With six courses to teach (which means 14 times per week in the classroom) plus being the advisor to the Sociology Club plus trying to seal down a permanent position so I can pay my rent for the rest of my life plus helping to plan an 8-day trip to Mexico over spring break AND beginning to learn Spanish plus trying to think about getting things published, I consider it a special day when I get to read a few posts on somebody else's blog. I remember fondly going from blog to blog last summer for hours on end and writing two posts in one day, if I was so inclined.
More recently, I was reaching a point where I wondered what it would take to force me to the mat again. It's not that I don't have topics. I keep a running list of blockbuster ideas I deem worthy and even needful of addressing. And I still have "A European-American Sets Me Straight" to finish...eventually. But I'm rushed in the morning, whipped at night, and running from activity to activity even when I'm home on a Saturday and refuse to get out of my red plaid flannel pajamas. Reading preparation alone for six courses is pushing me into a new pair of glasses.
Then, I checked my emails yesterday and found that I had a new commentator on my latest post.
"Howdy from Oklahoma," he began.
"My wife and I are high school English teachers in urban Oklahoma City high schools. My school is 70% African-American...[and] has all the problems of urban schools. Our students are 90% free/reduced lunch. We have a negative school environment, poor discipline, high absenteeism, high drop out, poor attitude. I've been here 13 years. Recently, I read that black males who drop out of school are twice as likely to be unemployed or in prison than they are to have jobs. So I feel that I can't give in to despair and that I have a holy mission to be here. But I wish I felt more competent. I know how to survive in my school, but I worry that my teaching is ineffective. I'd be glad to get whatever help you can offer me. Thanks, Lynn Green"
And just like that, I'm here. Nodding. Captured like a fly between the window and the screen. Mesmerized by his paragraph like a frog staring at a bonfire, instinctually realizing on some level that no rational person would make even the most well intended attempt to reply to this in public. The fire's too hot and I'm too small. Frogs get their gizzards cooked that way. I've seen it happen. What made him think I'd have pixie dust?
But the thought of Lynn Green standing at the gates of hell, catching bodies and minds and psyches as they fly by, is more than I can resist. Still, where do I begin? He's not really asking me for some kind of tidy answer. He knows better. He's just trying not to buckle under the weight of his holy mission and calling out to someone he thinks will understand.
Oh, Lynn. How do we wind up at the gates of hell anyway? It often feels so difficult--and on some days ridiculous--to keep believing that there's hope. We've been in this phase, after all, for nearly four hundred years. And rather than seeming to move in a healthier direction, it's apparent the blight has spread and is spreading. The forces of evil (if you will) move like a noxious fog over the face of the earth, enveloping more and more people and animals and trees. Much that is beautiful has been torn asunder and left for dead. And still we stand at the gates of hell, prepared to do battle as if we are not mortal, but rather some kind of mythological figure that did not name itself and cannot give up the fight because we never chose it in the first place.
Back in the covered wagon days, when I was going into prisons by court order to speak and counsel and serve, the men used to ask me, "Why are you doing this?" And I would say, "Anybody can do time. I'm just doing what I would hope someone would do for me, if I was locked up." But the fact is, I didn't know the answer. I was just being glib. Not that the answer I gave them wasn't true, but how did I come to know that? WHY did I want to do what I would hope someone would do for me, if the tables were turned?
For everyone of us standing at the gates of hell, there's a hundred thousand or more just schlepping along through life the best they can, thinking about remodeling the bathroom or trading in the car or planting a bigger (or a smaller) garden this year. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with planting gardens or remodeling bathrooms? They earned it, didn't they? I mean, the poor (and the disenfranchised and the suffering and the wartorn) are always with us, aren't they? How does it get to be someone's holy mission to do something about it when there may be nothing to be done; that is, when there's no easy answer and it might all just get worse?
One thing's for sure: you don't volunteer for these gigs at the gates of hell. Nobody in their right minds by any popularly understood and accepted general standard would volunteer to put their heart on an altar on a daily basis and then set it on fire day after day while we miss many more than we're ever able to catch. We drop in exhaustion at the end of a trying day, only to arise and do it again, as if we had no perception of any other option. And when others say, "I couldn't do what you do," we think "I can't do it either. But I do..."
I look back over the different gates I've stood at--the prisons, the drug facilities, the juvenile lock-ups, the residential programs, the social service offices, the universities--and the faces come back to me like Botticelli paintings. The man who'd been in the hole for five years already in the dark side of a hill, leaning close to the bars and whispering "How do you learn to love again after you've forgotten what it feels like?" The bright-skinned Latino kid who wrote a play about the street and wouldn't discuss being forced to rob people at gunpoint to feed his mother's crack habit. The African-American kid who went back to detention for jumping a cop who was manhandling his friend in the courtyard of the facility--while the staff watched. The endless string of beautiful young women of color who admit with their eyes flat that they accept "dates" to pay the bills and buy their kids school supplies. The elderly African-American woman we found sitting alone in her dark, cold kitchen without food because she was too embarrassed to tell anyone her checks had been stopped and she didn't have anyone to help her. The college athlete forced to attend workouts at five in the morning, so he falls asleep in class, knowing no one really cares if he graduates. The Jamaican boy supporting six younger siblings who I saw stopped on the street by a police officer in broad daylight. I had worked with the boy in the past and just happened to be across the street to witness and then intervene as the officer proceeded to bounce the boy's head back into a brick wall every time he gave the "wrong" answer to a question. And where are they all now?
The schools are full of stories, full of pain. I used to tell "my" boys that learning to read is the most revolutionary act they could commit, but most of them did not imagine themselves to be revolutionaries. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," they would say, a sentence I had first heard in the prisons two decades before.
For a while there at one point, a decade ago, I'd have ten-minute conversations with a boy who literally couldn't say three words without using some kind of sexual term. So--for as long as he could stand it--we would practice having casual conversation. About television. Or the weather. Or some other equally irrelevent topic. The goal, of course, being to talk without the "F-word" appearing even once as a noun or a verb or an adjective. And he eventually managed to get into a slot at a vocational rehab program. But I found him in the adult Department of Corrections data base the other day and had to stop looking up names because, after locating three of "my boys" grown up, but in jail, it was starting to get to me.
I used to give them candy as rewards for reading, nutritional guidelines be damned. Snickers bars were very popular (I wonder if there's a commercial in that somewhere?). And that was before I saw "Dangerous Minds." When I brought mini-chocolate bars to my college classrooom once last semester, I thought of the boy who shut the blinds and locked the door so that no one would know I was teaching him to read. I had found a 70-page book about car engines at the second grade reading level and when he finished it, he announced, "That's the longest book I've ever read!" and then demanded immediately: "Where's my Snickers?"
One year, I asked a roomful of sixteen-year-old minority summer school students why they thought so many kids drop out and they decided that not being able to read is one big reason. They agreed that it's embarrassing to admit by the time you're a teenager that you can't do the work because you can't read the words. So kids "act up" and get thrown out of class to avoid the humiliation of having their "secret" known.
When I suggested telling the teacher in the class, they assured me that when they tried that, they are often brushed off with an unapologetic, "That's not my problem. You should have learned that already."
"It's not your fault if you can't read," I told them, "It's the system's. Everyone of you wants this or you wouldn't be sitting here. The school board is supposed to see to it that you're provided a basic education. And reading's about as basic as you can get. It would have been great if you'd been able to get it before now, but you have a right to this and you need it, if you're going to be able to live a decent life. So if you don't know how to read, walk up to your teacher and say 'I need to read!' And if they won't help you, go to an administrator and say 'I need to read!' Until you find someone that will help you, no matter how many you have to approach." Did they? I don't know.
I remember doing an interview on the phone once for a piece of research I was doing on gang boys. I was on the phone so I wouldn't risk compromising the kid by knowing what he looked like, depending on what he decided to tell me. He was an articulate African-American boy--fifteen-years-old--and seemed both mature beyond his years and quite intelligent. When he told me that he had dropped out of school, I asked him why and he said, "Because all my friends dropped out."
"I didn't ask you about your friends," I countered. "I asked you why you dropped out."
This time, he considered my question for a moment before answering matter-of-factly, "I got tired of being treated like I was stupid." And I thought to myself, "I'll bet you did."
I mentored him just the tiniest bit and he went back to school, graduated, and got a good job at the university, where--as an employee--he could take courses for free, which he did. Then, he got married and bought a mobile home, so I thought he had beaten the odds, but the last I heard, he was back in the streets. I don't know what caused him to fall back, but I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a young African-American man or woman in a racist society.
The bottom line, Lynn, is that standing at the gates of hell is a head butt on a good day. And for every success story, there's gonna be twenty or thirty or more you're going to have to watch get past you. But keep in mind that somewhere up the road, there just might be another person who's successful where you haven't been. And, besides, you don't know what all you're really accomplishing. Have you ever seen a tiny sprig of green climbing up out of a crack in a sidewalk? Your biggest job, in the end, is to plant seeds, seeds that you may never see grow, but that will grow just the same.
Often, when I speak to a group or even a single person, I will think to myself, "Now what do I want to put in this person's mind, if this is my only shot ever?" On one such occasion, a boy in a facility I was working for was about to be arrested for murder. Everybody knew that if he got word of it, he would go over the wall. And he was hard to talk to anyway. But I had to say something. So, I walked up to him in the courtyard, stood there a minute and said simply, "No matter what, change is always an option. You know that, right?" He looked me dead in the eye--something I had not seen him do with anyone yet--and said, nodding, "Yes."
Sometimes, that has to be enough.