My last post did finish abruptly. I have been occupied for the past few days and unable to write. I’ll try now.
On that Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2016, I was there with a group of moms and dads from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It was bitterly cold as I watched people line up for the 2-mile march from one prominent church on one end of the avenue to the other end. Many groups were represented from all over the city. I was impressed to see that there were hundreds of people there, including the elected representatives, lots of clubs and churches, and organizations like ours.
But my feet were freezing. I couldn’t wait any longer until my feet cracked into pieces and fell off. So I started walking down the line. At one point I noticed that some people were carrying signs for something called Heal the Land, which appeared to be an effort to stop the plague of violence in the black community. About 10 men were standing by each other, holding bandannas that had been knotted together, and posing for a photographer. I whipped out my camera, too, even though I didn’t really know what was going on. So I stood next to a man with a nice face who was watching the scene. After saying hello, I asked him to explain what was going on, and he told me. He described the hopelessness that is afflicting the neighborhoods in the inner city in the face of violence and gang action that they just can’t seem to stop. We both were well aware of the death of a 15-year-old boy, a football star, who had died just weeks previously trying to shield two friends from random gang gunfire. We had no way to know that just a few weeks in the future, that young man’s cousin, a 12-year-old with the face of an angel, would also die from gang violence while sitting in his father’s car. Some punk just opened fire and took out that child’s life. No one turned in the shooter. The community is being terrorized.
Standing there, I felt I had nothing to give, but I wanted to help. There has been such pain in that community. I have no gifts of organization or movement-making. I’m not an important person. I can’t move others to action. But I said to him–his name was Victor Emmanuel King, which I thought was a name a mother would give to someone she expected to become a monarch or a saint–that I could tutor children, if anyone in his church wanted that.
To my surprise, he said, yes, some children in his church could use tutoring. I said, “You’ll hear from me this week” after I found out where his church was and took down his phone number. It was actually two weeks later that I showed up at his church at a time when I thought he might still be there but the service would have concluded.
I was wrong. It went on for another 30 minutes at least. It is a small church, Edgewood Chapel AME Zion Church. There were perhaps 20-30 congregants in the scrupulously neat and clean little cinderblock building. I lurked at a side door until, as he was praying with the people, he glanced to the side and saw me. He gestured me in and I sat down as invisibly as I could in the nearest pew. But he remembered my name from two weeks before and called it out, introducing me to the congregation, who looked at me curiously.
After the service, Victor introduced me to his lovely and elegant wife, Stephanie, who greeted me warmly and made me feel very welcome. We decided that I would come next Tuesday and meet with whatever children he had there for me to tutor.
What happened in the next few weeks had the sense of some holy kind of flow. I put the need for tutors out on Facebook, and the younger sister of one of my oldest friends saw it, and immediately volunteered her son, who was a freshman at UT. He became a real stalwart in the next few weeks, as did a young woman who had a real gift with of reaching the kids firmly and with patience. The Peace Corps volunteer recruiter at UT became interested and sent over tutor after tutor. Within weeks we were having 6-10 tutors and 7-11 children ages 5 to 16. A young man from the neighborhood showed up with his tutorial student and amazed me with his sheer talent at teaching and tutoring. Unfortunately I had to have an operation in March and things flagged a little after that, but I am hopeful they will pick up again.
It’s summer now and we are way down in population–the student tutors are away at home and the children need enrichment rather than homework help. I have adult tutors who are waiting in the wings to begin in June, but I need to build up the population of students again.
We’re doing themed Tuesdays this summer–last Tuesday we built a little garden box and tomorrow we will fill it with dirt and plant some late vegetables as well as some flowers. Next week, I think we’ll look at maps and the world. After that, maybe electricity. After that, the story of how we all got to North America. The summer waits to see what will follow.
I’ve learned a lot about the children, and the neighborhood, and the community. I’ve learned a lot about my own limitations–I am not really a very good teacher of small children, I think, too disorganized. But I’m trying to learn.
I find that people are standing there ready to help, too. Enas, a woman from Baghdad, Iraq, has been so faithful. She loves it that she can come to this Christian church in East Knoxville and the children don’t judge her for her head-covering. She works with them so patiently, and she is doing an invaluable service that lights her life in this foreign land while her husband is in grad-school classes. My friend Brian, who has no children, is working with equally quiet, equally bright little Ezra on math. Alexus, a college student, is a genius with the most difficult of the children, a big pre-schooler. I’m hoping for my first recruit, Cullen, to come back when he’s able. A woman who is a genius and lifelong elementary school teacher, and coincidentally my older brother’s long-ago girlfriend, is supplying me with scads of materials from the local elementary school. People have contributed over $600 through a Go Fund Me site, which makes it easy for me to go out tomorrow and buy a couple of tomato plants and a flower plant or two.
And, person by person, I am meeting people in this community and feeling, somehow, that something that was empty in me is beginning to fill.