Saturday, December 22, 2012

American Tradition: Broken Children and Unbroken Barriers

A similar version of this narrative appears in Gawker's True Stories series.

Last Friday night, after hearing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I spent the last hour of my son's preschool day in class with him. I feared his safety. The thought that scared me most wasn’t the possibility of some white man draped in a black trench coat, carrying semi-automatic weapons, charging into his classroom; it was, and is, the fact that the nation will eventually try with all its might to cut through my son’s spirit. The Sandy Hook murders were a painful reminder of the American tradition my three-year-old son will have to reckon with. This unfaltering reality frightens me because there is no emergency response for that.

When I told my mother I was pregnant, almost four years ago, we pushed against Washington Height's cold February blast. My face dodged the smoke of grilling lamb meat, whirling off the gyro truck, to keep my insides from rolling out of my mouth. The wind swept tears from her eyes. Mourning tears. I was twenty-nine, the same age my mother was when she gave birth to her first child, my older brother.

“Why do you want to bring another child into this world?” she asked me. “To suffer?”

The questions, quietly descended into my already turning stomach. For five weeks, I waited to avoid my mother's stoning at this pivotal juncture in my life. The romantic mother-daughter moment of embracing arms and tearful smiles was not for us. She turned the blooming life in my body into some complicit act with the violent world.

Her studio apartment on the Grand Concourse of the Bronx was an escape from a secret shelter for women who had fled their violent husbands. She lived by the 176th street subway station, where some boy pulled up her skirt, because he wanted to see what was underneath it. After ducking some flying bullets while walking home, she demanded my sister and I get her out of there. One of the most remarkable things about my mother is that she never allowed herself to get used to the way this nation would bang her up.

Two months before giving birth to my son, I walk the four blocks from the train station to see my mother. A boy catches my eye. I must have caught his. That looming look in his eyes has something in it that should not belong to a young boy. He begins walking my direction. I hold the heavy door open for him to walk into the apartment building standing on the Concourse of Hip-Hop’s crowded womb.

I hit the elevator button. I notice the baby flesh he still hasn’t lost in the back of his brown hands as they grip a bag of groceries. He asks me questions about the child my body has been carrying for seven months. There’s a quiet fascination, and a strange nervousness in him that I’m embarrassed to fear.

I walk into the elevator with him, hating myself for thinking about the knife I had forgotten at home. The door slides to a close, and a hand quickly reaches for my shirt to expose my swelling breasts. I knock his hand away.

His face never shifts.

He's done this before, at least once. The space in the elevator squeezes us closer together. I want to hurt him now, but I realize this is a child that could hurt the boy that is still growing inside me. I ask him what the hell is wrong with him. He reaches again and asks me why my nipples are so brown. His face remains frozen, through the pushing, pulling, and shouting for help that somehow ends in the elevator door closing with him on the outside.

My mother tells me she didn’t hear anyone shouting. Her apartment is stuffed with heat coming in through the open windows facing the blaring Concourse. The anger, shame, and disbelief smear in with the beading of my skin, stretched on the now violated and pregnant body I want to rip away from. She listens to me with eyes fixed on the table she’s slowly wiping, and resetting. She's lived in this dumped up world longer than I have. I want her to carry my rage for me so I can figure out how this boy seemed to be so far removed from the attack he was carrying on.

Six floors above the Concourse, out the window, I search the void. The sun shoots back from metal scraps scattered in front of some boarded up building, and beside each building is another that houses either people or dusty space. I realize the boy inside me hasn't kicked once.

I look at the mix of teenage boys and middle-aged men marking the corners with bodies that rock with a tilt and fixed faces like the boy in the elevator. The faces carry the same stone. The fear is either hidden, forgotten, or morphed into something I can’t detect. The Concourse turf is womanless. I want to not feel so far away. I look down at my swelling womb and wonder what it must feel like to have a son standing among the slanting male bodies.


When I became a mother, Sherman Avenue was home. Whenever I hastened my way in and out of the block, with my son wrapped against my chest, every man became a version of my future son. He might be the guy in the white tee and baseball cap, whose clean sneakers glued him to the corner, or the eighty-year-old vecino who lived on the first floor of our apartment building for more than forty years, who told me that the blasting bachata beating against the booming reggaeton didn’t disturb him from sleeping through the summer’s heat. Or he could be the bodega owner who, struggling to keep his business open, wiped the expiration dates off the cans of coconut milk and black beans I’d buy, sometimes with credit.

The uncertainty of my son's future brought me to tears each time I dodged broken glass and dog shit to drop him off at a family daycare about five blocks away to get on the A train and teach students from the city's boroughs at a small transfer school in Chelsea. The black, brown, poor and gay sons and daughters of this nation's city face their own uncertainties, stemming from nontraditional homes, leading nontraditional lives, with little faith in the safety of American tradition.

There’s a murky silence in the dim room of empty teacher desks after I explain to Evelyn’s mother the long rows of “A’s” for days she has been absent, and the sprinkle of “P’s” for “present” on her attendance record. I've known Evelyn for almost a year. Her mother has known her for eighteen. Together, at the edges of each other's long and hard exhales, we're trying to make some meaning of Evelyn’s life. I describe to her the way she casually tosses John Locke and Montesquieu in discussions on philosophies of freedom in history class, the way her classmates stop moving when she walks into the classroom.

“Evelyn won’t listen to me,” escapes from her mother’s tightly pursed lips. “I’m so lost. I can’t anymore. Maybe you…” The tears come easy. The way her back folds over her chest, shrinking the small body into the chair before me seems familiar. Those are the same tears of uncertainty my mother shed for me when I attempted to run away from womanhood by banging into it. She’s more afraid of what the world is doing to her daughter on those absent days, than she is concerned about what Evelyn does when she’s present. The fear of mothering someone who had more possibility than the world would accept settled into a lump in my throat when I told Evelyn’s mother I wouldn't stop trying.

The next evening, I met Evelyn at the diner where she served milkshakes and cheesecake, down the block from my old elementary school. The burning urgency running inside us quickened our pace against Broadway's chill. We walked along the same streets where I lost my childhood to the city, when my mother had given up on not losing me.

“Leave,” I told her. Leaving was what saved me, so it felt right to offer it to her too. “Just finish, take this shit, and apply to college somewhere out of the city. Just leave.”

“I’ve been trying,” she said. “I want to. I just feel so out of place, and I'm tired.” She was eighteen, with two more years of high school left. The act of cracking books, complicating ideas, and asking probing questions in the classroom had worn out its purpose.

Evelyn knew that graduation was just breaking a barrier, that her teachers were all spooks that both loved and battled the city to place some of James Baldwin's wisdom into their students' hearts. "The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated." Scribed on the backs of our school t-shirts, Baldwin warned us that Evelyn had examined society prematurely and thoroughly enough to decide that perhaps the diploma was not a barrier worth breaking, because on the other side, stood American tradition, ready and waiting to take her down.


At four months, my son is in my mother's arms, hovering over her shoulder looking up at the light bulb, attempting to point at it.

“Luz,” he says.

My sister, my mother, and I are all standing in the living room where we once formed part of a clamoring young family. We are looking in the direction my son is pointing, and we are coaching him, “si, la luz! Luz!” The flesh of his lips poke into a round circle pointing up, dragging out the “ooo” and landing on a “zzz” that splatters at his and my mother’s cheeks. He is saying his first word. The glow in our smiling faces moves me in some way that makes me believe that his first words might be, in some way, prophetic. That American tradition might not define the contours of his spirit.

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