the gated college

Remembering powerpoint problems last year at Albany University, I planned to arrive early at Temple U. To get everything set up. Kaki had decided to come and so we were both early, an hour early, and the dean of the social work school wasn’t ready for us, nor was the room where I was to present.

The program was to start at four. The room empted out at four. I hurried in, whipped out the flashdrive John Sharpless gave me after hearing about the almost-stolen laptop with the unbacked up new book on it. And poof: the first slide of the powerpoint writ large on the screen.

Educators are using WALK WITH US to

 Present a fascinating Case Study
 Examine Survival skill, Strengths, & Resiliency
 Encourage Cultural Sensitivity, and Advocacy
 Develop Bias awareness and Mutuality
 Inspire long-term strategies and Creative problem solving
 Enjoy riveting, evocative, hopeful, funny, edifying, poetic prose

That was devised by Kaki, who also set up the Temple event. She started working on it about six months ago. But it was worth it: although the group was small, we’re invited back for a larger event in April.

The professor who invited us feels Temple is too clinical. Students don’t come from or know much about the people and communities they hope to serve. I could tell that from their questions. And how amazed they were that we had done something very common (as the professor pointed out) around the world and in the innercity – everywhere in fact but in middeclass white America: shared our home with neighbors in need.

Temple sits in the innercity but walls itself off from it. Social work students are attracted not by the location, this professor told us, but by the clinical program. Clinical as in hang up a shingle and wait for people to come to you. Don't go down to the streets.

Kaki was busy, before and after, telling undergrads about those streets. Those who had already walked them were most interested in talking: a single father who fought the system in order to keep his children; a young woman from Israel who spent two years tutoring in North Philly schools before starting college. Experience before education.

They had to hurry off to classes — our story and a few of its images (like this one) now part of their education. And, maybe, a critique of it.

reFlections prompted by an aquarium membership fee

Some people say they’re playing us – Tahija and Lamarr. They see white guilt and black need as a common, potent compound that, when mixed with cute little boys synergizes into resources: A place to live when Tahija was fourteen, pregnant and homeless. Legal guardianship when that’s what she needed to keep the boys. Miscellaneous stuff. A three-bedroom freestanding house. A zoo membership (family deluxe) and now an Aquarium membership.

My biggest fear when I consider that this might be true is not that we have been played (manipulated, conned), but that we may have reinforced a co-dependent pattern in the parents and greatly abetted its being passed on to the children.

A young social worker named Danny who came to two readings characterized Philly as a racially co-dependent city. I think he’s right. The problem with an interchange of this sort – I’m poor because I’m black, you should give me x (a dollar, a break, a free pass) because your people have hurt mine – is that it neither empowers the poor nor releases the guilty. In fact, in so far as getting resources is contingent upon need/lack/disability it actively disempowers.

It’s like the way poor parents get a small check for learning disabled children, but nothing for the gifted and talented. What does that encourage?

I’ve sometimes felt Lamarr is deeply committed to this strategy. When he was a kid with a mother caught up in the crack epidemic of the eighties, he used his younger, cuter twin brothers to get help from whitefolks. And now he uses the triplets. Twice now white neighbors have given him vans, and last time I was there little Lamarr said a neighbor had promised them bikes.

I think he’d prefer to be independent. Maybe at some level he scorns the helpers. I think his cynicism toward those he plays makes real relationship difficult. It is not a relationship of equals; in fact the relationship is predicated upon inequality. It would not have come about had the two parties been equal.

Tahija has sometimes gone along with Lamarr, as she has with him about nearly everything, because she loves and needs him. (Violent horror movies, for example, are now something she says she enjoys.) But her connection with us is rooted in love, I feel. She has more integrity and a stronger drive for independence. It was her idea, I think, for them to take us out for dinner for Kwanzaa. “You always pay, now we can pay,” she said. When we lived together I lived on the childcare money, needed it. We have that foundation of a kind of equality.

When I haven’t seen or talked to her for awhile, the stereotypes and suspicions start to push up like weeds. But time with them weeds the garden of our relationship. Part of the harvest can be this day at the Aquarium.

It may be that this time Tahija and Lamarr will offer to pay for the membership. If we want to pay, as a birthday gift to the triplets, are we being played?

Or are we being grandmotherly?

Sweet Honey in the Whitehouse

My friend Esther of Esther and Freddy fame sent me this story - Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Whitehouse performing for a group of middle schoolers Michelle Obama had invited over for a Black History Month program. You know what she said has got to motivate them. And hearing Sweet Honey...! That changed my life and I didn't hear them until I was like twenty. If you haven't heard them yet here's a few pickings from U-Tube:

The classic "We Who Believe in Freedom" (quoted in the book)

A performance in Sydney, Australia here

And the more musically intricate "Peace"

And here's their official site, with tour dates and so on.


The triplets turn eleven today. Thank you, all who have bought books and helped me get the book to more people, new audiences...I hope to see the boys when I'm down there next week for a reading at Temple U., aquarium or no aquarium. I remember their first birthday. Maybe that's tomorrow's topic...pray for peace in North Philly, that they might have many more birthdays, and see all their friends and cousins have the same.

celebrations, hesitations and dreams of Orcas

It's the boys' birthday tomorrow, the 19th. They'll be 11. We invited everyone to Baltimore to the Seaquarium big Lamarr told us about. Much better than the NJ Seaquarium, he says. Has orcas, dolphins, all that.

No response to that invitation, as yet. To tell you the truth sometimes I just want to let the relationships fade. Everything in the book that was hard is still hard, or harder. But when I get quiet and pray and ask what to do I hear simply "walk." So. Keep on.

It's snowing now. When we got back there was a message from Lourdes College in Ohio, an invitation for April. That's good. That's progress. Spring will come. The walk will take me up and down hills, through snow and mud. But along the way there will be flowers, waterfalls, airborne orcas spinning like ballerienas.

my night with The Soloist

I read the 2nd half of The Soloist straight through the night before last - for the story, for the prose, and for the sense of walking with a kindred spirit.

The author, Steve Lopez, is an LA Times columnist who befriended a homeless, mentally ill former Julliard student. It began as a column and ended as a life-changing friendship--life-changing in both directions. The homeless man, Nathanial Ayers, got a place to live, new instruments, and a healing reconnection with a community of musicians. (You can't say he got his music back because he'd never lost it.) The columnist got a passion for classical music, a recommitment to journalism, a newly-opened heart, and a movie deal.

I'm glad he got a movie deal. I've been following Lopez since his Philadelphia Inquirer days, when he wrote a novel about the North Philly drug trade Third and Indiana. Often, passing through that badlands intersection, I thought of the book and regretted that it had gone out of print. But it's back in, and I'm glad.

Both books do things I tried to do. They describe people society has turned its back on in such a way as to make society (me and you) take a second look. To put it in Quaker terms, Lopez sees the Light in each person; and he seeks out people in whom the Light may not be all that easy to see, but he sees it, keeps trying to see it.

In short, he's faithful (a word he probably wouldn't use). Yet he's honest about wanting to run away from the suffering, and usefuly self-reflective about why he wants to run away.

In the end he's much more self-accepting than I was, more at peace. But then he didn't live with Mr. Ayers, as I did with Tahija and Lamarr; didn't bond with three beautiful baby boys.

But he crossed a chasm of difference and described both sides, in a way that helps close it. Here's one example of the spare, forceful prose, from near the end of the book. He has helped reunite Mr. Ayers with the sister he hasn't seen in years.

"Jennifer is with her big brother at long last in this crazy city their father moved to, breaking their young hearts. Strange, the way it has all worked out, with Jennifer taking over the financial responsibilities of a big brother who was always so wise and able. He plays now against a backdrop of sea and sky, a symphony under trees, right here where impossible wealth meets hopeless suffering. Botoxed weight-watchers in designer sweats come jogging past drunken vets passed out on fields of green. Down the hill and across the cinnamon sands, the tide is up and the waves keep coming, a thunderous ancient rhythm."

Makes you want to read his (three) novels, right? But read The Soloist first. If you liked Walk with Us you'll like it. And if you haven't read Walk with Us yet, what's up with that?! Waiting for the movie?

Bryan Today

When she read the previous blog (kneeling, her laptop on a chair) Kaki told me Bryan still lives on Hope Street, she sees him around. He's 6-2 now, knockout handsome. She doesn't know much more than that. About his older brother, the Peacemaker, she knows he left the McDonald's job he had through high school and joined the army.

So I guess the army looks to Brian like a good option now. If I had stayed on Howard Street, stayed in Bryan's life, could I have given him other options? Did I leave him with any memory that makes him more open to other options? I don't know. He was so good-hearted. Is.

If you know a Bryan or a high school attended by kids of color, you should bring them a copy of the AFSC book It's My Life: a Guide to Alternatives After High School. Sure, the armed forces has been a way up and out for some, but all young people should be aware of their options, including conscientious objection.

Don't know a Bryan or a high school attended by kids of color? Hmm...Is that an irreversible condition? And, now that I'm on the subject, why are our schools still segregated? comments?

hope's bootstraps

What can words do? All this bloggy rhetoric. . . .

Bryan lived behind us on Hope Street--the real name of a real street. He was ten when I met him, big for his age, friendly, and not as streetsmart as most of the other kids. His mom worked double shifts. He had two sisters, one older, one younger, and two older brothers. One of the brothers belonged to an organization of neighborhood teens knows as The Peacemakers. Kaki helped with their activities sometimes. I guess that's how we met Bryan.

He was awkward and shy with other kids. I tried to help (I thought) by inviting him to play Scrabble with the King sisters--three outgoing girls around his age. (They were in the house a lot and ended up in the book.) When Brian's turn came he seemed anxious. After a long delay, he selected three letters and laid them out.

"That's not even a word!" blurted Porsha. "Don't even have a vowel in it!" added Kanisha.

Bryan bolted, knocking over the board and disappearing for days. Could it be he didn't read well enough to make a three-letter word? I found out later what it was.

I was walking around our park, Norris Square, when I noticed a crowd entering the big stone church on the corner. Balloons and flowers, Sunday clothes. On a Wednesday? I went in. The fifth graders of John Walsh elementary school were graduating, using the church for the auditorium they didn't have, just as they used the square for a playground.

After the speeches of the administrators, the teacher of the learning disabled class spoke. Miss Chissom. She loved her five boys, she said. And she had prepared a song for them--"I Believe I Can Fly," but with new lyrics, just for the occasion.

The five boys came to the front, Bryan among them.

Now, at that time, 1999, the R. Kelley hit was everywhere. The chorus goes,

I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day, Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar, I see me running through that open door . . .

The King sisters sang a parodoy that was going around, rhyming sky with FBI, and getting die in there somewhere. They'd liked the song at first but soon turned on it, giving it that most damning of labels - corny. Corny and patronizing, as if an over-orchestrated peptalk from a popstar (one charged with child pornography) could change their lives. And it wasn't even danceable.

I still liked the song and was eager to hear Miss Chissom's version. I wondered how she would make lines like "If I can see it, then I can do it. If I just believe it, there's nothing to it" more uplifting than they already were.

But uplifting wasn't what she had in mind. Real was: I don't recall all the lyrics, but I know "Don't tell me I can fly" was in there, and "Don't tell me I can touch the sky."

Don't give me hope boobytrapped with self-hate, she meant. Don't program me to see my failure to fly, to get rich, to win American Idol and play for the NBA as my fault. Don't slip brand new Nike Air Max's on that old head Horatio Alger.

Five fifth grade boys growing up in the badlands, singing their hearts out, led beautifully by their talented teacher. Who might have been a professional singer, and sure must thrill whatever church she went to. Who had chosen instead to be a teacher.

Teaching us that while rhetoric might fly, might even help us raise our eyes and goals sometimes, it can hurt us too. I think of her and of Bryan when people say "Now any child knows they can be anything, even president."

If they can't read by ten? If by twelve they haven't gotten the specialized help they need to function well with dyslexia?

Bryan supposed I was there for him. I let him think it. No one else had come. "Good singing," I said, "good teacher." He beamed. Clearly he loved Miss Chissom as much as she loved her boys. Would the middle school learning-disabled teacher love him?

A friend of ours taught ESL at the school Bryan would be going to. Many days, she told me, they sent her on her free periods to teach the LD class. The school just couldn't seem to hold on to its teachers.

So how was it? I wanted to know.

"You know that phrase climbing the walls?"


"Picture it."

I believe Bryan can fly. If we don't clip his wings, if we don't seal him in a stainless steel box, if we leave a little doorway of blue sky showing.

First day of fourth grade

Every time Tahija sends me a first-day of school photo it becomes my favorite - for a while. So right now this first day of fourth grade shot is it, fake (I hope) gang signs and all.

Or maybe this one below is my favorite, from the first day of first grade. For those who know the book I'll ID them. In both pics, it's Damear on your left (first from the womb & from the hospital, the only one breastfed), called Mear-mear sometimes; in the middle is Mahad, or Mahddy, the second from the womb and the one who was failure to thrive, briefly; and on the right is Little Lamarr, with his dad's name and his grandmother's green (sometimes) eyes - nicknamed Wah-wah because he cried so much as a baby.

excuse or cause?

Black on black crime has suddenly dropped. Stopped in some cities, as if death really has, as in that old 30's movie, taken a holiday.

Self hate leads to brother/sister hate which leads to places where it's not safe for kids to play ball in front of their house. It leads to the triplets indoors all day most days, which leads to me taking it personal: black on black crime.

So I'm rejoicing that it's down, and I know it has to do with Obama. But I'm also worried.

"Every child has lost every excuse," pipes Congressman James Clyburn at the (first ever) BET honors awards in D.C. Oh? I know Obama brings more hope - to all of us but especially to the black boys inhaling black-is-bad messages daily, and learning so early that they have to be bad just to be safe.

But hope isn't therapy for violent trauma. Hope isn't food and it isn't healthy food or a place to exercise when you find yourself fifteen and obese. Hope isn't a yard to play in or a teacher who likes you. Hope isn't the spiritual fortitude to forgive the parent who beats you and to passively resist the twelve-year-old who wants to kill you and bought a straw-bought handgun to do it with.

Hope isn't a man. Hope isn't an excuse to blame children. Hope is many men and women--adults--courageously and persistantly facing and removing causes. Hope is or should be the end of denial and apathy.

Blaming the victim widens the chasm of misunderstanding between the races. Let's not give kids excuses to give up by ignoring true causes. Let's listen to their stories, and to the stats.
I need to write about Bryan.

Freddy and Esther

Last week's storms brought a blessing. We had to stay a second night in the Philly area and Esther's friend of many years, Agnes, aka Freddy, stepped up as host. It was a sweet, peaceful interlude that I'll remember longer than I remember the reading itself: her stories and manner a window into an entire life, not hers only but her family's, her husband's especially. His paintings and fine woodwork graced the sunny apartment, and his spirit came through in his daughter, who joined us (with Esther's) for dinner. Wine and cheese and liesurely, learned conversation . . . who needs the Internet?

ice & truth

Well we made it to Pendle Hill, Foulkeways and back - with a pleasant stop at Olive Garden and many small careful steps on several varieties of ice. And the dean of Pendle Hill cleaned an inch of snow off my car in between my carrying out stuff. The Wednesday after the lecture was their work day there and everyone worked. Except me. I was tempted, but I had work pending -- the 2:00 Foulkeways reading -- and wanted to be centered for that.

Forty two people came! I'm not sure who counted but somebody did. I read perhaps the least fun, most challening part - Tahija losing her job right after finishing the training program that was supposed to boost her pay. The nursing home job. I know Foulkeways is a continuing care community, a veritable resort (think Boca, with snow), but it has its hospital care wing, its last stop. And all the residents, as far as I could see, are white, very many of the kitchen and health care workers black.

But no one seemed offended. And a woman I knew from New York Yearly meeting (Quakers), who had hosted Kaki, Sue Clark and me when we traveled to one of the first readings (Purchase, NY), came up after and said she thought I should be on Oprah. That people need to hear this truth.

Oprah are you listening?

What truth? That the poor work too hard and are often cheated. That the poor work for us, our aging parents, our children.

Well, I thought I had nothing to say. I thought I'd just say - hi I have nothing to say I'll write later. But.

This was my first retirement community reading. It was great. The head of the library commitee, Jessica Ferrell (I think), had that place blanketed with fliers! And at ten to two she was on the phone reminding people to come! Maybe I should hire her as publicist. And I got to worship with Shirley Hathaway beforehand - the same deep concentration and gentle spirit I remember from New Paltz Meeting. She's the woman I referred to in the book as having taken her young family down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. One of the rocks that keeps you from getting washed out to sea when first you dive into meeting for worship.

The book has taken me to good places, good people. What next?