Saturday, April 5, 2014

Concrete Camelot

I became a teacher because I loved books. Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. These were the titles that lined the white wood bookshelves of my childhood home on the southwest side of Chicago. And not the southwest side featured on the local evening news filled with gunshots, crying children, and gangs.  Though my family would eventually endure our own brand of tragedy, our neighborhood, Archer Heights, was more than a mere distance from the north side; it was its own universe--a mythical kingdom inhabited by artists, Irish Catholics, and old Polish men who took their lawns as seriously as they drank their Tyskie. There was a pride that permeated 4828 South Keating, and the reason I knew that was because my parents embodied it. They instilled in me and my six siblings the idea that an address did not dictate success, but rather that success could happen anywhere. For the first 21 years of my life, that “anywhere” was a tiny red brick bungalow.

In that brick bungalow is where I found my sense of place, specifically on four bunk beds through which I rotated with my four older sisters. We were a party of five in a basement room with only four beds. I remember sharing this childhood detail with a former colleague of mine who replied, “Wow, sounds fantastically Dickens-esque.”  While some might have interpreted this remark as an insult, I never did, simply because it was those nightly rotations that created a sort of internal clock: Prayers with Jennifer on the top bunk, (Now I lay me down to sleep); down below, twin bed turf wars with Susie who needed more room to sprawl out; across the adjoining headboard, games of “bicycle” with Becky during which we’d lie at opposite ends of the bed so that our bare feet touched and rotated as though riding my pink Sweet Thunder; then there was Claudia, my silly big sister who, like Jennifer, the noble one, would say prayers with me. “Now we need to kiss our hands all over,” she’d explain. So we would smooch our hands, clenched in fists, until it was time to reach them palm to palm towards God, letting them fall into a Jesus-like stance, hands upturned in surrender. The only problem was that I always lay on the inside of the bed, so my right hand would stop cold at the wall beside me while Claudia’s left would drift down over the edge like an autumn leaf. 

These nightly rituals became my life’s rhythm. Happy one night, tortured the next. Siblings can do that, I guess.