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
”To work,“ I said.
”Work? Where‘s that?“
”Oh, Hollywood,“ I said, waving. ”Over that way, off the freeway. Not very far from here.“
”Dang!“ exclaimed April, with a curious mix of wistfulness and annoyance. ”That is far.“
Indeed it was. I felt a little surge of satisfaction in her grudging admiration -- a Wonder Woman moment -- then a bigger sting of conscience about coming here once a week, for one hour, rallying the troops and leaving. Everybody had left -- that’s why things were so rotten around Jeff now -- although if everybody who had left in the last couple of generations came back and put in an hour once a week, things would likely not change much either. I felt at points much like I imagined April felt, gratitude and contempt for the colossal opportunity and colossal failings of history and its inadequate, insufferable creed of giving back. I bought April a birthday cake on her 15th birthday because she said she‘d never had one. She saw me coming up the steps with the cake and the paper plates and plastic silverware and let out a whoop before I reached the landing: ”You remembered!“ She crowed and clapped, triumphant, much to the amusement of the other students. This was the first time I felt sure I was giving back, and it had nothing to do with writing.
The following week, emboldened, I read aloud ”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.“ T.S. Eliot’s poem had transfixed me in college; it had made majoring in English a an urgent, even noble endeavor. The kids shook their heads at the more esoteric imagery, but they perfectly understood Eliot‘s mourning of lost civility and a new alienation that would define, and deform, the rest of the 20th century. They appeared to understand the concept of the antihero well enough to never have questioned its existence; for them it was not a literary conceit but a daily reality. ”I am an anti-hero,“ one black student wrote during an exercise, ”because I try and get A’s but I never do. But I keep trying because I know God is there.“
I signed up for a second PEN workshop not so much because I was satisfied that I had given something back, but because I had found new fellowship in a very unlikely place. These kids, black and Latino, felt like friends. The experience had forced me to admit that, for all of my political and philosophical support for the betterment of the Inner City, I had written off these students many times, usually after a spasm of anger over new graffiti on my block or watching, much to my distaste, a mag-wheeled truck reverberate with rap music. I had written off the black students first. Theoretically there is no harm in merely thinking evil thoughts, but if the thoughts are racial they leech into the soul, and even if they don‘t inspire evil acts, they might keep you from acting at all, which in the end is the greater evil. In prompting me to act, these students were keeping me in touch with my better nature, or at least in view of it, which was more than I expected and certainly worth the weekly drive.
When I walked into the classroom this time, my heart sank: The room was full, and the students were more prepared and attentive than the first group. They were also all Latino. I felt the tug of resentment over that lost frontier, the withered chances; I felt hoodwinked. I was needed elsewhere and here I was, unable to leave, as boxed in as those black kids. With a very grown-up effort I put all that aside and started my spiel: Anybody here know what journalism is?
Over the 10 weeks I was there, I developed the same affinity for this group as I had for the first; one black student eventually showed up, but that’s not what made the difference. The difference was a girl who approached me shyly at the end of that first disappointing class and, with a reticence she was clearly fighting to overcome, confessed a lifelong desire to be a journalist, like me. Her name was Marta. She needed me as much as April had; she acknowledged it as readily as April could not. I quickly began looking forward to Marta, to William, to Kurt and everybody else. Directing their imaginations sustained me as much as it did in the first class, with its increasingly rare complement of black students. I only felt pangs at times, ironically, because this group performed so well, not because they spelled any better but because they articulated dreams and wishes when I asked them to and demonstrated such willingness to try to make a leap when I requested it. They had a sense of duty to do right by dreams where their black counterparts, by and large, felt dreams had been wronged into a kind of irrelevance. The best I could assume was that any faith or optimism I encouraged would have a trickle-down effect, that everybody at Jeff would benefit from the improved outlooks of a few. History in these parts, of course, dictated otherwise.
I learned later that April had been kicked out of Jeff, as she had been kicked out of other schools. She had literally run out of places to go.