Up in the Air
Some times we feel grounded. And other times, things up in the air can get scary until we touch down. COVID-19 delays Cris's path to citizenship and his civic duty; Rilda loses her beloved stuffed animal on an international trip; and Casandra, who is Black and deaf/blind, searches for the support she needs the most. Three storytellers, three interpretations of UP IN THE AIR, hosted by Wes Hazard.
CRIS CONCEPCION: Three days before my ceremony
was supposed to have happened
and I get a new letter from Immigration saying
a naturalization ceremony is postponed indefinitely.
RILDA KISSEL: This was an emergency-- a relationship
that had begun ten years before
was on the line.
The thought of crossing streets and train tracks
with poor vision and hearing
in a city like Boston was frightening.
WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Up in the Air."
Uncertainty, self doubt, frustration,
and waiting for something
for so long that you begin to fear that it will never come.
So many of our greatest stories come from experiences like this
and so do many of our greatest life lessons
because we so often find that we're stronger
for making it through the uncertainty
or that we actually realized we didn't really want
or need what we hoped for so much.
Tonight, our amazing tellers
are going to guide us through stories
about being up in the air.
KISSEL: My name is Rilda Kissel
and I live in Melrose, Mass.
And I'm originally from New Hampshire,
I work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
I'm the assistant director of the Learning Design
Innovation Technology Program.
So, much of my work is academic advising and community building.
How did you get into storytelling?
KISSEL: At the Harvard Graduate School
of Education where I work, we decided to do
a storytelling project to help build community
among our students and faculty and staff
and help show the diversity
of our community, and so
I got involved in that project
because they wanted staff to participate.
And from there I just really wanted to learn more
about storytelling, about the craft
and about the ways that it can build community.
So I took a class and it led me on
this crazy adventure of being on TV shows
and doing storytelling slams and just wanting to consume
more stories and learn more about storytelling
When you help students tell their own stories
and you see them do that, do you see a transformation
in them at all?
Absolutely, and I think, I think what I've learned
the most from, from doing it
with work is just how powerful it is to take the time
to listen to one another about our shared experiences
and our personal experience, and it seems so simple of an act,
but something that's not done often enough.
So I find such
incredible relationships and understanding and empathy formed
just through this simple exercise at work.
Basically I've learned that the most important
part of my job is listening.
When I was 16 years old,
I found myself standing in the lobby of a hotel
in Barcelona, Spain,
gripping a tiny piece of paper with the words
"In case of emergency" written on it.
And this was an emergency.
A relationship was on the line,
a relationship that had begun ten years before.
Christmas, 1986, I am six years old.
And on that day I become one of those kids,
the kids that have that one stuffed animal
that they have to sleep with every single night.
It's a hippo.
It was given to me by my cousin Gordon,
and for some reason I decided that hippo, Harry,
was the chosen one.
You see I was an anxious kid
and I decided that Harry was magic
and that when I squeezed him,
all of my worries went out the top of my head
and out the bottom of my feet and I could rest.
So I slept with him every night.
He came on every family trip and every sleepover--
if I couldn't find Harry at bedtime, it was a big deal.
And this went on and on.
By the time I got to high school,
my mom would make comments like, "You know, Ril,
no husband's gonna wanna sleep with that dirty old hippo."
To which I would answer "If he doesn't like the hippo,
he won't be the husband."
This is how I found myself in this lobby.
See, I was in high school and my Spanish class
had organized a trip to Spain.
We had fundraised all year.
We would fly into Madrid and then travel by bus
to several other cities, and I remember when it happened.
We were on the bus a few hours out when I reached into my bag
and Harry wasn't there.
My heart sank.
I got up and I ran down the aisle and I found my teacher,
"Senora Charles-- my hippo, you know, my hippo,
I've left him behind."
To which she responded, "All right,
when we get to the next hotel you can call."
Two things occurred to me in that moment.
One, the pronoun that she had used
and, two, how terrible my Spanish is.
"Oh, so when we get to the next hotel, like, you can call?
You'll-- you'll call?"
"No," she said with a wink.
"You can call."
I remember standing in that lobby and being so afraid
but I knew that I had to do it, so I dialed the phone, "Hola?"
Spanish, Spanish, Spanish...
"Se me olvido un hipo."
"I've forgotten a hippo."
"Sí, un hipo, esta en la cama, dos, dos, ocho."
"It's in the bed, 2-2-8."
It could have been a minute or it could have been a year,
but finally, "Yo tengo el hipo."
"I have the hippo," "Oh, gracias,
puedes mondar Estados Unidos?
"Can you to mail United States?"
Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, dinero,
Spanish--"Sí, yo tengo un Visa!"
I managed to rattle off the numbers of my dad's credit card,
the ones he had given me in case of emergency.
And somehow I was able to say the address of my house
in New Hampshire and I hung up the phone.
I knew that in a few days an ocean would separate me
from my beloved.
Seven to ten days later,
a package arrived at my parents house
covered in stamps and there he was.
We were together again.
Harry came with me to college.
He came with me when I studied abroad.
I bungeed him to my backpack
as I hiked the mountains of New Zealand.
He came with me to my first apartment
and the apartment I'd share with my husband.
He came with me to the hospital
when I gave birth to both of my babies.
Harry-- he's in my bed right now, I'm 40 years old
and I have a stuffed hippopotamus
in my bed right now.
And I think about our time apart all the time.
Not that I left him behind in Spain but that I got him back.
You see, I was an anxious kid
and making that phone call, that was a big deal.
And I think about Senora Charles
and how she made me make the call
because she knew that I could
and she knew that I should.
I learned that day that the decisions that you make
when you are afraid, those are the really brave ones.
And sometimes you have to be brave for the things that matter
and my hippo mattered.
So I think about that girl in the lobby all the time.
See, we have a lot of mantras nowadays,
"Nevertheless, she persisted."
"She believed she could, so she did."
But since that day I've had
my own, "Se me olvido un hipo."
CONCEPCION: My name is Cris Concepcion.
I was born in the Philippines,
then moved to Canada, then came here in the '90s.
I have lived in Boston for the past 20 years.
I live in Jamaica Plain,
and I also work for the Democratic National Committee
working on their tech team
with a group of other software engineers and data analysts
working on technology both to help
the DNC understand voters and support the voting public.
Were you always interested in politics?
I never looked at myself as somebody who
would want to corral a bunch of people
and make something happen.
But as an immigrant,
I came to understand how if you wanted something,
you have to work for it.
There's many different ways of doing that--
you can volunteer, you can be an activist.
Being in politics is one method of obtaining that power.
But I think that also for myself
seeing other people going into tech
to help out folks in politics and seeing, like,
"Oh, this is a way to use my skills
for some sort of public good."
And also in some ways to, like, give back to a country
that has given me much.
Tonight, our theme is "Up in the Air,"
and I wanted to know what that means for you
in light of your story.
I mean part of my story is about
my experience here as an immigrant,
and the way in which immigrants are treated right now
is very unstable.
And so much of our life has been like, has been up in the air.
For the past 25 years,
I've been on this journey to become a citizen.
I came here in the '90s, I was born in the Philippines
but arrived in the United States for school,
then I was able to get various employment visas.
I'd gone from one visa to the next
until I got an employer to get me a green card.
And throughout all these times,
I am wanting to become a citizen,
wanting to be secure.
And finally, in February of 2020,
I get a letter from Immigration
saying that I can take my oath of naturalization
and become a citizen.
However, there's a catch.
I was working at the DNC on their tech team
and we are managing websites
that help people register to vote,
find their polling locations,
and we also protect the rights of others to vote
and ensure that their vote's counted.
As you can imagine,
February of 2020 was kind of a busy time for us.
I mean, if you think about the beginning of the month
is Iowa caucus.
Our sites are the main sites that Iowans are going to use
to find out how to get to a caucus location,
how to participate in their caucus.
And we're working day and night and weekends
to ensure that our sites are ready for the primaries.
And I'm glad to say that our work paid off, you know,
the caucus happened, we were able to help thousands of Iowans
participate in the caucus.
And unfortunately another team that we're working with
who's in charge of the software that's used
for tallying the caucus results,
their software fails, and the day after,
nobody knows who, who's won in Iowa,
people are counting stuff by hand.
And we see all this stuff in the news and people are worried
that the tech isn't going to be up to snuff
and that we are heading into this high stakes...
Democrats are going to lose the election.
And I feel bad for this team because political tech is hard.
Your software has to be perfect.
Has to be perfect on a certain day,
and if you have problems, you can't just ask for a redo
or a delay of the election, like, our highest traffic dates
are written into the Constitution.
So with this in mind, it's all hands on deck
and this naturalization ceremony from Immigration
is going to require me to have to take a day off
on February 27, which is five days before Super Tuesday.
Well, three working days but five if you count...
if you're working on weekends, which we are.
And I have to make this choice.
Like, I could take the day off
while we're in the middle of this crisis
or I could ask to reschedule and be able to spend the time
to ensure that we are doing our best for voters.
And with this crisis in mind,
that is the choice that I have to make.
And so I asked for a reschedule.
And Immigration says, "Sure, your new date's
going to be March 18."
It doesn't seem so bad, I mean, it's only three weeks.
What could go wrong?
Well, February 28, there's a big convention,
it turns into super spreader event in Massachusetts.
By the beginning of March, there are two confirmed cases,
but by the end of the week there's 13.
And I am starting to get letters from Immigration saying that
the ceremony is going to be changed.
We're going to boil it down to the bare essentials.
And because of social distancing,
you can only bring one guest, when normally you can bring
all of your friends and family to see you do this.
As the case counts are climbing, as California and Washington
start declaring states of emergency,
I'm getting new letters from Immigration saying that
now it's going to be boiled down to a conference room
in Government Center, not Faneuil Hall
where it was originally going to be.
And you can bring no guests.
Like my wife, who's been with me for the past six years
of this journey, she can't come.
And then on March 15, three days before my ceremony
was supposed to have happened,
with case counts at 150-plus in the Commonwealth,
Governor Baker closes the schools and restaurants.
And I get a new letter from Immigration saying that
my naturalization ceremony is postponed indefinitely.
I know indefinitely isn't for forever.
In this case, it just means we just don't know yet.
But that word, I mean, it stung.
So much of the immigrant experience in this country
is dealing with these moving goalposts,
and not knowing, not feeling like you really belong,
that you're safe and you have to like live with that anxiety.
You have to live with that uncertainty.
And I felt I was so close to this moment that that...
with that being canceled,
like I don't know when it's going to happen.
And I feel like I may have missed my chance.
And, you know, you have to always deal with, like, one more
visa to renew, one more test to take, one more line to get into.
And I'm just wondering like how many more times
do I need to do this?
But at the same time, you know,
there's work that has to be done.
There are primaries that are still happening.
In the same week that my ceremony gets canceled,
Florida, Illinois, and Ohio are having their primaries, too.
But they are also scrambling because they're losing
volunteers and poll workers left and right
because they are afraid of COVID.
And they're closing locations, open up new ones,
And we are keeping up with all those last-minute changes.
Other states are delaying their elections.
They are moving to vote by mail.
And we are changing the site to go along with them.
We are updating things to give more information
about how to request a ballot,
how to find a dropbox, what the new rules are
so you can vote safely.
And we have to do this because democracy has to work
during a pandemic.
Even especially in a pandemic.
And so, with that, I just sink myself into work.
I don't have time to really give in to despair.
And months go by and we're on the other side of the primaries.
We get to June and I get a new letter from Immigration
saying that my ceremony is now rescheduled for June 12.
And it's still gonna be the same as it was before.
It's going to be in a conference room,
can't bring any guests,
it's going to be the bare essentials.
It's not what I imagined for myself when I was first
dreaming and looking forward to this.
But I'll take it.
So I go to Government Center
and I'm there were seven other immigrants.
Our oath is going to be administered to us
by a veteran from Nigeria.
And she looks at us and says that, "I know many of you
"would have wanted others here.
"None of us makes this journey alone.
"But I've made this journey too.
"I have been through, and seen what you have,
and I can be your witness on this day."
And I really appreciate that to have been seen in that way.
So I became a citizen!
I got to swear the oath.
And then I got to go home,
and I got takeout sandwiches so that I could have it
with my wife, and we got a bottle of Madeira
so that we could toast like the Founding Fathers did.
And then afterwards, I got to cast my first vote
as a citizen in the Massachusetts state primary.
And then I had to, you know, refocus on work because
early voting was starting.
And I can remember on any given day in October
the amount of traffic that we got was just unparalleled.
I mean more people were coming to us on any of those days
than during the entire 2018 midterm election.
More than all the primaries combined.
State websites were buckling underneath that traffic
and we were there to pick up the slack.
I'm really proud of the fact that both Joe Biden
and Steve Bannon told their voters to come to us
because our information was just that accurate,
and just that good.
Because we did the job.
And then in November, I got to vote
in the general election, and be part of history.
And I'm so proud of that, but also seeing how citizenship
is more than just voting.
It's about service and sacrifice.
It's about how our society is great when we put
our needs aside to help our neighbor.
And I also know how so many of us have had our own version
of a dream deferred, plans that had been moved out indefinitely.
But I also know how we're making progress, slowly and steadily,
and as we work together and we take care of each other,
we'll see how indefinitely does not have to be forever.
XAVIER: My name is Casandra Xavier.
I live in Brighton, Massachusetts,
and I'm originally from Miami, Florida.
I am a disability advocate.
And I taught assistive technology
to blind and visually impaired and deaf-blind individuals
What exactly do you do as a technology teaching assistant?
XAVIER: I show people with various levels of vision loss,
from total too low vision, how to use
technology such as iPhones, iPads,
Macs and Windows computers
with screen-reader enhancements.
I basically help the blind and visually impaired and deaf-blind
learn how to access information confidently with blindness.
What brought you here?
What makes you want to share your story tonight?
XAVIER: I feel that this story
was such an important thing to share
because I'm very well aware that there are younger kids,
girls and boys, out there,
that are experiencing exactly what I have
and I'm sure they feel like they are the outcasted one.
And I want them to know that they're not the only one.
Or even adults
to know that they can still keep fighting,
and press buttons if you have to,
until you get what you need.
I'm 17 years old
and I'm sitting in English literature class.
I can only see directly in front of me
and I can only hear so much out of my left ear.
I feel really awkward and out of place and frustrated.
I'm walking around with my head down a lot of the time
as I'm almost certain that nobody wantsanything
to do with me.
I don't have confidence in myself.
The conditions responsible for my blindness and deafness
are unilateral anophthalmos
and unilateral microtia atresia.
Growing up with these conditions
was quite complicated.
As I got older, and the course load in school increased,
the strain on my remaining vision and hearing
became even more complicated.
Sitting in college and asking for accommodations
was like begging for a piece of bread.
The accommodations were given peevishly and begrudgingly
as the professors and staff got agitated at my presence
a lot of the time.
I inquire about services for someone such as myself
and I was basically told none of that existed.
It felt like I was told that the stuff was just
much too good for me.
I'm wondering had this been a white student,
would this have been a completely different experience?
One of my worst memories was missing the bus
late at night after classes in college.
Standing at the bus station alone,
with no taxi cab in sight,
it had just finished raining.
A cold rain, especially.
I know I have a three-hour walk ahead of me
instead of what could have been a 15-minute bus ride.
The thought of crossing streets and train tracks
with poor vision and hearing, without sound direction
in a city like Boston was frightening
and extremely anxiety inducing.
I was afraid to ask for help
because I'm a Black woman
and I feared for my safety.
My mom was up worried sick that night.
My phone was dead,
and as I finally get home,
I'm relieved, but I'm really cold.
At last, I'm done with college.
I absolutely hated the experience.
Now, 23 years old,
trying to find out where I belong in this society,
Massachusetts still refused to acknowledge my disabilities
despite the pile of credible medical documentation.
So I decided that I'll do whatever I want.
I'm going to go to the United States Marine Corps
office in Boston.
I passed the physical fitness test by the skin of my butt
and I was immediately disqualified
once the sergeant saw that I was far too deaf and too blind
I was used as an "example" of how to work very hard
if you want to succeed
in the Marines.
I felt absolutely relieved at least to see that someone
or more than one person immediately acknowledged
And they saw it at one glance.
At last, the door of opportunity cracks open.
I burst it wide open and I gorged on everything
I can get and more.
And I was even more infuriated once I realized
that the schools for the blind were 13 and seven minutes
away from home.
Then the flashback of the teachers
infuriated me even more.
So, today, I'm 31 years old
and I'm able to teach deaf-blind people
how to use their assistive technology
and I'm also skilled in these things myself
as a deaf-blind individual.
I am also on the board of two separate
disability advocacy committees
and I pushed for disability awareness training
at the State House.
This is not just about self-advocacy.
You can't see what's being hidden from you
once it's being denied.
I will take all of my pain and fury and pour it into
my advocacy work to make sure
that no other student with disabilities
ever has to go through the same thing I had.
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