Right Next Door
Some first impressions of Rochester NY, my new home.
Home to Xerox and Kodak, Rochester used to be called Smugtown, USA, due to the wealth brought by industry and the complacency of its bourgeoise residents. But Kodak was outpaced by the digital camera, the wealthy fled to the suburbs, and the paint is peeling off all those haughty Victorian mansions. Now, hordes of cheerful black children clamber over those big porches, and play in gardens of weeds and broken toys. All the convenience stores are protected by metal grills, and they tell you not to ride your bike through certain neighbourhoods.
I live in the Ant Hill Cooperative, started by a Berkeley student who came to Rochester for grad school and missed his hippie home. We have thirteen people and two houses worth of rooms, and we have dinner together every night. Interesting people wander at random through our living room, sporting lip rings or complaining about their jobs hauling bags of horse feed. Our friend, Farmer/Baker Luke, will occasionally stomp through the living room, slam a gift of whole wheat bread or green tomatoes down on the table, then stomp out again. He is a man of few words and many vegetables. Once I was enthusiastic about his grapes,and the next day he brought me enough bunches to start my own winery.
This is the perfect place to do Americorps because the struggle between good and evil is very vivid here. There are forty-five of us, working in charities all over town. The placement process was interesting because we were supposed to visit and research our potential workplaces. I biked around in the rain all over the gray city. Everything looked bleak and foreboding. But when I stepped into each charity, it was like an island of light and warmth and color. Smiles on people’s faces, or children’s drawings on the walls. Idealism was in the air.
The most shocking experience was visiting Teen Court. Teen Court takes place in the actual Hall of Justice courtrooms, but teenagers are sentenced by their peers to hours of community service and apology letters. It was started by a judge who was tired of sending kids to jail, so he thought up this alternative. The wood paneled walls were high, the auditorium seats were filled up with black and latino teenagers who were supposed to learn from the experience. Practically the only white faces belonged to me, the police officer, and the judge. Something is wrong with this picture, I thought.
The defendants were clearly terrified by all the pomp and circumstance. Tears streamed down the face of the girl as she sat there in the high seat, being questioned about her crimes. She spoke in Spanish, not knowing enough English to defend herself. Her murmur was barely audible, and her translator, stooping over to hear her better, was scarcely any louder himself. The matter concerned a fight at school, a teacher who had been injured trying to break it up. The judge informed her sternly that she was very lucky not to go to jail.
Fights were very rare in the schools I attended, growing up. Punishments were handled through parents and teachers, without resorting to the law. The role of our school policemen (on the rare occasions when he was present) was mostly to give us corny advice about not doing drugs. It’s hard to imagine a teacher being injured by a student in Ames, Iowa. But if that had happened, I can only imagine meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Letters to the editor. Perhaps enrolling the student in therapy. Not this. Not the beautiful Spanish-speaking girl speaking in a barely audible murmur with the tears shining on her face. Trapped. In a much scarier world than my own.
I don’t want to intrude on any one’s privacy by going into the gory details. I will simply say that if I had been in that girl’s situation, I would have behaved exactly the same way. The school was not a safe environment. She was going to the defense of someone she loved, and in her battle rage, she lashed out at the teacher who was trying to restrain her.
Why are some children given everything and others given nothing? Poverty, injustice, and violence are supposed to happen in other countries, aren’t they? No. The third world isn’t far away. It’s right next door, but we hold our nose and shut our eyes.