Everything you know about Aspen is true. Everything and more. Calling it a small Colorado ski town is like calling a humvee a car—you’re not wrong, but you’re not really right either. Aspen is a town wedged into a northward-slicing valley, mountains cradling it like arms. Everything about it is pristine, from the level sidewalks, to the sharply mowed lawns, to the women who walk to their dinner reservations clad in heeled boots and faux mink wraps. Only people with trust funds would dare call Aspen quaint. People’s elaborate mailboxes are probably worth more than some people’s annual salary.
I taught environmental education there and it was wonderful. Kids and trees and dirt-scrubbed fingers. It was wild in the way a town where the average house price is 2.3 million is wild—wild but contained. Kids-aren’t-allowed-to-climb-trees wild. Wild in the pristine, palatable sense.
But that was then and this is now. Now it is late September, and I am back in New York. It is my third week teaching, and on most days I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. It is chaotic in the predictable ways that teaching inner-city high school during a pandemic is chaotic. It is probably chaotic in the years when the world is not reeling from a global health crisis, but everything this year is turned up to an excruciating degree, the pegs turned just enough that every string is on the cusp of snapping.
I am not overwhelmed by the minutiae. I do not stress easily. Rather, it is the big picture stuff that clouds my head. The inequity of it all.
And that sounds stupid, I know. Inequity. An academic, overused phrase. But it’s true. I mean it. Because when I say inequity, I mean, do you remember how the kids in Aspen would bring their cute little tin lunchboxes, each section carefully quarantined off, halved grapes in one divot and half of a turkey pesto sandwich in the other?
Inequity, to me, means we all know what to do for a shooter drill—it is not an coincidence that my classroom door has no window—where in Aspen our urgency revolved around meandering moose and how close they were to camp. Inequity is that many of my seniors don’t know proper punctuation, and inequity is that they will graduate anyway because their school has failed them in a variety of ways. Inequity is that my kids’ only gym is a mold-plagued chapel that they still play basketball in.
When the kids in my study hall steal orange juice from the cafeteria cooler, I look away.
I only had one camper this past summer whom I disliked on a visceral level. He was a six-foot tall, white, boarding school kid from Florida. Twelve years old. An only child. He was contrarian to everything, always rude and testing the limits. He would never apologize when I called him out for his shitty behavior and instead would turn sullen and avoid eye contact. If I had one free pass to push a kid in the the lake, it would’ve been him.
I don’t understand why we have a whole month dedicated to Black history, he said to me one day. We don’t need that much time. And, like, what about other groups, you know? By other groups he meant himself. White men’s rights, you know. A fragile, failing bunch.
I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot. I’ve been thinking about him and Aspen and how, when I describe Aspen to other people, I use the phrase “grossly wealthy,” and how I am not upset with my wealthy campers who did nothing but be born into a very fortunate circumstance, but how I am upset with the world and universe for the fact that some of my students work 30 hours a week and still get good grades, and how my kids fantasize about money, even paltry amounts, and how I have a meeting this week for a transgender student who is not safe at home with their new identity and we have to figure out how to change all the formal school documentation so we don’t accidentally out them to their riotous mother, and I’ve been thinking about how I don’t know how to get some of these kids to care about their future, and I think about my one student who is determined to graduate without getting pregnant–the first in three generations–and then wants to get her PhD.
May God take care of my friends, and I’ll take care of my enemies, one of my students wrote on his creative writing assignment. The line loops in my head, over and over. May God take care of my friends. He is out of school. Suspended. I don’t know what he did, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. And I’ll take care of my enemies. I send him an email on what he missed in class, but he never answers.