©2011 Odilia Rivera Santos
I remember teaching an English as a Second Language class in the basement of a church in the South Bronx with gloves on and actually considering whether to don a hat as well. I was wearing a couple of pairs of socks and boots, but my feet were still freezing. I think they couldn’t afford to heat the place, and with cement floors, you can imagine the damp cold and how it creeps into your bones. The class was at night and the streets were very dark. The rolling clouds and crisp dark blue sky was reminiscent of an el Greco painting. Standing outside the building about to pull the gate closed, I wondered what the hell I was doing there.
I loved my students and felt a tremendous amount of compassion for their struggles but I did not feel safe in the neighborhood. It was always a precarious journey from there to home, but it was hard to leave the immigrants behind. I once organized a trip to a public library, which to me was a simple trip and nothing one would consider special. It was a beautiful Fall Saturday morning and because some of my students were afraid to take the subway or not yet acclimated, I met them in front of the el Greco church — that’s not the name of the church; it’s just how I decided to store it in my memory, as a painting.
I stood there and the students brought older relatives and children. It was very moving in its simplicity and to consider how education shifts foci. I almost cried as they introduced me to their relatives.
Everyone got library cards, and they marveled at how such a magnificent building with an endless supply of books and media could be utilized by poor people. One student was surprised at how everyone was at the library, rich and poor.
One student told me it was the most beautiful place they had seen in New York City. As a child, the New York Public Library was my sanctuary, my petite madeleine, my spoon to dig myself out of Sing Sing, so it was exciting to see the light in their eyes at the thought of reading a book.
I loved those students and still remember looking out to see those tired determined faces, ready to practice articulation exercises and excited to listen to their teacha’s stories about enjoying life despite poverty and the discomforts of unexpected life changes.
I left teaching to write full-time, and you know when you know. There are no regrets despite the change in income; I see this shift as an opportunity to learn a lot of new skills. Yesterday, I realized how much years of teaching helps me in doing difficult repetitive tasks. I become a deep-breathing zen being who looks through dry texts carefully sorting information — what to keep and what to delete. I learned a lot about human motivation, fear, and psychology from my many years of teaching. I also learned to do a lot of different accents. I did a lot of motivational speeches to groups of homeless people, survivors of domestic violence and sat speaking one-on-one with men recently released from prison to talk about creating goals after experiencing tremendous losses in life. I met men who lived in the homeless shelter because no one in their families would talk to them, their kids were not allowed to visit them and their wives and girlfriends had given up.
Listening to fourteen years of people’s stories reinforced the idea of how to succeed in life, one must be comfortable with exposure, risk and failure. Regardless of our background, we all begin and begin again and each time, the world receives us with open arms only if we act as though we were beginning for the first time. I would call my venture into self-publishing and being a full-time writer the beginning of the beginning, and I hope you welcome me with open arms . . . . cause I might need to sleep on your couch.
I uploaded my book Latinalogue, Puerto Rican Nonfiction Part I yesterday and will be uploading two books per month and learning how to market said work. I love to work, and publishing e-books feels like I’ve moved to another country and am busy learning customs and a new language. So far so good.
If you’d like to give back to the sanctuary of a lot of poor children in New York City,
Link New York Public Library Donations