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Original Essays | September 17, 2014 4 comments
My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
Placementby Sunshine O'Donnell
When you step into any of the corner bodegas in the most run-down neighborhoods in Philadelphia, you can always find a small display of extension cords for sale next to the big cube of scratched plexiglass that protects the register. Having read hundreds of poems written by children about being beaten with extension cords, I can no longer see an extension cord without imagining the sound and sight of it hitting a child's body. It is surprisingly difficult to pay for that morning's cup of stale coffee without noticing the bright orange and green cords tightly coiled and hung on the wall like trophies, a convenience that it makes it easier to buy an extension cord than it is to buy coffee, cigarettes, or bread.
I've spoken with other people who work in these neighborhoods and they are also amazed and perplexed by this new parental weapon-of-choice. Why extension cords? How did this particular method of abuse gain such wide-spread popularity? The extension cord is now ubiquitous to those of us who have worked with many children who have been beaten by them. Because of this phenomenon, I see extension cords everywhere.
The beautiful seventeen-year-old boy I am talking to is half-blind because one eye was knocked out by the metal-pronged end of an extension cord that was wielded by a father he has not seen for ten years. The extension cord the boy drew for me when we first met looks exactly like all of the other drawings of cords I have received from the children I work with: serpentine, pronged-end rising through the air, frozen in a moment of flight and half-way towards impact, although these drawings are no different than the ones featuring the belts, or the ropes, each again always rising, serpentine, and always drawn in the very center of the page.
Now let's shift the tense from past to present. Instead of this section where you say "My mother was a crack addict when I was just a fetus inside her," you could try, "My mother is a crack addict and I am still just a fetus inside of her." And you may need to change that first line "Mommy, why did you leave me?" because we already have several poems from your class that begin with the exact same line.
When people ask me what I do it's always difficult to answer at first because there is no one-word label for it, like lawyer, waitress, teacher, accountant. What I usually say is that I run mobile experiential art and science programs for inner-city kids and kids "in placement," that is, children living in residential facilities because there's nowhere else for them to go. I explain that I'm not a teacher, or a social worker, or a therapist. I tell them about the literary magazines I create for the kids, the huge art exhibitions I hold for them, the quantum physics projects we design together. I tell them about the lessons in metaphor and simile, the paintings and found-object sculptures, the memoirs and experimental poems, the workshops on quasars and universal connectivity. I say that I love bad kids the little ones and the ones almost-grown who scream, who give up, who hide inside their sweat-shirt hoods and do not even try. But what I want to say is I work in the world you pretend you don't see. I teach kids who are two steps from death or jail. I want to say You live inside of an illusion. You have no idea what's really going on.
There are neighborhoods in Philadelphia that you will never get to see on the guided tour. You won't find glossy photos in the Historic Philadelphia brochure of the small, sagging rowhomes held up by two-by-fours, dealers working inside the abandoned houses, dealers on the corners, hundreds of nightmarishly over-grown lots where houses used to be. These are abandoned neighborhoods that the rest of the city would like to forget, even though they make up the majority of the urban population. If you didn't know better you might think you were looking at the burned-out husks of homes in Kosovo, or a poverty-stricken slum in Africa where no edible crops can grow. When outsiders see this world for the first time they are usually shocked that this kind of poverty and abandonment can still reign unchecked in modern-day America. This is, laid bare, true abandonment. It is a state beyond emptiness, beyond abuse, beyond even neglect.
The boy with one eye has written beautiful poetry about all of these things emptiness, abuse, neglect but what he really wants to talk about is the last time he saw his father. Even though this was the same father who had spent three years beating him with sticks, belts, bottles, and extension cords, the boy remembers how excited he was to see him again. He could barely sit still on the sofa cushions, leaning over the edge of their ruptured piping so that he would better be able to see this strong brown man whom the boy had secretly known all along was a good man, a man who loved him and would someday come to get him. When his father called three hours later from a payphone in what sounded like a bar and said that he couldn't make it, the boy began to cry. He asked himself, Why doesn't he want me? What is wrong with me?
Over the next few years, the boy developed very strong opinions about what was wrong with him. He had also developed some very strong opinions about his father. He's stupid. I hate him. I wish he would die so that I could spit on his grave. But throughout his childhood, every time the father called and promised the boy he would come and get him, the boy sat in his room by his window and pretended not to wait. And when his father didn't come, the boy would shrug and say, Whatever, man. I don't care. He had even learned how to stop himself from crying.
When he tells me this story, the seventeen-year-old version of this boy says, Fuck him. I hate him. He's not my father. I wish he would die. He looks away with his one good eye and down towards his sneakers, which are always so white they seem brand new. He bought these sneakers himself. He says, I wish he would come and see me just one time. He knows that I know the truth: if his father called right now to say he was coming to see him, the boy would puff himself up and say, Whatever man, I don't care, hands in his pockets, hood pulled down over his eyes. Then he would go to the window, rest his head against its frame, wait for this man again.
He will wait for this man again. We both look down at his sneakers, knowing this truth. The boy will wait for this man for the rest of his life, even after the man is dead. The boy will become a man on the outside but he will always be a boy, he will have holes in him worse than the void where his eye once was, he will blame himself, he will be angry and afraid that the things he tells himself are true.
Remember our first physics lecture on cause and effect? You learned that every word you say, every movement you make with your body, everything you do affects everything and everyone in the universe. This means you get to choose, moment by moment, what to say and who to be stupid, smart, mean, kind, weak, strong. You're already everything, you just have to choose which of these you want to be now. Do you have any idea how powerful this makes you? It means that you can create yourself from scratch. It means that you already are the self you wish you could be. Knowing this, pick up the charcoal and begin the self-portraits.
When you run your finger over the lines of the boy's drawings, you can still feel the deep grooves dragged into the paper by the coveted roller-ball ink pen he has managed to hide from the other boys he lives with in the cottage. I don't like that it's called a cottage, though I understand that it's a nice idea to not call it an orphanage or a group home, especially in front of the really young ones. But cottage is a lie, and the boys and girls in placement who live in the cottages know it is a lie. By the time they are placed in the cottages, the children have already begun to suspect that it has all been a lie the promise of family, food, home, that they will be saved or forgiven, or remembered, or loved. But they still want to believe it, need to believe it, clutch onto it all of it including this seventeen-year-old boy who perpetually waits for his father.
This boy is a surprisingly wonderful artist, though he is certain that the loss of his eye was his own fault and that without it, he can't really draw. But his lines are fearless and his work reveals a natural understanding of color and rarity, the kind of things that are almost impossible to teach. His work is magnificent, but he cannot see this. Of course I can't help but see it, and by the time I'm done with him he will have learned how to see it, too. Frankly, that's all I can do.
This morning I saw the shattered glass from a crack vial in front of the main door of the school and I watched all of you step right over it like it wasn't even there. If an alien came down to Earth and saw that, he might think, "Wow! Look at how that sparkles in the sunlight! That's so beautiful!" Or he might think, "There's dangerous broken glass right in front of this school and no one seems to care that a child could get hurt!" You must do this today, see everything, beautiful, ugly, mysterious. You must see everything with Alien Eyes while you walk around the neighborhood. Remember composition, symbolism, light and shadow. Here are your cameras. Let's go.
What I love most is when a student says I can't do it. Most kids walk into their first class with me muttering I can't do it or I don't care, which still thrills me because I love to show them that they're wrong. It's the same rush I get when a social worker says, "He's illiterate, he can't read or write," because illiterate is as dishonest as the word cottage. In most cases, illiterate really means afraid. It means the child has never had a good experience with language, does not know the self-indulgent bliss of reading for pleasure, or the transporting power one feels when creating something out of nothing using words. The child knows small words, is comfortable with them, does not want to let go of what he knows in order to search for something bigger. But the fact is that he does indeed know small words. He does know how to read. If you can swim in water two feet deep, you can swim in water twelve feet deep. If you can read small words and write small words, no matter how poorly spelled, you can read and write a novel. A child's mind is quick, it wants to learn. Hook it with some Alexie or Plath, and suddenly it wants to write, too.
I never tell my students you can do anything as long as you try and work hard because I know first hand that this is not true. Instead I say you are capable of anything, though this statement has a double meaning they may not all understand. Capable of what? Creativity, grace, love, kindness, strength? Absolutely. It is because of these capabilities that I do the work I do. Rape, murder, incest, dishonesty, theft, genocide, cruelty, slavery? Absolutely. It is because of these capabilities that it becomes, day by day, increasingly difficult for me to have hope for our race.
I do, however, have hope for this boy. I know that I can't change him or save him, but if I can do this one thing if I can just, for a moment, teach him how to see it he might someday, later, have some of what he will need to recover and grow. He may be able to get an education or a job, to get out, to love a woman or a man, to love his own children without beating them or leaving them. To make mistakes and then learn from them.
You forgot that mistakes make the best art. I know you're upset because some dust got onto your painting while it was drying, but now your painting has a completely new dimension. Ninety percent of the dust we see every day is made of dead skin flakes, which means that this piece has incorporated a totally original medium human skin. How does this change the aesthetic and meaning of the painting? What if you used hair, or blood, or ashes from an ashtray? There are no rules here. Yes, of course we will all help you find more dust.
I am often asked whether or not I am afraid to work with these kids, in these neighborhoods, because the boys are so scary looking, but once they're inside of my classroom the brittle veneer falls away and they don't seem scary at all. They just seem scared. And lost, living as they do in a thick fog of loss, terror and sadness. When I look at these boys all I see are children who want to be loved. It doesn't take long for me to break them, to surprise and enchant them, to make them feel safe enough to drop their thug airs and just be children who want to be loved. The girls of course take longer. This is because they've had to shroud themselves in steel in order to survive. They're more angry than afraid, and they're smart, they're cruel, and know how to use their mouths as weapons. But they're also children. In their poems they don't want to write about abuses, instead they want to know Why. Why did you leave me? Why don't you love me? Why didn't you come back? Why did you hurt me? Why did you rape me? Why did they take me away from you? Why won't they let me come home?
According to the statistics, by the time the boy with one eye is twenty-one he will be either dead or in jail although he could also end up homeless, or in a gang, or a dope-addict, or all three at the same time anything else is not likely. But anything else is why I am here, though already I see in his face a pain that I know could be instantly erased, for a moment, by a hit of something strong. I wonder what could do it for him, maybe smack, crack, sex, murder, self-loathing. I know it will not be therapy or school. While he works on his painting, a thin willow branch taps against the other side of a cottage window that does not open.
Art is not supposed to be pretty. It's supposed to be honest. Imagine walking into a room full of strangers and shouting MY FOSTER MOTHER ONLY FED ME EVERY COUPLE OF DAY! Or maybe EVERY SNOWFLAKE THAT FALLS IS SO BEAUTIFUL IT MAKES ME WANT TO EXPLODE WITH JOY! What would happen? People would laugh, or think you're crazy, or just ignore you. But if you write it down, paint it, sing it, sculpt it, thingify-it, suddenly it becomes Art. And then all those strangers want to take it seriously, they want to listen.
In my office, by the bookcase, there are several precariously perched stacks of ruthlessly honest chapbooks designed by my students. The titles jump out in bold black-and-white. "Listen to Me," "Notice Us," "Something Missing," "What You Can't See." My students understand that it this insidious not-seeing which has allowed so much damage to be done to their lives, their families, their neighborhoods, their species. This is why, when I tell them that hunger and preventable disease are still the top two causes of death for humans, they are not surprised.
The adults in my life are surprised, though. They are also surprised to learn that I am not optimistic about humanity, that I think our species suffers from a basic genetic learning disability. It is a not-seeing disorder, an organic brain malfunction where cause-and-effect thinking is hindered. I myself cannot believe that if we just keep going, this time it will be different. This time the boy's father will actually show up. This time the girl's mother will stay in rehab. How many failed second marriages are built on this belief? How many wars fought, religions assembled? Hope is not enough for a species that still needs to learn how to learn.
No, I don't have hope, but I do have patience, and love, and the ability to see the brilliant artist in each child, to see and show the gorgeousness of an abandoned house caving in on itself, or a pipe half-eaten with rust, or how everything is connected and somehow beautiful in this violent and vast universe.
And so not all of my students' work is sad, angry, lost. Some of it is silly, loving, lustful, enraptured, proud. There is joy in their learning; they love to hunt through my old books of poems, to thumb the air-stained pages. The edges of these books are perfectly browned, wood-color, earth-color, the color all things on the earth eventually become. When the boy with one eye paints and ask me how to make brown for faces, I tell him, Just mix all the other colors together. Brown is the unmeasured mix of all colors, every color falling back to earth, the color of ruins.
Before we start, let's remember that the universe is made up of processes, not things. This table, these shoes, the planet we live on, these are all mostly empty space with a little bit of matter that's constantly moving around and falling apart. This table is temporarily in the form of a table. Your hand is temporarily in the form of a hand. Everything you see and touch was once something else and is now turning into something else as we speak, and there are tiny little meteorites called neutrinos that are showering down through all the empty spaces in your body right now. You can't feel them, but they're there, and like the table and the shoes and your body and the planet, the neutrinos are already on their way to becoming something else.
The boy's body is wisp-thin even though this is what he has for dinner most nights: McDonald's quarter-pounder, super-size fries, a giant plastic cup full of corn syrup and dye dissolved in chlorinated water. For lunch he has a bag of chips and a barrel-shaped plastic bottle of Hugs, which is water mixed with purple ink and sugar. A bottle of Hugs is only twenty-five cents. Throughout the day he drinks about six Hugs. He never eats breakfast. I make him read the ingredients listed on the bottle of Hugs and he cannot pronounce most of them. I tell him, "This is not food. This is eating holes into the fatty sweaters your neurotransmitters wear. This will make you depressed, it will drop your IQ, it will set up your brain for drug-addiction."
Actually, I don't tell him this last part. Although maybe I do. I'm amazed by the things I find myself saying. I am concerned for this boy the way that I am concerned for all of the children I serve. I love him as I love them all. Like him, they are all capable of anything. Like most of them, this boy believes in God and salvation, and damnation; he believes that someone will someday forgive him or save him. Until then there will only be pleasure by television, sneakers and sleep, forties and weed, a filling up of food and objects. A sense of missing, of not enough, and nothing I can do for him will fill his deep thrumming need-holes.
Of course I do not tell the boy this. I tell him, instead, you can do this, because this is also his truth. I tell him life is short, he can only control his own self, he has choices, he is brilliant, he is beautiful, he will make it out. If he can graduate, stay sober, not knock anyone up, he will make it out. For now, he is still stuck inside of it and because of this he cannot see it, and no matter what I say or show him I cannot make him see it. But even without seeing it he knows how to draw it, he paints it, he writes it down. It is painful but better than paralysis. I look down at the heart-breakingly white sneakers. I put my hand on the top of his head while he writes the words I don't know what love is because no one has ever loved me. His pen moves in stops and starts across the page. I want to shout to him that I love him, he is loved, he is lovable, he will love, but it's too soon for me to say any of these things. Instead, I stand there, loving him, fiercely, and I watch him write, and I smile, and I tell him You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.