Stairway F

H was in a mood today because she wasn’t feeling well, and we all suffered. She called out her former friend and said she wouldn’t participate in the therapy session (though she did) during the first class, and in the second class, she sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and did her work without a word.

When it was time to visit the school food bank before trekking home on the train, she was definitely not up to it. I looked at my recently-arrived Afghan girl whom H has been escorting to and from school every day, and H looked right back at me. They were both standing in Stairway F, not Stairway R, the one that leads to the food bank.

“Well… are you going to wait for R to go to the food bank?” (H’s sister and brother had already fled the premises and were five blocks down Louisiana Avenue, halfway home).

“We’re going home. She can’t go home alone.” It might have been a dirty look H gave me, an exhausted look, a middle-child look.

H is from Sudan and doesn’t speak R’s language. But she lives five blocks away from her, and even though the train takes an hour to bring them both to my school, I convinced R’s caseworker that it was worth her staying, that we have a food bank and a newcomer program with three hours of English and two hours of math and a summer program and therapists and patience, and this Sudanese family that lives five blocks away who could show her how to take the train… But what they wanted was an escort, a female escort, who would make sure that she would be safe.

(When we were learning past tense verbs yesterday via a story about a man who had a bad day, my para talked H through her horrible story about her bad day, where, just like the man in the story who missed his bus, she missed her train because R was late. And H is never, never late. And she nailed those past tense verbs, her long braids that her sister entwined spilling down her back like a river of emotion.)

I had to let them walk down Stairway F. (It was just a few years back that I discovered how many stairways are in our building. They go all the way up to X, if you were wondering how a school built a hundred years ago with three additions tries to fit the world into its walls. Stairway X is in the 1987 addition with the new gym and its fancy foyer and its secret passage up to the third-floor batting cage.)

I digress.

I let them go, and I walked the rest of my class down the second-floor hallway to Stairway R, to the food bank where my most-recently-arrived Afghan boy told me the whole story, through his broken English and broken heart and the translator app on his phone, about the series of scarred slashes on his arm.

“The Taliban?”

Scars so deep that they are still pink, as if cut by a suicidal knife, as if done yesterday. He has photos on his phone from the day of the event, less than a year back, when he was working in a pharmacy that the Taliban decided to bomb, shattering the glass on all the windows, sending the glass into his forerarm, his shoulder, his soul.

“Can you walk with me through the food bank and show me how to get the food?”

The patient Wash-Park mother was making a list of new students. He didn’t know just how to add his name, but his verbal skills are over-the-top amazing.
“How many people are in your house?” I asked because the form asks.

“Twelve. In two rooms,” he informed me, holding up two fingers to prove to me he understood.

“How many children? Adults?”

“Eight children and four adults.”

And before we had walked through, before we had picked out chai tea and lentils and halal meat and handfuls of fresh vegetables, filling not one or two, but three bags for him to carry across the city on two city buses, H appeared in front of me, cutting the line with R, exhausted and sick and putting her arm around her, making sure that she had as many bags of food that she could carry home to her huge family, and…

That is what it is like to teach Newcomer English. Find your H, take the right stairway, and fill your bags with food and hope.

Ravine

My mother once fought a ravine and two strange men, and only a woman could tell you which was scarier. The dusk settling in on a rural New York night, a 30-something woman trying to maintain her health with a long walk, and a pickup truck.

Doesn’t every American nightmare begin and end with a pickup truck?

You can feel the humidity in your mouth. As thick as gnats, as thick as a cloud of mosquitoes fighting for blood. Hovering in the clouds that are the sky of the upstate, the Finger-Lake country, the I-can-get-away-with-this country. Choking you.

Telling you just what your mother told you—that you should have stayed home. That you shouldn’t have gone to college. That you should have been a housewife. That education and careers are for penises. That you aren’t really a woman if you aren’t surrounded by a cartload of kids.

And you. She. Didn’t listen. You took that 2.5-mile walk in the dusk, running your long and delicate fingernails along the cattails. Feeling that soft moisture in the air, filling your lungs with droplets as golden as the fire from the sun. Feeling your freedom of marrying a man who would never in a million years tell you not to be who you are. Just letting you.

Walk.

Walk that walk. Walk all the way around the “block”, the upstate block that stretched between a cemetery, an elementary school, houses built two hundred years back, and cornfields flooded with the life of early summer, ready to burst with golden morsels of joy.

She will tell you this story later (not much later). You are nine years old, sitting in your stone-floor kitchen, listening to her tell it.

It is the same story she told you years ago, about her mother writing the letter to the college and telling them that her daughter shouldn’t go, that women are housewives, and why would she waste her life on an education rather than raising babies?

But there’s a ravine in this story.

A ravine. Resting above Flint Creek, the creek with the black snakes in summer, the creek that freezes so hard in winter that we bring our toboggan and sled right down over its ice, the creek that is a mystery and a blessing and a danger all wrapped in a childhood built upon the backbones of exploration.

In case you were wondering, this far along… the ravine saved her.

She clung to the vines, the grass, the weeds, the green growth along the banks of that creek as if her life depended on it.

Her life depended on it.

Because on her 2.5-mile walk, at dusk, in midsummer, two men followed her and did all the things two men in a pickup truck do.

They drove forward and circled back. They blasted their radio and their diesel. They shouted and slurred.

And my mother won a full-ride scholarship for that nasty letter her mother wrote in 1972. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement, and goddamn it if someone was going to tell her or anyone that she wasn’t going to get her degree. Even if it was her mother.

And she clung to the side of that ravine, hiding her waist-length auburn curls and her 120-pound soul and her fear, until she heard that diesel drive away.

And she didn’t call the cops or cry or call my father.

She walked home and told us, my sister and father and me, the story.

And that is why I am here today, writing this.

Because she clung to the terror and came out on the other side and didn’t get raped.

And how fucking sad and amazing and heartbreaking is that ravine, that ravenous victory?

How fucking sad is that ravine?