Friday, March 30, 2007

When home isn't home

In perhaps what is one of the saddest ironies in the neighborhood I teach in, I found out a few months ago that the biggest crack house in the area is actually located on Coke Street. More so, you can pretty much score whatever you might be looking for in the Coke Street Apartment Complex.

This the sort of thing you laugh over and shake your head at as you ask yourself "do you think the drug dealers were purposeful in where they set up shop? Like free marketing or something?" You do that, or let your friends do that, until you start taking your students home to the Coke Street Apartments. Then you feel awful, and helpless and angry all rolled into one because this is where they live and there's nothing ironic or funny about it.

One of my students also plays soccer for me and often times doesn't have a ride home. My assistant coach and I have gotten pretty good at getting the girls to be proactive and get rides with each other instead of having us drive them all over town, but Natasha more often than not finds her way up to my classroom about 20 minutes after soccer asking for a ride.

So I take her home. And it takes every bone in my body not to turn the car around the minute we enter the gates and take her somewhere else. Anywhere else.

The Coke Street Apartments contain about 25 blocks of small, two-story brick buildings. They face inward on various court yards. If I had to guess I would say there are about 100 units in the complex, maybe more. The minute you drive up the complex you must slow down considerably because there are people everywhere. No matter what time of night I've taken Natasha home, there have always been people. People in the street, people on the sidewalk, people sitting on cars. Usually the people surrounding the roads are older, but once you enter the complex itself the courtyards are littered with children. I often see my own students running through the parking lot or sitting on the stoops. Yesterday, I saw a baby sitting in a diaper on the sidewalk, far too close to the road for comfort.

Besides people, a common feature of the complex is trash. Denver Harbor and McReynolds are not clean places by any means. Garbage seems to go in a trashcan if one can be found and on the ground if it can't. The level of garbage in the complex shows that either there are no trashcans on site, or that a trashcan simply isn't any kind of prerequisite for disposing of what you don't want. There are broken down cars, trash along the fences and in the courtyards. It's like a bad movie that gives the rest of the world an ill-perceived concept of what the ghetto is like. Except it's real.

Up until this week Natasha and I didn't really talk about where she lived. She asked for a ride. I took her home. But on Tuesday when I was taking her home I asked her if the large gates that surround the complex ever closed. "No," she told me, "It's just for show. It's not safe here. I hate it here." Natasha isn't one for long drawn out explanations or any real shows of emotion, so her answer to that question was actually quite shocking. I asked her why she hated it there and her answer was simple. "It's dangerous here. People are always out. They shoot and fight. This isn't a home Miss. This isn't where I want to live." I wasn't quite sure where to go with a 13-year-old telling me that her home wasn't her home. Middle class, white and safe doesn't really give you a lot of shared experiences with lower class, black and miserable. We reached her door and I left the subject alone.

Yesterday when I took her home she brought it up again. "Miss, this isn't like where you grew up right?" I told her vaguely what my neighborhood was like: a mom and dad in every house, big green lawns, nice car and a mini-van in the driveways every night and parents sitting on the front porch watching the kids play tag before dinner. No Natasha, this isn't like where I grew up. She sighed after that and told me she hated it here, the men were creepy and everyone was so loud that she felt like she was drowning. Just being in the complex for a few minutes gives me a tension headache so I could understand how Natasha could feel like she was suffocating in all the noise.

I can't fix Natasha's life. And no matter how much I want to take her somewhere better and give her the start she deserves, that's not my place. What I told her instead was that she could make a choice in her world. She could decide starting today that this wasn't her home and while she might stay here now she could leave eventually. That's why I came here after all, to give these kids the opportunity to leave or the choice to stay. I came to help them see that where you're born doesn't have be where you die unless that's what you want. Unless that's what you choose. We talked about next year and applying herself and about finding a good high school, one that will really prepare her for college. She was excited to know that I would help her find a school, that she could choose and not just be like the rest of the kids in the complex and go across the street to Wheatly High School. Perhaps when you've got close to nothing having a choice means more than anything.

As I drove out of the gates last night I was struck by another twisted irony of Coke Street. Next door to the complex, in all it's dilapidated glory, is what looks like something similar to the neighborhoods I grew up in, a small cul-de-sac of about 10 houses, two-story, neat with pretty green lawns and nice cars. It's almost like one of the comparison problems we do in English class. Natasha, if we put the childhoods you and I had side by side will you be able to see the similarities and differences? Are there any similarities at all?

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