First day back for a third installment of new arts partnership at my favorite high school– the school which resembles a spotless, open, sunlit community college, and also, happily, where I teach my neighbors. This is the school where my partner History teacher and I have become dear friends and our collaborations are ever stronger for it. We develop and implement intricately layered, interdisciplinary, arts-integrated history curriculum which intrigues our laid-back, clever, amazing kids. The best part is when they take our work, turn it on its head and make it truly theirs. This is the arts partnership where, every single year, my kids do such fantastic soul-grabbing work that I am brought to tears.
One of my oldest friends in Chicago is a child who has grown from a dimpled, ecstatic 6-year-old into a dimpled, ecstatic, tall, handsome, kind, creative high school junior. Today he came to visit me before class with a smart new haircut and tidy knitting project draped over his arm. I am always overjoyed to see him, and marvel at his grown-up-ness. I embrace him like family, because he and his parents, his two older sisters and his sweet chihuahua are absolutely a part of my family.
At this school in our rough and vibrant neighborhood, there has been an unspoken agreement for years, a loose truce of sorts, that the insidious gang warfare in our community shall not pass the metal detector and that there will be peace in the hallways. It has been this way for at least the past 5 years I have taught there and has been predominantly adhered to. Today, it was just not so.
The instant I began to speak to this class of freshmen and sophomores today, a hefty fight broke out in the hallway which required security to physically corral the offender. At one point, the fight was pressed up against the wire-glass window of our classroom. We watched the glass as if we were unblinking goldfish, knowing that we could not interfere. Our kids calmly kept their seats and my partner teacher and I were so proud and relieved that they did. I mean, unless you’re going to help stop a fight, there’s really not much to see. Except drama, rage and maybe, if you’re ‘lucky,’ a little blood. The whole ordeal lasted less than 2 minutes, but it rocked me in a way that I never thought would happen at this school. Other schools, yes. But not this one.
So my beloved neighborhood high school, which I value so dearly as a beacon of hope for the kids in our underserved community, today no longer feels entirely safe. There has been a breach in respect and understanding and it is coloring the hallways black, blue and red. Having taught in CPS for over a decade, I have seen some things inside school walls I’d love to unsee, but somehow, even those things weren’t really surprising. That this is happening at this particular school means that the safe space that was created by a near-miraculous agreement between the administration and the students has been swiftly stolen from the kids. Understand this: for a majority of kids in Chicago, school is the only place they can get a welcome break from the normal craziness of aggressive Chicago living.
But when normal is craziness, what is ‘normal,’ really?
In a raw turn of irony, I must mention how appropriate it is that this fight happened today– we are beginning a project which uses poetry and its performance to dissect historical and contemporary disaster in order to comprehend both it and our place in the aftermath of such disasters. From the fall of Rome to 9/11 to the relentless stream of murders of Chicago kids, we intend to empower these students to see into and out of the mayhem so that our cruel histories won’t always have to be repeated. So that they never have the opportunity to see themselves as victims or lesser-thans. With this project, I really want to imbue an activist sense in these kids, so that they make peace with their power and choose wisely how to wield it. Who knows, maybe these are the 26 kids who will take a stand and bring back the truce– the students have to want it to make it so.
We asked them what they think ‘normal’ is. Soon, we will ask them what ‘normal’ can be, or if ‘normal’ is even what we are going for. Is poverty a disaster? Is violence? In making their poetic responses to disaster, a good question to bring to our kids is not necessarily about focusing on the end result of their piece, but on the legacy of their work. Disaster is short, but aftermath is long. What is the purpose of their writing and how does it continue to ring after the poem is performed? Something I am mulling over is whether art beautifies/abstracts the ugly (too much?) by loosening our grasp on stark reality… or does art illuminate the meaning of our understanding of violence, breaking it down into bits we can digest and do something about?
But this is where it gets tricky for me. I understand full well that healing is the electric undercurrent of teaching and artmaking. Though sometimes I wonder: how does making art make any sense in the face of all this violence? How does a basic appreciation of nature, detection of birdsongs or rustling of wind through the trees, even stand a chance in Chicago? Waiting at a stoplight in my Truk, I watched an older woman yelling something mundane, not disciplinarian, to her kid today and the child didn’t bat an eyelash. This is their normal. When our communities are so neglected, marginalized, poverty-stricken and stressed out, I can understand why people can only speak heatedly to one another or not at all.
On my way home from teaching at my other favorite school, I pulled over for 6 screaming firetrucks heading to a single destination which was not on fire and also for one ambulance headed toward my house. Sirens are reeling even now as I type. Mostly, I don’t even notice them. They, along with gunshots and threatening voices, are merely a part of the Chicago soundscape I’ve grown so accustomed to and skilled at tuning out. This is my normal.
The complacency and complicity in this city breaks my mind. Why do we disregard fights in school as child’s play? How many kids gathered around the fight as spectators instead of talking the contenders down from their ledges? Are the safe spaces I set up in my classrooms enough? How many more murders of our kids will it take before something truly meaningful and comprehensive is implemented?
I don’t want blood-sport spectators for my world or entertainment-seeking spectators for my performances. Rome fell. Someday Chicago could too. I want authentic interactions in my work and in my life, because these moments are fast becoming phantoms. If our kids– who are the stewards of our many societies– are never given the opportunity to know and practice peace, respect or caring about one another, then they are doomed to repeat these same mistakes over and over ad infinitum. Our kids want to succeed whether they are truly aware of it or not. How do you get kids to care? You request it of them. It works and I do it all the time.
So let’s see what happens tomorrow at my still-favorite high school full of my beautiful neighbors. It’s Valentine’s Day. Maybe the expectation of love will infuse the hallways with the spirit of the truce we miss. And if not, at least I will be collecting a squirmy bag of vermi-compost from my Valentine, the dimpled, ecstatic, tall, handsome, kind, creative, high school junior whom I have grown up alongside in Chicago.
Journal entries by Freshmen from a Humboldt Park High School, addressing a first memory, fear or experience with gun violence.
Young Chicago poets respond to the genocide of their peers and friends:
Ameena Matthews, Chicago Ceasefire/Cure Violence Interrupter on WBEZ’s “Year 25″ interview series:
“The film’s main subjects work for an innovative organization, CeaseFire. It was founded by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin, who believes that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases, and so the treatment should be similar: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. One of the cornerstones of the organization is the “Violence Interrupters” program, created by Tio Hardiman, who heads the program. The Interrupters — who have credibility on the streets because of their own personal histories — intervene in conflicts before they explode into violence.”
Very relatedly, on long-term (toxic) stress on the brain and kids’ ability to learn:
‘”When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids’ brains… If you’re in a constant state of emergency, [the pre-frontal cortex, where a lot of non-cognitive skills happen] just doesn’t develop the same… For these kids, ‘the bear’ basically never goes away, they still feel its effects, even when they’re just trying to sit there quietly in english class… [Pediatrician] Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says: “A lot of these kids had a terrible time paying attention. They have a hard time sitting still.” ‘
Hadiya Pendleton as a 6th grader, in a student-produced PSA about preventing gang violence. She was a friend of one of my students.