Let’s be Human in New York

I am sure anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past couple of weeks has followed the incredible story on Humans of New York, the young man from Brownsville named Vidal, his principal Ms. Nadia Lopez, and the crowd-sourced fundraiser that Brandon Stanton (the photographer of Humans of New York, also called HONY) set up to send the students from Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville on a field trip to Harvard each year that raised over a million dollars from his global community in less than five days for an inner-city school filled with high-poverty students.

Like anyone who has worked in an inner-city school, when Vidal’s first post came onto my Facebook feed I was incredibly moved. It read:

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Soon it had been reposted by about a dozen of my educator friends and Vidal’s face and words came up on my feed again and again and again. And each time I looked at him and read those words. That sweet young man, a face full of innocence, wearing a hoodie that has become symbolic of too much, housing projects in the background, words of praise for a public school educator. I loved it. I can’t lie. It got me right here (fist pounds on my heart). I was smitten.

And then when the principal was featured, I was thrilled. And then some teachers were featured and I was practically bouncing for joy. Next the fundraiser went bonkers and a ton of publicity followed (The Ellen Show, Good Morning America). And now HONY is featuring more folks from the community: An ex-con who made a dumb mistake as a kid and now mentors other kids at the school in hopes that they won’t do the same. I can’t get enough.

The ripple of love from that one young man seems endless.

So, what’s the catch–you ask? While I have enjoyed this internet foray into Brownsville with all the amazing educators, kids, and adults there, I have two thoughts to toss out to the world:

1. There are students, educators, principals, parents, and adults who are working their asses off to be good role models and to support inner city kids ALL OVER THIS CITY. And other cities. Not that these folks featured on HONY aren’t amazing–they are amazing–but they are not unique. I can name dozens of people off the top of my head who are at work right now doing exactly this. I’m thrilled that this small handful of people are getting recognition because they truly have thankless jobs, but I can’t help but wish all the people who do this work in public schools, all the kids who have good souls and listen to their teachers and are trying to do the right thing, all the moms who are doing the best they can with very little, all those who go back to their communities to foster change–I wish they could all get a day or two of glory in some way. Yes, it’s too much to ask, but I still want it.

2. I have read so many of the comments posted on these photos, and they are (minus the few haters) full of human compassion, sympathy, empathy, love, acknowledgement, praise, kindness…It’s amazing. But I can’t help but wonder if these folks from Brownsville weren’t profiled on HONY, would they get the same treatment? Why does it take HONY to humanize people? Why can’t we do this by ourselves? Why can’t we ask each other for our stories, find out who the kid is beneath the hoodie, who the man is with 10:2:7 tattoo, who the young woman is with the red afro and the Earth Science textbook? Why do we find it so easy to love each other through a Facebook page but so hard to do this in person?

I am at fault for all of this, too. I don’t tell my friends who teach in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Boston, Denver that they’re freakin’ awesome enough. I don’t tell my own kids teachers in their high-ranked Park Slope elementary school that they’re freakin’ awesome enough. I find it much easier to hit “like” on a photo on my computer than to commit a real act of kindness or compassion. This critique is not above me.

Just musing on a day that would have been Trayvon Martin’s 20th birthday, during a month in which we celebrate Black History, during a month when we celebrate also love…Maybe we can combine all three and do something a little more real than clicking “like” or donating through a website. Maybe we can just talk to each other a bit more. Maybe we can try a little bit harder be human–to each other–in New York, or anywhere.

UPDATE: VIDAL & MS. LOPEZ WERE AT THE FREAKIN’ WHITE HOUSE?! OMG–I think I might my mind was just blown. Excuse me–I’m going to have to hire that clean up guy from Pulp Fiction to clean my brains off my desk…

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4 thoughts on “Let’s be Human in New York

  1. I like the questions you’ve raised. I also think of all the quiet amazing people walking amongst us. These people should be the headlines.

    I often think I would like to stop and have a chat with random people and ask the right questions to draw out an amazing story like Brandon does, but I don’t. I’m self conscious and feel it would seem invasive. But I’m so thrilled when I meet people that have a gift of making others talk.

    Love is inside all of us.

    • I try to talk to folks when I can on the train. Living in NYC makes it easier in some ways because there are people all around us and, honestly, most of them aren’t jerks. I am sure Brandon edits a great deal of what he hears compared to what he posts, but any human interaction–even a smile–can go a long way. And I do often ask people about their tattoos. One, because I love tattoos and two, because they are great stories. That’s easier to do in the summer, though, when we’re not buried in puffy coats!

  2. I would add that to actually prepare poor students to be college ready (overcoming substandard schools and often dysfunctional family lives) requires far more consistent support than that provided by a single Harvard field trip (it requires tutoring, parental or third party involvement to monitor a student’s progress in school, after school enrichment throughout middle school and high school, counseling and a thousand other things. It is almost insidious to suggest that such a single trip does anything, other than give more affluent people a chance to believe they are helping to change things. Forget improving schools, forget jobs for the poor, for affordable housing, donate so a poor kid gets to visit Harvard and all is well. Not.

    • Elias–I totally, totally agree. I have often been at odds with other educators who wanted to take our students on trips to Harvard with the same purpose of Ms. Lopez–to teach them that they belonged everywhere. I get that sentiment, I do. But even as a White very middle class girl, I was taught that I did NOT belong at Harvard. I was good to great but not extraordinary in school and sports (therefore no scholarships) and there was no money to send me to a place like Harvard. I made peace with the Harvard trip because of the value of travel. When I taught in Brooklyn, I would often take students in 12th grade to Central Park when we read The Catcher in the Rye and there was always a dozen or more kids who had never been to Central Park after living in NYC for 18 years! Poverty and lack of education limit opportunities to see places, and as a big fan of travel and knowing that travel changed my life, I’m all for just taking those kids to Boston (which I think is a sucky city, sorry Boston), but who cares! It’s out of Brooklyn and it’ll be an adventure that they’ll never forget. But I hear ya. Schools like that need so much more.

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