Lisa’s Last Dance

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit in all of us.

wheelchair and ballerina

In the halls of her school, Lisa heard the comments.
“Such a promising career ahead…”
“Never dance again…”
“…a tragedy…” “…a shame…”
“Never walk again …” “…dancing is finished…”

Her face would heat, and she’d roll the chair a little faster, enduring the day, the comments sown like bitter seeds in her heart. Time was against her; her muscles hadn’t failed yet, but they were on the way.

She sighed, but today, she managed not to cry.

***********************
Her father loaded her like a cargo of five gallon drums into the back of the van after school, and took her home.
She did her homework before dinner since there wasn’t much.
Her parents were watching television when she rolled the chair in front of them.
“Lisa? What is it, honey?” her mother said.
“Take me there.”
“Honey, please. We’ve been over this. The doctors…”
“Yes, I know, Dad. The doctors, it’s always the doctors said…”
“Lisa, be realistic!
“No!” She slammed her fists on the arms of her wheelchair, and her parents jumped. She got her breathing under control, kept her eyes averted to blink back the tears that threatened; if she cried now, it would be over.
She looked up at them in after a moment, her eyes clear, her gaze steady.
“No. Take me there.”
Huffing in frustration, but without another word, her father clicked off the tv and loaded her into the van. Her mother rode shotgun, and they rode in silence.

**************
The dance class stopped when Lisa came to the door.
“Lisa?”
“Hello, Mrs. Castro.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to start over.”
“Lisa, honey, I can’t…”
“We told her, Mrs. Castro,” her mother said. “We told her what the doctors said, but she insisted.”
Mrs. Castro sighed. “Let her come to grips with it. It’s the only way they’ll stop sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”

Lisa rolled the chair past Mrs. Castro.
***************************
The other girls watched in stunned silence.
Stopping before the mirror, Lisa took a good long look at herself, taking stock of what she was about to do, and whether or not it was worth it.
And she turned the chair sideways, placed her feet on the floor and placed her hands on the barre, her breathing deep.
The other girls watched at first, as her arms began to shake, her knuckles tighten and slip; she wiped her hands on her useless knees, and got another grip, and pulled again.
And little by bit, Lisa began to pull herself up, trembling, shaking, but slowly rising.
“Lisa, don’t do this,” her mother said, her hands over her chest.
“Lisa, stop!” her father said.

**********************
She bit her lip as the tears stung again, and one escaped, and she rose a little higher.
With her next pull, she gave a small cry of pain, and one of the girls broke from the circle and got behind her, and put her arm around Lisa’s middle, supporting her, her knees and thighs aligned with Lisa’s own, which were almost like a marionette’s, and she pushed the chair a little distance away.Lisa went higher, her breath hissing between her teeth. The girl behind her was straining with the weight, and she didn’t want to fall backward.
Another one joined her, and stooped to put Lisa’s hands on her shoulders as she supported Lisa’s arms.
Lisa went higher, even as the pain ripped through her and she cried out again.
Two more joined and supported the two girls who were holding Lisa.
She went up a little more.
And another came, and another, and then the rest, reforming the semi-circle that had been around Mrs. Castro, and they began to call out.
Do it, Lisa!”
“Come on, girl!”
“Kick, Lisa! Higher!”
“You call that a pirouette?”
“If you can’t hack it, pack it!”
“Get that leg up!”
“Balance, keep your balance!”
“Spin faster, stupid!” They all laughed a little louder at that, and Lisa strained with the effort.
And kept rising.

The girls began to cry through their smiles as Lisa struggled, inch by inch, her own cries lost in their laughter and shouts and cheers of love that sounded like reprimands they’d all heard and said, standing together back then as vulnerable and fearful children, standing together now as vulnerable, fearful young women with confidence and hope.
And today, centered on their broken, fallen angel, they anointed her with all they had, and it filled the studio like morning vespers.
And when Lisa finally stood, leaning on their arms and shoulders, wracking, drenched, and beautifully terrible, still shaking, crying and trembling as they embraced each other in bittersweet victory, it was for different reasons.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.2014
All rights reserved

Bring Me No Flowers

(HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY).

“I will bring thee flowers,” said he, “to prove my love.”

“Doest thou so,” said she, “and that wilt but prove thou lovest me not.”

“Sayest thou so? But they are beautiful: they are surpassing colorful, fragrant beyond compare! Add but a little water, a little light, and long will they last for thee.

“Arranged to please the eye, the nose, the fingertip, with petals bright to tickle at thy dimpled cheek, I would gather them for thy pleasure.”

“Dear love,” said she, her fingers laced through his own, “all thy words are truth, and yet…”

“And yet…?”

His hand she kissed, and filled his eyes with hers.

“And yet they will fade and die: the petals grow dull in brilliance and fragrance, the leaf curl in upon itself, and black death, like a creeper worm, shall decay all of a once vibrant bloom; I would not have it so for love.

“Nay, my heart, bring me no flowers. If thou wouldst prove thy love, take me far a-field to where they grow wild and bounteous:

“For in the soil are they rooted, their tender beginnings delicately intertwined, to help, nurture, assist, and lift the first tender shoots of love upwards, even as they descend to take what is needed to live, and to grow, and then, to grow strong.

“There is no anchor for them in water alone. All the more are they rooted in the very essence of Creation, and from there, do grow to full height, despite the sorrow of storms, the plucking and plundering of bird, bee, bug and butterfly, the high heat of a sometimes overbearing sun, and the random whip and toss of whimsical, tempestuous winds.

“There, in the field, their colors fade not until the proper time, in the fullness of their season, where they expire together in their full glory.

“There, they take what they need, and in the taking, give freely and with purpose to bless and increase the stock and store of all who need them.

“There, in the wild and verdant field, their perfumed prayers of fragrance fill the world and heaven both night and day without ceasing, and in the turning season, they press, with gentle touch, the essence of their scented offering into the seeds to come after.

“That, dearest, is how our love, like flowers, should be as nature; and be they gathered into any hand, let it be only the tender fist of their Creator, there to scatter them across the spans of seas to all who love.

“If thou wouldst bless our love with blossoms so, let us to the fields now go.”

“My love, thy fields await.”

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
2014
All rights reserved

Of War and Breakfast

kitchen

Daylight was just breaking, but already Willie was at the bus stop across the street from the house.

He was nervous, excited and scared, dreading where they’d send him. It wasn’t that he was a coward, but he had his reasons. His uniform was starched and crisp and clean, except for the dust that stirred around the cuffs and over the insteps of his glossy black shoes.

There was a single light on in the house, and the faint sound of a gospel choir building carried on the cool early morning air. Through the window he could see a woman was at the stove, and she hummed along in time with the gospel choir, a good voice, steady and clear. With the sound of the choir came the smell of bacon and coffee, faint at that distance, but there.

A slender brown hand with a spatula deftly flipped a flapjack in the air. Putting the flapjacks in the oven to keep warm while the bacon browned, she poured herself some coffee from the percolator and disappeared from view. From what he could see, no one else seemed to be up, or perhaps no one else was there; she’d kept to herself since her husband died not too long ago.

The door opened, then the screen door squeaked, and the woman stepped out onto the porch into the coolness, and took a deep breath, running her free hand through her hair, the steam from the coffee cup rising like morning vespers. She still had her robe on. It was old and worn, like a well used Bible, and almost as sacred. Sipping coffee, she looked down the road awhile at first, and Willie said, “Good morning, Darlene.”

She jumped and gave a little cry, turned, and smiled at him. “Good morning, Willie. Didn’t see you there! Where you goin?” Then she saw the uniform, tinged with blue in the predawn light.

“Oh,” was all she said. She felt flashes of anger and sadness, but managed, somehow, to keep from saying more.

Willie’s green cap was in his hand, and he was twisting it. “Sorry ‘bout that, Darlene, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Come on over here and get yourself something to eat; the bus ain’t due yet.”

“Don’t wanna be no trouble.” She smiled.

“I didn’t ask you to be no trouble, I told you to come get something to eat.”

“You sure?”She put her hands on her hips. “Willie, my bacon’s almost done. When this door is closed, it’s closed.”

Willie came over, the fine dust on the road made little coronas around his feet, as if he were a prophet traversing the dunes. Darlene went in ahead of him.

“Go on and sit down,” she told him. Willie sat and scooted his chair up to the table as she put a steaming plate in front of him, took out some syrup and butter, and poured his coffee and added a small glass of apple cider. Then she served herself; he got up to hold her chair, and sat back down.

Holding hands across the table, together they said grace.

***************** “

Don’t see why I got to go,” he said. “They treat us like dirt here, and want us to go help somebody else from being treated like dirt. Don’t make no sense.”

Darlene sat back and sighed.“No, it don’t.”

“They even separate us there; don’t want us next to them on the way over, and don’t care if we…”

He wasn’t looking at her. It seemed like he wanted to cry but didn’t dare. Seemed like he wanted to bolt and run down the road and never look back, but he couldn’t.

“Willie.” Something in the way she said his name got his attention. She took his hand. “It don’t matter what they do, you got to come back alive, whatever it takes. Don’t you let them break you, hear? You got to come back sane and whole. You got that baby coming, and it’s depending on daddy, right now, to come back.”

**********    

   Darlene’s father was nervous that morning, his hands fidgeting with his hat, and her mother kept adjusting things on him, putting off his leaving as long as possible, as he stood there and let her put it off. Her hands were busy adjusting from the inside out until there was nothing more: his tie his shirt collar, his jacket collar, the cuffs of his sleeves, the hem of his pants, hands brushing, tugging, tucking, when all she wanted to do was grab him and never let him go to that meeting about the coming protests.    

   Out of things to do, she looked at her husband, tears in her eyes, untouched by either of them, until he reached out and pulled her close, and looked down at the upturned faces of his little girls, not comprehending, but feeling the anxious charge in the air between their parents, his own eyes filling, his wife’s tears wetting his jacket, her lips by his ear.  

   “ I don’t care ‘bout what you got to do out there, David, to make things better for everybody else, you just make sure you come home. These girls need their daddy, and I need my husband, and I know you scared, but you got to come back, and that’s all there is to it.

   “You hear me, David?”

**********

“You hear me, Willie?” Willie nodded and got his breathing back under control. They finished breakfast in silence, though neither of them felt much like eating now; it was just sin to waste food. Darlene cleared the table, and Willie stood up; he held the door for her as they went outside, and saw the puff of dust down the road from the bus tires.

“Guess it’s time.”

“Let’s pray.”She took his hand again. They prayed for protection, his safe return, strength for Clara, and health for his new baby, in Jesus’ Name, amen.

The bus hissed to a stop.

“You comin, boy?”

“Yessir.”

“Say goodbye, then.”

Willie and Darlene embraced.

“I’m scared, Darlene.”

“I know,” she said against his ear, “I know that, Willie. And so is Clara, and so is your baby. You’ll probably be scared every day you spend over there.” Stepping out of his arms, her eyes searched his. “But you got to come back,” her eyes welled up, “and that’s all there is to it.”

He swallowed, nodded, wiped his own tears away with his mangled green cap. “Thank you for breakfast,” he said, though it wasn’t all he meant.

A cantankerous horn shattered the morning quiet.

“Ain’t got all day, boy!”

“Comin’, sir!”

“Weren’t no ‘trouble’,” she let her tears fall, and smiled through them, and Willie walked down the steps, over the road, into the bus. Finding an empty seat by the window, he looked out at her, and she kept the smile she didn’t feel on her face, and waved as the bus took him to his destiny.

And as the birds began to sing, all that remained of Willie were his footprints leading to and from her door, and the dust from the tires settling back down, and the paling light of the morning sun breaking over the horizon, as Darlene wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her robe, and went back inside, humming low with the radio choir.

Closing Spaces (Saadia’s Story)

The following story is for my cousin, Saadia, who passed away suddenly back in July. When we were kids, she had a library of children’s stories from around the world; for whatever reason, the Spanish tales were her favorite, though we’re not a Spanish family. I think she just liked the language, and the rhythm of the writing, but mostly, she liked hearing me read them.

We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, so this is, in a way, a tribute tale for her, from my own imagination; my candle, if you will. I think she would’ve liked it.

I hope you do too. 

melissa-landres-Indio-toddler-baby-photographer-1

Maria sat on the steps of her home, her sweater folded into a cushion, her left leg curled beneath her. The setting sun lit her face and hair with a soft glow.
Autumn colors filled her eyes, and a bittersweet sadness twinged in her heart for the leaves that were dying.

But sometimes,
Maria,’ a voice said, ‘a leaf of green breaks off in the spring, and never experiences the joy of changing.’

Her journal sat open, untouched, beside her.

Manny, her older brother came out and sat beside her; they smiled at each other, but said nothing. He too, looked out at the fading day.
“Do you think about Noa?” Maria asked, finally.
“Every day,” he answered.
He tapped her journal. “Not writing today?”
She sighed. “Can’t think of anything.”
He placed an unfurled strand of dark hair back over her ear, gave her cheek a light kiss.
“Close your eyes; you’ll think of something.”

Maria did, and heard the door open and close as he went back inside.

A soft wind stirred, and the smell of the earth came to her, and the scent of maple, and Mama’s cooking, and her thoughts drifted back on the currents until she found Noa’s little face, who in her brief life had given her sister the brightest of smiles.

The last of the warmth of the sun cupped Maria’s glistening cheeks in its rays, setting them alight.
She wiped her eyes with her fingertips, took a deep breath, settled her heart, and let the memories come.

She wrote then: of singing young girls of her childhood who shadowed the swaying hips of their elders, picking herbs and gathering seeds in palm leaf baskets, of sharing bread and fruit and fresh water with friends, of watching the stars through her window, counting until she fell asleep, of the feel of cool river water on a hot day, of secret glances at secret crushes, who smiled shyly back.

Of dancing in the rain with muddy feet, ruined hair, a drenched sundress, and a full and joyful heart.
Of the addicting sweetness of candy and chocolate, and mama’s frown when they ate it all.

Of fishing with papa, watching the sun scatter hammered gold and diamonds of light on the rippling waves, and how the smacking snap of jumping fish sounded like applause, and his contagious excitement when a catch was good, and his tranquility reflecting the still water when nothing took the bait, and they returned home.

“Then Mama says ‘I guess we’ll catch the fish at the grocery store.’ Papa frowns at her, but we can tell he’s trying not to laugh, and then we all go out to eat.”

Of the sad songs she’d play on her guitar by candlelight in her room when it rained outside, songs she could not remember, and never played again.

Of how things were back to normal, but would never be the same.

*************
The evening star popped out like silver cufflink on a dark blue shirt.
Mama came to the door: “Dinnertime, bonita.”
“In a minute,” she said.
“All right. Don’t let it get cold.”
“I won’t.”

She went inside a few minutes later, and looked at the empty place that was always set for someone who was supposed to be there. She thought about the empty space they always left in the family photos, how they walked together with a space between them, something they had done at first that had now become habit, if not ritual.
And an idea came to Maria, one that she would tell them tonight after dinner.
*********************
In the car the following morning everyone was quiet, thinking about what they would do when they arrived. Her father had seen the merit of it, her mother was hesitant, but went along, and Manny had just nodded, unsure of what to say.

After dinner, she had given them empty pages in her journal to write what they wanted to say, and they would read it to Noa, each one, reading what they wrote.

“Nothing about sadness, or tears, or anger,” she told them.
Her mother wrote of the storybooks she’d collected that she’d wanted to read, and the wonders of a beautiful garden, and the hard work it took to keep it that way, but didn’t feel like work at all.

Her father wrote of how beautiful the water looked when he went fishing, and how the current made the hook drift, but you never knew if it was toward the fish, or away; the fun was in the excitement of the catch, but you learned more about yourself when you caught nothing.

Her brother wrote of how he would have taught her baseball, and how he loved the smell of the grass, of his first home run: the crack of the bat as the ball sailed, white and high and spinning over the fence, and the simple pleasure of oiling his favorite, most trusted glove after a game, smiling when he won, in contemplation of what he could have done better when they lost.

And soon, the cemetery gates were before them.

“If anyone thinks they can’t do this, now’s the time to say it,” Papa said.
No one spoke.
He drove down to where the child lay, and they all got out; the doors made a soft ‘thunk’ when they closed, and it echoed faintly in the morning stillness, broken only by random, inquisitive birdsong.

Slowly they approached Noa’s little white stone, her name patiently engraved over her suddenly erased life, waiting to fade away in its own time.

Maria stepped forward.

“We wrote you a letter, Noa. It’s kind of long, but we wanted to read it to you.”
Maria read first, then her mother, her father, and brother.
It took most of the morning, but they got through it, not without tears, and hitching breaths, and even smiling, their love for her like a swaddling blanket softening the hardening autumn ground.

************************
The journal back in her hands, Maria wrote the final page.
“Con el amor a tu familia, a mi hermenita Noa. Te queremos.
Te extrañamos.”

With love from your family, to my little sister Noa. We love you. We miss you.

Maria walked up, and placed the journal against the stone.

A gentle breeze stirred, and she closed her eyes again to feel it against her face, the smells of autumn sweeter, sharper than she’d ever sensed, like children you hugged close after jumping into a pile of leaves, their laughter mingling with the crackle and crunch of colors bursting around them.

This wind, soft as infants’ lips, kissed her tears away.

Maria turned to find her family waiting, and as they turned to go, they all joined hands, connected in a new way; the space they’d always left for Noa closed, because they now carried her, truly for the first time, in their hearts.

©Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
2014

Not Your Idiom

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I had a theater teacher in college who was a playwright . We did his plays with him, and I thought they were okay, but only okay.

I remember that he hated Neil Simon with a passion, and thought he was a hack, even though Neil Simon had his finger on the pulse of the American theater-going public for a while, (longer than my teacher did, but that’s another post).

We were having a class discussion about doing ethnic plays without the original ethnic group. He began a discussion on how the craze at the time was doing plays with multi-cultural casts that were not from the playwright’s country.
He gave the example of an all-black cast production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” with Phylicia Rashad and some other well-known black actors / actresses, and said that doing it with an all-black cast just for the sake of doing it wasn’t theatrically valid, because they couldn’t bring to it what Russian actors could, who understood the subtlety of meaning and history behind the play that black actors could only emulate to some degree, but never really understand.

Being black myself, I figured he was probably right about that, though of course, some of my classmates (not just the black ones) bristled at the thought.
I personally thought it was a valid argument: it would be like Russians doing the play Fences, by August Wilson, or a Chinese cast doing Raisin in the Sun.
“It’s not their idiom,” he said. He was right.

I’ve seen writers attempt black dialogue, but it mostly misses the mark. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just off.
One of my favorite mystery writers, Robert B. Parker, of Spenser fame, failed at it over and over again with his character Hawk, and a lot of the black characters he wrote. To me, he never captured the nuances. I overlooked it, though I shook my head at some of his attempts, because I liked his stories. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), the author of the 87th Precinct series, on the other hand, was fantastic at it, if a little repetitive.

And, truth be told, not every black character written is required to speak that way. It doesn’t make it any less ‘authentic’ to have a black character speak without being ‘urban’ (whatever that means).

Does that mean an author who isn’t black can’t write black characters? ‘Course not. Write whatever ethnicity / race / dialogue you can. Write all of it. But here is where the writer’s ear plays an important role; I’ve seen white comedians do dead-on impressions of black speech patterns, not just ‘ebonics’, but the inflections and rhythms as well.

There’s a music in it, a poetic flow that rises and falls, a pulse that’s hard to feel if you didn’t grow up listening to it. There are actually regional differences too, between northern and southern.

Capturing it successfully was primarily the reason for Eminem’s success in the predominantly black rap industry, because he’d steeped himself in the culture, and came away with it. It’s why (ahem) Vanilla Ice….melted away.
The comic from Africa, Trevor Noah, is a master at it, because it’s not even an idiom spoken by Africans. (Check out Trevor Noah: African American on Netflix to see what I mean.) Bill Burr and Anjelah Johnson are two others who do it well. Anjelah Johnson has a great ear for the voices that inform her comedy.

As for me, I was fortunate enough to read a wide variety of poetry and literature from around the world, from Dickens to Dosteovsky to Dumas, and see a lot of foreign movies, and watch a lot of medieval stuff, and see productions of the Elephant Man as well as Paul Robeson, both excellent, minimalist plays; the first with Bruce Davison, who wore no makeup and still managed to convey the pain of deformity, and James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson, who may be a reincarnation.

My dad was into Shakespeare, and opera, and James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, and Khalil Gibran, among others; his library shelf provided my summer reading for a long time.
And my mom spoke French, because she wanted to go to Paris one day, but cancer didn’t let her.

In short, it was equipping me to write the way I do, though I had no idea at the time that I was absorbing all these cultural influences that transcended my own, and was certainly not aware at the time that I would ever use them.

And while I try not to consciously write to any specific ethnic / racial audience, because I want you to imagine as much as possible without my guidance, it’s because of that I can write Of War and Breakfast and Bring Me No Flowers, and be the same guy.

But even though I can understand both stories, the history of what had a bearing on the events that shaped me lies with only one of them, and when I write that story, it speaks to me a lot differently.

And that’s fine, because while one may be ‘my’ idiom, and the other one isn’t, all of it can be learned, and mastered, and conveyed, if you take the time to really hear it.

And keep writing.

D Generation

pripyat-abandoned-school

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?

Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.

We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.

Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.

Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.

“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.

And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.

Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.

And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.

So what’s my point?

At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.

With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.

You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?

It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.

As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.

I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.

I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).

As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.

I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.

I went to baseball games and ballet performances.

It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post),  but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.

So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….

In summary:

Teachers are NOT the enemy.

YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.

You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours. 

It matters to your child the most when you do.

A Teachable Moment

paper-flower-folded-bowl   Once I covered

a  third grade class for a teacher on vacation for a week.  As a substitute, you have to gain control quickly, but every now and then, there are classes that you just click with, and some you never will. 

This was the former. Whenever I covered elementary, where the kids are still excited about school and eager to please their teachers and for the most part get along, I always tried to keep it fun, to be the type of teacher I wish I had.

I’ve got several notes and letters attesting to my success in this:

“MR. SMITH ROCKS, ” signed by Mr. / Mrs. _ ‘s class,

and other notes along those lines;  a friend of mine once told me those were reference letters. I’ve held onto them for sentimental reasons, to remind myself that I once made children have a fun day.

Everyone should have  a reference letter from a kid.

But THIS particular class, for whatever reason, just liked me, and I liked them.  We were determined to make each other laugh, and they gave as good as they got, turning out to be a precocious group. But they worked, and being the adult(?) in the room, I never let it get out of hand, and they kept each other in line too.  We had our quiet moments. It made them appreciate the comic stuff more.

And then one day, in the lesson plan, was an art lesson; the kids had to make something. There were instructions, and supplies, and children who were assigned to give them out.  I carried out said plan with dread, because I am ham-fisted when it comes to that stuff, but the kids were into it, and I was responsible to see it done, soooo….

There they were, working quietly, when one of the girls came up to the teacher’s desk with her broken art project in her hands. She wasn’t crying or anything, but she was holding the papery thing out to me like a communion wafer.

I took it from her, looked at it for a moment, fixed it, and gave it back, and she returned to her seat, and finished the project.

Here’s the weird part: neither of us said a word. 

It was almost a pantomime, except it was unrehearsed and unplanned. She didn’t know I was dreading doing anything to it, that I didn’t want to take it, and was going to send her to another teacher across the hall who was good at that stuff.

But for whatever reason, I didn’t.  She brought it to me, thinking I was capable, and something in me thought that if a kid thought I was capable of something, then I should be the one to do it. And I did, and she returned to her seat with her faith unshaken in the fact that adults can fix the problems kids have; that they can be approached, that they are there to help.

I realized now why later I thought the paper looked like communion: because it was offered up in faith, and placed into my hands to fix.

She didn’t need to say anything, and she wasn’t worried because she knew I could see what she needed done, and she trusted me to do it.  She didn’t know I was ham-fisted, she didn’t know I had limited knowledge; she wanted me to fix what was broken so she could finish what she had to do.

The silence between us, after all the laughter,  just made the moment that much more profound.

At the end of the week, the class asked me if I would sit with them in the lunchroom. I did, and we laughed, and shared food, and stupid jokes (What’s yellow and goes click? A ball point banana; Why was the tomato red? Because it saw the salad dressing…)

And on Friday afternoon, before dismissal, they gave me a card signed by all of them:

MR. SMITH ROCKS. THANK YOU FOR BEING OUR TEACHER. YOU’RE FUN. WE’LL MISS YOU. ❤ Mrs. __’s class.

I still have that reference letter, but that one small act of faith will remain clipped to it as long as I live.