The Implications of a Milkshake

In the Classroom: My feet tap nervously on the tiled floor.  My mind is on cognitive overload and I have the feeling of wanting to throw up.  I wish for an interruption; a fire drill, a phone call to the room, an announcement over the school’s speakers, a yellow slip saying I have to  go to the office because my mom is picking me up early, just ANYTHING to get me out of the current activity we are doing.

I look at the picture on my desk.  It is covered in plastic so that the teacher can torture another child with it the following year.  It is a fancy glass, curvy with white liquid.  On top is a mountain kind of looking thing, white and perfectly done with a red cherry on top.  I have already figured out that the white liquid is milk so I know it comes from a cow.  I know this because even though I may not know enough English, I have had many interactions with milk: I pour it on my cereal every morning, my mom uses it to make a delicious breakfast we call “arroz con leche” (rice with milk), my dad loves to pour it over hot yams, my brothers and I put some into coffee to make it so yummy, I always have to grab a little carton of it for lunch and the carton has the word ‘milk’ in bright red, capital letters so without anyone telling me, I already know that “leche” is milk.

I know all this, but I still don’t know what category this picture belongs to.  And soon it will be my turn to go up, in front of the entire class, and stick this thing into its food group.  But I can’t figure it out.  There are six groups up on the board, each represented with a different color.  The teacher put the names of each group on a bright label, but that is all and I don’t know all the words. I already used my Spanish to help me know that fruit is “fruta” and vegetables are “vegetales.” But the other four are a big mystery and I just can’t make sense of them.  One label says, ‘Bread, pasta, potatoes.’ I have never seen or heard those words and so far it is empty.  Another says ‘Meat, fish and alternatives,’ and it already has a picture of what looks like a naked chicken all plucked and hunkered over.  I am guessing that is the place to put things that come from animals, but I am not sure.  The yellow group says, ‘Cheese and dairy.’ A student put a picture of a block of yellow in it.  What is that? I scramble through my mind, trying to think of my family’s once a week visits to the grocery store.  Had I seen anything like that? Did we ever eat something that looked like a yellow block? I didn’t think so.  The last group was small but it had an extremely long label, ‘Fats, oils and confectionaries.’

“Lorena!” the teacher hollered my name and it threw me out of my long chain of desperate thinking.  Time was up.

With my heart hammering in my throat and my legs feeling like gelatin, I pushed away from my desk as if it was pulling me back, and slowly made my way to the board.  My sweaty, nervous hands began to tug at the picture, folding the corners.

“Don’t do that!” admonished the teacher.

His reprimand accompanied with his glare that I was getting all too familiar with, only made me feel small and to wish I could run away.  But I was stuck and my feet made their own decision to move me closer to the board.

The gaze of 20 something pairs of eyes on my back was tangible.  I couldn’t see my classmates, but I knew they were all watching.  I took another frantic look over the food groups pleading for a miracle.  None came.  No interruptions either.  With hesitant hands, I quickly jabbed the picture next to the naked chicken.  Milk came from cows and cows were an animal and this group had an animal in it.

The class burst into laughter.  Did they think I was being funny?  Or was this like all those other times when they laughed AT me, thinking, ‘jeez this girl knows NOTHING!’  I swallowed the hard lump of my heart in my throat, snatched the picture back and slapped it on the bottom group: Bread, pasta, potatoes.  More laughter, uncontrollable this time.  The teacher immediately stepped in, but first he shot me another glare.

Teaching Implications: No child, not even language learners or children of a different race, are empty vessels.  They come to the classroom having had experiences AND language that they can use to make sense of what is happening within the classroom walls.  We need to know our students, all of them, so we are familiar with who they are because they are people too. Let’s tap into their experiences, their knowledge, and most of all their language instead of thinking they know nothing.

Develop a community where students support and learn from each other.  We are not the only teachers in the room.  And our behavior is used by students as a model of how they should respond to each other.  Glare at a child and the students will take your cue as a sign of how this student deserves to be treated.  So they pick up on your glares and other body language and begin to treat the student in a similar fashion, often in worse ways.

Allow students to talk.  Establish your expectations for partner talk routines and group work.  What would have happened had I just been allowed to talk to one of my classmates about the picture in my hands?

We take for granted how much we teach with words, spoken words.  It doesn’t take too much time (especially now when we can easily search with Google images) to get visuals and incorporate them into lessons.  We can even make quick sketches in the moment to support new vocabulary.

Lifelong Implications: I am certain we all have nuggets of memories from our early school days.  There are many different reasons of why we cling to those memories.

This memory tugs at me quite often.  Because of it, I now see how in the preceding years of school I put my efforts towards fading into the classroom walls and becoming invisible.  I was not the student with a hand raised or the student who wanted to be table monitor much less line leader.  And if ever I was called on by the teacher, my face would first turn bright red and it always made my stomach go upside down and then I would barely mumble something out.  This still happens.

I was suddenly embarrassed by my family and our culture.  I had witnessed firsthand how everything I knew and was familiar with was not validated in school.  So what if we had milk in our house? The way we used it didn’t count in school.  Apparently all our visits to the grocery store didn’t matter because we didn’t buy yellow cheese in yellow blocks (ours was white and came in a wheel shape and we crumbled it over enchiladas, beans, and lots of over foods).  And our language wasn’t helpful.  Actually my first language got in the way of me learning.  All of this came to my realization from that milkshake.  And it has taken many years (honestly I am still working on it) to undo the damage and embrace who I am (Mexican culture and all) and to see how beautiful Spanish is and that it is a language worthy of knowing.

Lastly, I am so afraid of getting up in front of people.  After that moment, I recall almost dying every time I had to do a presentation or a report or a speech or whatever other confounded project teachers made up to get students to show their learning. I remember many sleepless nights as I lay worrying in bed.  Would they laugh at me, would they think I was dumb?

Just Forget It

The New Year is well underway, so make sure to get off on the right foot by forgetting about these items.  Just forget it!

10.  All the people that you slept with (or not) last year

9. The amount of times that you did not blog in 2017

8. The time you overpaid for some thing at the grocery store, by the way, toss the receipt

7. All previous attempts to lose weight

6. The evenings when you concluded a healthy salad dinner with a big slice of (insert flavor here) _____ cake with ice cream, whip cream, chocolate drizzle, cherry, banana on top while downing it with a (insert flavor here) ____ milkshake

5. Any and all cashiers who never ask about your day or you or how it’s going

4. The series of days you committed to watching an HBO series that went nowhere (the main character wasn’t ever dead and the mom was the real mom all along)

3. All mornings when you woke up crying…because you didn’t want to go to work!

2. Promises, promises, promises – do you EVEN remember what you promised? It’s to your benefit to forget them

1. Your 2018 New Year’s Resolutions


I was staring at my teacher plan book.  Admiring the blue lined boxes that indicated days and subject areas.  I took such joy in filling it in and seeing what the week would look like.  I was completely lost in it, still trying to see what I could do for Wednesday afternoon and what could get plugged in for Thursday morning.

Suddenly my classroom door opened.  I just heard the click of the knob turning and in walked the district personnel, four of them.  A whopping four DISTRICT people.  They entered in a line, fake smiles plastered on their faces because they always said, “smile when you walk in to the room, no matter what you see happening, just smile.” Then they each took a position at the back of the class, leaned against the counter, and held their precious papers close to their chests, still radiating those fake smiles but already I could see in their eyes the disappointment of walking in to the room and NOT witnessing any teaching going on.

I scrambled out of my desk, nearly knocking over my chair, heart starting to race, lump in throat forming and beads of sweat already on my hairline.  I looked wildly around for that damn book.  Jesus where was it?  Oh, I knew they were seeing this, but there was no way to hide it. Where the hell did I leave that thing?  I glanced back at my desk, nothing there aside from my mess of papers, confiscated toys (the ones I bothered to collect), water bottles, pens, erasers, more papers from the students, my beautiful plan book and hand sanitizer.

My eyes flew to the shelf beneath the whiteboard.  Giant TE’s were nestled in there with their bright spiral bound cardboard covers showing.  I saw the orange, yellow, and blue spirals, large enough to tear up and wear as bracelets, but nowhere was that small book with the black spiral. Now my palms were sweating, my heart was drumming in my throat that had entirely closed from the lump in it and I could feel the heat on my face letting me know my cheeks were turning the color of a bright cherry. I stole a glance at the district people still leaning against the counter, now making it very obvious that they were judging the class walls, no fake smiles anymore.  I wish I could just tell them that I meant to update the student work that still bore September dates and that the pumpkin decorations would get put away soon, I just hadn’t had enough time to get to it.  But talking to them was a cardinal sin, it was prohibited, it would mean breaking all protocol for a district visit.  THEY were not to be talked to.

I was certain that five painful minutes had passed since they’d entered and so far all they had seen was the teacher scrambling about the front of the room.  Dammit, I knew it was here somewhere. Eyes swiveling in every direction, I neared the easel overloaded with old charts, some dated from the previous school year (that was on my list to be removed too). I eyed the basket beneath it, crammed with markers, papers, whiteboard erasers, more papers (why was there so much paper everywhere?) but no sign of that stupid, freaking, damn book.  I was about to cave in and ask the students if one of them had seen it – they always could tell me where to find things – just as my eye saw the bloody thing behind the easel, opened up to the last lesson that I probably taught.  My heart settled back into my chest and a smile crept on my lips as I saw that I had even put post it notes into the book, well that would impress them.  I lifted it up off the shelf and was momentarily surprised to see a layer of dust slide off it.

“Ok, boys and girls come to the carpet and sit down,” I announced as I saw my third graders look up at me from their reading books. They slowly started moving and were soon seated in front of me.  I took the chair near the easel and flipped through the book to find the next lesson. As my eyes searched for where to start, I said, “Ok, so boys and girls, we have been doing a lot of writing…ummm we worked on our stories…”

“You mean small moments?” a student chimed in.

“Yes, our small moments,” I agreed. The damn thing was hard to navigate, I was still flipping pages.  Weren’t these district people leaving soon?  Didn’t they have a torrent of work to do at their offices? Then I saw a beacon of hope, the title of the lesson! I could figure it out from that. I launched into what I thought was spectacular teaching of writing.  And soon enough, as if they had seen what they needed to see, the district people left the room, single file, fake smiles back on their faces.  As the door slowly clicked back into place, I heaved a sigh.  One of utter relief.  I leaned back in the chair, drained from the maddening adrenaline rush. A small laugh nearly escaped from within me.  I closed the book, I was not losing this thing again. I knew exactly where I would put it.  Dismissing the children from the carpet, I tossed the book with its black spiral onto my desk to lay among the stash of papers.


The Best New Year

You know what I did once?  It was New Year’s Eve and already well into the Eve part, around 8 at night.  I was at a friend’s home and we were getting festive by making our own party hats with construction paper.  Her kitchen table had scissors, glue, glitter, bits of confetti, markers and lots of vibrant colored paper strewn all over it.  Quite a scene.

And there we were, having a great time using all these art materials.  Somehow it happened that when we got to sprinkling the glitter, it ended up on our faces.  We howled with laughter and took pictures to immortalize the moment. We even sprinkled more glitter on our faces, purposefully.

Then my phone beeped loudly, a text message coming in.  I checked it, it was a complete wrong number.  It beeped again, another wrong number. Another beep.

“Time to meet your friends at the club?” My friend asked as she adjusted her party hat.  I hesitated for half a second, then lied. For the next thirty minutes we put the finishing touches on the party hats and then I politely excused myself and headed out to my car.

As I drove, I was surprised that I did not have a single hint of guilt for leaving my friend’s party early, this put me in a good mood.  I was afraid that by leaving early, the guilt would consume me and make me miserable the entire night.  I parked the car, bounded inside, took a few minutes in the bathroom to change my clothing, choosing a baby blue top that I knew would keep me comfortable and warm through the entire night.  I threw on black bottoms and kicked off my sneakers for something more appropriate.  Giving my hair a final tousle, I headed into the room.

Soft rays of orange light from outside the windows greeted me.  They were soothing and I figured they were just perfect for the night ahead.  All else was pitch black, but I already knew where I was.

I crawled under the familiar comforting blankets, glancing at the clock, 9:45pm, perfect. I gazed out the window near my bed and sighed deeply.  Just perfect.  It was me and me.  I snuggled deeper into my blankets and let sleep consume me.  This was the best New Year’s ever.

Go Say Hello to the Ocean


It was a good day to say hello to the ocean, from the West Cliff Drive walkway with four generations of women in my family.


But first we shopped for veggies and J and R made baby bok choy tofu stir fry. Delish!

Then we got out for the walk on the cliffs — along with dozens of families with small children, many dog walkers, rafts of surfers, bicyclers of all styles, and teens making the scene.  Cars drifting by, scooters and skate boarders. The air was a balmy 70 degrees with the wind only 2 mph.  Over the cliff, dozens of wet-suited surfers on boards bobbed along in the low tide below waiting for waves. And the water was smooth and almost still.

We got a bench spot for D. to rest while J. and R. went down the sandy stairways to the tide pools.  D. routed for the surfers to get a ride while I took a walk up the road.

Ocean, I have not seen you in awhile.  It looks at though you’re doing well, as ever.  You don’t look a bit older.  I like that pale shade of blue you’re wearing in this light.  Very sympatico with the light haze of clouds in the otherwise clear sky.

Your narrow beaches below the drive still draw sunbathers, and kids who want to puddle in the waves, and silly dogs who will chase sticks into the water and swim back with them in their jaws.

And the rubble of sandstone and kelp covered rocks mixed with broken concrete and other ways we keep you from undermining this popular street have a peaceful look today in the sunshine.  There is no hint today of your fits when winter winds squall.

Have you been doing meditation?  You really are quite serene.


After a dive for mussels or crustaceans the cormorants who sit in the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and in the Monterey pines (Pinus radiata) fan out their wings to dry off.  They watch you, Ocean, not only for the snacks you offer, but attentive to the seasonal stories you tell — your tales of whale migrations, with leaping pods of dolphins, and how the moon may tell the tides what to do — which amuses you, because nobody is your boss.  They, the drying birds, watching in a forgetful kind of way, become part of the silhouettes, settling in with the tourists and locals who are enjoying West Cliffs. The noise of children’s voices, cars, and people talking as they walk.

R. and J. returned, climbing the long, windy sandy stairs up from the tide pools.  J. brought D. a stone; very round and super polished by the fine sand and wave action.  It felt almost silky.

J. asked a man (who was kissing his woman friend) if he might take our photo, which he did cheerfully.  We leaned against the rail with the water in the background to verify that we had indeed made it out to say hello to the ocean.


If you live where you can say hello to large natural wonders, don’t forget to take the time to pay your respects and enjoy nature.  We had a gorgeous day in December and you may live in a place where you have to wait for spring or summer to see the mountains, or rivers and falls, or woods, or lakes.  They are wonderful, constant friends who ask very little and give much.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I am in the middle of preparing sweet potatoes and recalling why I stopped eating them.  They are hella hard to slice and dice.  Seriously, you need an electric drill to cut one up – or could it be that all my knives are dull?

With the sweet potatoes in the oven and the smell of the bell peppers that I mixed in with the potatoes infusing the air, I thought back to Laura’s words.  “Finding your voice.” How lucky that children get to hear that phrase for a writing class.  Even though I am an adult, may I attend?  You see, no one told me as a child that I should find my voice, well no one even told me that I had one to start with. Here’s what I did have:

I sit at a desk, the kind very like the ones in the Peanuts cartoon.  The wooden seat is connected to the desk and the top of the desk opens so you can sneak all kinds of non-school stuff into the space beneath.  There is a little cradle for my yellow pencil and a crisp, white sheet of binder paper is in front of me.  The teacher is talking.  I hear his voice, but I don’t know enough English to know what exactly he is saying.

He’s old, white tufts of hair poke out of his head.  His large, thick glasses give him the appearance of an owl, but they don’t hide his eyes that often glare at me.  He’s wearing what he always seems to wear: plaid shirt in boring colors of brown, red, black and brown slacks with brown shoes that have little laces.  Because I’m lost in examining this aged man and looking over the details of his clothing, trying to imagine what he is like outside of the classroom, I miss the directions.  It wouldn’t have helped me to pay attention anyway.  The words would have just floated over my head. Without any images, I grasped nothing.  Without having the chance to talk to a classmate, I understood nothing.

As I move my eyes away from the brown shoes with the little laces tied neatly, I see that all the students are furiously writing on their sheets of paper.  I can almost hear the soft scratching of the lead on the page.  I see Emily, the girl with the longest blond hair in class, scrawling on her paper, her face intense, her skinny legs crossed in the way that she always did when she was in absolute concentration. Or maybe she just really had to use the bathroom.

Panic! I see everyone writing, but about what?  In a useless attempt that I know won’t work, I try to peer over Sam’s hunched back to get a glimpse of his paper, to see what he is doing. His back is too big and I can’t even see his arms.  More panic.  I want to be a good student, I try to follow directions, I want to please the teacher and make him smile the way I see he smiles when Emily talks.  My efforts have only gifted me glares and snickers so far.

I focus back on my sheet of paper.  I have to write something.  I start by slowing etching out the letters in my name.  Then I take three minutes to lay out the letters of my last name.  Five more minutes to write the date as neat as I have ever written it.  I glance around, hoping that something has changed, but the room is still silent with all the students hunkered over their papers, their hands flying over the page. I look at everyone, all in the same position.  I notice the obvious that I noticed on the first day I walked into the room: everyone has a backpack tucked into the bowl that is beneath the wooden seat.   Backpacks of beautiful colors, yellow, bright red, sky blue, pink. I look under my seat.  It is empty. My family can’t afford a backpack for me.

The beeping oven brings me to the present.  Aaahhh, the smell of bell peppers.  I take the tray out of the oven and poke the sweet potatoes.  Perfectly soft. I know they are violently hot, but I can’t resist.  I stab one with a fork and bring it to my mouth.  Yup super hell hot.    But even through the heat, I savor the mix of the sweet with the tang of the bell pepper.  So good.

Where the Sweeney Hall courtyard opens onto the SJSU promenade

September 30, 2017

Red mesh fencing drapes

around grassy islands

surrounded by crisscrossing sidewalks

skateboard wheels click click

across each crack

while three young writers’ voices

rise from a bench

laughing and joking.


Other writers quiet

on cool concrete steps

A breeze moves leafy trees

and a small flutter of journal pages.


Distant gardening tools buzz

Crows lift up over rooftops

in argumentative cadence

Walkers in Keds with earbuds

glide by silently.


I will write, dammit.


Sometimes life is so beautiful it breaks your heart

A semi-imaginary correspondence with Anne Lamott, I wrote in 2010

Dear Anne Lamott,

You write extraordinary insights and pointed advice:  listen to your broccoli, accept your emptiness, start with a one-inch frame, do short assignments, be militantly on your own side, etc.   Yet, in an uncharacteristically schmaltzy tone, you wrote in Bird by Bird, “There’s ecstasy in paying attention.”  Anne, you are usually much more grounded than this!  With all due respect, this sounds like the pop-Zen of the sixties.

I have recently re-opened myself to the writing process; and, as this observant life takes over my sleep, my waking thoughts, my eating habits, my housekeeping and my reactions to all the little things in daily life, I feel like a supporting actress in a soap who is the last one on the set to find out she has spleen cancer in this week’s episode.  I’m just not getting the noble part of this paying attention.

I cried over the dance scene in Toy Story 3 in which Buzz Light-year. en modo Espanol, Latin dances with Jessie, the redhead cowgirl prototype of Annie Oakley.

I wept at the downtown carwash.  Tears dripped under my sunglasses viewing the latest bridal fashions in the window of Trudy’s  — with their flamenco skin-tight bodice and torso and sweeping narrow cut to the flourishing ruffles below the knees.  Ole!  Not grief for the fashion statement, but mourning my own binding belief that women who are married are happier and more worthy than women who are single.  Definitely not ecstatically appreciating my newfound freedom.  And talk about pinched by pain, like a corset; I am bound to dancing with daddy as his “little girl.” This was my first notion of romance without having a trendy purity ball.

Somewhere around midnight last night, I woke up to silence in my neighborhood.  As I lay there wondering why I was awake, one explosion – a gunshot, I think – broke the stillness and then the quiet returned.  Did a bullet lodge in someone’s wall?  Was it a threat?  Did someone shoot a raccoon in his or her backyard?  Did they mistake my black and white cat and shoot Mickey?  Is another bullet going to come zinging closer?  Was it really not a weapon after all, etc., etc.  Waking up to what is going in and around me is shocking like that explosion.

So, I’m wondering where’s the ecstasy in becoming a leaky-eyed lunatic who cannot stop looking below the surface of things that make normal people happy?  I mean, weddings!



Dear Laura,

            When I wrote my chapter, “Looking Around,” I did say you might get into a special “Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness…” Maybe.  I simply meant that if you start to look around you see.  Beauty and pain.  Please re-read my introduction in the chapter in which I explain my position clearly: what’s going on is we’re all up to here in it… 

            I advise you to try to see who you really are in the most compassionate possible sense.  This is likely to be a new experience of your self.  As you have experienced this summer, it’s hard to look at yourself with compassionate detachment.  It will take practice.  On page 99, I suggest looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train.  You don’t drop kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor.  You just keep bringing it back to the newspapers. 

            So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there with reverence.  Let’s think of reverence as awe, openness to the world.  The alternative is that we stultify, shut down. 

            Laura, please read my Toni Morrison story on pg. 193 again.  You are just breaking free of bondage to people in your history and from a way of life.  As Toni says, “Go ahead, tell your story.  Risk freeing someone else.”


                                                            Anne Lamott


Dear Anne,

I think I get what your ecstasy is about.  My new favorite quote from Bird by Bird is the end of the Looking Around chapter: “To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up it own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one”

I will hang in with the mind training and take a more compassionate view of myself.  I don’t want to go back to shut down mode.  I’ll pay attention.


Yours truly,


Goal 1 Get a Writing Group

Writing Retreat

Retreat is a serious word that can mean life or death if one is in a war.  Retreat, from a puppy’s perspective, means if I sit up and beg again I have a good chance of getting another little doggie biscuit.  A writing retreat has nuances of both for me.

Tucking into a beautiful historic home with thirteen other creative types for five days does imply that I have not really been able to write like I want to in my “normal” routines at work and home.  The war with distraction and fatigue has not gone so well so I am withdrawing from the front line to regroup.  Perhaps to practice running away into retirement.

A retreat of any sort might not interest me, but this tug from my soul — this surge of joy in drawing and writing —  drew me to the Ralston Writing retreat.  Many biscuits already in meeting interesting new people, in the lovely surroundings, and hearing their writerly goals for the retreat time. Something stirred in me about renewing the writing on our co-authored blog.  So, here’s an early morning, before breakfast post.  And I am off to enjoy nature.

Nook in main room

Laura & Lorena: Inspiring Teachers to Write