On one of our last teacher workdays before the start of the year, my mentor Laura and I decided to walk to McDonald’s for lunch. At that time, I knew only that she was a veteran teacher, around my age, an Iowa State fan, and that we shared a passion for teaching about the Shoah – the Holocaust. We would go on to become friends, and work together on a number of things not least founding a senior trip to take students to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, beginning in 2017, the year it opened. Our students met John Lewis that year, and he signed a book to my son, Titus (Zooey was not yet born).
The nearest McDonald’s to Omaha North High Magnet School is about five blocks down the hill, and I wanted to see more of the “blighted neighborhood” I was working in. Past the YMCA, the houses went to hell in a hurry. Many were evidently burnt out, and I could see holes in the roofs of others, boarded up windows – all the usual signs of poverty and neglect. Half of them were condemned. There was a row of nice little houses too, all with new siding, newer–looking roofs; Laura explained to me that these were low-income housing. We had just come from a meeting in which it had been explained that our free-and-reduced lunch population was right around 65% this year. She asked me where I thought the parents of my students worked, especially those without cars. Looking around, I saw a liquor store, a dilapidated grocery store, a few fast-food places. I had to admit they didn’t have very many options. “Not even an Applebee’s where they could earn some tips,” she commented. Not having a car in most of the Midwest means being chained to a pretty tight area; I shuddered to think of parents, and especially their children – my students, being chained to this area.
We stepped inside McDonald’s, and at first it seemed the same as every other “Micky-D’s” I’ve been to, save for my being a racial minority amongst the patrons. We ordered our food off the dollar menu, then sat to eat. At first, I saw things that made me smile. The clerks were friendly, maybe even overly so, and there were old men with grizzled hair and beards drinking coffee and reading newspapers, or else laughing loudly with one another. It was a nice scene, something Rockwell could have painted (should have painted). But then poverty stuck its head in the door.
First, there was the old man who walked past, yelled hello to us, then sat down talking to himself, gesturing all around, rolling his eyes, and muttering. He counted the same three one-dollar bills repeatedly before walking up to the counter, then returning without having ordered. Where do the poor receive psychiatric care? Apparently some of them go to McDonald’s. But the man was not cared for, and I could think of nothing useful to do for him.
Next, a young woman wearing no bra and dirty pajama bottoms came in with her stroller. She ordered a lone sandwich from the dollar menu and sat down to eat it. I wasn’t paying much attention to her, so I don’t know why she slapped her child, but I know that the sound was loud enough I could hear it from a distance, and that when the baby wouldn’t stop crying she did it again. Worst of all, nobody reacted at all, save for Laura, who exchanged a troubled look with me. Again, I could think of nothing to do.
Years before, I had been in what felt in many ways like a similar situation on an airplane ride from New York to Seattle. When the man in front of me had struck his pre-teen son fiercely in the arm and growled threateningly at him, I observed it through the cracks between the seats, not entirely sure of what I had witnessed. When he did it a second time, however, I became certain. I punched the back of the man’s seat with my fist, leaned forward, and said simply “If you punch that child again, I’ll break your arm.” The man glared at me, but said nothing, and did not strike the boy a third time over the remaining three plus hours of our flight. The boy whimpered. The woman, presumably mother and wife, pretended not to notice any of this and kept reading. When we got off the airplane, several passengers quietly thanked me for intervening, either in words or with glances or handshakes. I felt like a superhero that night when I called my girlfriend, who was studying to become a counselor. “He’s probably beating the crap out of that kid right now,” she said simply. “You embarrassed him in public.” I felt sick. The image of that man – if he can even be called a man, beating that child in some otherwise quiet hotel room in Seattle, is never far from my mind. The boy would be grown by now. I pray for him every time I think of him.
As we were leaving McDonald’s, the woman and her child were leaving too. “Ain’t got time for you,” she snarled at him. “So sick of you,” she told him. I noticed that his dirty footy pajamas didn’t fit anymore. She banged his stroller, hard and repeatedly, into the door, frustrated that it wouldn’t open. I jumped ahead and held one door for her, then the next. I showed her a respect she didn’t earn, hoping she might somehow pass it along to her, well, to her son. I could think of nothing else to do.
This might have been a somewhat troubling, but ultimately forgettable experience, save for one thing: the fact that my students, many of them anyway, live here. They live with this. They live in this. They live through this. They eat at that McDonald’s, sometimes cutting class to do so. I’ll try to remember that when I’m frustrated with them for being late, falling asleep, forgetting a pencil. It’s not that I have lower expectations for them because many of them are poor. It’s that I don’t want them to be poor anymore. The woman wasn’t behaving horribly to her child because she’s black. She was behaving horribly because she’s hungry, and poor, and pissed off at the world, and because her parents were too and they treated her the same way she now treats her son. Of course I’m only guessing on that point, but what I’m sure of is that the achievement gap is not an issue of race, it’s an issue of socio-economic status rooted in a long tradition of racism and discrimination. That status is oftentimes the product of race, and of a nation built on racism, and that part will take still more time to change. For now, however, the most important thing I can think to do is to help my students claim an education, and get the hell out of this place.
From: In a Place of Unthought Beauty, the working title of what I hope will one day be a memoir from my eleventh year of teaching.
What you’ve just read comes from a journal I kept my first year at Omaha North, my first year teaching in the inner city. It’s an early entry, dated August 12, 2014, and it marks a beginning because, faithful reader, nothing ever ends. My first year at Omaha North, 2014, Peyton Benson was killed in North Omaha by a stray bullet intended for a gang member while she was eating breakfast in her home. She was five. Eric Garner was murdered by a police officer on Staten Island that year, prompting LeBron and much of the NBA to wear “I can’t breathe” tee-shirts in warmups, but otherwise leading to no real noticeable change. Many, many other unarmed black people were killed that year — Dontre Hamilton, John Crawford III, and Michael Brown Junior down in Ferguson, Missouri, just to name a few of the more than three dozen that I personally remember. It was a tumultuous time in our history, but it isn’t just history. It hasn’t ended. You know why.
What you read above was raw and unedited. This year, one of my goals is to edit my over one hundred pages of journals, to write and to add tot hem, and to turn them into a memoir from my first year of teaching at the school I now love so much that I can’t seem to get talked out of leaving it no matter what comes up. And for that reason, I have to make some changes in my life.
Tonight, Sonja and I and some neighbors and, perhaps, even my parents, will drink a Champagne toast around midnight. But tomorrow, I will not wake up and write about it.
This year, this little wine blog that Sonja and I started for fun on our honeymoon has broken every record, met every goal we’ve ever set. Tens of thousands of hits occurred this year, if the metrics are correct, and more than ten thousand individual people read the blog. I’ve had people all over the world comment on it, and countless people tell me they buy based on my recommendations which, of course, I find extremely flattering. This year, I wrote more than 200 blog posts, and this month alone 27. If you’re among those who read this blog, I cannot express my gratitude to you in a completely sufficient manner. Like most writers, I write for my audience. I write for you.
Last night, Sonja and I joined two new friends and attended a fundraiser for a state senator I’ve come to know well. We shared a few drinks, talked politics (of course) and got into a rather intense debate about Severus Snape. Sonja dressed up in cocktail attire and was stunning, and I put on the new watch she had given me for Christmas. I still can’t tell if it’s gold or silver. I don’t care. I like it either way.
One of the reasons I support this senator is that he supports education. He supports me, but more importantly, he supports my students. He, and his wife, are former teachers. I met a lot of teachers last night, and people intertwined in the politics of education. Another reason I support him is that he may be able to prevent the gerrymandering of Nebraska’s second district. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat either, and I’m certainly not a member of a voiceless minority party that would preclude me from voting in the primaries. What I am, I suppose, is a patriot — not the ignorant, nationalistic, “MAGA” type. The type that realizes that the true mark of a patriot is to want better for a country and its people than it has, and who understands that if we can be honest about the flaws of our nation, then and only then, we might be able to fix it. Hillary Clinton told a crowd in 2016 that “America already is pretty great, Donald.” Of course you think it’s great. You’re rich and white and powerful. No wonder she lost the rust belt.
All of this is, I suppose, to say that I’m not going to write this blog much in 2019. That doesn’t mean I can’t, from time to time, jump on and share something with you about a wine we’re drinking or something cute that Titus or Zooey said, so please don’t unsubscribe from the mailing list. It is to say, however, that I’m going to take that time and prioritize finishing my memoir, and also a book of poetry, and that I’m going to invest still more time in getting a little more politically active than I’ve been in the past. I brought children into this world. I’ve already started teaching them how to smell wine. Now I need to begin to teach them how to affect change in a democracy. These are, I suppose, equally complicated pursuits, both of which I will strive to get better at myself along the way.
Tonight my wife and I and a few close friends will raise our glasses at midnight to welcome in 2019, and while I won’t review the bubbles tomorrow or tell a story about playing Cards Against Humanity or poker, I will think of you. Thank you for reading ITheeWine. I have truly had a terrific year and have appreciated all of our interactions along the way. If you’re ever in Omaha, please be sure to look Sonja and I up. We’d love to share a glass of wine with you.
Cheers to a 2019 in which all of us may affect change,