Grade school in the inner city

A daughter of immigrants tries to get an education

Topics: Books, Education, Memoir, Poverty, Public Education, Writers and Writing, ,

Grade school in the inner city
Excerpted from Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five years among the poorest children in America which will be published on August 28 by Crown.

She was in kindergarten on the day we met when I walked into her classroom at P.S. 65. She was six, a bossy little person, slightly on the plumpish side, with carefully braided and brightly beaded cornrows hanging down across her eyes. She wrote her letters in reverse. Her teacher suggested I might try to help her figure out the way to get those symbols facing in the right direction.

But when I leaned across her shoulder to watch her shape her letters, she twisted around and looked at me with stern dissatisfaction. “You’re standing on the wrong side,” she instructed me and indicated that I ought to stand behind her other shoulder. Once I was standing over her left shoulder, she seemed to be entirely pleased, as if things now were as they ought to be.

We got to know each other very quickly because, at the end of school each day, she came to the afterschool at St. Ann’s. So I’d see her sometimes in her class at P.S. 65 and then in the afternoon I would see her wave to me as she and her schoolmates raced into the basement of the church to have their snack before they went upstairs for their tutorial.

Her authoritative inclinations became increasingly robust with every passing year. By the time she was in third grade, she began expressing her displeasure at the nature of my social life—she knew I wasn’t married and she tried to fix me up with Miss Gallombardo, a very pretty third-grade teacher at her school.  Within another year, she began to comment on the suit that I’d been wearing ever since I met her. It was a black suit, a little on the formal side, from a store in Harvard Square, but she noticed it was kind of shabby and she made it obvious that this did not please her.

“Jonathan,” she asked me once, “is that your only suit?”

“No,” I said. “I have another suit.” But I told her that the other one was virtually the same.

She reached out to finger the lapel the way my mother might have done when I was much younger. We were sitting opposite each other on two metal chairs, so that she was close enough to see the white threads showing through the fabric near the buttonholes and at the bottom edges of the sleeves.

“Jonathan,” she said, folding her arms against her chest, as people do when they’re sizing up a situation, “I’d like you to look more respectable.”



Then, without the slightest hint of hesitation or any fear of impropriety in talking to a grown-up in this way: “Do me a favor. Someday, when you’re over there, in Manhattan” — “over there” was a term she used to indicate a nicer part of town — “go into a good store and buy yourself a nice new suit. Will you promise me you’ll do that? ”

“Maybe,” I replied.

A month later, I went to a clothing store in Boston and bought myself a suit I thought was quite respectable. The only problem, from Pineapple’s point of view, was that the new suit was a black one, like the ones that I already had.

She sat me down for another conversation.

“Jonathan,” she said, “I know that you get sad sometimes. I can tell when you come in.” She put her hands on top of one of mine. “But you don’t always need to dress in black …”

Pineapple was in love with life. In spite of the ugliness of the building where she lived and the one in which she went to school, she had a buoyant and affirming personality. Even her most serious complaints were usually conveyed within a set of terms that were peevishly amusing rather than self-pitiful.

The problems at her school, however, were severe. P.S. 65, the same school Ariella’s older boys had attended several years before, was almost always in a state of chaos because so many teachers did not stay for long. They’d often disappear in less than half a year, and there was a damaging reliance upon inexperienced and unprepared instructors. In Pineapple’s second-grade year, twenty-eight of the fifty members of the faculty had never taught before, and half of them left the school by the next September. In her third- and fourth-grade years she had seven different teachers.

She wrote a little essay once describing those who came and went. One, she said, wasn’t a real teacher, “only a helper-teacher” — presumably because she wasn’t certified to teach but had nonetheless been thrown into Pineapple’s class with nobody to guide her. Another was “a man who liked us,” whose name, she said, was “Mr.  Camel,” but “he said he needed to earn money, so he found a better job …” A third one, she said, “had a mental problem” and used offensive language in chastising the children. “Sit your A-S-S-E-S down,” Pineapple quoted her, spelling out the word because she couldn’t bring herself to say it. “And she had yellow teeth that looked like fangs. And so they fired her.”

Instructional discontinuity was not the only major problem at the school. The overcrowding of the building and its archaic infrastructure did their damage to the children too. When I went to lunch one day with Pineapple’s class, the students left their room at twelve-fifteen.  But, because the lunchroom was already packed, they had to sit down in a hallway on the floor and wait for thirty minutes before they could file down a dark and narrow stairwell, with metal grating on the side, while another class was coming up the opposite direction. A mob scene developed at the bottom of the stairs. A school official started shouting at the children. Pineapple stuffed her fingers in her ears.

Once they were admitted to the basement cafeteria, they had to sit and wait another twenty minutes before the crowd thinned out enough for them to get something to eat. They were finished eating by around one-thirty, at which point a woman with a megaphone told them to get up and put away their trays. Then they had to go back to their tables and remain there, for no reason that I could discern, until they were at last released to go outside and run around the schoolyard — no grass, cracked cement — before they were herded back into the same filing process as before. At this point, a fire bell rang, so they stayed there frozen in their lines for fifteen minutes more. They were finally permitted to return to class at 2:00 p.m., nearly two hours since they’d filed out.

In the hour remaining before the end of school, I visited another class, then waited outside at dismissal time so I could walk Pineapple to St. Ann’s. When she came out she asked if I would stop with her at an umbrella-covered stand on a corner opposite the school so we could enjoy one of her favorite treats (also mine), which the children called an “icie,” coconut-flavored, creamy, and delicious, and then, in spite of all her discontents with school, she chattered gaily all the way down to the church.

The apartment building where Pineapple lived — part of the dangerous Diego-Beekman complex — was even less attractive than her school. When I visited her home she’d wait out front and lead me up the stairs. The elevator, which she almost never used, was pocked with bullet indentations because of the gang activity that took place in that building and the ones nearby. One night, when Pineapple was eight, helicopters swooped down, spotlights glaring in the windows of apartments. Seven men were led away in handcuffs from Pineapple’s building, charged with selling crack cocaine and heroin.

Pineapple had two sisters. (A brother would be born a few years later.) The oldest was a serious girl named Lara who had a steady sense of sober judgment that Pineapple counted on for guidance. Her younger sister, whom I called Mosquito because she was tiny and seemed forever to be darting here and there in almost constant motion, was eight years old when Pineapple was ten.

As skittery and squirmy as she was when I got to know her, Mosquito soon developed into a quick-witted and perceptive little girl, with incisive verbal skills that often took her teachers by surprise. When she was in third grade, her teacher asked the class to write an essay on Cortez, Magellan, or de Soto.  She  narrowed  it  to  Cortez  and  de  Soto, then  selected  Cortez  because, she  told  her  teacher,  “De Soto stole  the Indians’ gold,  but Cortez  stole  my people’s soul.” I wasn’t sure how she’d arrived at this distinction, but I was surprised she knew this much about de Soto or Cortez, because there was almost nothing of this nature in the books about “the great conquistadors” that children of her age were given at their school.

Pineapple’s mother and father were from Guatemala. She and Lara  liked  to tell  me stories  about the people in their family who remained  there.  They also had many members of their family living near them in New York.  I knew some of their cousins from the afterschool at St. Ann’s Church and I’d met their mother, who was named Isabella, when I’d walked Pineapple home. But I didn’t get to know their father and his brothers and their other relatives until an evening in December of Pineapple’s fifth-grade year.

It was, to be precise, on December 31, 1999, when her father gave a party, as he did every year, mostly for their relatives, to celebrate the new year. Pineapple knew that I’d be in New York and apparently had told this to her father, who, she said, had told her I’d be “very welcome” at the party. It took arm-twisting on Pineapple’s part to get me to say yes, because I don’t go out to many parties (and Pineapple knew I didn’t socialize a lot), but after she had asked me several times I agreed to come.

I had another obligation earlier that evening, so I didn’t get there until late. It was close to midnight by the time Pineapple, who’d been watching for me from her window, came downstairs to let me in and lead me up to the apartment, which was packed from wall to wall with grown-ups and  at  least  a dozen  children,  all  of whom,  she told  me, were her cousins. Guatemalan music, which I’d never heard before, was playing in the living room. Guatemalan food was set out on a table. Her father, who was named Virgilio, greeted me enthusiastically, wished me a happy new year, and brought me to the kitchen, where he scooped up from a big glass bowl a rather potent Guatemalan drink made of mango juice and rum, after which he led me back into the other room to introduce me to his brothers and to Isabella’s sister.

He told me he was teaching himself English and now and then would ask me if a word he used for something was the right one and would urge me to correct him when he got it wrong. He was a warm, expansive man, tall and slender, with his hair in dreadlocks. While I was standing with him and his older brother, he spoke to both of us in English as a matter of politeness. He’d reach out for my arm from time to time in order to be sure I felt included in the conversation.

Lara and Mosquito and their older cousin Madeline, whom I’d tutored when she was a nine-year-old, were in a bedroom with their mother in front of a TV set, waiting for the lighted ball to drop upon the stroke of midnight in Times Square. Their mother got up to welcome me. The rest of them were glued to the screen and, except for Lara, who gave me a little wave, paid me no attention until the ball had fallen and they all broke into cheers.

When we went back to the living room, the music had been turned up. Most of the children started dancing, girls with girls (the boys were bashful) or else with their parents. Pineapple asked if I could dance. I told her, “No!” — because I knew I was an awful dancer. But she and Madeline insisted that I try. So they took me by the hand and dragged me out into the middle of the room.

They made me dance with each of them in turn, and with their aunt, and finally with Lara. When the music ended temporarily, Pineapple told me, “You did good! You see? It isn’t hard to learn …”  But my shirt by now had soaked through to the skin, so Virgilio gave me one of his long linen shirts, open-necked and comfortable, and insisted that I have another drink, which he said would help to cool me off.

Virgilio’s older brother, whose name was Eliseo, was sitting in the kitchen with Pineapple’s mother. Isabella noticed that I hadn’t eaten yet, so she made a plate of food for me and, while I ate, Eliseo talked with me about his son, who was a teenager now but whom I remembered as a cheerful ten-year-old who’d been friendly to me when I first came to St. Ann’s. He had started getting into trouble while he was in middle school and, by the time he went to high school, he’d begun to get involved with older boys who, his father feared, were using drugs or selling them. So Eliseo recently had sent him back to Guatemala, where he knew he would be physically secure and would be cared for by his relatives.

At the end of the evening, I had a quiet conversation with Pineapple’s mother. She spoke to me, with Pineapple translating or paraphrasing for her — she did not know English yet — about her job as an afternoon and night attendant, taking care of children who had HIV. She also told me of her husband’s job at a Manhattan restaurant — washing dishes in the basement, even though, according to Pineapple, he had been a chef and had run a restaurant in his town in Guatemala.  Since her mother worked so late, Pineapple said, it was her father who often got them up and made their breakfast and sent them off to school with their books and backpacks, and made sure they had their homework papers.

Pineapple’s parents recognized the serious deficiencies of P.S. 65. But their visits to the school and the questions they would ask were, her mother told me, repeatedly rebuffed by those in the office to whom they’d be referred when they sought a meeting with the principal. And  because, English fluency apart, they were not familiar with the jargon and the acronymic phrases that were often thrown at parents by officials at the school, they came away most often with the sense that nothing that had worried them was likely to be changed.

This, at least, was the impression I received in those final moments in the kitchen with Pineapple’s mother. But more important, when I thought back on that evening in Pineapple’s home, was the recognition I had gained of the energy and joyfulness and collective reinforcement of her sense of affirmation that she was receiving from her parents and their relatives. Amidst the grimness of the building and the neighborhood around them, her mother and father had created in their home an island of emotional security and warm congeniality that any child, rich or poor, would probably have envied. I hoped that this would prove to be a bedrock of stability from which she’d be able to pursue the opportunities that were now about to open up before her.

Excerpted from Fire In The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol. Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Kozol. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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