Once upon a time, one cold winter when I was 14, I moved from Ashland, Oregon where I lived with my mother, to Buffalo to be near my father. Over the course of the previous year, my father had unexpectedly left Northern California and moved in with his parents in Buffalo. While there, he met a redheaded woman with three young redheaded children, married her and moved to the West Side. I went from spending all my school vacations with him in California to not seeing him for more than a year. I lapsed into a depression, became inconsolable, stopped attending school regularly, and begged my mother to let me move to Buffalo to be with him. She finally relented.
My Fairy Grandmother
My intention was to live with my grandparents in South Buffalo, attend a Catholic high school with my aunt who was only three years older than me, and see my dad on the weekends. I assumed he would most certainly ditch his new family to be with me. But, before I arrived, my grandmother met with my errant father at a local diner and revamped my plans – bibbidi bobbidi boo. I would live with him during the week and attend PS 204 Lafayette High School. I could visit her on the weekends. I later learned that her intent was to summon a monsoon level of reality that would obliterate my quixotic ideas forever and return me to where she considered I belonged: with my mother.
When I landed at the Buffalo airport, my father, not my grandfather, met me. Instead of the largesse and familiarity of my grandparents’ home overflowing with uncles and aunts and grands and greats to greet me, I went straight to the apartment of my father’s new family.
When I tell you that my stepmother was wicked, you must, of course, identify me as an unreliable narrator. She would never cast herself as wicked, just as I would never cast myself as the overindulged, spoiled, headstrong teen that she experienced, however much we might adapt to the roles in the ensuing drama. She would say that she treated me as an honored guest and that I received privileges from my father that she and her children did not. For instance, I was allowed the bounty of a never-ending supply of expensive peanut butter. Her kids had to wait for dinner. I had no hearth to sweep nor ashes to sully my clothing, but what child wants to be a guest (however plentiful the peanut butter) in their father’s home?
On my first day of school, she walked me down Lafayette Avenue, across Grant Street to my new school. The gravitas of the building came into view – balustraded balconeys, cartouches, medina sandstone. I recoiled. She joked that they may or may not release me from the tower at the end of the day. She left me alone at the spiked iron fence.
Outside a set of massive doors, throngs of kids sprawled down the path, out the gate and along the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open. As I walked along the fence line, I spotted my cousin Sammy at the doors. I had a vague memory that he didn’t like to be called Sammy anymore and had adopted a more adult sounding nickname which I couldn’t remember. While all the other kids faced the school, Sammy and his friends faced the crowd. From that vantage point, he gave the impression that we were his audience. He held court.
This was the first time I had seen him since we had become teens. Sammy was smart, lean, funny, charismatic and the second of four handsome brothers. I suddenly felt ill suited. I looked the hick – my waffle-knit long underwear, flannel shirt, jeans and sneakers, wet and dirty from the slushy sidewalk. I had planned to share my aunt’s wardrobe and accessories at my grandmother’s house. I was without my teenage accoutrements – make-up, blow dryer and curling iron. My insecurities dragged me to the back of the line.
We entered the cavernous building. I heard the heavy clang of a deadbolt, I didn’t spot Sammy again, not in classes, nor in the cafeteria, located in the basement and oh so dungeon-like.
On my first day, and from that day forward, two girls with matching dickie trousers, clogs, and woolen Icelandic sweaters took pity on me and we ate lunch together.
Does this sound like hyperbole?
Let me tell you about the junior high I attended in the small town of Ashland, Oregon. Rolling green hills surrounded the school. In good weather, we sat on grassy slopes and ate our lunches. The cafeteria had a small stage where once an actor who played an Oompa Loompa in the movie Willy Wonka entertained during lunch. The only time I was aware of locked doors, was after school, when we had all gone home. The next year I attended a high school which had its own theater complete with green room, costume and prop department. The ski club boasted its own mountain, the English Department its own library, the photography department its own dark room. During detention (which I frequented because I had stopped showing up to school on time or at all), the guidance counselor patiently listened to my tales of woe and used his best arguments to try to get me more involved in school.
In the evenings, my father’s new family settled into their routines and I was left to my own devices. After dinner, I would do as I did in Ashland and take a walk. Invariably, I ended up on Grant Street.
This was the era of the Deinstitutionalization Movement—the name given to the policy of moving severely mentally ill people out of large state institutions, such as the State Asylum, now the Richardson Olmsted Complex, without providing adequate post institutional care. Homelessness and incarceration rates rose and the West Side became a sideshow of despair and inhumanity. People lived out of shopping carts, huddled in the corner of store fronts, ravaged by the cold. I bought a candy bar at Wilson Farms, returned to my dad’s apartment, and then to the mattress on the floor where I slept. In the bed next to me, my step sister slept under a white quilt dotted with blue sketches of rustic cabins. I had the same quilt at home. I cried into my pillow and wished for this self-imposed exile to end. I thought about elbowing my way up the stairs to the front door of Lafayette High School to join my cousin and take my rightful place with Lafayette royalty.
Did I ever make it to the top of the stairs? Did I ever meet up with my cousin? Did I ever resolve my issues with my stepmother? Did I ever find my place in my father’s new family? Did anything untoward happen to me on my nightly walks down Grant St.?
I was a middle class, white girl with access to a plane ticket. I did my three months—the sentence I had prescribed for myself. Then, I got home in time for the nice guidance counselor to get me a late audition for the starring role in the 9th grade production of a comedic murder mystery. I never looked back, except the part where I had to give up my relationship with my father.
The landscape of fairy tales is littered with absent or ineffectual fathers. And while many little girls long for the fairy tale adventure, I did not. My father loved me, but in that intervening year or so between when he left California and when I arrived in Buffalo, my place had been usurped. The only role left to me was that of interloper, beloved, but a trespasser nonetheless. Many years later, we have a wonderful relationship filled with forgiveness, understanding and affection. That redemption is a whole other story and thankfully, un-fairy tale-like.
Three times a week, I drive past Lafayette High School to take my youngest son to a private preschool. The kids kicking down Lafayette Avenue are an international throng and yet they remind me of who I was then – the new girl. They wear the garb of their homeland just as I wore my flannel and waffle-knit long johns. I wonder about their experiences at the high school. Has this new place fallen short of the promise? Do they ache to return home? Or do they feel safer here? Did they reunite with family members? Are they getting an adequate education?
New legislation is being passed around the country that would allow families to take the money allotted to their child from the public schools and use it for a private education, essentially defunding our public schools.
Yes, this may work for some families, but what about the others? What about the families who do not have the additional resources to find other schools or transport their children or navigate this new system? What will happen to our free public education? Will the next Deinstitutionalization Movement empty our public schools? Will we witness Lafayette High School pour out onto Grant Street?
When I see the kids in this neighborhood, I am fully cognizant that I lived in a world of educational privilege. Even in this short chapter of my life, I had three possible schools I could attend. The real reason I never elbowed my way to the top of those stairs to join my cousin was that I didn’t want to belong. I enjoyed better options and the luxury to wallow in my insecurity and doubt.
The true power of privilege lies in extending, not just taking. Public schools, like mine in Ashland, partake of resources that inner city schools can only dream of. Not every school can have a mountain at its disposal, but what about the theater and the dark room and art supplies and music classes. Why aren’t we figuring out how to give everyone that level of opportunity?
To repeat what Dave Eggers, author, education advocate, and recent visitor to the Babel stage and Lafayette High School said: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”