The Neighborhood, Part II.
It was mid-August, hotter than heck, everyone outside, on stoops, sidewalks, street corners. Tempers flare in this kind of heat.
I got off the train near Yankee Stadium, puzzled over the neighborhood map for a while, and set out for my school. I knew where I needed to go, but it was a long walk through unfamiliar territory. I'd been in New York City for only a week or so, and prior to that the biggest cities I'd spent any real time in were Houston and San Francisco. I grew up in a small town. I didn't know what to expect but I knew this neighborhood didn't have a great reputation. Everything felt strange and threatening, but I was on my way to my school, where I'd spend the next two years of my life! I knew that if I let myself be afraid of the neighborhood where I worked, of the community where my students were growing up, then I'd have already failed. But I didn't want to be naive or foolish, either.
A thought floated into my head, "99% of people are good, hardworking, and don't want to hurt you." It became a mantra as I walked the 12 blocks to my school. I repeated it silently, over and over, kept my head up, walked as confidently as possible with an air of "I know where I'm going," and found my school.
Later, that walk became familiar. I didn't need a mantra, because I knew first hand that the people I passed on the street were good, hardworking, and many were related to my students. Sure, there was gang graffiti on the walls - "MurdaSquad 163" - fights in the schoolyard, knives in kids' belts. But while I didn't hang out in the neighborhood by night, I didn't feel threatened or afraid on a day-to-day basis.
When I left that school to come to my new school, kids warned me that the new neighborhood - only a few blocks from the old - was a bad place. Tough kids told me not to go there. And sure enough, every year we lose kids once their parents find out where our school is located.
Still, I haven't felt afraid. Inside, our school is sparklingly clean, decorated with artwork, and a very safe place for children. We have not had a fight so far this year, and the fights we do have are small stuff compared with what I saw at my old school. Again, I don't hang around the neighborhood - but why would I? - but I don't feel unsafe cutting through the projects to catch a bus or waiting for 20 minutes alone at the bus stop. People on the street easily guess I'm a teacher and some say hi or ask where I work.
Of course, the kids are not safe, not on their way to and from school, and not in their own neighborhoods, depending on exactly where they live. Many, many of my students have witnessed violence, some in their own families. It comes out in personal essays and occasional crises or moments of confidence.
Last Friday, I wrote about a shoot-out that occured within clear sight of our school. Yesterday, there was a high-speed chase on the street next to the school, and it ended in a police officer being hit by a car. I didn't see it but other teachers say the police had to come out and clean up blood from the street. Today, another sixth grade teacher heard more gunshots.
I'm still not afraid. But I feel a lot less comfortable here than I used to. All these incidents happened in broad daylight. I suspect they were all conflicts between people who already knew each other, not attacks on strangers. But still.
And think of my children, who have nowhere safer to go at the end of each day. Several live across the street in some menacing housing projects. All the incidents above happened within a block of their homes, not to mention their school.
And there was gang-related graffiti on the walls inside our school today, in thick blue magic marker. Probably just some kids who think they're tough but know that the really tough gang members will never see this graffiti. A bad sign anyway.