By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
One of the great peeves of my adult life has been an underdeveloped understanding of the phrase giving back. Black people place a particular, non-negotiable emphasis on giving back -- though how much we actually do it is highly debatable -- and the older I got and the more certain I grew of its importance, the less clear it became. How to give back? When? Who best to give back to, and how much to give? As the millennium closed out with so many leaks sprung in the dike of social progress, any spot you might try and plug up with good intentions hardly seemed worth the effort. Sending checks to charity was too passive, giving change to the occasional homeless person -- who was black too often for comfort -- too easy. Yet none of this dampened my yen to do.
Part of what drove my altruism, paradoxically, was the prospect of being a heroine, if only for a day -- a comic-strip savior of the Wonder Woman variety. I had a latent, never-quite-realized ambition to act and, as years passed, an increasing jones for a live audience; as a writer I could argue that I performed on the page, but I knew that in writing, unlike acting, the real performance -- the soul-baring, naked-emotion stuff -- was done in isolation. I wanted my performance witnessed publicly by people who were likely to be impressed. I needed applause, questions, fixed looks -- not letters to the editor. So I decided to teach, something I had done in the past rather halfheartedly, but something that did allow for performance. Through a program called ”PEN in the Classroom,“ I secured a position conducting a 10-week writing workshop at Jefferson High School.
I picked Jefferson in part because it had the greatest need, but also because of its peculiar but emblematic history: Once revered for the education it afforded black students in segregated times, now, decades into post-segregation, it had become a symbol of what had gone terribly wrong in inner-city schools. In Jeff‘s faded but distinct Art Deco foyer were framed photographs of famous grads like Ralph Bunche, Dexter Gordon, Dorothy Dandridge. The place was full of ghosts and retained an eloquence so weary it could barely stand -- an apt setting for whatever performances I might have in me.
On the first day of the workshop, I played the cheery, confident professional, a low-rent Wonder Woman swooping down from enchanted Hollywood to spread a little magic to a neighborhood greatly in need of some. The kids were standard-issue ninth-graders, roughly half black and half Latino.
They were polite in a threadbare sort of way, meaning they kept snickers and running sotto voce commentary to a minimum. They had grown up with wide screens and WWF wrestling and music videos with million-dollar budgets; they had seen do-gooders in their time, and didn’t need performances from the likes of me. They understood I was there to lead them in writing, though they didn‘t quite see the point. Though when I mentioned how much a typical reporter’s starting salary was at the L.A. Times -- $60,000 sounded about right -- there were audible gasps. However many zeros they were used to seeing in the salaries of big athletes and entertainers, they were clearly unaccustomed to any such evidence of income at home.
And I noticed that poverty, despite putting everybody in the same proverbial boat, had wrought distinctly different effects. The black kids sulked in their seats, slumped and fidgeted, talked out of turn, and though they were full of opinions and a certain pubescent energy, it had a bitter edge. It was energy that radiated a cynicism rooted not in experience but in non-experience -- in what they felt was not going to happen, like success and college -- a cynicism of dead ends, of having seen and felt the setups before, of a justifiable belief that nothing would change. The Latino kids were quieter, more contemplative and more hopeful about their state, evidenced in the bios they wrote for the first day of class: Latinos described their neighborhood as subpar, and explained that not enough people were working. But they also felt South-Central had been unfairly stereotyped and that things, unbeknown to the general public, were looking up; the black kids said the neighborhood was subpar and left it at that. The contrast confirmed what I had long suspected -- the immigrant narrative, through no intentions of its own, was supplanting the closed book that the black narrative had become. Black people had run out of frontiers of all kinds quite some time ago, and I realized it was going to be tough making a case for imagination with much of my class. For them, it was not possible to visualize or essayize their way out of hopelessness, listlessness or a lack of direction. The best they could do was effect catharses on paper, unburden themselves in a way they probably hadn‘t before.
Everybody wrote excessively about boyfriends, girlfriends, first loves and broken hearts (a pleasant surprise for me -- maybe some of them couldn’t dream, but they could still fall in love). They all wrote about missing parents -- dead, divorced, never on the scene or still living in Mexico -- and ad hoc families, about violent or absentee fathers and about being taken care of by cousins and siblings and grandparents. They all enumerated points of faith in God, even as they doubted his game plan. They all spelled rather atrociously. The Latino kids seemed to be more accepting of their fate than the black ones, because they believed that a better fate was on the way. One girl, April, wanted very much to believe that too, but couldn‘t quite, and instead wrote angrily, for pages, about all the trouble she’d seen and felt obliged to carry around with her like so many books. April was dusky, slender, with elaborate braids and white sneakers and a foot that tapped the floor nervously, unthinkingly, as she sat. One day after class she followed me to the parking lot and demanded to know where I was going next.