Sylvia's Story

Overtown is a state of mind

I had been told a lot of different things about Sylvia Worrell before I ever met her, and I still don't know after meeting her which ones are true. I've heard she is a celebrated teacher, a published author, a former nun ("That's just gossip," she protests), a native of Barbados, a Bajan. A character. And I've heard she obsessively picks up trash every morning in Overtown. We have a German woman in my neighborhood who sweeps the parking garage of her apartment building every day. That's weird. But Ms. Worrell's been threatened by drug dealers. Great story!

I put the word out. Give her my phone number if you see her. Tell her I want to talk. All I hear back is a big silence. Then one afternoon around 4:00 p.m., being the crackerjack reporter that I am, I get out the phone book and find a "Sylvia Worrell" listed in the white pages.

"Brrrriiiing, Brrrriiiing, Brrrriiiing, Brrriiiinng, Brrrriiiing."

Franklin Hammond

A woman with a lilting Caribbean voice answers the phone. "Hello," she says gently but with the perfect enunciation of a most traditional English schooling. It is a hardness that I'll come to know too well, a steely will that can't be swayed, that wraps around syllables, saying them with precision and love and pride. Okay, so I didn't get all that from one hello. It's a technique called foreshadowing where I'm trying to clue the reader in to Ms. Worrell's character. But I can't really see deeply into another human being on the evidence of one "hello." That's someone else.

Yes, Ms. Worrell says, she has heard I am interested in writing about her. But it confounds her why anyone would want to write about someone who sweeps the sidewalk in front of her home. "In Barbados, this is nothing, this is normal," she says. I start to protest that she does more than sweep sidewalks. For Pete's sake, she's a one-woman street-cleaning crew!

She cuts me off midsentence, somewhere in the middle of "You do more tha...."

"But I have noticed that in the United States people make a big deal out of the smallest things. I don't know if you have noticed that, Susan. Well, you are American so you might not notice. But I'm telling you, people in the United States make a big deal out of nothing, nothing, nothing.

"It seems to be a national trait."

She calls the idea of a profile comical, hilarious, funny, and a few other things, including, at one point, disrespectful. She tells me she plans to e-mail her brother in Barbados and tell him how she is being pursued by a reporter because she sweeps the sidewalk. "He will have a good laugh about that," she says. "He will find that very funny,"

While I view her street-sweeping jones as an altruistic community service, Ms. Worrell explains it as self-interest.

Her Overtown apartment overlooked a lot littered with refuse. She wanted to improve the view. To do so Ms. Worrell had to remove the trash.

"I made that all nice and clean," she says. "And then I looked up." When she looked up, Sylvia saw more trash. "So I went across the street and picked that up too," she says.

That effort, however, did not put much of a dent in the visual obstruction. And so Sylvia, eager to make her environment more aesthetically satisfying, began a daily habit of cleaning up trash in her neighborhood. She didn't just leisurely pick up a few Styrofoam cups and errant newspaper advertising inserts blown her way by the wind. From 4:00 to 6:00 a.m., every day, she picked up.

She is surprised I ask why so early. "It's cooler then," she answers.

I see an opening, an opportunity to argue her story is unique. After all, how many people are out at that hour picking up trash?

"That shows you don't know anything about Overtown!" she exclaims, incredulous at my ignorance.

"This is a round-the-clock place," she says.

I like the way she says "round-the-clock." I draw the words out; my emphasis is the same on every word. She says the phrase in 3/4 time so that the words come out with a sprightly syncopation that sounds nice to my ears.

RoUND-the-clock. Sure, the drug dealers, the street thugs. Customers want product 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's what had piqued my interest in Sylvia Worrell in the first place. I'd heard that drug dealers had threatened her because they thought her presence put a damper on the early-morning business. As I race through these thoughts, I realize she's making my point for me.

Why would anyone be out at that hour picking up trash?

Wrong again.

"The construction men and women are leaving for their jobs," she continues, "with lunch pails and lunch bags.

"It's the most beautiful time of the day, really. It's quiet because there are no garbage trucks on the roads. The buses have stopped. It's a most peaceful time; it's my favorite time of the day."

As warm and engaging as she is, Sylvia's still cool to the idea of a story. "Where would you put me in New Times?" she asks. Since learning that I want to write about her, Sylvia very purposefully picked up a copy of the newspaper and looked through it. She's seen the serial Steve Shiver exposés. She's seen the investigative slant. Serious stuff. And she's noticed the half-naked women in the back.

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I worked with Sylvia...and she was nothing like the gentle person you've described here. When placed in a classroom where she could have supported and made change in students with disabilities lives...instead she  would sit in her corner without interacting with the students who she was placed there to support. She  refused to follow instructions and was insubordinate when asked to be a team player. I will not argue that she may have had a positive impact on many students lives, could she have focused on the importance of professionalism, humanity and understanding rather than the differences between people. I will tell you many times I was baffled...because it seemed a times she could be so thoughtful. She would bring trinkets and arts projects. If she didn't like a student though...they felt it. She could be so disrespectful, so frustrating. I was difficult working with her. The students noticed that she marched to her own beat and did not work with the teachers . She was a paraprofessional. Her primary role was to support the teacher and students in the room. Unfortunately, she spent lots of time focusing on her separatist, views and fostering negativity so the impact she could've made was dwarfed. You know, when I worked with Sylvia one of my students told me, I treated him different because he was black. That day I shared with him that I was mixed, my mother was black and my father hispanic. I was just as black or brown as heart feels the same pain. I later asked him, "Where did you get that idea?" He said, " Ms. Worrell told me not to pay attention to you because you just be like with us because we black". 

I will never forget that...I still feel so disgusted when I think of it. I hope she is retired by now.

Educator? I think not...sounds like spreading hatred and ignorance

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