Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 1, 90/90/90

It’s clear this room hasn’t been refashioned since the 70’s. With the makes of a studio police cubicle farm or library, I would not change a single thing within the Roosevelt High School Principal’s Office. I’d visited a principal’s office on more occasions for breaking something, disobeying a teacher, or fighting. My middle school days were notorious for running through the hallways without a hall pass, conspiring against authority, and prying the self-esteem apart from bullies older than me. All of this accomplished with dedicated partners in crime, Idrissen and Tony. We’d separate as we grew older, and little did I know that I’d be attending many principal offices in the future working with adolescents, special education, and now art.

Already late for the meeting, the arrangement was more official than I had presumed. I entered the glass encased office. A tall gangly white gentlemen, Hassan and a shorter brown woman who I presumed to be the principal sat at the only table in the room. I sat. “My apologies for my tardiness, traffic”, I discreetly fibbed as I pulled up to the table.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m Michael” introducing himself. “This is Denise, our assistant principal.” Realizing the tall gangly white man to be the principal I turned my attention toward him. The shorter brown woman I had mistaken for the supreme authority of the school still had an air about her that wreaked of “I don’t play that shit”. A little intimidated I let Michael  the talking. “So, can you all give me some kind of background on Roosevelt as of right now?” I asked.

“Well, we’re a 90/90/90 school, which means Roosevelt ‘s student population is 90% of color, 90% at poverty level, and 90% studying at or below grade level… “. My thoughts blanked for a moment. I’d realized working with the kids in pre-K and 3-5th grade that it was bad... Kids of color disheveled in classrooms, mentally checked out dealing with anything and everything outside of the building, leaving school to trek back to an abusive home, leaving school to enter a world of apathy and classism. When you’re standing toe-to-toe with a 9 year old that has emotional behavior disorder while clutching their forehead in frustration, there’s a point of understanding that this can get better, that we can potentially make it- that no one is here to fix or change you, but to see you become the person you were meant to be and quite possibly become the success your imagination has stretched to fathom. Fast forward half-a-decade and those same kids are in high school. Imagine it never got any better, imagine it got worse. This was the graveyard for the aspirations and hopes we had for our students in elementary school... this was a Minneapolis high school that didn't have the word "south" anywhere in its title, this was reality. Sitting next to Mr. Bradley and the clean-up crew, there is an understanding that it will get worse before anything begins to turn down a better path. In my head, I’d screamed “holy fucking shit man, let’s get these kids out of here.  90 90 90??!!?!?! This is bad man- fucking MAY DAY!” several times, but kept myself to sitting, smiling and listening.

Michael went on, “We also had a student who was shot and killed this past June just before graduation. It was a real tragedy. He was well known in the school, everybody was really impacted by this, and… yeah. Denise, anything you want to fill in on?” Michael spoke with contrition, but still there was something in the damn room that was missing. It wasn’t Michael the short brown woman’s intimidating army lieutenant demeanor, or Hassan’s concern to see this all work out- a necessity to this conversation was horribly absent. Not a second to waste man, get it together and listen to these people! They have money and they will pay you for art! I’d subscribe to the devil on my shoulder, but I was curious about this school and the mystique to a building that had been underfunded and neglected to near death.

With nothing to lose, but a job, I asked “Is the school in any jeopardy to be shut down due to everything you just told me?” Michael sighed and responded “Our enrollment has been on a decline for the past decade. Since I’ve become the principal two years ago, the school has seen its first incline in enrollment in a long time.”

Fascinated none, I continued “How many students attend Roosevelt High School?” “802” he answered. The discussion continued of Michael s vision to have every student involved in an extracurricular activity at the end of the day. Since he had graduated with a theatre degree from the University of Iowa, he was enthusiastic for me to work with the students on theatre and slam poetry. Pressed for time, we halted the dialogue to pick up at a later date.

Days later, I emailed Michael a schedule and syllabus propositioning the after-school theatre program we had discussed. It would take place twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) after school for two hours. The students would create their own performance, rehearse it, and present it to the city- blah blah blah the formalities of creating any performance between an artist and institution of academia. What drew me in further than anything was exact thing that had been absent in the room at the meeting. Although Michael's mouth was moving, the short brown woman carried the “no shit” attitude, and Hassan had a 200% genuine interest in helping the school- sweet Jesus, something was gone- something intangible. Wait, you mean to tell me a leader of the student body was shot on the southside of Minneapolis less than half a year ago, 90% of your students are performing at or below their grade level, and last year you cut the varsity football team! It boggles the mind that a high school rest on academic failure and have no football team to bury the conversation with it. I mean, nothing covers your ass like “we suck at school, but we kick ass in athletics”. My petty concerns aside, the subject that lambasted me was the enrollment of 802. Roosevelt High School is a huge building that could fit 2000 students, if I had to gander. To see it at less than half-mass is relative to watching a 2 on 5 basketball game. 

Minnesota is #1 in the country for racial disparity in education, meaning the gap of academic achievement between white students and students of color is largest in Minnesota…

Zoom in.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are the bane of urban culture in the state of Minnesota, carrying the country’s 2nd highest racial disparity in the country where people of color are 20 times more likely to be pulled over, coveted, or questioned by police than white people…

Zoom in.

Roosevelt High School has the highest population of students of color per capita than any other Minneapolis High School let alone in the state of Minnesota. To say it’s on the fringe of failure would be a lie. I will be absolutely truthful with you, the school is already a failure in a system that has already failed it. In a society where a C is a passing grade, there are places where anything below an A is failure- anything below an A is a means and request to do better. Here, at Roosevelt High School, the life support has been trashed and is a mockery of what it could be. We all may differ on standards of academic success, but I dare challenge you to challenge yours. Just because someone drew a line and told you it was where the race finished, doesn’t mean you should stop running.

Leaving the building, looking at the YMCA across the street my family friend, Barb Jones, had cultivated into a haven for kids of color, bi-racial kids, and interracial families, I remembered her brazen daily war waged against the societal standard set for the city of Minneapolis. Barb was from Cleveland, so you can imagine her perception of the Twin Cities’ passivity toward white privilege and race. She instilled a fire inside every employee at that YMCA to break the frame of their perception and re-calibrate their standard of success right now. Years ago, Barb passed away from cancer. With every fiber of me and minute of life I have on this rock, I can only hope to accomplish a fraction of what she had accomplished in her legacy. I want these kids to have a voice outside of a building that had become the crux of racial disparity amongst the worst in the country.

It was then I recognized what was missing in the room. Here, a school quickly becoming the nation’s leading definition of institutional racism, abandonment, and negligence… and nobody in the building acknowledges it. Although Michael, the principal, spoke with conviction toward Roosevelt’s situation, I had just realized that not a single student understood the actual gravity of the circumstance. I’d dare them to speak on it, write on it, and perform it through the program Michael commissioned me to teach at Roosevelt. The problem now lie in getting the students to actually care about something they had a stake in.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Velt: Prelude

I can’t withstand it anymore. The Spyhouse Coffee Shop has to go. Some of my best work was written there- entire albums, play scripts, most my literary livelihood can be credited to the damn place, it was a sanctuary for concentrating. However, the shitty internet connection and effortless condescension from the baristas have gone beyond the point of return. This morning has to be christened with a new venue, a fresh start, a place where no one knows my face or name… the Loring Park Dunn Bros.

I pack my belongings and backpack and make way to the new location to write. Enter Dunn Bros, any Dunn Bros, coffee bean scented with newspapers rustling about. It's perfect- this table’s comfortable, hell, I could start a new home here- Baristas are nice, the place is huge, beautiful view of Loring Park without getting held up for your wallet- I’m in. “Hello, you are Toussaint Morrison”, a soft voice in an East African accent quietly interjected to my left. “Are you still writing plays”, the voice asks. I turn, it’s a familiar face. I’ve seen this man- dammit he’s familiar as all hell- I feel like I’ve known him my entire adult life, but never exchanged a word or name with him. “Hi, I’m Toussaint” totally not answering his question.

“You know, you should come to Roosevelt. They need some kind of theatre there. You could teach the students!” the familiar East African man excitedly clammered. This guy clearly doesn’t know me as well as I think I recognize him. “I mean, I don’t know how much they could pay you, but the school could really use someone like you around”, he went on.

We ran track together- recognized him from the old city track & field showdowns at Washburn H.S... as well as the social grid of the University of MN. I’d been in proximity for the past decade with this guy and still didn’t know his name. “Hassan. I work at Roosevelt”, he said.

Teach theatre to kids? What would I say to them? Hi, I'm Toussaint. Most times I open my mouth, people get pissed off, I get slapped, I get paid, or I win a poetry slam?

Hassan, it is. I’ll take you up on the offer after I finish working out the details on this song about Risperdal and emotional behavior disorder. This should be damn fun. And by fun I mean I have absolutely no clue of the opportunity you just extended. The little I do know of Roosevelt High School is that it’s the alma mater of several of my best friends, several infamous athletes, and an easy target if you had to point your finger in the direction the school you most likely did not want to wind up at. Sitting right next to perennial academic success school Minneapolis South H.S. and a not too distant Minneapolis Southwest H.S. (#1 in the state).
Distressed by what I just said? Don’t be. It was the first thing I was informed of when I stepped into my first meeting at Roosevelt. “Most kids wind up here that applied for Minneapolis South or Southwest, and are a bit discouraged that they didn’t get in”. F that. I want to give these kids a voice, a stage, a mic- something in which to brand their creative thumbprint on their city.

Somewhere along the line, the city had failed the building, abandoned it beneath the shadow of South, Southwest, and a deplorable public school system that ranks dead last in the U.S. for racial disparity in education.

Some while ago, somehow… the bar was settled near the floor for the standards of Roosevelt H.S. I was going to challenge that- change it, even. Most importantly, I wanted to know what the students had to say about it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Biggest Hands I Ever Did See

It was exactly what I had hoped would happen, to be socially stranded at some bar while my friends made off with their friends and be forced into the realms of the awkward. Brooklyn had been stand-off’ish, but nice up to this point. I had come to the Brooklyn Whiskey with Lucia to meet her Teach For America buddies, a circle of broughams from separate corners of the country all brought together for two things: to teach a low-income/neglected student base, and say “yes, I lived in New York for a time or two, let me tell you…”  They were a brotherhood of sorts, and as time passed on (20mins) the riotous pack of Teach For America fellows became enthralled with Lucia. It seemed as if they’d been denied something for the past, oh, year or so.

“What time do you guys usually have to be up in the morning?” I insisted to the tallest of the Teach For America fraternity pack. “Usually 5am, but not tonight. Tomorrow’s a government holiday.” He replied from the side of his mouth while scouring the scene of Sunday late-nighters and mid-Autumn skirts. I glance back to my go-to, the New Orleans Saints game on one of the dozen television sets hanging from the ceiling.

“I can’t wait to be the fuck up outta there though” the frat pack For America leader murmured from the side of his mouth again. “Really? How often you think about just up and leaving the Teach For America job?” I asked. “Every God Damn day” he replied still scouring the floor. “So why don’t you ?” I retorted. The Teach For America frat leader turned from his skirt scour and looked me in the eye from the half a foot he stood above me. “Because I made a promise. I gave them my word that I’d complete two years with the program. After that, never again” He grimly replied. The amount of integrity just emitted was beyond my limitations for the night, radioactive perhaps.  I had not anticipated words to be delivered with the contrition I had received them from this man.

“Shit, sucks to-“ Shit, Drew Brees just made a play and it’s under review. This could be the God Damn game. I broke from the conversation while pack leader corralled a circle of women. My gaze widening into the television set with hopes the Saints would break their two-game losing slump.

The referee trots to the center of the field, opens his mouth to give the verdict- BOOM! A hand slaps right in between my shoulder blades. My arms flail back for a split-second from the impact of the blow. This can’t be an accident. No one bumps into somebody this hard unintentionally. There was a purpose to this strike- a message I was being sent. Before I could gather my balance, the same hand that struck me pulled me in tightly by the right shoulder. I could feel each callus from the hand forcing me closer to the perpetrator- each callus a pillow, but the hand almost touching from the top of my shoulder to my elbow- is this person wearing a fucking catcher’s mit?!?!

“Are you fuckin’ Dino’s brother!?” a baritone voice bellows  to my left. “Ah- wha-what?” I respond in all respects, the bar so loud, this gentlemen speaking in a pitch that matched the DJ’s bass, I couldn’t make out a single syllable he was saying. “Dino’s brother?!?!?” He bellows again. This man is on a mission. I still couldn’t make out what he was saying, but turning into him was like turning towards your father for the first time as a toddler. The man was a giant. Short in stature, but his features absolutely huge in relation to everyone else in the bar. He would have no problem managing an NFL running back to the ground, he would give a pro-wrestler and career ending injury, he could quite break my arm right off with his drunken choosing. This man is a reckoning. Anyone choosing to physically oppose him would put himself in discreet jeopardy of losing his life or having to suffer multiple broken bones in the process of eeking out an unlikely victory. 

I've seen how these things work out- I've watched the treachery of drunken bar brawls end in skulls slamming against the sidewalk, internal bleeding, ambulance speed racing through the night to rescue some unnecessary violence spilled onto the streets outside some bar in some town over some bullshit.There would be no fashion or finesse in this situation if I didn't look this man in the eye. 

I turn toward face of the inaudible voice. Breath wreaking of dark booze, a bomb-shell cougar to his side, and a few other friends staring me down at the bar, I had to think of something quick. “Ahhh, no” I said. I had no clue what I was speaking to, but I figure to deny whatever this gargantuan gentlemen might be accusing.

“Really, you don’t know Dino!?!?!” he laughed. I could hear him now. “Ha.. no, no clue” I timidly smiled back. “Hey, you Dominican?!?!?!” he asked.  “Uhhh, no. I have an uncle in the Bahamas though” I shouted over the bar speakers. “Alright! Alright! I thought you were this motha fucka, Dino’s brother!!! I was gonna punch you right in the fuckin’ mouth y’know!” he confessed with a celebratory smile, almost relieved he wouldn’t have to deal out a mandatory ass whooping to the guy he thought I was. “Oh… Ha… Nope, not me. I’m in town from Minnesota. Couldn’t be me.” Still holding a nervous smile.

Our conversation continued onto complex subjects such as the ominous state of the Vikings and the potential bright future of the New York Giants. After bidding adieu, I returned to the Teach for America crew still corralled around Lucia, and exhaled a sigh of reluctance at the topic of discussion being once again Teach for America. It is memorable to stand toe-to-toe with another human being that admits they were going to punch you in the face at first sight of you, rather than to discuss how much you hate your job. Later that night in a taxi cab en route to the Fat Cat, the driver asks me if I'm related to ex-Major League Baseball  player, Moises Alou… again, Dominican. Alas, I am not. We chat in Spanish for the rest of the car ride, the least I can do for the deflated excitement he faced thinking I was related to baseball greatness. Whilst avoiding getting pummeled by the biggest hands I ever did see, the amount of reintroduction required to be racially ambiguous in New York City is enjoyable… when visiting.