Sylvia's Story

Overtown is a state of mind

In the window of one of the corner apartments, a swath of white cotton material fastened to the window as a makeshift curtain falls half over some knickknacks and a thick black book with the words "Holy Bible" embossed on it in gold letters. This must be it. I knock. I knock again.

"Can I help you?"

I am startled by an officious-sounding voice behind me. I whip around to face a sloe-eyed guy with a scraggly Afro who has materialized on the landing. "Can I help you?" he asks again. He is wearing tight black vinyl pants, a black vinyl vest, and no shirt, and he is sweating profusely. It's a little unsettling. I go into my monologue, which is getting kind of old now, and hand him my business card, too. He studies it wordlessly for a long, long time and then looks up at me sidelong with his eyes half closed, considering what I'm about. Finally he decides to trust me.

"Okay," he says. "She's not home." Vinyl Pants bends down and with some effort manages to shove the card under Sylvia's door. I ask him about Ms. Worrell. "She's a nice lady," he offers. "She takes out her trash and does her laundry." An elderly man seated on the landing a few doors down from Sylvia's place has been staring straight ahead while all this takes place, as though he is studying the horizon line. That must be Blind Fred. "I don't know," VP offers. "I call him Pop."

As I walk back to my car, I hear a woman's voice calling from the apartment across the street. I walk toward the sound. The guys behind the fence follow my movements.

"Pardon me?" I say, peering between the black iron bars.

"She in the hospital?" the elderly woman asks.


The women at Sylvia's complex are having a baby shower in the courtyard that Sunday. Three of the mothers who live there are pregnant. They've set up a tent with a green-striped awning and fastened pink and blue balloons around the courtyard. A hard rain has cleared the air, and the sun has come back out. From a bank of speakers as wide as three linebackers standing shoulder to shoulder, a disc jockey blasts a hip-hop version of the hokey-pokey. The music is loud enough to make your bones vibrate. A group of kids gamely follows the instructions slamming from the loud speakers, sliding side to side, hopping on one foot, and twirling around. People are hanging out on the balconies of the apartment, watching the scene. Among them is VP Sloe-Eye. He has a can of Bugle tobacco in his hand, and he laughs as the children act up for their audience.

The music is too much for Sylvia. "I'm getting old," she says. "I can't take all this noise." She had her door shut, but with the sun starting to fade, she opens it despite the mayhem. It's the time of day she likes, when the sun shifts in the sky and begins to descend and a breeze glides across the bay bringing waves of cool air with it. "Ohhhh," she says. "Did you feel that?"

Sylvia has a facility for transportability. "I think that was the first breeze of the evening, that breeze right there. I felt it move from my feet all the way up to my face," she exults.

The children here know Ms. Worrell as "Miss Lady." She keeps games for them in her closet. If her door is open, the children are allowed to come in, but they have to obey her rules. They have to tell their mothers where they are. And if their mother calls, they have to leave, no arguments. The children show her appreciation for the attention she gives them by bringing her stuff -- their mother's favorite vase, a ceramic figurine. "Run right back home with that," Sylvia tells them. "Go quickly." Sylvia explains that her relationship with the children in her apartment complex is nothing special; it is not because she feels any calling. It's not a kind of natural community service that responds to the needs around it. No. She does it for protection. "Otherwise they would drive me crazy," she protests in mock horror. "They would be climbing all over me."

When she lived in Barbados, Ms. Worrell hosted a children's show. It was very simple, she says. Nothing like children's shows in the United States. It would never succeed here. She would read a book to a group of children. That's it, she says. In Barbados, the show was very popular.

Now she tutors reading as a volunteer at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, 1801 NW First Pl. Frequently she sees her former students when she is walking around Overtown, going to one of her temporary clerical jobs or to the store to buy odds and ends. Her students, even if they are in high school now, make a point of saying hello, telling her how they are doing in school, of talking to her. "She cares about them," explains McKnight. "And a child can feel that." But Sylvia says her relationship to the children of Overtown pales before McKnight's. "If a child loses a tooth, he has to show Irby," she says. "I've never seen anything like it!"

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1 comments
teachlove
teachlove

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 contradiction...at 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 he...my 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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