99 Problems

Published on November 18th, 2014 | by Kathi Valeii


THIS IS HOW IT STARTS: Kathi Valeii On Getting to School

My anger spews like venom as he slugs his way out of the car.

It starts this morning, as I pull back the flap of his backpack and find his folder missing.


No, let me back up.


It starts last week when I find his book missing –

the one we’ll have to pay for,

the one I scramble to the library for so he can complete his work.




It starts that morning when I walk him in early to pick up the pieces of his missing work.


No, let me back up.


It starts the afternoon before when I wait outside the school

in the car with the volatile toddler

for him to make up a missed conversation.





It starts his first year of middle school.

The countless teachers I address by first name.

The ones who love my son, if not for his distraction.

The ones whose routines I memorize, whose homework schedules never change.

And worse, the ones who have no consistency – his progress report death sentence.

The ones who misplace his work as often as he,

the ones for whom I photograph his homework, and keep a meticulous log, archived in Gmail for quick proof and accountability.


No, let me back up.


His first year in upper elementary.

The daunting homework, the in-class workload.

The weekly progress reports with an “F” on top.

So much missing work, I don’t know where to begin.


But, let me back up.


Her name is Amy.

He has her for two years.

We talk every day.

We strategize, plan, and hold him accountable for months.

I come in, daily, to help him catch up.


He scarfs his lunch the way he scrambles through his work.

It’s about survival and there is only so much time.

So little time.


It starts after the divorce

in the emotions that fall around me

on the steering wheel

the computer keyboard

the dinner plates

on my pillow.


It starts in grappling with how to make ends meet

in the decision to place the kiddo’s in school

in single motherhood

and power battles

in late-night exhaustion

in loneliness.


It starts the day I drop them in school

the day my youngest smiles and waves

then screams and cries for the following two months.

It starts the day I’ll never get back

that turns into the years I’ll never get back.


It starts the year they ask to come home.

Mutha 4e

When my new partner and I agree homeschooling could work

when their father disagrees

when the court battles begin.

When the judge, falling over on her bench in a fuzzy haze from her chemo treatment that morning, takes in my testimony.

When we have to schedule a second date because she begins to turn white then shades of green.


It starts over

with every lawyer conversation,

with every court date,

with every allowed fantasy,

with his opposing testimony.


It starts

in her courtroom, days before the new school year begins,

in the pit of my heart, racing and pounding

in the itchy hives that begin that day.

I rub and scratch them, methodically,

they are imbedded prayer beads on my palms.

I take deep breaths,

“Whatever you do, don’t cry.”


It ends in the judgement

slammed down like a stake.

I can still feel the exact strangle,

the precise moment I knew

I couldn’t squelch the wail from deep within my gut.

How stifling it squeezed all of the life from within,

how it choked me and I dared not take a breath –

the breath that would be loud and obvious and gulping.


It starts the day they go back

the day I tuck away the imagined schoolroom set-up

the day we walk in solemn silence, hand-in-hand, to the front doors.

“You’ll thank me one day,” he told them.

It was warm that day

and wet

and unusually dark.


It’s re-birthed

in triggering moments

the moments that wouldn’t exist ….

in each first day

in missed assignments

in let down’s

in each scramble and dash

in each longing for more time.

I can still feel the exact strangle

the precise moment

it rushes over me in unexpected slams and slaps.


I sit on his bed and tell him I’m sorry,

say, “It’s not you, it’s me,”

tell him how great he is, tell him all the things he does right.

This kid, with eyes as wide as saucers, a heart as full as the moon

takes me back every time.

Mutha 3

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About the Author

Kathi is a reproductive justice and birth advocate living in Kalamazoo, MI. She writes about gender-based oppression as it pertains to the full spectrum of reproductive health issues at her blog, birthanarchy.com. She has been published in numerous online and print publications. Kathi has been called “a true artist,” and “one of the brightest minds in this movement.” Poetry has been a form of self-soothing ever since she tumbled into it with trepidation following her divorce. She is the mother to three children.

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