Siempre de buen ánimo: Always a good person by JAH

Siempre de buen ánimo
Always a good person
by JAH
I’d just woken up, had gotten ready, had breakfast, and was on my commute to school whenI called Raul's mother, Celinda Acevado (Celie), knowing she's be up at 5:00 am, to ask her to come into school today to discuss what happened yesterday. It was too early for school, I had already driven an hour, and had at least another hour to go depending on traffic. Celie said, "He already left for school. Jacob (Raul's baby brother) is colicky. I don't know if I am going to be able to meet you." I didn't question her. Raul had probably gone to one of the other public development buildings in her project to an apartment owned by his paternal grandmother, where his father lived for two reasons, to get some breakfast, and tell his father his story about what had happened the day before at school. He knew his mother was busy, and he was looking for a fight, and hoped his father would protect him. Raul had me up half the night. "I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy," Celie added. Raul's one of my students, Puerto Rican, but born in America, an American citizen. I don’t get much sleep, m worrying bout my students, and commuting, practicing clinical, school, social work with. Raul’s on my mind these days more than others. At that time, I had about forty-five cases, up from twenty-five when started. Education was becoming more of a business than a public service, and we were annually asked to do more with less. 

"When the house phone rang yesterday, at noon I saw it was the school on our caller ID and thought it was you. I wanted to answer, I immediately sensed there was something wrong. There’s almost always something wrong with Raul when the school calls. 
Raul’s my oldest. His father’s no help. I got involved with him when I was in Middle School. The same school where Raul goes, only he’s still in Elementary School. Michael’s the only other one of my children who’s started school. He’s five, and so far, not having any trouble in kindergarten. Raul’s in fifth grade. He’s had trouble in school since he was in kindergarten when his teachers complained that he was eating chicken nuggets off of the floor. Raul never did that at home" Celie explained. I wondered why when Raul did that someone didn’t sit down and start eating with him. Raul would have realized if somebody bothered to sit down and eat with him that they meant business. It could have helped him calm down. Raul’s like that. "He needs more attention than most people. He wants you to notice him even when he acts like he doesn’t. That’s why I like you. Raul pays more attention to me at home, I get less calls from his school when you are around. He knows you care about him,", Celie pined.

My children are my life. Whatever spirit I had as a child was taken from me by my alcoholic and macho father who abused me, and my cowardly mother who hid from him, and offered no protection, but to look the other way. There’s no use talking about it. He’s dead. He died suddenly of a heart attack. Before he died he wouldn’t let me go anywhere. That’s how I got involved with Raul’s father. He was my best girlfriend’s older brother in Middle School. That’s the only way my father let me out of the house, to go and see my girlfriend who lived in another building in the Lillian Wald Houses. She’s gone now. She’s a lesbian and doing something working and living in the Bronx. I don’t see or talk wo her any more. Her mother, Raul’s grandmother, still lives in the same apartment. Raul goes over there sometimes. Raul’s father lives with her. Raul says he sees his father there, but he’s hardly ever home. He says he works, but I don’t believe him. He’s always at the corner on Avenue D and East Third Street in front of that store where they sell drugs. He says he doesn’t have any money, but I don’t believe that either. He always has new clothes, and sunglasses, and other nice things. If he has a job it’s just a cover for selling drugs, but I don’t think he could even keep a job for very long. There’s something wrong with him that I didn’t know until after I was pregnant with Raul and we were married. His mother told me later that when he was a kid he was hit in the head with a brick. That’s where he got that scar on the middle of his forehead. It messed him up. He’s so moody that you never know what to expect from him. When we were married he did was go out doing whatever, and clubbing. When I said something, he told me to shut up. So, I left him. I wasn’t going to stand for him being disloyal when he was married to me. My father was so strict and abusive, and my mother was so weak. She wasn’t my mother or my friend, but just a victim like me. Although she thinks that she’s a good mother, and was a good friend to me. She thinks that she’s a good grandmother, but the truth is that she likes us living with her. I mean the appearance of our living with her, but the truth is that she spends most of her time at home in her room, and complains whenever I need her to help me with the kids.  Celie’s phone rings and she lifts her head slightly as her round chin just our and up as she knowingly looks at me without looking at her cell, and says: “See. That’s her. I haven’t been gone for long and she’s wondering where I am, and when I’m coming back. She wants to go out. She told me so even before I left as I was getting ready to see you.” She answers the phone and in Spanish reassures her mother that she’s almost done, and she’ll be home soon. Celie hangs up the phone and says, “She had to know what my father was doing to me. She never stood up for me even when he got so strict it was ridiculous because he got completely controlling. He controlled her, too. I remember the look that crossed my mother’s face when my father suddenly died. It looked like a wave of relief that crashed on me. She was left standing, but I was knocked down to the sand, tumbling underwater, getting scraped on the beach. She got a job, and then a boyfriend. She’s no help with my kids. Minding them sometimes, she always complaining about it. When I talk she says that it’s my fault because I can’t keep my legs together, but what else can I do. That’s all I know. I was a good student. In Middle School I wrote beautiful papers for my teachers who told me how well I could write. I have no voice. My children’s voices are my voice. That's all they have. Without theirs I’m nobody.” 

“You want to know why I have sex with my children’s fathers. I don’t enjoy it. There’s no pleasure for me in having sex with them. I’ve never had what people describe as an orgasm. I don’t think that I’m capable of having one. I don’t love them. I’m incapable of loving them. They don’t know me either. They think that they do, but they don’t. There’s no intimacy between us. I have sex with them for their attention and the warmth that I feel when I’m with them. I have sex with them because that’s what they want. I do it to please them, not myself. That’s what they expect of me, so I live up to their expectations.”

            “There’s no talking to them other than what they tell me to do. If I have any voice of my own no one’s heard it. It would even be unrecognizable to me if I did. You see, I’ve always tried to be a good person. That’s how I survive, by always trying to be a good person.” Besides Jacob, Raul, and Michael, I also have Jaylene, my only girl so far. She was my easiest baby, so far. We live with my mother, Awilda, in the Lillian Wald Houses where I grew up. The apartment that we live in belongs to my mother. It only has two bedrooms and we’re growing out of it. I’m hoping because of Michael’s asthma we might be eligible for a bigger one which could be mine. The houses are really 16 buildings, ten, eleven, thirteen and fourteen stories tall located on over sixteen acres, bordered by the FDR Drive, Avenue D, East 6th and East Houston Streets. There are two thousand apartments, and five thousand residents. It’s the only world I’ve ever known. I’ve learned to mind my own business. When I go out I usually don’t talk to anybody I do what I’ve got to do, and then I go home. I’ve learned that when I talk to somebody, they’re usually up to no good, and at the very least what I had to say gets back to me, but not in a good way. When I hear it again it’s usually twisted into something else that I hardly recognize, and certainly not what I said. I don’t trust anybody. 

Although Dr. George is the only one who calls when sometimes something good happens to him. I wouldn’t have answered it for anybody else. Sometimes, I don’t answer when Dr. George’s calls either. I don’t like Raul’s school. They do things that make me mistrust them. I judge the people educating Raul individually. I don’t have a very good relationship with Raul’s school. Sometimes, I do but only differently with the individual people working there who know Raul. I like Dr. George because he seems to like Raul. He takes the time to explain things to me about what’s happening at school. Sometimes, he talks too much, and I don’t have the time to listen. I answered the call because I knew that if I didn’t what happened might worsen if I didn’t get involved, and Jacob and Jaylene were quiet for the moment. It was Dr. George’s intensely pitched voice on the line. He said that Raul had followed directions, and tried hard doing his school work all morning. 

Raul skipped eating lunch. He did not have time to wait. Raul wanted to play. While Raul should have been in the cafeteria sitting and eating with his class he stayed in the open area used for indoor recreation just outside of it. No one noticed, or if they did they didn’t want to bother chasing him, or confronting him. Raul’s fast, and stubborn. He sometimes does whatever he wants to do when he wants it. Taking whatever liberties, he wants without taking any of the accompanying responsibilities. Today, he obviously felt like he wanted two recesses, so he played through both twice without caring that he was out of his designated location. He played in the first recess designated for the older children: sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Raul’s in fifth grade. Right on the border between Elementary and Middle Schools, so he must have blended into the crowd. It’s possible that no one noticed him missing, out of our place.  In between recesses he probably hardly noticed the older students piling into the cafeteria, as his peers flowed out. 

The school’s open area used for recess is located on the schools ground floor. It’s adjacent to the cafeteria which, although large, is a much smaller space. It’s a giant, high-ceilinged all-purpose room; built as an addition in the one-hundred-year-old school’s courtyard on East Houston Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its roof looks like a greenhouse’s, hinged, awning and casement windows, allowing for ventilation when it rains or snows. Large fans that no longer work hang its ceiling. In summer, the air is circulated by giant, metal, standing fans, that partially rotate, atop long, thick, steel poles with heavy bases. They churn the air into a breeze that hardly blew only dries everyone’s perspiration when they stand in front of them to keep cool. Like lighthouses the fans overlook teachers who gather in small flocks of disinterested, flightless birds standing on a beach over a sea of children who play like waves. The teachers talk to each other as the children play with each other. 

During the school year, not summer school, most teachers are more concerned about how they’re being judged. They’re as disinterested and self-conscious as teenagers holding mirrors up to themselves. Very few possessed the natural ability of flight: to form authentic connections with their students like love. In the cold weather the ceiling resembles a shuttered greenhouse. Needless to say, the roof was filthy, although the floor was polished by the custodial staff almost every day. Peering up through the dirty, glazed glass the sky looked white. Looking down on it from the school’s fifth floor, inside windows the glass roof was covered with a grimy film, and littered with trash. It was a shame to see such a magnificent fortress-like courtyard and grand entrance covered. Consolidation schools into special education, general education, and charter, building precipitated the need for a general-purpose room. The solution the city came up with was to cover the courtyard. 

It was only after the second recess that the trouble started. The school nurse had forgotten to give Raul his prescribed 11:15 am dose of Ritalin before he headed downstairs; Raul and his teacher also forgot. In those days he took two doses of Ritalin; the first given to him at home with breakfast: one in the morning, and the second before lunchtime. After recess, as his class lined up in front of their teacher, she turned, about-faced, and started them upstairs. Snaking up the five flights of ink-colored, stone steps to their special education classroom for social studies; stopping at each landing to keep order and catch their breaths. The class was bathed in dusty sunbeams that came pouring through the sealed windows located at each landing that were split by the thickly wired grate that covered them. They were also enclosed by a similar, but even thicker, wire mesh metal frame in the stairwell.  The landings resembled batting cages, where mice scrambled freely especially when school was not in session: at night and on the weekends. The custodians also spent a lot of their time cleaning up their droppings and exterminating them. This space more than any other in the school looked its age since the window frames were layered with paint applied with abandon over each other without ever removing the previous coat. 

The line was not moving fast enough for Raul. He felt thirsty, and remembered that there was a water fountain on the first floor; he wanted a drink. His crew cut looked like a hummingbird’s wings flitting between flowers as he ran between floors. Making it back to the all-purpose room, he found the water fountain, twisted the handle, sipped the water, swallowing it, but lagging far behind. Too late to catch up; he started back slowly.

As he walked up the stairs, using each as a perch, examining them as he went, another teacher, Katherine O’Connell, not Raul’s, suddenly came upon him in transit from having eaten her lunch out. Raul was distracted, lost in his own thoughts. O’Connell surprised him, 
“What are you doing here on your own,” shouting at him with such urgency that Raul was caught off guard! Hesitating for only a split-second Raul stopped dead in his tracks becoming an indignant. 

“What do you care?” he answered, slowly retreating.  Insulted, O’Connell reached for him, grabbing him by his twiggy wrist. 
He cried, “Get the fuck off of me, you fucking bitch,” her tight hand now grabbing the branchy part pf his arm whitening the skin on either side of her grip. Raul idly threatened her, “I’ve got a knife in my pocket, and if you don’t fucking let me go I’m going to take it out and stab you with it!” 

Somehow, O’Connell and Raul made it to the landing between the fourth and fifth floors. The force of her dragging him combined with his resistance had propelled them to that point. But that was as far as Raul would go. As she grew tired, digging his heels into the stone steps, slipping on their smooth stone surface, Raul struggled to get free. The top of his sneakers finally caught onto the edge of the cage as O’Connell dragged him around another corner. He trapped her there. Grabbing his other wrist, twisting his arms behind his back creating a capital letter “X” in back of Raul’s small head. Pushing his chest, followed by his face on the floor, with her elbows pressed into his back, he writhed in pain. Straddling his rail-like body, like a wrestler, sitting on his thighs to stop him from kicking her, O’Connell cried for help. Raul, twisting his head with all of his might spat at her. Screaming; he missed twice; his spittle looking shiny on the black floor, and on his chin and cheek.

“Get off of me you fucking bitch! When my mother and father find out about what you did to me, they’re going to fix you up! I’m going to kill you! You fucking bitch! What do you think you’re doing! I’m going to get you!” His face reddened as he grimaced in pain as O’Connell tightened her grip.   

Later, after help arrived, Raul was set free, and taken to the principal’s office. She asked me, Raul’s school social worker to call Raul’s mother, Celinda Hernandez. It was Friday and she unfortunately waited, arriving at school as it was being dismissed, after the teachers had already left. Maybe she wanted to avoid them, concerned about losing her temper? The remaining students, including Raul, were being supervised by aides, counselors, an assistant principal, and me. When Raul saw his mother, he flew to her as if he was a paper clip and she was a magnet.

“Look at what she did to me. I got a bruise from that fucking bitch.” He spoke to her like the man of the house. She turned to him, shouting, “And don’t you curse!” She turned to us and we, the assistant principal and I, explained what happened. Angrily looking at us, she wondered, “Who is Ms. O’Connell to do that to my son? She’s not even Raul’s teacher!” She persisted, “What if I came in here, and did that to Raul? What would you think of me,” she pleaded? “What would you do? You’d report me. That’s what! I’ll come back on Monday morning and see the principal if that’s what you want me to do. Ms. O’Connell’s lucky that she’s not here now” 

I listened, as we walked away next to each other as Raul trialed behind us. We bid the assistant principal good-bye. Celinda continued, more quietly, “He was just trying to catch up with his class. Uh huh, I don’t know, what she did don’t seem right,” she argued. “His father’s a character. I’m a character. Now, it’s after school, Ms. O’Connell’s probably gone, right?  How could she do that? I’m not going to let her get away with it. She’s a grown woman, and he’s only a nine-year-old boy. I’m going to report her. She knew I’d be looking for her. I’m going to lose it.” Celinda said. Swarthy, five feet tall, but forceful, at twenty-six years old, standing at an angle, arching her back, defending her son, she was hurt, but acting tough. “I came right up here when my brother gave me the message that you called. And you know, it’s funny, this morning when I brought Raul to school I saw them, from Day Treatment, holding that, what’s her name, little Lakiera, on the floor with her hands behind her head. I said to myself, if that ever happens to Raul I would lose it. I’m going to come back on Monday morning to talk to her. Don’t worry, I’ll be calm, but what she did, it isn’t right. I won’t embarrass anybody, but that’s wrong,” her light, brown face, and full mouth intoned. 

Walking Celinda out, after we met with the assistant principal about the incident the I escorted her to pick up Raul’s little brother, Michael, in another part of the school. Celinda continued, “I said that I was going to report the teacher, but I’m not sure. I just told the assistant principal that because I’m upset, and she’s got no power. They’re not going to do anything. They’ll say it’s a safety issue; that Raul was being dangerous. He was out of location and not following directions so O’Connell had to restrain him. But I know that’s not true. What I really want is to confront Ms. O’Connell on Monday morning and find out why she did that to my son?” We found Michael in a second-floor classroom doing arts and crafts with other children with thick school paste and construction paper. He got out of his seat and tried to show her what he had made, but she was distracted. “Come on Michael,” Celinda called to her kindergartener. Stopping short, waiting for Michael to catch up, tossing her chest, (her stomach was flattening after recent childbirth), She was wearing a thin navy-blue sweater with v neck, crossed with a short, white, winter scarf She used her body to help like a weapon. Her gait and posture were her defense. She walked with the purpose of a battering ram. “Let’s go Michael,” commanding him, zipping up her black, man’s baseball jacket, with thick, red and white piping defining her round shoulders, letting an inch of the soft scarf show above its cloth collar. 
Raul stood directly at her side like a grown man, even a husband, doting on her every move. They were joined in a crisis. Celinda strode with her children out of the oversized schoolhouse door, painted red (an unwitting reminder of the “little red schoolhouse” and all of its implications as an icon of cooperative learning and strict discipline). She walked with them down the wide, grey, slate steps, crossed the sidewalk, and made a left into the playground, Raul marching at her side, while Michael trailed along behind them, duckling-like. Past the parks department maple leaf, through the open gate in the steely, chain-link fence, marching home. They reside in an apartment in one of the buildings in the public housing project neighboring the school. It is a two-bedroom flat where Celinda grew up. Now she lives there with her fifty-year-old mother, Awilda, Raul and Michael, her daughter, Jaylene, barely a toddler, and her new baby boy, Jacob. Each of her children has a different father. Michael’s is incarcerated. His father is scheduled to get out of prison after Michael turns fifteen.

Celinda was abused verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually by her father, who died suddenly around the time when Raul was born. Nobody talks about him. She is very attractive and quick-witted, but undereducated: a decent student who liked school before dropping out at sixteen. Celinda went to the same school as Raul and Michael. That is where she met Raul’s father. She is charming. People seem taken not only with her good looks, but her pride: a sense of entitlement. Celinda’s personality appears magnetic. Attracting people’s attention with an intensity that people sometimes mistake for anger, but is really only sadness. Sometimes, they dare her to lose her temper by taunting her with their behavior just so they can watch the show. That may be why she sometimes walks like a battering ram. To be a beautiful, young woman living in a housing project is dangerous, and Celinda learned the hard way how to keep her eyes fixed in front of her and walk fast with her head down. 

Where her children were concerned she inevitably rose to take the bait whenever she sensed that they were threatened. Raul learned this, and used it to his advantage by setting up situations, essentially picking fights, that invariably led to his being restrained in school. This brought his mother close to him. He became a fisherman. The school was not at a loss to provide teachers and their assistants that Raul treated like fish. He would unconsciously catch, clean and cook them; serving them up to his mother for lunch. His parents didn’t get along. They were never married and broken up. That brokenness is what he is comfortable with; more than taking responsibility. His intelligence is average, and doctors at Bellevue say that there isn’t anything essentially wrong with him psychiatrically, other than his emotional problems. Initially, thought that he might struggle with the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, since he has staying focused on uninteresting things. He is also impulsive, and easily distracted. Afterwards, they considered that he had a Mood Disorder, a personality like a shifting river, running differently: fast and slow, shallow and deep, warm and cool. Finally, they prescribed him a form of Ritalin, Concerta, a stimulant medication released over time, about the length of a school day, allegedly to sculpt the rougher edges of his behavior smooth. It only helped a little, and then only when his mother gave it to him regularly. However, once Raul’s teachers, or their assistants, touched him it was difficult for Celinda to consider how he got into trouble in the first place; the focus quickly shifting onto his teacher’s behavior. All confidence was lost once Raul was restrained: trust being Celinda’s core issue. He was off the hook.   
Two days later she confided again in me after meeting with the principal and Katherine O’Connell about what happened, “She’s not going to do nothing. I told you. I knew it, but I stayed calm, even though she said he was a danger. I kept my cool. He didn’t do anything. He was minding his own business. Ms. O’Connell caught him out of location. That’s all. But he wasn’t going to leave the building. He never did that. I could’ve lost it. I have to stay strong because his father’s no good. Sometimes, I think that Raul is just like him, and it’s too late. Except when he was a teenager his father was accidentally hit in the head with a brick. It did something to him. You’ve seen the scar on his forehead. It did something to him. I didn’t even tell him what happened. I never loved him. I only thought that I did. It was a mistake. I don’t think that I can ever really love a man. All the men I’ve been with I didn’t love. They wanted me, but I didn’t feel anything, even when we had sex. Sex isn’t important to me. I never had any love for them. I love my kids, and they really love me, but I don’t have any love for any man. Men only want to control me, to tell me what to do. I don’t want that. I like being alone; even when I was in school. I never cried for nobody, no matter what happened. 

Celinda was on a roll. She was opening up. “I can’t stay still, like Raul, but now I just want to take care of my family. Raul was planned. I mean, his father and I were together, but we never got married. I was sixteen when I met him. I was good in school before I met him, but then when we met, we were friends, and I started hanging around his house more. I was already friends with his sister; that’s the only reason I got to see his father because my father wouldn’t let me go nowhere, but he let me go over my girlfriend’s house.”
There was more, “After I met Raul’s father it was over for me and school. I let him take over my life. I was good at school. I liked school, I did my work, but then I met him, and he became everything to me. I dropped out. He’s angry at me now. We don’t talk to each other. He won’t even look at me. I know why. He didn’t like that I had another baby by another man after we broke up. I tried to work it out, but after Raul was born he treated me so badly. All he wanted to do is play, and go clubbing, while I was taking care of Raul. Now, he’s no good. Raul reminds me of him. I want to save him, but he makes it very difficult. The rest of my kids: Michael, Jaylene, and Jacob, were all accidents.” Celinda’s paradox is partly that she is indeed a good person, with good intentions to be a good mother, but she struggles with who she is, her identity is not completely formed. She is stuck in Junior High School. Celinda alternates between joining Raul to fight with people, and humiliating him out of a fear that he will grow up to disrespect her. 

She continued, “Michael’s father is in jail. He won’t get out until Michael turns fifteen. I still see Jaylene’s father. He comes over to see her, and takes care of her sometimes when I’m sick. Jacob’s father is also in jail. I think that I might get my tubes tied. You know, things happen.” Celinda’s cell phone rang. We met alone to try to figure out a way to focus on Raul’s behavior and stop adults from restraining him.  Her mother was calling to ask her to come home. She had left her two younger children in her mother’s care while she came to school to meet about Raul. “My mother doesn’t like taking care of them, but she lets us stay with her. We don’t have any place else to go. We get along, but when my father died after I had Raul, she was so relieved that she got a boyfriend and a part-time job. She likes it that we stay with her, but she doesn’t help me very much. She says what I know that everybody else says: that if I hadn’t spread my legs so much I wouldn’t be in so much trouble. I don’t feel like I’m in trouble. I’ve applied for a bigger apartment on our own because Michael has asthma. It might happen.” 

Celinda explained, “They say I’m a whore, but I’m always a good person, a spiritual person, not religious like all those people in the projects that try to convert you into a Jehovah’s Witness. They try to get you to confide in them only to condemn you later with what you told them. I try to stay away from them. I would like to go back to school, and get a job taking care of old people. I always liked old people and they like me. But my mother won’t watch the kids so I am stuck.” As much as Celinda says that she wanted to save her son, Raul, but it seems that she cannot even begin to save herself. She alternated between humiliating and defending Raul. Ultimately, she condemned him to his father’s fate: a drug-dealing thug. She was also afraid that Raul would eventually grow to disrespect her as blatantly as he sometimes disrespects others. Imprisoned in a cell of her own making, Celinda is serving what appears to be a life sentence for having been abused. It is not her fault, but what is she going to do about it when she does not even carry any picture identification because she does not have any. She seems to be a child living in a woman’s body: oblivious to almost anything that does not directly impact on her. 


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