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Hope on a Tightrope: The Miller Street School


hector vilaHector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal.

“It’s what I must do,” Shakirah Miller said solemnly, turning towards the Miller Street School, in Newark’s South Ward, just behind us—a gray-brown, government building with cages on the windows and dark green, steel doors. “Someone has to be here. Who else is going to do this?”

Shakirah, the principal of this kindergarten through eighth grade oasis, crossed hectic Frelinghuysen Avenue to have some words with the blue uniformed sanitation workers that hang out in front of their facility’s doors, puff on cigarettes and give desirous looks to young mothers walking their kids to the Miller Street School.

Shakirah marches over to the sanitation facility, dodging speeding cars with blaring drum machines walloping hip-hop on their radios, and asks the men to modulate their behavior. Shakirah has had to challenge the Frelinghuysen sanitation facility workers several times. They quiet, appease Shakirah for a time, but eventually persist with their disquieting behavior. 

newarkOn any given day, 497 students make their way to Miller Street from disparate points. The school children tread carefully, and wait for the commands issued by the school crossing guards trying to make sense of the intense early morning traffic. The kids that walk alone without a parent hold hands, three abreast, giving each other comfort and support, and forming what looks like a line of defense. Vulnerable as they are, these kids come to their Miller Street refuge with resolve.  The Miller Street School is a fragile sanctuary.   Hope, here, is on a tightrope.

Newark is divided into 5 Wards – North, South, East, West and Central. The South Ward is 5.2 square miles of abandoned buildings, empty lots and chain-linked fences, boarded up homes next to liquor stores and bodegas and strip joints, store front churches and mosques, and on some street corners barely conscious prostitutes high on drugs lean over and call out a foggy sexuality to passersby.  The South Ward is a forgotten patch of America.  No one knows it exists.

Shakirah is the Newark we don’t see. She embodies hope because she’s remained. Shakirah was born and raised in Newark, and after two Masters that could have opened doors anywhere, and with recent twins, a boy, Brett, and a girl, Zoe, and finishing her doctoral dissertation at Teacher’s College, she’s holding the line against despair and hopelessness. South Ward families attending Miller Street trust her; she’s consistent—and demanding. She sets a high watermark for her staff and students.  It’s a lot to carry.   Prominently displayed on her office desk is a wooden plaque: John 3:16: For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son.

hector vilaWe give witness by the way we live, believes Shakirah, harking back to the first Christian Historian, Eusebius, who defined it as philosophou bio—a philosophy of life.  In traditional Greek, the word we translate for witness is martys, from which we derive martyr: to be willing to give our all to a cause to which we testify; to take risks for the knowledge we have. The argument is that such witness brings others to the cause. This is Shakirah.  And in Shakirah we see the South Ward and Newark fully realized. 

I met with Miller Street parents eager to tell me their stories about life in the South Ward and the Newark Public Education system. We sat around a table in a tiny, dull green meeting room in the school’s second floor.  In that meeting, Lowanda Pots, the head of the parents organization, a strong, elegant woman, with nearly waist long hair she styles differently almost daily, and is always in the school, from the first bell to the last, urging parents to participate and helping the school’s teachers, said to me, “You have to tell our story.  No one cares about us.  No one.”  

That my role in the school—and community—was to be that of storyteller to the world outside their walls became abundantly clear and repeated by other parents, teachers, and students. I had to give witness, a position I never held before. The parents and teachers asked that I question the purpose of education in America, particularly since it’s lead to the creation of places such as the South Ward in Newark.

 “You gonna write about us?” a young, wide eyed little girl, Ana, a Latina with long, shiny black hair—tiny for a fifth grader—asked me one day after seeing me around, always going out of her way to catch my eye and smile.  Ana was a bundle of energy; she hopped through the school’s hallways. She was easy to notice. 

“I’m going to try,” I said hesitantly. I was taken by her question, unsure how to respond to this knowing child.

But then she raised another, deeper question. “You gonna be with us?” she asked. 

newarkAna’s gaze held mine. It silenced me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. She was saying that she wanted me to be someone vital, someone who wouldn’t walk away; she was telling me to speak what I know, what I see.  Emanating from Ana was a tentative history likely defined by people walking away all the time—perhaps a family member, government for sure, education, I was certain.  She was standing on a borderline looking for a way over to the other side where she imagined things were better.

Borderlines are endings and beginnings. But living in-between endings and beginnings—powerful energies transcending from one period to another, from one borderline to the next—requires an enlightened, convincing balancing act in a maelstrom. We’re holding on until the winds subside and we can assess the damage and hopefully move on from there.

Ana sensed that she was at the end of something, coming to the realization that there may be something more beyond her tight world. She was looking to me to help find a bridge across. She couldn’t quite articulate it, not yet.  But when she eventually comes to realize her liability in the culture—and she will come to this—the only language available to her will be comprised of metaphors of decay and abandonment and she’ll be compelled to act out in ways that will ensure she’ll be an outcast—always on the borderlines of existence.  And we’ll condemn her for it.  Ana will be compelled to navigate defeatism and resistance in a subculture of cool poses with an emphasis on fashion, sex and partying, where she might be a victim—and definitely invisible, one of the “surplus people,” as Rob Nixon says in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.



               “How do you do it?” I asked Shakirah in her office. “Is it faith?  What?”

newarkShakirah lost her father to a drunk driver when she was thirteen, which in part made her who she is—strong, driven, intense, physical. (She plays basketball, volleyball, runs track, and goes to the gym several times a week.) Her mother became a drug addict soon after her husband died, relinquishing all responsibility for her 13-year-old daughter. 

A car hit her mentally handicapped younger brother at the age of ten. In four months, Shakirah lost five members of her family—a father, an aunt, her brother and two male cousins, 19 and 22, shot dead on the streets. Yet her fondest memories are of Newark, growing up in the 17th Avenue projects and attending the 18th Avenue School.  Although life in Newark was not easy for her she did well in school – there was hope. “I guess you could say that my mother was in the house,” Shakirah told me. “Some of my aunts helped me then.” Now Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, New Jersey, is her respite; prayer gives her clarity, a sanctuary that gives her peace.

“The job is emotionally draining,” said Shakirah leaning back in her chair. “I take on everyone’s energy.”

She spends endless hours documenting poor performance—probation, withholding pay, no advancement—and creates teams for each grade, pairing weaker teachers with stronger ones and moving weaker teachers to lower grades from the higher ones where higher order thinking is required. It’s like a military operation.  She estimates that 10-15% of the school’s teachers are incompetent.

“We’re not going to lose this fight,” she said.  “We can get better.  We can’t give up on these kids. Where will they go?”

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