Why I March (Or beyond the parrot trees)
Today is January 19, 2017. Tomorrow, a man who shall not be named, will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. There is going to be a big party. I will not be going.
Rather, I will be marching. This is the story of why I march.
In the late 1980s, my world consisted of a few square acres of forested farmland tucked away in the southernmost corner of the newly independent country of Belize. The hilltop we called home was ringed with “parrot trees” as we called them because their small seedy fruit attracted flocks of the little green birds every day. And every day, as I watched the birds come and go, I would look out at the horizon and dream of a life beyond the parrot trees.
Now, my world is mostly the ten square miles of the District of Columbia. My children and I live in a small row house in the Northeast part of the city. This morning, as the rising winter sun crests above the trees along the Anacostia River, light fills the living room, illuminating a framed family portrait hanging over the couch. It is a picture of me, my little sister Rosie and our parents. The picture was taken when I was in the fifth grade. It is the only family portrait that we have and half of my siblings aren’t even in it. That’s because this was the last time my father (Way) came to visit us in Michigan. And when we were in Belize, well, we weren’t exactly sitting for family portraits.
In this photograph, my parents are beautiful and beaming, like they have no care in the world. My sister and I, gussied up in our Sunday best, look like the happiest little girls in the world. And maybe, in that moment, we are.
Dwight Sieggreen was my fifth grade science teacher. He was also an experienced amateur photographer. He took this picture in 1985. He mostly photographed wild life, which depending on how you define it, could possibly include my family. Mr. Sieggreen was the coolest teacher at Silver Spring elementary school in Northville, Michigan. His classroom had all kinds of creatures living in tanks and terrariums. He wore sunglasses as he walked the halls. He was gregarious, with a broad smile and a pronounced Michigan accent. He must have been bemused by the quiet, scrawny brown girl who showed up in his class halfway through the school year with stories of the jungle. Unlike the other teachers, he didn’t just nod politely and say “that’s . . . . interesting” when I talked about my other life in Belize. He wanted to know all about what living there was like. What kind of house did we live in? Where did our water come from? What kinds of animals did we see? His curiosity was genuine and steeped in compassion. I knew right away that to him, it wasn’t just okay that I was different; it was interesting, it was cool.
My mom struck up a friendship with him too and soon she, Rosie and I started to visit with Mr. Sieggreen and his family at their home. His wife, Mary (like my mom) was a nurse practitioner and his daughters, Marisa and Marcy were just a bit older than me. They were the first girls I knew who didn’t play with dolls and who knew exactly who they wanted to be when they grew up. Marisa, the oldest, wanted to be an astronaut. Marcy wanted to be a biologist. Up to that point, I thought that little girls were supposed to want to be mothers and wives when they grew up. That was pretty much the only thing to aspire to in a place like Belize.
When the Sieggreens would have us over for dinner, Rosie and I would stare with fascination into the clear, quiet aquariums housing tropical fish and strange ocean critters. I swear there was a moray eel in one of them. After dinner, we shared stories about life in the jungle and Mr. Sieggreen would tell us about his expeditions and adventures far and wide studying animals or searching for artifacts. He was like a real life Indiana Jones. Hearing about his adventures was like being transported from the confines of that small, Midwestern town and into a wider world. Mr. Sieggreen was a citizen of that world, and exactly the kind of person that I wanted to be: larger than his surroundings, hungry for life, and daring to do things instead of just dream about them. He was the kind of person who gave his all to everything he did and it seemed that he did everything. No wonder his daughters had big dreams of their own. I, for one, was certain they would come true.
When my father came to visit in the spring, the Sieggreens were eager to meet him. To them, he was a mythical jungle man who built houses with his bare hands and killed deadly snakes with a single blow from his machete. That’s how we talked about him, and it was all true. Mr. Sieggreen had a fancy new camera and insisted on getting a picture of all of us. It was, after all, a rare occasion. It was the second and last time my father would ever venture to the Detroit suburbs. As we sat together on a slope of brown grass in the Sieggreens backyard, Mr. Sieggreen snapped away. He managed to capture the image of a happy family: handsome father, glamourous mother, two sweet, perfect children. It was exactly the way I always wanted our life to be – happy and together.
That’s the mission of photographers, to capture something essential in suspended animation; to expose a piece of the subject’s soul. So there we are against a backdrop of a gray Michigan sky exuding an infectious joy that both portrays and betrays reality.
The truth portrayed in this image is the love that was always there. The love that kept my parents revolving around one another for decades, even when it pushed the limits of their individual sanity. The love that tied Rosie and I together at the heart, a love so pure we constructed worlds within it. The love our parents had for us – my mother relentlessly pouring the best parts of herself into us, knowing all the while that, if we were anything like her, one day we would take the good stuff and run; my father trying, in his own way, to be a part of a family when he had no roadmap for doing so.
But the image betrays the truth, too. Because life is never exactly as you want it to be, even when it appears that way. Life, unfortunately, is not like portraiture. So the fights over money, the days when Way didn’t come home, the nights with nothing but rice to eat, the bouts with dengue fever, the constant uncertainly about whether we would even be together as a family or not, and the palpable, sinking, shrinking feeling that swept over me like paralysis every time my father reminded me how much better it would have been if I were a boy - all of this was swept away in the instant, blinding glare of a flashbulb.
When we returned to Belize several months later, my mother had Mr. Sieggreen’s portrait with her. She also has a stack of books that he had contributed to her effort to homeschool us. When he learned that we would not be attending formal school in Belize, he made sure we had all of the latest textbooks. Teacher’s editions, so we could check our work. He saw a light in Rosie and I, and he wanted to keep it burning. He believed in us. I learned long division, fractions, algebra, social studies, biology and so much more from the books he sent. I stayed up at night, pouring over equations by candlelight until I got them right. Rosie used the books too because he always sent materials for both of our grade levels. Between our mom’s tutelage and Mr. Sieggreen’s text books we easily kept up with our American peers even though it would be many years before either of us stepped into a classroom again.
I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Sieggreen for seeing my thirst for knowledge and doing whatever he could do to foster that, even when he wasn’t my teacher, even from ten thousand miles away. It didn’t matter to him that I was a girl, that I was poor, that I might never see him again; he wanted me to see my future the same way his daughters did – limited only by our imagination and willingness to work for it.
Over the years, he sent dozens of books in all subjects. These are the books that built the educational foundation upon which I still stand. And for this immense gift the only form of payment he accepted was insects and the occasional vampire bat. Atlas moths, zebra butterflies, tarantulas, palmetto bugs, locusts, giant stick bugs, katydids – we caught all kinds of things because they were our neighbors and roommates. If we saw a scorpion lurking on a beam in the house, we’d take a stick and gently squash it – then drop it in a jar of rubbing alcohol to preserve it. We would then carefully pack it up and ship it to the United States. In this manner, we must have sent dozens and dozens of scorpions to Mr. Sieggreen.
I can see it now. Rosie and I, in our torn and ragged dresses scampering through the shaded underbrush, chasing blue morpho butterflies until they alighted on a fallen baboon fruit or papaya. Then, with great aplomb, we’d swiftly pluck their bodies with our fingers and squeeze the life out of them. Into one of Mr. Sieggreens’ packages, and off to a life in a display case at Cooke Middle School, where he was teaching by then.
We might have bad karma from all of the bugs we dispatched to Mr. Sieggreen, but I like to think it is offset by the good use to which they were put: teaching other children, worlds away, about the importance of preserving wild places and the wild things in them.
For me, it was a way to be a part of the world beyond the parrot trees. I didn’t know how, but I knew that someday I would get there. And eventually, I did.
Mr. Sieggreen remains a family friend. His daughter Marisa became an engineer and Marcy a biologist specializing in amphibians. She was just like her dad – intelligent, adventurous, and hungry for life. Sadly, Marcy is not with us anymore. When I reflect on her life, I am comforted by the fullness of it. As a girl, her vision for her life was not constrained by societal limitations. She, too, was looking beyond the parrot tress and she persisted in her quest to follow her dreams. I see her, in my mind’s eye, in the Amazon Rainforest cataloging rare tree frogs with the same zeal that I brought to my bug collection years ago.
Now, as a woman, I look at the little girls in this photograph in front of me and I want for them a world where they continue to be free to be exactly what they want to be. Marcy was just that. And I will always strive to be that, too. Of course, neither of us would have been as strident in our steps on this path without the unwavering support of those who celebrated our shared humanity along the way.
This Saturday, I will be marching for the little girls in the frame, for Mr. Sieggreen, the man behind the camera, and his little girls, too. I continue to lovingly embrace an America where girls can dare to dream beyond their world, where the men in their lives believe in them, and where the ability to realize these dreams is uninhibited. This is what’s at stake. This is why I march.