This essay was written in 2003; the opening scene took place in the summer of 2000. --DM
Terrible insults had been shouted as loud as we could shout, until our vocal chords gave out. I had thrown a burrito into the fireplace. The bedroom and guestroom doors had been slammed and then thrown back open and we were at it again when the door buzzer went off.
Our troubles had begun when Kirsten took the job teaching art, K-8, at a West Side elementary school.
Kirsten and I eat out a lot, and it was usually over cocktails at a restaurant that she talked about what was going on at her school, with her kids.
The stories had no plots, they had no morals, they had no humor. They were hardly stories at all.
Kids showing up for the first day of school with no supplies -- not a pencil to their name.
Classrooms totally out of control, a rookie teacher powerless to do anything about it and without any administrative backup.
Obviously learning-disabled kids whose mothers were either too ignorant or too proud to allow them to be labeled, and hence, helped.
An eighth-grader who had been diagnosed learning-disabled in third grade, and then promoted by one special ed teacher after another so that he went to high school with the reading ability of a second-grader.
Kids without mittens, kids without coats.
A girl whose father repeatedly stole basic household appliances to pay for his drugs. (Where's the VCR? Where's the microwave?)
Kids calling my wife fat.
The entire last two weeks of the school year wasted in outdoor play and indoor movies because the standardized tests had been taken and not a teacher nor a student could think of a single reason to bother teaching or learning another lesson.
A gym teacher -- the only male teacher in the school -- with many children by many women who talked often of "doing good in the hood," and flirted with Kirsten constantly.
The male janitors flirting with Kirsten constantly. Persistent rumors that one of the janitors is paying students in an adjoining high school for sex.
A student who flunked the second grade but didn't realize it until a teacher told him, in front of the whole class, on the first day of school the next year.
Two students, sisters, whose mother became homeless at Christmas time.
Black women colleagues convinced that Kirsten is crazy to trust me at home alone with our Polish maid.
Kids becoming sick from paint fumes. Why? The gym had to be urgently painted during school hours because rumor had it Mayor Daley was visiting.
The stories went on and on. Kirsten went on and on.
I always pretended I was bored, hearing these stories. Bored, and weary.
A knowing yawn suited my vanity better than impotent rage.
Walter was the first student that Kirsten informally adopted as her project child.
He was a natural choice for an intervention: often charming with a shy and sweet demeanor, but also full of anger that boiled over at the most inopportune times. Walter was the favorite of many of the teachers. But he was suspended more than almost any other student.
Kirsten's relationship with Walter started when she kept him after school to help her clean and paint her art room. She paid him a couple of dollars for the services and by the end of the year the once-beige room was clean and bright with yellows and purples and exposed pipes painted like a jersey cow.
This arrangement served the practical purpose of keeping Walter (and later other kids) off the streets. And, it was an excuse for Kirsten to drive him home, giving her time to learn about his family life, to explore what made him so alternately angelic and awful.
The answers were as predictable as they were depressing. Walter's mother was on and off drugs and he was being raised by his aunt, an admirable woman who had once been in a gang but who's now on the straight and narrow, somewhat heroically taking care of her own kids and her sister's, too. But being 14, Walter didn't see this big picture and treated his overwhelmed aunt with contempt, often misbehaving and always pining to live with his drug-addicted mother. And Walter's father? Absent from the scene entirely.
Kirsten's time with Walter was cut short by the end of the school year, and by Walter's subsequent move to a more willing and resourceful guardian, an uncle in Texas. But before he left, Walter gave Kirsten and me a taste of just how difficult this new life would be for us. One day we gave Walter a ride home together, from my office downtown to his home, down in Englewood. Kirsten and Walter picked me up at the office. I sat in the back seat, trying to make conversation with a sullen Walter. Kirsten could do little to ease the tension. When the conversation died, Walter turned up the rap music and stared out the window. I sat in the back seat, alternately humiliated, confused, and seething.
Kirsten later said Walter's poutiness was a put-on designed to disguise shyness. Maybe that was true, but I sensed there was more to it: something like territoriality. It wasn't that he thought it was his car he'd been riding in with Kirsten all these months; but maybe he resented that the car was mine -- that Kirsten was mine. My imagination? Stupid jealousy? Probably, yes. But to be feeling that in the presence of a 14-year-old boy -- that's where the humiliation came in.
Others would claim that this wasn't my problem at all. It wasn't hard for me to find people who agreed with me that the very idea of driving a student around the city and getting personally involved in his life constituted a complete lack of professionalism on Kirsten's part, not to mention a reckless exposure to more kinds of liability than we could have imagined.
It would be a long time before Kirsten proved me to be a childish, hypocritical borderline-racist prick. It would be even longer before I proved her a sentimental, crusading white fool. And even longer yet before we figured out what to do about that.
Kirsten's rookie year mercifully ended before either of us lost our perspective completely. That June, we took a road trip, to Savannah, Georgia. I remember finding the generosity to kiss her and tell her, in a gas station parking lot in the rural Kentucky, that I was very proud of her -- no, amazed at her ability to wade into inner-city Chicago and make a place for herself, make herself useful there. She had begun the year a scared teacher trying to keep her classes and her emotions under control and she'd ended it with a different problem: a debate with her husband about just what level of involvement was appropriate in a land of such bleeding, crying need.
That need was another thing we didn't disagree on. We had spent all of our 20s learning and thinking and talking about race and poverty and education. We both grew up in suburban Ohio, far away from the inner city. But as soon as we moved to Oak Park, right out of college, our discovery of this nether world -- we saw it from the Lake Street El train to and from the city through the Henry Horner Homes -- immediately made it the most important intellectual issue in both our minds. Commuting to and from work in those days, I read Alex Kotlowitz's book about Henry Horner, There Are No Children Here. I would look out the window to see this set of train tracks where Kotlowitz's kids played or that lot where a gang shooting went down.
Kirsten and I knew the score: The ghetto was a place where poor blacks either hung on for dear life or destroyed themselves unsupervised by police, unaided by government, ignored even by the city in whose skyscrapers' long shadows they dwelt. We spent our Friday and Saturday nights in passionate and sincere discussion with friends about the complex combination of forces -- political, educational, social -- required to make any appreciable difference in this situation.
If there was one political point of view I was sure of then as now, it's that inner-city poverty -- and its stubborn correlation with African-Americans -- is the most shameful and pressing problem in the country.
But there's only so much talking to be done, so much thinking about a problem this size, especially when the nation's politicians are so far from taking any measures to eradicate the situation, when black leaders seem to be losing credibility and influence over their increasingly apathetic would-be followers. Aside from the Million Man March, (which seems like a long-ago dream to us now), the 1990s saw very little in the way of even good intentions regarding black uplift.
Toward the end of our Oak Park years -- we've since moved into the city -- I stopped gaping out the train window. The view was getting boring.
But now the inner city was coming to me. More specifically, poor black kids were coming into the West Town condominium we'd moved into in order to comply with the mandate that Chicago Public School teachers live in the city.
Early in her second year, Kirsten befriended several of her eight-grade students. She focused most of her attention on a boy named Lamont. He first drew Kirsten's notice because of his skills as an artist. She helped him get into a free art program, and later a job working with Chicago's summer art program, Gallery 37. Along the way, she discovered that he had a sweet, sensitive way about him. That, and he couldn't read. Labeled dyslexic years before, Lamont had been passed from one special ed teacher to another, past the new rules against social promotion, through all the cracks. Next year he would be in high school with a third-grade reading level. How much longer would it be that he'd be out of high school without a diploma?
A worthy cause, wouldn't you say, for two self-professed liberals who'd spent so much time and energy describing the problem to one another and every other friend who would listen?
Kirsten plunged right in, spending more and more time with Lamont, helping him study, having him over. She even convinced a friend of mine to tutor Lamont, to help teach him how to read. She was slowly becoming Lamont's mother -- or at least, his big sister.
That made one of us. It wasn't that I didn't like Lamont, I did. I just didn't like being around him. I was afraid of him -- as a teenager with no reason to respect me, as a black person whose dialect I struggled to decipher, as a poor person whose daily life I knew I did not really, could never quite understand.
I was also afraid what Lamont's growing relationship with my wife was doing to our marriage. It seemed he was becoming more and more important to Kirsten, occupying more and more of her thoughts, more and more of our lives.
Lamont began to spend the night at our house once a week.
Lamont's mother quickly formed a relationship with Kirsten and called the house every night just to chat.
My friend the tutor began calling to talk to Kirsten, not to me.
With my friend, we bought Lamont a bike, which he amusingly called his "hoopdee." The hoopdee was stolen a week later. We bought him another.
Kirsten and I took Lamont to spend a weekend visiting her parents in Columbus, Ohio.
And without asking me, Kirsten made room in a dresser in our guest room for Lamont to keep some clothes for when he spent the night.
She was becoming a mother and I was not becoming a father. There was no other way to think of it: We were growing apart.
Finally, in fall of 2000 -- after two years of this tension -- Kirsten and I both broke down crying one night, feeling at once hopeless about our marriage and grief-stricken at the idea of being without one another. We'd see a counselor, we decided, and we'd take a nice long trip together. And if that didn't do it, maybe it was time to call it quits.
Kirsten got on the Internet that very puffy-eyed evening and began researching resorts in Mexico. By the time she got off, she had spent $4,000 for four days at a ridiculously fancy resort.
There was no more money for marriage counseling. So we called this trip a "second honeymoon" and hoped for the best.
Miraculously, we got it. At this place, removed from the disruptions of the day-to-day, together and not separated by our opposite worlds, and bone-tired from years of fighting, we felt a mutual rush of warm air, a following draft of love and passion and understanding for one another. In the midst of that feeling, juxtaposed as closely as it was to the despair we'd felt just a few weeks before, we resolved -- without saying so, I believe -- to treat the emotions that held us together more sacredly than the ones moving us in various other directions in our lives.
No more crazy fights. Instead, compromising.
She no longer forces me to listen to hip-hop music.
I took Lamont out to play golf once, baggy jeans and all.
I don't complain about the money she spends on school supplies. In fact, I purposely turn a blind eye. She pays all our bills and tells telephone solicitors she already gave at the office.
We took Lamont to Washington, D.C. and when he became terribly bored because his sorry education left him with little frame of reference for most of the things we were seeing, we bought a kite and flew it in the lawn by the steps of the Capitol Building.
She collects "school stories" and stores them up to tell in big chains when she senses I'm in the right frame of mind.
And, when I am in the right frame of mind, I listen and sometimes even laugh at these stories, which she has, in fact, become better at telling. I'm especially fond of the one about the kindergartner who's always hitting other kids and, when confronted by the teacher, innocently says, "But Miss Kirsten! I'm just getting my exercise."
And occasionally, I find myself thunderstruck at what a coolly authoritative woman my own wife has become. A single example: One day she wrote a word on the blackboard and told the students the word was henceforth forbidden in her classroom. The word: "ButIdidn'tdonuttin'."
When I hear stories like that, I tell her I'm grateful for this whole experience: It has turned her into a strange and wonderful person who I deeply admire.
Of course there are still dilemmas. For instance, one night we learned that Lamont owed a couple hundred dollars to some neighborhood thugs; the question was, should we loan him the money to pay them back, or make him face the problem he had created?
There are impossible questions: Lamont, now 17, has quit his tutor (my friend) and his grades are spiraling down. He's smoking pot, and one night he showed up at our house stoned. Do we continue to have him over because he's our friend, or was that friendship a privilege he earned by endeavoring to improve himself?
More problematic, Kirsten seems to be on the verge of burnout.
It's generally accepted that five years is about the limit for energetic, young public school teachers, and as that fifth year winds down, I do see Kirsten's spirit -- the same spirit that nearly ruined our marriage thanks to the vast racial and class gaps between her work world and my comfort zone -- waning a bit. Though she plans to return next year, she's pregnant with our first child, and she's due in November. We assume she'll take a few months off and then finish out the year. But maybe she won't. It's hard to know at the moment how she'll feel in January or February.
But she's tired, I can tell you that. Very tired.
And just when I was getting my second wind.
Postscript: I don't know where Walter is, but Lamont is in the Navy, and married to an utterly sweet and charming girl from the suburbs. "Kirsten," not my wife's real name -- all these names are changed -- returned to her West Side school after her maternity leave in 2003. She's since gone on to teach at a charter school, also on the West Side, whose idealism has given her career new life. Our child is in kindergarten, and now it's her education we're fighting about all the time. More on that soon, perhaps.
David Murray blogs regularly at Writing Boots.