|Chanel and me in 1992. She is 12 and I am 29.|
Tomorrow morning I will be leaving home for three days. I’m going to Sacramento to hold a beloved hand.
The story begins about 23 years ago, when I was a young teacher in Vallejo. I was one of those teachers who spent about 18 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, pouring my heart and soul into my classroom. I can still remember the looks on their faces when I read aloud to them after lunch, their bodies draped across their desks, sweaty from a recess of dodgeball and four-square. I can remember how they smelled! And I remember their hugs and silliness and beautiful poetry and voices when we sang together. Many of those kids became a piece of my heart, their stories of gang violence, drug addicted parents, and loss at an early age causing me to take stock of all that my life had sheltered me from. Two children from my second year teaching are still a big part of my life, Chanel and Jasmine, though now they are beautiful young women of 30. Both still call me Miss Stonefield when they speak of me to each other, I'm sure, though I insist they call me Susie. And both have told me they want and expect me to be present at their personal milestones this year – a birth and a wedding. I would not, I could not refuse.
(Today’s story is about Chanel. I’ll tell you about Jasmine in a month or two.)
Chanel came into my classroom as a child of nine, bouncy and bubbly, loud, funny, and unkempt. She had all sorts of learning issues, she also had a few social issues, but she was never a pessimist. Her family consisted of numerous cousins, aunts, uncles, a few younger siblings, a mother I rarely saw, and a grandmother who was the family matriarch. Most of her relatives lived in the Crest, a gang ravaged neighborhood in north Vallejo, near what is now a colorful amusement park with large rollercoasters sprouting out of the ground like strange alien lifeforms painted orange and red, purple and turquoise. It’s an odd contrast to the neighborhood right next door that seems to house the grimmest of communities. About a third of my class came from just such a neighborhood. Chanel’s family was full of drug dealers and prostitutes and other folk who never seemed to work, but could always be found smoking in front of the TV in Grandma’s living room. Many times I would drop Chanel off or pick her up from Grandma’s house and I would try to make small talk with her elders, always feeling completely out of my element and slightly on edge.
Chanel was in my class for two years, both 4th and 5th grade, and she and I had some mighty chemistry between us. I loved that girl with all my heart. She was an amazing spirit, so funny and optimistic, especially considering the row she had to hoe. Her heart was pure gold and her smile lit up the room. I would frequently take my class down the street to sing at a convalescent home and Chanel would always go right on up to the old folks, even the drooling ones, the ones that freaked out the adults in our group a bit, and she’d sit right down saying, “Well, hi. How are you? My name is Chanel!” What heart. Such an unusual soul.
I remember receiving an envelope the summer after Chanel had graduated from my class and moved on to 6th grade. In it was a photocopy of an essay written in a messy child's hand and a note written by a teacher. "I thought you might want to read this," the note said. The essay was a 5th grade writing proficiency test given districtwide. The topic the students had to write about: "The Most Important Person in My Life." The essay was Chanel's. She'd written about me.
Over the years I kept in contact with her on and off, and it got harder after I left Vallejo’s school district in 1992. During high school she slipped off my radar, but one day Jasmine ran into her in town and told her, “Miss Stonefield’s mad at you! You better call her!” And she did. Again years elapsed before we caught up, but finally in 2002, we connected again through Jasmine, and we had a reunion. It was wonderful to see them both, rather than woman and girls we were all women now. Chanel had made it through a bumpy high school career, helped out of the murk of the Crest by a cousin who’d made it to the NFL. She’d lived with him in Reno, taken junior college classes and met a young man. With him she became a parent to Arianna, her beautiful daughter who is only a year younger than Toby, my baby. That took some getting used to!
|Jasmine, Chanel and Arianna at our reunion in 2002.|
I often had thought that were it ever to become necessary I would have adopted Chanel, or at least taken her in and raised her. Mark loved her too, so it wasn’t just fantasy. But it never did seem to come to that. She is such a strong person and she’s persevered to become an anchor for her own family. Now, living in Sacramento, raising her daughter and working, her mother and sisters and cousins gravitate to her proximity. I worry that one day they’ll bring her down with them.
Throughout these past eight years we’ve had some amazing conversations and I’ve had the chance to give her some needed support. Chanel has thanked me for being the person all through the years who had faith in her. She told me she knew it to be true even during the years we were out of contact. Knowing that, I told Mark, I could die happy. I'd been her anchor even when I wasn't near her. She'd heard what I'd told her all those years.
Several months ago she told me she was pregnant with her second child. Practically an old woman (by the standards of her peer group) to be having her second. But she was more careful than most, I’d say. I’m proud of her. She knew ahead of time she’d be having a scheduled C-section and she asked me to be there with her. The baby’s daddy is not in the picture, and her mom just isn’t up to the job. She wants me to hold her hand during the operation. I hope I don’t faint, I told her.
So tomorrow I’m heading up to Sacramento. I’m going to go hang out with Chanel and Arianna, take her some needed items for the baby and some fun stuff for Miss Ari. Maybe we’ll go shopping and get some other things, too. Tuesday, though, we’ll meet at the hospital at 5:30 am. Then, after the baby comes, we'll hang out. Maybe I'll spend some time with Arianna. And Wednesday I'll come back for another day, see if I can help Chanel get the hang of breastfeeding. (Have I told you that I have a dream of one day being a doula...when my kids get old and don't need me around as much?)
Ben has been having some separation anxieties, but his pain is almost completely gone. I've talked to him about why I am going away for three days. He seems to get it. He seems to understand that Chanel needs me, too.
I'll tell you how it all went when I come home!