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.