The Details of Life

The Details of Life

This article is adapted from Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (Crown).


“Peter’s dog ate Jefferson’s cat,” says Mother Martha in a letter I received from the South Bronx.

Mother Martha is the priest of St. Ann’s Church in the Mott Haven neighborhood, still the poorest section of the Bronx and, as physicians tell me, one of the most unhealthy places for a child to grow up in this or any other country of the Western world, with pediatric asthma rates and HIV infection rates for females in their older teenage years believed to be the highest in the nation.

St. Ann’s is an Episcopal church. Martha Overall, a spirited and gutsy graduate of Radcliffe, used to practice law with the noted trial attorney Louis Nizer but gave up the law during the eighties and now, as the pastor of St. Ann’s, she spends most of her days and nights surrounded by young children. Peter is a 10-year-old who lives above a store on St. Ann’s Avenue directly opposite the garden of the church. His cousin Jefferson is living with him now, because the 7-year-old’s mother has been seriously ill. She will be ill, as it turns out, for a long time and is for now, according to the priest, at Lincoln Hospital.

“First his mother. Then his cat!” says Mother Martha. “When I found him here this morning he was sitting on the front steps of the church. The cat, or what remained of her, was in a cardboard box. I sat there with him and we had a long talk about animals, because I think you know that some denominations don’t believe that animals have souls, and he’s been told a number of conflicting things.

“After our talk we found a cookie tin. Armando dressed in black for the occasion. Jefferson and Armando dug the hole. We said a prayer and sprinkled water on the cookie tin, and then the little ones threw dirt into the hole. I think that he was pleased, because he kept on bringing people out to see the grave. He dug her up three times to show his friends.”

Armando is the sports director at the church. He tries, as do most people on the staff, to give emotional support to kids like Jefferson when they have troubles in their home. Jefferson doesn’t open up to many grown-ups, though. He’s rather bashful and has melancholy eyes. When things are going well with him, he likes to race around the churchyard with the pastor and her dog. When things are going badly, he hardly talks at all. He gets a hunted look, like that of a small rabbit frozen by the headlights of a car.

Mother Martha says he chose the prayer they read during the burial. Later, he found two sticks and made a cross to stand above the grave. When warmer weather came, he went back to the grave and planted flowers in the grass. “The dog who ate his cat,” says Mother Martha, “is named Diesel–a good name, if you ask me, for an antisocial character who eats his friends.”

Jefferson is one of six or seven children from the neighborhood who spend hours of their time with Mother Martha and for whom she sweeps away appointments with all types of visitors, to the dismay of many who have often traveled a long way to get some time with her. Four of them are boys, and two or three, depending on the season or the year, are girls who are their sisters or their cousins. Katrice, a woman from the neighborhood who runs the free-food pantry at the church, refers to them as “Mother Martha’s gang” and disapproves of how they pester and pursue the priest all day. “Look at how they pull her clothes!” she says when they surround her as she’s coming from her car.

Jefferson brings animals he finds around the neighborhood into the garden of St. Ann’s. He seems happy with the animals, more than he sometimes seems to be with people. He likes to hang around at night with Mother Martha and her dog before it’s time for him to go across the street to sleep.

Why does this story about Jefferson set off some warning signals for me as a writer? Perhaps simply because I know the fairly hard-nosed attitudes that govern social policy in urban neighborhoods today and can anticipate that this may be perceived as a preposterous distraction from the bottom-line concerns with “discipline” and “rigor” and “job preparation” and “high standards” and what is now known as “high-stakes testing” and the rest of the severe agenda that has recently been put in place for inner-city kids. Burials for cats somehow don’t fit into this picture.

Then, too, in the business-minded ethos of our age, any money we may spend on children of poor people must be proven to be economically utilitarian and justifiable in cost-effective terms. But much of what goes on around St. Ann’s cannot be justified in terms like these. You could not prove to anyone in Washington that Mother Martha’s talk with Jefferson about the possibilities of an afterlife for animals will have “a positive effect” upon his reading scores or make him more employable a decade later.

Those, however, are the usual criteria for budgeting decisions in most programs that serve children. “Productivity” is almost everything. Elements of childhood that bear no possible connection to the world of enterprise and profit get no honor in the pedagogic world right now, nor do they in the economic universe to which it seems increasingly subservient.

Now and then I’m asked to go to conferences of urban school officials, corporation leaders and consultants, and the representatives of agencies that serve (or, as the jargon now requires, “service”) inner-city youth. The atmosphere is very different at these sessions than it was only about ten years ago. The dialogue is managerial and structural, and its vocabulary tends to be impersonal and technocratic, weighted down by hyphenated words such as “performance-referenced,” “outcome-oriented,” “competency-centered.” One hears a lot of economics, many references to competition and “delivery of product” and, of course, high standards and exams. Questions that concern the inner health of children, or their happiness or sadness, or their personalities as complicated, unpredictable and interesting little people don’t come up at all, or if they do, are often treated as a genteel afterthought and handled with dispatch and even traces of derision.

The settings for these gatherings, which business leaders sometimes underwrite, are generally extravagant. Guests are inundated with expensively produced materials: shoulder bags embossed with corporate logos, loose-leaf notebooks filled with corporate position papers. The feeling of a public school is far removed from all of this. People rarely speak of children; you hear of “cohort groups” and “standard variations,” but you don’t hear much of boys who miss their cats or 6-year-olds who have to struggle with potato balls. If a bunch of kids like Elio and Pineapple–two of the lively children I have known at St. Ann’s Church for many years–were seated at the table, it would seem a comical anomaly. Statistical decorum would be undermined by the particularities of all these uncontrollable and restless little variables.

The relentless emphasis at these events is on the future economic worth that low-income children may or may not have for our society. Policy discussions seem to view them less as children who have fingers, elbows, stomachaches and emotions than as “economic units”–pint-sized deficits or assets in blue jeans and jerseys, some of whom may prove to be a burden to society, others of whom may have some limited utility.

“The right kind of investment,” says the former CEO of a large corporation that sells toothpaste and detergent, “from conception to age 5, will pay back every dollar we spend at least four for one, plus interest, plus inflation. I don’t know of a factory anybody can build that will give that kind of return.” However intended, it seems a peculiar way to speak of children.

The trouble with this is that “investment values,” whether in petroleum, in soy or in the children of poor people, rise and fall. What if a future generation of geneticists, economists or both should come to the conclusion that the children of St. Ann’s don’t offer a sufficient payoff to a corporation’s bottom line to warrant serious investment? We hear the stirrings of such notions even now in writings that allude to IQ differentials between racial and religious subgroups of the population. The subgroup living in Mott Haven does not stand too high within these rankings. If investment value is the governing determination here, black and Hispanic boys and girls like Elio and Pineapple are certain to be given less of almost everything that can bring purpose or fulfillment to existence than the seemingly “more valuable” white and Asian children who get into schools like Stuyvesant, New York’s most famous high school for the academic elite.

Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business. “A dollar spent on Head Start,” they repeat time and again, “will save our government six dollars over twenty years” in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It’s a point worth making if it’s true, although it’s hard to prove; and, still, it is a pretty dreadful way to have to think about 4-year-olds. The fact that such a program allows a child the size of Mariposa–one of the littlest children at St. Ann’s and one of many in the neighborhood who suffer from chronic asthma–several hundred mornings with warmhearted people in a safe and friendly pastel-painted setting seems to be regarded as too “soft,” too sentimental, to be mentioned in the course of these discussions. “We should invest in kids like these,” we’re told, “because it will be more expensive not to.” Why does our natural compassion or religious inclination need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on? Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they’re children and deserve to have some fun while they’re still less than four feet high?

Or is the point here that we don’t believe this? Sometimes it seems that “having fun” is seen as a luxurious entitlement that cannot be accorded to the child of a woman who relies on welfare lest it make dependent status too enjoyable. It seems at times that happiness itself is viewed as an extravagance and that our sole concerns in dealing with such children must be discipline, efficiency and future worth.

The problem is not only that low-income children are devalued by these mercantile criteria; childhood itself is also redefined. It ceases to hold value for its own sake but is valued only as a “necessary prologue” to utilitarian adulthood. The first ten, twelve or fifteen years of life are excavated of inherent moral worth in order to accommodate a regimen of basic training for the adult years that many of the poorest children may not even live to know. There is no reference to investing in the present–in the childhood of children–only in a later incarnation of the child as a “product” or “producer.”

“We must start to think about these inner-city children as our future entry-level workers,” we are told by business leaders as they forge their various alliances and partnerships with poorly funded urban schools. It’s fair to ask why we are being urged to see “these” children in that quite specific way. Why are we to look at Elio and see a future entry-level worker rather than to see him, as we see our own kids, as perhaps a future doctor, dancer, artist, poet, priest, psychologist or teacher, or whatever else he might someday desire to be? Why not, for that matter, look at him and see the only thing he really is: a 7-year-old child? Mariposa is not simply thirty-seven pounds of raw material that wants a certain “processing” and “finishing” before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is 12 years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning.

St. Ann’s runs an excellent afterschool and literacy program for approximately eighty children. Civic leaders from the downtown business world stop by at times to meet the children and for conversations with the priest. They often get more than they bargained for.

Mother Martha is a fearless woman who speaks truth to power and does not allow her strong political beliefs to be subdued or suffocated by the pretense of civility so common in the upper reaches of the press and power structure in New York. She cuts right through the philanthropic piety of many visitors. “Charity is not a substitute for justice,” she says frequently. She’s unsparing also in her reference to the seemingly eternalized apartheid of New York–99.8 percent of children in the schools that serve this neighborhood are black or brown, and she does not let visitors forget this. Even the most tough-minded CEOs look shaken sometimes after they have talked with her.

But the presence and the sheer vitality of all these children have a powerful effect upon the visitors as well. Once they’re here, it seems, their ideologies disintegrate. An intimate reality does often have this power to collapse or modify belief. Nobody seems to want to advocate a “lean and mean” approach to public services for children while they’re sitting in the chapel of St. Ann’s with Elio or being drilled with questions by Pineapple.

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.

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