Stories from the Stage

S4 E16 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: May 10, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

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."

"Un hipo?"

"Sí, un hipo, esta en la cama, dos, dos, ocho."

"It's in the bed, 2-2-8."

"Un minuto."

Silence.

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?"

"Sí."

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,

reconsolidating.

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

in Boston.

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.

None whatsoever.

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

to enlist.

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

my disabilities.

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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