Friday, November 30, 2018
I am looking out of the window at three o’clock in the afternoon after five straight days of teaching. It’s been a long week–not exceptionally taxing, but long nonetheless. My door is propped open, to air out the faint, but constantly lingering aroma of marijuana, now trapped in my student’s coats in the cold weather. There is no cloak room in my class, nor is there one on the corners and in the alleys where they smoke, so the stale stench follows them like a stray cat.
I hear my colleague say from the hallway, in her thick Cuban accent that reminds me of Pedro Zamora, “No, don’t thank me. Mr. Darden facilitated this.”
Two students enter, a young man and a young woman. The male student is handsome, but baby-faced. He is not yet a heart-breaker, but he will be. His first name is beautiful, at once Biblical, Arabic, and urban. When I Googled it to discover a definition or scriptural origin, I found nothing but his SoundCloud page, where I learned more about him than I had asked for. I figured his quiet nature would benefit him at a school like ours, where artistic expression was worth less than test scores. Still waters run deep, and I came to respect him more knowing that his silence was his shield rather than his crutch.
The female student is an open book. I know her boyfriend well and had just told her that day how similar they were. Not so much in their execution, but in their passions. She is an open book. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She is a lioness, protecting her child, her intellect, and her moral code at any cost. She talks to me and she tries to sit in my classroom even when it’s not on her schedule. I kick her out regularly, trying to make sure she builds relationships with other teachers and achieves in the subjects I don’t teach.
I hear them, wipe my eyes, and turn around. I already know why they’ve entered, and I’d already been crying off and on since the lunch hours. The woman speaks:
“Thank you, Mister Darden. Thank you for just being the person that you are.”
I nod, force a smile, and tell them to have a good weekend.
The man of few words speaks “Yeah. Thank you, Mister Darden.” His smile lights up the darkened room, to this point only lit by the overcast atmosphere on the other side of the thick acrylic windows, protected by iron bars. I know he is not ill-natured, but still, I rarely see him smile.
I nodded and returned the smile as best I could.
I am not upset. I’m just a teacher.
Not long ago, I was approached by a nonprofit organization to use my connections to assist their coat drive, which would benefit my students, the students at a school next door (where I used to work), and a program housed in the organization’s home base. Prior to this, I had privately decided not to participate in any more drives because I’d be launching my own Patreon campaign in 2019. Charity work would always be there, but it was time to focus on my own success as a writer, especially with my big move to rural Northeastern North Carolina on the horizon.
But I couldn’t resist an opportunity to help my favorite group of students: opportunity youth. OY are teens and young adults, aged 16 to 24, who are unemployed and disconnected from education, or are at risk of both. For the past few years, I’d worked with the now-defunct Federal City Club on food and hygiene related drives for this population, and it wouldn’t feel right to let a holiday season go by without something.
So, this would be my last charitable hurrah for a while. I told the organization’s staff member that I would help, but I wouldn’t be alone. This would be my new organization’s first charitable activity.
I founded The Apollonians with my friend Chris over the summer of 2018 in order to crystallize some of thoughts we were having about fraternalism. We are both socially progressive, holding certain truths to be self-evident, such as the equality of all people, including transpeople. We both believed that when it came to single-gender organizations, transmen are men, period.
We also had seen a lot within our own organizations that gave us pause, from the gleeful dispensation of punitive measures to the use of weaponized parliamentary procedures. We also saw that opportunity youth were often ignored in favor of more “clean” populations of youth. Young men and young women who are already college bound make for great success stories in an annual report, but what about the youth who will never go to college, but need mentors nonetheless?
As men of a certain age, we wanted to surround ourselves with men who thought like us and behaved as us and would serve the neediest without regard to their lineage or refinement.
We created The Apollonians to do just that. Apollonians are men who believe in consensus-oriented decision making, restorative practices, and a sincerely love for one another and those we serve. I pitched the idea to our active and provisional members and all agreed to get behind it.
I took to social media on a rather random day of the week and began to let people know what we were up to. We created a flier, shared it, and began just asking people to give. We had an Amazon Wish List as well as links to donate through PayPal, Cash App, and Venmo. All told, 38 people gave in some way! Our original goal was 25 coats–we got 29!
Thank you to the members of The Apollonians (Chris Daniels, Rob Donigian, and Geoff Riggins) and to all of these people who gave through our drive:
- J. Blaise
- M. Boswell
- C. Cobb
- C. Darden-Stutely
- R. Fields
- R. Gardner
- C. Garrett
- N. Gholston
- L. Gillespie
- L. Glass
- T. Gsedl
- A. Holton
- J. Isler
- L. Jeanpierre
- K. Kassekert
- C. Lakey
- M. Liston
- C. Lowe-Smith
- L. Matthews
- K. McDaniel
- L. Mitchell
- C. Nwankwo
- G. Payne
- C. Phillips
- M. Preston
- Z. Primo
- E. Quotah
- G. Riggins
- C. Sarratt
- W. Saunders
- S. Smith
- T. Suliman
- D. Scott
- K. Steadwell
- D. Taylor
- T. Weber
- E. Wilson
As the drive closed, I thought I would step out of the process, but various complications arose that had me more involved than I had hoped. Since I teach in one of the locations that benefited from the drive, I found myself fielding questions about distribution. When students saw us storing the coats, questions began to arise while temperatures began to fall. The whole thing was becoming way more stressful than it ought to have been. I was a donor trying be sure that my donation was distributed equitably, while being a manager on behalf of 38 others who had given what they could to make this a success. I bought and transported coats, but I just wanted everything to be over. I was stressed out.
We finally came to some understanding about the distribution process. Communication constantly crossed wires, but even if I was in the wrong, it was better to be wrong and decisive than collaborative by the end of the week. It was cold. Let’s just get these coats out of here.
All went according to plan last Friday, and at the lunch hour, students recommended by teachers and case managers were ushered into a room where they could preview the coats, try them on, and then bag them to take home at the end of the day. It was a fair process that maintained the students’ dignity, even though I noticed none being ashamed to accept a free coat.
The case management supervisor took me to the side during that hour, already worked up with emotion, and told me in her accent that the young man I mentioned earlier had carefully folded and patted his coat with a sense of pride. It really touched her to see him take such great care with this gift.
I am an ugly crier, which is why I try to be even-keeled in public. I nodded, began to weep, and then jokingly berated her for trying to make me cry. She said “This is why we do this work, for these moments of gratitude. We changed lives today.”
I nodded, again, and then hurried away so I could wipe my eyes. That afternoon I saw more black students and more Latinx students, English and Spanish-speaking alike. They exited the building with their new coats, treating the hallway as a catwalk, some strutting to beats in their own heads. I smiled, not out of a smug sense that I had made it happen, but because these students–my students–got coats that they deserved. They deserved coats because they were here. They were enough.
My young man and my young woman coming back to my room to thank me–in her words, for just being the kind of person I am–broke my floodgates. If they had stayed a second longer, they would have seen the ugliest cry ever. I felt vulnerable. I felt seen.
And I guess, as a teacher and as a man, that’s all I really did for them: I saw them. And that was enough.
I don’t do service or charity work for these moments. I honestly do it because it should be done, and why not me? It’s really that simple.
Later in life, I learned that through community service, I could learn to be a better leader; through charity work, I could learn to be a better organizer.
I am not someone who learns a lot from experiences–and I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. I just don’t really feel fundamentally transformed by a lot of things. Case in point: when I pledged Alpha Phi Omega in college, I didn’t feel like I had become a new person. I felt like a person who was now in an organization.
But there were a few things I did pick up in APO that I used later in life, namely:
- If you sign up to do service, you do service. You never, ever flake out on a project. [I am astounded by the number of people in every other organization I’m in who do the opposite of this.]
- If you’re going to organize something, you organize it to the best of your ability–like you’re getting paid for it.
Those tenets of service transformed me for the better.
There are those who have this love of service, this zeal for service that I never really caught. Just as I mentioned I hate crying in public, I sometimes say that I try not to have human emotions at all. Although I kid, I also have a hard time identifying with those who do service because of how it makes them feel. I think because I normally hear people who don’t look like me saying that, it makes me feel like an “othering” of the people receiving the service.
For me, I remember the times where my family struggled, and the church was our only refuge. And I remember the times before then, when we were firmly entrenched in the black middle class of the Reagan years. But I remember the struggle and how long it lasted.
I benefited from service and charity throughout important years of my life. And still, I don’t view it as “giving back.” That’s not what it is. I’m just giving because there is a need. There is a need, and I am present, and I am able, and I can connect to more people who are not present but trust my judgment.
That’s one hell of a responsibility and I take it very seriously, just as seriously as those basic tenets I learned in APO.
I share a lot about my teaching experiences on social media, and despite of all my complaints, my friends and acquaintances really came through for me when I asked. I don’t know their individual motivations, but I am honored that they trust me with their in-kind donations of coats and their individual monetary donations.
I guess the heaviness of that honor mingled with the proximity I had to the students and their diverse needs, and I finally let myself have a human emotion about the whole damn thing.
And in that moment was God. Away from scripture, apart from a meeting house, but inside of me was the divine spirit that brings me the connection to my people: my people in the streets without a coat but present in school anyway, and my people on social media who might not be able to be with me in the classroom but are happy to help.
My young man and my young woman may never meet the 38 working professionals who made sure they had coats. But I met them, and I had seen them, and the heaviness of that fact is not lost on me.
There was a plan for all this that was preordained before I even left my last job, one year ago today. How can I not be a believer in the architect of such a plan?
I will miss this job when I leave it, but I sure am glad I was here.