Thursday, January 20, 2011

Waking Up in the Dark

It’s hard to wake up in the darkness. I never seem to be able to avoid it though; whether it’s the beginning or end of the year when the sun rises earlier, or the dreary middle, in January, when it accompanies our day for a short while. By the time I get to school the sun has yet to fully clear the towers, so my walk, like my breakfast is in the shadows. The windows of my classroom are narrow and are directly below an overhang – the next floor up extends some 10 feet beyond my windows, completely blocking any direct light. I say good morning to the few students already in the halls.. Some couples sit on windowsills in the hallway, kissing and hugging and talking in hushed voices about things more wonderful than school or temporary housing. Some sit alone in chairs or on the floor, listening to music or staring off into space. I hesitate for a split second before I put my key in the door… twist, push, and flip the two switches of the florescent lights which will serve to replicate daylight for the next 12-14 hours.

Though classes start at 8:20am, by 7:30 there are some students already about; from then on, every few minutes more and more enter the building, the hush is slowly replaced by a roar, the volume going up and down as some open the door to enter my classroom. Some are in my first period class, others just come to say hello, talk or borrow a book.

Maybe I should have been a librarian – I get so giddy when a student asks me for a book!

Perhaps I am a librarian to some degree, my class has more books than most others in the school combined, but the flow is not as rapid as I would like, they still don’t read as much as they should – they don’t see that so many answers to their questions lay between the covers on my shelves. I tell them, I don’t know the answers, all I know is what I’ve lived and what I’ve read. But they rather listen to me or watch a movie. It’s hard to think of oneself as old-fashioned, especially when one is only 28, but I don’t see how they can read a book on their cellphone. Where is the joy of flipping a page? That sense of movement as you near the middle and then start the descent towards the end of the book -when your grip has to change to accommodate for the distribution of pages – suddenly heavy on the left side. How can you feel the churning in your stomach as you see that there are but few pages left and you don’t want the story to end, when there are no pages?. But with a cell phone, or a kindle, or a computer, or an i-pad… they may as well be instructions on how to set up your plasma TV.

I try to instill in them my love for the book, but I am often left questioning my purpose. Is it my job to try to ground them in what may become the obsolete past? Should I focus on preparing them for the world as it will inevitably be? Or try to instill in them the qualities and perspectives that would possibly keep the world from changing so fast, and in such a de-personalizing and degrading way? But for someof my students, neither is of much consequence.

The day has now ended, and even the after-school programs have ended. In the damp and darkness of a New York winter 5pm seems so late already, yet I won’t be leaving for hours yet to come. I step outside my hole, to perhaps to have a walk down the hallway, or a stretch, but mostly to see who is still around –to convince myself that I am not yet left alone. Most students are by now gone, yet some linger still – practicing a dance for an upcoming show, chatting with friends, avoiding going home, or just aimlessly sprawled on the couch in front of my door.

Though my students know that I speak Spanish, I think they often forget and continue on their way, babbling about nonsense or which teachers they like, or which boys or girls they like. Today however the three on the couch were babbling about how Isabel is pregnant - again. She is a heavier set girl from the Dominican, 18 years old, the mother of a 5 year old, and now, with another on the way. She doesn’t seem fazed, her friends are happy for her, her family thinks it is but another blessing. I stand there staring at her, her almond eyes – blank and careless. Those eyes and her refusal to speak English serve as giant “fuck you’s” to those who have tried to help her. I try to be nonchalant, I ask her when it’s due, how is she feeling… she just laughs and continues to stuff her face with her third bag of potato chips.

-Que lo que mister?

“Mister”. The extent of her English for the majority of our conversations.

-Nothing, I just want to make sure you are doing alright. Do you know whether you want to keep the baby?

- claro! Offcourse!

- I hope you can stay in school… do you want to stay in school?

- siii

- who will take care of the baby while you’re in school?

- si, mi madre.

- are you sure? Did you ask her?

- offcourse. Mi madre…

- Isabel! English!

- mai moder… she take care of da baby.

- where is your first child?

- wit mai moder…

- oh. I see. That’s good. And she wants another one?

- siii

-well, at least you will get to stay in school. You are very lucky to have such a mother…

It is hard not to feel little when you are met with indifference. I may be the teacher, I may have lived a life I would not wish on my enemies, I may be older and an authority figure with experience – but she just doesn’t give a damn. My help is not for her.

They know I care, they know I am always available to talk or to help or something… and it may mean something to them; perhaps it makes them feel good that there is someone there, but they don’t show it and they live by their own idea about what is right or wrong.

I want to shake her! I want to tell her plainly and honestly how having another baby will destroy even more opportunities for her, how it will set her up to be dependent on social service or some man who will or will not treat her and her kids with love and respect. I want her to see… to see what? My vision of what a successful and happy life is? My white, middle-class, feminist, male perspective of success in 21st century America? And then I think, maybe her having a second child is like me pushing books on my kids, maybe it’s her way of not conforming to what modern society has deemed the right thing to do for someone her age living in the states.

It’s dark again when I step outside the school and start the slushy 5 block walk to the subway. There are days when I don’t see the light at all. It’s hard – waking up in the dark.


  1. I like this one. Soon the daylight will last longer. In the meantime, maybe it's better better to put your energies towards people who also want to help themselves. Anything else is an exercise in futility, in my opinion.

  2. Hey D, You've never commented before... what a nice surprise!
    I can't help but focus on them though, they are me. And where would i be, what darker deeper abyss would be my life were it not for those who focused on me?
    But don't worry, my top students get a lot of extra attention! :)

    Thanks for reading!

  3. A very good read. I especially like the way you describe the pleasures of reading a book.
    It's nice to see how concerned you are for your students, but you cannot change a culture. You can do all you can to spread your knowledge and positivity, but humans will be humans. We don't like to be asked to change unless we acknowledge that we need to. If Isabel's mother is accepting her pregnancy and supporting her, that is all she may need in life to be happy and content. Maybe she is happy in her home with her family and her children. Maybe her daughter and the child she is carrying are her hopes and dreams.
    I honestly cannot understand why anyone would want to have a child at such a young age when there is a whole world to experience sans children, but this is what makes us all different.
    Silly White Man.