My first real job out of college was in the Everglades of Florida. The Vietnam War had ended that year with the Paris Peace Accords. The unemployment rate went from almost zero to double digits. The only job I could find as a newly minted teacher was at a middle school in Belle Glade on the southwestern shore of Lake Okeechobee.
School started for teachers the first week of August. The children came the second week. Any of you who have lived in the Deep South know that August is a month to be lived indoors and motionless as the gecko on your wall waiting patiently for a juicy Palmetto bug.
Such was the atmosphere on the first day of school in August. The children came excited but by noon were drained of enthusiasm, as were most of the teachers. If I turned the florescent lights on in my un-air conditioned classroom the children would moan.
I learned over time that it really wasn’t just the climate that drained the energy out of these mostly African-American kids, it was poverty and the lack of hope wrapped in oppressive heat and ninety-five percent humidity.
One day I gave a writing assignment: “What will you be doing in ten years?” The results were, to this naive white teacher from Ohio, most surprising. A large number of the papers I got from the kids started with, or in some form contained the statement, "If I don’t be dead”, followed by some wish to be a pro basketball player, a super model, or movie star should they survive. There were no interim goals. It was either all or nothing. Fabulous success or death.
What I came to see, was these kids lived in a world of chronic threats. They lived with the realities of life in the ghetto, albeit a rural ghetto. Loss was a common denominator in their lives. They lived a day at a time for the most part. The future stretched out for them as a void between their daily reality and adolescent dreams of riches and fame. “If I don’t be dead”.
The life we are now living in this pandemic is what reminded me of those early years of my adult life with those wonderful children in Belle Glade, Florida. It got me thinking about what I learned from working with people living in extreme situations. All of us who are currently living in a locked down society are in our own kind of ghetto. We are living with greatly reduced choices about what we can buy, where we can work, who we can see, where we can travel, and in many cases what we can pay for.
Granted not everyone is living in the same conditions as those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but we are getting a taste of what it means to be locked in a reality that has no definable end. After all, aren’t many us living life in fourteen day segments, hoping we don’t show symptoms of the virus after a trip to the grocery store or getting word that someone we recently had contact with had tested positive?
So what are we to do in our new found ghetto? I have chosen to write. To reach out to friends, family, co-workers, anyone who is willing to read what I have written. It’s my way to fill the void between life in fourteen day segments and a future I hope for.
My friend and most prescient writer, Ella Dawson, wrote in a recent blog, (elladawson.com):
“The truth is this moment isn’t a gift. It’s an unwanted trial. It’s this era’s international crisis that we must rise to meet, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in decades. For many of us, it’s our first in living memory. If this is an opportunity to unlock an elevated version of ourselves, it’s as generous and responsible citizens who sacrifice for the common good.”
It is my hope that whatever time we live in our “ghetto”, whatever losses we experience, whatever fears we face, will help us understand a little better what health and freedom actually mean in our lives. I hope it will also help us understand and be more generous toward, and understanding of, what so many people experience every day in the real ghetto. I hope we will raise our voices to demand a capitalism that doesn’t leave so many of our fellow humans behind, so that when their children are asked what they foresee for themselves tens years hence, they don’t start with, “If I don’t be dead.”
This is my third published essay. I welcome your feed back. If you have family, friends, colleagues who you think might find this essay interesting please forward it to them and encourage them to subscribe. It’s free. Actors thrive on having audiences, writers thrive on having readers. All three essays can be accessed at: bruceking.substack.com