Tennyson Street School: survive

Survive: (v) continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship; pull through, get through, hold out, hold on, make it, keep it together, remain, endure, persevere, abide, carry on, persist, be extant or undestroyed

Some kids seem to rebel just for the sake of rebellion; but in my experience, that’s never true. Not my nascent teaching experience – my life experience. It will be the same kids, over and over. They’re trying to tell you something. There are no rebels without a cause.

When we made our passports, all the groups dug in deep, especially the older students. They talked about their drawings, and their dreams. Into such tiny boxes on a skinny strip of paper went so much detail.

“Let’s clean up to go back to class,” I announced, looking at the clock. Violet and Alejandro dropped pencils into the plastic bin, tucking their writing books into the group box on the shelf.

Javier wasn’t having it. He continued to color the background of his passport drawing.

“Javier, time to go. You can work on it again tomorrow.” Javier completely ignored me, seemingly oblivious to all but the colored pencil’s rapid rhythm in his hand. Violet and Alejandro waited at the door.

“Javier, people are waiting on you.”

His frustration exceeded the situation, “AAHH!” he growled suddenly, fiercely pushing back from the table, colored pencils rolling over the edge and onto the floor. He stalked to the line at the doorway, wadding up his passport and dropping it into the trash.

I walked them back to class. Javier jumped and spun in the hall, pretending to shoot baskets, providing color commentary to his imaginary game. Violet and Alejandro alternated telling me anecdotes.

At the intersection of hallways, a small boy spotted Javier with a big grin. Javier stopped his game and immediately hugged the child, a boy I knew as a bit of a wild man in the lunchroom. “He’s my little cousin, Prince.” Prince was black. I wondered if Javier was testing me, to see if I was such a racist white person I couldn’t tell the difference between Black and Hispanic. I Iet that thought go; families come in all colors and combinations, and that may well include Javier and Prince. The word “cousin” also means many things to many people, not least of which is “close as family.”

When we met up at the end of the day for one-on-one reading, Javier showed me the “I Survived” book he had brought. “I Survived” is a series of chapter books that are just about right for his actual reading level, not the low level shown on his records from his last tests. He blew off those tests, according to his teacher. Those low test scores had dropped him into a category that flagged his move into middle school next year. Those low test scores had earned him a seat in Literacy Lab.

“‘I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001.’ I remember that day.” I looked at the cover of his book, a softly painted image of a kid looking up a New York street at the iconic scene, two tall towers billowing smoke in the moments before they came crashing to the ground.  

“Were you there?” he asked incredulously.

“Not in New York. Not that day. But I’ve been to New York since. Where those two big buildings stood, now there are two massive holes in the ground.” Javier looked at the cover of his book a moment. “Most grown-ups remember that day, though. They made the holes into a memorial, so we’ll always remember.”

Javier pulled up two chairs in the comfy reading area, a cushioned teacher’s chair for me, a tall stool for himself, and read part of the story of the Twin Towers attack, about a boy and his firefighter father and all the friends from the fire station they lost that day. I alternated between watching the words on the page and sneaking peeks at him, his face, his expression as he read. Serious. He was taking this story very seriously. He understood what he was reading.

Javier read until the bell rang for the end of school. He continued until he finished the page, where the boy asked his father, “Where’s the building?” And his father, seeing the unusual ash falling from the sky, answered, “It’s here, all around us.”

I hadn’t said anything about his behavior in group, about not following directions or his outburst or throwing away his passport. I hadn’t mentioned his hallway antics, either. We were just getting to know each other. Here was a smart kid applying himself sporadically, to art but not to writing, to sports but not to tests. I wondered what motivated his choices, and what might harness his energy. The books he had in his classroom book bin included several “I Survived” stories. Why did a book need to include a traumatic escape from disaster to appeal to this child?

When Javier’s group returned to Lab the next day, I announced time to finish our passports, as promised, before we moved on. Violet and Alejandro got their folders and pulled out their passports; Violet carried the colored pencils to the table. “Javier,” I directed, handing him his folder.

“I don’t…,” he began. I shook his folder slightly at him. He sighed and took his folder grudgingly, plopping down into a chair and opening it.

“What the…what?” he stammered. “But I threw it away!”

There was his passport, rescued from destruction. He’d dropped it into the recycle bin, not the sticky trash can; I wondered how lucky a toss that had been, or if just possibly it might have been a good shot, instead. A cry for help, we call that in social work.

He looked at me with soft, open eyes. “Thanks.” I got to see his genuine appreciation. I got to see him, Javier, the kid, for just one fleeting moment.

“Welcome,” I smiled.

Two deep wells, those eyes. At the 9/11 memorial site, the empty foundations of the towers each have a smooth, low, stone wall surrounding them. A metal overlay across the top of the wall, back-lit, has cutouts that resemble the windows of tall buildings. But those oddly shaped, imperfect windows are actually the names of the people who died. Each one shines, a window of light into the darkness. Behind this image of what once was, inside the entombed craters, water pours down flat walls, down to a smooth pool, and a sizable hole left open in the middle. Into this hole the waters pour, nonstop, the eternal weeping of tears that can never bring back the lives in the windows, the light in all those eyes.

People often go unseen, just stereotypes and behavior issues to which we turn a blind eye. Maybe we don’t want to see, don’t want to watch the slow-motion trainwreck before us. It can look a lot like a plane intentionally flown into a building, and we just cannot understand what would drive someone to destroy themselves and anyone they can take down with them.

But that’s not the moment on which to focus. Look for the days and weeks and months and years and generations leading up to that moment. Just pick a moment, any earlier moment, and see if you can see any small light shining from those oddly shaped windows. Or you can walk on down the street, trying to decipher the unusual ash slowly drifting down from the sky, breathing into your lungs the disaster of lives lost. It’s here, all around us.