Michael Jackson - They Don't Care About Us

Michael was in my dream last night. But he was 40 years old. I ran into him in a restaurant. He was wearing a polo shirt of unremarkable color, tucked into coffee-colored khaki pants. His face was unwrinkled, his eyes wide, and his mouth smiling. He did not look like the Michael I know, so at first it was hard for me to know who this man was that had suddenly sat down at my table. But once I looked straight into his eyes, I knew right away that he was an adult version of Michael. I was reminded of that day in class (in waking life) that Michael kept staring at me, looking into my eyes and saying, "What do you see, Mish Aggie? What do you see when you look into my eyes?" In class that day, I didn't understand the game, didn't know what kind of answer to give him, couldn't really recognize what I was seeing. I just knew that there was something there to see. But in my dream, I so vividly remembered what I saw when I looked into Michael's eyes that I could recognize this restaurant man through gazing into that same depth, that same deep-welled oceanic depth that beckons to be explored, that calls out from the bottom - come and find me! I'm sure you'll enjoy the ride!

But what surprised me most was not that Michael was 40 or that he was in my dream at all. What surprised me was that he was happy. Every day, I bike through Philadelphia's streets and I see all sorts of people. Young boys walking out of Rite-Aids or riding their bikes in circles around a stop sign. Young girls giggling on street corners while twirling gum around their fingers. Young women walking briskly down rather deserted city streets, talking on cell phones with a bag slung over one shoulder. I see people who sleep on church stairs. Men who walk around with shirts half tucked out of their loose-fitting shorts, carrying on conversations about the technology conference that they were supposed to attend had "Charlie" not sabotaged them and taken their position. I see women who carry their entire lives in shopping carts. Young mothers who may or may not attend school. Young women who are in school but are more invested in cultivating their bodies than in educating themselves. And I saw one man in particular a few weeks ago near Rittenhouse Square. As far as I recall, everything he wore was a deep, charcoal gray color. It was 90 degrees out and he had on a dusty, heavy coat, a faded, gray polo shirt and dark pants. His jacket was slipping off his shoulder on one arm, and he barely lifted his feet when he walked. He looked straight ahead but he appeared lost, confused, worried. His eyebrows were furrowed together and his eyes were large and pleading. His mouth moved up and down in silent conversation and he walked through the crowd as if the bodies around him were nothing more than lampposts he had to maneuver. He looked just like Michael, only fifty years older. I saw in him a story that could be anybody's, that could even (but hopefully never will) be Michael's - a very sharp young boy grows up surrounded by love and video games and everything his heart desires. His mother takes excellent care of him. He is slow to learn but he works very hard and shines as a leader and as a diplomat, and little by little, he graduates from high school. He considers college because he is interested in it and because his mom encourages him to go but she loses her job and cannot afford college and he cannot get a scholarship because he scores poorly on tests and they decide maybe he stays home for a year to work and save up for college and a year turns to ten and he loses motivation to work and she is still having a hard time ever making that same amount of money again and so on and so on until years later, this man is alone and aimlessly shuffling up and down various city streets thinking to himself, "How did this happen? How?"

Since working with PVK, I am constantly thinking of that Michael Jackson refrain, "All I wanna say is that they don't really care about us." Every person, child or adult, is to me someone for whom we can care, someone who could benefit from PVK, someone who needs to know about this great work, someone perhaps whose life could change from an experience such as our students had at PVK. But sometimes I see people and I think - could PVK really have prevented this? Can PVK make young ladies stop caring so much about their bodies, to no longer be so influenced by media messages that they spend hours in bathrooms destroying their digestive tracts, when the messages in media are so pervasive, so heavy-handed, that even the food critic for the New YorK Times has suffers from an eating disorder ? Can PVK make young girls care less about grabbing the attention of available men that they would be willing to sacrifice their own needs, their own educational needs in order to foster that cooing concern? Can PVK convince young people that even though their communities seem to be every day growing more and more violent, or at least more and more derelict, that these students themselves can make a change? Can PVK be enough of a reason for Quinlin to continue foregoing fights on the basketball court, to continue being "the bigger man" and walking away when the girls start picking on him? Can PVK convince Michael that even though older students tease him incessantly, it is in all seriousness because they are insecure themselves? Can PVK help Michael to love himself despite how some people treat him? Could PVK have saved me from my own battles when I was younger?

My mom suggests it could have. I sent her a link to our wikispace to keep her posted on the work we are doing and to introduce her to my students. Here is her response:
how nice that you guys provide this kind of training for our kids. imagine if you had gone through this when you were in school, perhaps you would know what you do or don't want to do with life when you grow up.

That is my mom's way of saying - this kind of program could help everybody. It is useful, it is unique, and it can provide young people a sense of direction they may not otherwise have had.

I just worry. I worry every time I see someone struggling on the streets that while PVK can provide direction, it can not guarantee it. While these young minds are alive and energized and electric in their classrooms - both throughout the school year and during the summer - they leave Russell Byers to walk into a wholly different world with different expectations, different sets of rules, different perspectives that could potentially derail them from the paths that we find so enlivening in the classroom. On the other hand, perhaps the work we all do together does and can carry over into the community. Parents and family members (and even the coordinator for the teaching assistants) are telling me constantly - "if you all ever have anything else going on, any other programs that my child or these students can be a part of, please let us know. This has been such a wonderful experience for my child and I really would like for it to continue. I already see so many changes in him/her." So we owe it to these students, to these minds that are learning to love learning, we owe it to them to continue because the more we work together, the more effectively can we lay down a path that will not easily be lost in the shuffle of Fall leaves and will not easily be covered over with snow, but that will prominently glide over any surface and setting to guide students into their most successful, most exuberant, most joyous lives.

We have in many ways already started to do this. Or better yet, we are building upon the excellent and powerful work Russell Byers has already begun. I am proud to be a part of that process, for however long I get to be. And I am happy to know that there is a great possibility that Michael can be happy, not just in my dreams.