So yesterday I had two very interesting meetings that, I think, may very well send two quite different balls a rollin’.
In the morning i went to Mercy Hospice – a residence and shelter for homeless women and children coming out of addiction. They have both reisdents, and day guests. I went to visit for three purposes: 1) to become a volunteer, 2) to consider it as a possible site for Young Friends Service Project (once the group exists, of course . . . and I’ve been invited to present this proposal on Young Friends WSWCA next Monday, which is very exciting!), and 3) out of curiosity, so I could write about it here.
After ringing the bell, I entered a dark vestibule with a locked door in front of me. To my right was a plastic partition, the kind you find in an old New York taxi cab or a scary liquor store, with breathing holes poked in the plastic and a slot for sliding ID back and forth.
“Hello. I’m here to see Kristine,” I said.
The receptionist looked up. She had the shriveled mouth and big eyes of years of meth. “Who?”
“Uh, Kristine?” I tried to stay bright.
“Who?” She picked at something between her teeth with the end of an extraordinary purple finger nail.
“KRISTINE!” Another woman in the office yelled at her, looking up from a computer a few feet away.
“Kristine? What’s your name?”
“Justine.” I braced myself for the confusion this would cause.
“LET HER IN!” The woman yelled from her desk.
The buzzer sounded and I entered the main room. Hanging from the ceiling as an old art deco chandelier, but the light it gave off was still flourescent.
I picked up a pen and looked for a space to write my name, but the title of the page was SMOKING BINDER and underneath there were instructions given to those signing out for a smoke (#1: You must wear clothing – including a bra – to go outside to smoke; #4: Only one smoking break is allowed each hour). Much as this experience was starting to dredge up ancient cravings for a Camel Light, I waited until the receptionist made her way back with the VISITOR BINDER, where I filled out my information, and took a seat in the waiting room with three other women – texting and twitching their legs restlessly, all wearing pajama pants – and a mountain of donated baby clothes and kitchen wares in plastic trashbags, taking up a corner of the room. I looked around. There was a casette player to my left. An old brown piano hunched in one corner. The historic trim of the building had been painted a thick, glossy forest green, in what must have been a misguided attempt to be fresh and cheerful. Framed posters – the kind you buy at Goodwill – showed paper-doll cartoons of women in African schmatas holding hands with children under a banner that said SUCCESS. A Serenity Prayer was framed and hung between two windows. The walls were flaking with the eczema of water damage. And yet, somehow, the space didn’t feel depressing. Curious.
“Hi – are you Justine?”
“Yes.” I looked up and met the eyes of the only other white woman in the building – also wearing tortoise shell glasses, also with long brown hair, also holding a legal pad, also wearing black, and speaking quickly. I felt at once at ease, and exposed.
“I’m Kris. Nice to meet you. Let’s go in here.”
We sat in the Television Room for a few minutes as I introduced myself, and then the tour – of both the facility, and Kris – began.
Kris, I learned, was from Brooklyn. Well, Brooklyn, then New Jersey, then they had a child, then – oops – another one, and that’s how they ended up in Philadelphia, but her husband is from around here (walking through the hallway with case management offices on either side) so it made sense too, and they love it here, even though they used to live in the East Village, but back in 1990 when it was still, you know, a little grungy to say the least, and there were people shooting up in the staircases of basement apartments (pointing out the bathroom, with a CHORES list taped to the door and a box of cleaning supplies next to the pink tub), and there were these people who made this tree outside the bulding of like, stuffed animals, which was totally creepy but at least it had character, it was creepy but interesting, and now it’s just full of white kids with good teeth, and you know any time you see kids running around on scooters with good teeth you know the neighborhood is done for (nodding to more phalanxes of women in pajama pants coming down the stairs) you know orthadontics are the best sign of gentrification, but yeah that was before coming here, before this Kris was a textile designer, well before this she worked with homeless men, which is totally different – they are much more out there, they’re like ‘hey, I’m just a crazy hobo’, but the women are like, more anxious, more hysterical, more tense, because they have the kids and I don’t know, it’s just different, and there are less resources for them too, I don’t know why but there are (showing me the day care/classroom, with tidy bookcases, one window facing a courtyard, and an alphabet rug on the floor) but now here at Mercy Hospice the main thing they focus on is treating all guests with respect and dignity and kindness, even the day guests who are you know, totally wacked, and people think they want to be inside but they can’t be, they don’t want to – I mean, they could maybe do it if they were locked up, but other than that they’re beyond help, they are really ill, so we can at least offer them food and a place to come for help when it’s needed, and a shower – it is so hard to get a shower when you’re homeless, seriously – and so that’s what we offer for them, which is different than the residents – the resident program started in the 1970’s when they just dumped busloads of mentally ill people on Market street off a bus, literally, when they changed laws about hospitalization for mental illness (opening the door to a bedroom, I see two twin beds with flannel IKEA blankets pulled up to the pillows, and a big crib with pink bedding – the room is huge, with new wood floors and clean surfaces; I’m pleasantly surprised) and the nuns started Mercy Hospice to take in the women – it’s a Catholic organization but we never discriminate, we never prostheletize or anything – and we used to let folks live here for like, a year, a year at least, but now we have to get them in and out in three months – yep, that’s the new mandate, I know, it’s so crazy- so that means our services have had to really change, because nobody leaves Mercy without housing, so we have to get them in, help them with their outpatient recovery, find housing, work to get the kids in school if they have school-aged kids with them, and get settled all in three months, so that’s a lot, but it’s great work, it’s really great.
(Kris had a lot of energy, if you couldn’t tell.)
We entered the kitchen, and I met three women – all of whom I strongly maintain were named Gloria. Gloria the Boss was swirling instant coffee into a cup of hot milk. Gloria the Elder was taking strawberry frosted danishes out of a paper box and cutting them into triangles. Gloria the Plump stood over a basin sink with a paring knife, slicing fat off chicken wings. I was introduced as a new volunteer, and they quickly got to clucking about what awaited me.
“Oh, honey – we crazy in this kitchen. But good crazy,” said Gloria the Elder, smiling.
“Gloria’s the assistant,” said Gloria the Boss, gesturing to Gloria the Elder.
“I’m the assistant? Well then, she the assistant to the assistant!” Gloria the Elder laughed, putting her hands on Gloria the Plump’s shoulders.
Gloria the Plump looked up from her chicken sculpting.
“Justine? Justine – just be sure you don’t do a full year here in a row. Once your year up? That when the crazy start. So you know what? Do three months – take a vacation. Come back, do another three – take a vacation. Do a year, just don’t do all at once, cause then the crazy start, and it ain’t gonna stop once it start!”
They all chuckled. Between the smell of frying oil and pastries and the warm bobbing of their giggles, I was fit to throw my bag on the kitchen floor, snuggle into the cave between Gloria the Plump’s gigantic breasts, and take a nap like an Annie Liebovitz baby in a tulip.
“You know who you look like?”
“Who?” I asked, smiling.
“Who you think you look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who you think you look like?”
Now I suddenly felt I was being impolite by not comparing myself to someone famous. I shifted.
Um, I really don’t know.” I smiled broadly, hoping to show I still wanted to play.
“Yeah, yeah! She do look like Kate!”
Kate, I thought. Kate? Who is Kate? A social worker here? Kate Walsh? Katie Holmes?
To my surprise, Kris jumped in.
“Kate Middleton? She does a little bit, yeah, she does. She does, she totally does, she does look like her a little bit.”
Friends & countrymen, let’s be clear – I look as much like Kate Middleton as Jill Scott does. But who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
“Stop…” I said, coquetishly shrugging my shoulders, putting up my hand, then flopping it towards them ” . . . don’t stop.”
“Ah! She funny!”
Thank God, I thought.
Let’s be real – people absolutely have trouble differentiating faces of people of different races. It’s a proven thing. When white people do this it makes me cringe. When my Indian husband can’t remember the names of new white friends, I tease him about it – even though sometimes he struggles to remember the end of a sentence once he’s halfway through the beginning, so I think it’s less about race and more about his uncanny ability to be distracted as much by his own ideas as by a truck backfiring. But when this leads to my being likened to a Princess, or even a Scientoligist with great hair? I’m lovin’ me some phrenological colorblindness.
I left Mercy Hospice with a newsletter (which I just read over breakfast), a volunteer application (still hot in my bag), and a lot to think about. I walked to the subway for the my second meeting of the day, with the professor from the School of Education.
Settling in at the Drexel Starbucks, I was struck by how much older I looked than everyone there. I’m still used to being mistaken for a student at times when I go to work in schools, so it’s always a surprise to me when I look like an adult in juxtaposition to college students. They looked horrible. Not to get on my old-biddy high horse, but I always got dressed when I went to class in college. I didn’t look like a Kate Spade ad by any means, but I also didn’t look like I’d just rolled out of bed after a gangbang. I think getting dressed is the same thing as doing due dilligence before a meeting – it’s a sign of respect. Now granted, these students were in a coffee shop and not class – and I’m hypocritically sitting here writing this in a public café wearing (gasp) yoga pants (but they’re properly fitting and I’m wearing them with cute pink loafers and a clean shirt, for God’s sake) – but these kids looked haggard and hard-livin’ – pimpled, huge sweatshirts and tiny shorts with their ass cheeks hanging out, one girl was wearing tights as leggings – and we all know leggings ain’t pants, so I don’t even know what that makes tights – that were so tight and shiny she looked like she was walking on two iridescent sausages. The list goes on. I sat down at a table and put on my “professional” glasses (think more Ms. Frizzle, less Where’s Waldo), and waited.
My date was a few minutes late but was unecessarily apologetic for it. I liked her immediately. She was the perfect mix, in my book, of Serious + Lite (spoke eloquently about her work as the Director of about 5,000 Graduate Programs, but also used “literally” as a colloquialism), and of Fancy + Casual (Barbour jacket with a little cordorouy collar, beautiful Michael Kors bag, but rolled her eyes and cupped her chin in her hand while talking).
I felt like it was going well. We’d managed to cover a lot of ground without it feeling perfunctory. I had been able to ask a lot of questions and invite her to share as much as possible about what she did – which was both interesting, and a strategy I liked to use to show that I was curious, eager, and willing to learn. It also made it easier for me to know what mattered to her and where I could interject my own experiences into the mix, to show that I was of a similar mindset. Questions are the best tool we have in conversation, and I feel that they, like politeness and preparedness, are so often overlooked.
On that note, it was unclear whether my research really helped or came through, but I like to think that it was evident I had done my homework, even if it came out in little fits and spurts.
“I used to work in Los Angeles – I taught out there before moving here to do my doctorate at Saint Joe’s” she said, taking a sip of her coffee.
“Elementary and middle school, right?” I said a little too eagerly, and immediately regretted it.
She smiled.” Yes, elementary and middle.”
At one point I also explicitly referenced my having done research. I talk with my hands a lot. Well, sometimes it’s less like talking, and more like miming. Or those dances at bat mitzvahs that act out lyrics. At one point I caught myself doing an itsy-bitsy-spider hand motion while talking about metaphoric showers, and realized I needed to reign in my weird.
“As I was reading more about the work of the School of Education, I felt like the heavens opened up a little bit (she’s frowning, she’s frowning -get more serious, stop being weird) when I read about the emphasis on civic engagement and making meaningful partnerships in the community. That’s precisely what I worked on at Bard and hope to do more of here in Philadelphia.”
She smiled, and asked slowly, “No, I mean it sounds like you have a lot to offer based on your experience, so – where do we go from here? What are you hoping to get out of this?”
I was taken a little off guard, but smiled and tried to act smooth.
“Well, to be honest I’m in a bit of an information gathering stage right now. I’m really trying to learn as much as possible about the schools of Philadelphia, and different ways that I could get engaged in good work, both professionally and personally (frown. Why did that make her frown? Come on, Haemmerli. Stop striking out. Get on solid ground.) I do love working with new teachers, and that is absolutely something I would like to continue doing. I would also be very interested to learn more about working on partnership and program development, and it sounds like there are a lot of wonderful things being started in both those areas.”
“Well, why don’t you follow up, get in touch with me and let me know your availability – again, we’re on a term schedule, so our winter term starts in January, spring in April – and what you’d be most interested in, and we can continue talking about how you could find places to come in, and adjuncting for sure is an option, and there are, you know, so many new things starting there are lots of opportunities to get involved. You know, with your experience, it sounds like you’d have a lot to offer, so let’s keep talking.”
I left the meeting feeling hopeful, excited, and a little confused. Was that an offer? Or was she just being polite? Either way it left the door open for a second date at least, so that was encouraging!
So now I am sitting down to write an email to her, but I’m feeling flummoxed by a few things. Namely:
- How do I enter into work that is similar to what I’ve been doing, without falling into the same bad patterns?
- How do I accurately estimate my availability when I have no idea what I’ll be doing in the spring?
- Now that I’m gaining clarity on what I love and hate about teaching, how can I ensure I am very careful about what I get myself into?
Should I wait to write to her in length, and just send her a quick note of thanks now? Does it show my enthusiasm and quick thinking if I share some ideas today, less than 24hr after our conversation?
I’m thinking aloud here, as my email box blinks at me. I think I will try to walk a middle road – thanking her and making mention of the highlights of our conversation, but also giving a rough outline of both my interest and availability, without getting too specific. That way I am polite and eager, without overcommitting or being too intense.
Upon writing that last paragraph, I settled down to write my email. And it could not be more specific, and I fear it’s extremely intense. And maybe obsequious. Sigh. I’m not very good at taking my own good advice…
Alright, friends – here is the email I’ve just drafted:
Dear Sarah,Thank you again for taking the time out of your busy day to meet with me yesterday. It was such a pleasure to learn more about the great work you are doing through the School of Education – it was rather thrilling to hear about your commitment to creating partnerships that are meaningful and purposive; your love of working with the elementary school staff who, in response to hardship, choose to remain hopeful and committed when it would be easier to become cynical & disengaged; and your emphasis on supporting Drexel alums working on education in Philadelphia. These are all values I share and have strived to bring to the communities I have worked with, and it is just wonderful to hear how they are embodied by your innovative programs and thoughtful approach to supporting teachers. I am interested to learn more about the process of creating your urban residency program, as this is something I worked to develop with Bard College, and think is a wonderful step to be taking.As you suggested, I have thought about my availability and what I believe I could contribute to the Drexel community. I appreciate your invitation to keep the conversation open, and to continue discussing ways I could work with your students and schools. Here are some of my thoughts:
- Alums: I am extremely interested in learning more about – and helping to support – the creation of a rich community of Drexel graduates who are teachers/working in Education, by developing meaningful events, useful modes of communication, and perhaps even an Induction Program for these individuals.
- Professional Development: I look forward to learning more about, and perhaps being involved in, the professional development conducted at the struggling schools you mentioned working with – particularly in the area of differentiation.
- Teaching: Adjuncting for undergraduates or graduate students is something I would love to learn more about. My interest and strengths are curriculum design and creating norms & routines in the classroom. The class I taught for Bard last spring centered around creating a classroom plan – everything from setting up the physical space, to creating a Scope & Sequence based on Essential Questions, to establishing Rules & Expectations – for new teachers who are just getting ready to have their own class for the first time. The Induction Program focuses on establishing, assessing, & maintaining a strong classroom culture, grounded in norms.
- Partnerships: One of my greatest passions is connecting teachers/schools to resources, so that they can increase their programming economically and logically. This is really the focus of my consulting business. In the past, this has included getting low-cost Spanish courses for public school teachers through the Spanish Embassy; creating Native Language programming in Arabic & French, through partnerships with NYU Kevorkian Center & the Alliance Française; running Scholastic Book Fairs for schools who thought they would never have the capacity to host such an event; and creating relationships with cultural institutions & museums with Education Programs for our community of teachers. If there are teachers & schools with whom Drexel works who would benefit from someone helping them to research, reach out to, and cultivate partnerships that would bring them needed resources which they lack internally, this is something I would love to bring to the table.My schedule will become more flexible starting in January in regards to working on program & partnership development; I believe I would be able to teach – should such an opportunity present itself – starting in the spring or summer quarter.I hope this helps to give a sense of how I might be able to fit in to your community of educators at Drexel. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and continuing the conversation.Take care.Sincerely,Justine
I’m going to wait to send it until I’ve had a bit more time to think. Even though I want to send it now. Itchy fingers . . .
And you know, the more I think about it, the more those questions I’ve asked also pertain to Mercy Hospice. Is volunteering with them an overcommitment? Should I keep my dance card more open? Should I wait to see if the Young Friends group comes through before I start a relationship with the Glorias?
Lots to think about as I watch those balls teeter on the top of the hill, itching to start tumbling down it.
So, based on the two balls whose rolling I have here described at length, what do you suggest my next steps be, for either/both?