No Sleep til Brooklyn…

May 14, 2012

Imagine a boy sitting at a small table of a kindergarten classroom, working a large jigsaw puzzle that covers the expanse of the entire tabletop. It is obvious he’s been working on it for a while. He tightly grips the few remaining pieces in his sweaty little palms, as his focused eyes scan the openings for the right placement. His undertaking has almost reached completion, and he already has a proud glimmer of accomplishment in his eyes.

Just as the little boy tries to fit the second-to-last puzzle piece in one of the two lasting empty spots, a bully walks by the table and runs his hand across its surface, knocking all the pieces to the ground. The bully lets out a maniacal laugh and moves on to his next victim, leaving the little boy staring at the scattered puzzle pieces in complete shock. Gutted, he looks down at the puzzle shrapnel in disbelief, not even sure where to begin picking up the pieces.

As dramatic as it sounds, I felt like that little boy when I left Cape Town in late November of 2010. Leaving South Africa for an indefinite period was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I knew it was the right decision, and that, for various different reasons, I had to go, but it felt so wrong at the same time; ten years of living as a volunteer had finally financially caught up with me, and I was still crawling out of the most trying, burdensome, grueling, and exhausting season of my life (by season I mean from 2007 on). Those who know me personally know the intimate details of that time, and those who don’t can just trust me when I say that I have never been faced with trials of the magnitude that season brought.

I have spent the last year and a half, here in America, trying to pick up all the scattered puzzle pieces, with the hope of putting it back together. One thing I’ve found during this process, unlike a real puzzle, as I’ve gathered the pieces, I have noticed some of them have changed shape and no longer fit, whilst others are just missing altogether, bringing extra complexity to the “putting everything back together” task. The words of my favorite author Chinua Achebe validate and shed light on this experience, “The damage done in one year can sometimes take ten or twenty years to repair.” I believe it.

Don’t get me wrong, the last year and a half has not been filled with unmitigated misery. I have enjoyed reconnecting with friends and family I was away from for so long, along with connecting with new friends and family I have grown to love. I have been privileged enough to travel, both around the country and abroad. I got to be in America for the birth of my first beautiful niece Callie, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see her in person several times. I have been able to further my career as a screenwriter, with steady clients providing me with consistent commissioned work. This laughter, love, food, drink, fun, creativity, travel, and goodness have all played an important role in this phase. I have cherished it. But even with all of that, I have resisted settling down in America with all my being.

My niece Callie and sister-in-law Darcy, in front of a big heart in San Francisco.

For the most part, that’s probably because my heart still lives in Cape Town; which has been very strange, considering they say “home is where the heart is.” If I am here in America, and my heart is in Cape Town, does that make me homeless or heartless? I’m not really sure, but I have felt both, in different ways, at different times. I find my heart roaming around Cape Town on a daily basis; walking the familiar streets of the downtown area, driving through the townships, laughing and loving with people who know how to laugh harder and love better than anyone I’ve ever met, wanting to be with the family I made over that ten year period. At times it has felt like my heart slipped away and wandered off, never to return.

Reading the thick melodrama of that last paragraph, you can see why it was important for me to smack myself across the face and say, “Ok! Time to get it together!” Without negating my feelings I feel so strongly, I knew it was time to start moving toward something, and away from this phase that has resembled a buffering video on a slow Internet connection. I wasn’t without options, but felt overwhelmed. I was offered a full-time screenwriting position with a generous client, but it didn’t feel right; one of those, “It’s not you, it’s me,” moments.

Most of my best writing and characters come from the vault of my experience with people in the real world, and I was finding that sitting alone in a room behind a computer all day was starting to stifle my creativity. I came to the realization that I needed to get back to what I love the most, working with kids. I looked for some youth-work related jobs, but found I was, most often, either over qualified or under qualified for the positions I was looking at; I fell in this strange Bachelor Degree middle ground. I considered doing a Masters, but was not interested in the inevitable debt that comes with it.

And then, like some sort of divine intervention, my buddy Jesse randomly mentioned NYC Teaching Fellows to me, amongst a list of other random organizations and programs. I had never even heard of it, but went home and checked out the website. I liked what I read, which was basically an opportunity to teach in a high needs school in New York City, whilst also working on my Masters degree in education. Oh, and not to mention the studies are greatly subsidized! It was the perfect combination; a chance to do my Masters, and work with kids at the same time. I noticed the cutoff date for final applications for the 2012 was the very next day, so I didn’t waste any time, and spent the next few hours filling out the application, and writing the essays. I sent it off with the, “It’s worth a try,” mentality.

A week later I got an email from the program saying I had made it through to the interview stage. A couple of weeks after that I was up in New York City, dressed in dress-clothes that felt extremely foreign to me, interviewing with them. A couple of weeks after that, I heard back from them, saying, “You haven’t made it yet, but you haven’t not made it yet. Congrats!” And about a week after that, I got an email informing me I had been accepted into the program and will be teaching Special Education. It was all a blur. But it’s happening.

I will be attending Long Island University for my Masters, and I have specifically been assigned to Brooklyn (though I still have to apply for actual teaching positions). I move up to NYC in the first of June, where I will take a seven week crash course in teaching over the Summer, and then, if all goes as planned, I will be teaching in a public school somewhere in Brooklyn in the Fall. It’s the first thing I have felt this level of excitement about since I left South Africa. It feels right. And even though it’s no Cape Town, it even got the nod of approval from my rogue heart.

This next season promises to be filled with challenges, but I’m looking forward to be moving again, both literally and metaphorically. For now, as I wade through the sea of paperwork and tasks I have to get done before the first of June, the words of the Beastie Boys ring true, because it’s going to be “no sleep ’til Brooklyn”. (RIP MCA!)