Kid Talk 101: An Unexpected Conversation About Diversity and Equality

I tutor a young brother a sister in Spanish at a public library. One day, the 7-year-old was teasing me about my boyfriend.

“You have a boyyyyyfriend?” he said. “Do you kissssss him?”

“I’m an adult,” I said. “And my boyfriend and I love each other so yes, we do kiss each other.”

“Ewwww. I’m gonna kiss a boy.”

“Okay,” I said. “But wait until you’re older. You shouldn’t go around school kissing your classmates.”

“Boys can’t kiss boys,” he said.

“Yes they can,” I said. “You can love anyone you want. And when you’re old enough and have someone’s permission, it’s okay to kiss them.”

He wasn’t so pleased with that answer; a little confused, even. Because children are raised that boys kiss girls and girls kiss boys. At what point in their life are they taught that boys also kiss boys and girls also kiss girls?

Kids can be so unpredictable. You never know what they’re going to say, and sometimes their questions and comments put you on the spot with how you are going to respond. I try to prepare myself for the outrageous things kids might say, but I’m not always ready. All I know is that it is important to teach them kindness and acceptance, even if that isn’t the job I was hired for.

This, I think, is why I feel called to be a teacher. More than teaching children the ABCs and how to count, I feel called–compelled even–to teach them how to be kind to each other. To teach them how to use their words to process their feelings, regulate their behavior, and solve problems. To teach them how to be compassionate. To teach them to be activists; to know the difference between right and wrong and to stand up for it, for others.

As a teacher, a parent, or any child caretaker, we need to teach our children–the future generation–more. More than just the definition of prejudice and racism. More than just about the existence of prejudice and racism. We need to show them what we are doing to stop it. We need to gather our children and involve them in the fight for change instead of leaving them on the sidelines watching the world go by.

My town didn’t have a lot of diversity growing up, but my parents took me to the Christian food pantry to help collect and hand out donations. They didn’t stop me from accepting an invitation at 10 years old from my Muslim friend to attend a service at her mosque.

I see now, though, that diversity is a multi-faceted gem, and while there are things we have done to embrace it, there is always so much more we can and must do.

How will you show the future generation you care?

Travel Via a Sniff, a Sight, a Sound

Lately, I’ve been quite nostalgic about my travels, reminiscing as smells, sights, and sounds transport me back to a situation and place I experienced months or years ago.

It’s no enigma as to why my nostalgic mind is on overload (more than usual, I mean). Myself and so many others are nostalgic, grieving, for the way things once were in the pre-pandemic world. Memories, too, can be an escape from the grueling monotony of our current state.

And so it is that I find myself trailing off in thought on more frequent occasions when a sniff of the humid, post-rain morning triggers my memory of early wake up calls in the Amazon. One odorous recollection that leads to another: the fetid whiff of ocelot pee every time I neared their enclosure; the mildewy scent of a book that arrived like-new and left in the damp form of fragile, decaying pages; the musky, lactonic smell of gruel for the baby hormiguero.

Driving down the narrow, windy roads of the Taconic, I forget that I am headed toward upstate New York. Advertisement billboards are absent along this scenic drive, and the rolling hills lush with emergent emeralds resemble the passing jungle canopy of El Yunque National Rainforest. For a minute or two, I am remembering a jump into the waterfall that is hidden among the crowded trees. I am remembering the people I met only the day before at a hostel dinner gathering, the people that have become my traveling companions for the next 24 hours. I smile, and then a Nissan cuts me off and I remember it is just me in this car and my destination is not a Puerto Rican landmark.

Running through the hilly section of town I just recently discovered, broken-down houses sit nestled together. I pass their beaten doors and feel like I’m remembering something from somewhere from sometime. Did I write about these doors? The front door of one home beckons so close to the tapered sidewalk that the barking Yorkie inside sounds like he is right next to me. And then I hear the knob turn, hear a happy family now behind me as I continue my jog. They are speaking in a foreign tongue, and I remember. I remember now.

I am back in Portugal, lost but not worried as I meander, solo and map-less, a section of Porto that resembles my present running route. I am making assumptions; I am imagining; and I am surprised by what lies behind such battered doors.

I am nostalgic for my vagabond lifestyle, my nomadic wanderings, that–like so many things for all of us–have been squandered by a virus and its subsequent fallout. Cancelled trips only increase my yearning for adventure and exploration. I am–we are–trapped by a microscopic monster that is defining our now and shaping our future. But, I remind myself that, just like the sickening in my stomach when I first set foot on uncharted territory alone, this, too, won’t last forever.

You Don’t Have COVID-19? You Can Still Grieve

Wow. This is the first time in the 10 weeks since quarantine started that I’ve been inspired to write. I’ve wanted to! I’ve tried. But alas, I’ve always ended up staring at a blinking cursor and a blank screen.

A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend (an essential worker) came home from work and found me lying flat on the kitchen rug. It was a weird place to lie, but I was feeling hugely unmotivated that day. The sun–which I’d been craving–had finally decided to shine its rays through a cloudless sky, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to move from the rug.

So it goes with daily lockdown life in New York State. There are good days and bad days, up weeks and down weeks, exciting moments and draining moments. I have so far avoided contracting COVID-19–or Corona as I prefer to call it. And while somehow I’ve managed to deal with a bout of lice and poison ivy in quarantine, I’m alive; I’m breathing; I’m healthy.

We were doing this for the greater good. But that novelty has begun to wear off as restrictions are lifted in some states, yet fears and the virus remain. When some of us are still on lockdown, but others aren’t.

At the beginning of the spread of the virus–when life as we knew it began to take on a drastically different shape–we were all reminding each other that we were lucky. We had each other, albeit socially distantly, and we had our health. Death tolls were climbing but we were, for all intents and purposes, safe.

But what my physical health has provided me since the lockdown began, my mental health has not. It’s fair-minded and equitable to remind ourselves of the good and the luck that we have, but it does not do our mental health any justice to negate the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in, virus or not.

Our feelings not only deserve to be acknowledged, but it is imperative that we recognize them. Pushing them under the proverbial rug (not the rug my boyfriend found me recently lying on) does not make them any less valuable or warranted. If that’s all we did, overshadowing our own struggles by comparing them to the struggles of others, our seemingly small concerns would become a large lump under that rug that we would one day trip and fall on. And speaking from experience, that downward spiral is a black hole of its own.

My dear friend who has been experiencing the restricting lockdown life in India reminded me recently that we are always, always allotted to our feelings:

“Quick reminder that it’s okay to not be okay. We are all going through grief. Even if we have stable jobs and our loved ones are healthy.” –Pooja Dutt

Someone out there will always be in a worse situation than you, but you cannot live the life you’re meant to live if you do not take care of yourself. Have theory of mind, but remember to be self-aware. In your reflections of the world in its current state and your place in it, do not deprive yourself of the self-care and compassion that you need, that you deserve, and that you are inherently entitled to.

Future Author! “How I Learned to Love Myself”

I am thrilled to share that I am getting published again!

In 2018, I was published in my first book anthology called “Who We Are.” My submission was 395 words. This time around, submission requirements listed the word count at a minimum of 5,000.

And so I’ve spent the month of December eyeing the word count slowly, gradually, growing in the bottom left corner of my computer screen, wondering if—how—I would make it climb to 5,000.

The theme of this upcoming collection of authors is sacrificial love. Submissions could be fiction or non-fiction about sacrifices related to any of the types of love—relationships, friends, family, god.

I chose to write about self-love. Because the journey toward loving myself took me down the single most difficult, most isolating, most meaningful, most important, most sacrificial path I have ever walked along.

I write about embracing my flaws, dissecting my core truths, going months without a mirror, traveling solo, battling my inner and outer demons, processing my traumas, believing in myself, and above all, how through all of these life experiences—the good and the bad—I learned to love myself.

I can’t wait for you all to check it out come February 2020. As it turned out, a minimum 5,000 word count was exactly what I needed to make my piece imperfectly perfect.

How “Calm Corner” Spaces Build Social / Emotional Skills for Children

We’ve all got that comfy spot we throw ourselves into when we need to relax, be it lounging on the sofa, sprawling out on the bed, or kicking back in a patio chair. Adults and children need breaks to decompress every now and then.

While working at a preschool for children with special needs, the teachers and I created a cozy space for regulating emotion–aptly dubbed the “calm corner.”

Read about how calm corners in the classroom and home setting are pivotal to child social/emotional development in my most recent article for my school’s website.

P.S. OMG I’ve written so many articles about emotions.

How Animals Help Children Learn

The first decade of my adult life–i.e. the first decade of my career–I dedicated to animals. I of course dabbled in acting and writing, often merging the three, but I also dabbled in education as a private tutor and environmental educator.

To kick off the second decade of my adulthood, I switched careers, focusing full-time on education (and of course still dabbling with acting and writing and trying to teach kids about animals every chance that I get).

Clemmy's home decor
Yes, those are all drawings from my students who still can’t stop talking about my guinea pig even though she visited them months ago.

My end goal is still to open a sanctuary for animals with disabilities helping people with disabilities. I’ve seen first-hand in and out of the classroom how children connect with animals and come out of their shell.

Read about my experiences with animal therapy for children with disabilities in this article on my school’s website.

Happy Pride: Seattle, This Is What I’m Most Grateful For

Happy pride month, peopleeeee!

I’ve lived in Seattle three-and-a-half years now, the longest my adult self has ever lived in a place. I’m grateful for the mountain ranges dotting the horizon every which way I look. I’m grateful for the smell of pine trees in urban parks. I’m grateful for the abundance of bike lanes (and less grateful for the abundance of hills).

But what I’m most grateful for is how Seattle has taught me to be more open-minded than I thought I was.

I grew up in small white suburbia, and, perhaps due to my love of the Spanish language and dreams of the Amazon rainforest, nurtured a taste for culture and landscapes outside my sheltered bubble. In all my travels, I have witnessed poverty first-hand, lived in developing countries, and experienced religious ceremonies vastly different from my Catholic upbringing.

I thought that my eyes had been opened enough to accept and love people for all that they are–poor or rich, black or white, gay or straight, overweight or skinny, liberal or conservative. I thought that I saw people for their personalities, not for what they looked like or how they aligned their beliefs or orientations.

Then I moved to Seattle.

Seattle is the first place (other than a brief unplanned viewing of a drag show in Cardiff, Wales), that I met a trans person–many trans people. Seattle is the first place where I walked into a restroom marked “all genders”–and pretty much do on a daily basis when I’m out and about the city. It’s the first place I learned to ask people their preferred pronoun and a place where I use “they” instead of “he/she” frequently for people I meet.

One of my best friends out here is covered in tattoos, wears all black, and has a half shaved head. She identifies as pansexual. She is someone I honestly probably would not have felt comfortable approaching all those moons ago when I thought I was open-minded but really had a great deal to learn. I’m ashamed to admit that but you all know how I feel about being real and true, and it shows that growth is always attainable. This friend has taught me so much about the queer community, one that she is so open about and so actively supporting. And for her guidance and patience and friendship, I’m forever grateful.

I still make mistakes. I sometimes slip up because my mind sees a non-binary individual as outwardly female and I subconsciously associate this person with the “she” pronoun. But when I make mistakes, I am so often corrected with love and respect and understanding.

I’m still learning. I’m learning what it means to be anything other than cisgendered or my straight ally identity. As in literally, I’ve had to educate myself on the ever-evolving LGBTQIA acronym. (We all should, really.)

But most of all, what I’m learning is that we are all human, and instead of festering hate and disrespect, we should embrace the uniqueness of the evolution of humanity. We should actually start living by that Pride motto that’s hashtagged so often but perhaps not fully understood by people like my 18-year-old sheltered self: Love is (like really is) love.

 

Roughing it in the Bahamas

When people hear that I lived in the Bahamas for a year, their idea of the life I led there is drastically different from the reality. True, the island chain’s turquoise blue water, white sand beaches, and towering cliffscapes are not exaggerated on postcards and brochures. It really is an island paradise, and I really did have those at my fingertips.

But my days were not spent sprawled in a lounge chair catching a tan, sipping fruity drinks, and staring out at a blue expanse of nothingness. I caught a tan while scrubbing salt water and lemon juice into dirty laundry, while painting shutters in a bikini in stifling 100 degree heat–with no A/C to escape to. I drank warm water that I’d siphoned into bottles from a freshwater jug. And more often than not, my view of the ocean was interrupted by “the bush”–an impassable tangle of green and brown roots and leaves that traversed the remote island I called home.

About half the time I lived in the Bahamas, I did not have electricity. For all but the first month, I did not have running water. Part of this was due to setting up camp in the shell of an abandoned property while slowly–ever so slowly–renovating the house. Part of this was due to the ensuing aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin.

Every morning, I woke at 6 AM and cooked oatmeal over a portable stovetop. I poured salt water over my toothbrush to wet it before brushing my teeth. Then, I put on a mismatching bathing suit top and bottom before heading outside to the well on property. No freshwater source existed on the narrow island, so the well tapping into the water table only produced easy access to salt water. I tied a rope around glass bottles I’d plucked from the shoreline, long ago washed up from the tide. Dangling the bottle down into the 10 foot well, I hauled up five bottles of water, a gallon each, to suffice for the day: one for dishes, two for the toilets, one for laundry, and one for showering.

Next, I plugged up the kitchen sink and filled it with one of the bottles’ contents. All of the dishes from the day would soak in here throughout the day. Before bed, I would scrub them then set them out to dry, streaks of salt residue the next day affirming their cleanliness.

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By now, it was nearing 8 AM. I would decide my projects for the day. This varied every day. Some days I scavenged and hauled 20-pound rocks from the surrounding bush and aligned them on the property, the humble beginnings of a garden bed forming atop the hard coral rock surface beneath my feet. Other days I drove 40 minutes into town on the one road, potholed, no-lined highway to get groceries: $7 for a head of moldy cauliflower that took a week to get from the U.S. to Nassau to Long Island, Bahamas; $10 for a pack of 5 tampons. On Saturdays, though, I went to the Farmer’s Market for local produce and socializing with the women selling me fresh mangos, guava, breadfruit, and arugula.049

When it wasn’t laundry day, I set to work painting the entire exterior of the two small buildings on the property–once a command center for the adjacent unkept runway, then a nightclub, then a home. Eventually, I would paint the inside.

Some days I climbed down into the well to scoop out the Cuban tree frog tadpoles and drop them in the water’s edge at the end of the runway. I’d return to scrape the muck out of the old well, a futile attempt to purify thecontaminated salt water.

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By noon, I had made a lunch of potatoes–Greek lemon or mustard potatoes–or lentils. Then I headed back outside for more laborious tasks. The heat of the day peeked at 3 PM, an unbearable time to be outside, skin baking and burning even in rare, coveted shady spots on the land. Indoors, I wrote for hours, taking breaks to read a book, play cards, or glue seashells together to make shell creatureswhich I would eventually bequeath to my Bahamian friends as I said my farewells a year later.

At 5 PM, I’d explore a new nook of the island, turning down unmarked after unmarked dirt road to find yet another vacant beach on this 80-mile long island of 3,000 inhabitants. I collected sea glass and sea shells, dead coral and bones. I encountered dozens of adult sea turtles while snorkeling in a cove; came face-to-face with a bull shark in open water.

At 8 PM I made dinner. Before the sun fell below the horizon at 8:30 PM, I was asleep–awaken throughout the night by the loud incessant croaking of Cuban tree frogs that had long ago matured from the well.

In the wake of Hurricane Joaquin, I would understand what it meant to be white and privileged showcased by my ability to choose to live this way, and the choice to return to “normal.’

I Have Anxiety and I’m Sorry? I Have Anxiety and I’m Not Sorry.

I need to stop apologizing for my anxiety.

Anxiety is an invisible illness–one that in some instances is classified as a disability–and that means it often needs explaining. I look fine, I act fine, therefore I must be fine, right?

Mental health is about how you are feeling. We can’t control our feelings, and we shouldn’t apologize for them. They aren’t right or wrong; they don’t define us, but they are part of who we are.

I keep acting like my anxiety is an inconvenience and a burden, and okay, there is some truth to that, but there’s more to it. For starters, I am not a burden, a lesson I’ve had my mind play on repeat until it has (mostly) stuck.

 

I apologize because I am ashamed that this is a real, daily struggle for me. I apologize because this is something that I feel has control over me. So this is me taking control. This is me owning my anxiety: it’s time I stop apologizing.

(If I feel the need to apologize to someone, that person probably shouldn’t be someone I hold dear anyway.)

Too often I view my anxiety as a weakness. In the same way that courage is defined not by a lack of fear but the ability to overcome it, I am constantly urging myself to view my battle as a greater strength. Resilience is built not by completing easy tasks but by conquering the challenging ones.

In the past couple years, I noticed I started feeling anxious related to claustrophobia. At first I was like, “This is new, WTF?” But as I’ve continued working on self-awareness and therapy, it started to make total sense: I felt trapped in the hurricane. I felt trapped in that bad relationship. I felt trapped in that crappy job.

I don’t want to feel trapped ever again! My body and mind were just trying to cue me in that hey, here is a new scenario that could get me trapped, so watch out. Hey, thanks anxiety?

It is true that I cannot control my anxiety, but I can control how I handle it. I do this by throwing out the big to-do list and only looking at the step ahead. I then conquer that step by doing everything in my control. After that, I can breathe, because I’ve done my part. I cannot control what others do to me, but I can lay the groundwork to protect myself.

Confusion at work? Email the boss. Frustrated with a friend? Tell them instead of expecting them to be a mind reader. Worried about running late? Plan ahead.

Sometimes mental health disorders are triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain. Sometimes they’re triggered by the past. And sometimes they’re triggered by both. No matter the reason, it’s time to stop apologizing.

PRO TIP: If you find yourself still wanting to apologize, try showing gratitude instead. Thank your friends/family/co-workers/significant other not for “putting up with” you, but rather for their patience and understanding.

7 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Preschoolers with Special Needs

I’ve been working with children at a special education preschool for the past 4 months, and the students have taught me a thing or two about being an adult and, quite simply, a human being.

 1. Have your own feelings, and let others have theirs.

Instead of describing someone as “overly sensitive,” use the words “more sensitive.” Instead of saying, “You made me sad…,” say, “I felt sad when…” Society has normalized only certain degrees of feelings, boxing us into a limited array of “appropriate” emotions, when, in fact, emotions have been and always will be individualized.

 2. Communication is key.

Facilitating peer-to-peer repair is an important aspect of teaching special education. In life, you are going to have thoughts and feelings that you cannot control. It is important to communicate them to those around you instead of bottling them up. You can explain what happened to make you feel or think that way and in return, you’ll probably receive some empathy from a listening ear. Most everyone has empathy on some basic level, and so much of our negative thoughts and emotions are the result of accidents or misunderstanding.

3. Behavior tells a story.

Sometimes, our mouths get dammed up and we don’t know how to put into words what we’re feeling. Body language and reactions are communications in their own right. For children with special needs who lack the language to express what they want or what they’re feeling, we teachers strengthen their trust by reading, understanding, and appropriately–compassionately–responding to their non-verbal cues.

 4. Be an active listener.

Though many of my kiddos struggle with making eye contact, they still know whether or not they are being heard based on eye contact from others and general interest in their words. Because the children are building their language skills, we routinely model sentence structures for them, but only after giving them a chance to tell us the story in their own words. We give them our full attention, concentrating and then responding directly to what they just said. This not only improves upon their communication skills, but also gives them a sense of value.

 5. Goals are best accomplished one step at a time.

Scaffolding is an important aspect of special education teaching which involves breaking down lessons into smaller, more manageable steps. Goals should be set high but they should also be attainable. Learning–whether in school or in life–is best achieved when we slow down, take a step back, and look things over an extra time or two.

 6. You have more patience than you realize.

Special education requires an incredible amount of patience, especially in a room full of energetic preschoolers. I honestly did not know I had this much of an inner calm inside me. My patience is tried literally every thirty seconds throughout the six-hour school day, but I very rarely ever find it stretching too thin. (Though I do want to fall asleep by 8 PM. 🙂 ) This is hugely based on the effort I have put into building relationships with these mini humans, the time I have taken to understand them, with or without their words. Moments that seem trying are usually just a misunderstood child trying to be understood.

 7. Everyone deserves to be loved.

When I worked in the animal world, I fell in love with patients that struggled the most–a three-legged sheep, turtles missing flippers–and clients that perhaps carried a lot of baggage–crotchety old men, socially awkward folks. I’ve always been drawn to those who are misunderstood (#pitbullsarethegreatest), and children with special needs too often are. It’s such a privilege to be working at a school where cochlear implants and hearing aids are the norm, where listening and equipment checks are part of our morning routine. Even when a student is screaming in my face or punching my arm, I still have an overwhelming desire to help them learn how to process their feelings–and I remind them that it’s okay to have these feelings, because that’s what makes them who they are. They’re not different; they’re all just tiny humans finding their way in the world, and needing a little extra help along the path.

What are some life lessons you’ve learned from children? Share in the comments below!

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.