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Missing the mark, marking the way.

Missing the mark, marking the way.

A parachute would have been helpful. I flew to Moscow. LAX to SVO international airports. I suppose time is money, and I had more of the former so I opted to forfeit a few hours to save a substantial amount of airfare.
On the plane I made some observations:

At first it was a polite stale: marked hurriedly by the essence of gardenia and talcum. With each new bodily breath it earns crudeness. As the sun bleeds a slash on that east it begins blanketing stars one by one, two by two, then all in a final swallow. The sea below is a crisp brew. Suds surface. Clouds cling, frothy atop it.
Soft periwinkle hue shifts smoothly to blue.
The stench is now unashamed and we’re all to blame. A smelly toy tin floating remarkably, ceaselessly.
The negative space is positively endless.

Desolation in East New York

                The sight was bleak, and there was a staleness to the air as we stepped off of the subway train and onto the platform.  As we emerged from the darkness of the underground passages beneath Manhattan, we realized that we had only come out into another underground, the world that was East New York.  Bushels of clouds overhead contrasted with grey of the city before us.  The first thing we saw on either side of the subway platforms were rubbish heaps. Piles and piles of industrial waste, encased by nets of mauled fences and rusted pillars of cold steel surrounded us. I imagined myself as a young kid stepping off the train to go home, and all I could think of was the sarcastic  greeting, “welcome home.”

                After spending a day in the neighborhood that housed P.S. 328, one comes to realize the sense of despair that invades every crack of the community.  We all noticed the emptiness of the area, with its removed, industrial feel mimicking that of a row of factories instead of a residential block.  I don’t remember seeing much for stores, save for a few shoddy bodegas, and maybe a barber shop or hair salon.  This reminds me of what Walter Thabit pointed out in his book How East New York Became a Ghetto, when he points out in chapter one how the neighborhoods in E. New York began to change rapidly, and how the “small businesses could not survive the ongoing changes” (17). Thabit points out that it wasn’t the “loot” that encouraged youth to rob the businesses, but rather the “diversion” that seemed to be the main rewards” (17).  Looking around the block of P.S. 328, there didn’t seem to be much for youth to distract themselves with.  After beginning to read Thabit’s book, I began to understand the importance after-school programs, and other community projects like the mural we had been preparing for.  I myself can attest to how unproductive I may be, and even destructive when I don’t have anything to do, and more distraction from the desolation of the neighborhood would seem to do some good for the youth who inhabit it.

                What stood out to me in Chapter 6 of Thabit’s book was how he explains the development of the youth culture in East New York, particularly in relation to the development of gangs.  Thabit cites that “with little adult supervision, young people gravitated toward peer group cliques and gangs where they found acceptance and identity” (88).  As we walked the streets surrounding PS 328 I could see kids of all ages, between about 6 and 16, all walking around, seemingly without an adult. The need for a protective group to be a part of is eminent, as is the possible danger if one is caught alone. After seeing this truth on the streets, Thabits words could not be more meaningful when he asserts that “one of the keys to reducing youthful delinquency and crime is the socializing influence of recreation, the replacement of gang behavior with social behavior” (91-92).

                In the end, I can only hope that the priming we did for the mural wall will extend into the neighborhood, and act as a primer for change within the community around P.S. 328.  I don’t know when I’ll be back in NY, or if I will ever be back to help implement these changes, but if I’ve learned anything on this trip it is that the little change that local grass-roots organizations such as the Lower East Side Girls Club can begin are a huge step in the right direction.  Thabit reiterates this in his introduction, as he refers to local community organizations when he describes how they “have a direct stake in the outcome, a detailed knowledge of conditions, experience with the way things are, the spirit and determination to succeed,  and the intelligence and imagination to develop new approaches and solutions” (5).  Thabit, along with the City Arts mural project at P.S. 328 and the example of organizations such as the Lower East Side Girls Club and Groundswell Mural Project remind us all that there is still a lot more to be done to reshape the landscape of the urban community, but also remind us that there is still hope to be found, as well as many more empty walls to fill with color.  Although there is still a question of whether or not mural projects such as the one City Arts has undertaken will make any changes, there is no doubt that a splash of color and vibrancy will bring something, if as little as a spark of imagination to the youth of PS 328 so that they can someday imagine a better future for themselves and their community.

Aside

Do murals really help?

When I began to read about the devastation and poverty that has been eating way at East New York since the 60s painting a mural seemed like a really futile response to such an atrocity. I also began to compare East New York to my own upbringing in public schools on the border in Texas. I grew up going to public schools where I was the only girl with red hair at school in a community that continues to be 85% hispanic. I was able to draw a lot of personal parallels when comparing the quality of schools. El Paso, my hometown, is not as bad as East New York but it definitely has a lot of problems. Much of those problems rooted in administration just like East New York. The superintendent of the school system I attended my entire pre-college years is now in prison for having stolen over half a million dollars. Not only is he a thief but he managed to get two teachers pregnant, while somehow maintaining a marriage. His own children have always attended private schools, which illustrates even further his opinion of the public school system he was running.

My mother worked for this school district as an orchestra teacher for 16 years and a librarian for another 15 years. I grew up seeing firsthand what it is like for the arts to receive no funding and the stress it puts on the students and teachers trying to maintain these programs, much less make them thrive.  As a beginning orchestra teacher she was lucky to be able to inspire a few children to continue with music through high school. She would spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to tune instruments that were falling apart. At some schools she even held orchestra classes in portables, all of which was commonplace citywide. As a librarian my mother received zero sympathy or support from administration as well. At an early age I immediately dismissed teaching as a career path because of all the distress my mother went through daily and her frustration at the administration.

Although the issues in East New York are more severe I believe the main cause in both situations is total mismanagement and city leadership. I also believe that racism is a huge culprit. I would like to think that if the white communities were aware of how terrible the minority communities were being treated in the 60s and 70s they would have done something about it, but I don’t think they would have. Maybe not even today. In East New York especially racial issues seem to be the root of why they could not get any support. In El Paso it is utter mismanagement, not to mention the sheer masses of illegal immigrants crowding the schools while tax dollars get spread even thinner. In both cases it is the children who suffer all the consequences.

One thing that really struck me about East New York is that even though the community was extremely vocal about making their needs known nothing changed. It is scary that a single person like Blumenfeld who was head of the Board of Education could be so incredibly destructive to so many people. “His modus operandi was to deceive, divide, conquer, and, if necessary, ignore the community and its needs. None of the other players, even taken together, mattered to any significant degree. Considering how many agencies were involved, and how much local interest and activity in school planning there was, that is a frightening fact.” (p. 151) I am grateful that the superintendent at my own school system did not wield that same horrible power.

I have a huge amount of sympathy for the children of East New York while also realizing that I will never fully understand everything their community is going through. I can read about it, help to prime a wall for a Cityarts mural, listen to the students there say they want to be doctors when they grow up and smile with them while they sing and dance in the hallways, but mostly I feel a sense of helplessness for them. I would not even know how to begin to heal the wounds of the community I grew up in and intensely understand. It is hard to listen to a child’s dreams when you read this about their community: “A self-fulfilling prophecy was imposed on the young at far too early an age. The impoverished community’s needs were enormous but largely ignored. Overwhelming needs for day care, more schools, health care, and other social services went unheeded. Nor has time healed the wounds. If anything, the problems of youth in East New York are even more serious today, thirty-five years after it all began.” (p. 87)

If I put myself in a child’s shoes getting the opportunity to paint a mural would be one of the most exciting things I could ever hope to do. As an adult it is still extremely exciting. I believe Tsipi’s words about children, “If you teach them to create, they will not destroy.” If I could track the mural project at PS 328 I would want to see how much the mural actually helped the students. I believe that it can because in a child’s eyes if they are given the confidence and opportunity to do something so big as a mural then they will hopefully maintain that confidence to be able to accomplish other great things. I don’t think that painting a mural is a solution to the abhorrent racism and mismanagement that created the East New York ghetto but I do believe that a mural can help a child see the light at the end of the tunnel and get them to aspire for a better future for themselves. And even though this may not physically fix anything, it is still something and that counts. If that mural helps just one child to become inspired then it was well worth it.

The Past Has No Bearing on Our Future

Ben Stickel

Reading “How East New York Became a Ghetto” after having spent a day at P.S. 328 gave me a greater appreciation for just how far that area has come. This is not to say that there are no aspects of East New York that still need work. There are plenty. But my experience at the school was almost purely positive, and made me hopeful for the future of East New York.

It rang as a bell of truth in a sea of ignorance.

Perhaps what I was most taken by at the school was how bright and cheerful the kids were. I didn’t make much of it at the time; after all, aren’t children just always chipper? I thought that was just what they do. In retrospect, however, I am now acutely aware of the plight of the East New York ghetto, and its young minds stand as a testament to the power of positive thinking, positive changes that can be made as a community when they band together.

“…unless teachers believe in the educability of the children (see chapter 13), students can not make great strides in reading scores or other evidence of learning. Much also depends on the quality and experience of teachers and on the size of school budgets.” (p. 162)

I was really struck by the idea of teachers who do not believe in their pupils. The concept is foreign to me, as throughout my schooling I have had (mostly) very supportive teachers who want to be sure that all the concepts stick, that every child has an equal chance to absorb that knowledge. I can only imagine what it is like to have a teacher who does not care for the students, who is okay with just letting them get by, rather than making them strive for excellence. Clearly the staff at P.S. 328 fell into the latter category. Every adult I saw seemed positively happy to be working with kids, and every kid I saw was respectful of their elders while still engaging them and asking questions. It was an inspiring sight to see, and all the more so given the history of the area in which they reside. Indeed, P.S. 328 was a great site to visit precisely because of its past:

“Once they moved into East New York, minorities were confronted with the lack of services. While families with thousands of children were moving into the community, the New York City Board of Education was not moved to provide the additional school seats needed. A report by my office on school needs in 1969 recommended the immediate construction of four elementary and four intermediate schools. Yet, between 1966 and 1974, the Board of Education was unable (or unwilling?) to build a single school in East New York.”(p. 4)

I really appreciate the school all the more knowing that other schools like it were met with resistance. Part of what made East New York a ghetto in the first place was unwillingness of whites in power to grant basic needs to the area. That, I think, makes the school that much more powerful in its cause. The fact that others sought its failure makes it that much prouder an institution, with that much more to prove. And boy, are the teachers and kids doing it right. Toward the end of our day at P.S. 328, I had spent time both priming the mural space and cutting out magazine images to create a self-portrait (I LOVE that idea). As I was leaving the art room to return to the mural wall, I was stopped by a young girl, who was dancing around to the amusement of her slightly older friends. She asked me,

“Are you an artist?” She stopped spinning to look at me.

“Depends on your definition of artist, I guess. I’m not that good.” A decidedly downer answer, I immediately realized.

“Paint me!” she yelled excitedly, as she resumed spinning with her hands overhead like a ballerina. Her friends and I shared a laugh, and my heart melted a little bit.

These kids are awesome! They are so full of life and hope and ambition! Had I not read the assigned book, I would have no idea just how rough their neighborhood was and is. It seems to me that P.S. 328 (and, I would assume, other East New York schools) serves as a haven where kids can continue to learn and have fun and enjoy each others’ company well past school hours. Our class arrived shortly before school was getting out that day, and as we left there were still students hanging around, living it up with their classmates.

“There were large numbers of children and teenagers in the community, resulting in less adult and especially parental control. The average age in East New York was under eighteen years compared with twenty-five to thirty-five years in most stable New York City communities… Leaving aside the prekindergarten age group, my firm’s analysis indicated that some 9,000 school-age children and teenagers were not attending school. One out of every seven youths between the ages of seven and twenty was arrested during 1965. In 1966, seven crimes were reported for every 100 persons in the area.” (p. 9)

As I said, for an outsider ignorant of the area’s past, none of it is evident in visiting P.S. 328. The positive outlook of the kids and the teachers expresses their outright refusal to fall victim to the past. This is why public schools are such a perfect place for murals. Devoting a whole wall to beautiful imagery gives young minds something to look at and think about other than the otherwise oppressive confines of their neighborhood. The mural, right alongside the curriculum, gets their minds to aspire to big new things, and drives them to achieve the seemingly impossible.

“For the average minority teenager, menial, part-time, temporary, low-wage, and dead-end jobs were all that were available. Adult blacks were little better off. … For a poorly prepared ghetto youngster, the job hunt could be totally devastating. Consider a typical young man in his late teens. He didn’t have a high school diploma; he had dropped out years ago. He had applied for jobs and found that people didn’t understand what he was saying. He had a tough time filling out an application, and nobody offered him any kind of a job. He looked into his future and saw nothing out there. He got the message: he stopped looking.”

With education on their side, kids from East New York have, in theory, just as good a chance as anyone of landing their dream jobs. Schools like P.S. 328 teach the kids that the future is in their hands: an extremely appropriate message, especially given 328’s namesake, Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was born in Africa and sold into slavery. Later in her life, she became known not for her manual labor, but her brilliant poetry. The kids of P.S. 328 need to carry that motivation with them: despite whatever society might envision or want for them, there is always room for themselves. They are the masters of their respective destinies, and should never decide what they can or can not do based on the ideas of somebody else. Let individuality ring.

Thabit, Walter. How East New York Became a Ghetto.

New York, NY, USA: New York University Press (NYU Press), 2003. p 162.

http://site.ebrary.com/lib/dominicanuc/Doc?id=10078476&ppg=179

Copyright © 2003. New York University Press (NYU Press). All rights reserved.

Stress, Safety, Support

When it comes to making schools a better place for students, many of the issues lie within the school; however there is also equal responsibility to root causes that are found outside of school.

“While the programs seemed to have some effect, only a few of those needing the services were able to get them.The area was highly volatile and unstable. Almost every week, there was a new disaster – a fatal fire, another building vacated of vandalized, a crime of violence” (Ch 1. p.19).

I read over this quote the first time through the reading, but it caught my attention when I looked back. Thinking of all these hard things happening to one community every week is pretty difficult for me to imagine. A lot of the time it is easy for people to sympathize with troubled communities without actually feeling the struggle. I personally have never lived in a place where I didn’t feel safe. But if ever week a house was being burnt down, that feeling of safety would be fractured if not destroyed. Feeling safe in one’s home is important for everyone, especially children. Growing up in this type of environment adds even more stress to everyday life. The author also mentions the lack of health care availability in East New York. These kids grow up with little help in basic health. This also causes a lot of stress for the students.

Dr. Wolff of the Migration Division, Department of Labor, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, believed that “separate but equal schools cannot exist. In minority schools, Wolff argued, teachers expect low pupil achievement and do not work hard to teach black children reading and other skills; as a result, students become discouraged, don’t learn to read, and drop out ” (Ch 10. p. 159).

Negative expectations have been pr oven to have negative effects on students. When people are expected to fail, they tend to preform worse than those who had support. Dr. Wolff tells us some of the effects of these negative expectations. Discouragement, illiteracy, dropping out. These kids are expected to fail, so they have a much harder time achieving their goals than others. When schools are separated by the “good” kids and the “bad” kids, those who are marginalized are going to be much worse off. Equality in education is necessary for the growth and balance of a society.

An earlier quote I found said, “About 30 percent of Jefferson High’s students dropped out (or were expelled) every year; inferior administration, negligent teaching, and overcrowding were all to blame; racism was very much a factor” (Ch 6. p.83).

One of the main things I’ve learned through my service learning is how hard it is to learn in a classroom that has too many students, some constantly acting up, gang tension, and other distractions. It’s not surprising that such a high percent of students don’t make it through the year. It doesn’t make sense to cut funding or close schools like this. These schools need support rather than cuts. How are the communities going to be empowered without the resources. The students at these types of schools are marginalized and are usually met with negative expectations. How can anyone be expected to grow if he or she is not given the tools needed. This makes it difficult for them to get jobs and obtain the skills necessary to life in today’s high demand society.

Safety in education can be more important than the curriculum itself. How can I child be expected to learn if they are worried about where to find their next meal?

“Many of those who dropped out had no history of working at all and no role model, such as a father who worked and supported the family” (Ch 6. p.85).

Family is also a very influential part of anyones life. Developmental psychology tells us that family and school are the main means of support through a childs life. If someone is forced to take care of themselves, or their family, at a young age, they miss the chance to explore the world through playing.

One thing that kept coming up during my time in New York, was the idea of helping kids to express themselves through art, and imagination. Some of the community members I interviewed told me how important art was to their children, and how they were glad they still got to take part in some arts at school. Without this support from their parents and communities, these children wouldn’t have art education at all. Some of the students at PS 328 seemed to be really interested in the project. I saw one boy spending a long time picking out the buildings to use for the foreground of his picture. He planned to put the city in the front and fill the sky with faces of people. I really liked his idea. He came up with this great idea, and took the time to make it look nice; like Tsipi says, “When kids create, they do not destroy.”

When studnts are given a good education that addresses their personal needs as well, they are more likely to make it to and succeed in the world after school. Feeling that one is safe in their community and home, is essential for the person to grow. If students in minority schools were met with positive expectations instead of negative ones, there would be less drop out rates for them. These students need to be empowered rather than have the budgets to their schools cut. Students also benefit greatly from a postive role model in their lives. Every day life is stressful enough without all the extra tension a lot of these kids are facing. Stress is normal, but it needs to be balanced. They need to be able to feel safe in their homes. And they need the support they deserve to succeed.

Aside

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Upward and Onward

I expected unbearable things.  Things like students pulling at each other’s hair, collaborative screaming at or disregard for any and all forms of authority.  That was not the case.  As our group was lead through the art-embellished halls of P.S. 328, I honestly waited to see the rest of the students.  Where were the “5,000 pupils [that] were on short time in thirteen schools”?  Or the “Portables [that] were also placed in six schoolyards, and 500 children [that] were being bussed”? As Thabit claimed, “Many of the schools were more than fifty years old and lacked hot-lunch facilities, gymnasiums, science labs, and other facilities,” (Ch 1, p. 19).  These poor children are not only faced with voids where parental roles should be, but discouraging futures unfolding before their very eyes.  As the Harlem Children Zone claims, there are certain patterns in impoverished areas that practically condemn children to the same vicious cycles that their parents fell prisoners to.  And without help at home, where would help come from when “The extra needs of children reading below grade level were simply ignored,” (Ch 10, p. 152)?

Then I remembered that our reading was a history lesson.  It was not an outline of what to expect. However, the comparative reality was a hard bite to swallow.  At first I was honestly skeptical about whether or not we were just down the road from the schools we had read about.

But we were there.  And while we were there, we listened.  I specifically recall a group of girls.  All three of the stood like gifts with bows on their heads in the doorway admiring our priming work.  Eleven years old and more revved up than thoroughbreds.  Favorite subjects:  Math, ELA (English Language Arts), and Science, respectively.  They were to be doctors one day.  Each of them was sure they would make it through college and become something more than the barriers of their surroundings are meant to allow.

Their insurmountable confidence was a breath of fresh air; a wonderful break from the paint fumes.  So we talked some more.  We compared birthdays.  They asked where I worked, where I was from, what I want to do with my life.  All the while, a hum of wonder was still amidst my thoughts.  Will they be able to achieve these goals?  While “Many teenagers (unwanted or thrown out of their homes) needed a place to live and jobs that paid enough to live on. Others had to help support their families; some started families of their own,” how could they (Ch 6, p. 83)?  For some reason, though, I felt that they would.  I felt that they would not only reach their goals, but also surprise themselves in the process of reaching.

The mural itself is about upward movement, and that’s exactly what they were planning for.  Each of the students collaborated to create their collages.  They displayed the right amount of self-righteousness.  They made definitive decisions about how they wanted to visually represent themselves, but were open to outside opinion.  For example, a girl I spoke with included patterns she liked for a background because she claims to be a visual learner.  She cut out the words “strong”, “beautiful”, and “intelligent” that she felt represented herself, and she cut out a phrase that described what she wants to do with her life in the immediate future: “conquer your fears”.  She put an eye in the upper right corner to indicate that what she does will not go unnoticed, and a bird on the adjacent side to signify her wishes to travel the world and leave Brooklyn.  Her use of symbolism was surprisingly sophisticated.  I wondered, and continue to wonder, where she might have picked up on this sort of train of thought.  Who or what came into her life and explained to her the meanings below the surface in art?  Was it intuitive?  Whatever the case, I didn’t doubt her for a second.
Though our time at P.S. 328 was limited to the developmental process of the mural, I was touched by the insight of the children.  At first I thought I would have liked to actually paint the mural with the children, rather than just painting a wall white for others to cover.  However, if we hadn’t gotten the opportunity to speak with the children and view their individual creative process, I doubt we would have gotten to so closely examine their ways of thinking.  I was impressed.  Additionally I am glad to have cleaned the slate of that wall.  I have faith they will use it well as a creative outlet.

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