On the train back to school from Harlem, this Thursday, I had spent the afternoon too-quickly meandering through the ten-block radius between 125th and 135th; between The Schomburg Center and The Apollo, with students it took me all of four days to fall in love with.
Somewhere between the hour long train rides back to Brownsville from a week of excursions to Museums, we have found a rhythm: the clang of subway cars, the lift from above ground to under (and repeat), and the teeter of tiny conversations about books, about dads, about nothing and everything all at once.
This Thursday, though, I had filled my too-big pockets with a polaroid camera and film enough to capture every second, and made a game of candid photos on a scavenger hunt of Harlem. On the train back to Brownsville, I made several unsuspecting subway dwellers uncomfortable by swiveling the face of the polaroid in every which way. A student across from me looked at the object that obscured my face, his eyes squinting in confusion. I extended the camera, across the train, towards him. "Would you like to try?" He hesitated. "I won't take a picture of you--but you can take one of me."
He smiled and grabbed the camera gingerly. Unsure of where to place his fingers on the polaroid's simple face (some things don't come naturally). But, when he was ready, he pressed the button with a flash and film emerged from the top like a receipt.
"Take it out and shake it," I instructed, moving into my favorite part of an OutKast song. I still don't know if he recognized the tune--he was too infatuated by the polaroid picture before him to respond. But he shook it wildly. "Look at the front. Is it developing? Can you see the picture forming?" I asked, enthusiasm contagious and me, most susceptible. He was smiling now. Big. Showing the boy next to him this great discovery. New-age hands fascinated by old technology. The simplicity of watching something come into its own, like ink on a polaroid, or children in summer school.
The boy to his left said, "This is how they know you're from Brownsville," a phrase I had been mindful of overhearing since my first day at this school. And, similar to the affect it has had every time, the words strung together into a needlepoint. The boy who had been shaking his polaroid, deflated.
This, of course, had unconsciously been the intention. These students, products of their parents--products of a world that placed them in a neighborhood they don't see the merit in--are quick to shame the innocence of others. Innocence here is enviable. Too much bad has already happened and nothing is supposed to be made of magic anymore. All that glitters never was gold. Or so we replay, tapes that belong to someone else's inner-child but find a space between our heads and hearts all too easily. Also contagious; a disease that manifests.
As a child, they called my kindness fake. Ripped the heart off my sleeve and promised it wasn't real. Disingenuous. The children around me never could understand the hope that lifted the pucker of my lips into smiles. As an adult, the children around me tell me that, at first, my demeanor seems off-putting. Too nice, perky.
They tell me that they grow to trust me, though. That, most important to me, is a reflection of themselves. Because I trust them, implicitly. And, isn't that something? The way, especially with children, what you give truthfully, you get back a ten-fold.
I remember all of the people who were kind to me. Not because they were few and far between (even if, sometimes, that was true) but because they saw me. They made me feel like I belonged. And, if I never do anything else in my life, I hope that every child I work with (in schools, anywhere) feels seen by me. Feels acknowledged for the things they do well and feels loved for the parts they haven't really gotten down yet, either. The soft kiss of I'm still learning.
The way, if we're paying attention, we are always learning.
This is Me:
My name's Melissa. I'm the girl with her hands in her journal.