“YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” Harsh words bounce off the walls of the small basement room and tremble the air. Her weathered face twisted in anger, the middle-aged woman clutching a tangle of clothes to her body, plaids and stripes dangling around her legs, shouts again at the smaller, quieter woman across the room. “YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” We volunteers shrink in our chairs.
Sandy, the clothing center’s young director, moves quickly to the center of the fray, soothing that the phone had not been stolen.
“YES, SHE STOLE IT! I HAD IT RIGHT HERE AND NOW IT’S GONE! IT’S IMPORTANT! IT HAS ALL MY NUMBERS IN IT!”
Sandy starts the classic back track for missing objects, “Where did you have it last?” Ten minutes later the lost is found in the ladies room where the client had gone to try on clothes.
“I apologize for yelling at you,” the client says to the victim of her earlier rage. “It was my fault, I left it there.” She then calmly turns away to resume the business of selecting clothes.
As tension seeped out of the clothing center, I wondered about this woman’s emotional volatility; bursting into the fire of rage, then subsiding quickly. Before the blaze of temper, and after, she functioned reasonably. She was not mentally disturbed. As was true of all of our clients, she had been referred by a social service agency that would have filtered out someone who could not make effective use of our services. The disturbed would be helped another way.
I imagined this woman’s conditions of life made theft expectable – sleeping fitfully on a ragged piece of cardboard on street or subway grate, all her possessions nearby, only loosely guarded as she dozed; in a shelter with security for only what could fit in a 12” x 12” locker; sharing a subsidized apartment with several equally needy strangers. Days of scratchy anxiety, always tensed against the world.
I live in a largely accepting and benign world. No one snitches my toothpaste from the medicine chest or my purse from its spot on the floor of the hall closet. Aside from an occasional wailing ambulance or amped-up motorcycle roaring away, the street outside my bedroom window is quiet and my building is secure, both conducive to sound sleep. I don’t look over my shoulder for sign of threats as I go about my daily tasks.
It was the urge to work again with people whose lives were different from my own, to have my life touch theirs no matter how superficially, and perhaps to help a bit, that had led me to the clothing center. I had discovered earlier that there was much to learn about other ways of living simply by feeling the stretch of my own boundaries to meet theirs. It was an empathic stretch; an attempt to touch the other’s life emotionally, making our work together effective and alive. I had encountered this when teaching high school in suburban Baltimore, and in the Peace Corps. Each time, I felt pulled by the distance my mind and, more importantly, my soul had to travel to comprehend the lives that touched mine.
In Baltimore in the mid-1960’s I lived in ill-fitting jeans, black sweaters, and sandals; explored rural Maryland from the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle; and sat cross-legged on raggedly carpeted apartment floors or in dim jazz joints smoking hash with Peter and his friends. They were philosophy graduate students, darkly unshaven, ink on their fingers. We spent intoxicating hours arguing about the war in Vietnam, the arbitrariness of bourgeois conventions, the dignity of the oppressed.
Early Monday mornings I twisted my long, heavy blonde hair onto the top of my head, slipped on a slender suit, stockings, and civilized shoes, and drove my rattly, used Renault out the highway from downtown Baltimore to suburban Belt High School. Drivers on that route hurtled to work mindlessly; I was in a zombie chute from passionate political critique to middle class cultural reproduction.
My classroom smelled of disinfectant, chalk, and musky teenage sweat that seemed never to fade. At the bell my first class tumbled into the room, boys jousting, girls giggling with each other and snapping gum. Furniture rattled and scraped until all of the bodies settled, their energy temporarily dissipated. The day’s lesson could begin. Barely older than my students, having been trained as a philosopher, I was somewhat shaky on the American Literature I was to teach beyond the obvious Hawthorne, Melville, and Hemingway and, as a first-year teacher, had only a faint grasp of whatever passed for technique in those days.
In the ‘tracked’ classrooms of the time students were sorted into the college bound, average, and non-college-bound. For some of the college-bound students, as for me, ideas were alive. What was Hemingway doing in The Old Man and the Sea? These students were kindred spirits. Those who didn’t enjoy the play of ideas could be counted on to follow directions and do their best, working for a good grade. No empathic stretch needed here. They were me, just five years younger.
Students in the other two classes were more problematic. Some were more socially sophisticated than the teenaged me had ever been. Costumed in their parents’ achievements, they had better cars, better clothes and an air of entitlement far beyond what I had been able to achieve as a high school student. While intellectually I understood this as America’s class system at work, emotionally, they felt much better at the game of middle class success than I would ever be. As a teacher, I was too young and still too close to their age to use all the terrible things we remember about adolescence – – fear of not being with the right crowd, of not being asked to the football game, of not wearing the right clothes, that the zits would never clear up – – to find common ground and reach them. I was overwhelmed by my empathy rather than able to use it to teach them.
There were also the unruly, who viewed school as a waste of time, shoving large bodies against classroom furniture with a scrape, tossing spit balls around the room, preening grease-glued ducktails, refreshing makeup at odd moments, maintaining a ongoing banter of street talk at the back of the room. Tough girls spoke more roughly than I had heard before. This group could be counted on to need pencils, to have forgotten their textbooks, to have not done their homework, to need to go to the bathroom more often than was likely and in suspicious clusters. I found them totally unapproachable.
Teaching required me to deal with students who were not like me, and with whom I had not felt comfortable when I was in school. I needed to stretch myself through my discomfort and find a way to make the literature reach them. I was not successful. I had not grown enough past the emotional turmoil of my own high school years to make the stretch toward students different from me, and didn’t know that I should.
On my way to work every day in Isfahan, Iran I encountered loaded camels lumbering down the street, slobbering half-chewed hay and off-loading clumps of steamy, pungent dung as they went; men bent over the joob (a small irrigation stream running along major streets), washing their mouths, blowing their noses, and spitting into the water and, a block further, merchants throwing buckets of the same water onto their vegetable displays to keep them looking fresh; black-wrapped women scuttling down the shady side of the street, dry heat rippling around them. All fused together in oppressive heat and dust.
My husband, Peter, and I taught English to university students; largely mature family men – elementary school teachers who sought bachelor’s degrees in order to obtain better-paying high school jobs. The university building was of misguided modern construction – heat-radiating steel frame and concrete block rather than traditional cool, thick stone and beautiful tile. The mandated literature curriculum was bizarrely inappropriate, consisting largely of reading Lorna Doone, an English romance novel written in 1869 about a farmer who falls in love with the “queen” of the notorious Doone clan –a family he has sworn vengeance on.
Every day, middle-aged men in cheap dark suits and scuffed black shoes, heels crushed down to make sandals, bent over their books in the heat, earnestly struggling to decode Victorian expressions of romantic love and respond in halting English to comprehension questions about Lorna and her family. We didn’t see much connection between our students’ lives and the literature we assigned, and not much way to reach through their embarrassment and awkwardness in English to find the people underneath who might genuinely respond to the literature.
Under such circumstances, conversation class might have been more productive. But our students refused to discuss topics beyond the trite, like the weather or directions from here to there, declaring any other topics political. Did you enjoy the holiday? “Not to talk. Political,” accompanied by shaking heads and abrupt hand gestures. Have you seen a good movie recently? “Political!” Will your daughter get married this summer? “Political!” At least one of their classmates was a SAVAK informer, they swore. They didn’t know who. Anything they said that could be interpreted as controversial would be entered into the Shah’s dossier on them and their families. Apparently conversation with us could be dangerous.
Given this stilted state of affairs, opportunities for our lives to touch theirs, to ground our teaching in something real, had to occur outside of the university. We were learning about their domestic lives from our experiences with friendly neighbors, but how to learn about their hopes for the future and understand their concern about, and the likely reality of, the SAVAK informers? We took advantage of the Iranian pastime of weekend picnics in the countryside to invite a few students for picnics on a nearby mountainside. Jagged and red against a deep blue sky, and bare of vegetation, Kuh-e-Soffeh commanded views in all directions. The mountain seemed likely to be free of spies. Nonetheless our students peered around the rocks near our picnic spot to assure there were no lurkers.
Peter and I struggled with our elementary Farsi, which worked well enough in bargaining for rice, vegetables and chunks of lamb, but not so well in asking our students about the political and social realities of their lives. We struggled to understand their answers. Stripped of the romance of an exotic culture and the charm of ancient customs, their answers were shocking. It was in Iran that my life first touched those whose prospects were threatened by political constraint and fear of punishment. The stakes were high for missteps – all of our students knew people who had been snatched off the street, gone forever. Perhaps tortured or executed. Our students’ caution in conversation class was completely reasonable.
It was difficult to comprehend lives so utterly different from ours and painful to accept that people we cared about faced the circumstances they described. Further, their worldviews were embedded in tribal traditions and beliefs, and largely bereft of modern ideas and practices. While Lorna Doone’s language would remain bizarre, her story of romantic love between girl and boy of warring clans began to seem both relevant to those with tribal roots and classic. And the effort we made to understand them brought our students closer. Between us, non-political conversation in the classroom could be crafted.
While teaching American adolescents and Iranian men had its satisfactions, after working in the field, so to speak, for a number of years, I began to think I could have more impact if I climbed the proverbial hierarchical ladder. Working directly with students, one classroom at a time, seemed inefficient. Surely I could affect more students if I were a school administrator charged with implementing new curricula school-wide, or training teachers in new methods. Later, I thought I could affect even more students if I conducted research on how they learned which could, in turn, affect educational practice on a broad scale. But eventually the purported link between research, policy, and student learning began to seem more tenuous than when I started. Each wobbly layer of implementation, from top to bottom, contributed its own interpretations and accommodations. I often sat in rooms with national policy-makers in the field of mathematics education who agreed that they had solved this problem, or that one, by making strategic sets of grants or new policies in those areas. What should they take up next? I heard Swiss mountaineers yodeling to each other from mountaintop to mountaintop while, in the valleys below, the trains chugged along much as usual.
Forty years later, retired and looking for worthwhile use of the gift of time, I realized how far I had drifted from the intellectually and personally challenging work of providing direct service to someone. It had been a long time since I had worked with people whose lives were different from mine and had to take them in on their own terms, stretching my boundaries to meet them, if I were to be of help.
In retirement, with the yearning to touch people directly again, I might have chosen to tutor students in mathematics or teach English to recent immigrants but, wanting a change from education, thought to volunteer at the materials assistance program associated with my Quaker meeting. At this time of life I didn’t want total emersion; my perch at the clothing center would be sufficient – a few hours a week, in a familiar place.
Clients arrive at the clothing center referred by a social service agency like Rosie’s Place or the Pine Street Inn. Referral forms gesture toward the shape of their lives:
This client arrived in the Boston area [in November] without any furniture, household goods, clothing, or items for her children such as clothes, car seat, stroller, blankets, toys. She is hoping to receive assistance from your organization.
This client is just starting to rebuild her life after experiencing a prolonged period of difficulty. She needs glasses, bowls, utensils, bedding, shirts, pants, and toiletries.
This client needs warm clothing and boots.
One can only imagine that “prolonged period of difficulty.”
The center is located in the basement of the Meeting House of Friends Meeting in Cambridge, MA. One’s initial impression is of high clutter – a herd of laundry trucks overloaded with black plastic bags bulging with clothing, jostling in a corner; large plastic bins stuffed with jumbled, colorful goods, haphazardly labeled and shoved onto metal shelves climbing to the ceiling; four-foot high stacks of clothes on work tables, pant legs and sleeves akimbo, resembling a pile of dancers. These are the staging areas. The rest of the room is neatly set up like a small clothing store – a dozen or so long metal racks stretch across the room, on which hang shirts, pants, dresses, jackets, and coats, all behaving normally, separated by white plastic size-dividers, (S, M, L). Edging the main event other items are on display – shoes parade on metal racks; belts, purses and ties dangle from hooks on rotating stands; underwear, socks, mittens, hats cluster cozily in bins; and a few house wares straggle their way across a set of shelves. All items are free. Many clients spend upwards of two hours selecting their clothes and relaxing on the cushy sofa with cookies and hot coffee. It’s a place to “settle themselves,” in winter warming chilled bones.
A constant stream of donations from local residents pours in as closets are periodically sorted or households downsized. The hidden recesses of closets may contain beloved, but worn or stained jackets, pants, sportswear. Volunteers inspect every donation; only clothes and house wares that are clean and in good repair – as we, ourselves, might use them – are accepted. Just because clients are poor does not mean that they must suffer the additional indignity of shabby clothing that shouts, “castoff.” Good clothes can become the love and pride of their next owner. Last week Sandy was greeted on the street by a good-looking and confident woman she didn’t recognize, who turned out to be wearing a well-cut grey suit from the center and reemployed as an accountant, though she still lived in a shelter.
My picture of the lives of those we serve fills in gradually. Their things teach me. One day I encountered 60 yoga mats, piled like logs fencing in the jostling laundry trucks, donated by a yoga instructor upgrading her studio. Yoga mats? Evidently they are much better than cardboard for sleeping on the street – they provide a bit of cushioning, can be rolled up and easily carried around during the day, they keep one’s sleeping bag from freezing to the sidewalk in the winter. Clients regularly tuck one into their bags as they leave, taking another for a friend.
Nearly half of our clients have cell phones provided by Lifeline, a federal program colloquially known as “Obamaphone.” These phones come supplied with 400 minutes of phone time monthly and unlimited texting. Our clients circle through the city each day searching for a hot meal, but any food will do; crouching on the sidewalk, back resting against a wind-protecting wall; settling down in a warm sunny spot to talk with friends; looking for a place to sleep that night. But they are not out of touch. They can be reached by family, friends, social service agencies dispersing benefits – referrals to our clothing center, shelters with an open space for the night, agencies that manage the movement from one form of housing to another or know of possible jobs. Clients can store in the phone all official identification numbers – case numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers of social service agencies. No wonder the possibility that hers had been stolen prompted our client to shriek.
I, too, have a cell phone but it stores very different data. Like theirs, it has the numbers of personal friends and family, but also the collection of folks who help me manage my life – the plumber, the electrician, the roofer, the cleaning service, financial advisor, lawyer, auto insurance company, doctors. I also have a landline, a U.S. mailbox, and an internet address. For one who has long been tethered to a landline phone, it is cool to talk to friends or conduct business from anywhere. For those without a home, it’s a necessity.
Cell phones, yoga mats, subway grates – all function very differently in our clients’ lives than in mine. Comprehending those differences forms the beginning of an empathic stretch toward their lives and the understanding of what might feel to them like friendship and help.
© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson