The Flow: Stephanie Joy


exclusive feature
Brian Hughes Kasoro
{Brooklyn, NY:USA}
The Liberator Magazine & Teachers College Columbia University, Some The Teaching(s) of Writing, "Pen & Paper, Warp & Woof: Profiles of Educators," Fall 2013

Part One: Where I tell you about her.

"If you're comfortable leaving your kids here and don't even know me, we have to address that before anything else. The fact that you even trust this that much [...] All this concrete is torture."

Have you ever had Butternut Squash? It was first grown in Stow, Massachusetts — a town settled by trade with Native Americans around 1660. American frontier legend says Matthew Boon traded a jackknife for an entire lake and a hill, while his partner John Kettell took up residence on a nearby valley of flat land for farming. 170 years later — a revolution, a civil war, a World War — a man named Charles Leggett bought a house in Stow because his father wasn't well and the doctor advised that he spend more time outdoors. Leggett had left his insurance job at John Hancock Life in Boston and his home in Milton to live on a plot of more than 90 acres that was sold to him as a bundle. His wife says he "hated to see land lying idle." So, he tried to grow corn. It didn't grow well, plus the market was flooded with the stuff. So he went with something different: squash.

I bought a butternut squash for two dollars recently, which I later made into butternut squash soup, all at the suggestion of Stephanie as she purchased hers.

Squash belongs to the Cucurbita genus, which is indigenous to Mesoamerica and the South American Andes mountain range. Interestingly, the broader Cucurbitaceae plant family actually includes watermelon (Citrullus) and cucumbers (Cucumis), which both have African and Asian origins. There's also a family of non-edible gourds (Lagenaria) entirely native to Africa. During the 1940s, Leggett experimented with the Gooseneck variety of squash and tried to inbreed qualities from another variety — the Hubbard, which is larger and harder. After he had collected enough seed from this hybrid, he planted "the fields," according to his wife Dorothy. But a depressing World War II took its toll and left Leggett arguing with gasoline rationers to keep his tractor running. Needing more consistent support, he took the experiment to University of Massachusetts' Waltham Field Station, near Cambridge and Boston, where it was named for being so smooth (as butter) and sweet (as a nut).

We found a bunch after stopping to browse the Dressel Farms roadstand (open daily 9:30am - 5:30pm) on one bright, sunny afternoon winding through New Paltz backroads in upstate New York. Inside the shack, a young Latino woman and a white lady appeared to be cycling back and forth, stocking the shelves. After picking her brain about the varieties of apples and pears they sold, I asked the white lady, who had come to stand at the counter, for a tip on how to get closer to the mountain ridge we saw towering behind the fruit stand and orchard. She didn't offer much but suggested we take a "more scenic" route on our way back to the interstate: a right turn, a left, and another right. Stephanie, meanwhile, was collecting donuts and a cup of hot apple cider for the road. I followed her lead and asked her to get me "some" as I grabbed a gallon of cold cider from the refrigerator for later. We were swirling around the little country store like a cyclone. Unfortunately for us at that point, the scenes we'd seen before stopping at the roadstand were as good as it got that day. We had driven past a farm of no less than two acres growing collard greens and corn. We drove past giant homes with what looked like kingdom-sized yards compared to Bed-Stuy or Red Hook. Finally, it's worth noting that the State University of New York at New Paltz campus is an idyllic fairy land.

Before this, very early in the morning on that same day, I had reached out to Stephanie to ask about doing a proper interview. From the beginning, an out-of-school experience with her seemed ideal, but I doubted its likelihood. Maybe, I thought, she would let me take her away to a park, or somewhere, for a few hours. The park idea had hit suddenly and I hadn't had a chance to make plans in advance. Nevertheless, she was enthusiastic and said she could make time, for which I was grateful. Parking was scarce uptown and we ended up on the side of the street scheduled for street cleaning in fifteen minutes, so we had very little time to walk, stand, and talk at one of the overlooks in Morningside Park near 110th Street. Of course, compared to the amount of nature taken in by a New York Joe on an average day, we were on vacation — birds chirped, leaves looped and swooped toward the bottom of the park and Harlem. The view was far and wide. The weather was great for October — above 70 degrees. But 15 minutes wasn't enough time to talk about much, aside from her most recent popular culture annoyances, like how Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope has become celebrated in so many ways that belie the fact that the series is produced and broadcast by The Walt Disney Company.

I drove north aimlessly, chatting it up with Stephanie, when somewhere in Washington Heights I had an idea: why not take a thirty-minute drive up the Henry Hudson Parkway? Her eyes brightened at the thought and she smiled approvingly, "Seriously? Oh my God, yes! That sounds wonderful! I need to get out of the city!"

As we walked back to the car, she, dressed in all-white due to the obligations of a spiritual endeavor she's embarked upon, used a few stones to avoid the grass on the boulevard strip as she stepped from the sidewalk to the street to cross.

Two weeks earlier I chauffeured her to the settlement where she works as the Education Coordinator for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. I didn't see the building, but I saw the towering thirteen-story public housing complexes surrounding it. "You can just let me out here," she said, not out of shame, but like there was simply nothing remarkable about the building to see.

"You'll see it, it's a strange little building," she texted me as I parked near the housing complex a week later. I found her standing out front, her spiritual white garments sharply contrasted against the backdrop.

The building looks like a daycare or Head Start center. Inside, it's a place of distraction and holding, a place where time is bided until real learning windows open up. For Stephanie, much of her teaching spirit seems to dim within these walls. She might as well be in standby mode, compared to the potential of her spirit. Here, by following the standard letter of the law, she is excellent at going through the motions and appearing exactly as who and what her superiors expect, but compared to what I've seen outside of this building, she is on auto-pilot while here. "It can be heartbreaking sometimes in these jobs — there's no room to be human."

Everything looks dim except the children.

Usually, she smiles often. When she does, she tilts her head sometimes when listening, as if to reassure her speaker, perhaps even folding one arm under her armpit and the other up toward her chin to let her head rest on her palm, while smiling. As someone who lives with a constant sense of history's long arc (she has her B.A. in English from Howard and M.A. in African American Studies from Temple), it's impressive how she's so great at honing in, listening, and studying the everyday speech that is directed at her.

Her mother Dolores was this sort of woman, who would sit and gaze at each amateur poet, performer, and speaker in a West Philadelphia coffee shop open-mic with the same deeply heartfelt interest, sympathy, and empathy — investment, patience, faith. She departed nearly two years ago and her daughters continue to live her legacy of community, culture, and compassion — anchors that serve as guides for answering all questions. She was certain that, with time, there was nothing anyone knew that couldn't be learned by another. She was honest and humble about her pace — an honorable one.

"Everything we need to know has already been known" — I found this to be a meditation of Stephanie's — "so it's not a competition. Actually, it's more about flow and rhythm than anything else." For example, take her reply to an early draft of this story:

"So yes... I am learning to sit with things more deeply and really marinate on them [...] I think what will help me be a better subject is to simply step back and be a vessel. [...] it gives me a mirror that I need... one outside of myself (looking into my hands don't always give me reflection! but a mirror outside myself does). And ultimately, it's REALLY about me being a better human being (more so than me "seeing" myself for the sake of)..."

As a teacher for 6 years, she's done this many times. Yet, she is learning how to do it each time — with these students, in this environment. Her present-minded practice as a learner guides her teaching because her pedagogical technique is demonstrative learning.

What I ultimately saw in her classroom was a group of students hearing bits and pieces of a story about Native American high school track & field student-athletes living on a reservation. There was distraction — gossip and shoving — but they were being challenged by a maternal figure whose character they respected as a good listener.

After one episode of student distraction, Stephanie asked what the last few minutes of the movie had been about.

One student shot up, immediately abandoning her lazy posture. "He's going through it because it's his last year of school and he doesn't know what he's going to do after he can't run track any more."

Another student, a class star herself, raised her hand. "There still isn't anything for him to do, even though he's been a star."

Her young students, frolicking around on a pile of pillows and mats — hitting each other with the mats that were an uninvited contribution from a colleague — understood the language and the narrative. They were able to make the connection between reservation and project. They listened though, as if they were at home listening to anything else of relevance. They rolled around and rolled their eyes, but they were engaged. And Stephanie allowed it all to simmer slowly, at its own pace.

Through this sort of empathetic listening practice, students in this racially stratified and impoverished community have, at least, gained a model in Stephanie for how to move from apathy and aliteracy to agency and literacy every day, with a spirit of personal faith. She's proud to attempt embodiment as a living model text: realizing excellence is less about perfection than the recipe of personal foundation, orientation, and momentum. Thus, listening for her is both reading and praxis.

Indeed, faith is required to allow student improvisation, let alone find them capable of it. Independent of her job, her role is to be more knowledgeable about a growing variety of notes, and certainly those that both originate from and resonate with her students. I've started thinking of this practice personally as the art of relating, in response to the discourse of cultural relevancy. The art of it makes it about more than curricula. This thinking falls across several of Africana Studies' ground rules for intellectual work that were outlined by one of Stephanie's teachers, Dr. Gregory Kimathi Carr — 15-year veteran grassroots curricularist of Philadelphia Freedom Schools, now chairman of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. The first rule, crafted through Carr's discourse with hundreds of P.F.S. high school students and college student-teachers (including Stephanie), is being present. Secondly, is the directive to read and write (also known as listening and inscribing). And lastly, to speak to "mekhet," which is a Kemetic (early Egyptian) concept that translates to "after" but also shares a grammatical genealogy with the infinitive "be" in African-American English.

As in life, there's a heavy dose of improvisation needed to teach listen.

Interlude: A Note.

As I narrate my study of Stephanie for you, I find I still need you to listen to her as I experience her. I don't intend this as entertainment, it is a serious matter. The only English that can convey these notes is hers. I would like to place you in the present moment for you to become a learner of her notes. By including an additional mode of profile I hope to help produce a multi-sided reflection. My writing will be found in the improvisational grammatical margins of the transcription of her flow. I've sat with hours of audio for weeks and listened deeply, producing twenty-one pages of conversation. I've composed my notes to music with plants in the room, and I have tried to preserve the non-English elements of her English, hoping you will hear the musicality of her language being in my reinscription. There are parenthetical elements of the language that are not verbalized, rather they are unspoken convention. I've had the privilege of reading back my transcription to her in order to reach an interpretive consensus: after all, Stephanie's a conscious expert on her speech and the evolving translation and recovery methods in its interpretation. She might also consider the presentation of translational and traditional texts, together, as a pedagogical supplement for transcendental "Mdw Nfr" (Kemetic concept of listening-to and creating "good speech"). The transcript has been reduced to privilege Stephanie's voice over the interviewer and other parties. Noted interruptions are meant to convey her skill in the preservation of conversation.

Part Two: Where you hear her.

"Playing music out loud. Plants in the rooms. Positive energy!"

...Which is, I guess, where the blue note comes into play. Where the blue note of English comes into play with Black people. When we use it, it's literally pretty. "Huh? How did you...?" It's this whole thing that's beautiful.

That goes back to my whole thing with "big words." People be like, "oh, big words, you using them." Well to me it's just about (asking) what is the word? What's the meaning? Okay. And then (considering) the ability to translate. So, (we should be thinking), "in a hundred years, can someone see that and know what that is?" Is the meaning clear? The word — the size — it doesn't matter. Sometimes the bigger words that people call "big words" — which is bull — but, those words that have the meaning, they just have the meaning. So, I chose this word because it does. And that's just what it is. Like you said, English is limiting because there aren't enough of those words.

Typically, what you find, especially with older (English) writers, is that they're digging in a space that's really blending. It's more like fusion.

(To the room and self:) What was I reading and they were talking about all these different texts that were in Latin, in early America...

...When people were reading out of Latin because it (the common assumption) was like, "I don't really use English like that." That was like a mutt, kinda. "We don't really write that." Latin is clearer. You know what I'm sayin'?

Just clarity. All language is just communication. The writing helps create the clarity. So, what's clear? What are we saying?

I realize that's the dissonance that sometimes comes with the sound frequency-translation communication. (When) you use a conga (you're thinking) "well I needed that." Or (when) you use a symbol — "tink" — I need that "tink tink." And I could only get that ("tink") through this (symbol). (Understanding) that helped me feel more grounded.

What am I trying to say? Or, what are you trying to say? Then, how do we use the tools that we have to say it?

If our arsenal of instruments incorporates cymbals and tambourines, do it! If it don't, (that) doesn't mean that that's worse or it's less, it just is. And then the translating, to me, is like Dilla (legendary hip-hop composer) and — what's his name? — Miguel Atwood (Ferguson). People can hear both and be like, "H'ahh, that's Dilla!" It's conversation. So it doesn't make Atwood any better than Dilla, because he's just saying, "Well this what Dilla said, and I just used my tools." That kind of thing is how I'm seeing it through the words. Being able to do that, which is kinda what it sounds like the elder (that the interviewer mentioned) did, (reminding us of) that ability to say the "ba-Be-Bop-ba-boop." Everybody that knows what "ba-Be-Bop-ba-boo" is knows that that's science and all kinda stuff. So it's nothing simple about that.

(Now Playing: "Siempre Hay Esperanza" by Sade.)

It's really just being a vessel. Being a vessel. Being a vessel, being a vessel. It just requires. And being a strong, healthy vessel, you know, that will last, and carry what needs to go from here to there.

Stephanie's sister enters periodically. There is a tangential conversation about her sister's career.

Ok, I'll be right back.

Stephanie gets up to change music. Her living room contains a bookshelf, a large wooden table, a white sofa, a small TV and an iPod dock. The side talk continues.

(Now Playing: "Every Word" by Sade.)

(Scrolling songs: "The Sweetest Taboo" by Sade.)

("When Am I Going To Make A Living?" by Sade.)

Sade: "Too many lies no one is achieving/ Haven't I told you, before/ We're hungry for a life we can't afford/ There's no end to what you can do/ If you give yourself a chance..."

Snapping fingers.

"To prove..."

Snapping fingers.

Sade: "Hungry but we won't give in/ Ooh there's no end to what we can do/ They'll waste your body and soul if you allow them to/ Ooh start believing in yourself/ Put the blame on no one else..."

Snapping fingers with solo saxophone.

Sade: "When am I gonna make a living/ Ooh it's gonna take a while before I give in/ I'm sick and tired of scratching a living/ I'm hungry but I'm not gonna give in..."

Song fades out.

(Now Playing: "Keep Looking" by Sade.)


He got a mix that's 4 hours of Sade. This one's only a hour and forty minutes. But I was listening to it yesterday and I was just blown away. And every song was just, "Oh!" So good. It was just like music and poetry to my ears, all at once.

Sade: "They enjoy cheapness."

Interviewer along with Sade: ("Don't show your weakness.") Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmmmm

Sade: "Don't let them..."

Interviewer along with Sade: ("Bother you, bother you.") Hm-hm-hmmm.

Interviewer and sister: ("They enjoy cheapness.") Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmmmm.

Everyone: ("Don't show your weakness.") Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmmmm.

Sade: "Oh no."

Sister: ("It's no use sitting down, don't walk round with a frown.") Hm-hm-hm-hmmm-hm, hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm.

Sister and Sade: "Oh no, keep looking."

Sister: ("It's no use sitting down, don't walk round with a frown.") Hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm, hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm.

Sister and Sade: "Oh no, keep looking."

Sister: She did this song.

Sade: "Say let my life alone."


Uh-uhh-uh

Sade: "Some will tell you that you're wrong. Some will tell you that you're..."

("Wrong.") Hmmmm.

Sade: "You do it all the wrong way."

Snaps.

Sade: "Some will tell you that you're..."

("Wrong.") Hmmmm.

Sade: "You do it all the wrong way."

Interviewer: Did she ever go to Africa?

Sister: I don't know. I didn't even check her tour out like that. I'm pretty sure she did. She had to go to Egypt or South Africa. Middle East.

Snaps at same time as "Middle East."

Sade: "They enjoy..."


("Cheapness.") Hmm-hmmmm.

Sade: "Don't show your weakness, oh no."

Sister: ("It's no use sitting down, don't walk round with a frown.") Hm-hm-hm-hmmm-hm, hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm.

Sade:"Oh no, keep looking."


In other words, I think what lives...

I'm sorry, I know I be speaking my own little conversation. Because a lot of it's up here. My brain is like, "And then!"

But I'm thinking about role models. Because I was thinking about (how) yeah, Sade is a role model. (Only) certain women, outside of mom, can get that title. The more that we can have that are really of a quality. The other person that I thought of is Phylicia Rashad; as Claire (The Cosby Show) and as Phylicia. That type of human being. Sisters can see that and be like, "yeah."

I always like my little food analogy, I use it a lot. "It's like a recipe!" I was doing that with one of the students I worked with at the Brooklyn City Tech college. Everything was a recipe. I was like, "when you're making such and such (...) it's gotta have a certain flavor. That's how writing is." Because I can't; I'm not gonna sit up here and go through grammar rules with y'all. We can do that, and I did do it for some. (But I told them) "it's something you have to get your hands in and get dirty, messy." It is. It's not clean (as if you can just say) "well, because I added (this), then I put this in. I made the recipe!" No. Feel it. And you gotta read. It's a whole journey.

It's (more) like, "Ah! I see that person and I recognize you. And I can model that," you know what I mean, "without feeling fake." (...) Because it's also very vulnerable: tears, all of that. It's really just real. Like my sister was saying earlier, like the human part. It's that beingness. It's really dope. And I'm like, "yeah, this is a model."

I even played (an interview Oprah did) with Rihanna. (...) Even though we're different and I don't live her life completely, I can see her (in that setting) and say, "I get you." Even with Jada (Pinkett-Smith), where she did a thing (roundtable) with her mom and daughter. I played that for some of my students just so they could see that interaction of all that conversation. It's not a whole bunch of extra-extra. None of that. It's just honest, it's real.

(Now Playing: "Cherry Pie" by Sade.)

Tangential conversation about Rihanna; non-judgemental

Interrupted.

(Now Playing: "Kiss of Life" by Sade.)


Yes!

("There must've been an angel on my side. He led me to you. He led me to you.") Hmm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hmm-hm-hmmmm.

It's still official. (But) I'm proud of this — that kind of thing, to be proud of it, that's what it's about. That's kinda how I feel about her (Sade). Just to really think about, "damn you've been doing this since I've been alive." And, "what does what you do mean?" That, to me, outweighs all the fanfare, all-a that.

Then you have people who, because of their destiny, are like a Michael Jackson, who have a lot of fanfare but also have meaning. Really the difference between him and someone like Oprah... Oprah has the range, the money, the seeming interest, but it's like... if you could come from that place where it's in here, for real, it just would be.

It's like, "ouy." And it's kinda sad. 'Cause it's like, "Damn Oprah!" But I think it's a good lesson for people; you can't really buy that, it just is natural. It's just natural.

("I feel like... I am the King... of Sorrow.") Hm-hm-hmmm. Hm-hm-hmmm-hm. Hm-hm-hmmmm.

Interrupted.

So someone like her (Sade) can sit back... From what I've seen, it isn't that India Arie, "I don't want a Grammy, accept it." You know, it's not that.

It's like, "I'll get a Grammy. And when I don't, it's okay, I'm at home chillin. And when I do, great. And when I don't, eh."

It's very, grounded. It's like, "Ya'll don't make me." But I'm also not reacting to you either.

So I'm not out here saying, "Ya'll don't make me! Look at me!"

It's just like, I'm being, and I've decided to share some of my beingness with you. (She transitions to a faux-bourgeois voice) But just the amount that I feel comfortable with. It's real natural.

Epilogue.

There is a tangential conversation about both the biracial rapper Drake's struggles to be understood by an American audience that has few emotionally vulnerable Black male archetypes in popular culture, and the television show Mad Men's pension for creating complex images of whiteness while enticing viewers to drink more alcohol and smoke more cigarettes.

Sade: "Tryin' my hardest, doin my best, to stay alive."

This joint is a freakin'...

Sister: Yo her concept was like...

She's a freakin' beast.

Sister: Amazing. And believe it or not, she made, um, John Legend step his game up. 'Cause he opened for her. First of all, his set was 45 minutes in itself. Like he sang for 45 minutes. And I was just like, "Woah." I already knew it was gonna be a great show, 'cause he sang for 45 minutes. But his repertoire was just... his choice, the selection of music, you know, just the show. He gives okay shows, but that show was just... He was so with the crowd, because she's like that. She comes down with the crowd, that's what she does. She walks barefoot, you know. So he had to give that kind of show. He had to give the... tell a story.

Gotta take off that cool. I love Sade.

Singing lyrics along with Sade: "From the river to the sea..."

Submissions: scripts at liberatormagazine.com

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