Six Years a Southerner

“Looks like Michelangelo is getting a bath,” said the dad, bending over the grate where his offspring had wedged an action figure into a ground sewage stream. “Do y’all understand how this happened?”

One of the funniest scenes during our time in the South played out within the first month of our arrival, some six years ago. Loverpants and I still laugh when we walk by this spot in front of the Tennessee Aquarium, a destination that is the heart of Chattanooga’s renaissance as a Southern city. We think how the aquarium houses pods and plants and all manner of sea and river creatures. It also the little-known bathhouse of ninja turtles.

My own immersion into the South was almost as abrupt as Michelangelo’s. We arrived to our rented ranch house on three acres and felt the distinct awe of our new rural-burbia life, waking up to the sounds of cows mooing when only days prior, we had known only tinkering shopping carts rattling down city blocks, the siren cry of ambulances so familiar we barely noticed. We were soon introduced as newcomers to my workplace. We were awkward and unwieldy. Baby Girl couldn’t find her sleep groove for weeks. I couldn’t find time to lesson plan. Loverpants couldn’t find an office space to lease. Little Man couldn’t find his walking feet.

But then we did. We found ourselves doing life in the South as people who worked and churched and bought Aretha Frankenstein pancake mix to make at home on Sunday mornings. The difference, I think, is that finding a rhythm is not the same as finding a fit, which is how I would classify my time in the South. Just because Michelangelo is placed in the gutter and he stays there doesn’t mean he belongs there.

I have not found belonging in the South. This is not a criticism of the South, just a witness to my experience. Mercifully, though, I have found pockets of being known and that has been the great treasure of my life here.

Belonging in the South, specifically in a more junior city, specifically in a conservative religious community, requires a certain extroversion that eludes me. Small talk is currency in this environment where one mills in small concentric circles of interconnected folks. I am allergic to small talk so I am most likely to enter into conversation with, “I cannot freaking believe I am buying sex ed talk books for my kid already,” rather than preferred pleasantries about the weather. There is also a pervasive lack of directness that is borne of the aforementioned interconnected network. If good fences make good neighbors, then a lack of fencing can lead to a superficial neighborliness. Being authentic, after all, is a liability. And being authentic in one social circle where any misdeeds in one patch might bleed into another can leave us defenseless. The need to “play nice” at the expense of addressing conflict or wrong behavior is something I’ve observed too often. My natural bent is to be as direct as possible, even if it is hard. So whenever I have found others willing to join me to climb the chutes and slide down the ladders of directness, I have desired to call those people my kin.

There are a whole host of other aspects that I have found so foreign about the South (The expression “might could.” The frequent use of styrofoam in restaurants. The lack of sprinkler parks in spite of the heat much of the year). But if I dwell on these things then I fail to see the good and to celebrate the great things about the American Southeast (Publix Grocery Stores, hallelujah! The lushness of spring. Savannah/Tybee Island. Charleston. Birmingham. Nashville. Memphis. Crepe Myrtles. Sitting in the bleachers for Used Car Night at a minor league baseball game in the fall). There is so much to adore about this region that has been our home for six years, this city that has, at turns confused and enchanted us.

We will return to the Northeast from whence we came, with children six years older, with wisdom poured like a fine wine aged six years. And we will be glad for the friends we have made, the places we have served, the houses where we have worshiped.  We will count it all a blessing to not only have gotten wet but to have been fully immersed like Michelangelo in the sewer, with passersby asking if y’all knew how it happened.

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On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

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The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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