Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Paper Ballot

So I went to vote. I had a last minute panic when I reached for my wallet. Did I change my address on my New York State I.D.? Whew! I was safe. My new address was on the card. Were there any questions to respond to? Why hadn’t I gotten any voter information in the mail? In my old neighborhood you would have seen lots of Election Day activity. There would be volunteers passing out leaflets right up to the point where signs say no campaigning beyond this point. Was I going to be disappointed again?

The voting site was in the Senior Citizens Center on Halsey Street. It’s around the corner from where we live. My husband and I walked over. I strolled in feeling proud and smart wearing my “HATE stole her CHOICE” t-shirt. We are directed to the table for our district. Two women, each with a role book, greet us. We present our identification. I am so proud I remembered to change my address. One woman thinks my name is too long, and that it won’t be in the book. I trust it will. She reminds me of my great-grandmother’s best friend. Her hair is styled in a 1940’s pageboy, finger waves and all. She has a gold crown on one tooth. She can’t find my name.

The woman beside her looks for it. They find my husband’s name. He makes a joke about woman’s suffrage. I nudge his shoulder, wishing he would be quiet. All the poll workers are women. The second woman can’t find my name. I’m thinking, perhaps I’ll have to get in the car and drive to Harlem. My husband goes into the booth to vote. As soon as he comes out we’re going uptown. The woman at the table with the hair like Veronica Lake asks me if I want a paper ballot. I haven’t considered that. I take it. The women point out a table on the other side of the room. They tell me to use the standing cardboard to cover my ballot with it. “So no one will see,” they tell me.

I’ve never used a paper ballot. I am suspicious. I am given a ballot and an envelope. The envelope in which I am to place the ballot has directions all printed in red. I read everything carefully. A warning at the top says to check only one. I mark the box that identifies me as someone who has, recently moved. I begin to check the ballot. I check all the items and review them a few times. I seal the envelope.

I take it back to the table and expect to place it in a box. One of the women at the table says I can give the ballot to her. I hesitate. I don’t trust her. I don’t even see a ballot box. I give her my ballot. I stand there. I watch her write something on the envelope. I’m silently watching her. She’s gonna throw it away. I know it.

I am upset. Frustrated with myself that I haven’t obviously remembered to check the box when I changed my address on my State I.D. You know the box that asks if you are a registered voter. I guess if you move, you are no longer a “registered” voter.

As soon as I got home I filled out a change of address card for the board of elections. My husband found the form. He is redeemed. He even went with me to the mailbox with me at 8:30 PM after putting out the garbage.

I went to sleep listening to the returns on the radio. I am so glad that through the course of the day, the Democrats took the House, Donald Rumsfeld resigned, and the Democrats also took the Senate. I imagine that if the Democrats had only needed one vote to take the House, I would have been arrested. The headlines would have read:


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cure For Election Blues

This is the first time I have gotten up on an election day and felt discouraged. I am losing my faith in politics just like I have lost my faith in religion. I was having flash backs to the last two general elections. I am haunted by the memory of waking up on the floor of my living room, around 2 AM, to find that somehow things had changed drastically. Didn’t I go to sleep hearing ABC News announce Al Gore as the winner? I felt the pain of watching John Edwards’s concession speech. I was so sick over that crap; I didn’t go to work that day. I didn’t even call in. Worse, I recently complained to my councilmen about noise in my neighborhood and didn’t even get a response. This morning I was fed up with politics in this country, in this city, in my borough. Just frigg’in mad.

As with any illness, you’ve got to take something or do something to make yourself feel better. So I did several things. Here’s what I did.

1. I thought about Saddam Hussein. I'm glad he wasn’t hung on nation wide television last night as some last minute push for more folks to think the Republicans are tough on Terror. The fact that this didn’t happen gave me enough strength to go get a cup of tea. Well, I would have done that anyway. I exaggerate.

2. I read my emails. One misinformed Forward reminded Black voters that Affirmative Action was on the November Ballot. I sent a response telling the sender that Affirmative Action in on the ballot in Michigan, not New Jersey. I think I’m going to start deleting a lot of forwards. There is always some missing piece of information.

3. I signed CODEPINK’s Voter’s for Peace Pledge.

4. I’m reconsidering my vote for my Senator. Even though I’m all for the “take back the House” mantra I’ve been hearing on liberal radio all afternoon, the two party system is so limiting. Voting for her would take back the house. But take it back to what? She’s just like every one else who promises the moon during the campaign. Once folks are in office they begin to make compromises with those across the aisle to keep their place. Check out her website Make sure you click on that map of Iraq and watch her video on YouTube.

5. I read an interesting article in the NY Times “Weighing Other Hives Challengers”. Those are my choices? Where is our third party in this country and the folks who back it?

6. Read Greg Palast’s article “How They Stole the Mid-Term Election” which my faithful minister of information, Rich Flanders sent in an email. Don’t get discouraged read the article. It appears in the November 6th edition of The Guardian, UK.

7. I looked through The Civil Rights Movement, A Photographic History, 1954-68. If I couldn’t be inspired by that nothing would do it.

8. I decided to look up my political districts. I knew all my folks when I lived in Harlem, but in Brooklyn I’ve been clueless. I now know who’s who for my local and federal officials. I learned all their positions on various issues, and the committees on which they serve. I’ve placed all their names, office hours and contacts on my bulletin board in my office. This was actually a good exercise. I don’t want to be passive. I’m sick of not knowing. I want to check up on these folks on a regular basis. So expect to hear from me, Edolphus Towns (10th Congressional District of Brooklyn, U.S. House of Representatives) Velmmanette Montgomery (State Legislator), Darlene Mealy (City Council). Searching for the judges who are appointed
in this area is a task for another day.

9. I took a big dose of music. I listened to folk singer Hollis Watkins. I taped his lecture last summer while on the Freedom Summer 2006 tour with ACRES (American Civil Rights Education Services). Hollis Watkins teaches students freedom songs that he led during the freedom rides and jail time to inspire members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

10. Finally, I pulled out the t-shirt I'm going to wear to vote. It’s mustard yellow and has a picture of Denise McNair. Denise McNair was one of the little girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The shirt says, “Hate stole her choice, You still have yours.”

I think that last one was really the cure.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Tide is High

Lately I feel like I am drowning. I get caught up in the tide doing what I have to do, as opposed to what I want to do. The ability to keep my mind on the work of teaching is constantly competing with the amount of writing I actually do these days. The lives of the students are more interesting and often I have to remind myself that I am there to give instruction.

Now don’t get me wrong. Like anyone who has worked in a particular profession for a long time, there have been great moments and the not so great. Once a parent pulled a knife out of his pocket and threatened me for “laying a hand on his little girl”. That was definitely a low period. I was teaching in an after-school program that catered to children of homeless residents in a hotel in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties. I was thrown into a situation with very little instruction. My co-workers were mostly women who worked as teacher’s aides during the day and the after school later in the day. The woman I was paired with was the meanest witch I had ever encountered at 21 year-of-age. She was often seen yelling at 6-year-olds and shoving children she did not like. Well, she didn’t like any of them. The worst was the way she and other co-workers stood around gossiping about what they knew about the families. They would often point out the kids who had AIDS. I went home upset or crying on a regular basis. I was glad when they lost their grant (Is it any wonder?) and the program was closed.

There have been lighter moments. When I introduced the work of writer, J. California Cooper, to my current classes it was like listening to the sounds of satisfaction around a Thanksgiving dinner table. Or when the student who told me they hated math, especially Algebra, said, “It’s because of you that I finally get this.” The other day we were looking at a world map after reading about the elections in the Congo and a student realized that Madagascar is a real place and not just a movie. Even Timbuktu was a revelation.

While helping students discover and fulfill their capabilities, I can’t ignore my own. So I am pushing myself to remember to work on my own writing and the last few months of my internship on the radio show. If I don’t focus on the stuff that means a lot to me, I may as well let the tide take me under and drown.

Friday, November 03, 2006

At first I was devastated by the introductory weeks of my new job. I felt as if I had landed in Oz again and this time there was no tin man, scarecrow or lion to help me. There were however, these amazing students who were not in the business of saving anyone. Someone should have been in business of saving them. As with all travelers of long and winding roads, if I may borrow from the Beatles, some of us make may have a bumpy ride but we find our way. Others get caught on the roundabout.

I usually teach adults who come to class of their own free will. However, I now work in a program that sponsors public assistance participants. If the atmosphere of the office is one of disdain for these folks, that’s putting it mildly. There is an unseen, unknown hierarchy that only the veterans know about and understand. I’m still unclear. Depending on one’s position, you refer to the public assistance participant workers as “clients”. I have even heard some folks refer to them as “rug rats”. I am a teacher. Everyone who walks into the classroom with an attitude of I are ready to learn is always referred to as a student.

The students have the option to use two of their workdays for a variety of training options. They vary from computer classes in, nursing assistant, food service, a driver’s license or GED classes. Participants have 6 months to complete the program, which includes resume writing, job search, and by the grace of those with hiring power, a full-time job.

A majority of my students are women of color. With the exception of one or two they all have children and some women have grandchildren. A number of women have relationships with husbands or boyfriends who are imprisoned. I have spent three months getting to know them.

As in any classes that I have ever conducted, I always manage to find the students who are really there to learn. They are the one’s who stand out like stars over New York City. Only the best, the brightest and most determined twinkle. I have a total of about 6 stars out of the 17 who started with me in August. Another 6 of a previous instructors class that got passed on to me, completed the exam in September. It was wonderful to share in their success. Some people in the office acted so surprised. It was as if they had never seen people fulfill a dream.

* * * *

I know that many people believe what is said about people living on public assistance. The old myths and misconceptions of people living on welfare and driving Cadillac’s are still with us. Only expensive sneakers have replaced the Cadillac’s. I am a witness that really poor folks are just working folks. They are working for welfare checks.

Imagine working for $8.00 dollars an hour with two children, one school age and the other in daycare. Every day you drop them off and go to your job picking up garbage New Yorkers cast off. Imagine your school age child suddenly having behavioral issues in school, because his teacher, with whom he was so connected, went on maternity leave in October. The school calls you at work, and request you come pick up your child. You cannot leave. You need to fulfill your hours or lose pay. Your boss threatens to fire you. He reminds you that this is the third week in a row you had to leave early. He or she says this to you in a way that borders harassment. Imagine that 3 absences from work means not only dismissal from the program, but cancellation of your rent subsidy and food stamps. How would you cope? What would you do?

It has been difficult to teach in this capacity. The goal of the organization is job placement. Yet I hear lots of students complaining about job choices. I hear that job searches are sometimes limited to places like White Castles. I suppose White Castles is an okay place to work if you are fifteen and living at home with able bodied folks to take care of your basic needs. It is not a job for a single mom with three kids. A job like that can’t possibly qualify one as employed. A job like that can’t possibly mean you have made it.

I feel complicit in a system that doesn’t work. In my opinion the program sets the participants up for failure.
I wonder about the past success levels of such a program. I wonder which is more likely to lead one out of poverty. If many of us had a choice between work and education, which would we choose? If you have choices you are already fortunate. I am convinced that it is the lack of choices that separates us.