Pockets Holdin’ Hope: 30th Birthday Reflection | creative nonfiction by Lester Batiste

                                                                        “Lately, I reflect when the times a nigga was low
                                                                        I got it up off the floor, I'm stronger than ever before
                                                                        I'm stronger than ever before, just like I planned to be
                                                                       They wanna see me fold, it ain't no thing to me
                                                                       Thoughts when I was broke, "If only I could be"
                                                                       Pockets holdin' hope, it ain't no thing to me
                                                                       At night, I hit my knees, I pray for better days
                                                                       Then found the better me, I got my head on straight” 
                                                                                           --J Cole “Lion King on Ice”

           A couple of days before my 30th birthday, I sit at the circular brown kitchen table serving up pasta and chicken thighs to my dependents, like almost every night. We usually listen to KMOJ’s afternoon drive at 5, so J. Cole's meditation comes on through the speakers and hits differently this dinner-time evening. It has been about two years since I was granted guardianship over my niece and nephew. Stepping in since my schizophrenic sister continues counting sheep in the Southside deep. It's been two years since my mother was called home: a sadness that doesn't go away, not even a little bit. It's been a year and a half since the pandemic hit. And it continues to shape our holiday gatherings and fire-signal traditions here in America. It has been a year and a half since I have been back to my high school classroom in the miracle that is the Midwest. 

           As all of this time has passed, I have been cast deeper and deeper into the paradox of being alone in a house full of people … quarantining. We mill around, my partner and our two adopted kids, completing familiar patterns in an unfamiliar setting that we know so well. We facilitate classes, board meetings, attend online PE sessions, and online speech therapy while taking the opportunity to complete in-person trauma remedies. We count patterns, collect leaves to make the fall background for our five-finger turkey. There are the drop-offs and pick-ups, but those are abbreviated, thanks to the fourteen-day quarantine from a kid testing positive in my niece’s preschool or my nephew’s daycare pool. The moments at home are consumed by playing board games, reading books, watching kid-friendly TV or listening to music.  Like tonight, I try to always tell my kids that art imitates life. And while we get used to a new way of living, I reflect as my twenties come to a close. 

           The last 310 days have sucked. To be pursued by a silent, unrelenting assassin is to respond to our time as Dave Chappelle did on Saturday Night live: “Come get these nigga lessons.” These days have tested my patience as a new parent and the cliché of being thrown into the frying pan doesn’t begin to quantify my experience rearing children. I got a crash course in diaper changing since my niece was a year and a half when they moved to Minnesota. I got a crash course in autism after having my nephew assessed to try to explain his stimming. Navigating the Minneapolis public school system as a veteran private school teacher at a predominantly white institution was a bit of a struggle. Scheduling doctors appointments for rashes, busted lips, buying a nebulizer to help administer just-before-bedtime breathing treatments only intensified the balance between reading parenting books and learning on the fly. If I have learned anything from quarantining with children, it is that they truly are sponges.  Children are inculcated from the conscious/unconscious lessons parents bestow upon them. My niece and nephew are no different. I have to be conscious of the images, words, and overall messages I put out into the world now. I recently suppressed the urge to toss-up my middle finger at the driver who cut me off on the highway since my nephew was in the back vibing out to James Brown’s “The Payback.” During times where we are together 90% of the time, their learning curve has advanced so the teacher has to adjust.    

           The last 310 days have challenged me. To become a better guardian, teacher, partner, and affirmed my commitment to being a lifelong learner.  LORD, this has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Being spread thin from teaching 66 students at work, to two toddlers at home, to figuring out a way to pay off debt while keeping up with medical bills and the mortgage -- this period has given me a lesson in gratitude that my ass is saving up for just in case I have to write a check. I feel like a first-year teacher, in my first year preaching to a congregation living in my computer screen. I have facilitated English courses for students in foreign countries before, but teaching all four of my classes ranging from Shakespeare to African American Literature was as foreign as driving in England. I started the year off with my normal expectations, but as soon as the wackadoodle class schedule was released by my administration, hope of covering ground soon faded away. But that same hope also transitioned, too. My hope evolved from the anxiety-inducing rigamarole to fully leaning into the student-centered approach I assume when teaching. I believe that I have helped my students grow as learners by offering them permission to be themselves! I have found a new level of teaching where the Zoom fatigue and teenage attention span doesn’t permeate my pedagogy, but lifts all boats in the rising tide of autonomy. 

           The last 310 days have emboldened me. To be ever-vigilant in this world, because if we must die, let us not die like hogs. Let us continue to carry forth the same energy that inspired young Claude. As a black father, I dread having the conversation with my niece and nephew, but if I don't, who is gonna teach ‘em?  To be their anchor, like my heavenly Angel was for me. I take up the generational mantle that was held for We. And speaking of family, I am emboldened to cut them mutherfuckers off, but I can’t because that will just continue the detrimental cycle. So, my pockets steady holdin’ hope as they hold these anxious hands. It’s been two years since talking to certain members of my clan, and ever since I got guardianship their communication has slowed like traveling via ship. And once ships come in, all the family members got lost. Except for my oldest sister, my two aunts, my mother’s sisters and cousins from Texas and other places from down South. Not to mention my school’s English Department who threw me a baby shower, or my partner’s family who really drive more than twelve hours just so the kids can see their Poppa John and Mimi. 

           As I look back on the past 310 days, I notice the love of a devoted and caring partner that I wouldn’t be shit without. She just passes me now in the kitchen, reminding me of days we used to spend together before the children came into our lives with pictures taped on the opening refrigerator door. How her eyes which once twinkled with love for me now twinkle with love for these milk duds she insisted we welcome into our home because “that is what your mom would want us to do, right?” She continues to wake up every day and face the herculean task of raising two children who are not hers with grace and humility. And raising these two kids she does because she is empathetic, brave, and loving.  

           Lately I reflect, when the times a brother was low. I got it up off the floor. I’m stronger than ever before. I’M STRONGER THAN EVER BEFORE—just like I planned to be! 

           Not the way I wanted to get here, but we here! The American philosopher’s words reverberate through my mind as my niece asks for “more food, Dada.” As a text message from my nephew’s school reminds me to pick up his award for being named an academic all-star for quarter one by tomorrow. As the love of my life sits down at the table and asks “What can I do to be helpful?” Through these turbulent times when our nation is gripped with a virus that won’t relent, a sitting president who won’t repent and whose tax bill is about a quarter compared to what I, as a teacher, have spent. When black/brown lives seem to be in peril more than ever, while white lies remain fragile and tethered to ideas that are more stubborn than stomped out. My pockets keep holdin’ hope as they hold these anxious hands. As I move into the next decade of my life, I proceed through this world with kindness to understand, a bunch of questions to make myself a better man, hoping...  

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Lester Batiste is a savage writer living in color who writes for political, social, economical change and Black futures. Lester writes to create a world in which all bodies can inscribe/ describe themselves authentically. Born in Chicago, IL, he holds an M.F.A from the University of Southern Maine, and an M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania. Lester currently teaches English literature classes at an independent high school in Minneapolis, MN.