To The Editor:
The directions to the Crown Heights Family Literacy Program at Public School 375 Jackie Robinson School are easy to follow. When you step out of the train station, you will see a Wendy’s across the street. Cross over to Wendy’s, walk past the Dunkin Donuts and Popeye, cross over to the McDonalds. The school is right behind McDonalds.
They are also deeply ironic.
A week earlier, I visited the Red Hook Waterfront Festival where the Literacy Initiative had set up a tent on what turned out to be the first blazing hot day of summer. Despite the heat, a group of enthusiastic staff and family members were eager to share their work. Beautiful journals, poems on canvas murals and rows of promising seedlings abounded. Fatima Bah, Amadou Fatoumata and Niane Fatoumata shared their writing and drawings with me, their eyes glowing as they explained that they had been studying food, nutrition and how things grow.
I leafed through pages stapled between construction paper covers. Fifth-grader Clarissa Solis had recorded, “Today we checked to see how the plants are doing. We talked to the plants. Next, we watered them. It was nice to see them again.” Another student wrote, “hipothesis = my beans will begin to grow in four days.” Parents had added loving letters. One said, “My children, like plants, be beautiful and healthy.” Another said, “You are my seeds that were given to me by Allah.”
There are three Family Literacy Program sites in Brooklyn. Located in Bushwick. Crown Heights, and Williamsburg, they are administered by the Center for the Urban Environment and funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development. Each site includes an after-school program, sessions for parents and children to learn together, English as a Second Language for adults and resource time during which parents learn about services in the community. A distinctive feature in every aspect of the program is the connection between literacy and daily life in the community. In other words, English is not taught solely within the isolation of the classroom as a separate skill, but as a practical tool for survival, empowerment and the building of each family’s future.
During a session of the after school program at PS 375, Michelle Hernandez whispers, “Miss Maritsa says even if it’s hard we have to try anyway.” Maritsa Mansuroglu is the coordinator of the Crown Heights program. A Brooklyn native, she has worked in literacy for many years, and seems as comfortable referring a mother for a mammogram as she is telling a story to children. “Mostly, I spend my days in the classrooms. That way, I know how I have to help after school. I know who’s not getting what.”
Her assistant is Angela Morales. “My son and I started in this program. I go to PTA meetings, and now I can speak for myself.” Next semester, she plans to attend Medgar Evers College, two blocks from the school, and become a teacher.
In a room down the hall, two mothers are working with another staff person. One woman is reading from a sheet of lined paper. I see her concentration and determination. I see her struggling to master her feelings, to keep her focus on the task at-hand. I remember my own attempts at learning other languages, and the familiar taste of self-consciousness floods my mouth. “The parents and children do homework together. They help each other. There’s never a question of getting it done. They want to do it,” Miss Maritsa says.
I study the beautiful book they have produced – “Healthy Multicultural Cookbook 2008,” including recipes from Mauritania, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the United States. Someone explains that they have analyzed the recipes, replacing some of the ingredients with an eye toward making each as healthy as possible.
I remember the special lunches we organized for my first third grade class years ago, each family signing up twice a year to bring in something from another country. It strikes me again, as it did then, that food makes the intangibles in an educational community tangible. It makes personalities fit and people belong – and the sense of belonging is the ingredient that we all need.
“I had a drink in a Cuban restaurant recently,” I tell Miss Maritsa. “It was made from orange juice and milk.”
She recognizes it immediately. “Yes, you put the milk in first, then drizzle the orange juice on the spoon like it’s a waterfall. Add a little sugar…but it’s very fattening.”
“What’s it called?”
“To die dreaming.”
Outside the school, I see the space where they plan to make a community garden next year. I walk back to the subway, retracing my steps past MacDonalds, Popeye’s, Dunkin Donuts and Wendy’s, and I read the poem by the Hernandez family from my notes:
Humans are hungry
Eat vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins
Appreciate our food
Lovely fruit to be eaten
Tortilla is bread, bread comes from grains
Ham is from the protein group
Yearn not for junk food