The Joy of Connecting

(to be) continued . . . .

“Hey you guys. If you ran into me in the subway or in Washingon Square Park or out on Bleecker Street, would you think I was safe to talk to?”

Last Tuesday.

New York City.

I was visiting Cooke Center Academy. 120 or so middle and high school students “with special needs.” I wasn’t presenting Teen Press til Friday, but I thought it might be good for me to do a visit early in the week to get to appreciate my audience.

Director Vicki was my tour guide. The hallway at the top of the stairs was covered with middle schoolers’ G.R.A.P.E.S. civilizations posters.

Chocolate-based diets.

Hover transportations.

Kindness codes.

Right turn down the next hallway, this one covered with high school vaginas.

Muliti-colored diagrams collaged and crayoned with respectful labels.

Transplant them onto yardsticks. Take them outside. Powerful posters for a walk, I thought.

Vicki held a door while I studied the wall. Despite all my years with civilizations and their origins, I think I was blushing.

She quietly walked me into my first classroom.

It was a high school group. Travel Skills Class. Tuesday’s lesson:

“Talking with Strangers.

Who to talk to, and who not to talk to?

Who is safe, and who is not?”

Before the door even closed, one young man hopped up from his seat; walked over to me; grabbed my eyes with his; and reached out his hand to shake mine. He introduced himself, asked me my name, and after nodding his sincere pleasure in meeting me, returned to his seat.

Must have read the Teen Press Cookbook already, I thought.

I looked around the class. Most kids were seated. One in a seat with wheels. Another stood in a corner. One paced at the back. Some were still. Some swayed in place. All paid attention and waited their turn to answer and ask.

I learned it was okay to speak with construction workers — as long as their chain saw wasn’t running . . .

Not to interrupt subway screamers . . .

That the jury was still out over whether or not to offer money to homeless people on park benches.

Before I headed down the Hallway of the Pink Hats, I had to raise my hand and ask a question of my own:

“ . . . so . . . would you guys think I was safe?”

The entire class, in complete hand, head and body agreement (a special — and, in my experience, rare — classroom consensus), howled:

“NOOOO, YOU ARE NOT SAFE!”

It was a compliment I wore the rest of the week.

Uptown, Downtown, Chinatown, East Side & West Side walks . . .

Bryant Park, Mulberry St., & Flatiron Libary offices . . .

Motorino, Ribalta & PN pizzas . . .

Dough & Donut Project sunrises . . . .

“YOU ARE DANGEROUS.”

Wore it proudly.

And when I returned for my visit, I was greeted by a Friday room full of New York’s most special.

There were waves, smiles — even a few hand-held introductions.

Was I suddenly safe?

Temptingly dangerous?

Or maybe Francis’ pontification on panhandling was Thursday night’s homework.

I showed the Teen Press trailer. Shared a little stuffed groundhog and it’s story.

And then I asked for questions.

Thickly bespectacled girl toward the back waved her hand.

Couldn’t help but call on her.

“How do we start a Teen Press here?”
“Well . . . you go and grab your craziest teacher . . . tell them you want to start a Teen Press . . . and then you have them contact me.”

Before I even got a chance to ask for the next question, my young friend was up out of her seat, climbing over Conversed all stars, and running to the back of the room where most of the teachers were standing.

She grabbed one, and dragged her to the front.

“This is my teacher,” she beamed.
She took her teacher’s hand, placed it in mine, and smiled: “Let’s get started!”

I tried not to cry.

“Are you crazy?” I asked my blushing colleague.
“Yes, I think I am.”

We shook.

We hugged.

Two crazy teachers . . .

One young.

One forever trying to be.

One from New York.

One whose mom was.

Two crazy teachers . . .

Unsafe and dangerously surrounded by kids with special gifts.

Teen Press joyfully connecting in Cooke’s kitchen.

Whoa . . .


John

PS. Coming soon — thanks to Laurel Rubin — stories from the Cooke Center Academy Teen Press.

Stories guaranteed to make you feel great (again.)

Stay tuned.

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