Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Water Jail

Skylar's party did go extremely well as kdotdammit's entry tonight suggests. Kim used to plan these holiday parties for hundreds of extremely disadvantaged inner-city youth in the Bay Area, for which she had to do everything from getting the food and gifts donated to making sure that Santa -- former Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants pitching great Vida Blue -- made it to the event in the right spirits. As she will tell you, after doing that, a birthday party for twenty some well-adjusted kids isn't too difficult to pull off.

When I was driving Skylar and her classmate Sedona to the fire station last Monday, the party came up. I told Sedona -- who didn't make it, alas -- that it would be a lot of fun because Skylar's mom is really good at parties and proceeded to explain, more simply, what I just wrote in the paragraph above about those holiday parties. Skylar was very interested in the story of her mom before she was a mom. Perhaps it's because they've been emphasizing "mitzvahs" -- good deeds -- in her curriculum, but she seemed to find it very comforting to know that her mother had spent lots of time and energy making children who otherwise wouldn't have much holiday fun happy.

I was at those holiday parties too, except for the very first one, and remember them with great fondness. They also prove useful during events like today's, since they teach you how to cope with lots of super-excited children without losing track of any individuals, physically or emotionally.

At both those holiday parties of yore and our own gatherings for Skylar, I have tended to be the documenter, taking still or motion pictures, and the fetcher, getting Kim what she needs at the moment. Today, though, I got to spend a good deal of time as the main attraction for a number of children

After the pinatas and cupcakes, Skylar and five or six other kids went back in the pool. Since Kim was busy, I went in to supervise. Very quickly, I became the aquatic jungle gym for Skylar, Hannah Gill, Abril, Katherine, Oliver, Ariel and, a little later, Etienne. With the exception of a brief interlude in which we played "What time is it, Mr. Shark?," the game varied little. Skylar described it as "water jail" or "dungeon." The object was to catch and hold me until I could be stashed away in Davey Jones's locker. I had kids on both arms; one or two on my back, with their arms wrapped tightly around my neck; and one or two assaulting me from the front. I occasionally managed to break free and "run" around, only to be recaptured, usually by Katherine or Skylar. Because the pool is so shallow in the kid's area, I had to bend my knees way down in order to stay at the kids' level and keep most of my body out of the sun. Try running with severely bent knees in a pool being chased by amazingly quick, maniacally screaming girls and boys sometime. It's not easy. My knees ache. But, boy, was it fun. There's nothing like being surrounded by almost five-year-olds who trust you completely and are having the time of their lives.

It reminds me of the Walker kids at the end of Manchester Road, seven houses down from 14012 where I lived from 1979 until 1986. Albert, David, and Trey were all sweet kids. But they were black and we lived in a neighborhood that still retained the rural, blue-collar whiteness of the South as stereotype. Although there wasn't that much overt discrimination, far as I could tell, it was no accident that, when there was a fire in their kitchen, Albert and David ran past the other six houses and came to ours for help.

Anyway, I used to play with those boys a lot. I also used their eight-and-a-half-foot basketball hoop to practice inside moves and vicious reverse slams, sometimes in the snow. Their parents didn't seem to mind, though, and I suspect it was because we kept an eye out for the boys and because I played with them a lot.

That reminds me of the interview with Jonathan Lethem I heard on NPR recently. I have his new Fortress of Solitude, but have yet to begin reading it, perhaps because I have deemed the act "professionally important." In discussing the novel, he talked about the objectively minor, yet subjectively major indignities heaped upon him as a white kid in a predominantly black school in 70s Brooklyn. At first, before I realized it was Lethem, I wasn't sure how to take his comments. The more I heard, though, the more reasonable they seemed. I realized that his description was bringing back my experiences of moving from a rural, all-white school in Pennsylvania to a just-integrated suburban Maryland one for sixth grade.

I did experience some black-on-white indignities, such as the time that Brian told me to kiss his blue suede sneakers. But because they had just dissolved a largely black elementary into a largely white one and I would have been attending the black one, had it still existed, I ended up getting classified with the new, mostly black kids and suffered through the indignities that befell them as the bearers of integration.

I like to say that it made me "black" for a year, which isn't too far from the truth. I was in the bottom-tracked sixth grade class with a black teacher, Mrs. Clarke. And, because my Pennsylvania school records never made it to Kettering Elementary, I spent a good portion of the year in a remedial reading class so far below my level that I didn't know what to do and probably seemed like someone who needed a remedy. The only regular, graded schoolwork shared by our whole class was the weekly spelling test. I vividly recall the expression of astonishment by one of our higher-tracked white students when Mrs. Clarke one day decided to announce the highest scores and spoke my name. Anyone who doubts the negative effects of tracking on the psyche should spend time in that sort of situation.

As it turned out, of course, the class was the best experience I could have had, because it gave me insight into realities that I otherwise would not have had direct access to. Coupled with the fact that Mrs. Clarke made our big class project a study of geography, with a special focus on Africa, my status as one of the "outsider" new kids radically transformed the way I "cognitively mapped" my world.

Even today, as I enjoy the fruits of whiteness and professional-class privilege in black-less Tucson, that transformation makes itself strongly felt.

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