Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART II: STEADYING GAZES
When I was ten, I dreamt of leaving Germany to become an assistant to Albert Schweitzer. Nuns and priests who worked in Tanzania visited our church every year. They brought the promise of adventure in faraway lands. They showed us slides of bush and savanna, swamps and riverine forests, along with the orphanages, schools, chapels and dispensaries they had built. We were to collect money and to pray for the souls of African people. Overcome by Fernweh, I pictured myself living in a hut at the foot of the Serengeti. Dressed in a prim light-blue uniform, a large crucifix dangling from my neck, I'd be tending to poor orphans.
I am no longer a Catholic and I never made it to Sub-Saharan Africa. Working in Flatbush, a Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, with Haitian children was about as close as I was to get to my childhood dream. It was 1988; the height of the crack epidemic. Flatbush was full of danger and menace. Gang members and drug dealers ruled the street. Children were either in school or locked up at home for their own safety. Holy Innocents School was like a besieged fortress. Neither teachers nor students dared to venture out for lunch to the nearby Roti stand.
On my second day at the school, I was startled by loud knocking on my office door. Before I had a chance to get up, a middle-aged portly woman pushed a skinny boy into my office.
"I'm Ms. Roberts, the fourth grade teacher. Are you the new counselor?" she said. "I got someone to watch my class, so I could bring Gladimir down to you. I've had it with him. This child is going to give me a heart attack."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Gladimir does everything he can to annoy me. He argues. He swears. He knocks over the chairs in the classroom. When he doesn't get his way, he throws books at the other children. Every little thing sets him off."
Gladimir, a handsome boy with a coffee-colored complexion, was small for his age. His school uniform was messy; the blue short-sleeve shirt hung outside his pants and his plaid tie was splattered with peanut butter. His eyes were enormous and solemn. When I looked at him, Gladimir stared at the floor. "Keep him for the rest of the day. I don't want him back in my class room," Ms. Roberts said and rushed out of the room.
When I asked Gladimir to sit down, he positioned himself by the door, arms crossed in front of his chest while he scanned the room like a soldier scrutinizing enemy territory. For fifteen minutes he rebuffed my attempts to engage him in a conversation. Then he sat down to play with my GI Joe action figures. I took out pen and paper to construct his family tree. Like most students at Holy Innocents School, he was Haitian. Maybe Gladimir had suffered a recent loss or trauma? Most boys his age didn't show outward signs of depression; they acted out instead.
For every question I asked, he shot one back at me. Counselors weren't supposed to reveal details of their personal life, but Gladimir left me no choice. If he were going to tell me about himself, I would have to tell him about myself. Gladimir learned that I lived in Manhattan, that I had no children and that my mother and brothers lived in Germany. I learned that Gladimir had a brother and a sister and that his mother had died of cancer three months ago. He was angry at his father who had brought his girlfriend to live with them while his mother lay dying in the hospital.
I've had my share of difficult students. Gladimir was not only difficult, he was a major challenge. "Are you Jewish?" he asked. Most of the White people he knew, the teachers, doctors and social workers were Jewish. I showed him Germany on the map; he showed me Haiti.
"Do you know any Black people?" he asked.
"Yes, I do."
"Tell me their names."
"Loretta, Ronald, Dael, Debra, Pat and Sekou."
"What does Dael do?"
"She's an actress and a playwright." Gladimir frowned. "Dael writes and performs her own plays."
"Like our Christmas pageant at school?"
"What about Loretta? What does she do?"
"She's a social worker like me."
"And where does this Loretta live?"
"In East Harlem."
He was not familiar with East Harlem. He had only been to Manhattan once on a class visit to the Museum of Natural History. "Manhattan was real nice. No garbage in the streets. No crack heads. White people were driven around Central Park in carriages pulled by horses. I'd like to go again. Will you take me?"
I had survived the cross-examination.
For the rest of the school year, we met every Wednesday during first period. Ms. Roberts threw him out of her class once or twice a week for stealing his classmates' sandwiches and destroying their pens, pencil sharpeners, and walkmans. Starting fights was routine. In my office, Gladimir painted my table with finger paints, threatened me with the toy gun and killed the daddy doll plenty of times.
"How many people did you kill?" he asked after watching a film about the Holocaust on PBS as a class assignment. "They say the Germans murdered millions."
"Aside from trying to kill my younger brother I've never harmed anybody."
Session by session his hostility waned. One day he brought his brother and sister after school to meet me. The following week he asked: "Can I come to see you every day?"
We taught each other words in our mother tongues.
I learned to say bekan (bicycle), makone (godmother) and bannann peze
(fried plantains). He loved the sound of German words, the letters o, a, u, the deep guttural r. His favorite words were Grauel (horror) and
Rauber (robber); he loved repeating them several times. Rauber, Rauber,
Rrrrrauber. He admired German. "This is no sissy language."
He called me the light-skin lady in front of his class mates. I was proud of my high school French, but to him I didn't sound kreyol enough. I practiced the words he taught me with my students and parents. Our security guard, impressed with my pronunciation, asked "Eske ou konn ale Ayiti? Kouman ou fe pale kreyol?" (Have you been to Haiti? How did you learn to speak Creole?)
Gladimir was thrilled when a neighbor gave him a kite for his birthday. "It was green with sparkling silver," he said, "I couldn't wait to try it out, but Papa and his woman wouldn't take me to Prospect Park."
"What a bummer," I said.
"I wanted to see it fly so bad, I launched it from the living room window."
"Did it work?" I asked.
Gladimir looked deflated. "I couldn't get it going. The kite just wouldn't lift."
By April, his angry outbursts no longer occurred every day. He rarely knocked over the chairs in the classroom. He had volunteered to wipe off the blackboard. Ms. Roberts was pleased. Gladimir might be promoted to the fifth grade. I was pleased too. When his father came to pick up his report card I made him sign a permission slip allowing me to take Gladimir, his brother and sister on an outing to Central Park.
The siblings were thrilled with Central Park: the horses, the polar bears in the zoo, the reservoir, the carousel, the women jogging with special baby carriages, the chili dogs and French fries at the Boathouse Cafe. Central Park was a sanctuary compared to Flatbush.
"Can you adopt me?" Gladimir asked after our outing to Central Park.
"What do you think life with me will be like?" I asked.
"We'll live in Queens or New Jersey in a big house with a back yard. We drive to the mall in our station wagon. In the summer we go on camping trips, sleep in a tent and barbecue hotdogs for lunch."
I lived in a 500 square foot studio in the West Village and hated camping. Gladimir was crushed that I didn't own a car or a big house like the White people on TV.
On the last day of school he gave me a drawing of our Central Park outing. His sister Manouchka and brother Remelus were on the left, Gladimir and I on the right; all of us holding hands like a happy family. In the bottom corner he had written in his best penmanship: Ms. S. don't forget me. I miss you. Come back! Gladimir. I felt sad that I would not see him for more than two months. "Let's have lunch together. My treat," I said. Gladimir jumped up and down, thrilled with the chance of having a cheese burger, fries and possibly an ice cream sandwich for lunch. His father never gave him lunch money; he had eaten peanut butter sandwiches the entire school year.
At the cafeteria line two boys made rude comments in Creole and another cut in front of me. Short, skinny Gladimir came to my defense. "Ki problem ou? Don't mess with Ms. Steegmann. She understands kreyol. Ms. Steegmann, she's not White. She's German."
What do you think the long term impact of the acceptance Gladimir gives the author has been? The long term impact of the acceptance she gives him?
What qualities in her do you think Gladimir responded to?
In 2006, after 18 years of working as a school counselor, I left my work to devote myself to writing full time. I never regretted my decision. I don't miss the hours after work sitting anxiously in the emergency room of St. Vincent's Hospital with suicidal teenagers. I'm glad I have no longer nightmares of children being used for sex, beaten with coat hangers, made to kneel on cheese graters by the same adults who were supposed to be protecting them. My life is a lot less stressful now.
But I still do think, from time to time, with fondness about the students I worked with. Gladimir taught me a lot. In an essay I wrote about my experiences with Black people and living in Harlem, my relationship with Gladimir is reduced to a paragraph. Our relationship was complicated, complex, and ultimately enriching. I learned as much from him as he learned from me. He deserved more space. I decided to give him his own story.
The story is true to life; nothing is made up. I always believed that real life is much more fascinating than fiction. I'm not sure that I have grown by writing the story. I have grown by having had a relationship with Gladimir. A child is not afraid to express his prejudices. A child asks uncomfortable questions. His questions made me reflect on what it means to be German, the legacy of the Holocaust, and my feelings about Black people. When Gladimir came to accept and trust me, I was no longer the other, no longer White. I became the light-skinned lady.
The barriers and preconceived notions melt when we allow ourselves to get close, to listen without judgment, to see our commonality. I hope this is also true for adults, although it is, without doubt, easier to break down these barriers with children.
If I were to write the story as fiction, I would create a different ending. I'd probably find a nice Caribbean woman to take him and his siblings in, a woman who finds time to take him to the park to fly his kite. Or, he might warm up to his father's girlfriend. I would have created a happy ending, for he deserves that also.
ANNA STEEGMANN, born in Germany, has lived in New York City since 1980. She worked as an actress and psychotherapist until making writing her priority. She writes in English and German. Her stories, essays, poems, and translations have appeared with W.W. Norton, The New York Times, [sic], 138journal, The Wising Up Press, Promethean, Epiphany, The Absinthe Literary Review, Boomer Women Speak, Dimension2, as well as several German newspapers. Her essay Mein Harlem was selected Notable Essay of 2007 for The Best American Essays 2008. She teaches writing at City College of New York, where she received an MA in Creative Writing, and at the International Summer Academy Venice, Italy.