By Guru Dorje
When I was a boy, a very young boy, I lived with my mother and father on a houseboat in the Bay Area. This houseboat was a part of a hippy enclave that was ‘squatting’ at an unofficial dock constructed by said squatters. We didn’t have running water. My mother would fill up a huge copper bowl for our water use. There were no guardrails on the docks for a little boy like me. I fell into the water so often that, eventually, this became a catalyst for us to move.
The community did what one would think hippies that were not particularly political would do; drink, smoke, and wander about seemingly aimlessly to a boy like me.
This squat was next to, what was then, an unofficial dump (and is now the haunt of the cars of the immensely wealthy). The dump was filled with rusted boat hulls, cars, and tires. The boat hulls were on their sides like sunbathing seals; the cars looking forlorn because they didn’t have windows or wheels; the tires listing in leaning towers. There was even a man who lived in one of these heaps of refuse of the modern world like a scruffy, unkempt Tom Bombadil. We were undocumented. We were off the radar living in this squat. And my parents worked tirelessly to keep it so.
My Mother didn’t speak English. My father was prepared to be a scholar, had Communist China never invaded Tibet. He had the physiology of one– gentle long fingers, narrow legs–and yet it was not to be his lot. In America, he was a person working under-the-table jobs in construction. He’d come home walking crooked from exhaustion. He had a few jobs at the time. My mother and I would wait for him at the gate of the DIY dock. My Mom, a long day of chores, chasing me, trying to keep under the radar, and then preparing for my father to come home. She’d soak his hands in the copper bowl and then wrap them in white cotton. No matter how long my Dad worked those jobs his hands kept bleeding. We’d eat, and then we went to sleep rocking to the tide of the Bay.
My first interaction with government employees were two white women. I remember them coming to our boat. My Mother was alone yet did not take alarm at their presence. I remember their golden hair glinting in the sun. One had curls wiggling down from the top of her head. The other had plastered flaxen hair parted in the middle. They smelled funny, to me, in an unpleasant way but not a stink. (I later found out that this scent was Patchouli). They weighed me on a scale that was similar to the one that Themis holds as she metes out justice. They also gave my mother huge blocks of uncut butter and cheese. This amazed my mother and father, because in Tibet butter and cheese are signs of wealth.
I later found out that these women were employees of the government, sent into the community, apparently, to find naughty, brown boys, and make sure that they gained enough weight. They found us in a watery squat, behind a dump, on an 8 by 8 houseboat. They were able to navigate a situation with a woman who spoke only Tibetan and Nepali, and gain access to her child. My Mother, to this day, would attack, physically, anyone she thought would harm me (unless it was herself doing it, which she would then justify as being a well-deserved harming).
I think back on this often and admire the tenacity and honesty that this must have taken from these public servants. My mother would not have trusted just anyone with her child. I also think about the need that was there for their services; oceans of other brown children who didn’t tip the scales so well, who were not as privileged, or lucky as I was; and the other Mothers, like mine, who were by themselves, who were, unlike mine, being trafficked, who struggled mightily for their children. I know this now, in detail, because of my service and all the amazing humans I have had the great honor to both teach and to build relationships with.
I have dedicated my life to public education. I use it as a means to alleviate the cruelest forms of oppression that arise from poverty (which itself arises from marginalization). I am a principal, in essence, for programs that work with students that have dropped out of school. We help them build up their basic skill sets and transition them and support them to and through their college education. We can do this tuition free now.
The basic skill sets that we must first tackle is the image that lay within our student’s minds. Marginalization is a terrible thing. It is terrible in so many ways, but in particular its insidious terror is in its light. It shines the light on the privileged in the middle and this middle sucks up all the light, and those outside of it feel that the light not shed on them is their own fault, in the shade we are left to ponder and believe in our own inherent inadequacies. This is a very difficult image of self to crack. It is very hard to build a self-image that is different from the societal imputed image.
In Tibet, the teachings tell us that all things are imputed realities and not inherent realities. Even our ideas of self. I was lucky in that this teaching, even as it was only rote when I was a child, was inculcated in me. By being a perpetual outsider in my efforts in America for so many reasons, I was able to see, on a positive note, that these systems Americans take for real are only imputations, habits, practices, and not real at all. I could navigate them, make myself acceptable to the systems to make my bread, but I also simultaneously understood that they are not real. Not real in the way that most act and operate as if they are.
With this understanding and a huge amount of disdain born of knowing poverty, and seeing it, and living it, but also coupled with my understanding and knowledge that it does not have to be, I have tried to live a life of service in acquiescence to the demand my life has revealed to me.
This disdain has arisen at our shallow protestations that our children should not suffer and simultaneously allowing them to bear the brunt of poverty despite our love of the symbolic ‘Child’. Currently nearly half of all children in America live below the low-income threshold (double the poverty level which is $24,300 for a family of 4) and 22 percent live at or below the federal poverty level. Half, or 11 percent of these children, live off of half the poverty level (known as deep poverty).
I think of those two white women regularly. When I am tired and I move from site to site and try to implement strategies that honor and pull, push, and support students to meet their basic minimums so that they then can confront, in this life, the question of what they must do. When I imagine their moment of confrontation, one I hope that will come to them, like mine did on a dock, overlooking a shadowy water late at night. I thought about what I must do, in a world like this, and where I could make the most impact. I was done with my bachelor’s degree, amazing as it was as I was also a high school dropout. Money, fame, ego, lustful things all came to me, but I kept coming back to the children I saw in my life.
I remembered that fear in my parent’s faces, the blue lips my sister had when she nearly died. I thought about those white women who made their way to our houseboat. And I thought about the huge blank spot that was there in my education that should have been inhabited by adults who loved me and wanted me to be well. (That I am well is in no thanks to that blank spot but in all thanks to those young people who reify the best I hope to be true in this life.)
With all this in my mind, with an understanding that I was forgoing the things that, in all honesty, I also wanted (money, fame, lustful things), I made the choice to serve in government as a teacher. Only because of its chance at impact and access.
But this is not what I want to do. How could I say this is what I want to do? If I do, then I commiserate with the systems that cause these children’s suffering because I have ‘skin’ in the game of keeping a populace of children that meet this criteria. I have no want to earn my bread this way, I don’t, but I must because of what is demanded of me.
There is no place else where such impact and reach is possible. I believe all human services should be this way, that we seek to make such services, honestly, and holistically unnecessary. That our traditional systems catch all of these beautiful beings; that their expressions of the ineffable, which is their life, is not only given room to grow but given space to bloom outrageously.
“What is your dream job?” A student once asked me. And with the belief of the above I said,
“A mango farmer”
“A mango farmer?”
“Yes, a mango farmer, with only three trees, and also a U Pick mango farm on the honor system. I’ve been tired since I can remember, even as a boy, and I’d sure like some time to rest.”
I’d love to see my own brown babies playing in some beautiful place’s surf and know that they, like all the other children, would never have to realize the shame we try to hide so well.
Guru Dorje emigrated from Nepal to America. The son of Tibetan refugees into Nepal, his life has been filled with change, upheaval, and displacement. As an undocumented immigrant and high-school dropout, he eventually learned to navigate American bureaucracies such as the public school system, immigration, and King County. As a perpetual immigrant, he uses his ‘outsider’ perspective to create new systems where others see intractable permanent structure. Currently he is a special duty PPM IV in King County launching new education sites for Employment and Education Resources.