My heart raced faster as the ringing tone on the other end waited to be picked up -- even after I had written out a script of what I wanted to say. Here I was: middle class, double-degree educated and nervous to call and make a phone inquiry about low-income housing. How would Devante’s (not his real name) mom feel if she was the one making the call?
That same feeling would come back, almost paralyzing me, when I was stunned into indecision as to whether or not to speak for her in a job placement meeting, of course, in English.
That phone call led me to pick up a housing application at New Settlement, an affordable housing organization in the Bronx. The buildings were tall. The signs, deviously subtle. It’s as if the office was set up for rookie’s like me not to find it. Among the dominos of tall residential buildings, I pushed through a metal gate to find the office and pick up an application for Devante and his family. The apartments and the task at hand both seemed to tower over me. I’m ‘just’ a part-time contract teaching artist. Who am I to think I could insert myself into this child’s life and make a difference?
It started in the winter when Devante’s after-school drumming class was cancelled due to a teacher absence and I was asked to sub, but still teach my regular content: yoga and mindfulness. Call it serendipity, or Oprah’s plan, this fifth grade class latched on to my lesson centered around kindness and curiosity.
While I only taught that fifth grade class once, our relationship grew. A friend and I were able to fundraise to send the school to see Black Panther and Devante started to open up to me. He couldn’t attend the screening. He thought it was a BYO lunch and because his family doesn’t have money, ergo lunch, he stayed home. That admission was the dipping of toes into our pool of trust.
After dropping the hint of not having enough money to bring lunch to the movie theater, Devante has since revealed his entire immediate family is undocumented; his mom is unemployed and does not speak English; he has been beaten up but remained silent in fear of deportation -- and they have been living in a shelter for four years. The last admission came by surprise.
Devante told me out of the blue, “I want my own apartment.”
Bewildered, I responded, “You’re 12. How do you think you can afford an apartment on your own?”
“No, for my family. We live in a shelter.”
Not being his teacher, each of our conversations littered between recess breaks and dismissal time were a cinematographer’s dream. Devante’s soliloquies were accentuated by puppy dog eyes and an endearing nearly-there American accent.
It’s because of his delivery of plea and desperation that I’ve had to check myself. Am I being played? Am I about to dive head-first into this family’s intimate cobwebs, wrapped around the finger of a 12 year-old?
Who cares?! If me being manipulated results in this boy thriving in middle school and beyond, his mom finding employment and the family eventually renting their own apartment: Let. Me. Be. Played.
In the last two weeks I’ve:
- Spent 7 hours on my laptop researching social services (food pantries, English classes, ID services, etc) for the family and using Google Translate to share it with Devante’s mom
- Visited his home 4 times to take Devante out and to take mom to job placement meetings (not knowing English is a huge barrier to mastering public transport)
- Sent an email to 19 friends asking if they need their homes cleaned regularly to help provide Devante’s mom with a (cash) source of income while I continue to do the behind-the-scenes work for getting her a W2 “pay stubs” job that’ll help when it comes time to apply for low-income housing
On top of these checklist items, Devante is entering his teenage years. Some days I feel like he’s grateful. Some days I feel like he hates me -- I’m a helicopter teacher. Some days I get the impression he wants to give up, or, that he’s too hopeful and believes mom will secure a job tomorrow -- not understanding the slings and arrows outrageous the fortune that is unemployment and the interviewing process involved.
I’ve been warned not to do this alone. That I should refer Devante’s family to professional services. That I should always be with the family in the presence of some objective third party. But isn’t that the problem? No one wants to personally invest in these families in need out of fear of repercussions and to protect their own egos -- to the point where nothing gets done!
There needs to be a radical approach for this social change. Marginalization is personal.
I know this because the setbacks have hit personally too. Mom has cancelled two appointments with me: one for a job placement meeting and one to help her learn a commute to a cleaning job. How much of my frustration over this is my capitalist values of agency and individualism and how much of it is the ‘system’? She cancelled because the only free doctor’s appointment she could get through her case worker (with free transportation!) happened to fall on the same days!
Do I continue down this path? Yes. If an extra two to five hours per week helps see Devante get into college, their family find an apartment and his mom find a sense of productive worth and value -- I feel like it’s a duty. I’ve dug my heels to deep to strut myself on.
I’m in it alright. Devante wants to learn more about the food in my culture -- but refuses to eat anything green. Mom calls me at 2am when she forgets at Devante is at his friend’s apartment (in the same building!) and she’s fearing he is out alone.
“I feel so lucky that you chose me. There are over 200 kids here in this school. I feel like it’s a miracle,” Devante said to me.
It’s no miracle. It’s an obligation. This boy walks to and from school from a shelter in the Bronx. He’s a dark-skin Black boy, only 12 years-old, and about 5 foot 10. He’s stayed back a grade. So compared to his peers, he’s very grown and very developed. Given his situation, one could also argue, he’s very desperate. If one walks along a certain bridge connecting uptown Manhattan to the Bronx, there are many a circle of folks who would see value in such a vulnerable child. And as Black boys get shot simply walking to school asking for directions, I’m not about to let Devante succumb to his circumstance.
Sure, I don’t get paid for any of this and I’m pulling out my hair to string together any minute I have between yoga classes and business meetings to line up job interviews for mom and take Devate out shopping for his graduation dance outfit.
But do guidance counselors get paid overtime? Guidance counselors have caseloads, on average, of up to 1,000 students. Don’t try to convince me that all of that work is done between the school hours of 8am to 3pm. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that guidance counselors don’t just counsel the student.
Parental education, family income, parental incarceration and family structure are all contributing factors to student success. Since Devante already knocks out three of those four, it’s easy to see how important it is for any caring person -- not just guidance counselors -- to help families get on their feet in order for there to be any chance of student success.