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Carpe Noctem | 2010 | Hubble's Flaw

04.20.10 9:58 p.m.

I teach you to teach yourself. We know everything already; we've just forgotten.  

-Cecil Collins


Flowers Through Pavement

What? I can be literal.

I've applied three times. Once, I got the rejection boilerplate. Once, I was so inflated with tonsillitis that I couldn't accept an interview for a few days, at which point the job belonged to someone else. I very nearly did not apply the third time to be an afterschool English teacher, but saw little harm beyond revising my cover letter.

I get the call in the middle of the day, asking if I could come in immediately or ditch work the following day (I could not, I happened to have an assignment I liked almost as much as the $100 I would earn). I told the director I could come in when work ended for the day and, fortunately, this was the only day of the year that this was amenable.

The director ushers me into a tiny office, assuring me that she barely uses it and doesn't much know where anything is. After reprinting a copy of my resume, she starts in on the interview.

I get out of my head, stop planning answers, stop focusing on posture. I assume I will just have yet another otherwise futile interview experience on which to cut my teeth. I am relaxed and chatty, as though this were a date, telling stories of my boarding school children and experiences with inner-city subbing. On a date, in my limited recent experience with them, I can work within the paradigm. I know how to impress someone whose kiss I might choose to seek, so why should someone's money be so different?

I'm vague on the exact moment where I am hired. We are talking for about half an hour, then she asks when I can get fingerprinted and fill out the requisite paperwork. She hasn't seen me teach and has nothing more to go on than a cover letter, resume, and my assurances that I know what I'm doing. It still feels tenuous, as though I need to get my name in as many places as I can or it will all be pulled out from under me. If I can get signatures on papers, I will feel as though this might be real.

It is two hours a day, though more per hour than I have ever gotten (more than half my daily subbing pay). The last time I was in a similar position, tutoring students years ago, I made less than half this an hour and was glad for it. When I later suggest to Melanie that this is the first time I am getting paid what I am worth to do what I am trained to, she says I don't have it quite right. This is what my time is worth, but they won't use me to the extent they could. Once I get home and convey my hiring to Melanie, I add, "I believe this makes me a more marriageable prospect."

"I require three goats and a mare."

"That's quite the dowry!"

"I'm patient," she assures.

"Can they be pygmy goats?"

"No," she says, "they get ridiculously fat."

"But that's way cuter," I argue. "You can roll them. Especially if they are pygmy fainting goats."

I go in Friday to fill out forms, regretting the lost day of work, but enamored with the idea of teaching. This makes me fiscally solvent, as Melanie refuses any real gift for her patience and many missed present-giving occasions while I fought back penury. They rush me to fingerprinting a half an hour drive away, as though they, too, worry I will back out. This arm of the program, this location, is less than a month old and just got permission from on high to actually hire academic teachers.

During the initial interview, the director reiterated that she wants to make sure I am okay with the location and population, because she does not want anyone working there who is only there for the money (though, obviously, the money helps). It is true, Newburgh has been the site of gang violence, so much so that I hear NPR reports about state action against the gangs on my drive to get fingerprinted. The brick streets of this section of Newburgh are lined with brownstones and columns, through with windows boarded up and graffiti everywhere. This was once a vibrant community, a madly prosperous transportation hub given that it is situated between New York City and Albany on the Hudson River. In the nineteenth century, anything you could need made was in Newburgh.

Then came the twentieth century. The industries that puffed this city up left for cheaper climes. Transport by truck became more common, depriving the city of the advantage of the waterway. Newburgh tried to revive their waterfront and commercial areas in the 60s and 70s, but the money and effort wasn't there. Instead of new businesses, they plowed lots clear that still lay fallow. In addition, politicians made life as hard as they could for the African American residents, arresting them for fighting disenfranchisement. This resulted in race riots in the late seventies, the energy of which still coats the buildings.

I subbed in their schools years ago and found them brutally dispiriting. The teachers moved like zombies, refusing eye contact. The students ran throughout the school at all times, wandering in and out of room with impunity. The security guards and police officers were there only to prevent assaults, but turned a blind eye to anything less severe than bloodshed. In one special education class, the fire alarm box was stuck on the wall with Scotch tape, ostensibly not attached to anything else that would alert the students should fire result. I daily deal with an identical mix of students in Poughkeepsie and I have never for a moment feared for my safety. The same could not be said in Newburgh schools, where they have had days off this year owing to gang murders (a thirteen-year-old killed a seventeen-year-old and wounded several others), where there are metal detectors and wands at every door with apparent good reason, where the presumption that we are dealing with future criminals begins by sixth grade.

But I can't deny the quixotic appeal of helping these students, those who need it most. The program that has hired me, while free for them, is also selective. There is a waiting list of thirty, so any student who misbehaves is cut in favor of someone who will be more appreciative for the opportunity given them. In my week working there, I encountered no student who was worse than age appropriately callous. Yes, a couple of my students are almost illiterate, despite being in middle school, but several more score double their grade level on my initial assessment. There is a sea of potential just waiting to find the right channels and this program will help direct them. In addition to homework help, there are hour long classes in dance, marital arts, African drumming, journalism, film making, crafts, cooking, and many other pursuits to keep them interested and motivated. Rather than going home to an empty house (Newburgh is known as a city of single mothers, so much so that it was implied that I may become the only male role model some kids have), they come to us. Some stay until six, but at least they are productive and nurtured.

The director admonishes me for coming in the building and going straight to business, instead asking how my weekend was and chatting with me for five minutes. I have to shake myself out of my presumptions for how I think this has to be, rigid and wholly academic, almost sterile. Both for the staff and the students, this is meant to be a wholesome place, even surrounded by instability.

When I returned to my former high school as a student teacher, I commented to one of my teachers that I didn't know why Beacon had such a bad reputation. Emphatically, she assured me that the teachers had shielded me from so much (though she wasn't as proud as she should have been of my ignorance; clearly she'd done her job). In my small way four times a week, maybe I can protect nourish student enough that they can be ignorant of their city's desserts.

When I leave from helping these students, I don't see a city worth fearing, a city that will swallow their childhoods and futures. The afternoon sunlight washes the graffiti away, the abandoned lots look more like fields ending in an amazing view of the Hudson River, and I can believe that these kids I have known for all of a week have a good chance of growing up right among the flowers bursting through the pavement.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, Ugli Fruit.

last watched: The Frighteners
reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything
listening: Dresden Dolls

Carpe Noctem | 2010 | Hubble's Flaw

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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