When I entered kindergarten, my public school had just begun "turning," as we called it. White residents moved to near suburbs ahead of the expanding black tide—us. Stranded in blackening schools, white teachers seemed to be asking outright and sideways: "What is wrong with you children?" We understood that we were not smart or talented enough, neither sufficiently self-disciplined nor as delightful as their old students were. That's why dear Marlon, one of the sweetest boys in school, had to stand in the back of the room holding his arms straight out until they sagged with fatigue. "Get 'em up. Get 'em up! And maybe next time you'll think twice" before doing something—I cannot remember what—that any other 7-year-old would do in a heartbeat.
We'd be okay if we were prodded and pushed and molded. We needed to have things instilled in us, which was sometimes misspoken as "installed." They had to instill/install things in us, as one installed a carburetor into a defective engine.
But in 11th grade, I attended St. Paul's School, where the cost to educate and board each child runs to seven or eight times the public school per-child allotment. There, on scholarship, I learned what it felt like to be among children of bankers, lawyers, and businesspeople. We were cherished; we were "great kids." Teachers, administrators, and alumni said it with assurance: just a great bunch of young people. Within each of us lay something won-derful that teachers were determined to find and help us develop. We were mar-velous. That's why they worked us so hard, and ran us into the ground at sports, and made us rewrite and practice and calculate and experiment. One day we'd be leaders, and it was their privilege to teach us. Even at our most despicable, when they had to hold up the mirror to reflect back to us the worst of our faults, it was because they knew that we could and would do better next time.
I fell into this extreme educational luxury just as the boy in my Chinese fairy-tale book fell underwater into the gorgeous jade palace of the ocean prince. I returned there to teach in my 20s. By the time I got to the Church of the Advocate at 30, I knew that if these North Philly children had been given what I had in Concord, New Hampshire, they, too, could thrive in America. Instead they were granted constant stress and a half-assed education. No need for me to make it worse with a half-assed spiritual experience. All they were asking for was Saturday.
But we humans are lazy.
From a selfish point of view, I'd already given up Sundays: church proper, that is. I'd given up the slow, regal Anglican ritual studded with African-American spirituals. I'd traded our vaulting French Gothic sanctuary hung with huge black arts–era murals for the low-ceiling mop-water funk of the parish hall. I'd given up the easy company of parishioners I'd come to love, older people who petted and spoiled me, for kids who now wanted and would always want more.
Worship helped me to connect, if even for a moment. "Only connect!" as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, "...the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." But body and soul could so easily peel apart. That's why I listened to Thelonious Monk's recording of the song of the same title. He understood. One breathy topaz sound finishes, achingly, before we hear the next, which should have been—and really still was—connected to the first, if we could imagine and let go our impatience: clinging, clinging, clinging, gimme now. Like the spaces in Monk's music, like the communion bell, the Advocate's ritual called me to awareness.
We Hear You!