Monday, January 26, 2004

the yard

It's time for some more beauty, isn't it?
(this is more for my non-urban-living friends . . . to partake.)

I live in a fifth floor apartment on a hundred and eighth street in Manhattan. The building is owned by a magnanimous slum lord (heard that word the other day--the m word--and found it funny). And we have just become acquainted with our new roomie, Fredrick, the little grey mouse. (So, where's the beauty, sistra?)

Okay, so I'm sitting here, quietly, after watching "The War" with Elijah Wood, Kevin Costner, Mare Winnigham, and the little boy from "Sling Blade" tonight on Channel 55, and I hear singing in the yard.

Our building is steps from a main avenue, so it is surrounded by neighboring buildings not only on either side, but also adjacent and of course those behind it on a hundred and ninth street. The space behind all of our buildings, where our windows and fire escapes are the view, is the yard. I mentioned the other day that I have no screens on my window. It's a long way down, folks. A glass votive holder slipped out for a peek and took a time to pop. (slum lord) There's a chain-link fence about 5 feet high adorned with razor wire that divides the space on the ground, and it's all concrete. Ugly. I got a close-up look one evening when I accompanied the cable guy out back as he re-juiced the box, but that's another story. It's very clearly a yard, yes?

The yard is always, always dead quiet. People in cities like to portion their space; suburban folks do too; we all do. But tonight a happy man with a clear tenor tone confidently sang out. He sang one song, and then stopped. A lady called out, "Please close your window," pleading loudly, not impolitely. It was quiet for a minute, and then the happy tenor sang again, with the same confidence and tone.

The yard is quiet again. It's time for bed. Goodnight.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Year 2, final semester, NYC Teaching Fellows

I don't identify myself as a Fellow any longer; there are few ties left, although I've taken to carrying the black cotton tote with the Fellows insignia branded on it lately. Who knows why, but I turn the insignia against my body. Maybe it's my way of physically rejecting the program a little each day.

I no longer attend education classes at the CUNY schools, but I suppose I've kept up with all other obligations (teaching kids). One real sadness for me this year has been the loss of my comrades, Katie and Salim, from last year. Both are no longer teaching. There are fellows from my cohort (they call it) there with me still, those with whom I was initiated, summer-schooled, trained, tested, who faced the gulf in humanity that was P.S. make believe # last year with me. These ladies still draw together at our faculty meetings. We greet and offer goodbyes mostly. But they continue to go off to their Fellows classes while I stay behind.

The school is quiet this year. The environment is a place to arrive at each day, approximately 10 minutes before time to collect the children from the auditorium, and to leave by 3:15, upon escorting them out. I plan my lessons throughout the day, during the prep period or at lunch. I leave it all there. I come home.

This experience has affected my insides like you wouldn't believe. It has affected who I am. I was crossing the street the other day and looked into the faces of the people standing there. I thought: there is goodness here.

It's still tough for me to reflect upon, to find the insight I'm looking for. I don't see my students' homes; I am their teacher. I greet them with a smile each day. Some of the parents come to school with their children each day. I am able to see into their homes then, and what I see is good, for the most part. Sometimes I see drug-addicted moms come along with grandmothers to the conferences. I see 99% single-parent or guardian homes. Children change living situations as part of everyday life in this neighborhood. We require updated contact information 4 to 5 times a year because phones are disconnected so frequently. And the nutrition of these children is frightening, save for the school breakfast and lunch. On a recent field trip probably 38 out of 40 children brought corner-deli-purchased lunches. About 5 had sandwiches, and the rest dined on chips, candy, and soda.

Things like this are what disturb me this year, inside, because I know it to be a sign of neglect. I've got a gaggle of bright-eyed babies, that's how I see them. They make me happy. They are young and sweet and full of everything you could imagine. But they don't get what the rest of us get. I compared notes briefly with my cousin, Jana, at Christmas. She teaches Kindergarten in Dallas at a suburban school. Our conversation brought to mind class parties I'd had as a kid--the parent involvement that was always a part of things.

I don't want to take away from the good parents I do have, but there is no parent involvement in my class.

Earl, one that I am close to this year, (who lives with Fran, his guardian) was telling me the most matter-of-fact tale at our class Christmas party, like kids do, you know. "Ms. Haley, I used to have a cat," the tale begins. "He died under the bed . . . And then I had another cat. He fell out the window." I asked: "How did he fall out of the window, Earl?" Earl replied: "My cousin doesn't like it when the cat scratches him and one day the cat got mad and my cousin swiped at him. The cat fell out the window." I asked another question: "Don't you have screens on your windows?" (I knew the answer to this because I don't even have screens on my windows.) Earl replied: "He fell on the fence. I could see his insides." "Okay, Earl. That's enough."

There's little remorse from dear Earl, little fear. He's as gay as ever. Part of this is due to being a little boy, but part of it must be due to becoming desensitized. I wonder what Earl has seen in his life, in his building, outside it, in the different buildings he has lived in. I wonder how Earl feels knowing that his father is alive but does not care for him.

I am becoming adamant about marriage and family. Some of it is just me, the traditional parts coming through, but a lot of it is stemming from my Harlem experience. I see life through children's eyes. They need stability, and continuity, and love, and adults who will help them learn how to read and write and do math. No joke. No joke.

There is about a 60% gap between the children's English and math abilities at my brother's school across the Triboro and mine. That's just one example. I could compare my kids to those at Jana's school, or my little godson, Jacob's, in Austin. The gap would be closer to 80% in those instances. Jacob has everything he needs for a good start, my favorite lady as a mom, a loving dad, grandparents, a room full of books, a computer, team sports, and plenty of people who love him and buy him architecture books or gardening sets if it's a new interest of his. Do you think Earl knows he's different than Jacob at age 9? Earl is happy. He's loving. But I think he knows.

I wouldn't want to grow up in Harlem. I suppose Plano wasn't the bomb in the early '90s either. You think you have a lot of power as an individual. You can close your classroom door and create a situation equal to that in my brother's school or Jacob's. But you can't. It doesn't happen. The way these kids live comes with them and affects their behavior, their anger, their motivation, their belief in relationships, in what the world is about, in what is worth trying for, in what is worth becoming.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I Like the Men Who Say Hi

The men who say hi pass on the street. This is where you will find them. Their language is portioned in phrases and greetings, tiny Tiffany blue boxes with bows floating out their throats like a garden bath that spurts rather than trickles. To open one you must catch the gentleman's eyes. The unwrapping comes in the the nod of acknowledgment, simple.

"Good morning pretty lady," "You are beautiful," Barry White's baritone wafting. Masters of appreciation, lovers, givers. I like the men who say hi.

(dedicated to that guy on CPW last night at about 6:30 and Edwin, custodian extraordinaire)