The Details of Life
The parents and staff at St. Ann's aren't naïve about the world of economic competition that their children will be forced to enter in a few more years. The pedagogic program at the afterschool is rigorous. The women and men who run the program have a lot of love and hot sauce in their style, but they also have a realistic recognition of the academic needs of children. The church is also forced to pay attention to the newly instituted tests the children have to pass in public school. No one here, no matter how benighted they may think these tests are, has any hesitation about working hard with children on test-taking skills, because they know that children in rich neighborhoods receive this preparation as a matter of routine, often in expensive private programs.
Intensive academics aren't the whole of what goes on here at the afterschool, however. If they were, the children wouldn't come here with such eagerness when they leave public school. Amid the pressures and the tensions about school promotion policies (and nonpromotion policies, which recently have come to be capricious and severe) and reading skills, percentile "norms," math exams and high school applications or rejections, and the rest of what makes up the pedagogic battlefield--which is not now, and never was, a level field for children in poor neighborhoods like the South Bronx--the grown-ups here have also managed somehow to leave room for innocence.
The pastor here has her three degrees: in economics (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe), then in law, and then theology. She also has a bracelet made of jelly beans that Jefferson's sister gave her as a present before Easter. It is, she told me once when I was looking at the brightly colored jelly beans that Jefferson's sister somehow linked together with a needle and a piece of string, the only bracelet anyone has given her since childhood--"more beautiful," she said with pride, "than finest pearls." In an age of drills and skills and endless lists of reinvented standards and a multitude of new and sometimes useful but too often frankly punitive exams, it's nice to find a place where there is still some room for things of no cash value--oddball humor, silliness and whim, a child's love, a grown-up's gratitude and joy--that never in a hundred years would show up as a creditable number on one of those all-important state exams.
Competitive skills are desperately needed by poor children in America, and realistic recognition of the economic roles that they may someday have an opportunity to fill is obviously important too. But there is more to life, and there ought to be much more to childhood, than readiness for economic functions. Childhood ought to have at least a few entitlements that aren't entangled with utilitarian considerations. One of them should be the right to a degree of unencumbered satisfaction in the sheer delight and goodness of existence in itself. Another ought to be the confidence of knowing that one's presence on this earth is taken as an unconditioned blessing that is not contaminated by the economic uses that a nation does or does not have for you. What I admire most about the programs and the atmosphere of daily life here at the church is that these diverse goals are reconciled in relatively seamless ways that make it possible for children to regard the world, and life itself, as something that, though difficult and often filled with pain and tears, is also sometimes good, and sometimes bountiful in foolishness, and therefore beautiful.
I recognize that jelly beans will not be seen by all Episcopalian officials as appropriate adornments for the vicar of an urban church, but it means something to Jefferson's sister when she sees the pastor wear that bracelet as she stands before the cross to celebrate the mass. The details of life renew our faith in life. In the busy ministries of grief the detailed things--the Band-Aids and the skinned knees and the handiwork of children's fingers--are too easily dismissed or relegated to the margins of consideration. I've been thankful that the detailed things are not forgotten in the course of all the solemn matters that preoccupy the pastor of St. Ann's.
People ask me why I keep on going back to visit at this church when there are other churches in New York that operate effective programs that teach children useful skills each afternoon when they are done with school. I don't usually answer. If I did, I know I wouldn't say too much about the writing program and test-preparation program and computer classes. They're good programs, but a "program," even one that has some provable success, would not have brought me back into a church in the South Bronx nearly 200 times. If I had to answer, I would say that I go back for all the things that can't be calibrated by exams. Elio's imagination and his curiosity and tenderness are part of this, and Pineapple's unselfishness, and Jefferson's shyness and sweet sadness, and his closeness to the priest, and Jefferson's cat.
Two years have passed. On quiet afternoons the boy with melancholy eyes goes by himself sometimes into the chapel of St. Ann's and kneels down on the floor to say prayers for his mother and his cat. Mother Martha sometimes prays beside him. I have never asked the pastor what she prays for.