“As he stood on the waterfront on May 11, 1647, watching a skiff approach from four newly arrived ships at anchor the strain and darkness had to show in his eyes and face his breath must have fairly stunk with it. It was a cerulean spring day, and, like characters at the end of an act of a play, all the residents of the community were gathered alongside him, headliners and minor players alike: Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico, along with their children and grandchildren: Anthony “The Turk” van Salee and his wife Griet Reyniers-both respectable now, but still cantankerous-and their four daughters: Anna van Angola, a widowed African woman who had just received a patent for a farm on Manhattan, as well as Antony Congo, Jan Negro, and other black residents, slaves and free assorted Danes, Bavarians, and Italians, and a handful of area Indians: Cornelis Swits, son of the murdered Claes Swits; the English refugee leaders Lady Deborah Moody and the Rev. Francis Doughty: Everardus Bogardus, the beer-swilling minister who had assisted the colonists’ effort against Kieft by excoriating him from the pulpit: the activists Kuyter and Melyn: the company henchman, Cornelis van Tienhoven, who had slaughtered and tortured Indians while in Kieft’s service and was hoping to be kept on in the new administration. And there, too, on the cobbled quayside stood Adriaen van der Donck and his English wife Mary-it is from Van der Donck that we have one of the extant descriptions of this scene. The mood was festive. Shouts went up: celebratory cannon blasts were fired. The day of deliverance had come.
Then, slowly, like gray rain, the silence fell upon them. From a distance they would have seen first the hardness and smallness of the eyes, like sharp pebbles set in the broad plate of the face. Then the flash of the sun on his breastplate must have caught their attention, and the sword at his waist: the efficient, meticulous, militaristic parcel of him. Finally they would have watched him unpacking himself from the boat, and noted at once, as people do such irregularities, that curious movement of his, an unnatural stiffness, and no accompanying grimace or flinch, as if in defiance of pain itself. And all eyes then naturally moving down, and seeing it, the leg that wasn’t there.”
I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!
The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.
It opened up history for me as well.
I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,
California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.
Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.
Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.
There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.
I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.
Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.
Finally got back from our “vacation” in Philly. We stayed in Center City, which one would assume would be a bustling part of the city, but we were constantly taken aback by just how quiet it was. Where are all the people? Are they all on vacation? Why aren’t cars honking at each other? These were some of the questions we asked as we walked the streets.
My observations will naturally be generalized from only the few square miles that we saw there, so I have no idea if this rings true or not. Native Philadelphians, feel free to correct me if necessary. Here are my impressions of Philly:
After NYC, Philly feels much less dense
But even though it is more spread out, everything we wanted to see was in surprisingly short walking distance
It has a nice historical feel to it
Though it also has an accompanying air of decay
There seems to be an abundance of young, successful (-looking) single women, at least in the places we went out to
There’s no shortage of a diversity of quality dining options
Philly kind of reminded me of San Francisco, minus the hills and the hippies
Which may be because the subway system is very reminiscent of SF’s BART
There are some really down and out folks in Philly–the blight of drug abuse is readily evident
When we got back to NYC, I speculated that perhaps down-and-outers were just more apparent in Philly than here simply because in NYC they get lost in the crowd
If there’s Latinos in Philly, then they must be somewhere other than the City Center
The art museums are nice, and it’s cool the way they have a whole “museum row” kind of thing
God bless the Amish–those soft pretzels we ate at Reading (why is this pronounced “Redding”? What’s up with East Coast spellings and pronounciations, like Houston? Is this a Dutch thing?) Terminal Market were damn good!
We only ate one cheesesteak, and it sucked. I subsequently learned that the City Center is NOT the place to look for cheesesteaks. I’ll thus reserve my judgement on that matter until I actually taste an authentic one
Do all the white people drive cars everywhere? What’s wrong with taking public transportation? Maybe it was just the part of town we were in?
One complaint that soured our perspective at the end of our visit: you can’t buy just one dang token for the subway! You have to buy at least 2! What the hell?!
In NYC, in any given direction you’ll hit a Starbucks, a Rite-Aid, a Duane Reade, and a CVS, not necessarily in that order. We were pleasantly surprised to find that downtown Philly didn’t have the same obsession with franchises and pharmacies that New Yorkers seem to. The franchises were certainly a presence, but they didn’t completely dominate
Overall, I enjoyed Philly, and while it doesn’t exactly call out to me to live there, if I was forced to move there, I wouldn’t complain. It has a neat sense of history, a great selection of culinary offerings, and all the cultural benefits that make a city a city. I like the way the slight decrease in density equates with a slight decrease in aggression. Philly, I’ll be coming back to see what these cheesesteaks are really all about. And to have another couple of your soft pretzels.
Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.
I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.
Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.
Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.
A Thanksgiving reflection on my wonderful environs of Inwood
If you amble down Broadway at 10 o’ clock at night on a Thanksgiving eve in my neighborhood–Inwood, Manhattan–you may be treated to some heart-warming, charming visual delights from some colourful local characters, such as by the thrilling sight of a half-naked older overweight woman with cropped hair lumbering extremely inebriated and/or drugged through the middle of the street, swinging her shirt brazenly, her wrinkly breasts bobbling in the frigid cold. Or perhaps the pleasant sight of an old homeless woman frantically grabbing a roll of paper towels from her rolling suitcase and hurriedly waddling over to the most well-lit, visible window in front of the Bank of America and popping a squat, her white ass emblazoned in the franchise bank’s flood-lit display.
It is sights such as these that make me oh so very delighted to be living in New York City. Truly a phantasmagoria of inspiring humanity!
Being back in Tahoe has been more than just a trip down memory lane–it’s been practically magical. While talking with old friends, drinking great West Coast microbrews, hiking up rocky, wildflower speckled mountains, or chilling out on a sailboat on a lake, I’ve felt an almost visceral pain. It’s that bittersweet awareness that this is a special place for me that I won’t probably see again for a long time hence.
There are many benefits to living in New York City, which mainly consists in its plenitude of social offerings. But though I’ve been there for over 2 years, I have few close friends to chill out with on a frequent basis. Coming back out here and hanging out with good people is what really makes me miss Tahoe. Not to mention the looming pine laden ridge-lines and dry, boulder strewn mountains.
One of the reasons I left was that I was craving metropolitan human culture–things like museums, live music, and multifarious places to wet your whistle. And this is one of the great draws of the big city. But now that I’m on the other side, of course now what I miss is the lonely midnight sound of the sierra wind rushing down the trees. That surrounding, everpresent quiet sentience of nature.
In the city, you not only have access to the pinnacles of human accomplishment, but also the constant, in-your-face reminders of human struggle. The rude, the loud, the aggressive. Sometimes I just want to get away, but there’s nowhere really to escape to. No 3,000 feet to climb to a nearby mountaintop.
Is it possible to get the best of both worlds? Some place that has all the cultural benefits of the city, but immediate access to the solitude of nature? I don’t know, but when I find it, I’ll know I’ve found a place I might more readily call home.