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.
”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.