Tuesday, June 14, 2005

the first 83 pages

Today I read the first 83 pages of this story I've written about Douglass High School, and when I was reading I realized some things I didn't include the first time around. Like the fact that the first few weeks I was scared. I'm always scared in the beginning of every school year, scared I might not have what it takes anymore to make it happen, so there was that. But there was also the other fears, that I'd been fooling myself, that I didn't know what I was doing, that I was out of my league. I saw every day hundreds of kids who do not live in my world. My son used to say that the way I say hello to strangers is disarming (that is, causes people to put their weapons and defenses down), but I didn't see that manifesting in the halls of Douglass. Straight to the point, I was one of a handful of Caucasian people in the school of probably, at that time, including teachers, administrators, staff, various workers, 1000 souls. I know so deeply about how we're all humans with the same deep fears and joys, but the surface situation was daunting. I am white. Almost everyone at school is black. The photographs in the news of young men who were killed or killing, I saw faces like those kids' in the halls at Douglass all day long. And when I say I wasn't scared, I wasn't scared of them, I was only scared that I'd gotten into something way over my head. I was scared that I would never be effectual at Douglass. I did believe that if I could only get a group in my room and lock the door that something beautiful could happen, but every time the bell rang and I knew I had to face the halls, and the intruders, and the loudness and crudeness and hostility, it was hard. I wasn't scared of being hurt. I thought it could happen in fact, but I wasn't scared of it. I was scared that I would never be heard. I was scared that I would never be enough of a presence or a force to stand at the hallway door and turn kids back, that they'd just push through, push me aside. I was actually worse than a nobody at first. I was a white nobody.
I guess I couldn't write all this in the beginning because I was so intent on keeping up my courage, and so had to keep my fears to myself. But I see that it's a hole in the story, one that only I know, and it doesn't seem honest of me not to say.
I also read about the day the ceiling fan fell on the girl (one month into my school year). I'd written in my journal a lot that day. It was one of those days that ought to go down in my history as a teacher as a great day, one of the greatest, and then the ceiling fan fell and the great day got thrown out. It was good for me to remember that before that happened it had been beautiful.
There have been so many murders in the city lately. I'm afraid now that I'll see one of those faces I love in the paper one day. Something I recognize is that mug shots make people look more like criminals than they really look like in normal life. That's something I learned this year. I know many a beautiful child with dreadlocks whose picture in the paper would make him look like a monster. It's a very important thing for me to have learned. I wish everyone could learn it.

Melanie

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

perpetual motion

10 days after school ended.
I've been forgetting to write down my dreams and I've had some good ones lately. But now I've forgotten them. I do remember one was that two students had committed suicide and I asked another student (a girl whose entire face was covered with stubble) who they were and she hesitated to tell me.
When I began this school year I thought the world I came from teaching in was the polar opposite of the world I came to. I looked at all the violence in these children's lives and thought there's nothing like this across the lake, that these kids knew way more about death than the kids over there. It was naive of me. They don't. I and the kids over there know as much about death and knew as many who had died as these kids over here do. The deaths were just different. In that world, young people die because of drugs and suicide. In this world, young people die because of guns. I have been guilty of pitying and romanticizing the lives of the children in this world and being angry with the children in that world, as though the children in this world have less choice than the children in that world. I was wrong. I can't get a handle on my thoughts yet except that the truth at the bottom of all of it is that the kids who die like this, over there and over here, do not love their lives. And they don't know that they can.
I wonder how many children would be saved if they could take a trip to Paris? Once they'd been to Paris and seen that the world has THAT in it, seen that everything is not simple and black and white as Mandeville or 9th ward New Orleans, and then seen that in the off-season one can fly round trip from New Orleans to Paris for $420. Once they could see that they have some control of their lives...$420 transportation, $21 a night in a hostel, maybe $200 to eat on, if they could grasp that. But they don't know there's such a thing as Paris. So to speak.
I think education is the answer. Real, serious education, showing our children that there's a world out there and in themselves, showing them that they have minds and power, letting them exercise their minds and their power, showing them that the limitations that stifle them are not made of steel, that their minds are of a substance that can break through anything. Anything.
Several years ago a boy I'd known all his life died of a drug overdose. When he was little he loved the woods and the swamp and he was excited about his life and the world. I always thought he was a brilliant person because of the things he was able to see, even so young, and understand. One day when he was about 10 he knocked on my door, excited to tears, with a stick in his hand that had been stripped by a beaver. The ends were pointed. You could see their teeth marks. It was the first time I'd ever held a stick that a beaver had carved. He gave it to me. I still have it. Michael loved the stick and the beaver and the idea that a beaver could have whatever it takes to DO that, and he wanted to understand. He wanted to understand everything. Around that time he got it into his head that he wanted to build a perpetual motion machine, and he believed he could do it. That's often all he talked about. However, at the same time he was having trouble in school. He wanted to build a perpetual motion machine. He didn't want to do homework. He didn't want to learn how to divide. He didn't want to write paragraphs for the sake of writing a paragraph. He knew exactly who he was and what he wanted to do. It hurt my heart for him back then because the world did not take him seriously. What should have happened is that some teacher should have said okay, that will be the context of your education. We will study the subject of perpetual motion and you will build a perpetual motion machine. And then of course he'd ASK to learn math and science and how to read and everything else school wants him to learn. But he'd have a reason for it. He'd learn everything so he could create perpetual motion. But school didn't do that. Instead he got suspended and in trouble all the time. He got labeled a bad boy. He started hanging out with the bad boys. And when he was 14, one of the bad boys gave him a handful of pills he'd stolen from his grandfather and Michael swallowed them all down and died.
He's a person who loved his life and then quit loving his life. And he loved the world but it didn't love him back. I think school has to get real.
If we could all just ask ourselves if the path we're on has heart, and if it does, follow it...if we could all just ask ourselves if we're being true to ourselves, and if we are, stay true...if we could believe in bliss...
This is a sad subject. But this is also why I'm a teacher.
Melanie

Sunday, June 05, 2005

looking back

Now that the school year is over and I've had my recuperation period, I want to tie this blog up, complete it, do something with it. I never actually thought about what I'd do with the blog when the school year was over, except that I'd like to turn it into a book. Lately I've been reading my personal journals from July 2004 and what I'm finding is a lot of experiences and thoughts that, in retrospect, I see I wish I'd put in the blog at the time. I guess at the time I thought they were too personal, but now of course I see that the whole experience of the year at Douglass has been as personal a thing as there is, and so now I see that they fit.
Three things make me think typing my journal into this blog is a good idea. First, about six years ago I went on a six month trip to Europe and Russia and filled five notebooks there and when I got back, culled from them and wrote a book about the experience. This time, again, I have five notebooks since 14 July. The second thing is that the first thing I wrote in my journal beginning 14 July was about a conversation I had with a young woman who graduated from a downtown Orleans Parish magnet school four or five years ago. We argued about what children in the city need. The third thing is that in that writing I said, "If they were having their own thoughts...," which, eventually, became the name of the blog (though I didn't decide on a name until August).
I'm taking these as signs and so this is what I'm thinking I'll do: I'm going to type directly from my journal into this blog, beginning with my journal of 14 July 2004. Not every little thing, but a lot of it. I'd appreciate feedback about what it looks like I ought to do about it. I really am typing into space right now. Thank you.


14 July 2004. I saw that girl from 35 today and we had a semi-argument about inner-city kids. Naturally, I had to slink out. But here's what I wish I'd had the wherewithal to say to her: You got out. You are somehow and for whatever reason able to stand up and be strong. But how many of your peers do? If they were having their own thoughts do you really think they'd be staying where they are, living as they do, giving themselves over to the simple life others have passed down? Do you not think that they're just buying somebody else's thoughts about what life might be about? You remind me of me. I got out too. Sometimes I think that's as far as I got though, just out of the life my family was leading me toward. Somehow I had my own idea about what I wanted out of life. I even told my mother that I was leaving because I had to survive and that I was dying there.
Just read an article about the experience of a man on a Buddhist retreat who had to leave it to go to his friend's dying. It was honest, quiet, and tender. But it surprises me that he has to address at all the point about being fully in the moment. Who's that psychologist who writes about being self-actualized? That's what this is about. I'm curious to think about what that kind of discipline could do for me? I can't not live in the moment. I'm completely distracted by the moment, by every leaf and stick of the moment. Should I not think more about the future? Actually, I have recently been doing that, thinking about the future. The MFA. And now I'm putting together a portfolio of my writing almost like I'm meaning to, like I'm intending something. But I don't have that overall sense. I don't have something I'm bringing little things toward. The bigger truth or the end result or the overall reason for it all, the little things lead me toward seeing that. It makes me wonder if there's a big thing waiting to be recognized, or if the little things, as they develop, create the big thing. It's the question. Are the little things the thing or is the big thing the thing? Is there something pre-ordained? Or is the thing developing every second? Does the moment create the future or does the future compel the moment? Or is that a which came first question?

15 July 2004. I am completely done with making the curtains. It all looks so good. I'm proud of myself. And the only other thing I wanted to do was type some stuff out of my last journal. So I can put it away for a while.
Midnight. I had a bath, washed the dishes, made a salad and ate some, clipped even the damned toenails. The curtains make everything different. Things are more framed, more complete. More lovely. I did everything I'd hoped to do except type out of my journal.

16 July 2004. Listening to songs, and, as always, "Everybody's Talking At Me." Yet another song about the disenfranchised. Those with whom I identify. I wonder why I bother with normal people? They and I don't live under the same umbrella. By normal I guess I mean people who aren't haunted. I often think of myself as haunted. Like both characters in Midnight Cowboy, my favorite movie. How is this true? Maybe it is that joy is a thing that occurs in between dark moments, that joy is just a respite. The joy is strong because the dark moments are so dark. Really, maybe that is exactly why I have such great joy in my life.
I often say I couldn't live without my notebook. I wonder what that means?

17 July 2004. Thinking about Tim's friend, T, and his diabetes. He is now too old to be on his parents' insurance. But who's going to insure him now? I think that not having nationalized health care is a way for our society to keep people dependent on having jobs that make enough money for insurance purposes. It's another blow against the individuals who don't want to participate in capitalism that much. What if T were a poet or something? just trying to keep alive so he can do his art? But he'd have to have a serious job (which makes doing art hard if not impossible) so he can make enough money to afford his health care costs. I hate that.

19 July 2004. I woke up thinking about writing. Something about distilling rather than producing raw words. Remembering that morning when that word "limbeck" popped into my mind out of nowhere, and I wrote it down in my truck notebook, and that in the afternoon when I read my emailed Shakespeare Sonnet-of-the-day it was the one about him being a limbeck. This morning I thought another good writing word is "sirens." And the sonnet includes mention of sirens. And then when I was reading the NY Times this morning there was a story about a Sirens Music Festival on Coney Island. What does it mean that limbecks and sirens occur together out of nowhere twice for me? Shakespeare was a limbeck for the sirens' tears he drank. Here's the sonnet:

#119
What potions have I drunk of Siren tears
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed
Whilst it had thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever?
Oh benefit of ill: now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruined love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater,
So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ills thrice more than I have spent.

What does it mean this idea of the limbeck and the distilling occurring to me when I wake up? Does it simply mean to remind me that sometimes I have enough raw material and that it's time to find the gem in the ore? Or the statue in the stone? Those are two different ways of seeing.

20 July 2004. A lot has happened today. I'll start with walking to the river. I met a 38 year old black man named R. What a story he had to tell. I was writing and he walked past with a stiff right leg. I thought he couldn't bend his knee but he said no, that his ankle didn't work. Then he sat next to me and told me his story, about having come to New Orleans from Minnesota, got a job waiting tables, and that three days after he arrived he got hit by a car on Decatur by a drunk driver who had not insurance, and neither did R. So he ended up in Charity with two broken legs, a broken shoulder, and three injured disks in his back. He said his right leg was almost literally ripped off. He's had a bunch of operations but his right ankle never healed and now, Friday, he has an appointment with Charity clinic to discuss a decision with his doctor, which is whether or not to amputate his right leg. It's upto to him. And he thinks he has decided to do it. He says at least then he can get disability. He showed me his leg. It's unbelievable. Huge, swolen, deformed. Horrible. So of course he can't work, and he has applied for disability but can't get it until he shows that he was unable to work for a year. Before long he should be getting it, but in the meantime he's homeless. He keeps his clothes hidden in the rocks and weeds next to the river. There are two public bathrooms which aren't always open, and if they are it's only during the day. He can't walk in a place for even a cup of water. No one will give it to him. And even if he could work, he can't apply for a job because he doesn't have a telephone number or an address. Or a way to clean his clothes. The homesless shelters charge 5 or 6 dollars per night to sleep. He's utterly lost. And absolutely outside of society. And yet, he's not bitter. It blows my mind. He told me a couple of stories about men who were willing to help him, but for a price. Where's the humanity? Where's charity? He told me about watching a restaurant worker somewhere dropping a full bag of food into the dumpster. He asked (himself, me, the world) why these restaurant guys can't just put the food in plastic and bring it three little blocks away to the homeless? What is the answer to that? Why can't that be done? What's wrong with us? And I said he had the double problem, being an African American man. He told me about two cops who stopped him on Bourbon and Esplanade, his first day in New Orleans, asking him what he's doing in this neighborhood, said something about "we don't go in your neighborhoods. Why do you come in ours?" They made him put his hands on the car, searched him, then asked him when he was last arrested.
Neil Young is on the jukebox: "We got mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies."

Melanie