After I retired I took a writing workshop that was an awesome experience. I have written before about how liberating that class was for me. One of the assignments we were given was to write a poem in response to another work of art – a poem, a painting, song lyrics – whatever inspired us. I wrote a poem in response to “Down to You,” by Joni Mitchell. For those who aren’t familiar with it, or if you don’t remember the lyrics, here they are:
Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you
You go down to the pick up station
Craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
And your loneliness
In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song
Love is gone
Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
You’re a brute, you’re an angel
You can crawl, you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you
Joni Mitchell from the album Court and Spark, 1974
I must have listened to that song, among many other Joni songs, hundreds of times during my college years. She was a mainstay of the soundtrack of that time in my life. This is the poem (or prose-poem) that I wrote after reflecting on that song:
It is a Binghamton kind of night.
The air so cold it hurts.
The sky is clear, pinpricks of light shine against the velvet blackness.
I am in exile.
My roommate’s boyfriend is visiting.
I will spend the weekend studiously avoiding my dorm room.
I am holding my pillow pressed against my chest, my knapsack on my back.
Waiting til 8:00 pm when I will meet a friend at her dorm room
where I will crash for the next two nights.
So, I wonder, where is the ‘pick up station’ that Joni sings about?
I have never found it.
Wouldn’t know how to work it, if I did.
She counts lovers like railroad cars.
I’ve had none.
But, I would like to lay down my loneliness.
I don’t think her way will work for me, though.
Can’t imagine picking up a stranger and feeling less alone.
Joni is right about one thing, though.
Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow.
Sixth grade was a nightmare. Maybe sixth grade is a nightmare for most – especially for girls since we’re all in different stages of puberty and it wreaks havoc on our bodies and emotions. Compounding that reality was the fact that I had a truly terrible teacher that year.
Mrs. Garner was the kind of teacher who seemed to take pleasure in humiliating students. She would call a student up to the board to do a math problem when she knew the student likely couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t particularly good at math, so I was one of her victims. She would also give back test papers from lowest to highest score so everyone knew how you did. This was especially embarrassing for me since my math test scores were dismal. It took me years, and better math teachers, to get over the damage done and realize that, in fact, I wasn’t actually that bad at math.
If that was her only flaw, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad. But as that teaching strategy revealed, she was mean. I guess in a perverse way it was a good thing because, as a result, I bonded with some of my classmates. We had a siege mentality. It became an ‘us versus her’ situation. Cindy, my best friend, and I were united in our rebellion. We plotted various schemes, and shared lots of laughs in thinking of ways to get back at her. We thought we were pretty creative when we ordered a pizza to her house. We sent an insulting letter to her home, as well. I’m embarrassed to think of it now, but we didn’t know what else to do with our hurt and anger.
For the first and only time, I played hooky that year. Cindy and I hatched a grand plot. We, and another friend, were going to meet at Cindy’s apartment. Her mother must not have been home that day. I left for school that morning, as I usually did, but took a detour to the Bayview Projects where Cindy lived, which was conveniently located right next to our school. I went to Cindy’s building and, terrified that I would be seen by another classmate, I went up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Our other friend chickened out and went to school. Cindy and I spent the day baking (we had a food fight!), watching television and laughing.
Cindy’s older sister came home and threatened to tell. We cleaned up and vacuumed. I don’t recall if Cindy got into trouble, but since her sister knew I was afraid word would get to my parents, so I fessed up before that could happen. I told my mom and she had a very unexpected reaction. She told me she should have given me a mental health day off, and that I should talk to her first if I was feeling that desperate. I never played hooky again.
Mrs. Garner did another student more harm. This past August I went to my 40 year (holy shit! I’m that old!) high school reunion and was reminded of an incident that is illustrative of her character. I went to the reunion specifically to seek out classmates who had also been in my elementary school class. As part of writing this blog, I wanted to compare notes.
Clayton was one of two African-American boys in that class. Clayton and I had been in the same class three years running. He was the smartest kid every year. He could be talkative, more talkative than the teachers appreciated, but there was no denying his smarts. In sixth grade, toward the end of the year, the class was asked to vote to have a student representative who would speak at graduation. Our class voted for Clayton. Mrs. Garner gave the honor to a white boy, telling Clayton, that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to deliver the speech. I don’t recall the class being offered any explanation. I can say that Clayton spoke perfectly clearly (as good (sic) as any Brooklynite, if not better).
When I went to the reunion, I asked Clayton about a different incident I remembered from fourth grade. He didn’t recall it, but he shared three other experiences that reeked of racism. When he told of the election described above, parts of it came back to me. Interestingly, I didn’t remember which student had been denied the honor, I only remembered my feelings of righteous indignation that the class choice had been overridden. I wouldn’t have remembered that it was Clayton who had been wronged if he hadn’t told me. It is so interesting what we remember, what makes a mark on us.
One of the things Clayton and I discussed at the reunion was that Mrs. Garner was the wife of the District Superintendent. In addition to having tenure since she was a veteran teacher, Mrs. Garner likely had no concerns about being rebuked by the administration for her teaching methods or actions.
Hearing Clayton’s story validated the intense dislike I harbored for Mrs. Garner. She may be long gone from this earth and I may have acted out inappropriately, but my 11-year old self knew she wasn’t a righteous person.
Note: In writing this blog piece I reached out to Cindy and Clayton. Both were helpful and generously shared their memories. To further illustrate the damage done, Clayton shared the following in an email: …in addition to this slight, she then had me placed me in Class 773 in John Wilson (the lowest-ranked of the three “SP” classes in the upcoming 7th grade). Now, how you go from Valedictorian-elect to the lowest class of the SP program is beyond me, but it added to my frustration with school in general. I never again got inspired to do well in school–it just seemed not to be worth it. It wasn’t a meritorious system, it was one of politics and preferences–preferences I seemed destined to never receive. So, I have to say that in many ways, I never recovered from 6th grade.
My parents and I were at Seniors, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, to celebrate my high school graduation. The ceremony was earlier in the day. I started to say, “I feel really bad…” and my dad threw down his fork. “Don’t!” he said, “We’re celebrating your graduation. You have nothing to be sad about!”
“But…” I started to explain, but the look on his face shut me down. I fought back tears and concentrated on the food on my plate.
The end of high school was a strange time for me. I was so unhappy and lonely in junior high school and came to Canarsie High School feeling like an outcast. I was terribly insecure, between my eyes, my weight and general self-consciousness, I began high school in a hole. Things did turn around, but not like in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie. The ugly duckling didn’t emerge as a swan and float off happily ever after. Painstakingly, over the course of the three years, I dug myself out.
I started by joining some activities. I was in the chorus of Sing, a school show of sorts. I connected with some of the girls who stood near me in the alto section during rehearsals (some were friends from elementary school who went to a different junior high). I still had trouble knowing how to extend the friendships beyond the rehearsal, but I was making progress.
I tried out and made the girls basketball team. We were God-awful, except for one or two players, but I loved basketball and I was happy to be part of the team.
I wrote for the Canarsie Campus, the school newspaper, and by senior year I was the editor-in-chief. I started out doing okay in my classes and by the senior year, I was doing really well. The trajectory was headed in the right direction. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates and had my picture, along with Alan Schick, in the yearbook commemorating the designation. I both enjoyed the attention and felt disconnected from it. Inside I still felt like the girl who sat in the junior high school cafeteria eating lunch alone, worried that I would be the target of teasing.
So, in June of 1976, I was in a much better place than in September 1973 when I entered high school. But, my newly formed self-esteem was still pretty fragile, and oddly enough the graduation ceremony itself delivered a major blow.
Canarsie High School held its graduation at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush, a huge old-time movie theater with some 3000 seats and ornate plaster walls. With more than 750 graduating seniors (there were more like 1100 students in the senior class, but the rest didn’t qualify to graduate) and their families, the high school auditorium couldn’t accommodate it.
I don’t remember who from my family came. My Dad drove our monster-size Chevy Impala, with my Mom and me (and perhaps others – it’s possible that Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were there), and dropped me off to gather with the graduates. They went to find parking.
Some students were invited to sit on the stage, those who were speaking, receiving an award or performing. I was receiving an award so I marched in and climbed up on the stage with maybe 30 other students. I was told beforehand that I would receive the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award, given in honor of Canarsie’s beloved representative to the New York City Council who unexpectedly died a year earlier. I didn’t know why I was being given the award, but I took my seat on stage and took in my surroundings.
The stage was huge; the whole theater was huge. I looked out and searched among the thousands of faces for my mother. I couldn’t spot her. My dad, who had been a dean at Canarsie High School but left to become chair of the social studies department at another city high school two years before, was invited to sit on the stage, too. He was seated on the other side with faculty and other dignitaries. I couldn’t see him either.
The ceremony proceeded in the usual way. Eventually they got to the presentation of awards. I heard our principal, Mr. Rosenman, announce the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award and I started to make my way to the front of the stage. Mr. Rosenman was saying something like, “Linda virtually single-handedly put together the school newspaper, without a faculty advisor and with very little funding.” I was standing next to him, smiling, one hand extended to receive the award and the other hand extended to shake his, when someone screamed out, “That’s not true!!” Despite the crowd, unfortunately at that moment it was pretty quiet in the theater.
I looked around, wondering, did that just happen?! Though the comment wasn’t repeated, I knew what I heard. It rang clear as a bell, echoing in my ears, “That’s not true!!” Mr. Rosenman paused briefly and then continued on as if nothing had happened. Finally I took the envelope with the award and found my way back to my seat on wobbly legs.
There may have been applause. I actually didn’t know what was happening because my head was spinning. I sank down in my seat, shaking like a leaf. I felt exposed. Everyone knew I was a fraud. I looked frantically around the theater to see if I could figure out where the comment had come from, but the words didn’t leave a vapor trail. There was no telltale sign, except in my vibrating body.
My friend Laurence, who was sitting a couple of seats down from me, reached over and patted my knee. He asked if I was all right. I nodded that I was, though I suspected that my face said otherwise. I’m sure all the color had drained from it.
I don’t remember the rest of the ceremony, but I kept breathing and made it through. I found my family afterwards. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than my mom telling me that someone said it was a parent who yelled out. Maybe that should’ve made me feel better, but I was still in shock. My father, who was quite hard of hearing, was learning of it for the first time when we gathered after the ceremony was over. He dismissed it as sour grapes. I wished I could do the same. We got back into our Chevy and went back to our house in Canarsie.
It didn’t occur to me to be angry. I felt humiliated and it confirmed my worst fears, that I was undeserving. I hadn’t asked for the award and I didn’t write the comments Mr. Rosenman delivered.
At dinner with my parents, when I tried to bring it up, I think my Dad wanted to ignore that it happened and he didn’t want me to be hurt.
I couldn’t let go of it, but I had to pretend to.
All these years later, I remember the incident so clearly. I know that I went that night, after dinner with my parents, to celebrate at a bonfire at a nearby beach with friends. I don’t remember what my friends said. It is unlikely that I would have mentioned it because it was so embarrassing, but maybe I did. I don’t know if words of comfort were offered, but maybe they were. It is interesting, the memories we carry with us, and what we forget.
I have lived a mostly segregated life. It’s not that I wanted that for myself. At least I didn’t consciously make choices that would separate me from people of color, but it has worked out that way.
I have always been interested in the lives of other people. From a single trailer seen in passing from my car window as we drove through a desolate part of Wyoming to looking at the tenements from the elevated LL passing the New Lots Avenue station in Brooklyn, I have wondered what life was like for the people living in those places. That curiosity led me to books, but it didn’t lead me to friendships.
I think I would have had to make conscious decisions to seek out relationships with African-Americans or other people of color in order to reach across the barriers. When I thought about making that effort I wondered if it would come across as disingenuous, like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he decides to find a black friend.
I think back to my experiences in elementary school in Canarsie. Classes were grouped ostensibly by academic ability. There was only one or, at most, two black students in my class in any given year, and they were boys. Curtis (not his real name) who was in my fourth, fifth and sixth grade class was very smart but was frequently getting into trouble for talking too much and he was regularly accused of instigating other kids to misbehave. In frustration, one day our fourth grade teacher asked for a volunteer to sit next to Curtis. I raised my hand eagerly, and I was selected. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Did I think I could befriend him? Did I think I could rescue him (as if he needed rescuing)? I honestly don’t recall how it turned out – whatever happened, it wasn’t dramatic enough to make a lasting impression. I can only imagine his humiliation. This was not a strategy used with any other misbehaving student and it certainly didn’t help to bridge the divide.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan, though, was received with tremendous hostility by white parents in Canarsie. It resulted in a boycott. Parents kept their children home from Bildersee (my junior high school) and John Wilson (the other junior high school in Canarsie) in protest.
This went on for a couple of weeks. I was literally alone in my 9th grade classes, just my teacher and me. I remember enjoying the one-on-one time with Mrs. Cohen, my English teacher. I also remember walking in the main entrance through a path laid out by the police and their sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. (The picture above is actually of John Wilson JHS, but this scene was repeated at Bildersee. I don’t recall the policeman blowing his nose quite so ostentatiously.)
My dad was the administrative dean of Canarsie High School in those years so he was in charge of discipline. He was aware of the troublemakers in the neighborhood and had connections with the police. On one particular day Dad got wind of a planned confrontation between a group of Italian and African-American kids, so he found my brothers in their classes and sent them home. When there were threats of violence during the boycott, I stayed home from Bildersee, too.
The upshot of the boycott was that the busing plan was implemented and my relationship with one of my closest friends, Pia, was irreparably damaged.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to benefit from the better schools and escape the violence that plagued that neighborhood. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them, they believed white flight would certainly follow. I was more hopeful. While nothing was ever said directly, Pia never invited me to hangout at her house again and she was distinctly cool to me at school.
By the time I got to high school in 1973 racial tensions were at a fever pitch. The way the education system was structured there were very limited opportunities to interact across racial lines. Phys Ed, Health and some elective classes brought us together, though that was all pretty superficial in the scheme of high school life. The thing we could really bond over was rooting for our basketball and football teams. Fortunately Canarsie High School was very competitive. My senior year thousands of us went to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League, New York’s city-wide) basketball championship game between Canarsie and Lincoln High School at St. John’s Alumni Hall. That victory provided a moment of transcendence. While there were other moments, mostly connected to sports, it seemed to me that most of us lived our lives amongst our own.
It is ironic that my children, who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Albany, New York, had genuine friendships with people of color and more opportunity for interaction than I did growing up in Brooklyn.