There was no way around it. My daughter had been accepted into a unique language immersion school and my office was on the other side of the city. Between the two points lay the vast and dangerous wasteland, the neighborhood known as Chicago’s “West Side.” The only reasonable route between dropping my child off at school and getting to work involved driving through the ghetto twice a day.
The first six months my commute was done with great trepidation. I could feel the fear in my body and arrived home exhausted from the stress of heightened vigilance. I was always ready to speed through an intersection to avoid being approached by gangs and I kept the windows rolled up to avoid purse-snatchers. I knew better than to take a side street or stop for gas. I was driving through a war zone.
Eventually I relaxed when nothing happened, but it took a long time before I noticed what was really there to see: kids going to school, people waiting at bus stops, mothers shopping, people moving about doing the sorts of things we all do in life. “Where are all the street gangs?” I wonder, “Where is all the violence?”
That’s when I realized where most of it was: on television.
I cried in my car when it dawned on me how I’d been spoon fed a nightly dose of terror in the name of keeping me informed. The people of the West Side had been demonized and I’d been manipulated. Worse yet, the people presenting the “news” probably didn’t even know the damage they were inflicting on us.
I know there probably are gangs and violence on the West Side, but truthfully I think that the news exploits this fact for their own purposes. It causes huge damage, generating horrible visions that make it difficult to see each other as humans.
After driving through the West Side for many weeks I began to notice something: on Friday nights the air was full of wood smoke. “Why?” I wondered.” I knew it smelled divinely, pungently, deliciously hickory-scented, but where was the smoke coming from mile after mile? Everywhere, I discovered. On Friday night storefront barbeques materialized all up and down Chicago Avenue and Division St. and if you’re lucky, you get to feast on tangy ribs. It is a different world on Friday nights. By Monday they had vanished.
One day while doing the zombie forced march of my daily commute, I happened to be staring at a brick industrial building I’d passed twice a day for months. It was so ordinary it was nearly invisible to me. But for some reason, that particular day, I noticed that the unimposing sign in front announced that it was the West Side Preparatory School.
I was dumbfounded. Could this be the famous Mecca of education run by the legendary Marva Collins, someone who is revered for her teaching methods? I couldn’t believe it. I immediately pulled over, parked my car and headed to the doorway. I was greeted by the most amazing being: a completely articulate, self-confident seven-year-old. She introduced herself and helped arrange for me to visit a classroom. This wasn’t some job she had been assigned. She was just on her way to her next class to discuss Plato’s Republic and had intercepted me in transit. I was in the presence of a conscious, fully aware child unlike any seven-year-old I’d ever met and the school was full of them.
What happened in that classroom visit during my spontaneous drop-by deserves it’s own essay, it’s own book, it’s own encyclopedia. The experience of being there for a mere two hours, sitting at a tiny desk along with the other children and seeing what is possible for education (and how it contrasted so sharply with my own education), utterly changed my life. And because the teachers there demonstrated so powerfully how education should be, it made me a better mother and changed my daughter’s life as well.
There is a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago where decent, hardworking, intelligent people live rich, complex lives full of surprises.
For myself, I turned off my television permanently and opened a book.
©2009, Monica Rix Paxson
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