PS 84 is a special place. On a winter day, the walk towards it, from the Bedford Avenue station in Brooklyn, feels energizing. Upon arrival, there is something endearing about its physical aspect - the colorful mural adorning one of its walls, the glass structure on the last floor - that conveys a feeling of joy and care. The inner space matches perfectly the initial external insinuations. Here, there is plenty of love, creativity and care for all. There are children's drawings (their tender perceptions of the city), charts with letters to the President, photographs of field trips, classrooms with signs in Spanish, order, and plenty of laughter.
Room 227 is Ms. Lorenzana's classroom. Her youthful and almost fragile appearance could have her easily mistaken for one of the students, yet the manner in which her classroom has been arranged denotes a clear and organized mind as well as skills, interest and a passion towards her craft. She has a joyous vitality, an unending interest in the children.
It is the inner sanctum she has created. Her nest for the little ones.
Safe space, brave space, a space to Be, to dream, to consider possibilities, to wish and confirm the fact of periodic growth and possible achievements.
Teaching Artists are most fortunate to arrive to spaces such as these, when the children have already been positively predisposed by their surroundings. When they are trusting, comfortable, confident, and willing to receive.
All around, there are charts about reading, stating the importance of context, choice, strategies, writing workshops: "Organize, draft, revise, edit, publish", she has written, the first small crumbs in this Hansel and Gretel saga of learning and growing, the first notes to the unending song of life, which - well imparted - will stay with the children forever.
The children enter the classroom as they are greeted by the two Teaching Artists: Mr. Felipe Galindo (Visual Arts) and Ms. Phyllis Capello (Poetry). The children sit on the carpet and start the class with their ritual: a Maori mantra which sets the tone for the next hour:
"The Breath of Life, the Spirit of Life, the Word of Life, goes out to You and You, and You: Always the Word..." says Ms. Capello
I observe the children while they recite it, they know there is something precious therein, something in this playfulness that connects them to the All, something that centers them within.
Maya Angelou's poem Africa is the central kernel of this lesson, the seed from which new poems and drawings will be born.
Thus she has lain
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears
Thus she has lain
Black through the years
Though invisible, Maya smiles at the sound of her words rekindled, the notion of death defied, by the voices of children. She, who lived a plethora of lives in one, who never ceased to listen, never stopped learning. One of her greatest pleasures - she said - was to share with the young, well aware of the responsibility of impressing notions upon a young mind, upon a tender heart.
Ms. Capello and Mr. Felipe go to and fro in their dance of metaphors and simile with the children, their interaction is easy, fraternally warm, and desks are organized in groups of four to allow the continuation of the work in progress, to allow them to grasp a concept, translate it into signifiers, words, that make sense, that convey meaning. Some take immediately to the task, little saplings with pencils, fearless and present. Others are pensive, momentarily refrain from writing, look for the words in the air. Still others sharpen their pencils several times looking for a way to stretch, arm wrestle, giggle, see if the metaphor appears on the trip back from the bathroom.
"My friend is my sun
my friend makes me a boss"
"A boss?" I ask
"Yeah, like a champion!" he responds.
"A child asleep, is a quiet flower..." writes Lola.
"My eyes are a pond..."
"My heart is like a flower, bumping across the lake"
Ms. Capello and Mr. Felipe are sweet and amicable in their leadership, they nudge the children as do all "parents" of the animal kingdoms their cubs, encouraging them to take that step, that leap, not fear the altitude, the icy water, prepare them for the joys that await them, beyond fear.
"My cat is a bandit
its fur is an ocean
of orange, her eyes
are flash lights
her heart is an eagle"
There are children in this room that feel in a different language, having learned about Love, lullabies, jokes, food, in warmer climates, family gatherings, joy, songs, dance and prayers that have been lived in different rhythms, yet today, they find comfort in having someone who shares their codes.
Away from all the familiar places and faces, all that once provided them with a sense of belonging and identity, they readjust, as a river's course, to this new landscape, this Brooklyn, this classroom that is now home:
Verde como la grama
huele a flores
Sonidos brum brum
como un motor
Si yo fuera Presidente
le daria comida
a toda la gente
green as the grass
has the scent of flowers
Sounds of brum brum
like a motor
If I were the President
I would feed
The paper plates are distributed. In the children's tiny hands, they seem new colorful planets, tender poems to a future Self, illustrated letters to the world, the creative web that has been woven envelopes us all, warm and light, a soft hopeful embrace.
The ritual is practiced once again, this time in silence, only the gestures, the tacit content felt.
On the wintery streets, I still can here the voices in my mind, remember the gestures, the flash of spirit in the eyes of a child that has found something new and the satisfaction of a teacher knowing valuable communication has taken place.
How will our Art, then, be of service, what will we plant, what are we to share, that will sustain and vivify and propel the children, towards their Truest and Finest version of themselves?
"Si yo fuera Presidente, le daria comida a toda la gente..."
"If I were the President, I would feed everyone..."
Wisdom, from the mouth of babes.