A Thread of Human-ness

We all have

Uniqueness

in

Common

And

Conform

in

our striving to

be

Individual

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 28th, 2014

A Thread of Human-ness

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

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.