C H A P T E R
Meeting Sister Sara and Finding Nicole
After Nicole lost her diary, she shared one with Lisette and two other girls. The girls allowed each other to read what each wrote in the diary, which is how Lisette learned that Nicole was thinking about killing herself; how Lisette came to me about it; how I passed this information on to Mrs. Lynns and the guidance office; and how Nicole, and later Justine, received counseling from a woman who was paid by the school from funds received from a grant to prevent drug use.
By the time Lisette told me about what Nicole had written, I already had learned a great deal about Nicoles life, so her despair did not come as a tremendous surprise. My knowledge inevitably did not arise from my observation in the classroom; indeed, had I remained in the background, the school and I would never have learned what Nicole was going through. One day in November, as the class began to line up to begin the slow, tense journey down two steep and narrow flights of stairs to the lunchroom, I noticed that Nicole was looking especially miserable. Nicole is the kind of girl whose smile can light up an entire room, but when her lips droop down in a frown instead of swooping up in a smile, she looks like shes carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and shes going to drop it any minute. I tapped Nicole on the shoulder and asked her to step to the back of the girls line so I could talk with her. (Boys and girls lined up separately to minimize distraction during the long wait preceding trips on the staircase. Boys who misbehaved had to stand at the back of the girls line, and vice versa).
When I asked Nicole if something was bothering her, she shook her head. I didnt believe her, so I asked Mrs. Lynns if she and I could take Nicole out to lunch with us, explaining that Nicole looked upset and probably would welcome our attention. Mrs. Lynns told me that was fine, and said that the previous year she had often taken children with her to lunch. Since Mrs. Lynns approved, I invited Nicole to come with us. She accepted, went upstairs to get her coat, and we walked down the hill to a nursing-home cafeteria.
Nicole and I waited in line to be served while Mrs. Lynns was washing her hands in the ladies room. I told Nicole to order whatever she wantedsalad, cake, Jell-O, or fruit, and one of the hot mealseither roasted chicken with rice and beans or spaghetti with green beans on the side. Nicole looked at the choices arrayed before us on the glass shelves and said to me, Youre being nice to me?
After Nicole made her selections, we went to the cash register. The cashier looked at the plastic dishes piled high on Nicoles tray and told me that Nicoles meal would be $2.00, while my more modest repast was $3.50. Mrs. Lynns whispered to me that the cashier always gave the children a break, and I thanked her. Nicole immediately began testing the limits of my generositywhen I pointed to the milk, soft drink dispenser, and water cooler asking her what she wanted to drink, Nicole pointed to a soda machine on the other side of the room. Digging in my pockets, I gave her the last of my change, three quarters, to put in the soda machine. That didnt suffice. On her first attempt, as her quarters disappeared down the slot of a machine that wasnt plugged in, no soda came out. Not wanting her to feel defeated, and knowing that the Federal grant would reimburse me, I gave her a dollar bill; this time, she succeeded in getting a Pepsi and change.
The Pepsi was, I think, Nicoles favorite part of the meal, but she dutifully ate as much as she could; between bites, she began to tell us about herself and her family. Nicole said that she lived with her grandmother and six brothers and sisters. She also had a godmother with whom she would spend her weekends; however, the previous summer her godmother moved to Connecticut and Nicole had not seen her since. The previous weekend her godmother was supposed to pick her up but was unable to come. (I surmise this is the reason Nicole had been looking so glum.) The details Nicole shared with us over lunch were the first bits of information that Mrs. Lynns and I knew about Nicoles family life. Mrs. Lynns had never met Nicoles grandmother in the two years Nicole had been in her class. No one had ever come to any of the parent-teacher conferences, and no one had ever signed Nicoles report cards (although guardians were required to do so).
Once we were back in the classroom, Nicoles meal with Mr. David and Mrs. Lynns became a hot topic; by the end of the day, I was committed to taking everyone to lunch. I started another sign-up list, but we had to follow the rules and regulations. Mrs. Lynns insisted that each child bring in a signed permission slip from a parent. In the case of Maria, a little girl whose mother spoke only Spanish, permission did not come for months, until Maria finally asked me to write the note and send it home for her mother to sign. Most children brought in notes right away, and lunchtime became an opportunity for Mrs. Lynns and me to spend private time with each child.
While I viewed lunch as a priceless opportunity to learn about the childrens lives at home, they had other ideas. Spending their free lunch period answering questions from a strange, if sympathetic, adult wasnt their idea of relaxing. Soon, they began asking if their friends could accompany them to lunch. I agreed, as long as both were going out with me for the first time, because I had agreed to pay for only one lunch per child. Soon the children pushed further: If their friends brought $2.00 with them, could they come, even if it were their second time?
Before winter was over, Mrs. Lynns and I were taking groups of four or more students to lunch, not because this was the best way to obtain information, but because the children enjoyed going out with their friends. Some children came more than once a week, and after a while they didnt even bother to say a word to us, other than hello, Mrs. Lynns and thank you, Mr. David. Lunch outside the school was becoming a class institution.
Once the children had gotten their second inch, they asked for more. Most of them werent very happy about the nursing homes hearty Spanish-style cuisine, although they were generally too polite to say so, and soon they began asking if they could go to nearby fast-food restaurants that served fried chicken and burgers. This was against school rules, of course, and parents certainly had not given permission for their children to walk about the neighborhood. By now, however, Mrs. Lynns could see how much fun the children were having when they went to lunch under Mr. Davids supervision, so she agreed that we could go to local shops within two blocks of the school building.
I remember walking with a group of five or six children to Munch Time, a shop located around the corner from the school, where the children clowned around and flirted while they waited for their bacon cheeseburgers and omelets. We were becoming a significant factor in the local economy as children convinced parents to send in lunch money despite the opportunity to receive free hot meals at school (the meals were described as nasty).11
On the way back to school, Shakur, a tall, round boy with a high-pitched voice, sometimes tinged with rage (over the death of his mother?), shocked me when he turned to me and said that he had never before had so much fun at school. (Officers of the Parents Association, whose headquarters were down the hall from Mrs. Lynns class, were troubled, however. Did I have permission to take children off school grounds? Was I compromising their safety?)
On other occasions, I brought food back from local bodegas to the classroom where the children waited under Mrs. Lynns supervision, or if Mrs. Lynns had gone to the cafeteria, they were under the supervision of my graduate assistant. The children liked staying in the classroom during lunch break rather than leaving, because they could relax, gossip, go over homework, or listen to music.
Building On MusicMy Favorite Thing
Music is another storyI was learning about jazz and decided to share my new enthusiasm with the children, hoping that bringing Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to the classroom might help them find a new way to connect to their American heritage and provide a point of pride for Nicole, Shakur, and the other African-American children in the class. At first, I brought my CD boom box to class every day, along with my laptop computer and video camera. (I must have looked a sight, walking from my car to the school loaded down with electronic gadgetry.) Soon, Mrs. Lynns gently suggested that I leave the boom box in her classroom, where she would store it in her cabinet overnight so the children could listen to music when I was at Rutgers University.
To my amazement, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane became a part of the classroom. (Mrs. Lynns played music softly when children were reading, relaxing, or taking tests. Coltranes My Favorite Things was most popular at test-taking time.) Children asked if they could take my tapes and CDs home, and soon I was a regular lending library, again with a sign-out sheet.
As I saw how enthusiastically the children were reacting to the music, I searched out Latin titlesGloria Estefan and Selena singing in English were most in demand. (Ill never forget the look of delight on Marias face when she heard Gloria Estefan singing Quanto Te Quiero; finally, Spanish culture is in the classroom!) Soon I began thinking of additional ways to build on the music. I brought in the documentary film A Great Day in Harlem, a portrayal of Harlems great jazz musicians coming together on a day during the 1950s to have their photograph taken. I thought seeing Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk moving on the screen alive and mischievous might help the children relate to the music. By February, they were writing about African-American musicians for their Black History Month projects. (One child discovered that an ancestor of Mrs. Lynns was a famous blues musician). In March, the children researched the lives of women musicians for Womens History Month. Marian Anderson, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Gloria Estefan, Dinah Washington, Celia Cruz, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Aretha Franklin, and above all, Whitney Houston, become classroom heroines, and their biographies and pictures filled the hallway bulletin boards.
I could tell similar stories about how the video camera and the tape recorder become part of the classroom. It is enough to say, however, that the children enjoyed exploring the possibilities of each piece of equipment, recording their own and their friends voices, playing back observations and curses, and documenting performances and special events. Important collective moments included watching the video of one class member playing center for the boys basketball team in a victory over rival CES 42; the chorus perform at the headquarters of the schools corporate sponsor, Capital Re; the cheerleaders perform, especially when Lisettes underpants somehow are exposed for half a second; or, above all, watching the lancers duel at the class trip to Medieval Times. These were significant events that marked the growth of a consciousness that the classroom had its own culture and history, that it was a community whose members shared pride in their accomplishments, the memory of triumphant and painful experiences, and their own unique collective identity. (Lisette made me promise not to replay her embarrassing segment, however.)
My contributions to the curriculum had profound and complex effects on my work as an ethnographer. My vision of taking notes on my computer did not survive the childrens requests to use the computer for their own purposes. Eventually I brought a tape recorder with me, dictating my memory of classroom interactions into the tape recorder while driving home from school. My videotapes became less useful as documents of school practice after children began playing games with the camera, filling the expensive high-eight tape with long stretches of unwatchable confusion.
Expanding My Boundaries as Ethnographer and Teacher
Stepping out of an observers role allowed me to know the children in ways I could never have planned. From my field notes:
I want Nicole to share her pride in Sister Sara with her classmates, and even imagine bringing Sister Sara to class with me to tell the children about her work and to enlist them in helping the Mission, but Nicole wont have any part in it. Although she does not mind my telling an appreciative Mrs. Lynns about what I have learned, she doesnt want me to tell her fellow students. I dont understand this reluctance, but I obey her wishes. (Mrs. Lynns is so impressed by what she hears about Sister Sara that she tells Mr. Johnson, a clergyman and fellow teacher. He says that he knows of her and that his church has donated food and money to her Mission, but he does not know that Sister Sara is Nicoles grandmother.)
For the remainder of the year, I drive Nicole home from school whenever she asks. Sister Sara introduces me to her assistants, shows me the program for her Appreciation Day, and gives me clippings of the newspaper coverage. After we talk the second time, she accepts my offer to drive her to school to meet Mrs. Lynns.
By the end of April, my son comes with me to visit Nicole on a Saturday. I accompany them to a movie theater where they watch Anaconda and eat lots of popcorn and candy. At the Mission, my son plays Nintendo games on his Game Boy with one of Nicoles brothers. Over time, I get to know shy, withdrawn Nicole.13
My developing relationship with Nicole and her grandmother forces me to redefine the boundaries of my role as ethnographer and assistant teacher. My own interaction with Nicole, my behavior, her reactions, my feelings, her ups and downs, our pulls and pushes became part of the story and part of my experience helping Mrs. Lynns in the classroom. This past Christmas, six months after my observation period has ended, I call Nicole to arrange to give her a Christmas present and learn from a distressed Sister Sara that Nicole and two of her siblings have been taken to foster care by the police, who are acting for the Bureau of Child Welfare. It is difficult to enjoy my familys perfect Christmas after that, even though all three of my grandchildren are visiting.
Expanding the boundaries of my roles as both ethnographer and teacher enables me to get to know Nicole far better than I otherwise would have. At the beginning of the year, Nicole came to school armed with a resolve to keep her home life secret. No one at school knows about the role that religion plays in Nicoles life, or about Sister Sara and the Rescue Mission. Mrs. Lynns, who had Nicoles oldest sister, Monifa, in class several years earlier, did not realize that the two girls were related until February of the second year that Nicole was in her class. Mrs. Andrews, who had Monifa in her fifth grade class, where she was a holy terror, knew nothing of the girls background. Loretta Howton, the Assistant Principal, who had known Nicole and her sisters for several years and had met Nicoles grandmother when she drove Nicole home on a day when the snow was too deep for walking, knows nothing about the Rescue Mission. If Nicole had not gone out to lunch with Mrs. Lynns and me, and if she had not had the computer and a diary in which to write her secrets, no one would have known that part of Nicole that she was so intent on hiding.
Developing Personal Relationships With Children and Their FamiliesDoes This Promote Classroom Learning?
Furthermore, and here I speculateif Nicole had not been a member of the cheerleading squad, if she had not seen prize-winning performances of that squad played back in class on the VCR, if she had not shared in the music and taken CDs of Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald home with her, would she ever have come in out of the margins, lowered the veil between school and home, and become a full (active, demanding, assertive) participant in Mrs. Lynns fifth grade classroom?
This complex question is difficult to answer in the abstract, but my notes on daily classroom activities provide clues about how developing personal relationships affects learning:
Accommodating Student Differences
When I look over my notes now, I see that during the course of the year, Mrs. Lynns and I not only came to know Nicole as a whole person, but we came to see her as an individual student and learner with her own interests and learning style. Based on this knowledge, we were able to provide her with one-on-one instruction, encouragement, and advice.15
Our support enabled Nicole to bring herself into the classroom and its curriculum, making her worlds of home and school no longer so separate. Writing first in the computer and later in the diary, Nicole brought her home concerns into the classroom. She wrote her first compositionabout a proposed visit to her godmotheronly after we had taken her out to lunch where she told us about her family.
Participation in cheerleading was another school experience that facilitated Nicoles learning. The cheerleading team of twenty girls practiced twice weekly after school and every Saturday morning, learning and perfecting cheers and dances to perform at school events and public competitions.
When Nicole first informed me that she was a cheerleader, I was surprised. It seemed the kind of activity that outgoing, popular girls like Jessica and Lisette join, but Nicole? It soon became clear that being part of a small community of girls and women brought Nicole friendships and an important sense of belonging. She was forever practicing her moves.
By Christmas, the cheerleaders were performing at interschool basketball games, holiday shows, and local competitions. When I visited the Gaucho Gym in the far South Bronx one Saturday morning to see CES 518s cheerleaders compete, Squad B, which included Nicole, finished ahead of Jessica and Lisette in Squad A. (The silver medal trophy went into CES 518s display case in the hallway next to the principals office.) The precision, discipline, enthusiasm, and showmanship that Nicole and her squad demonstrated were a world apart from the shyness and loneliness of the girl Id approached before lunch just two months earlier.
If this were a Hollywood script, the last scene would feature a triumphant Nicole. But reality is a bit different.
The more Nicole reveals about her life, the more intractable her problems seem. Her sister, Xenia, got so wild that Mrs. Black, CES 518s grant-funded drug prevention counselor, begins the process of placing Xenia in a dropout prevention program, hoping that her removal from the Mission would not only straighten her out before it was too late, but also make the lives of Nicole and her grandmother easier. Xenia, however, proves not to be the only source of stress; the girls mother begins frequenting the Mission to steal whatever she can sell and to scream epithets at her daughters.
Not surprisingly, there are times when Nicole comes to class so miserable that she cant work. She is removed from the cheerleading squad for not following rules. Mrs. Black, who considers Xenia a more pressing problem than Nicole, provides sporadic, if warm, support.
When Nicole graduates in June, she is still vulnerable, still at risk. This year, forced into foster care with an aunt and two siblings, she is in a strange new school in Brooklyn where she knows no one outside her new family.
The difficult challenges facing Nicole should not overshadow what she has accomplished in the past year. Despite the stress she experiences in her home, Nicole comes to school every day, does her homework conscientiously on her own, learns what the school asks her to learn, passes her standardized tests, reads at least two two-hundred page books on her own, learns about Black contributions to American musical history and culture, writes expressive compositions, and masters long division, decimals, and fractions.
She develops socially as well. By the end of the year, she has formed new friendships with a group of girls with whom she is less competitive than with Jessica, she has a male admirer who takes her to the prom, and she develops a more open and trusting relationship with Mrs. Lynns and me.
These accomplishments are just a sliver of the growth Mrs. Lynns students experienced within the past year. The processes that help Nicolegetting to know and be known by her teachers, bringing her family to school and her school to her home, finding outlets in school for self-expressionthese same processes enable some of Nicoles classmates to make remarkable progress. Luther, for example, who was depressed and listless at the beginning of the year, won art competitions and a scholarship for private art lessons (see Chapter Three). For other students, however, barriers at home and at school interfere with cultural interchange and impede academic progress. The story of Clarissa best illustrates the pitfalls that can befall efforts to support student learning.
11All of the children at CES 518 received free lunches under a Federal subsidy program. return to text
12Interview with Mrs. Lynns, February 1998. return to text
13Eventually, I chose Nicole and Sister Sara to be one of my study families. Since I had already chosen the three families my grant proposal specified, I was only able to pay them half the amount of the regular stipend. return to text
14Elizabeth Word et al (1990). Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) Tennessees K3 Class Size Study. Final Summary Report, 19851990. ERIC Abstract ED320692. return to text
15In Lois Weiners book (1993), Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools: Lessons from Thirty Years of School Reform, she says that urban schools are structured and governed in ways that makes such individualization all but impossible. return to text