When It’s Your Children, Your School. Rumor of Threat.

Without much reaction, I read the email from Steve Unowsky, Superintendent of Richfield Schools. I figured his email was a patterned response to the Florida shootings, stating the school takes all threats seriously.

Immediately after I received a text from Juan Jose’.

Did you guys get an email from school?

Yes. About your safety.

Yeah. I’m not sure what it says on the email.

 His text compelled me to read Unowsky’s email closer. I sat upright. My senses now on high alert. Email came at 9:30.

I wasn’t alarmed because of my experience with the Richfield school district and the Richfield police department. I trusted that the school and police department had matters in hand and that the safest place for Juan Jose’ and Crystel was to remain in school.

On many occasions, I’ve interacted with school administrators because of concerns for my own children or other children. At times, I’ve asked them to intervene and have a conversation with Juan Jose’ or Crystel, or to check in on another student that might be struggling. There are times I’ve been an advocate for my children and at times, against my children’s wishes, a proponent for Richfield schools.

Richfield administrators have regarded my concerns seriously and with empathy.

Jody, Coach Marty, Beth

Jody and I also volunteer at many school events and have been active in Juan Jose’s and Crystel’s sport activities. This has allowed us more occasions to interact with teachers, coaches, and school officials.

As an active volunteer police reserve officer for over ten years, I trust our police department and the men and women who serve.

Even so, I imagined something happening, not today, but in the future in Juan Jose’s classroom. Tears welled up. Stop it, Beth, I told myself. That’s not what is happening now.

I continued my text: If anything ever happens let me and Mama Jody know. We can go home and put on our police reserve uniforms and be near the school. I’ll forward Unowsky’s email to you.

He responded: Kids are leaving school because of the email. Parents are just pulling them out.

It felt important to keep Juan Jose’ and Crystel in school. To trust what I knew that I could trust. My experience with Richfield schools and the Richfield police. I don’t think we need to do that. It’s just a message saying they are on alert. I sent you the email.

I got it. I heard a couple of people saying their parents want them to go home.

 You’re okay. They are just checking out rumors.

 I know. Just checking in.

I sent a heart emoji. If we get a call out to be a presence around the school, I’ll let you know.

 Okay. Thumbs up emoji.

 Just read this email. I agree. Jody texted.

 A little later Juan Jose’ texted: Everyone is freaking out. I’m like the only one who’s not.

I didn’t want other students to see Juan Jose’ and Crystel leaving. They know their moms are in police reserves. When Jody and I are at school events, we are also watching over their kids. Please tell your sister. There is nothing to worry about. If there is Mama Jody and I will come to the school.

 Okay but I never see Crystel.

Send her a text. It is helpful being a part of the police department. And Mama Jody and I are. Mama Jody and I even have patrol tonight. 

 Okay.

 Jody texted. We just got an update from Unowsky that basically confirms decision to stay at school. I forward to you.

Juan texted: There’s a few people who have just left class.

A little later, Everyone left. He sent a photo.

 Woah. Not you, though. I texted.

Ya smiley face emoji. I was proud of him.

I’ll pick you after school, I said.

Crystel and Juan Jose’ playing games on McGruff (me).

That evening volunteering as police reserve officers, Jody and I spent time being a presence at the Richfield middle school dance and at the High School for the girls’ senior night basketball game. Both events were mellow and low key.

I continue to trust the Richfield schools and the Richfield police department.

Because, I trust you and me. We are the police. We are the school. We are the community.

 

 

 

 

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I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.

Day 2: San Pedro la Laguna

I wake up to the cluck, cluck of chickens. The patio door is open to the outside and their fussing is distinct. I feel safe enough to leave the door ajar each night and let the breeze waft in off of Lake Atitlan. I can’t explain why or how it feels safe … but it does. It is the same knowing as when I know that something isn’t safe.

I wouldn’t keep my door open in my hometown of Richfield, Minnesota.

Soon Jody is frying fresh eggs from these same chickens and Antonio is urging Crystel to catch one. She does. Antonio finds enjoyment in Crystel doing what he himself won’t do.

After breakfast we meet our guide Sam who by the end of the day will feel like family.

Because of our experience with Sam, Jody and I know we will always request a guide when visiting Lake Atitlan. Sam is knowledgeable and bilingual, but even more than that, he knows how to relate to two nine-year-olds. He becomes their companion. For Antonio and Crystel, it is the slow melding of being around another Guatemalan. Antonio and

Sam

Crystel can think, when I am older maybe I will be a little like him.

Being around a person of the same ethnic origin, someone who they like, allows Antonio and Crystel to intuit that being Guatemalan is a good thing. This is something Jody and I can’t give them. All the words that we have can’t compare to spending time with others of their own culture.

Los Elementos dock being worked on

Antonio and Crystel are around many Hispanics in Minnesota and the Spanish dual language school that they attend in Richfield. They never have to feel alone or at odds with their skin tone. Still, there is a difference in being in your birth country and knowing that everyone you see is Guatemalan and not Mexican, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or a mix of the former.

In the days to come Jody and I will witness our children’s growing sense of pride in their ethnicity.

Antonio at home in his kayak

Sam helps us carry our kayaks down to the water. Los Elementos Adventure Center has kayaks that fit the children. All of us are happy that we can each have our own. This is the first time I have ever seen Antonio and Crystel navigate on the water under their own power. They don’t have any hesitancy jumping into their kayaks and pushing off.

Included in our lodging at Los Elementos is access to the kayaks during our stay. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel will take them out again. I am content to sit and look at the volcanos from the patio, but I also know that I am missing out on that special feeling of being in the water surrounded by vast outcroppings.

Lunch

After our morning we head off to San Pedro la Laguna in a launch for a horse ride. Once we arrive at San Pedro, we decide that we are hungry. Sam assures us that the restaurant Shanti Shanti is open even though it is still early. This sets the tone for our day. We don’t have set times that we have to be any place. Horseback riding will come but not quite yet.

Having Sam with us makes Jody and me more adventurous in choosing our lunch and more inclined to say ‘yes’ to milk shakes and other drinks.

Lake Atitlan and Mayan Indian Nose out our window

When our family traveled to Guatemala in 2010 we didn’t try a lot of things because we didn’t want to become ill. In 2003 when we had brought Antonio and Crystel home we all got terribly sick with a gastrointestinal bug. Not the homecoming any of us wanted.

Sam, Jody and I order curry, Antonio orders his regular staple of pasta with just butter and Crystel has a cheese quesadilla.

Our view from the restaurant looks right out over Lake Atitlan and Indian Nose, a unique mountain formation that resembles the face of a Mayan Indian in repose.

Choosing handicrafts to bring home. See woman’s head dress. Crystel will soon be wearing one.

A Mayan woman and her son approach us while we are waiting for lunch. She is from San Antonio la Laguna but comes to San Pedro every day to sell her handicrafts.It is nice to be able to ask Sam if her asking price is good and to have his help in negotiating.

In 2010 when we traveled to Guatemala, Antonio and Crystel hated when I did any bargaining. Especially, if it was children with whom I was haggling. Even though I explained to them that that is the way it was. “Just give them the money,” they insisted. Now, I wanted to poke them and say, See?

Crystel’s new head piece.

Sam let us know that negotiating also puts him in an uncomfortable spot because he understands that the woman is trying to make a living and yet he knows what a good price would be.

San Antonio is named after Saint Antonio, Sam says. We smile at Antonio. He lets us know that he wants San Antonio to be a destination on our next trip to Guatemala.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Antonio is known for their hair ribbons. The Mayan woman demonstrates how to put a ribbon on Crystel. It seems fairly complex and we ask if we can video her doing it.

We aren’t planning on buying handicrafts but it feels good to do so. It seems as if the money will go directly to her and her family.

Making our way to the horses

Lee Beal had told us in the morning that we could have Sam go horseback riding with us or we could go alone. We opted for Sam to join us especially, when we found out that he had never been on a horse before.

Horseback riding seems like the thing to do in Guatemala. It has become one of our must-do things.

An interesting trek to the horses

We took a horse ride in 2010 and it was a remarkable way to see a village. You go slowly, you are up high, you can observe your surroundings, and there is excitement involved because you don’t know what your horse is going to do. Invariably, at some point in your trek the horse will start trotting, which leads to uncontrollable, scared, excited laughing.

Getting to the horses in itself is an adventure in San Pedro. We were led down narrow paths, past people working in small plots, and in-between buildings. Finally when we arrive it’s like the farm moved to the city.

Added to the excitement is an occasional BOOM.  San Pedro is celebrating their Festival of San Pedro with fireworks, carnival, and games.

After our horse ride we stopped for lunch again. There are many Spanish language schools in San Pedro, so we stopped at a restaurant frequented by students.  Jody and I had very good nachos with fresh tomatoes.

Before taking a Tuk Tuk to the dock, which Saint Antonio was all for, we walked through the main part of the village where the carnival was set up.

Riding horses in Guatemala. The thing to do!

Sam called Lee and told him that our first weaving class would need to be delayed by one day. We weren’t quite ready to leave San Pedro.

Guatemala, Our Best Vacation Ever!

Our front yard at Los Elementos Adventure Center

By Elizabeth

It’s amazing our best vacation ever would be in a third world country deemed dangerous for travel by the U.S. State Department. Even my best friend was questioning my risk assessment capability when I told him that I was going to Guatemala AND taking my partner and two nine-year-olds AND calling it a vacation. I myself found it a strange thought to be spending ten days in the same country where the Peace Corps announced that they would stop sending new volunteers due to the increasing violence in the country.

So what was I, a white woman, with her partner and two nine-year-olds doing in Guatemala? Simply, having the best vacation of our lives.

My next several posts will be about our trip. I hope to capture the feel of the Mayan culture in Guatemala. How truly immersed in our experiences we were. How full our days were. How peaceful and at ease we were and how I slept with the doors open each night without fear of intruders.

Antonio and Crystel loved the trampoline

This would be our second trip to Guatemala. Our first trip in 2010 was to see the country and Antonio and Crystel’s birth villages. Following our trip, Antonio and Crystel said they would like to meet their birth moms. That story and their recent meeting is described in my forthcoming memoir HOUSE OF FIRE: From the Ashes, A Family, a memoir of healing and redemption.

Making our acquaintance with the locals

I made our travel arrangements with one primary goal: to get as close to the Guatemalans living in villages as possible. Since Antonio and Crystel were born in Guatemala, I wanted to show them what their life might have been like if they had grown up there. Seeing it in a picture book doesn’t equate to learning to weave from a Guatemalan woman in a casa and playing soccer in the village square.

Lake Atitilan is famous for its natural beauty and the colorful Mayan villages near it. Santa Cruz la Laguna is a traditional Mayan village located on the steep mountainside of the lake. The village can only accessed by boat or footpath. A single winding road connects the dock to the village. A common gathering place in the village is the sports court, used for basketball and soccer by the children of the village.

This location was the perfect destination for our family because Santa Cruz la Laguna also has two nonprofits, Amigos de Santa Cruz and Mayan Medical Aid that focus on the local indigenous people. Santa Cruz ranks at the bottom in terms of literacy rate: 73.4% of the population is currently illiterate. One of the missions of Amigos de Santa Cruz is to help improve the lives of the people through support for education.  Amigos officially opened a trade school in 2010. The school features a computer lab, craftsman workshop, and culinary area. Santa Cruz also ranks # 1 in infant and maternal mortality. Until the intervention of Mayan Medical Aid, health services, were practically non-existent.

A new friend

Lee Beal, a U.S. citizen living in Santa Cruz, serves on the board of directors of Amigos de Santa Cruz and is also involved with Mayan Medical Aid. I contacted him via email to inform him of my interest in visiting the projects.

Kayak Guatemala  and Lake Atitilan Travel Guide showcases the many varied tours that Lee Beal provides. Hmmm, I thought, horseback riding, cliff jumping, ziplining — exactly what our family needs after meeting the birthmoms. Time for celebrating, letting go and having fun! What most piqued my interest is that his services are advertised as being family-friendly and safe for women travelers.

We came to stay at Lee Beal’s Los Elementos Adventure Center, because by the time we were leaving the States, I was totally confused about where we were staying and what hotel was the best for my family. Lee mentioned that they had a guest suite available that was connected to their private home. When he added that it also came with a kitchen, Jody and I were sold. We don’t classify Antonio as a picky eater– we only cook what he eats. And that means familiar foods that don’t touch each other. Packed inside our suitcase was dry elbow macaroni and wide egg noodles. Staples for unknown times.

Los Elementos Adventure Center became our home for the next five nights and six days.

Another friend and fresh eggs every morning

Lee’s personal touch was transmitted in his emails and became cemented when he said that he would meet us at the supermarket once we got to Panachel, help us grocery shop, bank, and then board the launch for his home.

The first thing the kids ran to after getting off the boat was the trampoline in the garden. All of their excess energy flipped and flung away. They only stopped to pet the chickens that ran loose and make their acquaintance with the three dogs. Soon after they were holding the dogs on their laps.

View from the village

After meeting Elaine and informing her that having a massage from Los Elementos Day Spa was on our itinerary we started our hike to the village square. Antonio lagged behind grumbling. It was too hot. The hill was too steep. The top too far away.Once at the square, he sullenly sat by himself and wouldn’t join us in watching the children playing soccer.

But the next day all that would begin to change.

In large part, this was due to Lee Beal using English-speaking Guatemalan guides, who not only guided us throughout our stay, but who also related to our nine-year-olds on a very personal level.

Samuel, a 21-year-old indigenous local guide kayaked with us on Lake Atitilan and rode a horse on San Pedro La Laguna. We looked to him for advice during our lunch, when we bartered with a Guatemalan woman from San Antonio la Laguna who was selling her weavings. Encouraged by Samuel, we ate Guatemalan foods and drinks that we would never have dared without his assurances that they were safe for a gringos’ intestinal tract.

Alex, also a local guide from a nearby village, hiked with us to waterfalls, played soccer with Antonio in the village square with the local children, assisted with weaving, and swam with us at El Jaibolito.

Staying with the Beal’s was Zach, an adopted 14-year-old Guatemalan who is also from the United States and interning with Los Elementos as a guide. He was Antonio and Crystel’s constant companion. It was Zach who first jumped off the cliff followed by Antonio and Crystel. It was Zach who first put on his zipline hardware at Atitilan Nature Reserve to zing through the trees.

As the children’s mother, I could see that it made a difference to Antonio and Crystel that Samuel, Alex, and Zach were Guatemalan. They weren’t Hispanic. They weren’t Latin American. They weren’t from a different country. They were Guatemalan. Antonio and Crystel are Guatemalan. Their brown arms are the same skin tone. Their hair has the same coarseness. Their faces have the same Mayan features.

Through our Guatemalan guides, the village came to us and Antonio and Crystel began to gain a sense of who they are.

Next post: hiking, nonprofits, weaving.