Having lived most of my life in New York City, I find myself considering moving to places I’ve traveled to for my work as an artist, like London, or Madrid, or Mexico City. But something about the small volunteer job I go to every Tuesday morning at a public school twists my head each week.
The school I work at is on Attorney Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The students I tutor are in the third grade and are in need of a little extra help, primarily in math and English. Most of them live in the projects near the school — their lives quite different than those of the kids I’ve seen and known over the past 20 years. This group includes my daughter, my nieces, my nephew and all their friends, classmates and neighborhood children. Most of these kids live in the West Village, Tribeca or Uptown and most of them went to private schools, got out of New York in the summers, learned to ski and applied to college. But the five kids I work with on the Lower East Side don’t appear to get out of the city at all. They also don’t know how to swim — or so they say — won’t be skiing in the near future and, most of all, they aren’t reading or writing at their grade level.
Tuesday mornings also mean something else to me: a journey to a part of the city that takes me back to another century. As I walk east on Delancey Street and turn the corner near the Williamsburg Bridge north onto the one block long Attorney Street — probably the shortest street in all of Manhattan — leaving the bridge to another world, something timeless occurs. Is it the sudden odd emptiness of the block inhabited only by sycamore trees, the school, a park and a few boarded up buildings? There is rarely anyone on this street other than when school opens or closes. During the day, when school is in session, the building customarily looks closed and locked. Often when arriving at the door I’ve thought: “Was school cancelled today?” An old world atmosphere sneaks up on me here on Attorney Street. What I know of Leaves of Grass rushes to mind, “the full noon twill” circles me like a ghost.
In the building, I sit in the lunchroom and work with the same five kids every week. The school generously lets me conduct the tutoring in any way I want, but mainly through an ongoing connection and dialogue with one of the teachers, I get direction on what’s needed academically. But more than anything, the kids seem to like to talk about their families. In their blue and white uniforms and bright faces they look exactly like any third grader at Uptown schools like Collegiate or Spence. But they are definitely not spending their afternoons like the kids in those schools. They are not squeezing in piano lessons, swimming, ballet, tap, private language lessons, or what have you, plus hours of homework help at night. Many of them don’t have computers in their homes, and generally speaking, as they tell it, their short lives outside the school have clearly not been smooth.
One is in foster care. The next bounces between a grandmother, a great grandmother and occasionally his mother, who was 14 when she had him and now has “too many other people in the house for me to be there.” The third misses so much school that Child Protective Services is regularly at his doorstep. The fourth has been waiting for months to see which shelter his family is moving into. For the past two weeks this kid has been absent from school. “This happens all the time,” Ms. K., my teacher connection, tells me to my saddened face, expressing worry that I won’t see this student again. Only one of the five kids I work with appears to know his or her father.
* * *
As I left the school today, with large snowflakes falling on Attorney Street, I looked into my cell phone to find the shelter-kid’s mom’s number, which I had from last summer when, together we arranged karate lessons for him at the Y. I thought about one of the other kid’s increasingly unkempt look and wondered whether he had been staying at his mother’s, his grandmother’s or his great grandmother’s recently. I thought about Ms. K. sharing news of a third kid’s recent success of going from the 46th percentile to the 88th in a math unit test. It struck me how this student, probably not coincidentally, seemed and looked so well, compared to how, during the same time, the shelter kid seemed and looked not so well.
My phone went through to the mom’s phone: “Number disconnected.” Flakes fell on my screen as I clamped it shut and pulled on my hood, turning the corner from Attorney onto Delancey, back to the F train, the A train and to my life seemingly a million miles away in the West Village, where I probably will not seriously be moving from for quite some time.