Wednesday, July 24, 2013

No More Outlaw

The night I left the teaching profession, I lay in bed on my stomach, half asleep. It felt as if brown and gray butterflies were drawing themselves out of my back. Butterflies that carried on their wings all the things I had felt as a teacher: fear that being myself with kids was somehow wrong. Fear, knowing that at any minute as a building sub I could and would be called to cover a class with no time for preparation. Preparation is the only thing you have to arm yourself with as a teacher. Feeling less than. Shame at being paid less than my kids at their college jobs or babysitting gigs. Stress, so much stress, knowing I would be asked to teach with no working technology, not enough staff, no supplies and little effective supervision or support. They drew themselves out of me, like night moths, and flew slowly away, out the open window and into the summer air. And I breathed quieter and went to sleep.

I have left teaching, or more accurately, teaching left me. My graduate school has all but stopped offering School Library certification. There are few jobs as school librarian to be had anywhere. Pittsburgh's school libraries are staffed three times a month. Philadelphia will begin their 2013-2014 school year with no recess or lunchtime aides, no assistant principals, no school secretaries, no music or art teachers, no librarians, no school nurses and no money for books, paper or supplies.

The majority of Americans have shut their eyes to corporate forces privatizing public education. They either don't care to read what experts like Diane Ravitch and Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation are saying, or don't make it a priority. Instead, they subsist on the panem et circenses the corporate media spins. They go on vacation three times a year, send their kids to private schools, tut-tut over news stories, and think about their next shopping trip or what to wear to the next big gala. Or they are so frantic to make a living that they exist in a never-ending cycle of catching a bus, going to job one, going to job two, trying to parent, and then starting over the next day. I don't know what the folks in the middle are doing. Not enough-- when it comes to political action and American education.

It doesn't have to matter to me now as a teacher. I'm not one anymore. I'm a public librarian in an impoverished and ignored neighborhood in Pittsburgh-- the Hill District. Now I get to teach in a new way, without all the fear and stress and pain. Now I get to worry less about classroom management and getting and bringing my own supplies and technology, and stretch out and think about what works. I'm lucky. I found a home.

This home will be what my blog reflects from now on. Random Thoughts of An Outlaw Educator will take a different path. I'll be educating-- but outside of a classroom. I'll always advocate for kids and I'm sure I'll still be marching and writing letters to the editor and signing and circulating petitions. But the need for me to be an "Outlaw" is over. I can educate from within a system now. The Pittsburgh Carnegie Library system. And I can say goodbye to those dark butterflies that lived inside of me for so long. With relief and blessings. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pearls Before Swine

June 6, 2013

Dear Tribune Review,

Thank you for covering our story! We highly appreciate you shedding light on our positive activity. With your help, we've hopefully encouraged others. We thank you for taking time from your day to interview us. Our story being included in your successful newspaper will surely touch people's hearts. Most importantly, without your help, Marcus White Jr.'s mother would not have seen people of all ages, colors and neighborhoods in Pittsburgh who have her family in their hearts.

Thank you,

-Langley Justice League

This morning, an eighth grader wrote this thank you note at Langley in appreciation of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. The Tribune Review sent a reporter and a photographer out to our school to cover our Langley Justice League's Marcus White Jr. project. (See Pittsburgh Langley K-8 Justice League in this blog for more details.) She worked quietly, independently, and produced this jewel of a letter.

The letter exhibits the true good that public schools can do. Yes, we teach kids literacy and maths, social studies and science. But a public school funded by taxpayers has a higher, richer obligation than just these skills: we teach kids basics of citizenship in America. To take part in the democracy our founders envisioned, kids need to be able to tolerate difference. They need to be have empathy for others. They need to find themselves in an environment that acknowledges and treasures their individual generosity, kindness, compassion and multiple strengths. Some kids are great at standardized tests. Some kids are great at seeing injustice and responding to it. Which is valued more by our Governor, our Secretary of Education, our President? It ain't the answer it should be.

The beauty kids have inside. This is the sticky part, the part that can't easily be quantified, data-fied, measured, marked, evaluated and yes-- tested. This is the part that matters the most. And this is what teachers from Detroit to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to Sacramento have been fighting for. The right to nurture the gifts their students have as people. With fully funded music, sports, art, library classes-- and flexibility in the core subject areas so "teachable moments" from the wider world are welcomed, not feared or avoided.

It took an outlaw to create the Langley Justice League. Here's a circuitous route to what I mean: I was let go from Community Day School a year ago. Since then, I've been subbing in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I've applied for many jobs in this District and outside of it, getting none of them. So I continue to sub. I gross $100 a day for this work, and it is hard. I have financial obligations I'm not meeting. I spend a lot of time doing manual labor in 90-degree heat and other things below my area of skill and expertise. I'm outside the system, looking in. That sucks. What doesn't suck is the freedom I have.

I don't have to teach a curriculum somebody from afar designed. I don't have to worry about pacing-- getting the whole curriculum done, which can disallow forays into topical subjects. I can swerve into current events-- the local murder of a toddler, for example-- without fearing my VAM score will drop, or my RISE evaluation will be poor. Being the lowest man on the totem pole has it's advantages. As long as I'm doing right by kids, I've been allowed to do what I want to do. But there is a price.

I know if I were to get one of the jobs I'd love to have-- the security of it, the ability to truly grow professionally, the deep relationship building with staff, families and kids, the chance to work at my level of expertise and skill, the chance to earn a salary that a good teacher with a Master's Degree can earn---I'd have to sacrifice. I'd have to sacrifice a lot.

Due to Governor Corbett's billion dollar cuts to our education budget, there are no jobs for school librarians in Pittsburgh. Due to people's apathy to the damage done by programs like EITC credits and other back-door vouchers and the $1 million a day over payments to on-line charters, our public schools are-- in Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation's words-- bleeding out.. I'd have to go back to school, get an additional certification, pass more expensive PRAXIS tests, gain certification in another area-- one that is less aligned with my interests, skills and gifts-- I'd have to sacrifice my Master's in Library Science. I'd have to become a different kind of teacher to get a job in this District. And that's supposing that even though we are on track to be BANKRUPT in 2 years, I'd get any job-- in any certification area. It seems like a bad bet.

And if I got a job, I'd be responsible for upholding the dictates of No Child Left Behind and the implementation of the Common Core. My wings would be clipped to some extent by these damaging educational policies.

So I'm subbing. And I'm being allowed to teach the way I want to. I show up with my own curricula (based on what the required curricula are) and my own supplies and technology, because no school I've been in had adequate amounts of either to meet my needs. I pay for the freedom I enjoy in classrooms throughout Pittsburgh with the fact that I don't have a permanent job. Most teachers can't do that-- they have a job, they have their curricula, they have their RISE and VAM to think about-- they have to keep their kids' health insurance, their wages coming in. Many don't have a husband (like I do) or a wife who makes a salary that keeps food on the table and health insurance that fills their kids' cavities, puts glasses on their kids' eyes, and pays for their kids' antibiotics and hospital stays if they quit. To teach how they want to. To sub, like I can. If they have a Principal who is focused on test scores to the exclusion of other things, they are trapped. It's not fair. It's terrible for kids and it's terrible for teachers. It's terrible for our city, our state, our country.

Teachers are ACHING to be the teachers they dreamed of being. They want to do special projects, take the time to teach about things in the news as they come up, sew quilts, plant gardens, trash a curriculum if it doesn't apply to the kids in front of them and experiment, be creative, spontaneous, trusted. Sometimes they can do that. Sometimes their Principals, their colleagues, their engaged and active parent base, their school board supports them in this. Other times, they can't. So-- either they take the outlaw route like me, subbing and hoping for a chance to get some good teaching in there--or they hope for an incoming Principal who will allow them to break rules. Principals would like to break more rules, too. They want good teaching to happen. So do folks at the Board of Education in Pittsburgh. They sincerely want Pittsburgh Public Schools to be all they can be, and often are, in spite of a despotic Governor, anorexic funding and vampiric educational policy.

But there are state dictates that must be fulfilled. They are tied to funding. And that's the part that sucks the most. The Catch-22. It would be nice to be a district wealthy enough to turn down the dictates that come with the funding associated with Common Core, Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

As I walked in to school this morning, a teacher I've seen but don't know well congratulated me on our Justice League making the TV news and the newspaper last night and today. Then she said, "...that tall boy...the one in the picture in the newspaper? I've gotten to know him a little. Do you think we can find a way to get him some private music lessons? He's so gifted. He has so much good inside him. I don't want him to go the wrong way. He's so special. Who can we call to get him some music instruction? He deserves it so much..." This is a white, middle aged woman, a teacher for many years. As teachers do, she is advocating for an African American boy not her own. Will this affect her VAM or her RISE score?

How about the Principal at a different school, the one who is buying a homeless child a suit for graduation because his parents are deceased? Will this affect his evaluation?

Of course it won't. The thought of trying to quantify these humane instincts is repugnant. These are the people and stories that make public education what it truly is. A place where democracy is lived. A place where teachers and administrators are first responders to poverty. THE place, for some, where children are noticed, and known, fed, clothed, loved. Can't quantify that, Mrs. Rhee, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Obama. Can't-- and shouldn't-- turn that into data, Mr. Gates.

You shouldn't have to be an outlaw to be a good teacher. You should be allowed to adapt curricula to the kids you have in front of you, not worry about what will happen if you don't implement outdated, boring or inappropriate stuff. You should have everything you need to teach well-- enough time, technology, money, supplies, air conditioning, clean schools. Kids should have music, art, library, sports, and flexible curricula offered by rested, trusted, treasured teachers not stressed and under the gun. Teachers shouldn't be wracking their brains for ways to get kids the enrichment opportunities they need and deserve.

 Principals should be trusted to allow teachers to invent their own flexible curricula. Boards of Education shouldn't have to choose between cutting off an arm or a leg to provide adequate education for their kids. And most importantly, the jewels of our country, our national treasure-- our children-- shouldn't be pearls before the swine of failed educational policies dictating so much of their lives.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pittsburgh Langley K-8 Justice League

When kids decide to change the world, amazing things happen. Subbing at Pittsburgh Langley K-8, I began work with a novel study intervention group. These 8th graders had been working with Mrs. Ebony Lunsford-Evans, who, a week or two into my new assignment, sat at her desk, crying. She had just heard the terrible story about the murder of an 18-month old in East Hills. Marcus Lamont White, Jr. was at an afternoon cook-out with his two Aunties. Somebody started shooting at the group. One Aunt tried to shield the baby with her body. She was shot twice. The other Aunt was shot in her leg. Little Marcus was shot and horrifically, died.

Mrs. Evans was just destroyed. I had heard the news too. We decided to scrap our lesson plans for the day and just talk to the kids about what had happened.

That's when our kids decided they had a choice about how to respond. They decided to do a fund raiser to benefit the family. Working with the most amazing human being on the planet, Mrs. Nancy Burns of CitiParks, they met Tosha Brown, the graphic artist in the video, above. They decided to call themselves F3-- Fighting for Our Future-- or the Langley Justice League. They worked out an equation describing what they are trying to do and who they are trying to be.

Then Nancy brought Chef Odette, Chef Tiny and Chef D to Langley's culinary arts suite. The three experts taught the kids some basic culinary arts skills and helped them to bake many dozen cupcakes, brownies, etc. The sweets were for a bake sale-- manned by the kids. Today was the first day of the bake sale-- and we sold out. We had originally set our goal at $100. We made $285.

Here's the delightful part: lisping Kindergarteners, looking solemnly at the beautiful tall boys selling cupcakes, handing over their dollar bills, awed. Janitors who refused free cookies, demanding to pay for the cause. The teachers who bought their whole classes treats to support Marcus's family. The KDKA reporter who called, wanting to try to cover the story. The reporter from Urban Media Today who showed up, talked to the kids,  stayed for the whole sale, and promised to cover the story.

Media attention to these positive stories is so important. It honors the generous impulse of the child in a way that makes them feel powerful. It models and displays positivity and what Dr. King called Soul Force for all Pittsburghers and the world. And it puts public schools and the good they can do front and center.

Tomorrow our miracle worker, Nancy, is going to try to bring donated fancy cakes from bakeries around the 'burgh to raffle. Demands for t-shirts printed with our equation are loud. And our 8th graders are preparing to graduate-- and take their new model of their own power and potential out into the world. With love and compassion-- for Marcus, and for us, in service to our city.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Remember this??

It has been an amazing year. From a miracle in Manchester to Haiti, what a long, strange trip it's been. And stay tuned..there are new developments developing...:)

Social media campaign brings books from around the world to...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

Excelsoir-- the Most High

Yesterday was Sunday. Leon is the Bishop of the Church in Christ for Haiti. His grandparents established a church on a mountain many years ago near their home. It is up 205 stone steps, cut into an entirely vertical mountain. We prayed our way in the truck up the mountain path-- and it is a path, barely large enough for Leon's van. We didn't pray because we are religious people. We prayed because the city of Port-au-Prince lay panoramaed three hundred zillion miles below the sheer drop of the side of the road. PRAYED. And I almost had a stroke when the van BACKED UP and tried to turn around. It backed TOWARD Port-au-Prince. Our rear end teeetered toward the brink. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there are no atheists in a machine in Haiti. NONE. Miraculously, we didn't die. I think it was because Papa Leon was in the van. He's good luck. Our Father, Who Art in Haiti...Leon is His Name.. Either that or it's because I've apologized to the Voudoo Mama for any offense I may have caused. My camera roll is frozen on a picture and I'm worried it's because the Voudoo Mama didn't approve of me taking her picture. What to do? I mean this in all seriousness, without joking: maybe I'll have Leon bless my camera. Maybe that will seriously work to fix it.

But I digress. So! We made it out of the van alive and scrambled like the baby goats all around us up a gravely dirt hill. Then we saw them. All 205 steps. Lord. The dang sprightly yoga-doin, vegan-eatin, long-walk takin, size-6 wearin part of our group just charged right up. I took the steps one at a time, huffing and puffing, only pride keeping me moving. Don't be the last one. Don't be the last one. Yeah, but I was, but our beautiful Haitian translator stayed with me, smiling patiently. I took pictures as cover when I needed a breath. And I made it to the top.

 The world unfolded like a satin robe. The airy blue Carribbean. Tiny toy boxes, all in a jumble-- Port-au-Prince. The long green runway for the airport. The radio towers. And far away, the encircling mountains, wearing their cloud hats. I turned around and was greeted warmly by a tall man in a suit, smiling gently and beautifically. He welcomed me to his church and I went inside.

The church was destroyed by the earthquake. That means that all of the clean white cement walls, the towering wooden supports for the roof, each piece of tin for the roof, all the pipes and rock-- all of it-- was carried with love and devotion up that crazy fake road that was really a trail, up those 205 steps-- by a person. It was cool inside. Silk flowers cascaded from columns. Long wooden pews faced a round window in the front.

In this country with no running water available to most people, no washing machines, no electricity for most, and no no no no money, everybody was dressed in sparkling clothes. The whites were blinding. No skirt, dress, shirt or coat had the slightest wrinkle. Women were singing already. It is one thing to be wakend by angels singing in a neighboring church. It is another to be in it. I immediately started to cry.

It's the only response that makes sense. You are suddenly thrust into a cauldron of beauty, and you melt. The voices of these people. These women! They do more than their share of holding up the sky. They may be the ones who hold it up for us all. I think of the woman who will die of breast cancer because there is no treatment here. I think of the children whose teeth have rotted to the gum because their mothers give them soda rather than the filthy water available to them. I think of my students at home, beautiful, intelligent, dressed in filthy clothes for school in a country where everybody has running water and electricity. I think about Marie Estelle and her long dusty walk to work in the guest house....and how she arrives spotless, smiling, her face radiant. In the words of the civil rights mother who spoke them, "My feet are tired-- but my soul is rested." Marie Estelle takes pride in her work. Her shoes may be dusty, but her warm hands make the guest house a home. In Haiti, parents helplessly watch their children starve or die of preventable disease. They respond with song. Their throats pour liquid goodness, strength, love. In awe, I cry.

We are ushered to a long wooden pew. We are told it is not rude in this church to take pictures. The service, in kreyol and French, begins. The women stand up, turn around, and kneel, their elbows on the wooden pews, their bony knees in the cement floor dust. And suddenly I'm pissed.

Why should these women-- the trees that grow and spread and sustain the whole country-- grovel in the dust? It has to hurt. Their knees are bare. The floor is rough. They are down there a long time. What the hell??? Why should these magnificent human beings kneel? To anything or anyone? In the DUST? Hell NO! I want to rush around the room and lift them up. I want to knock the lovely preacher aside. I want to magically speak French and shout, "Get up! You kneel for nothing- not man, beast or god! Get the hell up! Don't you ever kneel again!"

What has praying got them? What does all this time singing God's praises really done for them? And then I remember to have a little humility. I can not know what their faith means to them. But it most likely is part of what sustains them, of what waters the trees. I can not decide for them that it is stupid. I am an outsider. So I sit there and cry instead, watching a tiny brown angel dressed in a diaphonous white dress trimmed all over in lace.

This baby is universally loved. About one year old, her head is encircled with lace. Her tiny ankles are covered in creamy white lace socks and her feet in miniature shoes. She toddles down her pew. Each woman, sitting, supports her, touches her. The baby stops, all tired out. She drops her head in the soft head of the woman at the end of the pew. The woman gently strokes her head. The baby, rested, toddles toward us. I hold my breath. Will she come to us? She stops, fingers in her mouth, and regards us. Here is all the treasure in the world. The most precious, the most beautiful thing. She assesses the all-white pew I sit in-- all of us on the trip. Unafraid, unintimidated, she swerves and goes to the pew in front of us and begins her walk down it. Again, parishoners know and love her. One very old woman in a green head scarf picks her up and snuggles her, whispering against her cheek.

I realize that Americans have every material thing and a rotting culture. Haitians have no material things and a culture that embraces what matters. I pray that this baby will make it long enough to be a spreading tree, full of wisdom herself.

Rabbi Sharyn Henry gives the sermon. Leon translates. It is the day before Yom haShoah-- Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sharyn speaks of Neg Maron-- the symbol of Haiti. Untoppled by the earthquake, he watched the presidential palace fall. He will never crumble. He is the spirit of Haiti. She speaks of Viktor Frankl, whose wife sewed his life's work into his coat before he was deported to Auschwitz. When Frankl arrived at Auschwitz, his coat-- carrying his life's work-- was taken from him. It was replaced by a coat that had belonged to murdered man. Inside was a small piece of paper-- the Shema-- the central prayer in Judaism. Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel! The Lord is One! Frankl realized his new life's work was to retain his humanity in the most inhumane place.

Sharyn spoke of those many Jews who sang Ani Ma'anim as they walked to the death chambers. It is a song expressing perfect faith in God. To me, this act was an act of rebellion. As if the Jews were saying, you may kill me in a million ways, but I will not be moved. I will remain myself. I am indestructable.

At least one Haitian wept. The rest listened, rapt. Sharyn said, we are alike, you Haitians and we Jews. We cleave to the same five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These books and our faiths have helped us survive. You rebuilt your church and your lives against enormous odds. You have a mighty and glorious history. So do we.

Later, at the guest house, Jimmy-- Julienne's fiance-- welled up. He was trying to express what it meant to him to hear Sharyn's words. He said he cried in church as he listened. He said no one has ever compared his culture to another culture favorably. His forefathers did their part, he said, they gained their freedom from the French, the Spanish. But his people are still enslaved. They have given up hope. They don't know their past. They don't teach their children. They don't know about Toussaint.

Jimmy speaks Portugese, French, kreoyl and English. He was not born speaking these languages. He sacrified and walked and worked and finangled a way to learn. He wants to study politics, linguistics. He can not do that here. There are no civil services-- no trash collection, no mail service, no human infrastructure, let alone universite. He hopes to go to Canada to study, then come back here to serve his people.

Wadson, one of our translators, walked from Thomassin to Port-au-Prince as a child with his brothers to school every day. From Thomassin to Port-au-Prince. They started before dawn, had no lunch at school since none was available, and then walked home again to study. I think of our privileged, corpulent children stuffed with all manner of food they don't need who ignore books so they can use a lever to move light around a computer screen as if it is the only thing that matters.

Wadson's daughter, Shaamela, has a developmental delay. She is three but is the size of a tiny two year old. She doesn't speak. One eye doesn't track. Wadson lives in a one room house. They must gather wood to cook with and they cook outside. Every day. I don't know where they get water. Wadson is here before eight and stays after five. He never takes a break or stops working. He remains strong and smiling all day. He makes twenty US dollars a day translating for us. It may be a month or more before there is work again. What will Shaamela's future be?

After church, congregants embrace us. To a person, they all kiss us. Every one. I've never been kissed by more strangers and I've never liked it more. To be kissed by them is a blessing that will bring me joy for a long time.

 Leon's great aunt welcomes us her grandparent's house. She and many church women have created a gorgeous lunch for us. We are welcomed with more kisses and a lovely buffet. Roasted goat, tiny pink fishes, fried whole, grilled dried sardines, fried okra-- absolutely sublime!!-- picklies-- a kind of spicy coleslaw without mayonaise. Fried plantains, mountains of fresh pineapple and oh give thanks to all things holy-- chopped Haitian mango. I overindulge. The mango is silky, creamy soft, luscious. That holy juice runs down your chin. A lemon gateaux the size of a wagon wheel. We sit outside under the beautiful trees and eat, Haitain and American. In the face of the all the volcanic things that challenge us, we can celebrate some of the joys of being human. Our skin warms in the sun. We sit close together. The lovely food smells, tastes, looks delicious. We kiss goodbye.

I think: these people are the most deserving of good luck and good fate and good will in the whole wide world. Allelujah.


Here is Rabbi Sharyn Henry's sermon:

Bonjour, good morning. My friends, the members of the FLM team (Marian, Nancy, Cindy, Barbara, another Nancy, Susan, Sue, Sheila, Robynn, Rebecca) and I are so very happy to be with you this morning; it is has been our pleasure and privilege to have worked alongside you this week, and we all feel blessed by our time with you. Thank you for so warmly welcoming us. I am deeply honored to be sharing the altar this morning with Bishop Leon Pamphile, my friend and teacher.

Hinei mah tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.

These words, set to a livelier tune, were the first words the students at Kolege devays Pamphile heard from us this week, and they apply to this moment as well. Taken from Psalm 113, the words mean Behold—or WOW—how good it is and how pleasant when brothers and sisters sit together.

My new friend Wadson suggested that I speak about faith this morning, the deep and unwavering notion that God is always with us. God is with us in good times and in hard times, at all moments, at every moment, and throughout our whole lives.

There are times when having faith in God is easy—when our children or our grandchildren are born, when we find love, when our days are fulfilling, when we make powerful connections to one another,

when the skies are blue and clear and when our hunger is satisfied and our dreams look like they might come true. On those days, or in those moments, it is easy to say, without thinking, as if by instinct, Hallelu-yah—praise God.

Yet, there are other occasions when life is hard; when people we love are gone, when our dreams don’t seem possible, when we are sick or worried, or impossibly tired from the weight of our burdens. It is in these times that we have to work harder to see God’s presence, to gain strength from God’s strength, to feel God’s gentle, healing compassion.

Your life here in Haiti is full: full of profound joy as well as immeasurable and vast challenge. You are strong and resilient, and you are proud to be Haitian.

My people, the Jews, have also endured unthinkable hardship throughout our long history. Our strength and resilience comes from the same fountain as yours: the long-standing, powerful, and meaningful traditions and the faith in God that we find in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, God calls Abraham, “Lech L’cha—go forth; go from your land, from the place of your birth, leave everything you know, and go where I will show you. Abraham and his wife Sarah were people of faith, and we, their children continue along the path they blazed.

Faith adds joy to our joy and lifts us up when we have fallen. And like the fragile flower that fights its way to emerge from amidst a pile of rubble—which we have all seen here in Haiti—faith can arise from darkness and despair and it can flourish.

In this spirit I would like to share some exquisite lessons; two lessons emerge from one of the bleakest and most horrific events in Jewish history, the Holocaust, and one has its source in the story of Haiti.

Tomorrow is a significant day for Jews, because it is [Yom HaShoah] Holocaust Remembrance Day. During World War II, half of the world’s Jews—nearly every Jew in Europe, six million people including one million children—were systematically degraded, humiliated, tortured and annihilated by German Nazis. Six million others, including those with physical and mental illness, and others who were considered sub-human, were slaughtered.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day we remember those who died and we say Never Again will we allow such hatred to come into the world.

On this day we can learn powerful lessons about faith in God, from the stories of people who lived through that time of unspeakable horror, as well as from those who perished. These stories inspire us today—those of us with daily, heavy burdens, those of us with scars from the earthquake only three years ago, those of us with doubt and questions.

There is a tale told of Dr. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist from Vienna who was sent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. He survived, but all of his family was killed. Before they were deported, Frankl’s wife sewed one of his manuscripts, an unpublished book, into the lining of his coat. This was his life’s work. When he arrived at Auschwitz, however, his coat, with the manuscript, were taken away from him.

Later, he was given an old raggedy coat that had belonged to a man murdered immediately upon arriving at the camp. When Frankl reached into the pocket of this coat he found a single page torn out of a prayer book. The old man had stashed a page of his precious prayer book into his pocket, the page containing a verse from Deuteronomy central to Jewish belief: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Hear, O Israel, Adonai [the Lord] is God, Adonai [the Lord] is One. This verse proclaims our belief in the one God.

At that moment Frankl understood that to survive we need a reason to exist; we must have a purpose and a set of sustaining beliefs. Frankl’s book and his discoveries were not what would give his life real meaning. Rather, at that moment he understood what I now know Haitians understand: it is our inner lives—our faith in God and our connections to what is good and true and just and lasting —that give us hope and the strength to face the challenges of our lives.

Survivors of the Holocaust tell stories about Jews singing as they were being marched to their deaths. Often, the last words on the lips of these people were words of profound faith: “Ani maamin b'emunah shleymah b'viat ha-mashaich—I believe with complete and perfect faith in [God].” V'af al pi she-yit-mah-mayah, im kol zeh ani maamin—and even if [the situation looks hopeless right now], I still believe.”  Regardless of how terrifying or painful the moment, no matter how bad it looks right now, we will not lose faith. No person or storm or illness or challenge can take away our confidence that God is with us and there will be something better, some day.

My last story comes out of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that destroyed lives and property and touched literally everyone on this island.

Dr. Joia Mukherjee arrived in Port au Prince less than 48 hours after the earthquake.  Like many of you, Dr. Mukherjee has excruciating memories of what she saw in those first few hours, but the image seared most permanently into her soul is one of hope and faith.

After the first day, when she and the other doctors on her team treated 800 people, Joia asked an aide worker, “Kote Neg Mawon—Where is Neg Mawon?” He took her to the destroyed national palace, and there in front of it, still standing tall, was the statue of Neg Mawon. The symbol of Haiti, Neg Mawon represents nobility and freedom, and it cannot be toppled.

In 1804 the Haitian slaves defeated the army of Napoleon, making Haiti the first and only nation founded by a slave revolution. At the time of the revolution, 70 percent of the slaves had been born free men and women in Africa. This victory resulted in Haiti being feared—but also tormented in one way or another by the world’s powerful countries for the next 200 years. As a dramatic symbol of Haiti’s struggle for freedom, Neg Mawon stands, shackles broken, machete in hand, defiant and unafraid. He blows a conch shell to call others to freedom.

I wonder, what does it mean that Neg Mawon did not fall but the presidential palace was destroyed? Perhaps it is for the same reason that Frankl found the page from the siddur in his pocket after his manuscript was destroyed: the truth endures.  One thing is undeniable: Haiti is broken in some ways but invincible in many others. Haiti remains strong in the most important ways. You, the free and faithful people of this hard-won land, alongside people of every faith who care about you, all of us, together, and together with God, we are Haiti’s strength.

Let me end by listing for you some of the little, but enormously meaningful ways in which we have seen your faith: you name your children Emanu-el—God is with us, and Shammaela—God is there; you name stores and tap-taps El Shaddai and Yahweh and Elohim—all names for God; your teachers read the Bible in the five minutes between classes, you pray as you wait in line to see the doctor. You get up and you find work and you care for one another with kindness and generosity and devotion, and you praise God with every fiber and bone in your body. And every day, in good times and in bad, you pray and you sing:

Ak Confiance

            By faith we will walk

            By faith we will triumph

            By faith until the end

            God will give the victory.

Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Eglise de Dieu en Christ

Boutillier 1


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Voodou and the Hotel Olaffson

It's the site of the famous movie The Comedians, based on Graham Greene's famous book. I am not prepared for it. Who could be, after Port-au-Prince? Yet the Great Glass Elevator has jolted sharply away from the ruins and tent cities and starving eyes and pulled up at a tall metal gate with another armed guard.

We pull in to the compound and wonder at the lushness of it. A circular driveway surrounds an enormous, round, outdoor bar, white columns holding up a rounded roof. Around the bar are gardens: banana trees, palms, tropical vines, shocking pink and red hibiscus starring the green. We arrive-- at a tall wooden building festooned in gingerbread. The wide steps lead to an outdoor dining room. Indoors is a kind of nightmarish paradise. One stone wall is covered in a red and blue vooduo dreamscape-- animals and people, eyes and lips separated by several feet. It is alluring and frightful.

Inside the restaurant is a place for Ernest Hemingway. Is he here, smoking a cigar and drinking some hair of the dog? You expect to round a corner and see him. The bar is backed by a gold-framed antique mirror. On either side of that are plaster busts of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, glaring down. Spooky. To the right is a tall curio, filled with stone Arawak and Taino artifacts. You feel her before you see her. She's right there, on top of the curio. She's guarding the past. A voodou doll, looking very much as if she's made of an authentic shrunked head, hideously watches. She is holding a baby, who she feeds a bottle of rum. Her eyes roll in wide directions. She sees everything. You want to get the hell out of there.

So you do. Back at the long table for all of us, the wait for our sandwiches takes what feels like hours. Up again. I wander the garden. There is a rectangular swimming pool, fed by a splashing fountain. The water is vaguely swimming-pool color, but suspiciously cloudy. It is lush but scary, like everything else at this place. I investigate the round covered bar and the gardens. Poulle!! Ti poulle!! Chickens and their babies wander all over Haiti. This seems reassuring and sweet. Until I notice the crosses on the trees. Voudoo crosses were borrowed from Christians, but they don't just symbolize Christ. They symbolize the intersection of the physical and the spiritual worlds. I want to appreciate without fear the animist religion of these people. It is intellectually interesting. I wonder if the garden I am exploring is used for voudou ceremonies. I wonder if I am treading, unwelcome, on sacred ground. I wonder if I'll be cursed. And then she is there-- a statue-- filled with spirit.

She's a naked woman, straddling a djambe. She is anatomically correct-- her vagina clearly enunciated. One enormous cement snake curls around her lower back, winding around her shoulder to kiss her ear. Another is wound around the djambe, and is nursing from the woman's breast. She doesn't seem to mind. I do. Holy shit.

Valerie, my honey bunny translator, just turned 19, comes to protect me. He always shows up somehow when I'm scared. He explains that the owner of this place is a voodou priest. Julienne and Valdano, one of our translators, wait by the car. Valerie tells me they refuse to come in because of the voodou. Is it fear or disdain that keeps them out? I don't like it.

Finally it is time to go. Some of us have been hitting the rum punch hard. I had three sips-- and put that stuff down. Oh Mother of All Things Holy-- they don't make rum like this in the United States. It's a cross between blood, acid, gasoline and something very, very good. Like Haiti itself. I think that voudoo statue's breasts must pour this stuff out when nobody's looking. We get back in the van and leave the glorious, sexual, sweltering, frightening, exciting voudoo palace behind.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

In Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl, Charlie Bucket and his parents, four grandparents and their giant brass bed and Mr. Wonka explode through the roof of the chocolate factory, punching an enormous hole to make their exit. Then they jerk and crash left and right into an unknown world-- space-- filled with Vermicious K'nids and faraway stars. That's what we did yesterday. We squished into a glass-and-metal box and blasted back and forth through various worlds and time periods. Sixteen of us went in a chartered bus-like machine down our peaceful mountain into places unknown. As Mr. Wonka would say, we were lixivated.

Decending the mountain is itself lixivating. Up here in the rarefied air, we see vast arrays, swaying banan trees, are cooled by soft, clean breezes. As you wind your way down the mountains toward Thomassin, you are corkscrewing down through zones of hell. Thomassin isn't that bad-- lots of crowding, etc., but Port-au-Prince, oh, Port-au-Prince is when you've really arrived to the real deal. In the bus,  at first you balance and shift so the soft part of your arm doesn't bother your neighbor's arm. Your legs smash against each other but that's not as big a deal. You wish your butt was smaller because you are worried you are taking up too much room. You are. Your arm has nowhere to go. It is starting to get very sticky and wet. So is your neighbors'-- on both sides. Ew. Finally you give up and just stick together. It's kind of icky, but you manage it. You aren't even a quarter of the way down the mountain yet. First we sweated our way to Croix-Des-Bouquets, a lovely name. It means Cross of Flowers. HA!!!

The landscape here is as schizophrenic as everything else. On one side of the road in Croix-Des-Bouquets are the only large, flat agricultural plains I've seen. They are plowed and ready to be planted as the rainy season approaches. They are beautiful, with the looming mountains wreathed in early morning cloud behind them. Julienne came with us, and she said here were the sugar plantations so long ago. The landscape transforms as you realize that lovely rich dirt is drenched in blood, the blood of centuries of slaves and indigenous. And as you enter Croix-Des-Bouquets, you see the lottery kiosks and trash everywhere and gashes in the unpaved road and peoplepeoplepeople and you wonder where the flowers are.

And that's when you make a hard slamming right down a long dirt road to the orphanage, past four guards with enormous machine guns and a tall metal gate, and you find the flowers-- the little girls who live here. This orphanage is owned by the United Church of Christ, which our benefactor and host, Leon Pamphile, is the Bishop of here in Haiti. The compound is enclosed by cement block walls, the ubiquitious razor wire and the guards I mentioned. These guys seem like bad-ass hombres. Mirrored sunglasses, guns from their shoulder to the ground. Yikes. What are they guarding that is so precious?

We enter the orphanage, a large two-story wooden structure with cool tile on the floor. We are ushered in to the dining room-- a long, narrow rectangular room with a twenty foot long table. And here they come: little girls of all ages in bright-pillow case dresses, tied at the shoulder with ribbon. They have been told to kiss our cheeks, and dutifully they do, with purpose, not missing one of us. Although it is clear they have been trained to do this, I can't deny it is completely charming. I am immediately on their side and enchante-- they are so sweet, these little ones. We ask them to sit around the table. We sing Hineh Mah Tov-- my entry song with every group here in Haiti. It's a loud, bouncy call-and-response. The kids here get the Hebrew immediately-- perfectly. They start to smile. I clown and act a fool. I would do anything, I know, to make their smiles grow. So I do. I dance around the room. They hide their smiles, put their faces in their arms to hide their laughter. It is delightful. I'll be a fool for them any day of any week.

We break out rainbow-y pony beads and stretchy cord, giving every girl handfulls. Busily, they get to work, absorbed. We run around the room, all four translators and the twelve of us-- bringing scissors, tying knots. When the damn cheap elastic breaks, beads cascade to the floor. We rush to bring new. We adults sing every French song we know: Frere Jacques, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The girls know most of them and they sing gamely with us. Then they begin a song of their own. A hush falls over us. Their voices are magical. They sing like angels. I have goosebumps. I start to understand the four armed guards. I start to get mad that there aren't more. There is child trafficking here. These girls are so sweet, so precious.

We loosen up. The girls politely take our cameras and take pictures of us. Then they start taking them of each other. My iphone is my carte blanche will kids all across this country. The kids immediately know how to use it-- probably without having seen one before-- and finger through all my pictures. They laugh at my doggie pictures from home. Technology, like music and art, is a new lingua franca.

I have brought a few books for them. Some of the girls have enough English to read them. They are transfixed. They crowd around Zelinsky's Rapunzel, Deedy's 14 Cows for America, Selavi, Winter's Nasreen's Secret School-- a book about a secret girls' school in Afghanistan. I wish I had brought more books. Children's libraries appear to be unknown here. I drink in the sight of them reading, exploring illustrations, and they drink in the books. We are mutually fed. What a glory and a joy!

Back in the Great Glass Elevator. We are headed to Port-au-Prince. And the joy begins to fade. The closer we get the Port-au-Prince, the more it feels like we are approaching a terrible, terrible bloody car accident on a highway you can't look away from. One of the most famous tent cities expands to the horizon on our left (gauche.) It is a warren of tarps and mud. To our right (droite) there are Eqyptian pyramids of trash, a thousand years old, smoking. Cows, each emaciated rib visible, munch on garbage. Scrawny dogs with runny eyes lay in the gutter, somehow alive. People with small suitcases full of odd candy or plastic wrapped cookies or plastic trinkets sit in the blazing sun, or under USAid tarps, filthy and tattered, held up by sticks. We turn down an alley to see the ruins of the Catholic Cathedral. It looks like it has been bombed. Tall cement walls, once stately, set with round and intricate windows, have been gutted and chopped half-way up. There is no roof. Rubble closes off the end of the road. Beggars surround our van, desperate, angry, million-year-old eyes looking in. The people say, "please."

The driver kills the transmission, turns around, drives. We go to Neg Maron, the national monument. Neg Maron is a statue of a former slave, shackles broken, a machete in his hand, blowing a conch. He has freed himself. He will fight for others. And his conch calls to the world to recognize the basic, inherent rights of man. A life of dignity. Freedom. He is iconic. I have been waiting a long time to see him. We get to the site of the Presidential Palace. It was destroyed in the earthquake and is all gone. Razed. To the left, across a wide street, is the statue. We are told his is a very unsafe place for us to be. We may not take any bags out of the van with us. They must stay with the driver, where he can guard them. I think he is armed. We are told our iphones are most definitely in danger. I take mine anyway. Common sense is not my strong suit. No beggar, no danger is keeping me from seeing Neg Maron. Some elect to stay in the van. Not me. I leap out, surrounded by street artists at once, folks who are desperate for a sale. I ignore them and race across the wide street, a suicidal act for sure-- tap taps don't slow down for pedestrians here. I make it. There he is. He is majestic. I kiss his hand, veined and enormous, fisted around his machete, the weapon of his freedom, and his children's freedom. My sweet boy, one of my favorite translators, Valerie, has run with me. He laughs at this white woman kissing Neg Maron. He is rather incredulous. He is, perhaps, beginning to see that a person doesn't have to be Haitian or Black to know what it is to honor the fight, the struggle, the desire for freedom. He hugs me.

Quick! Back in the van! Lots of street artists are coming, and we don't want to be outnumbered. To the Hotel Olaffson for lunch.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Daily Miracles and Things to Love

We changed our prompt for the quilt squares. We were going to have the children imagine a perfect world and paint it-- unique to them of course, their visioning. However, our time with them turned out to be shorter than we thought, in the open air or in classrooms of over 50 children. The classrooms are constructed with open bars at the top, so that the din is overwhelming. Reading a story to such a group has not worked well.

So-- to bypass our stories (ack!!!) and the art prompt that extended the literature, we asked the kids to think about things they love and paint them. Rabbi Henry talked briefly about the prayers for daily miracles. I showed the eighth graders see the quilt square I have begun, with the few kreyol phrases I've learned: (kote mango? means where's the mango? Mai mango! means there's the mango!) and flowers I have seen and loved. I told the children that they are the most beautiful thing I've seen so far in Haiti, but that I can't capture them in a painting. I told them the gorgeous, colorful, growing flowers I've seen-- the ones I've tried to paint-- represent them.

Then we spread a plastic painting tarp in the "playground" and made "pods" of ten quilt squares on clipboards, paint brushes, all kinds of fabric and glitter and trimming. We let the kids have at it. This class was a little rowdy in the ESL class over the last few days. I was prepared to bring my teacher voice out and have kids escorted away if they misbehaved. (So mean!) Ha! This simply did not happen. Once again, art is one of the universal languages. Silence, concentration, hard work. The kids took their clip boards off in far corners of the courtyard to work.

We noticed that sometimes the kids passed their clipboards to others to work on. They are working collaboratively, naturally. This is unknown to me in an American classroom. I've meted out many a scolding to kids who maliciously scribbled or marked on another child's artwork while the artist cried. Not in Haiti. The boys and the girls together focused and worked with great relish. I can't wait to share their work with you.

Here are other Daily Miracles:

The choir singing at the church, a mellow, lovely chorus for us at the guest house at all times of day.

Tranquility-- banana leaves, huge as a twin sized bed, waving in the sunny breeze. The chickens wandering happily over the dirt. The people, calm and dignified, going about their daily work. Calm. Lovely. Unrushed.

The frogs at night speak a strange language-- a call full of notes. Night birds sing. The caprice flowers-- long, white morning glories that hang upside down like a Japanese lantern-- open their snowy hearts in the evening.

Bouganvilla, wildly overtaking cracks in cement, peeping over walls, gallantly swooping down from fences in white, pink, fuschia, red, orange.

When you take a person's picture here, they don't smile. They sit up straight and lift their chin. They look stern and proud, as if to say to the world, Haiti is strong. I am strong. I carry the history of ten thousands in my spine. You have to react with a kind of awe.

The food. Today for breakfast Marie Estelle, the kitchen angel par excellence, made her creamy oatmeal with star anise. If you sprinkle it with the coarse, hard brown sugar and let the sugar melt a little--- it tastes exactly like creme brulee. I'm not kidding. Fresh pineapple and fresh squeezed orange juice. Breakfast cassarole with eggs, potatoes and ham. Homemade raisin rolls. All food is homemade here. All. I asked for a glass of juice from the morning late this afternoon. I wanted to dissolve some medicine in it. Julienne asked me to wait a moment. She gathered some oranges and soaked them in the bleach water she uses for all of our fruit. She cut the oranges in half and hand squeezed them. When she handed me the cool glass, I slunk away in shame from having put her to so much work. But I also absolutely enjoyed every last sip. Want a peanut butter and jelly? All the bread is tall, fluffy, warm from the oven and Marie Estelle's hands. I'm gaining weight like crazy.

More miracles: Shabbat in Haiti. Marie Estelle and Ann, the former guest house manager, worked together with Julienne, the current guest house manager, to make Shabbat tonight. Ann brought a lace table cloth and sacrificed her red amaryllis. She put some asparagus fern and the stately flowers in a cut crystal vase on the table. She carefully braided a challah and sprinkled it with poppy seeds. There was roasted chicken, rolls starred with rosemary from the garden, green beans, carrots, potatoes, rice and red beans, oatmeal cookies, Haitian coffee. We gathered around the table, all of us, Leon Pamphile, our benefactor and Haitian father, the house staff, the Rabbi. We breathed in the week we've had and thought. The sun slanted through the tall windows. So much has happened this week, and we are honored and gloried by all of it. We thanked God for the experience and opportunity to be here. Then we sat down and ate and laughed.

Bon nuit, mes amis. Tomorrow is a big day-- we visit the orphanage Leon has created-- 30 girls who are being cared for in Thomassin proper. Then off to Port-au-Prince to visit the Fortress Henri, the Hotel Olaffson and an art gallery owned by a woman from Israel and her husband, a Palestinian. What a land to be in! What a blessing and a gift! Love you all!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Haitian Sun

We strategically planned last night-- to the class sizes, age ranges, interests and physical space available to us and girded our loins for a blown Plan A as we rose. The rain was pouring. Plan A was to take 68 kids into the flat cement and dirt "playground" to paint their quilt square. Our idea for a prompt had evolved. Rabbi Henry, the rabbi in the group, suggested that we use the Jewish prayers for daily miracles as a starting place. She was to discuss this with the children and ask them about things they are grateful for every day-- then ask them to paint these things. There is no room in the classrooms to paint, so no bueno on Play A. Can't paint in the rain.

At the guest house, we swung our legs over the back of the truck and envied the ones who got to sit on the wheel cover. Much comfier than the bed of the pickup. We sloshed back and forth down the steepest incline imaginable, over a road that was a road only in name. More like a collection of different sized boulders, truthfully, sliced through with deep groves that sent one side of the truck jerking down at an alarming angle. There are no atheists in the back of a truck in Haiti. To say my life flashed before my eyes would be excessive, but I did imagine my skull smashed like a pumpkin if the truck flipped over. I hoped it wouldn't. Clutching each other, with one woman on my knee and another using my other knee as a safety bar, we made it to the school.

And the sun came out. In all kinds of ways. We found a tarp to place in a hall on a veranda. We took twenty-five sixth graders onto the veranda and left the others in the classroom, who now had greatly increased elbow room. Each group of ten or twelve kids got seven colors of paint-- the rainbow-- and a brown, white and black. They got a Dixie cup of plastic jewels that sparkled, paint brushes, water and glue. Rabbi talked to them about our idea for what they might paint. We held our breath. Would it interest them? Would it be relevant? Were the translators able to get it across?

The silence once the groups were in their painting spots was our answer. Our children, boys and girls, sat in engrossed, brilliant, happy silence. The painted, they drew, they bejeweled. They didn't have to be told to use all of the space or to be neat or do their best work. Orange houses grew beneath their hands, and palm trees and pictures of families. Many flowers, huge and glorious, bloomed on the quilt squares. Maps of Haiti and the Haitian flag. Jesus' name, like painted valentines.

We couldn't get them to stop. Our finis time came and went. We canceled our next group and let them stay with it. It was wonderful.

I went to a first grade (a preschool) and these tiny ones painted tap-tap buses. Their teacher sang the Haitian anthem and the Kreyol alphabet song. I sang America the Beautiful and A-B-C. We smiled at each other a lot. Barbara Broff Goldman, the artist of the trip, was downstairs sewing rouge, jaune, orange, vert et viollette ribbons on quilt squares with fifth grade. I found that although I felt (and sounded) ridiculous, my 8th grade French helped a lot. Thank you, Reizenstein et Madame (my French teacher-- can't remember the dear lady's name. But thank you anyway!)

We came home after school and showered and rested.Marie Estelle is grinding spices in a huge wooden pestle in the kitchen. Something smells delicious.

I went out on the veranda and took a long breath. I watched the rooster and his huge poulle family hop around a field. An emaciated cow chewed patiently, slowly, nowhere to go, the sun warm on her back. I watched the waving banana leaves and the bouganvilla bobbing in the breeze. I'm turning from blanche to rouge. I'm breathing again, soaking in the Haitian sun. It feels great.

Dark and Ugly

The female doctor with us is tall, very lean, blonde and pretty. She didn't bring a suitcase or even a carry on-- all she thought was necessary was one slim backpack with scrubs inside. The skirt we are required to to bring for church on Sunday will be donated, she says, after she wears it. Susan Dirks is an interesting woman who drops things in ordinary conversation off-handedly such as, "when I was in India..: and "my husband is Zorastrian..."

Susan came into the guest house hours after the rest of us yesterday. She spent the day in the clinic that is tucked under the guest house. Stupidly, I was admiring the people who were lined up at the clinic by 7:30AM, their children, their picturesque-ness. I even asked if I could take pictures. One woman had the sense to tell me no. I was a little offended--what do you mean, no?? It didn't sink in until later that day that HELLO-- these people are sick. Would I welcome snap shots, waiting in Med-Express when I didn't feel good? Thankfully, the truck came to cart us to the school and I was eclipsed to do my part of this mission. Susan, stethoscope around her neck and blue-scrubbed, went to do hers.

She joined Doctor Judith, the harried and too busy Haitian doctor who works in the clinic every day. People have to make a two dollar donation to be seen, so they bring great numbers of family members to all be seen together. Most walk very far for the treatments the clinic is able to offer. At mid-day, Susan snacked on a power bar between patients. When she finally rejoins us, most of us have been relaxing for an hour or more.

Someone asks, "Has it been bad? Anybody have any serious problems?" Susan nods her head. One woman has terrible breast cancer, broadly metastasized. "What can be done for her?" someone asks. Susan shurgs, her face sad. "Pain meds."

We are all silent for a moment, digesting this. No saviour will come for this woman, by accident of her bad geographic luck. Once we are gone, will there be any more medication to help her ease pain? How can a person stand the kind of pain that must come from a body being overtaken by cancer cells?

The Hillman Cancer Centare and the new Chidlren's Hospital hae never seemed so precious. Susan tells us that she aslo diagnosed a baby as blind today. Her mother walked miles because the child's movement seemed off-- clumsy. Now she knows why.

There is no medicine in the clinic today. There is some ibuprofen and a pirate's treasure trove of plastic tubing and syringes. But limited antibiotics. No real pain medicine.

We sat in a circle last night, digesting the glorious beef stew with ginger dumplings and root vegetables Marie Estelle made for us-- and the stories of our experiences. Each woman told about her day and her feelings. Some of us-- especially me-- are facing our inadequacies. Why the hell are we here? Susan wonders what real good can come of her time with the 60 patients she saw yesterday. How do you send a woman filled with cancer home with ibuprofen and feel as if you did any good? Mostly she dispensed comfort.

I wonder aloud, how could I have brought duffles full of paint when the clinic's medical stock is so depleted?? What the hell was I thinking?? I suggest we trash our plans to do stories and art at the school and go into Port-au-Prince in search of medicine for the clinic. It must be such an outlandish (and most likely) impossible task that the rest of the group doesn't consider it. Is there medicine there to buy? Could we as a group afford it, get it, bring it back? We continue to share our thoughts.

Many of us feel frustrated. We are coping in different ways. The needs that we are seeing are so overwhelming that we all feel like Susan: facing a dragon with a feather in our hands. Some of us have lashed out at others. Some of us, like me, have clowned, gossiped, sniped and withdrawn. They are all ways to cope with the crumbling ground beneath your toes as you stare into the long, dark abyss of human need we are glimpsing.

I have to stagger at the thought of trying to articulate my experience as a guest teacher-artist at the school yesterday. Mothers pick up their sons from school in America, and after their little boy has buckled up, Mom puts her arm on the passenger side seat, twists around, smiling and asks, "How was your day?" The little boy looks out the window. "Fine," he says. It's all he has. There is too much to say, and no energy to say it. It is impossible at that moment to try to relive and retell all the moments of interpersonal power-play and minute-by-minute success and failure, the bullying in line, the brisk attitude of the lunch lady you look up at from the lunch line, the jokes the teachers make in the hall, the way your best friend wouldn't play with you at recess, the math you didn't understand.

We arrived at the school with the idea that we'd organize the five duffles of art supplies we brought and get set up and ready for today-- Thursday-- the day we would start our program. My idea had been to read the children Karen Lynn William's Painted Dreams. The story is about Ti Marie-- little Marie-- who loves art. She draws on the side of her house with brick and charcoal until it is time to help her mother at the market place. Ti Marie's mother's market stall is unlucky-- they have a hard time selling their vegetables and the family struggles to survive. Ti Marie loves to watch the bocor-- voudou priest, busy at his easel with his paints. She dreams of having enough money to use real paints and a sparkling white easel. That evening, she steals some almost-used up paint tubes from the bocor's trash. She makes her way to the market stall and paints a scene of a beautiful world-- huge food, colorful birds and butterflies, tall trees.

The next morning, as Ti Marie and her mother approach their stall, an enormous crowd has gathered. People from the countryside have come to see this amazing painting, and they stay to buy all of Mama's vegetables. Ti Marie's talent and imagination have brought strength to her family.

We brought four hundred quilt squares with us and a hundred bottles of bright acrylic paint. We have satin ribbon, sequins, glitter, fabric, floss, needles and thread, beads. We want to invite children to create their "magic world" like Ti Marie on a quilt square. Our idea is to bring the quilt squares back to Pittsburgh to digitally photograph and finally sew together. We'll send the quilts back to the school to brighten and inspire the children.

Yesterday, our set-up day, was chaotic. The storage room had no shelves to organize things on-- so our duffles cool their heels on the cement floor. We dashed from classroom to classroom, singing songs, making pony bead bracelets and trying to do the work of getting the lay of the land and establishing trust, anticipation, happiness.

We did that, I think. Lots of smiles, songs learned, happiness. I danced a sixth grade boy off his feet, to the delight of his classmates. The sounds of Hineh Mah Tov-- a Hebrew song that means "How good and sweet it is to be together as friends!" rang throughout the school after we left. The children tried to teach me "Papa Abraham," one of their songs, but I failed. Only the first kreoyl line remains.

All to the good-- but here's the problem. There are over fifty kids crushed against each other in some of the classrooms. The floor is dirty cement. Their "desks" are a single skinny wooden board that runs the length of the benches they are squeezed on to. The board is slanted downward.

You can't paint when you can't move your elbows. You can't sew on beads when your workspace is slanted toward the floor. You can't spread out with a white canvas quilt square to the floor when it is covered in mud. We decided last night to welcome one class of 67 to their "playground"-- an uninspiring mud and cement flat in front of the school. And guess what? This morning there is torrential rain.

It's almost funny. I am starting to wonder if Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Tiger Emperor, striped with scars from the slave master's whip, who personally went village to village with a machete, killing the remaining French men, women and children after his successful revolution, is bringing revenge on this group of well-intentioned white women. Good intentions without antibiotics and medical knowledge sucks.

I am wondering if my mission-- to bring stories and art to these children-- is a milquetoast, white bread, first-world stupid stupid stupid blunder. And then I think of the one little girl in the class of fifty one who was sad-- we didn't know why. Twenty minutes into our thirty minute class, she started to privately cry, silently, covering her face. We had skipped her by mistake. She didn't get pony beads and stretchy cord. She had waited so patiently and so politely. We got her some. But does it mean what we are doing is fun for them? That they like it? That that has meaning?

Who knows? Another white woman with good intentions does not bring light to the eyes here. I am awash in all the dark and ugly things I have inside-- the feeling of impotence, the self-doubt. Vive la Ayiti. Suck it up, buttercup. The mud is sucking, the rain is pouring, and I have a class waiting for me in two hours.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Waking Up in Haiti

The guest house through the gates, past the smiling and mightily armed guard, is shocking if you've just driven through Port-au-Prince. There is a tile veranda with large glass tables and umbrellas. Chives starred with purple flowers and fragrant rosemary grown in pots next to tall waving flowers that wheel like pink kites.

Inside the tall glass doors is a great room with pale yellow walls reflecting the light. Orange mexican tile flows past a living room with spotless new windows and a desk with a working computer and printer. There are four tables hanging with table cloths and a huge metal butterfly that brightens the far wall. A quilt some children made hangs on a fancy metal bar above some cane-seated chairs. There are four bathrooms-- SPOTLESS-- and four large guest rooms. In each guest room are three bunk beds with colorful, new quilts.

Julienne is the manager. She is warm-faced like the sun. She smiles widely and welcomes us and gives us the lowdown:

No smoking, no drinking, this is a Christian establishment. The huge bottles of water are filtered and safe for drinking. The shower water is not. Don't get it in your mouth. Use bottled water for tooth brushing. Don't put your toilet paper in the toilet-- put it in the basket next to the toilet. (ew.) Turn off the lights when you go to bed. Marie cooks Haitian dinner in the evening and American breakfast in the morning. Lock yourself in before you sleep and don't worry-- the guard never sleeps. He's very good. You'll be safe.

The "safe" discussion makes me feel not safe, but hey, I signed up for this and I'm here. I'm not liable to suddenly become a black belt in karate instantly because I suddenly might want to. I pick the second guest room. That way, I'll have time to hide if something bad happens. I remind myself: big gun. Razor wire. Locked door. Buck up, buttercup.

The translators schlep in our five enormous duffle bags. I ask if water is rationed here. It is not. I check out the showers: there is a chain you pull for water. If it comes out, you adjust the temperature. It is warmed by the sun and recycled.

We sleep, so tired, so tired. The bed is lovely and safe, and Marian Allen, the organizer of the trip tells me there are no snakes here.

I wake at 5:30 in a dreamy haze. I am being rocked in a cradle, swaying, warm and sweet, close to somebody who loves me. It is the singing. The women are singing. Next to our guest house is a church. The women have walked many many miles with their small children to seek treatment at the clinic. The clinic is underneath the guest house. They sing all together, in kreyol, songs of praise, mellow, their voices pouring over everything in the half-light like warm syrup. I blink awake, and lie there in the quilt, being massaged with sound. A man is leading them, but they don't wait-- he sings a line to them but the have already started. They know it by heart. I try to pick out words. Jerusalem? David? Who is like waking in Heaven. My cousin Karen brushes my hair sometimes. We both like to have somebody else brush our hair. It feels so good. We joke that while somebody is brushing our hair, all we can think about is, "don't stop, don't stop, don't stop." That's all I am thinking as these women sing. I've woken up in a bath of warm chocolate.

There are other sounds. A rooster. Dogs, dogs, so many dogs barking, but they are far away. I am in a cocoon. When the singing stops I am released from the spell. Julienne arrives and makes coffee. I wrap myself in my quilt and go out on the veranda. My God. I'm on a mountain top. Huge cliffs stand staring, white and covered in green. On the very top of them are fancy homes. The mountains crag crazily down, and banana trees, bouganvilla, rubble, homes, goats, chickens, random cement block, bags that used to hold foreign aid rice, dogs, and jutting branches are all over. The sky is blazing blue and there are radio towers on the mountains to the right. Red amaryllis stand straight in a row against a concrete wall. A peach tree throws out a flower or two. The coffee is wonderful.

Breakfast is fancy: oatmeal with star anise, hard boiled eggs, bananas and homemade chocolate chip banana muffins . Lots of coffee. Life is grand.

I take a freezing cold shower (solar water must mean that when the sun isn't out yet your water is cold) and horrify our religious house staff and my much-classier-than-me travelling companions by coming out of the bathrooms in a towel. With my hair in a shampooey point. I forgot my hair conditioner and need to get it. I am emerging as the class clown. You get used to it.

It is quickly time to get down the hill to the school. We grab backpacks, take our malaria pills and go outside.

Kay D'Esperans, Thomassin, Haiti

Imagine Wilkinsburg. Now imagine somebody carpet bombed it. And there's some bouganvilla. That's Port-au-Prince. Really. Holy Mother of God. It's funny what you don't know you don't know. I thought I might be vaguely familiar with Haiti, since I've studied it on and off for a few years. I didn't know shit about shit, as they say.

Rubble. Trash. Slap-shod homemade concrete mortar and cement block walls covered in rusty razor wire. The rust looks like old blood. Dust, choking dust. People, so many people, walking with huge plastic tubs on their heads, looking tired. Many, many women and small children selling sketchy looking fruit, or strangely twisted bread, or small pieces of candy, or plastic strainers, or old shoes. Men in dress shirts and trousers, standing idle on the sidewalk or playing cards or walking. A long, jolting bus ride from Port-au-Prince through Petionville, up the mountains.

So much rubble. So much trash. everywhere, choking the flowers that try to fight up between the cracks. A hog. A huge, black hairy hog, the size of a love seat, rooting in the discards among the concrete boulders and mini boulders and bowling ball-sized boulders that form the ground. Her timoun-- her children, rooting nearby. Roosters and chickens and chicks, all over the place. A young cow, tethered to a post. The rumbling of the bus, rolling like a boat, pitching violently as if it was in the middle of a choppy ocean.

Haiti initially seemed to me, and still does as of Day 1- today-- like the moon, or a place so foreign and upside down that traveling across the country is like sailing a violent sea. The dust is in your throat and you start to wheeze. You are in the back of giant bus with the windows down with all your stuff and your beautiful Haitian translator, and you want to be happy to be here at last-- and you are-- but you are in shock.

Holy crap. Is that a baby on the front of a motorcycle, balancing between her father's legs? Why are all of these people crowding around that crazy looking stage, backed with plywood and plastered in graffitti? There is a building, pancaked, the heavy ceiling still suffocating the floor. There's another-- there are more of these than not. Most buildings seem half-constructed, yet there are people in them.

Our translator points to mountains, far off and to the right. "Where we are going!" he announces. It seems far, far away.

As we climb the mountain in the little bus, the air begins to clear. The houses begin to coalesce and become more whole, although the amount of glinty sharp razor wire seems to increase on fences. There are stone fences now, topped with half-shattered soda bottles. They look lethal. The road becomes paved for a moment. We gasp when we see a sidewalk for the first time. Our translator tells us that the rich people live here. It is obvious that the higher you climb the better you live.

We are in Petionville. I look around, having learned that this was a well-to-do neighborhood, and the home of the golf course-turned-tent village that Sean Penn lived in. My travelling companions, a doctor, three nurses, a business woman, a rabbi, two English as a Second Learner teachers and two artists-- of which I am counting myself as one-- argue over how to pronounce it. "Petion-ville" and "pet-i-on-ville" are both accepted. Massive coconut trees and banana trees hang with fruit. A tangled barbed wire fence has been overtaken by a red mandevilla, yellow throated. Sometimes the smell of jasmine flirts and then is gone.

A huge black cloud threatens and the light fades fast. We are all longing to get to the mission-- we are so tired, and all of this Haitian reality combines with fatigue is not incredibly fun. Finally we take a sharp right down what seems like a cliff. We are facing a massive gate, but we don't pay much attention to it because a man with the biggest gun I have ever seen guards it. It reaches from his collar bone to his feet. Razor wire marks the high cement block walls around a building. The guard smiles, opens the gate and pulls in.

Leon Pamphile, the Haitian Pittsburgher who began Functioning Literacy Ministries, turns around in his bus seat. He smiles. "You are home," he says. "Welcome."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Live in the Land of the Real

I'm a brass-tacks kind of person. I like theory, but when we are talking about how to fix things, I need to make it real. I want to know when, what and with whom-- not leave things amorphous and undefined. So, when I watched as much of Jon Stewart's interview with Michelle Rhee as I could stomach, the "real" that was missing from their sweeping statements jumped out at me like a plague of frogs.

Rhee stated that to her, obvious changes for the better in D.C. were to "close low performing schools, cut central office bureaucracy and fire ineffective educators."  Big round of applause from the audience. Fine. Frost that mud cake and take a big bite. Or- we could talk about some of the "real" I've experienced in my nine schools in five months in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for a moment. Then we'll come back to Rhee's prescription to fix schools.

The Good:
Wallace Sapp, a community member who devotes over 40 hours a week to the school. Building relationships with teachers, Mr. Sapp runs a hugely popular math enrichment program during class time. Teachers trust him to support the curriculum enough to give him instructional time-- and it works. Mr.Sapp and his wife Lisa Freedman have the community to their home, a block from the school, where they host parents to work out problems and concerns with the school. They are a driving force in the successes at Pittsburgh Manchester because they bridge community and school- and foster trust between these groups.

Miss Smith, a grandmother at Pittsburgh Lincoln Elementary, who volunteers twice a week in a third grade classroom, in a relationship built on trust and respect with students, teachers and parents.

A grandmother at Pittsburgh Faison who daily volunteered to serve breakfast before she went to work, talking to kids, encouraging them, offering to read to them at her house after school. This grandmother visited the school library daily with her two adopted sons, making them report out on books they had read the night before, and borrowing new books to read to them and to other students at night.

The art teacher at Pittsburgh Mifflin, whose classroom is filled with blooming hibiscus plants and a busy kiln. She stays late to refire the children's creations so the glaze will be brighter--and hangs the brilliantly painted, bejeweled and glittering life-sized Egyptian Gods and Goddess down a "Hall of 7th Grade Egyptian Art" in the school. Next to this are the three-dimensional African masks younger students created.

The scores of teachers who buy and bring pretzels, fruit, cereal bars and crackers to school daily to feed their hungry students who need the extra food.

Ms. Applebaum, who buys silk flowers and florist's tape to create flower pens with her students at Pittsburgh Arlington. It keeps their hands busy so she can talk to them about their rage, their distrust of school, their problems with their peers and parents. Her classroom door, decorated with a rainbow sticker announcing her class as a safe place for LGBT youth, swings wide for all children in her embattled school. Behind it they find an adult who listens.

Mr. Dap Porter, a former Pitt Basketball star, who works with autistic children at Pittsburgh Arlington. He plays academic "Jeopardy"-style games with all of the kids during indoor recess and gives hugs as rewards.

Ms. Deonne Arlington, Principal of Pittsburgh Lincoln, who bought coats, hats and gloves for her students when the wind chill was below zero.

Mrs. Gail Livingstone, school librarian at 5 schools, who sneaks books between classes to children who didn't get a turn to visit the library.

The Bad:
The experience of students with learning disabilities at one school who have to take standardized tests with no adaptations allowed. Their frustration, their pain, and their internalization of failure.

The empty supply cabinets at some schools. No scissors, crayons, markers, glue, white copy paper.

The children who face a locked nurse's office most days of the week in every school I've worked in, who go without needed medications or suffer through asthma attacks, fevers and stomach disorders in busy classrooms because their working parents can't take them to the doctor or pick them up from school.

The students in all of the nine schools I've worked in who think they don't like reading because they don't have access to a school library, a loving and close relationship with a school librarian, a book store or a public library.

At one school, the science teacher was still waiting to receive her science curriculum in December.

The needed supplies moldering in closed schools because budget cuts from the state have cut central office personnel. There is nobody to inventory, assess needs and dray out these things. And when supplies get to schools, there are not enough tech staff to fix computers, printers, SMART Boards, networks, etc. to get things to work or keep them working.

The Ugly:
In one school, each Kindergarten class has 33 students. One undiagnosed child screams for at least four hours a day. Unrelenting. In January, not all of these children knew the names of their classmates. Some do not yet know how to spell their own names. The teacher goes into the hall for a moment when she needs to cry. Then she goes back into her class and carries on.

The students who arrive not knowing their names. The students who can't tell you what their last names are.

The 38 fourth graders in a computer lab with 18 working computers and a malfunctioning school furnace, making it 88 degrees in the room with broken windows-so opening one risks decapitation.

The mentally ill child who screams "FUCK YOU BITCH" and other colorful phrases in the hall or in class many times a day at one school. He was released from a placement to his local public school without necessary support by our broken mental health system.

The child who sits in class having seizures because his mother consistently does not give him his seizure medication.

Each of these "Good, Bad and Ugly" lists could go on for pages. Let's stop now and think about the brass tacks of Rhee's prescription for success.

None of the schools I listed, above, are doing particularly well on state assessments. Several of them are doing exceptionally poorly. Rhee would call them failing, and they could do better, be more. However, if Rhee closed Pittsburgh Manchester, Lincoln and Faison, the trust relationships built so lovingly by Mr. Sapp, Miss Smith, that grandmother who reads to the community and the parents and staffs would be obliterated. It is not easy to establish trust relationships in communities of any color, but the North Side, Lincoln-Larimer and Homewood are particularly fragile neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Destroying the connections between communities and schools is not a kind of collateral damage we should accept.

Governor Corbett's calamitous budget cuts began with central office. Dr. Lane valiantly began with her own house-- but the effect has been difficult. Without enough staff at central office to adequately oversee schools, rebuild broken technology and keep networks running, situations like broken data systems occur- making it hard to record attendance and grades, let alone do anything else. We need human infrastructure in our central offices. They do the work of keeping the schools running right.

Firing "ineffective" teachers begs the question: ineffective based on what? We know Rhee relies on test scores, but how can any of us accept the scores hungry, sick children get? Do these scores really indicate what kids know, what they can know, what their teachers are teaching? Would Rhee, Jon Stewart, members of his enthusiastic audience or any of us want to be held accountable for the test scores of that kid who has seizures? For the kid who has to sit next to the mentally ill screamer? The kid who needs the school nurse-- but--whoops-- the funding for school nurses has been cut, there isn't one, suck it up asthmatic kid? Kid who needs his ADHD meds? Kid who has a flare of her sickle cell and is in terrible pain? Kid who came here from Somalia, via a Tanzanian refugee camp last week and speaks no English?

You may think I'm picking out the red herrings-- the exceptions to the rule to excuse bad teachers. I'm not. I'm speaking from the trenches. Five years as a certified Librarian and fifteen years of work inside and outside the classroom. From the daily realities of working in public schools, disproportionately filled with the neediest. With her three years' experience as a teacher, self-admittedly poor experience, can Rhee really speak to how to fix public schools? Why is anybody willing to listen to her?

I tell my library students, when I have them, to consider an ultimate question when they are confronted with any information or source of information. The ultimate question is, "Who benefits? Who benefits from you accepting this information and going about your life with this bit of information as a given?" Please, my friends. Take it from a brass-tacks Librarian. If you aren't aware of what is REAL, you have no place making decisions about educational policy. If you aren't working to be sure that kids have food, access to books, medical care, shelter, acceptance and love-- Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs-- you can't work toward fixing schools. Because if kids don't have their basic needs met-- and many of them don't--they can't learn as well as they should.

To anybody who is interested in education: Live in the land of the real. Know about whom and what you speak. Or, you'll pardon me, but shut the hell up.


Read this! At The Chalk Face's Update on Stewart and Rhee

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