You watch 24, and eventually become numb to how many people Jack Bower mindlessly kills in his pursuit of protecting the president. On the Sopranos, you begin to really understand the necessity of whacking someone who is a threat to your operation. Even time travel comes to be a bit mundane on LOST. Just watching a weekly television show can shift your perception of reality, so it should come as no surprise that spending every day in the South Bronx can deeply alter mine.
The things that I tell people that make them gasp and cringe feel increasingly normal to me. The lives of my students operate under a different concept of reality – a different idea of what’s right and wrong. If you get in a fight, it’s a lesser offense to deck someone in their head than in their face. It’s okay to call someone a bitch, but it’s not alright to say shut up. If someone violates you it is absolutely not okay not to respond in kind, regardless of how inevitable it is that you will be getting your ass kicked. The colors you are wearing denote what gang you are affiliated with, as do the color of the rosary beads around your neck.
These are adorable, funny, smart kids who grow up in a terrifying world of violence and low expectations. I don’t spend time near my school after dark, and yet they live their whole lives there, talking about gunshots they heard in their building the night before with an unflinching acceptance of this as a part of their lives.
I live in a walk-up in Chelsea, and don’t feel guilty about my life. I don’t keep it a secret from my students that I live in Manhattan, and I don’t have any second thoughts about the choices I have made that have brought me to where I am. But it’s a different reality in Chelsea than it is in the South Bronx. When I am there, it’s as though my senses are dulled to the extremes that I confront each day. The cultural differences, the socioeconomic differences, the racial differences – they don’t stand out to me anymore. When I first began to teach, I remembered every encounter with these disparities clearly and shockingly. Now it is difficult for me to look back at a day and recall even a single one. This is how you get through days that are unfathomably sad or scary or disarming. You dull your senses and become a bit numb to it. You change your sense of reality.
But it is very hard to leave the South Bronx, where so many parts of me that matter in the rest of my life – my interest in politics and the news, the books I read, the clothes I wear, the education I’ve been afforded – are forgotten, and return to the world where all of the things that seem normal all day long are jarringly unacceptable. I sit on my couch and call parents to talk about their kids behavior, and they assure me that they are taking care of it and ‘beating the shit’ out of their kids. They say this to reassure me, as though it will calm me – and in truth, when I’m at school it does feel like the right thing for a parent to say. The worst is when parents say that they don’t know how to or can’t control their children. When I call from school, the level of anger in the parents voice, the promise that they will ‘take care of it’ feels like a relief: this parent cares a lot. But at home I hear the same words, echoes of the same promises, and I remember that I don’t support or understand corporal punishment. The defense that it is a cultural difference feels hollow and false, though I know it’s one that many people in my situation lean on in an effort to shift their reality. Cognitive dissonance has to be reduced when what you think and feel are different from what is real, so you change what you CAN control. You convince yourself that this stuff isn’t upsetting, that it is normal and necessary, and that it’s not a big deal.
People can do this. They can adjust their sense of reality, and they can do it almost subconsciously, without exerting any real effort. It’s what allows us to be resilient, to survive in a variety of contexts. But the hardest part of my day is making that shift, from one reality to another, and figuring out which parts of me I can’t compromise.