Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Opera

Today is a rare non-scheduled, quiet Saturday morning. Only one set of My Eyes are home, so  I am enjoying the rare opportunity to languish in bed at 8am versus my normal Saturday mornings of searching for a missing sock, cleat, helmet, etc. As I use my phone to check up on all that has happened in the world while I slept, I received a notification that someone sent me a personal inbox message via Facebook. It’s my high school teacher/advisor turned good friend, B. 

In the message she states that she was out with another teacher of mine, Mr. Sinclair, and he told her a story about me. Although her message was framed in such a way that it seemed as if she was asking me if I remembered the story, in my interpretation, it appeared as if she was really asking for details so that I can prove that the story was actually true. See, Mr. Sinclair is an extraordinary man with an incredible gift of story-telling. The type of oratory skills which can oft times leave the listener wondering if embellishments were added for flavor.  In this case, it had not been.

It was my senior year at Murry Bergtraum. Mr. Sinclair was my favorite teacher, although I was never his formal student. Honestly, I have no idea how I fell under his tutelage. I’m trying to remember, but nothing is coming to me. Anyway, if Sinclair said that he “thought it would be a good idea if…” then I followed the “if” with all my energy. Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I started a drama club. So I did. Raisin in the Sun premiered at Bergtraum for one night in 1988. Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I entered a contest hosted by the English Speaking Union as Lady Macbeth. So I did. We won our division and came in second place in the New York City finals. (Funny side bar, the first place winner from Springfield High School, who I didn’t know at the time, ended up being one of the my closest friends in college.) Mr. Sinclair said he thought it would be a good idea if I attended The Opera. So I did, with one of the twenty free tickets some sponsoring agency gave to our school.  

The Opera? What did I, a 17-year-old girl from Bed-Stuy being raised by a young mother and West Indian immigrant grandparents, know about The Opera? Well, I knew two things. One, on stage the performers looked like this:

Two, off stage the attendees looked like this:

So, by calculation, I had one week to transform my wardrobe and style that emulated this....

into that which was worthy of The Opera. Free tickets or not, I had all intentions of looking like I belonged. My plan was to walk in there and let it appear as if going to The Opera was customary in the life of a teenaged girl that worked two jobs and couldn’t name an Opera singer if you paid me. I didn’t even know who Marian Anderson was at that stage of my journey.   

I had seven days and roughly $30 to make it happen. First stop, the cosmetology school downtown Brooklyn. At the school, I had fake nails glued to my fingertips and polished a deep red. I had my hair washed, cut, blown dry and styled. All of the services were free, as long as I didn’t mind being a guinea pig to the “not-yet licensed/Boy, I hope I pass this class/Hey, I have to learn on somebody’s head” students. I was a regular there!!  

What was I going to wear? That was my biggest challenge. My typical attire included mock turtle necks and vintage satin pajamas pants from Canal Jeans where I worked, or jeans with so many holes in them that I had to wear tights underneath them to limit the amount of flesh exposed and of course, my favorite tweed blazer, straight out of my Grandfather’s closet. I marched myself to Bridge St, to the one block stretch of fabric stores. My favorite fabric store was owned by a Jewish family and there too, I was a regular. The mother worked the register and the sons kept the window filled with $1 a yard fabric. That’s usually the only part of the store I ever purchased from. But! This was The Opera! So I ventured passed the window display. There it was. Gold lace!! $7.99 a yard. I broke my budget and purchased one yard! Down the block, another fabric store had black taffeta priced within my regular budget of $1 a yard! I grabbed the Mc Call’s book and went straight to the $.99 pattern area and found a gown! I was going to make a gown for The Opera.

My mother could sew. She was great at the craft but horrible at teaching the craft. I learned nothing from my mother about sewing other than to run for my life when I saw her with pins in her mouth and a scissor in her hand.  My grandfather had a sewing machine that he purchased for my mother when she was in high school. A little oil here and there and a lot of sweet talk and the baby worked most of the time. And most of the time was just enough time needed to sew a black taffeta and gold lace ball gown. Oh, it was gorgeous to me. The bottom was full length and huge. I had concocted a way to create a crinoline and tulle skirt to go underneath from left over fabric from the school’s fashion show.  The top was a sweetheart neckline. I sewed the dress according to the pattern with the black taffeta and then re-cut the top part of the pattern again in the gold lace so it could overlay the black taffeta. It even had a big 1980s bow in the back. That was a personal touch!

The day of The Opera, I took off from work and rushed home after school to get ready.  I put on the brightest red lipstick from my impressive Wet n Wild collection and eased into my ball gown. The Opera, I am ready for you. Well, first I had to get there.  I wish you could have seen me trying to fit that damn dress on the B38 bus during rush hour. Once I got to Jay Street, I had to march my self and that gown down the subway stairs and push my crinoline bottom onto the uptown train. Ask me if I cared? I was regal and Opera bound. I was going to be the first in my family to attend The Opera and I was going to do it with pride!

I remember walking into the building and seeing Mr. Sinclair. Bless his heart. I remember his two words clearly, as he saw me in my gown. He said “Oh my!” As for the other nineteen students who were also at The Opera with their free ticket in hand, well, they were all beautifully dressed in their Murray Bergtraum obligatory business attire. But as far as I was concerned, they were all underdressed.  The Opera was “high culture”.  The Opera was not suited for business attire. I knew better. I saw it on TV. Only gowns and tuxedos were appropriate for The Opera.  If only the bodegas in Bed-Stuy sold those binoculars attached to a stick, I would have gotten those too.  I sashayed myself into The Opera. If only I had known who Leontyne Price was at the time, I would have done it in her honor. The only visual that comes to mind today, will expose my guilty pleasure of watching reality television…Darling, I was Gone With The Wind Fabulous. Twirl! Twirl!

My dear Mr. Sinclair. Not for one moment did he let on how ridiculous I must have looked. There was not another gown in the entire opera hall, on stage or off. Oh this speaks volumes to Mr. Sinclair’s character. To this day as he retells this story he has yet to mock my efforts or me. He kindly opts to frame the story as one that reflects my teenage love of fashion and sense of ambition at the time.  My week long efforts to attend The Opera in “proper attire” was fueled by Mr. Sinclair’s insistence that I was good enough for anything and everything. I owed him my best effort that night, as reciprocity for exposing me to a world well beyond what my neighborhood offered. I owe him my best efforts now, as an educator myself, to continue his legacy of inspiring students to be limitless. I miss that young girl that was full of zeal and lived life blind to boundaries. I have no idea if I will every meet her again, but I know, thanks to teachers like Mr. Sinclair, she was once alive and well and draped in gold lace and taffeta!


Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Top 10 Reasons Why Stevie Wonder is a Genius: Stevie Wonder Made God My Homeboy

I was raised in a Brooklyn brownstone with my mother and her parents, younger brother and sister. For my first eight years on Earth, I was raised Catholic. On the first two floors of the brownstone, where my grandparents and my aunt and uncle lived, Jesus was White. One the third floor of the brownstone, where my mother and I lived, Jesus was Black. In my Grandmother’s parish, Jesus was White. In my mother’s parish, Jesus was Black. In my Grandmother’s parish, you sang from the pews with a hymnbook in your hand. In my mother’s parish, you sang from the pews with a tambourine in your hand. The one thing that was common in both communities however was that Sunday belonged to God. Monday thru Friday, God was present at meals and before you went to bed, but musically God had an exclusive engagement at church on Sundays only.

Stevie Wonder extended God into Monday. He wrote songs with the words “Jesus” and “God” in them that I could play any day of the week. Jesus songs weren’t reserved for the sanctuary when it came to Stevie. Until Stevie came into my life, I thought songs with the words “Jesus” and “God” could only be located on the same albums with other songs about “Jesus” and “God”. Who knew that Jesus and God could co-exist on vinyl with a reggae woman who boogied? Shoot, Stevie even had the words “God” and “hell” placed in the same song! A love song, at that!  He even had “Jesus” and “junkies” in the same song and I wouldn’t get in trouble if I got caught listening to it. I had no idea that I could sing about Jesus and God outside of church and it not be considered blasphemous. All of a sudden, Jesus and God could be heard in my living room on a Thursday or a Tuesday or a Saturday and I didn’t have to stop and pay traditional reverence. I could keep playing with my toys and even dance if I wanted to with Jesus and God present.  

Stevie Wonder took God out of the church, out of religion and painted God as a personal friend. He took God out the sky and put God in me. Talk to God? Whoa! I talked to my friends. I prayed to God. Surely, no one would find it acceptable for me to pray to my friends, so why on Earth would it be acceptable for me to talk to God?  “When you feel your life's too hard just go have a talk with God.”  Word? It was that easy? I could talk to God. No middle man needed? No Priest needed to delivery my message? This was a revolutionary concept to a little Catholic School girl. I had no idea. Stevie let me know that I could “talk to him anytime” and that “he's always around.” Not only could I talk to God, but Stevie said that God would talk back!  “He loves us all, that's what my God tells me.”  So, a conversation with God was truly possible.  Stevie Wonder made God my homeboy.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Top 10 Reasons Why Stevie Wonder is a Genius (In No Particular Order)

Reason Number One: Stevie Wonder Restored My Faith in My Mother.

When I was three years old, I received a blue and white record player that could only play 45s and looked like a mini-suitcase. You had to tape a coin to the top of the needle to keep it from skipping, but in my world it was my most cherished item. My record collection consisted of two 45s. One was The Stylistics “Tell Me Have You Seen Her” and the other was Gladys Knight & The Pips “Midnight Train To Georgia”. That’s all I had and as far as I was concerned, that was all I needed.

My record player looked something like this except this is missing the nickel taped to the needle.

Many moons later, my mother came home with a beautiful album in hues of brown, sienna and burnt orange. When you opened it, it unfolded into a full piece of art that looked like a visual echo.  I thought the best part was the book insert. It was a black and white version of the album covered with each and every lyric written inside. I would read it over and over, even the words I couldn’t pronounce or understand. I thought that book insert was the best thing about the album, until my mother handed me the bonus 45. It was like the prize inside your favorite cereal box. Of course, each morsel of the cereal was sweet and delicious, but it was the prize at the bottom that made the whole experience memorable. Well, that was my little 45.  It had two songs on it. Saturn and Ebony Eyes.

As I played the 45, listening to Ebony Eyes, my mother came in and said “Stevie Wonder wrote that song for you.” Well, at approximately 4 or 5 years old, my mother’s word was bond. Stevie Wonder knew me and wrote a song about me and I had a copy of it! I played that song non-stop. Stevie knew that this little girl from Bed Stuy was “born and raised on ghetto streets.” He knew I loved music and had “a rhythm that [was] made of love.” And most importantly he thought this only child, this little girl, the daughter of a teenage-aged, single, little girl was beautiful. Stevie said I was “a devastating beauty, a pretty girl with ebony eyes”…so it had to be true. 

Ebony Eyes was attached to me. It was mine. Just like every time Shaft entered the room, “he’s a bad mother…shut your mouth” played in the internal radio located in my head, I expected the world to sing, “She’s a Miss Beautiful Supreme” with each beat of my stride.  I too had a theme song, thanks to Stevie Wonder and my mother.

I can remember probing my mother for more information. “When did Stevie meet me?” “Can I call him and say Thank You?” And just as vividly, I can remember my mother dismissing me.  “Girl, I’m on the phone.” “Not now, Cazzie, I’m watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” I didn’t really care that she didn’t answer my questions. I had the proof that I was Stevie Wonder’s Ebony Eyes! I had the 45! My 45! Ebony Eyes was not one of those songs that my friends considered a household favorite like Sir Duke nor was it in heavy radio rotation like I Wish. No one cared that I knew every word to Ebony Eyes or even knew what song I was singing half of the time. That was fine with me. Ebony Eyes was my gift from Stevie. I didn’t need the world to know my special place in it. This was strictly between Stevie and I.  Aisha may have had Isn’t She Lovely, since she’s his first-born child and everything, but I had Ebony Eyes and it was its own separate little 45 that fitted perfectly on my blue suitcase record player.

Well, I care not to share how old I was when I finally realized that my mother was a liar. Stevie Wonder never met me. Stevie Wonder didn’t write no daggone song about me. Yeah, I was a little ghetto girl, but so was every other double-dutch jumping, Ring Ding eating, female child in my neighborhood and neighborhoods like mine across the county.  The 45 came with everyone’s copy of Songs In The Key of Life.  It wasn’t my special gift. It was generic and public. What a fall from grace! Oh well. It was still a great song and I wasn’t willing to abandon the soundtrack of my youth. But I’ll tell you this much, I vowed never to lie to my children and create a fantasy world only to bomb it to smithereens later! As a parent, I never allowed my children to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny or that a musical genius who wrote anthems for them.

Fast forward to January 13, 2001. At the time I lived in Atlanta and attended way too many balls and charity events for my non-social self. My husband had tickets for us to attend the Salute To Greatness Awards Dinner from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center For Nonviolent Social Change, Inc.  As a woman with a degree in African American Studies, finally he picked an event I was excited to attend. However, ol’ boy failed to tell me who the recipients for the night were and he also knew that I wasn’t going to ask. Believing that sometimes the devil is in the details, I tend to skip over them. Well, to my complete surprise and joy, Stevie Wonder was the recipient. I was in a same room, a typical Atlanta hotel ballroom, with Stevie Wonder. Up until that point, I had seen Stevie in concert once in 1995 in Chicago. At that time, I was a broke graduate student with nose-bleed seats located about seven miles from the stage. But on January 13, I would get the chance to speak to the man who wrote my personal theme song.

I approached the dais and there he was. He held my hand and leaned forward. Well, actually, I grabbed his hand and wouldn’t let go, but that’s neither here nor there. I said to my idol, “Funny story. As a child my mother used to tell me that you wrote Ebony Eyes just for me and I spent many years, probably way too many, believing her.” With perfect white teeth illuminating his smile he said to me “But I did write it just for you, my dear.” 

Yes! It was true. I am that “girl that others wish that they could be.” Stevie said it himself. Oh, he put the joy inside my tears! (Pun intended) It was confirmed. I AM his Ebony Eyes and my mother is not a liar. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

There is No Order: My Random Thoughts on Trayvon Martin.

So much of my time has been flooded with thoughts of Trayvon Martin. I considered putting my thoughts into one concise piece, but it’s too overwhelming because there are so many factors.

Let me first share this.

The day the 911 tapes were made public, my son listened. About two hours after he heard the tapes, there was a shooting in front of his school. We left the building about 45minutes before a girl (not a student) was shot. Earlier that same morning a car hit his friend. The culmination of these tragic events caused my son to have a panic attack. In his fury and rage, amidst screams of sheer terror, I heard profound questions and statements for a child that is yet a teenager: “He was almost home.” “He just wanted a snack.” “What if I had after-school (activities) and Mommy got shot? I’d have no parents.” “I’m never going back to school.” “I’m never going back to Florida.” “Why does everyone have to die?” “He (Zimmerman) even said he (Martin) was heading towards the entrance. An entrance is also an exit! He was trying to get away. I heard him (Zimmerman) say that.” It took three of us to subdue him. Yes, he had to be physically subdued.  As a collapsed crumbled ball on my mudroom floor, my son wept.  His one brother wept with him. His other brother just held him silently. His other brother was furious, cause he felt what I felt…helplessness. So while I am struggling to comprehend all the dynamics in the Trayvon Martin murder, I acknowledge that my son’s struggle with understanding his place in the world right now is greater than mine.

So, I am physically and emotionally not in a place to package my thoughts neatly. Instead, I am simply gathering snippets that I wrote in emails with friends or my Facebook statuses from March 9th till today. There is no order…well, because clearly, there IS no order.


-Update: George Zimmerman has yet to be charged in the murder of Trayvon Martin. It is fair to say that I am slowly becoming obsessed with this case. Self defense? He called the police because he was aware of a "suspicious person". He was told not to confront the person and a patrol car was being dispatched. Yet he LEFT the safety of his vehicle with a weapon to confront the unarmed teen and killed him. How is that self-defense? Zimmerman had a gun. Martin had $22, Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea with no intent or display of aggression/malice to the community in which he belonged. The only notions of aggression or malice attached to his actions are laced in the racial social construction of what it means to be a black young man. The "image" of Martin, the beliefs attached to his black body, are SO dangerous that it warrants self-defense for an armed White man with a history of violence? And the police co-sign? If Zimmerman wants to plead self-defense, let a jury decide! Arrest him already. I HATE this story.

- My thoughts in route to work; Pres Obama, I heard you when Skip Gates was profiled. Pres Obama, I even heard you when Kanye West interrupted the Grammy's. Pres Obama, I need to hear you now. I need more than condolences to The Martin family. Before your remarkable achieved status, is your ascribed status; that of a black male. You, Sir, were once Trayvon Martin. This citizen needs to hear you.

Post script: My attorney friends explain why President Obama could not make a comment and if he did, that he could potentially be damaging an open investigation. Additionally, President Obama did answer press questions about Trayvon Martin today.

- My thoughts in route from work: My students today repeatedly made the commentary "If Trayvon Martin were White, this wouldn't of happen." Do I agree? Yes. Haunting my heart, however, is the question "If George Zimmerman were Black, would the nation be up in arms?" Let's bare our souls, family, and be honest. We have come to accept Black on Black violence, Black boys killing Black boys as just another day's events. It is not until "The Other" slaughters a young, Black male do we begin to speak of the preciousness of their lives. I saw a post from a Black female friend overseas that asked "My son is 17 in America, is he safe?" No, he is not...but he never was.

-A Message To My Friend Bill

I am a reader. I don't like being read to. I don't watch the videos when I see a new article on the Internet. I need to read each word and run my fingers over certain words to truly understand. However, I made the "mistake" of going on line and hitting the arrow in the middle of the screen that played the audio of the 911 calls in Sandford, Fl. Bill, I've spent the last hour trying to come back from the dark place it took me. I've been following this case diligently for the past three weeks, but it wasn't till today that I cried. To hear the wails of Trayvon Martin screaming for help is causing my soul to burn. I weep when I realize that his mother and father have had to hear the sounds of their son dying. The world can listen to the sounds of their son dying, yet no one, no institution has come to their aid and arrested this man. Arrest George Zimmerman. Arrest the responding officers. With each cry Trayvon made for his life, I felt my life long personal politics and spiritual stance on the death penalty begin to escape out my body and that scares me. To know that Zimmerman can feel the sun on his face, can inhale the smells of the living and can also hear the cries of the manchild he slaughtered makes me confused by a cornucopia of emotions I am overwhelmed with, in a way I didn't know I was capable of feeling. How many more seconds must this mother endure the torture of having her son's murderer be held unaccountable for his death? Our living is not to be in vain. Damn, Bill. Damn.

-Response to a Facebook status:

As the mother of four sons, yes, it could have been any of our sons...but I pray that is not the only reason our heartaches over this story. Globally, whether you have been the vehicle to allow a black boy to enter this earth or not, we should be outraged that an unarmed child was slaughtered by an adult. The child was hunted. The child begged for help, yet his life was taken. Globally, we should be outraged that a local police officer/s acted as judge and jury and did not arrest Zimmerman. Globally, we should be outraged that the sounds of a child screaming for his life have been recorded for his parents to have to hear...for the world to hear...yet justice has yet to been served. Yes, I too can personally connect to being a mother of two Black teenaged boys...but as humans, we must counter the attack on our black boys. That the "image" of his black body in this predominately white neighborhood was grounds to consider him suspicious is problematic. I cannot bring myself to cast judgment of those who called the police versus going outside. My pray is that some of that audio footage, although horrific, will help bring justice for Trayvon Martin. My continued prayers for all.


A text message conversation with my friend’s 12 year old daughter:

12yrs: Did you hear about Trayvon Martin?

Me: Yes, baby. I’ve been following the case since the beginning. Have you spoken to your Mom or Dad about it? (I then called her parents to ask if they wanted me to continue this conversation with their daughter. They agreed.)

12yrs: Yea, it’s so sad. I wish I could do something but I can’t really.

Me: Oh no! That is not true, young lady. You can 1) Stay in prayer for him and his family. 2) You can write a letter to the Sandford Mayor and/or the police department 3) You can send a card to his family. We can ALWAYS do something, baby girl.

12yrs: I think I’ll write a letter. And also, in a recording, they said the killer’s number.

Me: Yes, but you shouldn’t call him. Let the authorities worry about him. We should write letters to those who need us the most. Trayvon’s family and those with the power to arrest Zimmerman.

12yrs: Yea, but the authorities let him go scott-free (Scotch-free) which is what makes me mad.

Me: Yes, baby, they did. There is a law in Florida called “Standing your ground” that came out in 2005. It is under that law, why they are saying they let him go. It is a terrible injustice. You have the right to be mad. I am very mad and upset myself. It’s been three weeks now and it hurts my heart deeply.

12yrs: Can’t they change the law?

Me. Well,  that’s part of the things that we can do as citizens. We can write letters to Gov. Bush asking to rethink/repeal the law. That’s why you should never feel helpless.  You have a voice in this world. You can always us it to help someone and make it a better place.

12yrs: Ok

Me: Big hug, sweetie.

12yrs: Awwww


- I know it seems small, but my blood boils when I hear the term "The Trayvon Martin Case" on the news and in writings. We did the same thing to Rodney King..."The Rodney King Case." Trayvon Martin is guilty of nothing. Trayvon Martin does not have a "case". Trayvon Martin will never had a "case". Trayvon Martin is not on trial.  Shit, at this point, George Zimmerman doesn't even have a "case"! Let's work on making that happen and leave the term associated with criminal activity AWAY from Trayvon Martin's name.

- "I am Trayvon Martin" has been the FB status of many with photos of themselves in hoodies. I understand. I understand 100%. I don't challenge it. I don't question the movement or the stance. In fact, my FB profile picture is that of all four of my sons with hoodies on.  I must confess, however, that I am not ready to see Trayvon's face replaced yet. I have yet to fully learn and appreciate who he was as a person. Ergo, I am definitely not ready for him to become a symbol. I want to know who this 17 year old boy was in his lifetime. I want to celebrate what he made happy, what brought him joy. I want to know everything I can, some tangible information that can keep him human and alive for as long as possible. He was his mother's son. He was his father's son. He was a sibling. A cousin. A classmate. A teammate. He was a manchild. He was not a hoodie.  I never met him but I'm not ready to let "him" go. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Everything Must Change: My Journey as a Bergtraumnite

I think as conscious beings, at some point, we all stop and wonder what life would be like if we were born in a different time or a different place. I was born in 1970 and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY. My childhood included The Electric Company, Good Times, Sigmund the Sea-monster, Fun Dip, hot peas & butter, Lottos, hard-pressed Lee’s, getting in the house before the street lights came on, neighbors sitting on the stoop or looking out the window who would tell your parents if you “showed out”, three finger name rings, Kangols, government block cheese, Guardian Angels with red berets on the A train, Pop-rocks and double dutch with wire cords. My childhood also included chain snatchings, muggings, Decepticons, rows of burnt out houses, open lots with stray dogs and the birth of crack. If I could have control over when or where I was born, I would change nothing. 

Evidence of the beauty of the haphazard mystery that placed me on this earth when and where it did is deeply rooted in the years 1984-1988 of my youth. I spent 1984 -1988 as a high school student at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers. The same Murry Bergtraum High School that was dubbed “The Worst School in NY” earlier this week.  Yes, I am in education, but I’m not about to blog about education. This isn’t a piece about failing schools, over-crowded classrooms, out of control students, dis-connected parents, ineffective teaching methodologies, poor leadership, low expectations, teaching to the test or educational policy.  Are these all worthy topics? Of course they are! However, today, I refuse in this blog to search for the blame or for the answer to what has happened to my beloved Bergtraum. All I want to do is reflect upon is my journey from 1984-1988 at Bergtraum.

I came from a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn. For the most part, two types of families sent their children to Catholic schools at that time. The first type of family were the ones that worked hard to pay tuition to provide their children with an education that they believed surpassed that of whatever the local public school in our neighborhood provided.  The second type of family that sent their children to Catholic elementary school were, well, Catholics. I came from both types. At the end of the eight-grade, my Grandparents were not happy to learn that I had chosen to go to a public high school.  Though my mother was no longer a practicing Catholic by the time I graduated elementary school, my Grandparents maintained that their granddaughter belonged at all girl’s Catholic school, just like the one my mother and aunt attended. My going to a public high school was surely a step backwards in the progression towards success for two Caribbean immigrants who founded our family unit.

I was actually waited listed at Bergtraum. I don’t remember when I came off the list, but I remember being devastated when they didn’t accept me at the first go round. I remember preparing my self to attend a fairly new school called Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. Nevertheless, I came off the list and my Bergtraum journey began. I lived in Bed-Stuy and Bergtraum is located in lower Manhattan. The distance by the train is 30 minutes door to door, including a stop at the bodega for a pack on Funyuns.  However, I was my Grandparents only grandchild and a girl.  At 13 years old, I wasn’t allowed to catch the train at my local stop of Bedford & Nostrand. I had to take the #38 bus from the corner of Tompkins and DeKalb, across from Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, which was the former St. Ambrose Catholic Church where my family attended and I was christened, all the way to Jay St to catch the A train two stops to Broadway and Nassau. What should have been 30 minutes was 60 minutes for me, each way. The bus ride wasn’t bad, though. Most mornings the bus was too packed for me to get a seat, but by the time those Brooklyn Tech kids got off at Ft. Green Park, I had enough time to finish my math problems for Mr. Seba.

Up until that point in my life, I only had one friend outside of Brooklyn. Her name was Michele, we met at camp and she lived on the Upper Westside. It was at Bergtraum where I made my first friends from The Boogie Down, the LES, Washington Heights, Cambria Heights and the most remote part of NYC known to mankind, Staten Island from a place called Park Hill. I had Asian friends that would bring me pork dumplings that weren’t even available at the Chinese spot around my way.  My love for pulpo salad was born thanks to a Bergtraum classmate. Under the roof of that triangle building were children of every shade of brown, black, beige, yellow and shades of pink imaginable.  Bergtraum was a melting pot. On Facebook today, I posted a news article about MBHS written by a long time teacher. A dear classmate responded to that post and wrote, “It was definitely a way out of the neighborhood, to a whole diverse perspective on life and my city!” Yes it was! Up until September 1984, I knew Bed-Stuy, I knew Clinton Hills and I knew downtown Brooklyn like the back of my hand, but I knew NOTHING about New York City. Bergtraum brought all five boroughs to me each and everyday. 

At Bergtraum, I learned that I could not type to save my life.  At Bergtraum, I learned that I was good at math because I had a teacher who said I was. At Bergtraum, I discovered my love for Shakespeare and attended my first Opera, because the most eloquent, refined and intelligent man I had ever met made sure I was exposed to the Arts. At Bergtraum, I fell in love with fashion and the runway. At Bergtraum, I became the best girl’s volleyball fan ever, cause Lord knows I was born without the athletic gene.  At Bergtraum, I covered a year long battle with alopecia with an array of hats, head wraps made from any cloth I could put my hands on, long bangs that not only covered my lost hair line and bald spots but also my right eye, yet no one ever judged me.  At Bergtraum, I had an advisor who knew I was too prideful to ever discuss any challenges in my life, but also knew that a locker located outside of The Guidance Office that was filled to the brim with clothing, shoes and toiletries was surely not going to go unnoticed for long and moved my locker into her office. At Bergtraum, I disliked by Guidance Counselor because she discouraged my college choices. At Bergtraum, I met a new English teacher who enter my senior year, requested that I take her AP English class (the first time MBHS offered an Advanced Placement class) and contradicted everything my Guidance Counselor said. She knew that at 17 years old, I was working two jobs after schools and was solely responsible for the financing of my college career. She said “I want you to apply to SUNY Binghamton” and I did what I was told. Although not a universal truth, at Bergtraum we planned on living the life of Whitley and Dwayne and attending a college that was just like what we saw on television. If college wasn’t in our plans, well, that was okay too. We were graduating from Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers and surely had a great gig linked up in the corporate world that was far more prestigious than the work our parents did. We made our parents proud.

Bergtraum was fun. Bergtraum was safe. Bergtraum was my home. I knew it then and I know it now. But, what I didn’t know then, that I do know now is that the bonds created during 1984-1988 would grow greater and stronger over the years. Fast forward to the birth of Facebook. Well, maybe not the birth of Facebook, but the introduction of Facebook to the over 30 crowd. By 2008, Facebook was one big, virtual Bergtraum yearbook. I reconnected with close friends from school and connected with classmates that I only slightly remembered but have since grown close to. Since 2008, the MBHS Facebook community has functioned as a family. We “speak” daily. We pray for each other. We cheer for each other. We work together. We visit each other. We share our children's antics (I’m extremely guilty of this one). We post the visual snapshots of the years we missed as well as our daily living photos. But it’s more than that.

Two of our sister-classmates were diagnosed with cancer. We held a conference call prayer meeting. We sent each an Ipod filled with dozens and dozens of songs, dedicated to each of them from their classmates near and far. Each classmate picked a song/s, wrote sentiments of support and we sent them to our sister with hopes that they would both feel our love transmitted through the music. When their battle ended, we grieved together.

When our sister-classmate gave birth to a baby girl with a rare heart disease, we sent baby clothes and items and raised funds for the cause. We’ve participated in major charitable walks in the name of our beloved classmates to help eradicate that that challenges them. 

We are at the age where burying our parents is becoming more familiar. We sent donations and flowers during our time of sorrow. We are in the midst of an economic downturn that resulted in lost jobs. We sent support and dug deep into our professional networks for employment leads.

We board airplanes to celebrate each other’s birthdays, graduations, children’s baptisms and family reunions. I’m sure there are a tons of other examples that I am forgetting and tons more that I am unaware of. We don’t always agree, but we always respect.

A few years ago I started a small annual scholarship at MBHS grad. It’s not a lot amount, probably just enough to buy one semester’s worth of books for the recipient. I named it The Reciprocity Scholarship. I knew that I had to give back to the table that fed me so well. Each year, I read over the applications. I am not looking for the best scholar with the highest grads. I’m looking for the student with drive, resiliency and desire to be helpful in their community. Each year, the stories get more and more heart wrenching. The adversity that these students face is mind boggling, yet they continue to navigate a path toward college, independence and productive citizenship. I’ve been blessed to keep in touch with not only my 1984-1988 MBHS family, but my scholarship recipients as well. There is one I consider my daughter. She lives with me now. Each day I become more and more proud of her and her accomplishments. She is working her way though college and is a member of The National Guard.

I have no idea what the future hold for Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Career, but I know there was a time when I planned my future within the comforts of Murry Bergtraum. Murry Bergtraum took care of me and I've tried my darnest to return the favor. I am thankful for my experience. I would change nothing…not even those mustard and ketchup gym uniforms. In 1988, an extremely talented singer-classmate who I love more today than I did then sang our graduation song. For the bottom of her heart with each note perfectly executed, she sang George Benson’s “Everything Must Change.” Who knew how right she would be? 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Beauty of My Silence

Late Sunday night, I decided to check Boy 3's homework. In his folder was an assignment that consisted of a simple and direct two part question. The question read:  If you could ask anyone one question, who would you ask and what? 
Boy 3's answer was also simple and direct:  If I could ask anyone one question, I would ask my Dad what he thinks of me. I would ask him this because he is not present with me and I want to know if he is proud of me.

So, my boy wants to know if his Dad is proud of him. It's been a few years now since his Dad's death. I, of course, can see the ridiculous smile that would take over his father's entire face when any of boys made him proud. However, Boy 3 is too young to bring forth those visual memories like I can. Heck, I'm not even sure how many visual memories he has of his father. It's a hard pill to swallow, but Boy 3 has no earthly way of knowing if he Dad is proud of him. Or so I thought. 

I posted his homework question and homework answer as my Facebook status. I didn't add any additional thoughts or commentary. I just copied the question and Boy 3's answer. My post was meet with a flood of comments directed to my Boy 3.  

Some from those who knew his father loosely:
    - among a slew of other things, that question alone would make him proud...
    - Tell Boy 3 that I only briefly met his dad, but I know as a father myself his dad would be proud of him for having the sense of presence to ask such a profound question.

Some from those who didn't know his father at all:
   - No doubt he is proud of you honey! Look at you Boy 3! Look at your family! You are awesome! So many people are proud of you and some of them don't even know you! That alone says a whole lot!!!!!
   - He is very proud of all of you!

Some from those who knew his father extremely well:
  - OMG, he is so proud of all the boys... Tell him not only his dad but many of your family and friends are so proud of him, I know I am!
  - From people who knew his dad tell him his dad would be more than proud. He would be walking tall because of those boys.
  - As one who knew his dad well enough to admit him to college, let them all know he is indeed proud, more than proud, as are we all who invest one generation and are humbled to see that faith manifest in the next. Awesome.

Some of the responses were not about his Dad at all. There were expressions of wonder, shared common loss, and words of support.
  - Children have such a beautiful mixture of innocence and wisdom... wow
 - Having lost my mom at an early age I have often wanted to ask that question also. Please tell your boys that dad is truly proud of them and that all the angels gang up to make sure we are always protected. Not just one angel looking out for us but all of them.
 - The conversations we have with those that have past are perhaps the most profound and telling of our true character.... I ask my father a similar question everyday.

See, sometimes, no matter what I say or do, I am just Ma/Mommy/Mom/Mama. No matter how much truth I try to speak about their Dad's love for the boys or the passion in which I express it, I get caught in an abyss of motherhood, which reduces anything I say to my children as an obligatory expression of supportive rhetoric..."Mommy-talk". As far as the boys are concerned, I have to say good things. I have to paint a rose-colored picture.  My authenticity is diminished by virtue of being their mother. 

Hearing others speak of his father's pride added a perspective that I could never provide. Boy 3 wanted to know how each person knew his Dad. When did they meet? Had they ever seen Boy 3 with his Dad? He wanted to see pictures of the people who said they knew his Dad. The pictures of their faces gave life to his Dad for few minutes. For Boy 3, he could see that his Dad had friends and that the person looking back at him on a computer screen off of their Facebook page was evidence of such. He needed see the people behind the comments to make sure they were real. He found comfort in knowing that I hadn't asked for their thoughts or commentary. They simply had expressions that they wanted to share with him. This wasn't something Mommy made happen for his sake. People responded because people wanted to respond. Words said in a voice other than my own is what my child needed. 

Please understand, I was formally taught Leadership, Resiliency and Social Change theory that is deeply rooted in the belief that you never let anyone else speak for you or tell your story. Yes, that is a political ideology, but the personal is political where I come from. I was taught by some of the most brilliant theorist the power behind claiming your own voice. Sharing your personal and political story is a revolutionary stance that we each owe ourselves and the world. Surely, no one else could show my children how much they are loved by their father but me. We created those boys and I am all that is left of we. This was my story to tell and convey to my son. 

My Boy 3 and all those who responded taught me the beauty of my silence. By saying nothing, I unknowingly opened a door for others to fill my Boy's void.  By saying nothing, my son heard everything he needed to hear.  

Thank you to all of you who replied to my status. I am much obliged. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When Good Goes Bad.

Boy 2 and Boy 3 attend a school that is pretty strict and doesn't have a lot of tolerance for their boy energy. The also have an extended school day from 7:50 to 4pm., so by the time I pick them up from school they are about to combust. I get it. It doesn't bother me or maybe I've just become immune to it.  I just need to try to visualize how hyper and rowdy they can be after school and then hold that imagine, while I continue the story.

Nevertheless, I am driving them home from school with another teenage classmate and Boy 4, who is always ready to combust... but that's a different story. We live in an older well established neighborhood. The houses average, I'd say roughly 90 years old with trees that are equally as old. We also have a good number of elderly empty nesters in our neighborhood, as well. As I drive down the block parallel to mine, Boy 3 says "Mommy, we should help her." I didn't see whatever it is he saw, so I asked "Help who?" "That old lady in the yard."  I glance behind me and I see an elderly lady picking up tree debris from her yard, a fairly significant amount of broken branch pieces. This is a no-brainer. I put the car in reverse. I stop in front of her house and I say to the boys "Go handle that." Random acts of kindness in its simplest form. Four able body boys doing what for them is easy labor, so one elderly home owner would not have to do what appeared to be difficult labor for her. AND  it was Boy 3's idea! He saw it and he wanted to help. What a nice simple story of raising compassionate boys, right? WRONG!!

My boys jumped out the truck ran onto her yard with all their "boy energy", began picking up a bunch of broken sticks, headed towards the woman to put them in her bag and damn near gave that poor women a heartache. She clutched herself so tight and started running backyards, all the while say "No. No. No. No."  That poor lady. She was petrified.

Have you seen these new post of Facebook where the photo has a professional title centered and underneath it shows pictures of what people think they do for a living versus what they really do?

Here's an example:

Well, I am going make one for our attempt at a Random Act of Kindness.

"What we think we do"

 "What our poor elderly neighbor thought we were going to do"

I felt terrible. I really wasn't trying to kill my neighbor. I swear, I was trying to be helpful. So, I rolled down the window and tried to calm her down. "No worries, Ma'am. I just sent my boys to pick up the branches, so you wouldn't have to. They can take care of it."  She wasn't feeling me, either. She wanted all of us the hell up off her property. So we retreated.

I will take responsibility for this chapter of When Good Goes Bad. At the heart of this, is a lesson I need to learn about being so daggone abrasive.  It just never occurred to me that the sight of three teenage boys and one minion jumping out of truck, grabbing sticks and heading towards you could actually be frightening to an elderly woman alone on her yard. I'm an idiot. End of story.