If you are even the most casual reader of this blog, you will know that here at Gaddy Daddy we believe that the concept of family contains multitudes. In that spirit, I am pleased to present the following post about the Fresh Air Fund. Through this amazing program, every summer nearly 10,000 New York City children from low-income communities spend a week or two of summertime bliss with volunteer host families from out of town who open up their hearts and homes to them. This summer the Fresh Air Fund is in need of 850 more families to sign up. If you, or someone you know, might be interested in participating in the program, please contact the Fresh Air Fund: here.
I had given one notebook to each student at the start of class based on the specific instructions I received: no spiral-bound notebooks, as the spirals can be sharpened into weapons. No red notebooks, as red is a gang color. This class was being taught in prison, and prison rules are to be closely followed. I found that out the day I arrived to teach in a tank top. It was summer, over ninety-five degrees out. I knew I couldn’t wear green, as that was the color of the women’s uniforms. I knew I couldn’t wear open-toe shoes, in case there was a riot and I had to run. But I didn’t know tank tops were forbidden because they are apparently considered too sexy. I almost wasn’t allowed in that day, but after several guards conferred on the matter, I was permitted to teach my class.
That day, the day Pam wasn’t writing, I had asked the students to write about a time something good happened. I leaned over to Pam, who was sitting in her usual chair directly to my right.
“Are you stuck?” I whispered, so as not to disturb the other women, who were writing with bowed heads and expressions of concentration.
“Yeah,” she said, not looking up from her blank note book page. “I can’t think of anything good that ever happened.”
Pam had written about her childhood in previous classes. I knew she grew up sharing a room with her three sisters, sleeping two to a bed. I knew her mother was often harsh and occasionally abusive. I also knew Pam was in jail for a long sentence—25 years—and that she was nearing the end of her term. I also knew her crime: manslaughter. So I knew Pam hadn’t had many good things happen to her. But even the darkest lives usually have moments, sometimes very small moments, of light.
“It doesn’t have to be a big thing,” I said softly. “It can be a really small good thing. Maybe something that surprised you?”
Pam bit on the end of her pen and I looked at her. It was really hard to tell how old Pam was, or how old any of the women were. Stripped of makeup, jewelry, or their normal clothing—everyone was in army-green uniforms—all of the women appeared younger than they were. There were a few girls in the class who appeared like teenagers, and I was shocked to find out, through their writing, that they were in their late twenties.
Then Pam started to write. “I thought of something,” she said. “Something good. Really good.”
After about fifteen minutes, I told the students to finish their last sentence so we’d have time to hear a few people read before the end of class. I was used to teaching homeless teens, who often had to be coaxed to write even a few lines. But my students at the prison seemed to be able to write all night. I think they liked the calm environment of class, the normalcy of sitting in a room with desks and bulletin boards. Usually the room I taught in was used for GED. The papers tacked to the bulletin board, some with stickers and smiley faces, make the room look like a fourth-grade classroom. In that room, it was easy to forget my students were incarcerated; that at the end of the evening I would walk out the door and eat a slice of pizza on my way home, while they would be escorted back to their small locked rooms.
I’m not naïve. I know some of these women committed serious crimes. But I also strongly believe that many of them were victims of the circumstances in which they grew up, rife with poverty and violence. Many of them wrote about the abuse they suffered, both physical and sexual. We often spoke about anger; what to do with it, how to both honor the very real reasons they had to be angry, yet not let anger overpower them into making bad decisions and getting into trouble. I tried to help them see they could respect their anger by putting it on the page, by writing about it. In that way they could get their anger out, but not in a way that would hurt themselves or others. One woman in class was reluctant to write about the abuse she had suffered, even when I told her she could write about it, then rip the page out of her notebook and throw it away. I kept thinking she was afraid that someone would see her writing, but finally she admitted that she was afraid to see it herself. “If I see it, then I have to believe it,” she had said. “And I still don’t want to believe it.”
When time came for the students to read that day, Pam volunteered. As she started reading, it was almost like she retreated into the past. The details she remembered made it seem like she was writing about something that had happened the day before, not in 1967.
As a child, Pam had asthma, and on the advice of a doctor, who thought getting out of the city would help her breathing, Pam’s mother signed her up for the Fresh Air Fund. Not any of her sisters; just Pam. She remembered everything about the morning she left for her first-ever summer vacation. Pam was six years old. She and her mother got up very early in the morning and took a subway to Penn Station. Pam was not scared at all; even when the time came to say goodbye to her mother. She was completely ready for departure, for freedom.
Pam wrote about waiting with the other children for the train, the kind of sandwich she ate while she waited, and transferring from the train to a bus to go even further away from the city. She didn’t sleep at all even though she had awoken much earlier than usual—she didn’t want to shut her eyes because she refused to miss a single moment of looking out the window at grass, trees, and open space. It was the first time she had even seen these things, aside from city parks. And she was transfixed.
A big surprise came when the bus finally stopped in Maine. Pam thought she was going to a Fresh Air Fund camp, but in fact she and the other children on her bus were going to spend a few weeks with families. Pam remembered the shock of seeing so many white, smiling faces coming to retrieve so many small, black children. Pam didn’t know many white people back in the city, and those she had met had never seemed too happy to see her. Some kids from the bus cried, but not Pam. She happily joined her host family—a mom, a dad, and three children, all around Pam’s age.
In the following weeks of class, I urged Pam to continue to write about her experience with this family. I learned that her time spent with them was the happiest time in her entire life; that she returned to spend summers with them for many years, and that she is still in touch with the children, who are now grown-up. Pam also told me that she wrote about her time with the Fresh Air Fund one Thanksgiving as part of a writing contest, and her piece was chosen as the winner. I believe Pam said her mother used the prize money to buy Thanksgiving dinner for the family.
Sadly, the cycle of classes I was teaching ended before Pam could finish her story. I urged her to continue on with it, and I hope she did.
I also hope those of you reading this who live outside of New York City will consider hosting a child through the Fresh Air Fund. By doing so, you have the opportunity to provide an inner-city child with what may turn out to be the happiest memories of his or her life. 850 host families are still needed for this summer, and all types of families are welcome to participate. To learn more, click here http://www.freshair.org/host-a-child