In the August 30, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Nancy Franklin reviewed the latest chapter of Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary. A sequel to the 2006 When the Levees Broke, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise debuted on HBO on August 26th in honor of, and benefiting from the perspective of, the five-year anniversary of the big storm. Levees is still pending on my Netflix queue and I don’t get HBO, but I did read the review and a Teach for America reference buried in the second page tweaked my antenna.
Vallas [the young principal of a new charter school in New Orleans] is white, as are many of the young teachers in the Teach for America program who have come to New Orleans in recent years. It’s not clear that that’s an issue for local parents, but the educators’ outsiderness seems to be. ‘A lot of people here trying to teach our kids…do not know them,’ one man says. To him, the criteria for being a teacher in his district should be ‘Do you love these children like you love your own, and would you take a bullet for them?’ This is the definition of a no-win situation: local people who can’t fix the schools themselves but are suspicious of outsiders.
Both the sentiment and the syntax of the quoted community member echo an experience had during my first months as a Teach for America teacher in inner city Miami. Amid the exhausting buzz of setting up a classroom and managing my students, I was also required, as a new resident, to register for a Florida driver’s license. The first appointment I had scheduled had been at a DMV so far away that the gridlock of both I-95 and local roads made it impossible for me to get there in time. The maze of canals and industrial parks that sabotage the organized beauty of the Miami grid system delayed me further. My second attempt was foiled by Hurricane Katrina herself, which taunted Miami before going on to barrage The Big Easy, posing enough of a threat to close schools and summon conscientious homeowners to cover their windows with corrugated aluminum shutters. A week or so later, I made my third attempt. I left the school parking lot with my L.L. Bean teacher bag loaded so full of teachers manuals and worksheets that the Corolla sensor mistook it for a person and incessantly beeped its demand that the seat belt be utilized. I drove from Overtown to Liberty City and found the DMV tucked in a dilapidated shopping center with five minutes to spare before my scheduled appointment.
I parked and walked towards the office. At some point the shopping complex may have been a bustling business center, a reason for optimism for African Americans moving north to escape the crippling population density and toxic poverty of Overtown, but by September 2005 most of the stores were vacant, windows had been shattered and soggy piles of trash nestled in the doorways. A group of young black men stood across from the entrance to the DMV and I ignored their greetings as best I could as I went inside.
I opened the door and the atmosphere fronze. Every person packed into the cramped and crumbling office was black and every one of them turned around to see what could have been the only white 22 year old blond girl to ever set foot inside that establishment. I asked a security guard what I should do if I had an appointment and he pointed to a machine on the wall dispensing numbers and implied to me with his eye roll that I was not exempt from any rules. I sat down. I waited for about an hour.
When they called my name I went to the counter and was told that I would have to pay a 30 dollar fee. Panicking, I admitted that I didn’t have any cash or checks with me and the clerk told me I could go to an ATM at the Walgreens across the street, but that I would have to hurry because they were closing in three minutes. In New York walking across the street or down the block is no big deal, but the situation here was different. I walked as fast as I could through the eerie maze of empty storefronts to the shopping center entrance. I made my way across ten lanes of frantic traffic, the intersection studded with little old Central American ladies hawking bouquets of discount roses and boys offering one-dollar bottles of water, their labels soggy with condensation, to hot and frustrated drivers. I went into the pharmacy and got the money. Coming and going I had to contend with the congregation of men who stood around the shopping center as they amused themselves with the vision of me rushing through their slow-paced stomping ground and responded with hoots and menacing catcalls. I was almost an anachronism: hastily ripped from the elite Northeastern all-women college campus where I belonged and dropped into this poverty-paralyzed tropical neighborhood. In his play Julius Ceasar, Shakespeare exhibits his brilliant sense of the dramatic by signaling the chiming of a clock in ancient Rome, but my purpose in the Liberty City DMV seemed, both to myself and my observers, both more strange and less justified.
I arrived back at the counter with the door locked behind me to any latecomers and the waiting room emptying as the last appointments were called. The woman charged with assisting me asked the requisite questions and entered the data into a form. Suddenly she seemed to be struck with the possibility of the entertainment such an unusual patron might provide. Looking skeptically at my Virginia driver’s license, she said,
“Why you coming down here?”
“I’m teaching at a school in Overtown.” I admitted, trying to be polite but businesslike.
“You one of those Teach America people?”
“Oh so you white people think you come down here and save our children? What school you say you teach at?”
Hoping that the first question was rhetorical, I opt to answer the second. “Dunbar Elementary on 20th Street.”
Though she had been incredulous about my motives only moments before, she now warmed to the hilarity of such an enterprise and turned to tell the clerk next to her, “She at Dunbar. You know, where Tyneka’s baby go. Oooooooh, that’s a bad place, Dunbar! She gonna get shot!” Having attracted the attention of other staff members, the clerk glanced at the form she had been filling out for my name and said, in high spirits and at top volume, “Get down on the flo’ Miss Davenport! You gonna get shot!” By this time it seemed like everyone in the office was laughing and repeating the joke. A clerk three stations down towards the door, an older man who had been waiting to be called, each echoed the pronouncement.
My memory ends there, but, as much as I would have wished it at the time, I know I was not immediately and magically transported back to my apartment. I had my picture taken and was given my license. I smiled tightly and tried to pretend I was comfortable in one of the most confrontational and racially uncomfortable situations of my life up to that point.
Because I don’t drive in New York, it is still the identification I carry in my wallet five years later. My birth month is wrong, likely lost in the confusion of the ebullient dialogue during the completion of the paperwork. The picture is a souvenir of my passage through that experience. There are dark circles under my eyes from getting as little as three hours of sleep a night and attempting to teach all day. I am not smiling. I look pale and bewildered, but grimly resolute.
Part of the reason that I had joined Teach For America instead of the Peace Corps was that I believed that “we Americans” should fix our own problems before traipsing off to other countries and confidently meddling in the affairs of foreigners. But if Liberty City is located within “my country,” no one in the DMV that day would have believed it. I was every bit as out of place as I was during my junior year studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic. Somehow this alienation was both more disorienting and more terrifying.
The clerk’s rhetorical question rings in my ears: “Oh so you white people think you come down here and save our children?” I had wrestled with the challenge with the gentle guidance of professors in college and I would continue to ask it of myself and my peers throughout my three years in Miami. But the conundrum of who should teach poor black children in the United States was never put to me with such brutal elegance as it was that day.
The man Spike Lee interviewed for If God is Willing, says that prospective New Orleans teachers should be asked, “‘Do you love these children like you love your own, and would you take a bullet for them?” For me, the answer, even after a few horrific months in the classroom, was a quite literal yes. At 27 I have yet to become a mother, but I responded to each school-wide lock down, called because of a drive-by shooting, hostage situation, or run-away criminal in the vicinity, by going outside to lock our classroom door with my key and tersely herding my students into the supply closet until the threat was over. Unfortunately, as Teach for America rhetoric resolutely asserts, love is not enough to close the achievement gap. My love couldn’t make Malek’s mother stop drinking or chase away the demons that haunted Tiara. My love couldn’t even teach all 18 of them to read on grade level or pass the state tests. So why do we white people think we can save their children? And if we can’t, should we try?
I’m still not sure of my answer to that question. I believe that my love for my students made an impact on some of them, helped them master a few concepts, comforted a few of them through a rough time. And my love for them definitely changed me, as did experiences like the one in the Liberty City DMV. Are those lessons, changes, small conforts enough to improve American education? Perhaps, if God is willing…