by Mark Naison
On Friday morning, September 25, at 7:30 AM, Allen Jones, author of The Rat That Got Away: A Bronx Memoir , joined me for a visit to PS 140, a Bronx school I have worked with for the last four years, where a group of teachers wanted to meet with us to discuss the book.
For Allen and me, the visit was a profoundly moving experience.
First of all, to see a group of 20 teachers gathered for a book group at 7:30 AM on a Friday morning, all of whom had read the book cover to cover, said something very powerful about the culture of PS 140 as well as about the appeal of The Rat That Got Away. In a school where the principal is often in the building 7 days a week, teachers think nothing to being in the building early in the morning or late into the night to enhance their own professional development or do something that might benefit their students or the larger school community. Allen and I looked at the faces of the teachers assembled, mostly women, mostly ( but not all) Black and Latino, and clearly, from their affect and conversation, people who had grown up in the city, and felt a twinge of anxiety along with the excitement. Would they like the book? Would the find it true to life? Would they feel it captured their experience and the experience of the young people they worked with every day?
After I gave a brief introduction thanking the teachers for coming, and explaining how the book was written, I asked the teachers what they thought of the book urging them to be completely honest and not worry if what they said offended us. What followed left us humbled, gratified, and deeply moved. The first teacher to speak, Mary Dixon Lake, herself a published poet and children’s book author, said the book brought to life the world of her child hood in Bedford Stuyvesant and said that20Allen’s portrait of his father captured the aura of power and respect inspired by her own father and that of many of the Black fathers she grew up around. Another teacher, Pam Lewis, said that even though she grew up in another Bronx Housing project (Edenwald rather than Patterson) twenty five years later than Allen, his description of the sights and sounds and smells of the project grounds when he went to church at 8 on a Sunday morning was exactly how she remember her trips to church during her own childhood. Another teacher came forward to praise the books language, saying that she appreciated how well Allen captured the way people in the street spoke, saying it was the first book about the Bronx, much less the city, where the language of the main characters was wholly believable and authentic.
But the most powerful moment in the morning came when Mike Napolitano, a teacher in the school who had grown up in the Patterson Houses and whose older brothers knew and played ball with Allen said “That was me! That was us.” Echoing Allen, he described project halls so clean that he could get on his hands and knees and push model cars through them, people who trusted their neighbors so much that they left their doors open all day, and people of all races and nationalities who were in and out of each others apartments, eating one another’s food, listening to one another’s music and building friendships that crossed racial lines. He went on to praise Allen for giving recognition to all the coaches and community center directors who worked with neighborhood youth, saying “ I played for them too” and then laughingly affirmed the accuracy of Allen’s depiction of the stores where hustlers and wannabee hustlers bought their clothes, pulling out a photograph of one of his older brothers in a Bly shop shirt! As Mike spoke , and as he and Allen nodded in mutual appreciation of their shred experience, his fellow teachers looked at Mike with new eyes, and with new respect, as they realized that the stories he had always been telling everyone about life in “the Patterson” , even though he was an Italian American in his mid 40=E 2s,20were all true! By the end of the discussion, he and Allen hugging each other like long lost brothers, sharing phone numbers and making arrangements to visit a 97 year old basketball mentor named Mr. Page who still alive, lucid and living on the Grand Concourse.
After the book group ended, with hugs and photos and promises by Allen to return to the school, principal Cannon took us up to Mike Napolitano’s classroom, where he was using The Rat That Got Away, to promote literacy, reading skills and an understanding of local history in his class of 4th grade boys. The class was part of Principal Cannon’s experiment in creating optional boys and girls classes in the upper grades of his school and Mike was using Allen Jones, which was rooted in Bronx neighborhoods his students grew up in, to get his boys excited about books and reading.
The physical appearance of the classroom blew Allen and me away. On the walls were three large posters which had Allen’ s book broken down year by year, with descriptions of important events taking place in the country as well as important events in Allen’s life. To see the book broken down that way in a 4th grade classroom was just incredible- neither of us, in our wildest dreams, ever imagined the book being used that way. Then while we looked at the display, the boys in the class came up to use, holding notebooks and pieces of papers, and asked us for our autographs. We took about five minutes signing the materials offered for every boy in the class and then sat in chairs while Mike Napolitano had the boys sit on a carpet at our feet and ask us questions.
When the question period began it became clear that the boys knew Allen’s story down to the minutest detail , showing a particular fascination for his drug, prison and basketball experiences. “Was your name in prison really Youngblood?” one boy asked. “Are there scars where you injected drugs?” another boy chimed in. “Did you hurt your hand when you dunked” a third boy said. “Who was the Whiz Kid ( a famous Harlem drug dealer Allen referred to in one of his chapters)? a fourth boy wanted to know. At least fifteen of the boys raise their hands and the discussion only ended, after more than thirty minutes, when Principal Cannon told us we had to leave. The enthusiasm of these boys about the contents of the book just overwhelmed us. Clearly, the stories Allen told touched a chord with these young people in a way know book they had been assigned in school had ever done. When Allen had to leave he called the boys together, asked them to put their hands in a circle, count to three and chant “I am some-body.” They did exactly as Allen asked and SCREAMED the words out so loud the windows almost broke.
Allen and I left the classroom and the school feeling something truly extraordinary had taken place. A book we had written had validated the lives of teachers who were working in a South Bronx school and had given one teacher a vehicle for creating excitement about books and learning among a class of fourth grade boys. No television interview about the book or review in a major media outlet could match the feeling we had after spending a morning at PS 140. This is exactly what we wrote this book for!