Washington Square

Lu Prosser – Deakin University

I felt the soles of my feet blistering from the heat radiating up from the pavement. Under a park bench, a squirrel fixated on his treasured meal clasped in his paws. His body sprawled out in the shade, seemingly oblivious that his whole being was melting into the ground. I had never seen a squirrel position itself like this and I was intrigued to know if it could actually be any cooler down there.

I had no intention to disturb his sanctuary.

Undoubtedly, this squirrel was altogether different to the sassy number that had infiltrated my classroom earlier in the year. I will never forget Leroy’s squirrel talk for his mammal project. After lunch, he had approached me to say that he’d like to give his presentation next because he’d just caught a squirrel outside. My serene face did not give way to my manic mind. I was terrified that it would get loose in the class and I would be stuck with a mad critter destroying the few supplies I had. Leroy’s enthusiasm was contagious, so, I assured myself that if he did his talk right away, the sooner he would be able to let the squirrel go. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage him. He was finally starting to enjoy school.

At the start Leroy had mostly had bad days and honestly so had I. That first day, as I stood taking deep breaths before I walked into the classroom, Hugo the teacher from across the hall peered into my class, turned and smiled, “Hey you must be the new special ed. teacher.”

I panicked and my mind was filled with fear. Yet all that came out of my mouth was a lame, “Thanks.”

He laughed and said, “You’re welcome! Don’t worry too much. I have the other class across the hall. Did they warn you they always do this to the newbies? The kids aren’t the only ones that want to test you out.”

I survived that day, just. The only white person in the class, I must have looked and sounded like an alien to these kids. So many of them were disenchanted and I know that my father would have thought they were just a waste of time. If I had listened to him, it would have been easy to throw the towel in. Really, it was all just too hard. But, that night as I corrected their initial assessments, my resignation ignited into indignation. These kids had been failed! I resolved to myself that no matter how hard it was I was going to try and make a difference. Never before in my life had I felt so determined. My training hadn’t prepared me for how hard this challenge would be but the crucial thing I could take from my own limited life experience was to get these kids to want to be at school. I wanted to make it the best part of their day.

Looking at Leroy that day, with his huge smile, made me feel so happy. “C’mon Leroy”, I encouraged him. “You’re up next.”

We all sat down, waiting expectantly for Leroy. He stood at the front of the room and spoke in a voice that alternated between nervous and excited. Finally, he told the class, that if they were very quiet he would bring in the final part of his presentation. A scratching at the door suddenly interrupted the excited murmur that had previously filled the room.

I looked at Leroy’s terrified face. “Oh no,” I thought. “The squirrel must have escaped.”

I grabbed my cardigan off the chair and calmly walked to the door, praying that I would be able to catch it. “Everything will be ok,” I tried to reassure myself.

As I gradually opened the door, a monstrous squirrel pounced on me. As I squealed, the classroom filled with riotous laughter. Hugo had dressed up in a mascot’s squirrel costume and ran around the classroom to the delight of the kids, then jumped out the window.

The insanity of that moment kind of described the insanity of my year. But it was that insanity that kept me going, not the hopelessness of my first day.

The park was packed. Although it was nearly seven, the buzz would remain for hours to come. I really missed this place. As I walked towards the fountain, people were splashing in the water, cruising around on skateboards, propelling their horizontal bodies with their hands. A cool beat intensified the atmosphere, courtesy of the drummer that had mysteriously appeared. People were all around me and mesmerized, I watched this amazing kaleidoscope of humanity.

I didn’t live in Washington Square but I guess technically no one really does. But it had that feel of home. My father’s home was across in Waverly Place but I’d suggested we meet here tonight. I felt safer here. Part of my teaching training had covered risk minimisation and it seemed best applied in this situation.

A familiar voice caught my attention, “Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child?”

Instantly I regretted the dress I had worn. I had arranged to meet a friend for dinner. Unfortunately, this appointment was first on my schedule.

Composed, I acknowledged my father.

“You must have a stylist,” he pressed. “Dear daughter, you must be New York’s newest socialite.”

“Hardly, father,” I replied, eyes downcast.

“So long as you haven’t you shouldn’t look as if you had. Tell me, are you still slumming it, I mean teaching in Baltimore?”

I had expected him to be more discrete.

“Let’s walk,” I suggested.

“Of course,” he replied. “Excuse my abruptness but it is so hard for me to see you throw your life away. You must agree that you would have better prospects as an accountant. Now that you have participated in this educational experiment, surely you must agree.”

“Yes, the year has been challenging but I think that is why it has been so rewarding.”

“Please tell me then, my learned daughter, how you endeavour to solve the crisis in American education, this so called ‘achievement gap’?” He asked, clearly displeased by my response.

Calmly, I answered his patronising question, “My students are clearly disadvantaged. Do you not think that they deserve help?”

“I do not see why you deem it your responsibility. They should be helping themselves, and if they don’t then clearly they don’t have the aptitude to succeed.”

“I wonder how that fits with your charitable donation to the crazy piano guy. Is he here tonight with that gorgeous baby grand?”

“Catherine, you are well aware that that was an entirely different situation. He is a talented musician and he is one of us. I don’t see why your crusade need take you to Baltimore.”

Evidently, his attitude hadn’t changed in the last twelve months. He was only ever happy when he was pulling the strings. His disappointment had always been underlying in our interactions, he couldn’t understand why I didn’t aspire to be a doctor or lawyer. Instead, he dismissed my lack of interest as an academic deficit. Now he was convinced my only choice was to make the most of my personal predicament and become an accountant.

My decision to apply for Teach for America was taken as an act of defiance. The truth was, I didn’t know if I really wanted to be a teacher. When I applied, I just knew that I wanted to do something meaningful and that I needed some time to decide for myself. A year later, I was still unsure but for the first time I felt engaged in my life.

Decisively I retorted, “Father your ignorance astounds me. Are you not aware that studies indicate that the low SES kids with their sub-standard schools, in their sub-standard neighbourhoods progress at the same rate as kids that are better-off than them? It is during the summer break where they plateau and those better-off kids continue to progress.”

“Well if that is the case, then I don’t see why you need to get involved. Obviously it is summer and you are here,” he replied, disconcerted by my response.

“That is exactly why these kids need extra help. Honestly, do you not see any value in what my colleagues and I do?”

“That is what competition is for. A true market economy sorts these things out,” he arrogantly responded.

I desperately replied, “Well then how do you explain that the kids that I teach have access in their neighbourhood to one book for each 350 odd kids, whereas kids in middle-class areas have about 12 books per kid? Can you imagine how many books the upper-class kids around here have?”

“You don’t need to be involved. Do you really think you have made a difference?”

“You don’t seem to get it. I work in a classroom that is rundown and in desperate need of repair. Sometimes the radiator works but most times it doesn’t. The problem is there is not enough funding. I am so proud of the progress my students have made considering they have the greenest teacher in the world, awful infrastructure and a general attitude that school is punishment.”

But my words did not resonate with him, he was far too fixated on financial issues. “Please tell me you haven’t been spending your trust fund on school supplies?”

Reluctantly I admitted, “The budget is quite limiting and I don’t see why I can’t disburse my teaching income as I see fit.”

“You fool, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you had joined a cult,” he said disgusted. “I have good reason to redistribute your trust to KIPP to spite Teach for America for corrupting you. Thank god your mother isn’t here to see this.”

I really did wonder what my mother would think. My father had had much more modest beginnings than he would care to admit. Yes, of course he was smart but his advancement as a respected medical professional had been the result of my mother’s impeccable connections. How I’d love to tell him that without her he’d be just another MD in the ‘burbs.

Instead, as we reached the Arch, I turned to him and said, “Your stop, father.”

It was my turn to walk away, past the intertwined bodies and the symphony of sounds. In the balmy heat of the night, the tears silently streamed down my face. I reached the park bench from earlier but my little friend had left. Plonking myself down on his bench, I took a deep breath, willing myself to control the turmoil within. As I scanned the park looking for a distraction, I caught sight of a familiar profile sitting at the group of chess tables on the corner. At the same moment, his head turned and a smile filled his face as he caught my eye.

Perfect, a game of chess with my favourite sassy squirrel before dinner.

*** 

Louise Prosser moved to South West Victoria to enjoy a romantic pastoral life but instead she hides away, writing in her study to escape the flies and smell of cow shit. She has just returned from the Deakin US Study Tour, Searching for the American Dream.