Ghetto Teacher Film Festival
On a train that morning she passed an abandoned basketball court on the crust of the city, and remembered the weekends she spent with her father after her parents divorced. His tiny apartment in a neighborhood near the college, ratty couches on front porches, late night whooping and thumping music from student parties, the crusty men filling their grocery carts with cans littering lawns the morning after. His apartment had only one bedroom so she slept on a futon in the living room. The house was old and had a high narrow closet on one wall which when opened revealed a short ironing board, its ancient soiled cloth smelling of the inside of the canvas tent her father had once set up for her in the back yard of the house where her mother lived. At her mother’s she had her own room, and places to put things: her clothes, her toys. Her father showed her another tiny closet built into the same wall by the ironing board, but it was too high for her to reach and not large enough for much more than a stuffed animal and her slinky. Also it had no door.
What even went there, she asked, and her father said, I believe a phone. He said it in a way that made her think he wanted, now that he was living in this place, to have the right answer to every question she asked. But why put a phone in a closet?
Her father referred to the tiny closet as her“cubby,” because, he said, he was assigned a cubbyhole at school when he was her age and that is where he stored his things. What things? His rain slicker, he said, and his rulers, and those things you attached a tiny pencil to in order to draw a circle. The girl had no idea what he was talking about, but then it seemed to her that her father had, since moving out, begun to talk a lot about strange things that had happened to him when he was her age, or things he had once owned. In the morning she would lie on the futon and listen to him making coffee. He let her sleep far longer than he used to, and she thought, now, on the train, in a decrepit part of the city so far from where she grew up, in another part of the country in fact, that he did so because he had no idea what to do with her and was just as eager as she was for the weekend to pass, so that she could go back to her mother’s where he knew she was far more comfortable and he could do whatever it was he did when she wasn’t there.
During the long days he took her to the zoo, the historical museum, the park, the science center, the movies, ice-skating, roller-skating, to a boring baseball game where grown men rose in the bleachers to spell out letters to a song called YMCA. At night they walked to a video store staffed by girls with tattoos and checked out movies, always old ones he liked when he was a kid. They watched To Kill A Mockingbird twice in one weekend and she did not have the courage to tell him she hated black and white movies, that the grey world gave her nightmares in which the sun disappeared from the sky. At the end of To Sir With Love he told her about listening to the theme song of the movie on a transistor radio under his covers at night. The words he sang to this old song he liked so much he listened to it surreptitiously in the night smelled of beer.
We’ll watch only movies like this, he said. Black and white? she said. No, he said, movies that prove you can actually make a difference in someone’s life. It took her a couple of weekends to understand that what he meant was movies in which students were mean to new teachers. Blackboard Jungle was next, but at least the rest—Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, Lean on Me—were in color. There was always one kid everyone picked on and often there was a boy who carried a knife. These movies terrified her, but she understood that something in them made her father both sadder and stronger. She had never seen her father cry, but during Music of the Heart, her father nodded at her cubby and said, We are so lucky, sweet girl, we don’t need nearly as much as we’ve been given. His nose ran and he wiped it on his sleeve. On the bus in a part of the city as grey as the black and white movies her father favored, the girl, now a woman in her early thirties, thought of her father as a child in the back of a classroom steamed by radiators. Students threw desks and wrote filthy words on the blackboard and the teacher went home to his pregnant wife and broke down at the dinner table, but her father sat happily drawing circles with this device he had described to her that he did not seem to mind not knowing the name of, some obsolete instrument fixed with a pencil stub and a spike to anchor it always to the page.