Note: Ayanna (not her real name) has been part of my life for more than 20 years, ever since she entered my seventh grade classroom. She’s now a neighbor and friend. We get together for lunch regularly. She has given me permission to share her story to illustrate the central role a caring school and caring teachers can play in students’ lives, particularly in times of crisis. I am very proud of the woman Ayanna has become, and I’m hoping that after you read her story you will like and admire her as much as I do.
Ayanna was one of those gangly teen-age girls who is part- pony, part-woman. She loped into our classroom on her long legs on the first day of seventh grade, a pretty girl, not yet fully conscious of the beautiful, full-lipped features she was growing into. Her hair was done up in ringlets which radiated from her head in thick clusters, almost a cartoon embodiment of the energy discharges which were her trademark. She was quick to tell us how happy she was to escape from the stultification of her previous school although that particular word would have been a stretch for her still-embryonic vocabulary. She was excited about starting fresh.
Her comfort in this new environment made it possible for her to play the crazy kid role she loved inhabiting. For months she spread the word that she had discovered my secret; I was a Russian spy. She lurked outside my office eavesdropping on conversations. She spun interpretations of letters and memos emanating from my office that supported her contention. It was pure fun, and the ability to engage in it with me confirmed her sense that she had landed in the right place.
Excitement was the operative word for Ayanna. She spoke enthusiastically about everything she did and performed everything that was asked of her at school with the same vigor. The words tumbled out in barely controlled torrents. In short, she was the antithesis of the cool teenager for whom it is taboo to blow the protective cover of “whatever.”
The class she was joining had been together for two years, ever since they entered the school as fifth graders. Although friendships at this age are often ephemeral – soul mates one day and enemies the next – the social structure had gelled in ways that were going to present difficulties for any newcomer trying to establish a foothold. There were the Socials, who were already deeply absorbed in their guy interests, some to the point, I suspected, of already being sexually active. There were the Academics who were cutting a clear path to success by excelling in their school work and distancing themselves from their boy-crazy peers. And there were the Outsiders – girls who just didn’t fit. The sat by themselves in the front of the bus on school trips while all the popular types positioned themselves in the back, as far from adult scrutiny as the chaperones would allow. This self-imposed isolation signaled a resignation to a status that, once conferred, would not yield to any amount of effort.
Ayanna could easily have wound up among the Outsiders, but instead a combination of will and circumstance propelled her into the Academics group. Although she was not quite a match for them in academic ability or preparation, she was possessed of a fierce determination to succeed. Her ambition and drive made even the Academics groan. She was shameless about proposing that there were too many school holidays and that even weekends were an unwelcome disruption of the learning process. Even hard-core nerds usually have the social sense to keep such opinions under wraps. Ayanna asked for additional homework and pleaded for the opportunity to re-do and revise assignments when her grades did not please her. These are qualities that make for highly successful adults, but adolescents display them at their peril.
Although the school eschewed tracking, for complicated reasons this particular group of Academics wound up working together for much of their English and math instruction. Four days a week, thirteen of us sat together around a conference table in a meeting room intended for adult use. Conventional classroom rules were suspended. People spoke without raising their hands, so long as they didn’t cut in on each other. We digressed to tell about dying pets or to fulminate about the school’s dress code. But we took care of business. Students read voraciously books of their own choosing and reveled in reporting their best finds to each other. Together we read Kafka and Richard Wright. And we wrote voluminously – memoirs, poetry, journals, and critical analyses of our reading. It was the 90 minutes of each day when school really came alive for me. I’m pretty sure the charmed group of 13 felt the same way, but only the uncool Ayanna would acknowledge it publicly.
Ayanna’s ties to the group grew in proportion to the number of hours she logged with them. They could chat on the phone about homework and projects while the Socials talked boys. In this relatively safe setting she could be unconventional enough to express an interest in the witchcraft religion of Wicca, secure that her more conventional ambition continued to anchor her safely within the Academics.
Ayanna came by her unconventionality naturally. Her mother, Yvette Smith, was a tall, slender, light-skinned woman. She dressed elegantly and wore her hair flat to the scalp in a fashion reminiscent of 20’s flappers. For years she worked as a hostess at a club in downtown Chicago, where she also introduced the acts of the club’s well-known artists. Ayanna once brought to school a sheaf of autographs of the musicians who had visited her home during their runs at the Showcase. These jazz giants were such a natural part of her life that she had no idea what a treasure she was sitting on. I urged her to store them in a safe place; they were as good as stock certificates.
Ayanna’s father was a well-known local jazz musician who was barely a presence in her life, probably not much more than he had been in her mother’s. I saw him once at school. He must have come straight from a gig because the neckpiece that usually supported his sax was still dangling from his neck, as much an emblem of his craft as a doctor’s stethoscope. He was considerably darker than Ayanna’s mother; Ayanna’s chocolate complexion was the compromise. Several months ago I heard him perform beautifully in a local program on the history of jazz on Chicago’s South Side, and it made me sad to think of all the years of pleasure and pride in each other’s accomplishments both were missing out on.
Her mother’s odd night-time work schedule left Ayanna with major responsibilities for caring for her brother, Marcus, who was eight years her junior. She delivered him to school every morning and shepherded him home at the end of the day. They were extraordinarily and touchingly devoted to one another, more parent and child than siblings. Marcus was an unusual child, verbally gifted beyond his years. Credit Ayanna for some of that; the attention she lavished on him provided a rich environment in which his skills could grow. Ayanna delighted in telling her classmates the latest verbal missile Marcus had launched. He was capable of a kind of sophisticated word play and punning that left his classmates scratching their heads.
With his thick glasses and his hefty vocabulary, Marcus was the embodiment of the boy genius. He pleaded with me to visit his class so we could work together on the computer. He loved searching the web for information about spiders, whales, sharks and, more recently, his beloved NBA. Even as a kindergartner, he was able to read the densely complex information off the screen with some semblance of understanding. Ayanna delighted in his gifts, just as he boasted about his sister’s growing accomplishments. Although she sometimes complained about his occasional lapses into silliness, Ayanna and Marcus were the ultimate mutual admiration society. Long before she was to graduate, we worried about how Marcus was going to deal with not having her in the building.
Toward the end of her seventh grade year, a local theater group known for creating educational, issue-oriented productions came to our school. They had been commissioned by a pediatrician’s group with whom our school partnered to develop an anti-smoking piece with our upper grade students. Ayanna threw herself into this project as if she had been born for it, and following the final performance, in which even Marcus had landed a part, she became a regular in the troupe that performed year-round at one of Chicago’s major museums. The group created a work to accompany the museum’s exhibit on Cleopatra, and Ayanna was excited about the possibility that they might actually be invited to Egypt to present it. Most of the troupe’s members were in high school; Ayanna was one of the youngest, but she found her natural peers among these artsy kids. In our tiny school, no such group existed.
Under our somewhat constraining rules, Ayanna’s flamboyance was kept in check by our uniform policy. Our kids wore white tops and blue bottoms. Most days Ayanna appeared in a blue mini-skirt that accentuated the length of her gangly legs. From time immemorial, students have devised schemes to circumvent dress codes. Ayanna made her statement through her socks, an assortment of knee-length affairs with garish checkered or striped patterns. Sometimes they matched, sometimes not. But in the weekend life with her theater group, Ayanna could abandon all constraints and dress who she really was. Now color was everywhere and nothing matched. High school here we come!
By eighth grade year, Ayanna was an established presence in the school. She was determined to make her mark. Her goal was Whitney Young, one the city’s elite high schools, and toward that end she redoubled her academic efforts, if such were possible. She also thrust herself onto another stage, the tiny political stage which was all that a small, embryonic school could offer. Ayanna was elected student government president, a tribute to her schoolmates’ ability to see beyond her quirks to her essential goodness and her hunger to make a difference in the world. I’m sure that, like ambitious high school students everywhere eager to bulk up their resumes with membership in the Latin Club and thousands of hours of community service, Ayanna may have seen the Student Government office as a stepping stone to Whitney Young. But for her, making a difference was an end in itself.
It was a frustrating year at the helm of this sputtering little Go-Kart of a group. The representatives, primarily girls from fourth grade on up, included tiny Jada, who was almost exactly half Ayanna’s size. Jada’s mother had died suddenly early in the year at 43, and she was struggling to put up a front of normality, disrupted by the periodic need to fold her tiny body onto her loving teacher’s lap.
Most of the girls were intoxicated by the honor of having been elected to the school’s first student council, but that’s where their engagement ended. They sat silently through the lunch hour meetings in the classroom of Ms. Beardsley, the SG advisor, while Ayanna tried, often in vain, to engage them in planning for a bake sale or a movie night or a campaign for improved cafeteria conditions. Sometimes it worked, but just as often the final scene found Ayanna, clipboard in hand, making the rounds of the classrooms to inform teachers of upcoming events or to solicit their help and advice. No teacher ever turned Ayanna away. Her smiling earnestness had a special appeal to adults who spent their days attempting to break through the “attitude” barriers erected by angry, indifferent or “cool” kids.
As the number of selective admissions high schools grew and the quality of neighborhood high schools declined sharply, the eighth grade year for Chicago students became almost as stressful as the wait for college acceptance letters. Students like Ayanna saw acceptance at a selective admissions school like a lifeboat on a sinking ship.
The Monday morning after Ayanna took the admissions test for Whitney Young, I found a distraught note from her in my box. She had been sick on test day, hadn’t done her best. Her life was ruined. Couldn’t I please write a letter to accompany hers explaining how unrepresentative the test results were of her actual abilities and how her whole future would be derailed if they didn’t accept her. I wrote that letter and made some calls as well, but I warned Ayanna that the gatekeepers were a heartless lot of bean counters, far more interested in numbers than in the human dramas that lay behind them.
However, all was not lost because just a few blocks from us a new magnet high school was rising out of the ashes of one of the city’s lowest performing schools. For decades, King High School had been a basketball factory, producing future NBA candidates and city championship trophies, but few scholars. The city had finally decided to shut it down and start over, this time as an arts and technology school. Since it was untested, some parents were hanging back, waiting to see how it took shape. As a result, it was not yet inundated with applications; Ayanna’s was accepted. With its performance focus, it was actually a better fit for Ayanna than the relentlessly academic and competitive environment of Whitney Young. This part of the story, at least, was going to have a happy ending.
In June, Ayanna was one of the two student speakers at our first ever graduation. Many false words are spoken at such events, words rolling by, as Garrison Keillor once said, like empty boxcars. But when Ayanna spoke of how NKO changed her life and thanked the teachers who really cared about kids like her, she spoke from her heart.
“Although this is only my second year at NKO, it has become a place I can truly call home….There has never been a time I’ve gone to my teachers and they’ve told me no.”
And finally, in words that were later to take on an overtone she could never have anticipated, Ayanna closed this way: “You never know just how much you miss something until it’s completely gone.”
She went off to a summer of theater with the troupe that had become her second home. But she was already looking ahead with excitement about what was over the fall horizon.
In the fall, we saw almost as much of Ayanna as we had the previous two years. Often she stopped by twice a day – once in the morning, since we opened well before the start of classes at King, and again later in the day to debrief with Mrs. Whitcomb, her favorite confidante, and to pick up Marcus. She challenged us in the office to lift her book bag, weighted down, for one, by a twenty pound history text. She reported proudly that many of the readings in her English class were repeats of books we had ingested and digested in eighth grade. She reported on the NKO classmates who had gone over to King with her. Their life at the new school, like hers, was a predictable mix of successes and stumbles.
One morning in late fall, Ayanna showed up in a particularly animated state. “Dr. H., I almost pulled an all-nighter.” She described a marathon conversation with her mother, the kind of deep engagement that mothers and daughters dream of. The occasion for this momentous encounter was created by Mrs. Smith’s morbid fear of rats. One had been sighted in the apartment, ending any thought of sleep that night.
I can’t remember when Ayanna said she finally caved in, but when she bounced out of my office headed for school, she was going on fumes, a state I’m sure she relished. She loved living full throttle.
Early that afternoon, Ayanna’s Aunt Joanne called. Ayanna’s mom was dead. She had had what appeared to be a heart attack shortly after Ayanna left for school. Lightning had struck twice. It was only a year ago that little Jada’s mother, also a vigorous, engaged young woman in her prime, had died suddenly, casting a pall on everyone at school, kids and adults alike. These losses were tiny on the scale of September 11, but they were our losses. The moment we heard of her mother’s death, an all-too-familiar tidal wave of sorrow washed over us. We were becoming too practiced at loss.
Auntie Helen, as the kids called her, was on her way to pick Marcus up and requested that no one say anything to him; she wanted to be the one to break the news. It fell to me to fetch Marcus from his first grade classroom. I whispered the reason for my mission to his teacher, Ms. Fields. She turned her back on the children, to shield them from the tears that filled her eyes.
Marcus, on the other hand, was excited at the prospect of an early dismissal and a chance to hang out with his beloved Auntie Helen. He gathered up his take-home folder and his jacket and headed down the hall with me, engaged in one of his breathless non-stop monologues masquerading as conversations. I was overwhelmed by the before and after moment we were living through. Marcus was about to walk across a threshold beyond which his life would be changed in ways none of us, least he, could imagine.
Within an hour, both Marcus and Ayanna were back in the building. I don’t know how the news was delivered to Ayanna, but her immediate reaction was to come straight “home” to NKO. She rushed up the stairs, Auntie Helen trailing close behind, proclaiming “My mother’s dead. My mother’s dead.” She was driven by a remarkable sense of urgency to be here at school at this most awful moment.
By the time I arrived she was slumped on a couch in one of the upstairs offices. Every adult in the building who was not anchored to a class at that hour surrounded her. The exuberant girl who had bounced out of my office only a few hours earlier had morphed into a teary, bewildered rag doll.
When the dismissal bell rang, students began moving through the halls. Heads appeared at the door and studied this couch scene which had the air of a medieval religious painting. Ayanna, head on the shoulder of her beloved Mrs. W, rehashed the events of the previous night again and again, as people who have come through something unfathomable are inclined to do. Her attendants struggled to find the right thing to say, as bystanders at a tragedy are inclined to do. One suggested we call a minister. Another shared her reactions to her own mother’s death at exactly the same stage in her life.
Standing back from this tragic scene, overwhelmed by the cruelty and unfairness of bringing low this life force, I also felt a sense of pride that we had built a school which Ayanna could think of as home, could choose as the place to seek solace at the most devastating moment of her life. We were a safe haven for her, the kind of place that all kids need in their lives, no matter what their family circumstances, something more than the test factory that too many of our schools have become. On occasions when kids are asked to honor parents or friends, their highest form of compliment is: “He/she was always there for me.” Ayanna sought refuge with us because she knew we were there for her.
The same was true for Marcus. Almost as soon as he had crossed the emotional threshold to the “after” side, he announced that he had to get back to school. He needed to report what had happened to his teachers and classmates. In one of her many acts of good judgment, Auntie Helen honored his request and delivered him back to Ms. Fields. While we had someone cover the class for her, she sat on the steps with Marcus to talk about what had happened. She told him that God needed to pluck his prettiest flower to complete his bouquet. Now, I often have trouble with the saccharine packaging of senseless tragedy. At the memorial service for the 14 year old son of a friend who had died of cancer, I was close to throttling the rabbi who spoke of gathering up all the little jewels to take their place in the firmament. But for a six year old I was willing to go with whatever it took to get him through.
Marcus went straight from the steps to his classroom where he stood before his classmates, dry-eyed, to announce that he had bad news; his mother had died. He used Ms. Fields bouquet image, hoping that this would help them make sense of this death as it had helped him. He spent the rest of the afternoon in this familiar company. Everyone worked quietly at their tables. Some children wrote letters and drew pictures for Marcus. Others sobbed quietly, moved in part by terror at the thought that they too could lose a loved one. Still others worked on projects unrelated to the sad news, assured by their teacher that this was all right too.
The viewing and funeral took place at a funeral home on the South Side. I was familiar with the area because I had visited a school nearby often enough to know that the façade of quiet, tree-lined streets and small, neat homes concealed an unsettling gang scene. The curved drop-off lane in front of the funeral home reminded me that we were not in Pleasantville. At one end stood an object that resembled the window of a drive-up bank. A recessed screen allowed passengers to view the body without having to leave their cars, thanks to a video camera that was permanently trained on the coffin. This was partly LA car culture and partly gangland protection for those who felt unsafe leaving their cars on this turf. It gave a whole new meaning to the term drive-by.
The funeral was a tribute to her mother’s ties to the jazz community. All the music at the service was jazz. In the chapel, people from the local jazz scene and others who happened to be in town moved almost imperceptibly to the music. A large contingent from our school of staff, parents and classmates – mostly Ayanna’s friends from the Academics – clustered together toward the rear.
The loyal members of Auntie Helen’s suburban congregation outnumbered both these groups. Their tributes to Ayanna’s mom, whom most of them did not know well, were sincere reflections of the deep faith that served them well in troubled times. All the talk of going to a better place, of “making the transition,” rather than dying, made me long for similar solace, but the price of admission to this world was higher than I was prepared to pay.
This tripartite audience of mourners – the bohemians, the school folk and the church faithful – represented the conflict that Ayanna was now facing. She had been raised in the bohemian jazz world that valued self-expression and a fair measure of non-conformity. The world she was about to enter, although safe and nurturing, was far more traditional, unlikely to be sympathetic to unconventional behavior. Ayanna and Marcus were lucky to be taken in by this world, but it came with conditions.
The third leg of the stool was the school, also a loving surrounding, but one that took a more neutral position about the values she chose to espouse. School was the accepting grief counselor, a safe haven for Ayanna among people who had demonstrated their love for her.
For those of us who had been charmed by Ayanna’s unbridled exuberance, it was frightening to phone her during those sad days. The voice at the other end was dulled. Her mother’s death had demolished her sense that life had an upward arc and she was along for the joyous ride. When she returned to school and resumed her drop-in visits, the inner light did not appear to be shining as brightly. She could eke out a credible impersonation of the old Ayanna, but it was a hollow act. After a few minutes and a few well-aimed probes it imploded in a cloud of gloom. Marcus was doing his six year old version of the same – long periods without any visible acknowledgement of his loss, punctuated by sudden swells of sadness.
One day Ayanna appeared for a regular after-school visit in an unusually fine mismatched get-up, highlighted by strategically placed bands of yellow crime scene tape she had acquired from God knows where. She extracted from her bloated backpack a handsome notebook, the kind of pricey journal that passes among gift givers and receivers like the proverbial holiday fruit cake, only Ayanna was actually using it.
She affected a credible version of the old, high candle power Ayanna.
“Hey, Dr. H., I’ve been writing poetry. Want to see some?”
She explained that this attractive notebook had been among her mother’s possessions, evidence of a beginning interest in writing.
Ayanna seated herself at my wobbly office table while I turned the many pages she had already filled. It didn’t take long to recognize that the pages were heavy with the oppressive gloom of her mother’s unexpected and unfathomable death. None of this was surprising – until I arrived at the descriptions of how she was cutting herself. How had I not been suspicious of one aspect of Ayanna’s garish costumes; it had been lost in a forest of eccentricities. She had taken to wearing arm-length gloves with fingers exposed, a la Michael Jackson. But only when she placed this journal under my nose was I finally able to hear her cry of despair. For someone trying fruitlessly to preserve what little remains attractive about an aging body, it was a shock to see the ravages of the voluntary disfigurement of young beauty. I loved Ayanna in all her goodness, and here was the painful evidence that she no longer loved the self that resided inside her skin.
Ayanna made light of it. She wasn’t doing it as much, as often, as deeply as she once had. I asked to see. She uncovered her arms and there were the slash marks, like notches on the barrel of a gunslinger’s pistol, some fresh, some already turned to scar. I told her how distressed I was. She was punishing herself for something that was not her doing. I insisted she get help, but she was resistant. How could someone who didn’t know her possibly help? She felt comfortable talking to the people right here; they were the ones who really understood and cared about her. I told her that would always be true, but her problem called for professional help.
I had to report the cutting to her aunt who was ultimately responsible for her well-being, but some of Ayanna’s teachers at the high school had already spotted the problem and alerted her. Auntie Helen was eager to find help, but Ayanna was not covered by her health insurance because her mother’s death certificate hadn’t been issued yet.
The school year, steeped in so much sadness, is now over. After a long academic slump, during which Ayanna had difficulty focusing on her assignments, she began to rebound. She came by to display her good grades, as if to say, “I’m over it.” But she isn’t. The sleeves still cover her arms and the sadness lurks behind her eyes. She’ll be back next year, but Marcus won’t. The burden of ferrying him from their distant suburb had been wearing on his aunt. Ayanna, able to manage on the commuter train that deposits her within walking distance of the high school, could continue there.
I suspect that Ayanna’s decision to stay at King has a lot to do with its proximity to us. I’ve been wondering how Ayanna would have weathered the upheaval in her life if she hadn’t found a home in our school. What if she had still been at the indifferent school that preceded ours? She is not the first 14 year old to face tragic loss, but few are fortunate to find the support she had. In an era when many parents are choosing to keep their children close by making their homes into schools, we need to reverse that pattern. Our schools must be homes for the students, who like Ayanna, have lost theirs and those who never had one.
Ayanna – Postscript
The advantage of leaving pieces you’ve written to ripen in your computer is that you can then satisfy your readers’ “whatever happened to?” questions. It is now at least fifteen years later, and Ayanna and I are still in each other’s lives. Spoiler Alert: she has become a woman of many accomplishments who is making – already has made – a mark in her community.
Ayanna continued in the high school from which she rushed to my office when she heard of her mother’s death. She and her brother went to live with her aunt and uncle, exceptionally decent and caring people. They lived in a distant suburb, so just getting to school every day was a challenge, but her school’s dance program was a touchstone she was reluctant to abandon. Life at home was tense because of the clash in life styles between the artsy, looser home of her mother and the more conventionally middle- class restrictions and ground rules established by her aunt.
On several occasions, Ayanna invited my wife and me to dance performances in which her school was performing, once at the high school and once in the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. I don’t know how I missed her interest in dance when she was at our school, so I was particularly impressed with the emerging talent I was witnessing onstage. Ayanna chose Western Michigan for the next step in her development. She told me that the school was noted for its dance program, and I assumed that they offered her a considerable amount of support, since she had little of her own to fall back on. Kalamazoo was close enough to home, so she could keep up with her brother, to whom she acted as more of a guardian than a big sister. Kalamazoo was a stop on the Amtrak route between Chicago and Detroit that we traveled twice a year to visit friends in Ann Arbor. On one of those trips there was Ayanna, surrounded by her course books, greeting us with the typical wide eyes, lips pursed in surprise, always so welcoming, as if seeing us was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
There followed years of residency with dance companies in Denver, Los Angeles and, finally back home with one of Chicago’s most respected dance troupes. It was there that we saw her perform again, this time as a far more accomplished dancer than the novice we had seen in high school. But Ayanna was living a life of struggle. Even piecing together various gigs teaching in dance schools and working as a resident artist in Chicago public schools just barely enabled her to hold the pieces together. She lived just a few blocks away from us in a cooperative living arrangement and we occasionally met on the bus as she was heading to or from one of the sites she needed to be at, hitting all the marks on a schedule that would have challenged an air traffic controller.
Once she asked to have lunch with me to get my advice about possibly applying to business school. She was so tired of being poor, and she was beginning to realize that the path she had chosen was never going to offer relief from that subsistence life. I couldn’t imagine Ayanna abandoning her passions in favor of a safe salary. In fact, it was a moment of weakness from which she recovered and returned to her dance work.
For many years Ayanna had harbored two dreams: having her own dance studio and troupe and getting a graduate degree. Against huge odds, she has accomplished both. She is the director of a dance company, now in its third year. It offers classes for children on the South Side, and its professional troupe has performed in many places, including the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. The company has established partnerships with dance programs in Korea and recently received a major grant from the MacArthur Foundation. I’m beginning to sound like a press release from her PR staff, but what she’s done really excites me. Ironically, having decided against business school, Ayanna has created her own MBA program, covering hiring and firing, scheduling, fund raising, report writing, budgeting, board building, all while also managing the artistic programming – and occasionally sneaking in a bit of dancing herself, as she did in a recent performance we attended of an autobiographical piece she had choreographed. And, as the cherry on the sundae, she has just completed a graduate degree in dance at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee campus. The mother she came to us to mourn would be at least as proud as I am.