The Savior 4: Three Chords

Continued from March 10 post, The Savior, Part 3: La Culpa

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My second year as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) in Belize the church was my job. An American priest who’d spent most of his time in country on the grounds of a private school became the pastor at St. Martin de Porres (nicknamed St. Martin de Poors) Church, across the street from our JV house. I’d worked myself out of a job with the Lay Ministers Program. The wonder-JV a year ahead of me who played guitar, ran the children’s choir, coached the soccer and track teams at the adjoining school, and had attracted legions of grade school admirers who affectionately ran after his bicycle as he rode onto the church/school grounds calling, “Mistah Phil, Mistah Phil!” had completed his service and returned to the U.S. I became the Pastoral Assistant.

I’ve written about this before, trying to lead the children’s choir with my three chords on the guitar Mr. Phil left behind, the genios Father would throw me from the altar when I got it wrong. Teaching religion to the kids in Standard 3 because their regular classroom teacher was Jehovah’s Witness. Setting up the school counseling program with another JV, though I had majored in History and my only training was a three-day course put on by an all-white team from the U.S. whose orientation to Belize was a coffee meeting with a former Embassy worker.

I naively (it goes without saying) believed the kids at St. Martin’s would trust me, that all they needed was a good person to listen to them, and that together we’d develop the skills they’d need to navigate poverty, violence, absent parents (many of whom were trying to establish a foothold in the U.S.).

“They won’t go too deep,” Father said. “They just need a little encouragement.”

Sometimes we drew pictures. Sometimes we did homework. Sometimes we sat in silence. I thought instinct would guide me. I was afraid to ask for help. And the one time I did, reaching out to a family violence prevention organization, I got called into the principal’s office to face the mother whose son told me she beat him. “He’s a naughty boy,” she said. I walked straight from her office to an empty classroom and wept loud and messy for the shame of f#@*ing up, for the certainty that I’d failed him. He didn’t come to me anymore. Even now, I don’t know what else I could have done.

To Be Continued

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Published in: on June 18, 2015 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mrs. Bradley

 

Today’s post also appears on Stories of Learning NM, a blog dedicated to the stories of former and current New Mexico public school students, teachers, and parents, and part of the Learning Alliance of New Mexico’s Countdown to Better Schools Campaign. Visit, read, and share your own stories of learning. Then join us for a Community Storytelling Event on Wednesday, November 6, 7:00 PM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. 

 

I didn’t win the merit award for English my sophomore year at Deming High School. After the awards assembly, I cried in the girls’ bathroom, wiping my eyes and nose with a brown paper towel and trying to explain to my best friend why it mattered. I think she left when I said, “You just don’t understand.”

The halls were quiet. School would be out in a week. I had to pick up my trumpet from the band room in the main building.

I ran into Mrs. Bradley in the hall. Or maybe I sought her out. She had come to the school a few days into my freshman year, relieving our overcrowded English class. I remember feeling shafted when the forty of us were split down the middle, and I was in the half that had to go to the new teacher. She played guitar. She opened her classroom at lunchtime so students could jam with her. She taught us “Day by Day” and “Prepare Ye the Way” from Godspell. I didn’t know what Godspell was until years later when I was in college and our church choir sang “Prepare Ye the Way” to sound the beginning of Lent. I only knew that I loved to sing, and she encouraged me. She had a voice like Joni Mitchell, a comparison that comes to me only now, because then my musical world was Whitney Houston, Miami Sound Machine, INXS and, per my older brothers’ more refined tastes, the Beatles, the Eagles, Supertramp, Queen, and Earth, Wind and Fire. She was a widow and the first teacher I ever knew who had traveled around the world. She showed us slides from Bali, the Taj Mahal, maybe Europe. One of us asked how she was able to take the trip. We were the children of grocery store clerks, delivery truck drivers, elementary school teachers, bank tellers, and postal workers, and no one we knew had ever been to Bali. “Life insurance,” she said, and then almost to herself, “life insurance money is hard to spend.”

I loved Mrs. Bradley. She was my freshman English and junior history teacher. In her class I kept journals and wrote stories. She had a Far Side Off the Wall calendar on her desk and would allow no one to look ahead to the next day. She was the first adult to tell me about the hole in the ozone layer. She had a bulletin board with dye cut letters spelling out Ziggy Marley lyrics, “Tomorrow people, where is your past?” She was cool, but not that immature/no boundaries/acts like one of the students kind of cool that I distrusted in some of the other teachers. She was smart, funny, sure of herself, and because she was all those things, she didn’t need us to like her; and for all of those reasons, we did like her. 

When she asked me what was wrong, my tears started again. I hiccupped, “I didn’t win the merit award.”

She could have told me to worry less, to not take myself so seriously. She could have dismissed my very real fear in that moment that I would never leave Deming, that I’d marry an ugly man and end up living in my parents’ garage. She didn’t. She looked at me, and more importantly, she saw me. She understood that I was sixteen years old and, for whatever reason, needed to prove my worth through my accomplishments, needed to prove that I was smart and capable. And when you’re sixteen, and you believe your grades and your awards are your only ticket out of this town that feels smaller each year, it does you no good to hear that you should relax and enjoy life more.

“I know this doesn’t mean much to you now,” she said, “but when you get to where you’re going, a merit award from Deming High School won’t mean squat.”

Thank you, Mrs. Bradley. You were right.  

Published in: on October 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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