If I Dont Have God, I Dont Have Nothing in My Life Gisela
It is her demeanor, perhapsreserved, ladylike, yet friendlythat is most striking about Gisela (jee-SEH-luh) Urbano, eighteen years old, and an eleventh-grader at CBA. A short, slender girl of delicate build with a wide, pretty face and perennially well-manicured hands, Gisela wears a serious expression, although she has a quick smile. She favors neutral colorsblack, whites, browns, graysand a style of dressing totally appropriate for a late nineties urban teen: close-fitting seventies-inspired tops and jumpers, flared hems, boots, or chunky sneakers.
And the skirts. Long, fluid affairs, always down to about the ankle. I have never seen Gisela in pants or in short skirts. At first, I assumed she was just following a fadafter all, rack upon rack of these long skirts cram stores all around the Bronx, and they are quite the rage among her classmates. It was only later that I learned that long skirts are part of the code of modesty within the religious faith so central to her life.
Gisela is Pentecostal. For some, such an identification might have only the most perfunctory significancethat is, that they are members of such-and-such Pentecostal church, that they attend services there every Sunday, that they support their church through tithes and offerings, or even that they officially subscribe to a certain set of beliefs. For Gisela, however, being a Pentecostal goes beyond her attendance at Casa de Dios Pentecostal Church in the Bronx, where she is a member; it is integral to the life she occupies in the interstices of classes and homework. She attends services at Casa de Dios at least twice a week, besides Sundays, and is a past president of her youth group there. On many days, she rushes home as soon as classes are over so that she can get ready for evening services.
One September day in 1997, when I stopped her after school to ask if she would like to join my study, she was, as usual, hurrying to leave; this time, a young boy in her congregation had died, and she and her mother were going to sit with the family. From my notes:
Initially, I had not intended to study Gisela and her family. As interesting as I thought Gisela would be, it had been her friend, Ramona, who first caught my attention. Ramona is a tall, somewhat aloof girl who wears her dark hair in a restrained bun at the back of her head; wire-rimmed glasses add a touch of severity to her face. Occasionally, I had seen her smile in class, comment expressively on something without being asked, or giggle with classmatesbut not often. She was, I had been told, very religious.
I was intrigued enough to consider inviting Ramona to join my study and spent some time asking A House teachers about her. She was, I learned, Pentecostal. All of the teachers, although concerned about her academics, thought highly of her and felt she would make an interesting subject of study. A few days after agreeing to participate, however, Ramonas mother changed her mind.
I should explain that I was personally intrigued by the question of religion and the role it played in the lives of students. Because of my own interest in understanding how I reconciled my religious beliefs with my professional life,7 I wanted to talk with children who professed a strong religious faith, wanted to know how their beliefs permeated their lives and how they affected their school experience. Did these children bring their faith life to school, or did they leave it home? Was it possible that such a part of them could be left home? If they did bring this element of themselves to school, what form did it assume here? If they left it home, what were the costs? In the creation of its culture, where were the spaces CBA created for students to bring in what Palmer (1998) refers to as their true selves, or to answer their big questions? How did the school acknowledge that aspect of its students diversity? Children enter school with a worldview that, in some way or another, offers them the means of tackling life-defining questions. While I am convinced that one of the important tasks of schools is to prod children to analyze and test the frameworks they bring to these questions, how do teachers permit space for something like faith, which so completely defies the underpinnings of something like knowledge?
These were some of the questions that my brief glimpse of Ramona had convinced me I should ask; questions I was only gradually coming to realize were okay to ask. I had hoped to find someone else to help me elucidate some of these issues when one of the teachers suggested I talk with Gisela, whom I had observed in classes for some time. Gisela, like Ramona, seemed quite reserved and private. Yet I felt she could help me explore some of the questions I had begun to formulate.
My first interview with Gisela took place in the office of the school counselor, Emilia, about a month after she agreed to be in the study. From my notes:
Gisela did not begin high school at CBA. She first attended Millard Fillmore High School8 for about a year and a half before transferring to CBA. She had been held back her first year at Fillmore and was midway through a second attempt at ninth grade when she heard about CBA from Carlos, a boy from her church who was attending CBA.
Gisela lives with her mother and a younger sister and brother in an apartment a few blocks from the school. Her parents are separated. Some time ago, her youngest brother died in a tragic accident at the age of six months. Another sister, her fathers daughter from a previous relationship, does not live with them. Since Gisela is the oldest child, her mother has given her a great deal of responsibility. Sometimes her mother leaves town for a few days to attend to family affairs, and it is Gisela who holds down the fort, looking after 14-year-old Yvonne and eight-year-old Manuel:
Gisela is obviously proud of the contribution she makes keeping their home together. The care of her household, as I found out, sometimes took precedence over school obligations. Although higher education and a career were important to her, it became clear that she did not allow the pursuit of these things to jeopardize her home and her familys welfare. I asked her how she had managed so far to juggle the demands of home, church, and school:
She also told me about her future, what she hoped to do after graduation from high school:
Being a lawyer, Gisela felt, helped you to understand people, to understand the real world. Cause when youre a lawyer, she said to me, you know whats up. You know whats going on out there. She would never, she said emphatically, defend someone she knew to be guilty. No. Then Ill be part of that guilt. Then itll be wrong. I know that lawyers out there defend people that are guilty. But in my case, no I wont. I wont. If youre a criminal, youre a criminal. You pay your consequences. You was man enough to do the crime, now be man enough to pay for the crime. I asked her if she believed it was possible that good kids are influenced to do bad things when they choose the wrong friends:
As our conversation continued, it appeared that paying the consequences was something that Gisela had come to view as an inevitable aspect of life. She suggested that the bad things that have happened in her lifethe desertion of her father, the death of her baby brotherwere not Gods doing but may have been merely consequences you have to pay, the result of choices someone may have made in the past. This is something that she had learned not only from her home but has seen here at CBA as well. She claimed this reinforced lesson was one of the things she has learned from attending CBA:
Gisela suggested that had she not transferred out of Fillmore, she might have stayed in school long enough to get a diploma, but the experience would have been devoid of much of the significance she had found in her school experience at CBA. If she had stayed at Fillmore, she said:
To get a better sense of the home life and faith life that she brought to her experience here, I asked her to talk a little about some of the things that were important to her:
Gisela told me that she has been a Christian for nine years and her mother for six. At first, her mother did not really attend churchshe left the children there Sunday mornings and picked them up later. If their mother did not take them, the childrens Aunt Sarita, Mrs. Urbanos sister-in-law, would do so. Although Sarita often urged Mrs. Urbano to go to church, it was only after the death of her son that she began to attend regularly:
I asked Gisela, What gets you up in the morning? What motivates you? She said:
I could see how a school like CBA corroborated Giselas belief in learning from her mistakes. The schools consistent emphasis that children rework, edit, and reflect on their work played very soundly into Giselas idea that mistakes are what lifts you up; that mistakes provide opportunities to revisit old ways of doing things and gain insight for new approaches. CBAs curriculum made it difficult for children to abandon their work; assignments were saved for further reworking, and they formed the basis of the portfolios and projects that students were required to defend each semester. That you could not just get rid of your work, that it followed you for so long, had been a complaint of more than one student. For Gisela, however, the ideas that underlie these practices resonate with her understanding of life.
While the concepts she had learned through her home and her faith were a salient part of how she experienced school life, Gisela told me that she was not particularly aggressive about her beliefs among her classmates, although there was little misunderstanding of who she was and what she stood for. She did not force her beliefs on others, but felt that her life quietly testified to her faith:
In fact, other than to Sophiaher only close friend in this schooland to the other Pentecostal students there, Gisela did not talk much about religion at school. Sophia and Gisela had discussed Catholicism, and Sophia had even visited her church. (Sophia is a Catholic; Gisela and her family, before they accepted God, were Catholics, too, but mostly perfunctory ones, not particularly devout.) Gisela explained:
Everybody in school respects me, she said. I wear my skirts. And this is the way I am. Neither, she added, does she reject those classmates who do not share her beliefsalthough she has acknowledged there is somewhat of a distance. This distance was probably not entirely due to their difference in beliefs, however, since Gisela did not claim to have many close friends inside or outside of school and considered her mother, brother, and sister her main sources of support:
Gisela did not talk much about those things that had happened in her life that made her keep to herself. No doubt her fathers leaving had been one of the things that forced her to turn increasingly to her home and faith for emotional support:
It appears that, at least for Gisela, religious beliefs did not have to be left behind, but they were an integral part of who she was in school as well as outside of it. To bring her faith life into a secular setting did not mean making her beliefs a perpetual object of discussion or using them as a way of sifting out who was worth associating with and who was not. They were an integral part of her identity, the me that people had to accept if they wished to deal with her. She does not hide who she is, nor does she ask that others be like her. CBA has created an atmosphere in which children are taught that respect for each others views is a baseline expectation (I have observed many classroom discussions at CBA over the years, and almost never have I heard children openly scoffing at each others viewpoints). In the process, CBA, a thoroughly secular school, had left space for people like Gisela to feel that their beliefs were as welcome here as anywhere elseso much so, in fact, that Gisela and a few other Pentecostal students at the school approached a teacher to ask if they could form a Bible study club for interested students.9
After we had discussed school, her hoped-for career, and her family, I asked Gisela what she considered to be the most important thing in her life. It was clear that for her, as for any student, balancing her life demands continual choiceschoices about what stays, what goes, what gets sacrificed in a pinch, what slides for a bit while other things get attended to. The success-through-education orientation that drive us (her teachers, and certainly me) makes it difficult to understand some of the sacrifices Gisela has madedays out of school, missed assignments, the inevitable confusion and desperation that resulted from skipped classesto ensure that things got taken care of at home, that a family member in crisis was attended to (occasionally, Gisela accompanies her mother on trips to Philadelphia to deal with family issues among relatives there). What, I wondered, didnt get sacrificed? What took precedence? Gisela answered:
7Although I had attended a public high school, I received my undergraduate education at a university supported by my own religious affiliation (Seventh-Day Adventist). My first teaching job after college was at a Seventh-Day Adventist school. In my earliest adulthood, therefore, I had little need to think about juggling professional and religious responsibilities. However, since that time, working in a secular organization has forced me to think more about negotiating my obligations to my profession as well as to my religion. return to text
8Not the schools real name. return to text
9Giselas friend, Carlos, was given responsibility for getting this club established; at last notice, however, he had not followed through with the plan. return to text