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September 25, 2006

Some Old Hmong Woman

Some old Hmong woman
lives in the yellow high-rise
projects of North Minneapolis.
Each morning, she cracks an egg in boiling water

adds salt and black pepper
to flavor. In the afternoon,
silling on the faded blue
love seat, she eats Texas

oranges and licks her fingers.
Her eyes have become too bad
to
sawv paj ntaub. In the evening,
she boils a store-bought chicken leg

in water, adds lemon grass to flavor.
At the small wooden table,
with the chicken leg and a bowl
of rice, she eats in silence.

Anthropologists have noted:
old people in the Eskimo culture
who became too feeble to contribute
to the family were left out in the snow

to die.

In the fall of 2002, when I arrived at my office in Appleby Hall, this poem was the only thing in my desk, save for a few paperclips and loose staples. The poem was photocopied from page 153 of a book I don't know, written by an author who is also unknown to me. When I first read the poem, I thought a little about all the things I didn't know. I didn't know what the yellow high-rise projects of North Minneapolis really looked like. I didn't really have that much experience with Hmong people. I knew who they were, of course, but mostly I knew how much I didn't know. A few months later, I found myself in the Edison High School gymnasium for the Hmong New Year celebration because I was invited there by my students. They danced and modeled different styles of Hmong clothing, and we all had some great food after their performance. We all left that night with little pieces of string tied around our wrists, including J's, and I felt like I had come a few steps from that first reading of the poem that first day.

The poem is now taped to my wall in front of my desk. I still think about it often. The time has come, however, for me to move on.

I'm happy to say that in another week I'll be staring a new job, as a research fellow for the National Center for Educational Outcomes. This is a fulltime job, with benefits and the responsibilities that I've been needing in my life for some time now. It means that I'm going to have to learn to like winter in the cities, because I suspect there are many more winters yet to come. But, it also means learning new things and applying my knowledge in new ways, to benefit more students than the ones I have been teaching these past few years.

I've packed up most of my office, but the Old Hmong Woman is staying on the wall, right where she belongs. I hope she makes the next person think about the work that gets done here, about the families of the students, about the challenges (and problems) of getting your life uprooted. I still need that Old Hmong woman with me, as I embark on policy work related to students with disabilities in the K-12 setting. I need to not forget her and the things she's taught me. The paper, fading and slightly creased, may stay on my wall, but the Old Hmong Woman will always be with me.

Posted by chri1010 at September 25, 2006 1:57 PM

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