Sylvia's Story

Overtown is a state of mind

NW Eleventh Street near the railroad tracks. Sylvia's neighborhood. There beyond the empty lots, beyond the tracks, beyond the Interstate 395 overpass, beyond the Metrorail whose cars move so close by overhead that it feels like you could reach up and grab one, and the warehouses, the high-rises of downtown Miami loom up. From here, the skyline looks impressive. The Freedom Tower, the Wyndham Hotel, the Marriott, the Grand, the Miami Herald building ... the skyscrapers mark and ring the horizon. But here, too much is gone, too much is broken down, beaten up, boarded up, taped across to inspire. The Negritude Restaurant is closed. There are holes punched into the sides of the jaunty yellow façade and the casings of two air-conditioning units lay abandoned on the roof. Here too much has been reduced to chunk, to rubble, to junk to stir the heart. And what does thrive here is usually overgrown and weed-choked or just barely clinging to life. People are crammed into housing equivalents of a beehive, into big blocky tenement-style garden apartments. And everywhere there are fences barring people out and barring people in -- hurricane fences, chainlink, iron bars with spikes on top.

The heat of this sweltering afternoon draws people outdoors. Women are in the background, sitting on kitchenette chairs tethered psychologically to the doorways of their apartments, standing on landings and stoops, leading a passel of children to the little store nearby for a treat. But the streets are owned by men. Everything that passes moves through their gaze. Along Eleventh Street in front of a spiked fence, a line of guys standing shoulder to shoulder like a ragtag urban guard surveys the street. Up at the corner of Eleventh Street and Second Avenue, a group of men mill around in front of a convenience store talking and taking pulls from cold "40s" stuffed into paper bags. As I get out of my car, both groups follow my movements. I seem to be the only white person here. That is enough to make my presence notable. The attention makes me jumpy.

Franklin Hammond

At one of the apartments, an elderly woman sits in the doorway peeling a boiled egg. She seems a safe bet to me. She is so frail, she looks like she might snap in two. The bones of her cheeks jut out, and her eyes are marked with circles as black as coal. I go through a spiel about how I'm looking for Sylvia Worrell, how she picks up trash, how I want to write about her. I hand the woman my business card. She peers at me quizzically. I repeat myself. Maybe she didn't understand. Maybe she doesn't know whether to answer my questions or not. Maybe she's suspicious. I start to repeat it all again a third time. Maybe she's wondering why this crazy white woman keeps saying the same thing over and over.

Finally I stop talking and after a while the woman speaks. She really doesn't know what's been going on in the neighborhood lately because she's just returned home from the hospital. She's had open-heart surgery. She's not sure she knows Sylvia Worrell, but she used to see a lady who fits her description. "I used to see a lady out here hauling around big green garbage bags," she offers. "Haven't seen her lately, though. She might have moved away."

I tell her that Sylvia was out picking up trash one morning, bending over to pick something up when she was attacked. A mentally ill woman who lived in the building picked up the rake that lay on the ground beside Sylvia and whacked her in the neck. Sylvia hasn't picked up trash since then, for a couple of months, while the muscles recover.

"I don't know if that's the lady you're look for or not. If it's the same lady, she lives across the way, in that apartment over there," the woman says. She points to a green cement building with a paved courtyard.

Behind a tall iron fence, on the blacktop of the courtyard of Sylvia's four-story apartment building, a boy tosses a small basketball into the air over and over again. By the staircase, a group of boys ranging in age from seven to ten practice a chant that makes them giggle with embarrassment each time they stop, no matter how bold they are when they sing it all together: "Sexy lady, drive me crazy, show me what you got!" An older boy conducts the chorus. "Okay, again," he says. A bouquet of girls clusters around a single plastic lawn chair in which the oldest one sits. She gazes out on the courtyard with a very serious, almost stern demeanor. She is modeling her behavior after a youngish mother who is sitting in an identical plastic chair on the other side of the courtyard, except that the adult wears her authority much more casually than the child. I approach the woman, since she is the only adult on the scene. She cracks a couple of roasted peanuts and pops them into her mouth. She stops me from handing her my business card so that she can wipe the shells off her hands. I tell her I want to write a story about Sylvia. "That would be good," she says. I ask where Sylvia lives. "I don't know if she's home," she says, "but she lives up there." She points toward the upper stories of the green building, cracks a couple more peanuts, tosses them into her mouth. I can feel her gaze as I climb the stairs.

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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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