Thursday, March 21, 2013

Flashbacks From A Southern Withdrawal

Alessandra’s mother drove me to the Village so I could hunt down the nearest coffee shop in Houston. A lawyer for several decades and still practicing, there is no lack of confidence or contrition behind her voice. “So, you’ve lived in Minneapolis all your life?” she asks during the drive. “No, I was born in New Orleans, and moved to Minneapolis when I was 4, when my parents split.” I responded.

I found no hesitation in me to tell her my parents were divorced, as she had introduced herself as a lawyer that deals with divorce cases. I don’t know why, it just seemed natural to describe my venture to Minneapolis over such a reason.

Trees tangle the air over the street. The drive began to remind me of New Orleans. There’s a certain aesthetic to plants in the south, the way they grow could be deemed an eery beauty or just the simple state of something never having to regenerate leaves from a harsh winter. The sidewalks bubble and crack from roots growing beneath them where Alessandra’s mother drops me off. It’s 9:30am and the weather is already hotter here than Minneapolis in June.

After finding a coffeeshop, I continued to walk past it into the residential area. There’s been little down time apart from crowds and the internet. The tour leading up to now has accumulated over 24 hours of driving, 4 days of late nights at South By Southwest, and a mountain of dirty laundry. Walking, for now, is a short escape before I hit the laptop and visit the world outside of real-time (gmail). Pacing toward Rice University, I turned a corner where the walkway cut off. Across the street, the walkway opened up to a giant park. A swingset or jungle gym lied in the distance, but most of it remained brown and green grass. The simplicity to it, the absence of any “Land For Lease” signs, the nature of it brought me back to Audobon Park, a green giant square mile of grass, pond and wildlife right outside of Tulane University in New Orleans.

I never really came to understand Audobon Park until I made a return to it when I was 19. On a trek to Mardi Gras with a few high school friends, I understood how my parents could fall in love with such a city.
Before I could turn my back on the park and make way to the coffeeshop I’d so casually passed by, I noticed something moving in the distance. It was a bench or something, I couldn’t make it out. Painted red and yellow, moving like a pre-programmed machine, it couldn’t have been a car or park vehicle… it was a small train. The memory surfaced like an old friend; me riding some kind of street car or small kiddie train in some park in some part of New Orleans with my father or mother. The memories are blurry from back then, but they’re visible enough for me to revisit them. The few I can recall lined up along with the street car memory, another flashback of a daycare worker lifting me to a window. Out of the window was fireworks bursting in a night sky… it was the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans… I was 2.

Later on, I can remember walking in on my babysitter and her boyfriend, an interracial couple which seemed perfectly damn normal to me, but not so much to the rest of Louisiana… I was 3.

And then a memory of an argument between my mother and father. I was buckled down to a kids chair in the passenger seat of my father’s Jeep while he revved the engine. My mother, outside the car, was saying something to him. They responded harshly to each other until- VROOOM. My father drove away with me in the Jeep while my mother was in mid-sentence…

That was the first time I had ever experienced a human being end a discussion without bidding a proper adieu or goodbye. My father spoke nothing of it for the rest of the trip… seemed perfectly damn normal to me then… I was 4.

Amazing what a small train running through a park in Houston can trigger.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 3, Checking Out

I received an email from Michael, the principal of Roosevelt H.S. “Toussaint, we have a mess on our hands. I need you to call me asap.” That was it. Nothing else. It seems the poem I had performed to 10 different English classes created a backlash that went all the way to the top. I called Michael’s office, the secretary said she would give him a note to call me back. An hour passed, no word.

Christ man, I thought the guy said “asap”. I went back over Michael’s email… yep, right as rain he said “asap” in that email. So what was the hold up? Was he stuck in a vertigo stare at his computer per usual, or actually caught in a livid mess of parental disorder and students filing lawsuits?!?!

This was it. I’d gone over the poem several times and it was damn near perfect for what the Hip-Hop Theatre was looking to do. The setup was simple, however the response was uncontainable. How the students reacted to the poem was out of my control. The goal was to address every issue Michael had given me liberty to take on, discuss the student’s ideas and get the message out that Hip-Hop Theatre would be meeting every Monday & Wednesday after school. Simple, right?

I entered my first class room. The teacher introduced me as Toussaint Morrison emphatically, and quickly sat down to her desk to deal with a plethora of papers. She didn’t check out, but was damn near close. Let it be known, cops and teachers are potentially the most underpaid pillars of our middle-class society. They earn damn near peanuts for the work they put out. There’s no pay for the hours upon hours you put in grading papers off the job, managing stress while off the clock, and so forth. In my line of work, mentoring means you have a very specific goal and job to do, it’s manageable- whereas with teaching a high school class room, it’s a one-person show… performing cirque du soleil. Dangerous, time-consuming, and emotionally draining.

“Hi, I’m Toussaint Morrison, I’m with the Hip-Hop Theatre program after school. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays in the writing center in case anyone’s interested. We’re just conducting a quick survey of each English class for some research. 3 quick questions and then I’ll be outta your hair. Sound good?” I swiftly introduced. The class, in auto drive, reluctantly agreed. Bear in mind this is 9am at the heart of a 90/90/90 high school in the state with the highest racial disparity in the country. Yeah yeah, I know I keep saying that, but it still hasn’t fully registered with some people, even myself. To understand just how behind the circumstances are, I constantly have to remind / re-educate / research to keep my perspective fresh. Perhaps you grasp it differently.

“Ok, question 1. If you were in a track race, and you knew that one of the people you were racing against was faster than you. Would you A. Stay in the race, or B. Drop out of the race?”

The class almost entirely raised their hand in favor of A. One or two students raise their hand for option B, but would soon shrug it off as joking.

“Alright, 2nd question. If you had a test to take today and you hadn’t studied for it all. Would you either A. Take the test to best of your knowledge, or B. Skip the class, maybe go to the library and basically not take the test?

The class again favored option A.

“Last question, you’re applying for a job, but you just found out that hundreds of people are applying for the same job and the odds might not be in your favor, would you either A. Still show up for the interview, or B. Totally blow off the interview and not show?

Again, the class favored option A.

“Wow, that’s interesting. I really thought you all were going to be in favor of option B throughout the questionnaire. Wanna know why?”

Each class had a different response to this question- “Because we’re teens?”, “Because we’re young?”, “Because we’re in a public school” launched into the air. The latter always gave me a smile.

Whatever the array of answers were, my retort was the same, “No, none of that. It’s because according to the numbers less than half of you are expected to graduate high school.” A girl’s jaw physically dropped. “And the few of you that do graduate, less than half of that group is expected to be employed. So, when you think about it, you have a better chance of being poor or in prison than you do of making it to college, let alone graduating college… Man, dudn’t that piss y’all off? I’m mad and I don’t even go to this school.” Agreed, that part is harsh, however nothing the students couldn’t handle. Strange, when faced with facts of disparity and social politics, the language seemed to be more alarming than the discussions of vulgar and expletive subject matter I’d overheard from students as I entered the classroom.

The poem continued…

“I’m from the south side of Minneapolis just like you- had to deal with the same bad football teams and cold winters you had to fight thru. What’s wrong? Some of you look confused- either you’ve been misinformed or lied to. The facts are the facts, there’s no such thing as a slight truth.

Wait, am I in the wrong place? Is this the Roosevelt High School: one of the most diverse high schools in the state where future ambassadors of the south side of the city come to study?  Where inherent queens and kings of Minneapolis come to learn? Nah, couldn’t be…

I seen y’all in the hallway actin’ cooler than Kool Keith, like your swag’s on a level that less than a few can reach, talkin’ that same jive just over a new beat- oooooohhhhh weeeeeee, it must be good to be popular, good to not care, good to have the hottest wear, good to be like “I’m too good to be up in here” – and that’s good. They’d want you to think that. Know why? Because you live in a city with some of the highest racial disparity in the country. So much that even the white students can’t turn the other cheek, ‘cos the kids from Southwest and Edina still look at them funny. That’s unacceptable to me, but all I hear in the hallway is “hey, did you make the basketball team?” Wow, y’all talk about hoops like it’s gonna save the school, when you’re in a situation where the odds don’t even favor you to be able to save you.

Man, dudn’t that piss you off? I’m mad and I don’t even go to this school.

By this time, the class had fallen completely silent barring a few situations, but we’ll get into that later.

Between your middle school completions, past achievements, parents, teachers, politic’n in the bleachers  whether the basketball team’s losing or leading, what you think will happen once you leave here, and your current demeanor to act like whatever it is I have to say- you don’t need it… it’s not what you thought it was.

Your teachers put in more working hours outside of the building than in. Your principal busts his butt so much, I’m surprised I haven’t seen his head spin over the general opinion outside of the building that Roosevelt  is nothin’ but a building full of Mexicans and Somalis. Man, people will say some of the darndest things when they don’t know what to call it. Personally, I find it appauling, but I’d hate to break up y’alls conversation in the hall about ballin’.

At this juncture, from the rhyme scheme and cadence I had delivered, the majority of the classroom understood what I was putting on was a performance. The element of invisible theatre had faded and everyone was on the same page. The reaction to this particular part of racial slurs went one of two ways: Either students broke out into laughter over the recognition that they had partaken in derogatory racial slurs before as well, or gazed an intensified stare at me that’d intimidate even the father of Wolverine.

We don’t make the news until our schools get shut down because the board decided they didn’t wanna pay the lease.

We don’t make the news until our classmates get shot and left to die somewhere in a hospital or street.

When the system’s not fair, it wants you to not care.

Man, I wish y’all had somethin’ to say about that. I don’t even go to this school, and I feel like yelling out loud.” A few beats pass… “Ok, that was a poem, could anybody tell?”

“Maaaaannnnnn whaaaaat!!!” was the usual reaction. The post discussion played as “Holy shit what just happened?” We’d go over some of the subjects and/or feelings the poem/performance evoked. Why did some of the students react the way they did? Why did it make you feel backed into a corner? Do we use this language day-to-day? So, why did it cause this reaction when I said it? We’d go on and on to the point I had to omit any more questions and relay the message that this is what the after-school Hip-Hop Theatre program emphasized; confronting social issues in and outside of the school building, then designating space for you to communicate those issues through spoken word and theatre.

Overall, the poem went stellar. Teachers stopped me in the hallway to request me to venture to their classroom at specific hours to perform the piece for their students. “Yeah, they really need to hear what you’re talking about. We try to have talks on race and stuff, but they won’t have any of it.” Exclaimed one teacher.

On the downside, and there’s always a downside, some students went Rambo during the performance. One kid in a classroom just couldn’t accept that I had said “white students” in the poem. It viscerally couldn’t sit with him. As he constantly interrupted the performance, I weaved the prose to interact with him. When he answered to the poem’s piece on “better chance of winding up poor or in prison” with “you can’t say that in here”, I simply retorted “Why not? It’s true. Want me to lie to you?” The rest of the class went in uproar either against me or against the riled student. The uproar subsided, and I’d continue the poem after the point was made that I wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t going to sugar coat anything. Later on, the same student would interrupt again during the reference to white students, which then again I responded “Are you uncomfortable talking about race? Why?” His response of “Talking about it makes it worse?” lead me to turn a question to the class, “So, does an issue go away the less we talk about it?” As the class in unison responded “no”, I continued with the poem.

It was bumps and hurdles such as that that lead it to- welp, the program’s demise. In one class, a student responded “HEY! YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!” during the line “we don’t make the news ‘til our classmates get shot and left to die somewhere in a hospital or street”. Again, my response “Why not? I have friends that got shot and killed in high school, why can’t I talk about that experience?” to which the student sincerely said “Don’t talk about that!”. Clearly, this student had experienced what I had experienced in high school / middle school and the performance wasn’t sitting well with him. He opted to leave, the teacher permitted it, and… welp, he left. I finished the poem, we discussed.

A teacher approached me amidst leaving a class. I was getting drained. Each class was like delivering bad news at a hospital. Nobody ever takes it well. “I was curious if you could come to my class on the 3rd floor and perform your poem.” I agreed and attended the class at the hour she had requested. This was different, something was clearly amiss here and there was no turning back. I had already entered the room and was at the woman’s desk before I knew it. The class looked to be a storage room turned to impromptu academic haven. This looked more a place for stowing away sports equipment, a large steel cupboard stood 8 feet tall next to the entrance. It just looked damning ugly and made no sense to be taking up a third of the room. A student sat behind the steel cupboard just enough that you couldn’t say he was avoiding being seen, but enough to communicate “I don’t give a fuck”. This entire classroom didn’t give a fuck. Excuse the French, but the situation was sad. This was it, this was the rock bottom. A classroom for the 4th and 5th strikes that didn’t exist in the real world. They’d stowed away these kids to some ridiculous out-of-reach corner of the building and left them to a young teacher trying her damndest and a television from the 90's.

The poem didn’t even play to this audience. There were maybe 8 kids in the classroom, not nearly enough to foster some kind of unison response. I literally finished the farce survey and we simply discussed their present circumstance and goals for the future. The student that sat behind the steel cupboard said with contrition that he didn’t care what the statistics said, and that he was going to graduate high school and complete college. I continued, but it was no use. A girl texted throughout the entire presentation, two girls chatted with one another, and several of the students interrupted with so many questions of “who cares?” that it was dead on arrival.

Leaving the room, I had relayed all the info I could about the Hip-Hop Theatre program, but felt suddenly devoid of a purpose in all of this. I was at the grassroots stage of organizing a group of students to give a fuck, to actually care about something- not even show up, but to care about the issues at hand. I confronted myself with the question “Am I parading on some self-righteous sociological cause for myself, or am I really trying to change something here?” The answer was the latter and partially the former. I’m passionate about this, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. How else do you bring a city to understanding its current state of affairs without recognizing it. The sad state of MN (pun intended) is that the discussion of racial disparity is absent from our culture. Sociologically, we’re screwed. I listened to NPR last week hold a forum amongst several scholars in higher up ranks of the MN Education System discussing the current state of racial disparity in Minnesota. The discussion got overwhelmingly sugar coated, bordering on optimistic. I immediately flashbacked to the kid behind the steel cupboard asking me “Where’d you get these statistics from?” After explaining to him that you can find articles on these stats from the American Psychological Association, U.S. Census, MN Compass, or really any published material in the past two years on racial disparity in Minnesota, he responded “Man, they can eat a dick”.

I set flyers out to each classroom after wrapping the performance, also leaving a poster in each classroom. Later that day, I had the largest turnout of students since I had started the program. 8 students not only attended, but brought forth personal stories of their experience with race, class, ethnicity, etc. The session was amazing. We went over the syllabus, drew out plans for the January performance, delved into the subject matter the students wanted to cover for the stretch of the program and went through a few Theatre of The Oppressed games via Boal. Success.

The stage was set for the next 10 weeks to engage and hone the skills of the students to give a slam poetry and theatrical performance for January.

Michael finally called me back. “Hey, Toussaint- yyyeeaaahhhh, we gotta big mess on our hands”.

“Ok, so what’s up?” I humored the tension in his voice.

“Welp, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna pay you $500, and we’ll just call it quits. And if we ever need your services down the road, I’ll definitely give you a call”.  He said in the nicest and most passive way possible.

“Alright, sounds good”. Why I agreed to such a shorthanded offer, I still can’t tell you why, but I did. I was contracted for $3000. Do the math as you will, but it just sounds nastier when you hear "paid less than a third of what was promised." Cheers, here's to not committing that part of the story to memory.

Slighted, hurt, and damn deflated I had to seriously ask myself if walking into a high school classroom and delivering the message I delivered in the way I delivered it was the right thing to do? More importantly, if given the opportunity again, would I have done it any different?

The answer is “Absolutely not. I would not have done a single thing different had I the same opportunity". Looking back at it now, several months passed, there’s undeniable hurt I feel at what transpired. I empathize with the student that walked out on the performance, as after I experienced the same tragedy of losing a classmate to gun violence, I didn’t want to hear any of it. I emotionally shut down in those instances, and can relate with his reaction. But (and a big BUT), still looking back at what happened, there was just no way I was going to walk into a classroom and lie. When a patient’s in critical condition, the doctor doesn’t tell them “Hey, it’s going to be ok”. Per request of Michael, the school’s principal, and several teachers who had requested me throughout the day to perform for their class and address issues of racial disparity and education, I was going to communicate what the current situation is and in a manner that got the attention of the Roosevelt H.S. student populous.

The success in all of this were the poems I received from the students that attended the final Hip-Hop Theatre session. The sad part was having to email them back, telling them to keep writing out their opinions and experiences, however that it would meet no stage in January due to the sudden cancellation of the Hip-Hop Theatre program. In addition to that, I found the unconventional success of addressing these issues unbeknownst to nearly every English class that day in Roosevelt H.S. Nobody had ever set foot in my high school classrooms and relayed that kind of information or empathy. Although I had many a great mentor outside of school, there was never anyone that dared step into a classroom to alert every student of color to the city’s current stratification.

The best way I can put it is if there were a fire in a building, damn right I’d go to every room and alert everyone- hey there’s a fucking fire in the building, spread the word and take necessary action. However, as I asked in the beginning of this post “Would anyone care if I told them the gravity of the situation?” the answer from the Roosevelt Faculty is “not enough”. The hollow nature Michael had exhibited in our first interactions was a clear red flag to me. He couldn’t have been interested in actually saving this school, the guy wasn’t even operating to the key of anything to save. What blew my mind was the sense of “Hey, everything’s going to work out” that Michael carried wherever he went. Perhaps I’ve gone cynical in my days of touring the country holding educational theatre performances on race, gender, sexual orientation and substance abuse.

It would take me nearly 2 months later to collect any form of pay Michael had promised, and several visits back to the building just to ensure the check was mailed. The result of the entire transaction is disappointment. In my opinion, there are a damn many gifted teachers and staff working for the success of its students, however the foundation from which they operate is already so flawed and gravely dysfunctional that it sustains the disadvantage for students of color and inner-city youth to graduate high-school at a college-ready level. Sugar coating nothing, Roosevelt H.S. is a disservice to its students.

The Roosevelt Student populous is a brilliant one with vibrant energy and ability to introspect. Ironically, like a sad joke, that brilliance and ability goes unfostered in a continual perpetuation of racial disparity by the same public school system promising farce equity.