On Sunday, I drove to visit my old church off Martin Luther King, Jr Avenue in Anacostia. I passed the Big Chair, and I remembered walking beneath it many times as a child. I marveled that the “world’s biggest chair” was so close to my home and school. It was made of real wood then, and I always felt such pride when I saw it.
I sensed by then that some called my home ground “poor,” but I never really saw it that way. To me, the avenues and side streets where my friends and classmates lived brimmed with both life and danger. You just had to know how to walk, and where. Having a national treasure in our midst meant we couldn’t all be defective, even if we were black, something I had come to see as a liability of sorts. I had heard descriptions of myself as economically disadvantaged, socially handicapped, and culturally deprived. It was then I first began to truly appreciate the power of words.
As I turned left and then right down assorted streets, I remembered standing on the corner of what-was-then Nichols Avenue (we pronounced it “Nickolas”) and Good Hope Road when the riots landed back in 1968. I was on my way home from Catholic school in my green and white uniform. It was a Friday. We had been dismissed early, and the nuns did not say why. We all figured it had something to do with Dr. King’s assassination the evening before. I had watched with my mother some reports about looting on the news, but that was all happening downtown, a place I rarely visited.
That day, by the time I turned onto Good Hope, crowds had already gathered. Streams of angry faces seemed to appear suddenly on the sidewalks and even in the streets. Two buses passed, both too packed with students from other schools to stop for me. I heard someone say all the schools had closed early. I remember standing at the bus stop in front of a local clothing store that was oddly closed. I stood there debating whether I should wait for another bus or walk home when a man stopped and deliberately threw a brick through the window of the store.
I often tell my students about how I just stood there for a moment, staring as people, mostly teenage males, swiftly plucked that store clean. When the crowd moved on, the only thing left I could see was a lime green jacket on the mannequin in the window. I had admired the six button, double-breasted wonder with the round lapels for a long time. It was a man’s jacket and probably would never fit me, but I admired the status it promised. I studied the broken glass in that store window and realized I could just reach in with my tiny hands and rip that promise off.
But I knew my mother would never allow me to bring something I could not explain into the house. Then, the angry sirens of police cars solved the dilemma for me, and I joined the river of brown bodies flowing up Good Hope towards Naylor or Alabama. The buses stopped running that Friday afternoon, and, by nightfall, even stores east of the river burned.
I thought about all those things as I drove around the old neighborhood. I noticed a few new establishments, but so much of the commercial life looked and smelled the same. As I passed the swank new public library, I recalled the many days I spent in the old brick building pouring through its books searching for answers to my rising questions about society and my place within.
Were I a child today, ever curious and dreamful, the educational options available to my mother would be greater. Back then, there were pubic schools and a few Catholic ones on our side of town. The Archdiocese closed the school I attended a few years ago. When my brothers and I were there, the eight tiny classrooms each overflowed with almost fifty students pushed by their parents for something more, but, by 2006, total enrollment had declined to a little over one hundred. No longer financially viable, today Our Lady of Perpetual Help School is silent, another relic from yesteryear.
Not far from its old perch now sits a sprawling KIPP building with separate academies for elementary, middle, and high school grades. The building’s dark glass and sharp, red brick corners claim much of one side of Douglass Road. The old Douglass Junior High is gone, or at least hidden underneath the new facade. I wondered how the students who live nearby feel about their new school and all the fanfare surrounding its claims about teaching the poor.
Throughout it all, new town homes and apartment complexes with rustic names and wooden balconies have replaced the grim projects I recall. All along this familiar landscape, up and down old streets, new housing beckoned. Even Parklands, where I once spent so much time, rang new with bright aqua signs announcing villages and matching wooden shingles on all the windows. Children no longer seemed to pack the streets as we once did, playing touch football. I saw no girls gathered around a jumping rope. There are too many cars now, I suppose, and play today seems a more orchestrated affair.
It was a warm day, and the grounds of Garfield Elementary, where I attended kindergarden, teamed with young and not-so-young kids playing basketball. I circled Stanton and Moten public schools. Both are still standing, but new management and new directives suggest quality education remains a challenge for its occupants. I took a wide berth across Malcolm X Avenue and back towards the Metro station that seemed to take years to complete. I observed the majestic columns in front of Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school, and wondered if I might have attended there.
As I glided back over the bridge spanning the Anacostia River, I noticed construction along the old empty banks where we once huddled on hot summer days around bags of steaming crabs. The new Nationals Park glistened in the afternoon light. Stately street lights lined the bridge, and a restaurant’s “Coming Soon” sign covered the faded brick of one building on the other side.
Change, I observed, is like the Cracker Jack’s my wife still enjoys. The box is gone now, replaced by a convenient, resealable bag, but the ingredients remain the same: caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts. Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo still smile in front of a mountain of goodness. The prizes are no longer the spectacular toys I remember fighting my brothers over, but the taste is practically the same.
In all things, even education and its revolving options, change always promises to bring more than it takes, but sometimes you still yearn to go back, at least for a little while, and take just one of those old days of wonder and seal it in water under a glass globe you can shake whenever you find yourself wandering down an uncertain road.