Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lorraine the Interpreter

I think her name was Lorraine.  She was older than me. I was twenty three, so she could have been twenty-five.   My first year of teaching she worked as a paraprofessional in the program I was assigned to. She was big and black and there was something about her that scared me.  So I didn't mess with her. She had a six year old son and if he is alive and well today then he is older than the sum of Lorraine and my ages that year.   If I had to ask her to do something, I said please and if she did it I said thank you.  And that was about it.

I did pretty terribly the first year I taught.  I was filled with great ideas, I was filled with enthusiasm. I filled with recent knowledge of the nascent special education laws.  None of this made me any good at my job.  I was assigned a school in the South Bronx, just as the Howard Cosell made famous the line, the Bronx is burning, during a Yankee World Series game. The school where Lorraine and I worked, was on Fox Street.  The school was built in the 1960's but the apartment buildings around it arose decades earlier when the elevated train line first brought families from the overcrowded neighborhoods of Manhattan to the tree-lined streets of the Bronx.  And then for so many reasons, (and everyone has their own theory) it all went bad.  Building after building, on block after block burned.  Across from the  school were a series of  apartment buildings with multi-floors but no facades.  The looked like  doll houses or stage sets.  Or like the photos we had seen of Dresden Germany after the Allies had bombed it. My boyfriend turned husband and I looked at each when we went to scope it out and wondered how we had missed the war.  We lived less than ten miles away as the crow flies.

It is not surprising that the students in a special education program in a neighborhood that was such a conglomeration of stresses, were difficult.

The man in charge of the program, was ill suited for the job. He constantly pointed out my short-comings but had no constructive advice. (That is the kindest way I could put it).  I cried most nights.   But one day he made Lorraine cry too.  I went to her.  I comforted her.  I imparted my best words of wisdom.  "Don't cry- he's stupid."  Actually I probably called him an asshole.   I wouldn't say we became fast friends, but we were allies, we were on the same side and she was my interpreter.  She explained the things that someone living ten miles away, not completely in the suburbs, not completely in a segregated community, but ignorant of that world nonetheless, just didn't get.

Like one Monday morning after a weekend when the thermometer never dipped below 95 degrees, we chatted about our weekend.  I felt annoyed that I had spent it huddled in the bedroom where our one feeble air-conditioner unit was located.  She spent it with a six year old in an un-air-conditioned city housing project apartment. "How did you survive?" I asked.

"You walk around in your underwear, run the fans full blast, and take lots of cold showers,"  she explained.

And then there was the "n" word.    Again, my public school education was not necessarily in schools that were completely segregated.  Just the programs we were in were.  But I learned some rules.  And one was, that the "n" word should never be used for any reason.  A half century later I still won't type it.  But the "n" word flew through that school with a frequency only slightly less than the usage of "and" and "the."

Lorraine found me frustrated after a period of trying to restrain its usage.  By that time, Lorraine had happily taken on the task of educating Teacherfish.    "Don't look so sad,"  she said,  "that's just what we call each other."

I thought about Lorraine all summer.  It was hotter than hell here and now we have multiple air conditioning units and far more expendable cash to find alternative solutions to huddling in the bedroom.  I hope Lorraine does too.  I hope she retired as a teacher with a big teacher pension and her middle-aged son is thriving as well, but I also thought of Lorraine when Isaiah called all of us racists this week.  The "n" word figured significantly in his rant. Isaiah arrived in our highly academically oriented high school where I work half time.  Not because Isaiah is academically gifted, his IEP  assigns him to the Intellectually Disabled category, but because the Department of Education feels it is educationally advantageous to place students with IEPs in this highly competitive program.  We'll see how it works. Its been a difficult week for Isaiah and those around him.

One of the twelfth  graders in the program who got to overhear the discussion asked when did the "n' word replace the "er" at the end with an "a".  For the record I had no meaningful response to either Isaiah or the twelfth grader.

Four decades later I still need Lorraine.