It’s been a few years since I’ve spent time in New York. This time, I am here to participate in a panel and give a reading / screening at a conversation set up by Bronx Community College (BCC) faculty member and my friend Dr. Sandra Tarlin, who used to live and work in Houston and was very involved with Voices Breaking Boundaries. Sandra has created a panel of women from neighboring countries(Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) to talk with BCC students about the work we do with women in and about our homelands.
In the morning, as I walk into BCC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, I feel as if I am home. The stairs are old, hollow and as we descend to the lowest level, I see the bulletin board with new posters mixed with older announcements. At an informal lunch gathering, I screen Yunuen’s documentary about VBB’s living room art project, and visit with BCC faculty. We end the energized conversation with ideas to expand VBB living room art productions to explore neighborhood in the Bronx.
Later on in the afternoon, I join in with Shayma Daneshjo (UNICEF), Dr. Elhum Haghighat-Sordellini, (Lehman College), Dr. Vrunda Prabhu (BCC), and Dr. Farnosh Saeedi (BCC) to a packed auditorium filled with students from all backgrounds. With the conversation moving from Iran to Afghanistan, India and then into Pakistan, there is no shortage of materials to cover. The students sit through two hours of presentation and conversation and remain till late after the formal presentations and question and answer session is over to visit with each of us.
Some of the moments that I remember from my trip: the intense conversation with three young Pakistani women and a Palestinian man who talk to me about borders and identity and issues they confront in their daily lives after viewing my short video collage Why Are You Looking At Me Like That?; my exchange with student and performance artist Nirvana, who shares a poem with me and wants to remain in touch to talk about writing and performance; my visit with Sandra, who I hadn’t seen in more than seven years and with whom I share much artistic and activist history; the rich conversation with the panelists and the students about the challenges that women confront in the region that we discussed as well as those faced on a daily basis in the Bronx; and my airport ride with BCC English faculty member H. Elizabeth Smith, who has her father buried in the Rawalpindi graveyard and a mother who is now in Baltimore but yearns to return to Pakistan. There is an energy and pulse to the overall experience of being on that campus, which leads me to think that I will be back there again.
And with all the action on the BCC campus, I still manage to spend quality time with college friend Sophie, who picks me up from Newark, introduces me to her Jordanian friend Lara, and we hang out together at a fabulous Italian seafood restaurant on Lexington, reliving our young college days on that island. I even manage to meet up with my cousin Asif who takes a stopover in Manhattan so he and I can hang out for a night and walk from Soho to Times Square in memory of old times.
There are no such things as coincidences, says a college friend Nema, who I will see in Houston. I am glad that though my trip is short—and intense—that I still have time to enjoy friends and family.
I’ve been on the other side, the teacher setting up the classroom, decorating, greeting the kids, preparing for a semester. That was a long time ago. Today is my first day as a parent.
We wake up at 6:30 am, get dressed, eat breakfast and are in her classroom before the “tardy” bell. That’s already an accomplishment. I sit beside her in a newly scrubbed classroom with with clean desks and shiny wood floors. The walls have panels with Spanish words—months of the year, numbers, seasons—and on the yellow bulletin boards are the names of all the kids. Minal looks for hers and smiles when she finds it.
When the bell sounds, it’s loud and jarring. Minal’s eyes open wider. And then, the principal appears at the door and reminds the parents that it’s time for us to leave our children for the day.
oday, the first day of school, there is a special coffee gathering for new parents, and I head to the back of the building to meet and mingle for just a little bit. But by 8:20 am, I step away from the school to my parked car. I’m not sure where I’m going to go, or how I’m going to structure my day which stretches before me like a marathon that I have to run and appear on the other side, fresh and ready for the next day, week, year, lifetime. This is different from pre-school, where we could come and go as we pleased, she could dress as she wished and have unstructured play time.
This is school. There are absolutes. She must arrive at a certain time and be picked up at a certain time. She has to be in uniform, eat lunch in the cafeteria, and play recess outside. We are entering a whole new world (isn’t that a disney song?) and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.
As always, the plane journey between Houston and El Paso is short. Right at the end, a few minutes before landing, the airplane skids through a thick layer of clouds, making us hold on to our seats. And then, we land. As I wait outside the airport for Caro to pick me up, I gaze at the blue and notice how much more sky there is all of a sudden.
After she picks me up, the sense of scale and flatness is enhanced, as we drive through the city in search of a Sephora, where we can pick up a few things that I forgot in Houston. Once at the store, located in the middle of a JC Penny, Caro and I get rapid makeovers by our new friends Joe and Lily, who promise to do their best to attend the reading that Michelle and I will do tomorrow in celebration of International Women’s Day. I promise them that I’ll post this photo, so here it is.
Thank you Joe and Lily for reminding us that there can be laughter in the middle of artistic creation and activism. It feels good to be on this border again, and there are many new stories to share. Caro reminds me of the violence erupting just on the other side, where today things are escalating so rapidly that many residents of Juarez are just fleeing.
“We don’t go to the other side very often these days,” Caro tells me. “Even my mother who used to go all the time has to pick select times of the day to cross. It’s sad.”
Howard Zinn, we will miss you. You will continue to inspire us.
On the personal front (which is always somehow political), the formal closure of our daughter’s early education program was announced today. In the morning, Jeannette Doina, who has served as the Director of the program for almost 20 years, was led out of the building with a box in hand, and reassigned “somewhere else.”
At 1:00 pm, the school staff had a formal meeting with the Dean of UH’s College of Education, as well as with UH Human Resources, and were informed that the school was closing as of July 31. As parents, we were given 2 months notice to find another space for our children. Over the last month, the Parent Advisory Board has repeatedly requested meetings with the Dean and has pressed for more information — to no avail. Frustrated by the silence, we went ahead and posted a petition online.
And then, late afternoon today, parents received an email from the Dean, along with the announcement of a 7:15 pm meeting tomorrow night. The Lab School has a history of forty years of serving toddlers. It is outrageous that one body of “education” administration can charge through a program and shut it down without once talking with families most served by the program. Now, like all the 4o families in the program, we are scrambling to find a space for Minal in the fall. And at the same time, we are still continuing to speak out against the lies we’ve been told for months, against the way the director and teachers were treated, and against the way our kids have been disregarded.
he performs his poem. when he is finished, he smiles and takes a deep bow. his electric words, his energy, and his appearance in sharp black pants and snazzy striped black and white shirt dazzle the women.
afterwards, his caring teacher drives him back to school. but at the end of a day filled with applause and excitement, he returns to the homeless shelter where he’s staying, because he’s been evicted from his apartment, and before that he was evicted from his house by his mother, and in between he was evicted out of another teacher’s house because he threw a party and the management told the teacher it’s either you or the boy.
so he goes back to the shelter and shuttles between shelter and school, school and shelter. and somewhere in between, he decides enough is enough, and so he gets into a fight, is arrested and is now locked up in a jail for “assault.”
today i am grieving for the boy, for the final straw that triggered him to react and do what he did. and now he has to find his way out of the corner in which he’s locked himself. and we all know that even if he gets out this time, life will remain a minefield for him. there are no simple answers to this vicious cycle.