The Story of Adam

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“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” 

Corrie ten Boom

I met Adam in the early fall of 2011. As a new teacher at my North Philly charter school, I was required to visit the homes of all of the students in my home room. Adam lived in the Ojo de Oro neighborhood of North Philly: an area just off Lehigh Avenue that is most easily described as a melange of row houses, bodegas, cars, streetlights, and families.

When I pulled up to Adam’s house, or where I thought it was, anyway, I ran into a group of little kids sitting on a stoop, watching a movie on a laptop. Inside, their house was dark and they told me how great it was that they were watching the movie on the stoop. I asked if this was Adams house, and they said, “No! But he lives over there!”. Pointing, they steered me to a cream-colored house with a plain door. I knocked, and was let in by Adam’s mom. Inside, the house was dark, and I soon noticed that there was no floor. I sat on an armchair in the living room, and, looking up, I noticed that there was a huge hole in the ceiling where pipes were visible. His mom told me that some of the pipes had burst and they had tried to fix them earlier,  but that the basement still flooded all the time.

Into this room walked a tall, slender boy carrying a huge bottle of blue Kool-Aid. He was wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, and had just come from his room where he was playing video games. Politely, he told me it was nice to meet me. His mom told me that I was the first teacher that had ever come to their house.

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Adam was challenged and challenging: life had set up many obstacles for him including a learning disability, emotional disturbance, a father with a history of incarceration, poverty, and a dominant anger management problem. During the first few weeks of school, Adam refused to attempt any assignment, and when asked a question, would laugh at the fact that I had dared to ask it of him. He sat, in the front of the room, where I had moved him, and did his best to do absolutely nothing.

In this room was a wall of closets, leftover from an educational past that would have had all the students hang their belongings in the closet at the beginning of the day. The school building was about 100 years old and had been built, owned, but not maintained by the School District of Philadelphia for all of those years. When the building was taken over by the charter school, it had sat, abandoned, for many years. Inside, homeless people had used it as a squat house and had stripped every piece of wire, every light bulb, everything of value, from its walls. When the charter started, they had to rewire, paint, and scrub every surface to make it into a semi-functional school again. Its three floors held its history in the peeling paint of its surfaces, its lack of air-conditioning, its squeaky floors, and those long, open-doored closets.

In the closet I kept all the tricks of my trade: lab supplies, baskets, colored pencils, paper, books, and fabric. I find that fabric is a great teaching aid, both as decoration and as a mechanism of soothing troubled children. All of us love touching fabric and looking at patterns and bright colors: this sense of touching something soft and flexible is a tangible way to relax and experience our environment.

One morning, Adam was supposed to take a test to determine his “levels”. These tests are notorious for the stress they cause in the students who are forced to take them. Racially, culturally, and economically biased, their results are questionable and do not take into account the individuality of the test taker. Adam had taken these tests every year he had been in school, and he knew what he was getting into, and most likely, what the results would say. So, he disappeared.

A few minutes passed and I asked the children where Adam was, and no one seemed to know. It was typical for the students to defend each other against the new teachers: they treated us like enemies who were out to hurt them in some way. This reaction to new people was not their fault: it was simply how they had learned to deal with the constant stream of teachers, counselors, and other adults who desired to help them when they didn’t want any help. In a moment of frustration, I happened to look into the closet and noticed that the fabric was moved, and looked almost wrapped in a cocoon. It was then I realized where Adam was.

Walking to the closet, I looked inside and saw a pile of fabric in the shape of a tall and slender boy. Crouching down, I touched him gently and said, “Adam? Why are you wrapped up in fabric?” He said, matter of factly, “I’m just in the closet”. I asked him if it was okay for me to ask him to unwrap himself and come back to his seat. He said no, again, very matter of fact. I asked again, gentler this time, if he would come back to class. Slowly, after a few moments of weighing his options, he uncurled his body, climbed out of the closet and back to his seat, laughing to himself the whole time. In his seat, he seemed to not acknowledge anything strange about his behavior. When the other teacher came to get him for his test, he refused to move, sitting in his seat, stuck as if with glue. When asked again, he became angry: cursing, he still refused to take the test. After much time and power struggles, we succeeded in getting him out of the room, after he locked the door, refusing to leave, and pushed himself against the door frame to stop the adults from being able to physically move him. Despite his slight stature, he was strong and young and absolutely determined not to have his intelligence measured by a test. Later, when we received the results, he was flippant and refused to engage with what those results meant. Again, sitting in the front row, he refused to attempt any of his assignments, and began his path to almost failing the seventh grade for the second time.

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Adam suffered from anxiety and, no doubt, felt an incredible amount of pain due to the circumstances of his life. He, often, could not see beyond his feelings to be able to see solutions that were actually fairly simple and direct. In refusing to attempt his assignments, he set himself back day by day, hour by hour. In becoming angry and potentially violent, he instilled in the adults around him a belief that this child was always going to be this way: there was no capacity for change. He had grown up in a terrible neighborhood that was enslaved by urban blight, poverty, open air drug markets, and violence. He lived in a house with no flooring, with a family that was trying their best to succeed when the deck was most certainly stacked against them.

Over time, Adam would occasionally arrive to school in a good mood and his almost constantly sarcastic laughter would give way to real laughter and enjoyment, Slowly, I could tell, he was learning something, even if hardly a pen touched paper during our ten months together. He complained that he was in the front row, and oftentimes was rude to the point of causing me to emotionally react to his behavior. Eventually, though, he grew on me and I on him, and he began to defend me against the other students who insisted on disrupting my attempts at teaching. One time even he turned to the other students and told them that “Miss is the only teacher that ever came to my house”.

I told him once that I was going to take him to Maine with me and put him on a lobster boat because that job was something that would be good for him. He needed time every day to do something kinesthetic: he needed to do things with his hands in order to bridge the gap between his anxiety and his intelligence. Adam was remarkably intelligent, funny, bright, sharp-witted, calculating and had a great capacity to learn and do almost anything. What stopped him were the negative feedback mechanisms of his own brain. When I told him about Maine, he laughed and said, “nah, Miss, I can’t leave my hood!”. I told him that he deserved a better ‘hood, and he just shook his head.

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Almost at the end of the year, when I had reached my wit’s end with the school, with Philadelphia, and with teaching science to a group of kids who had never been given a science lesson in their lives, we were learning about dinosaurs. Each day we learned about a new animal because it was a good way to pack vocabulary words into a concise and manageable space for the students. Also, one of the teachers had told one of my classes that dinosaurs didn’t exist because they were not in the Bible. I decided to fight fire with fire and teach the students about one dinosaur per day for two weeks. On this day, we were learning about Pterosaurs: flying dinosaurs. As I was teaching the names of the dinosaur to the students, and talking about its dimensions and what scientists thought its behaviors might have been, Adam raised his hand.

“Yes Adam?”, I said.

“Did you know that the military uses flying dinosaur skeletons to design drone aircraft?”

Stunned, I said, “no, Adam, I didn’t know that. How do you know that?”\

“I just like this sort of stuff”, he said, and went back to being quiet in his chair.

During that period of time, as I watched each day pass on toward the end of another school year, my seventh as a classroom teacher, every day I wanted Adam to pipe up and say something. He did, on only one day, but that one day was a huge step forward for him as a student and as a citizen of his class and school.

Anxiety and our interpretations and expressions of our past experiences can show our pain, raw and red, to the world. Sometimes we cannot understand the actions of someone with anxiety because we cannot see beyond the ends of our own noses, and because, honestly, we wish to help when sometimes no help can be heeded. In those moments, it is important to remember that we are all only existing in this one, present moment, and to look for the glints of hope amidst the darkness. Those moments of precious clarity are fleeting, and some would say insignificant. I say that in that one moment, Alex let go of his anxiety and his anger and his learning disability and his father and his past, and was a normal middle school kid who loves dinosaurs, and planes, and video games.

And I will always be thankful to him for that.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God [whatever we consider her/him to be] to open up another route for that love to travel.” 

– Corrie ten Boom

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A Man Named Granny

dan photos september 2013 231Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

The man named Granny lives in a tiny house in the woods; surrounded by the homes of his close family, he lives in relative quiet and isolation from the surrounding, larger world. Granny’s small cottage is shingled in Maine white pine, finely landscaped, and when you drive past his house at the end of the day, the sunlight shines, flip-flapping, through the tall trees that border the sound.  Whilst driving, and seeing the little houses that are the homestead of the Toogoods, I wonder how it was that this man came to be named Granny.

dan photos september 2013 230A Summer’s Afternoon in Peggy’s Cove

The real story of Granny is actually one of his mother, who also was named Granny. I have often wondered what the elder Granny’s name actually was, or if she was simply a grandmother. I have often wondered what the younger Granny’s name is, too, since I only know him as “Granny”, as the man with white hair and a strong handshake that I sometimes meet when I walk into McGrath’s for coffee in the morning.

dan photos september 2013 232Lichen growing on an old fishing house

Diane Arbus must have been describing Northeast Harbor when she wrote: “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Granny is another unique personality in our small town, our “island of misfit toys”. This is a town of women who walk down the center of Main Street with parrots on their shoulders, a town where heiresses marry the sons of construction workers, where grocery store employees drive black Cadillacs with the slogan “Touch of Class” emblazoned upon the back windshield, where people hula hoop on their way to parties, where people abandon apartments only to leave 14 desiccated cats in their freezers, where people feel their lives are in the midst of a very tiny, crowded, and misanthropic fishbowl. This is a town where one minute you can be disliked by many, and the next, defended by those same people who sought to run you down because people from away are trying to do something to shut you down. The old saying about freaks goes something like: she may be a bearded lady, a freak!, but she is our bearded lady.

dan photos september 2013 241On Deck: Lunenberg, Nova Scotia

And so it goes, life, marching on, one step in front of the other, and we all experience the orbit of our Earth around the Sun in different ways.

“We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the tattooed lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, until everybody else is tattooed, too.”

J.D. Salinger

dan photos september 2013 242dan photos september 2013 246The Most Beautiful Scallop Dragger in Nova Scotia

Today is the one year anniversary of me moving to Northeast Harbor, Maine. I came here from Philadelphia, city of 1.548 million people, after living in Austin, city of 842,592 people, for almost 12 years. Northeast Harbor, Maine, is a town of 300 people year-round. In the summer, our population swells to close to 2,000, but most of the time we move along with only 300.

dan photos september 2013 247Rust, Paint

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During this time, I have learned how it is to be one woman in a small town. I have learned how to be beholden to strangers, and how accountability in a community works. I have learned that everyone talks about everyone else, mostly because it is more fun to talk about other people than focus on yourself.

I have learned the true goodness in people, and I have learned that some people will be nasty no matter what you do to make them see the light. I have learned that every personality has a place in our small town. I have learned that people help each other, even when you don’t necessarily want them to. I have learned to take a deep breath and not take things so personally. I have learned why it is good to be a person in a place, and of a place. I have learned how to live near my family without it feeling overwhelming. I have learned to say yes, and to meet new people, and to understand that just because things aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean that you should search, constantly and without end, for an unattainable perfection, a perfection that only exists in TV shows. I have learned that everyone you meet has something to teach you. I have learned that the peaceful joy that comes with sitting near the water and listening to loon calls at night is the most powerful antithesis of the stress of my previous life. I have learned the beauty of quiet, and the kindness of people.

dan photos september 2013 229Do You Think He’s Missing His Gloves?

I have learned about trust and openness, intimacy and fears. I have learned to put one toe out into the deep waters of life, and to hold it there, trusting that goodness will return from risk. I have learned about friendship and love, and how things may not always be the way they seem at the get-go. I have learned about beauty: natural and human. I have learned about adventure and calm. I have learned about quiet time and the importance of hearing your conscience. I have learned to sit and listen on long docks that jut out into the ocean. I have learned how to be a new person in an old place. I am trying to be patient and just to see all that is happening around me. I have learned to laugh, and to try to understand everyone and everything that cross my path, but not to take any of it very seriously.

dan photos september 2013 233Sitting on a Bench

I have learned to talk to the wild birds, to grow flowers, to appreciate the wildness of this tiny island. I have learned to forage nettles, eat rosehips, and look at yellow beech leaves in late fall. I have learned what sea smoke is, and why it is important to drink coffee and look out at sailboats, to drive for hours through the Maine countryside, to have conversations with new friends where each betrays one’s individual intricacies. I have learned that it is acceptable to fundamentally change the course of one’s life, and to be a friend to those who seek the same.

I have learned, ultimately, that just because it is random, unplanned, indescribable, organic, and dynamic, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the highest form of living, the one based on a vital interest, a serious, daily investment in the course of one’s life. Are we here to have fun and to help others have more fun? Yes. Are we here to notice, engage in, and expand all the beauty that exists in our world on a daily basis? Absolutely. Are we here to feel the viscera of experience and understand that the closeness of life’s twists and turns, and the impacts of those changes on us and around us are here to help us notice that time is fleeting and like smoke: we cannot grab on to time, only watch it pass? Undoubtedly.

Here’s to a year, and here’s to where it all began.

dan photos september 2013 325On a Canadian Ferry, Early in the Morning

A Long Weekend

It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.”

– Rumi

harbor sunset

Taking time to go away is a hugely important facet of my life; I have long been a lover of travel and of the new experiences that come with it. I truly believe that without all the traveling that I have done, I would not be the person I am today. New places and new ideas, new people and new adventures all contribute to the labourious mosaic of who we are and what we are at any given time.

Tomorrow I am off to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts for a weekend of art-making with fellow Maine artists: jewelers, blacksmiths, wood carvers, fiber artists, and ceramicists. I have never had an experience like this before, and am almost bouncing with excitement. My excitement stems from the traveling aspect of going away from home for four days, meeting new people, learning new skills, but the most important source of excitement is that I really don’t know what will happen, how the next few days will pan out, and how I will feel by the end. This is the joy and beauty of taking a bag or two, or in my case a trunk full of tools, and heading off into the distance for a little while.

I have been ruminating on change a lot lately, being that I feel some fundamental changes have happened within myself, and within many people who are close to me. I have felt these changes incrementally, but didn’t necessarily notice them until confronted with the behaviors and thoughts of those who I haven’t been around in a little while. It is hard, in a place as tiny as this, to notice changes in oneself, because so much time is spent alone, or with a very small group of friends. I find that this metamorphosis, this process that is just in its beginning stages, will catapult me and whoever else is going through the same process, forward into a more present life: a life of trying to accept the past, let it go and move forward. It is hard not to blame your own feelings on the decisions or feelings or behaviors of others.

Today, during a very foggy, almost non-existent sunset, I spent some time drawing out on my deck, at my green picnic table. I haven’t drawn with pastels in years and years. In fact, I haven’t been drawing in so long I cannot remember the last time I sat down and spent time with a large piece of paper and many colors in a small box.

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Time to go away, and then experience the joy and beauty that is coming back.