise the new supplies, the shiny floors, the fresh faces, and my anticipation of another group of students. But then the week started, and I didn't make make it to the page to write. Now things have shifted. 

Kiara started middle school on Monday. This could be a whole post, but I've been processing it for over a year in therapy, so I'm good. 

I thought of her all day, and after school, I raced to pick her up. She had a great first day. She had friends in her classes. She felt comfortable on campus, and even though her lunch got stepped on and still hadn't gotten a locker, she was happy.

As we drove to pick up her brother at her old elementary school, however, she made a confession. "I was out of dress code today." 

I looked over at her denim skirt and olive green t-shirt with the words, "Open Heart, Open Mind" above where a pocket might have been. She did not look like she was out of dress code. My girl follows rules and doesn't like to get in trouble. But, according to the sixth grade orientation, and the staff member who advised her at lunch: her jean skirt was too short, hanging a FULL INCH above her fingertips when her hands hung unnaturally at her sides. 

"So, what do I wear tomorrow?" she asked, visibly concerned. 

For her first six years of school, Kiara has worn shorts, skirts, or leggings. Her elementary school didn't care how long or short, how baggy or tight. But now, as she enters the hormone-charged space that is middle school, with all of these rapidly changing adolescent bodies sharing space, suddenly how much of her legs, her stomach, or her shoulders is showing has become an issue. 

We picked up Gabe and continued to consider what Kiara might wear. Gabe grew instantly concerned in the back seat. "What will they say about what I wear when I go there?"

"You'll be fine." I quipped. "Your t-shirt and shorts aren't going to bother anyone."

And that should be my daughters' experience as well. Kiara, and all of our students should be able to wear what they feel comfortable wearing to school. They shouldn't be worried about what school staff will say about their clothes or bodies.

I haven't always been on track with this. Years of teaching middle school and hearing girls question my enforcement of our school's uniform policy showed me where I was wrong. Being the parent of a daughter has solidified my learning and readied me for this work. 

Our schools should not be implementing dress codes. For those clutching at their pearls at seeing bare thighs, shoulders, and midriffs, for those thinking dress codes to help our girls understand "appropriate" attire, these policies are ultimately about the male gaze. These policies sexualize and objectify our girls and young women. And in addition to these "too tight, too short" aspects of dress codes targeting mostly girls, there are also the too-baggy, too-saggy pants policies and earrings-can't-be-hoops-larger-than-a-quarter polities that target our Black and Brown students. 

I've thought about complying, about ordering longer shorts and telling my girl to just go along with it. But our girls will be taught to comply with systems for the rest of their lives, and this policy is wrong. We are going to fight it. Let's get rid of dress codes and free our teachers and administrators from enforcing sexist and racist dress codes. Let's model not talking about kids' bodies at school and body-shaming should not come from our schools. 

Kiara's first-day-of-school shirt urged "Open Heart, Open Mind." I hope her school will soon approach all students with this same attitude. Let's promote a body-positive culture so don't have to give my girl this affirmation on the drive home. "There's nothing wrong with you. There is something wrong with the policy."


For the Class of 2023

I didn't realize until this morning, a week after these students had walked the stage and the year had come to a close, that although this speech had been passed on to students, I never shared it here. So, here it is, my honoring of this year's students. Click here for previous culmination addresses

To the Class of 2023

Do you remember that moment? Sometime this past winter, we discussed spring and graduation, but it was strange. You were not very excited about it, as if none of you could imagine graduation, what you might wear, or who would be there to cheer you across the stage, all of those mixed emotions that come with seeing your classmates dressed up, and smiling mixed with a little sadness and nostalgia as you move on from these hallways, these teachers, these friends. 

That was when I realized, you, this class of 2023 had never graduated. You all were fifth graders in 2020 when the world shut down when the end of fifth grade was stolen from you. There were no celebrations, no last days of elementary to mark all you had learned and accomplished. But that was three years ago now, and since then we’ve been working hard and adjusting to being back. 

I’ve tried to help, to bring grace and forgiveness and understanding to whatever you all came back with. But I realized, I am still hurting. I haven’t been angry, but so many have been, and even if we feel like we’re okay, many of us have been caught in the path of someone else’s destruction. 

So, I became cautious. I was teaching in the same room, same books, same poems, but I was on watch. Was that comment mean? Was he gaslighting me? Was she being sweet, or fake? I was stuck in my head, and I took things personally. I was hurting. 

In her song, “Anti-Hero,” Taylor Swift says, “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.” I played this song back in November when we were writing novels. My novel this year was about a girl who lied, but it wasn’t until recently, that I realized I was the liar. I had been trying to convince all of you to choose kindness, choose love, invest in relationships, but I was scared to do the same. I guarded my heart. I kept my distance. 

And yet, and you showed me brilliance. You shared your lives, your stories, your experiences and slowly, cautiously, you cracked my heart back open. You reminded me that I get out of teaching what I put into it, that what I give in my relationships with each of you, make this work rewarding; fulfilling. 

French philosopher Albert Camus says, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Thank you, Class of 2023, for being so generous to me, for reminding me to be present each day. For this past school year, you have been my present. You have taught me to be here, where my feet are, and that is what gives this work meaning: the relationships we build as people, as a class, as a school, as a community. Thank you for reading and writing and learning with me. Thank you for all you have taught me. Taylor also says, “One day I’ll watch as you’re leaving, and life will lose all its meaning” but that’s where Taylor might not be right. Life has meaning. Right here, right now, where our feet are, on this graduation day. You made it. We made it, and life has the meaning we chose to make of it. 

Thank you. 


Closing Out 2022

It's the last day of the year. I stayed up too late last night watching season two of The White Lotus, but this morning we all slept in and woke up to a dreary December 31st. The oldest is studying her state capitals. The littlest is working on a puzzle. The partner is getting in a workout which leaves me taking stock. 

2022 has not been an easy year. This past school year was my hardest as a teacher mostly because the shutdown was so challenging for many of my students. Also, the whole family got COVID in April, but we've emerged from that relatively healthy. My own kids are adjusting well to being back to school in-person, and they have more school and sports activities than even their sports-obsessed educator-parents ever imagined. 

As a writer, I signed with Keyes Agency at the end of 2021, and having a novel out on submission has been a new kind of challenge. Still, a revise and resubmit request helped me strengthen my manuscript. The book hasn't sold just yet, but it is a better book today than it was a year ago. 

I published work I'm proud of and read some amazing books (although I'm still not back to reading like I did pre-COVID). So this morning, I updated my website and here are a few links if you're looking for something to read as we close out 2022. 

These two events pushed me back into the world and both were live-streamed so you can watch them. The first captures a powerful Get Lit performance by Venice Poets followed by a reading from Rice Paper Superheroes and tkk reading from her powerful book, Navigating With/Out Instruments. Then tkk and I sit in conversation about art, activism, and community building. The second event is with Women Who Submit, a Zoom event with WeHo Reads and Cody Sisco.

From Friday, September 16, 2022 at Beyond Baroque, I was able to read & share space with traci kato-kiriyama & Noriko Nakada. We gathered to celebrate tkk's book, Navigating With/Out Instruments, and our conversation looked at the ways art can excavate history and create a better future. 

On Wednesday, March 16, 2022 Women Who Submit presented at WeHo Reads about how we gather/ed throughout the pandemic. A healing exercise, panel, and performance of a group poem helped share how weekly check-ins with our WWS community kept us all afloat. 

While the novel was out on submission, I published a couple of essays and poems. You can read those here: 

"Night-Blooming Jasmine" an essay at Forty Fifty Women

an essay at High Country News

"Marbles" part of a collection of remembrance poems on the 80th anniversary of EO 9066 at discover Nikkei. 

Recommended Reads: 

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Phillipe: This was a highly entertaining read about a young Black Canadian who moves with his mother to Austin after his parents’ divorce and his Mom’s new job at UT. The narrator is third-person close and hilarious as it following the journey of a smart-ass kid adjusting to life in a new place. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet: The story of a town, Mallard, Louisiana, where folks marry light and these two girls witness their father’s lynching. The twins run away and one disappears into a white world while the other returns home with her Black daughter. A compelling and haunting account of the historical traumas we carry with us whether we like it or not. 

The New Kid by Jerry Craft: A graphic novel about a kid going to an elite private school. This banned book avoids Black trauma and focuses on universal issues of growing up. 

Navigating With/Without Instruments by traci akemi kato-kiriyama This is such a phenomenal hybrid work focusing on capturing life rather worrying about what genre can capture. With themes of community and intergenerational trauma, letter-writing and activism kato-kiriyama shows how we can honor our pasts by taking action in our present lives. 

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka: This third person plural novel is so beautifully rendered finding beauty in the harsh world of picture brides, early immigrant tensions, and Japanese incarceration. A beautiful capture of tragic collective trauma. 

Try Out by Christina Soontornvat  (Author), Joanna Cacao (Illustrator) A graphic novel about girls of color trying out to be cheerleaders in a conservative Texas town. I love the explorations of majority rules and popularity, girl friendships and family dynamics. 

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zaumer: this memoir explores the author’s relationship with her mother, the Korean side of her family, and her mother’s illness and death, Crying... captures the young artist struggling to find herself. With a father who is struggling with his own demons and a childhood seeking acceptance as a multiracial girl in a small town in Oregon (Eugene), the author reflections on new adulthood is beautiful to read. 

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn: This devastating story and challenging read comes from the underworld: a spirit part flesh, part revenge. This cruel fiction exists within lives far too many experience. This book will haunt me for years and although I took several months to read it, this aswang's tale and the places and moments they brought to life force me to share space and pay my respects. 

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng: Reading his book after Chadburn’s meant I closed out the year holding my children a little closer. This tale made me want to both shield my children from the ills of the world and lean into the possibilities of what art can do to move toward a better one.   


For the Class of 2022 and a World in Need of Repair

Isn't time wild? The seasons just keep changing and the kids keep growing and once again it's the end of spring and summer awaits. It's graduation season again and this life in a modern pandemic carries on. Here is my offering to my eighth graders this year. 

To the Class of 2022,

I’ve never had a school year when I was unsure we would make it. This year I wondered how we would come back, step inside, breathe together, learn together. But look at us now. Here we are, still in-person. Still here. Still breathing. Together. I’m proud of you. I’m proud of us. It hasn’t been easy. 

I’ve cried more this year than I have during any other school year, and not for the usual reasons. Like my other years of teaching, my emotions have often simmered to the surface, ready to bubble over, but this year, so many of my tears have been tears of apology. 

I’m sorry for all the ways we have failed you. I’m sorry that two years ago we sent you home for two weeks and kept you home for over a year. I’m sorry we couldn’t figure out faster that we could come back safely with masks and testing protocols in place. I’m sorry we let you languish in silence and anonymity, that we didn’t support you and your families more, and that you might still feel alone. 

I’m sorry we reopened our doors and acted like things were the same, that we didn’t give you the time and space to process it all. I’m sorry we didn’t give you the time you might have needed to heal, and instead we dropped you right back into systems that don’t work for so many of us. 

I’m genuinely sorry, but sometimes apologies aren’t enough. Reparations are defined as making amends for a wrong one has done, or the act of repairing something. When my father was your age, a young teenager during World War II, he was incarcerated along with his entire family because of his Japanese Ancestry. In 1992, he was paid reparations and offered an apology. It didn’t heal the trauma of our family’s history or forgive our country’s actions, but it was a step toward justice. 

In the shadow of these unprecedented times, we need to do more than just apologize. We need to repair. Indian author Arundhati Roy says, “How has the United States survived it’s terrible past and emerged smelling so sweet? Not by owning up to it, not by making reparations, not by apologizing to Black Americans or native Americans, and certainly not by changing its ways.” 

There is much we need to repair in our nation, in our cities, our families, our schools, so let us start here. Let’s repair the relationships we have with one another, by apologizing for the times we’ve done wrong, by showing gratitude and thanking those around us for sharing this space with us, let’s offer kindness to one another with a greeting, a pleasantry, a wave or a smile.

So before you head off to high school, I hope you will take a few last moments with the people you came back to school with: these friends and classmates, these teachers and staff. I hope you can offer a smile, a greeting, a thank you because even if these relationships have felt the strain of these uncertain times, of the trauma and grief we are all still carrying, we have shared this experience together. 

And when you start at your new schools in the fall, I hope you will show up to school ready and willing to learn even though these same schools may have let you down. I hope you will be there for one another, that you will take the risk of learning, of building new friendships, and that you will heal and repair. Please forgive yourself and others, remember kindness, and see how if we start reparations here and now, even on this seemingly small scale, we might open up new possibilities for repairing a broken world. 

American author Maya Angelou says, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way they made you feel.” I will remember you, Class of 2022, as the ones who helped me step back into the world, who made me feel brave even though it was tough, and optimistic even through despair. Because we’ve started making reparations already.  We’ve spent these months getting to work on a world that is in serious need of repair and we are moving forward. And as Beyonce says, “If you feel insignificant, you better think again / Better wake up because you’re part of something way bigger / You’re part of something way bigger.”

Click here to read graduation speeches for other Emerson classes. 


Can We Get Along?

The corner of 7th St. and Union Ave., a building is ablaze during the Los Angeles Uprising, 1992; Photo by Ted Soqui, 1992. Courtesy the artist. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ted Soqui from the California African American Museum exhibit.

Thirty years ago I was a senior in high school and had just turned eighteen. Our choir group took a trip to San Diego for a competition and to visit Sea World, Disneyland, and Knott's Berry Farm. As we drove back home and past Los Angeles, the city quietly awaited the Rodney King verdict. By the time the acquittals sparked the LA uprising, I was back in Bend, Oregon nearly a thousand miles away. 

Now, I call Los Angeles home and on the night of the 30th anniversary, I sat in a soccer stadium near the USC campus watching a women's professional soccer game where almost all of the players took a knee after speaking about their support for racial equality in America. I've been thinking a lot about how much I've changed and how much the world has changed in the past thirty years and how much has remained the same. Here is an excerpt from I Tried: Tales of an Emerging High School Feminist about that day when the news that LA was on fire arrived in Bend. And here is a recent article if you want to learn more about the '92 uprising

can we get along?

After that all-night bus trip and a couple of hours of sleep, I make my way into the kitchen where Mom makes oven pancakes for a late-birthday breakfast. She has NPR on, and I hear LA is burning. Rodney King. Police officers acquitted. Riots. Looting. Violence. 

I try to remember LA. Wasn’t I just there, just a few hours ago? No, we were in San Diego, and then we drove up the coast. I can’t recall seeing much of anything I recognized of the valley where Mom’s family lives, or Baldwin Hills where Dad’s brother’s home looks out at the Hollywood sign. Then, I remember the grainy footage of a man being beaten and photos of his swollen, bruised face. I remember the race of the officers (white) and the race of Rodney King (Black), the use of the n-word, and the excuses people gave for why the beating was justified, “He was on drugs,” “He tried to attack them,” “He deserved it.”  

I remember, two summers ago, seeing Do the Right Thing at the mall a few weeks after it’s release. Some theatres didn’t want to screen it. They feared riots in the streets. Now, there is rioting in LA. 

I drive to school beneath clear blue skies, far away from black smoke rising into haze above the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium, and the LA skyline. I arrive at school, and no one talks about the uprising. My classmates haven’t heard about it, or they aren’t interested in discussing it, particularly with me. After all, our school already experienced its own loss this week, it’s prom season, and our teachers want to get a few more assignments out of us before senioritis sets in even further. No one mentions that school is cancelled in LA, that people are dying in the streets, and fires burn in neighborhoods a thousand miles away.   

I think about saying something, starting the conversation. After all, everyone already sees me as a liberal, and a feminist, and a woman of color, but as I sit there in Mrs. Hurley’s class, I wonder if any of the personal stands I take change anyone or anything. 

In the fall, as the Atlanta Braves made their post-season run, I told anyone who would listen that doing the tomahawk chop during volleyball matches was super offensive. People still did it. 

When I heard about a new girl who just moved here from Vietnam, I passed by her on the way out of B Hall sitting on the floor by herself, but I said nothing. What could I say? She barely spoke English. 

When rumors spread about a middle school friend being hit by her boyfriend, I did nothing. 

When South Seas rolled around again, I didn’t say how offensive it was to come in black face, and even though Jamal Finley, the junior who replaced Chad Paulson as the only Black kid at Mountain View, hung a sign in the commons asking if he should wear white-face to South Seas, and nothing changed.

When the Wrangler-wearing boys scrawled KKK slogans across their binders, I said nothing. 

When people said, “That’s so gay,” or when the football guys called each other fags, I said nothing. 

When rumors spread about the girl who slept with him, and him, and him, or talked about the girl who threw up in the bathroom everyday at lunch, or the girl who got drunk and had sex with two guys, I never defended them or talked about what was going on. 

I haven’t changed this town at all, and sometimes I didn’t even try. 

On the day of Rodney King uprising, once again, I say nothing, and the disappointment and anger of my silence simmers inside me. I assume my classmates say nothing because they don’t know or don’t care. That is their privilege. They don’t think about race because why would they? Their families chose Bend. They fled cities, just like my parents did, to live in this utopia far away from urban spaces where cops beat Black men and Korean shop owners defend their markets. This is where I sit in my safe classroom, far from streets where cars are upturned and stores are looted. 

Mrs. Hurley turns on a movie, and in the dark, I fold my arms along the cool surface of my desk, and rest my head on my arms. I’m so tired, but when I close my eyes I see Uncle Yosh and Auntie Suma’s house in Baldwin Hills, just above the fray where columns of black smoke rise up outside their picture window. I remember driving down Crenshaw where Mom always got so nervous, as if someone might attack our car as we drove down the street. I imagine the strip mall we drove past when we went to LA for mochi-tsuki. The view of Los Angeles burning has to be unbelievable from Uncle Yosh and Auntie Suma’s back yard.

What about my parents, this interracial couple leaving Southern California: what possessed my Japanese American dad and white mom to pick this mountain town in the middle of nowhere? The story goes that it was skiing. The proximity of this town to Mt. Bachelor saved their marriage, but I wonder if it was also easier for them to be away from their families. When I’m with Mom’s family, with their blonde hair and blue eyes, living near Simi Valley where most of the jurors for this Rodney King trial live, I feel like an outsider, like at any moment a cousin or Grandpa might say something totally offensive about “those Mexicans” or “those Chinks.” What did they say about us when we weren’t around? 

Then, there’s Dad’s family. We are so white in comparison, because we are only half and live in Bend, void of any Asian community at all. Maybe staying in LA would have been much more complicated. 

If our family had stayed in LA, what could have become of us? Maybe we would be closer to our cousins, to Traci on Mom’s side who already has a baby, or Craigor who is in jail. Maybe we would be closer to the cousins on Dad’s side, Ron and Pam, who were band kids, or John and Rich who played tennis. We would never know, because Mom and Dad kept us from these possibilities and raised us a thousand miles away. 

When I get home from school, Mom is watching the news. There is footage from earlier in the day, shop owners in Korea Town, an area I’ve never heard of, holding guns and defending their shops. 

President Bush announces, “Anarchy will not be tolerated,” but the footage tells a different story. 

“Why aren’t they stopping it?” I ask, and Mom shakes her head. 

“I think it’s too big,” she says, but I don’t understand it. How can people go so crazy? Why are they so angry?  

Mom doesn’t understand either. She grew up white, in the valley, far from the streets we’re seeing on TV. 

I’m unable to comprehend the anger and frustration that fills
the TV screen, but I want to. I want to understand what it feels like to be so enraged. My internal clock is ticking. My days in this town are numbered, and I know once I leave and make my way over the mountains and onto a university campus, I will never come back.

To read more about my high school years growing up in Central Oregon, check out I Tried at Bookshop or your local book seller. 


First Day of School 2021

As I slid desks across the shiny, clean floors in anticipation for another school year, I was more nervous and anxious than I've been in years. There is still the exciting promise of a fresh start and the tension of meeting a new group of students, but this year hits a little differently. I struggled to see how I could maintain social distancing for 34 students, and I kept coming across relics from the past: file folders and assignments from my last students in the before times back in the spring of 2020. 

I'm trying to stay optimistic. After all, I'm sending my own unvaccinated elementary school students to their first and fourth grade teachers tomorrow. We are all hoping that universal masking is enough. We hope this variant can be kept in check. We hope we can keep our kids healthy. 

But after 18 months of weighing every decision about what to do and what risks to take, it is the letting go that is hardest right now. And maybe letting go isn't the right thing. Maybe instead we have to hold on to the things most important to us. 

We've learned the importance of our physical and mental health over these past months, so we will be vigilant about masking and about holding space for both the trauma and the joy our students will carry into our classrooms. We are aware of the attacks on our public schools, our elected public officials, and our medical professionals, so we will continue to teach and show up for our students. We can see the world shaking in Haiti, hear of the political upheaval here and abroad, and smell the smoke from global fires, so we must wake up in the morning and continue to fight in our small ways. 

The isolation of this past year has caused me to lose faith in so much, but after sliding those desks around, I was able to arrange my room in order to maintain 3-feet distance. When new sixth and seventh graders came in for orientation, they were full of nervous anticipation as well. We are all feeling so much. I'm certain my students this year will once again restore me to some kind of faith. They do this every year. So as I start back, carrying all of my own trauma and joy, I look forward to the restorative healing a new school year can provide.

For other back to school blogs, click here!


This Year's Speech for the Class of 2021

How do you let go of something that you never held to begin with? That's how I feel about this year. Still, tomorrow is the Emerson Middle School culmination and here is my speech for our eighth graders. I am so proud of them. They got through the eighth grade during a global pandemic. Wow. 

Class of 2021, 

This past August, we opened the school year like no other. Instead of opening my classroom door, I opened a Zoom and instead of meeting you all in person, I met you through these screens. It was the first day of eighth grade, and I worried you might not come. But you logged on, and you said hi when I called your names. And then, to my surprise, you kept coming. On Zoom. Day after long day.

Back in August, we were still feeling our way through this pandemic. We were hoping for the best and we learned not to look too far ahead. It was too hard to think about the possibility of disappointment, so I didn’t allow myself to think about today, your graduation day. 

But now it is June, and time has a funny way of just carrying on. 

This past November we took time to write novels and it seems like so long ago. Fast forward to April, we paused to write poems in little four-minute increments. Minutes, class periods, days, weeks, months. A school year. 

The musical Rent asks how we measure time: “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife. In 525,600 minutes - how do you measure a year in the life? Seasons of love,”

Last summer, we stayed home to try to keep our city safe. In fall there was an election and then in winter an insurrection as cases in LA surged, I learned not to ask too many questions of you. Students and families were dealing with COVID, and so many of us were grieving loss.

It has been a long year, four long seasons, but spring is here and the waves of vaccines have begun. Doors have started to crack open again and we have continued to show up in little fits and spurts, to learn, and to be together in these strange learning communities. We made it through this year together, and in ways that are completely unique to this class of 2021.

And now, it’s over. A few of you have come back in person, but most stayed home, and as we reflect on this wild, wild, year, I hope you all measure this year by all you have learned. Maybe your English hasn’t developed the way it might have had we been in school in person, maybe your math feels a little shaky and your science lab skills uncertain, maybe you feel a little soft from no PE running days, but you have made it through a year we will never forget, even though we might like to.

What your learning reflects is a deep compassion. You seem to really understand that the struggle is real and everyone single one of us is struggling through. You know if someone’s camera is off, they probably have a good reason, and that even though someone else's struggle isn’t your own, you can still empathize with their circumstances. 

There is no room for regret for what this year might have been, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson says “It is about your outlook towards life. You can either regret or rejoice.”

With this next season and in all the seasons to come, you get to choose: regret or rejoice. Thank you for teaching me how to see and feel regret and to still choose joy. Today it’s your day. And as Charles Bukowski says, 

“Your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.”


A Quiet 2020 Blog Review

It's almost here, the end of 2020 which once held the optimism of this whole new decade, right? But what... what in the world happened? 

a group of multiracial people celebrate 2020
When 2020 held so much promise.

To be honest, 2020 feels like a decade all on it's own. I haven't written much here or elsewhere during the past twelve months, but it is what it is. 2020 has helped remind me to let go of things I can't control, and I control very little. 

I'm also done using capitalistic measures to quantify success. Instead of thinking that growth and profit are required indicators of success, I'm more interested in sustainability measures. So rather than looking at reads and site visits as indicators of accomplishment, I also want to consider writing I feel proud of or that helped build community. I know my words are reaching people, so I'm calling this year sustainably successful. 

I posted to this blog six times, but a few post from before this year continue to generate significant traffic, so I'll take some time to revisit those as well in this year review:

A few days ago I shared my publications for 2020. I appreciated the communities that developed around anthologies and was so honored to have CNF, poetry, and fiction anthologized this year. This post also has links to videos of my work and these are a first for me. Reading in public is not my favorite so creating recordings and participating in virtual readings and discussions were huge areas of growth for me. 

I also shared my year of reading which includes many great titles. I'll choose a favorite from each genre just for fun, and if you need more to read, check out last year's list of favorites

Fiction: Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead
Nonfiction: Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson
Poetry: OBIT by Victoria Change
Graphic Novel: Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
YA: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leicht Smith

My annual culmination addresses still get visits and the addresses from 2017, 2018, and 2019 garnered reads this year, but the 2020 address got the most reads of all my posts this year. 

At the start of this year, I wrote about the one-year anniversary of our UTLA Strike for the schools our students deserve and about the night before the strike. The actions we took two years ago have kept teachers, students, and families safe during this year. Even though we are all anxious to get back to school in-person, our decision to stay home has saved lives. In case you still weren't sure: strikes work. 

In the face of white supremacy in 2017, I asked for help in this post and many readers returned to it in the face of white supremacy in 2020. 

At the start of the school year, I wrote again about the first day of school, and how this year would be the same and also very different. 

But my top post this year was originally published here in 2017 and captures the Nakada experience with incarceration during World War II. Seeing this as the top post for the year serves as motivation to keep revising Rice Paper Superheroes, my young adult novel about the Nakamura family's wartime experience. 

That's it. Thanks for reading along and wish y'all a safe, healthy, and happy new year. 


2020: the year in books

I thought I was going to read so much during the lockdown, but to my surprise, the stacks and stacks of books to read kept growing higher and higher. Still, I read and these are the books that got me through 2020. I recommend them all.

pre-pandemic reads: 

In the early days of 2020, I read Jami Attenberg's novel, All This Could Be Yours. It is the story of the Tuchman family during the last days of the patriarch's life. Layers of the Tuchman story are revealed in shifting narrative chapters, and it was nice to escape into a different family's upsetting problems for a while. 

My niece recommended Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, and moving forward I will use this book in my classroom instead of To Kill A Mockingbird to discuss race and justice in America. With a variety of cases, Stephenson gives face to those hidden from us, incarcerated for being poor, Black, young, female, and vulnerable. His knowledge and use of the law to change the system inspires us all to end the death penalty and find redemption for ourselves and for those behind bars. 

Internment by Samira Ahmed is a young adult book set in a not-so-distant future when Muslims are incarcerated in camps like the Japanese Americans were during World War II. The plot is strong and for young people unfamiliar with our nation's history of internment, this is a good place to start. 

I listened to Colson Whitehead's Nickle Boys by while marathon training and the abuse and racism of this place left me squirming. A fictionalized account of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida where young men picked up for nothing are brought to their knees by a system designed to kill them. These haunting stories stayed with me much like the ones in Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

Then, in March, we went into lockdown and these were the books of the spring. 

Attendance by Rocio Carlos and Rachel McLeod are poems and journals reminding me to stay paying attention to the world. Poems of women and of the day to day life of writers. 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
by T Kira Madden is a beautiful, haunting memoir from Florida in the 80s and 90s and then brought into the 2000s. Her coming of age in a family, multiracial like myself, but ravaged by addiction and secrets is how I’ll remember April of 2020. 

Kiara demanded to read Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen after I sent her and her brother to their rooms one evening. “It’s about feelings. I think you might like it,” she said, and I did. The illustrations are beautiful and the magical realism of this girl stumbling upon a fairy-creature in the woods allowed Kiara and I to have rich conversations about feelings of love and loss. 

Obit by Victoria Chang   These beautiful narrow columns of poem reframe grief and loss. There are so many exquisite lines and new ways of thinking about our parents and letting go of them. Then there are these small poems, little reprieves, sips that allow a break from loss but still sit right next to the grief.  

Pride by Ibi Zoboi is a Bushwick retelling of Pride and Prejudice examining race, class, and re-gentrification. It stays true to the Austen classic in that it is a love story, but also a commentary on what young women experience as they determine their futures in America.

The vignettes in Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House unfold over time like a complicated piece of origami with careful creases made across many years. The author looks back on a relationship brimming with abuse, and hopes to smooth the paper and examine how each fold brought her to the end and to find love again. 

Linked short stories in Once Removed by Colette Sartor capture moments in women's lives filled with

texture and tension. Sartor deftly drops us into the lives of fully-rendered characters and asks us to hang out. We spend a few days with women seeking solutions within themselves and from the world. I haven't read a story collection that kept me this engaged in a very long time.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is a letter to the narrator's mother. It travels from Vietnam, flashes back to wartime and then forward through the narrator’s (Little Dog) young adult life. There are so many beautiful sentences and haunting moments but my favorite is: “Again and again, I write to you regretting my tongue.” It’s amazing how well he captures the inadequacies of language.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas was such a good YA book to read post as we grappled with the role of police in our schools and in our world. Thomas captures a young woman coming of age struggling with her identity and artistry within a climate that is so harsh toward her as a Black girl.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitch Smith is another YA novel narrated by a young Native woman, new to her Kansas suburb and exploring who she is as a partner, a writer, and a Native woman. I learned about Frank Baum’s racist anti-Native stances which further complicates the idea of there being no place like home.

These are the poetry collections/chapbooks I read as part of the Seeley Challenge this year. I vow to spend even more time with poetry in 2021:

bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
be/trouble by Bridgette Bianca
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Love, Love by Victoria Chang
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
How to Exterminate a Black Woman by Monica Prince
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Solange
The Long Clot of Love by Lituo Huang
Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff by Sara Borjas 
Death By Sex Machine by Franny Choi
The Blvd. by Jenise Miller
HOMIE by Danez Smith

If I thought the beginning of the pandemic was tough on reads, the end of 2020 brought my reading to a near halt. 

Never Look Back
by Liliam Rivera is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the Bronx. I love these characters and the ways Rivera blends love and politics and the ancient and the modern. 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson Ok, listening to this epic work of nonfiction over the last few months of quarantine should maybe count as more than one book. I learned so much about the great migration across decades from south to the rest of the US. What a triumph of research and narrative. Mom wanted me to read this. It was one of her last recommendations to me and I’m so glad I finally got to it. 

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay This is another book, a little like Attendance that started the year, that I'm reading in sips for a long while. Another great reminder of how to stay aware of the ways we're seeing the world. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling Reading these again but this time with the kid. 

And that is my year in books: