Friday, July 24, 2020

Ring, ring goes the bell...

When I was in elementary school they began bussing children in from other  districts to promote integration.  The new kids were black, so we all knew it was a racial not a cultural thing.  They were different-- a little less fearful of teachers; they brought attitude in-- not because it was inherent but maybe magnified because they didn't ask to ride a bus every morning and afternoon.  I loved this one girl in my class- Darcel.  She had cats-eye glasses and a big butt and strutted around like a queen.  She encouraged my bad behavior and classroom antics.  I wanted her approval; I got into trouble in Home Economics and they called in my parents.

By junior high we were pretty much integrated and adjusted.  There was a certain level of tension-- it was the 60's and civil rights issues were at the top of social studies discussions.  Radical intellectuals were questioning policy, human rights and justice.  To corral cafeteria energy, they let us dance; the black kids had a whole style and ruled at this... on the turntable they played 'Shotgun' over and over and kids went wild.  To cool off the energy, they began some program where we'd have to sit in an auditorium and eat lunch while they showed classic films-- things like Kidnapped or The Count of Monte Christo or even black and white films like Arsenic and Old Lace.  Kids threw sandwiches at the screen and the room smelled stale and 'meaty' like burped up salami.  It was not conducive to eating and for some reason the word quarantine yesterday conjured up that memory like food poisoning.

Scenes like this are beginning to blur; some of the sensations are so vivid I know they happened-- at times I can look down and see my plaid wool kilt or my blue corduroy skirt underneath my looseleaf notebook.  We didn't have backpacks; there was a bag with a drawstring for gym clothes but most kids like me piled their books and held them together with a rubber strap.  The black and white films made no sense; they weren't even funny and most of them were shown in 20-minute installments in the course of a week.  They were depressing and irrelevant the way I suppose movies like Butch Cassidy looked to my own son.

At some point I began tutoring kids in a less fortunate district where test levels were way below standard.  I was assigned a tiny girl named Doreen who was repeating First Grade for a third term.  She was so little I theorized her mother had lied about her age just to get the child-care kindergarten provided.  Things were different then; working mothers were often overwhelmed.  Doreen was extremely shy and could not seem to connect with alphabet.  I read stories to her and she was very attentive.  She'd lean up on me the way kids do and put her fingers in her mouth.  I can't read, Miss Amy, she would say matter-of-factly... they forced the kids to address me with a title.

No one had ever read to her.  No books in her house... no stories, no fairy tales... Read to me about Singerella, she'd say.  She loved Cinderella.. over and over.  I made little Cinderella flash cards-- brought in Colorforms.. but she did not connect any letters with characters... with things.  She had a block.  Still, I was determined-- and I looked forward to our sessions-- the sound of her little deep voice was hypnotic and monotonal.  Her little body leaning against me made me feel responsible and mothery.   She was clean in a way-- her hair was neatly separated and done in a multitude of tiny braids with plastic barrettes... in the straight scalp partings her Mom rubbed Vaseline, she told me.  But her scent-- it was as though she lived over a restaurant and the ghost of old food had permanently permeated her clothing and skin.

Every day I held the cards... gave little consonant hints with my mouth.. but she refused to think and just mimicked whatever I did.  Frustrating... not lollipops, nor barrettes, nor books enticed her.
One day I stayed after school for a meeting with all the tutors-- I watched her Mom pick her up and smack her as she put her in the car.  She just sat there in the seat making that face she made, like she was clucking her tongue.  Black lives matter, I thought, in different words... but I was useless for anything except getting her out of her humiliating classroom for an hour every day.  Of course I had no clue her mother had six other kids, a delinquent husband and a limited education herself.

Today on a crosstown bus a whole group of kids was on the way home from some kind of school program; they had uniforms and book bags and all of them had removed their masks and were carrying on in the back so it was hard not to laugh... they were about 10 years old...  where had they been, in this pandemic... summer school?  Was there air conditioning? Were they especially smart, especially slow?  Impossible to tell... but that aura of being released from a confining day was unmistakable.

Classroom learning for me was the model.  It was boring, repetitive, claustrophobic... incestuous and unfair... but that was the deal.  God forbid my parents would have had to home school me-- they had no patience and my Mom wasn't very smart.  Except she read to us-- Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz... she was a wonderful reader even when I was old enough to correct her pronunciations... I loved the evening chapter-installments.  There were also TV programs-- Mr. Wizard and even primitive interactive things where you'd stick a plastic screen on the set and draw with a crayon... but most learning centered on a class, facing forward, fixed desks in closely-set rows.  Tall in back, small in front.

I think about little Doreen-- she'd be about 57 now.  Jesus.  I'm sure she eventually learned to read; we'd finally mastered the letter 'D'.  In these times, I think Beyonce would play 'Singerella' in her little head... she'd have dreams and maybe even a tablet with youtube and Disney.  I can still remember her little-girl smell and the way she fidgeted on my lap-- couldn't get close enough like a sad dog.  Maybe she remembers me; I wasn't allowed to give her any gifts although I wanted to ... I wanted to take her home and keep her there and have her sit on my lap while my Mom read to us girls.  Then I graduated... met brilliant, strong black women... was taught by some of them... asked them about the Doreens and they shook their head and spoke about racism and cultural inequality.

Up in Harlem kids are bored-- playgrounds are still locked up... they are hanging out in clusters and seem relatively unafraid... but what will become of their classrooms-- the closeness and the physical
experience of people-- of lunchrooms, of sharing and trading and touching-- the covered mouths and masked noses-- singing and dancing and tasting? It's just so harsh.   My Mom used to warn us how cigarettes would stunt our growth... but all bets are off now.  People get used to things; dogs wag their tail when their owners put on a mask-- it means a walk...most seem grateful for phase 3-- it beats phase 1... and even prisoners adjust to lock-up... I guess... but we are all prisoners here... we are looking inward and outward and we are not happy; we are equally deprived and stripped of some freedom-- we are the skeletons in our own closets... facing down some kind of punishment some of us do not deserve-- a sentence without trial.  I'm not suffering; I'm old, I've had my fun, as the song goes... but for those who have not... the children... their lives matter most of all.

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Blogger BB said...

Harsh reality of the ever changing world. Has it really changed? The tools have, the technology has taken a big step forward and we are forced as a result to look at certain things in a different way. But have we progressed as human beings really? Poverty, homelessness, racism..... It still lingers and poison our lives. This is a beautiful piece. I hope I understand it the way it is meant to be.

July 24, 2020 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful thought and reflection Amy

July 24, 2020 at 7:09 AM  
Blogger jeanne 51b said...

Thank you for the extraordinary gift of your blogs. I love them. 🌹

July 24, 2020 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Peter G Pereira said...

Again wonderful in that I feel right next to you and characters...In Tune.
Lovely and nuanced and compelling and gritty...

July 25, 2020 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger Dave Ace said...

Another fine piece, Amy...

July 25, 2020 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Bo Reilly said...

Well Amy, Doreen will remember. Everyone remembers the storyteller.

This is why the shanachie was viewed as nobility in ancient Ireland. Essentially, their job was to tell stories. And depending on the tale, and to whom it's told, I'll go with noble.

July 26, 2020 at 5:06 AM  

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