My sister,* a teacher and school diversity coordinator, gave me a gift a few weeks ago: Flying Lessons & Other Stories. It’s a middle grade short story collection edited by Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books that features the writing of ten authors: Kwame Alexander, Kelly J. Baptiste, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson.
These authors provide an interesting range of writing styles, themes, and perspectives, and I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection except for one (which I will not disclose).** One story I found thought-provoking is “Sol Painting, Inc.,” by Meg Medina.
In a way, “Sol Painting, Inc.” is a ghost story, but rather than being about los muertos, which are mentioned briefly, it’s about people who are alive but sometimes unnoticed.
This story is told from the perspective of one of these occasional “ghosts,” raising a question about why someone may choose to play this role. It also serves as a reminder for those with more privilege to think about who we fail to notice and why.
In a different context, I have asked myself these questions before.
Just over a decade ago, after my second year of law school, I interned at a homeless advocacy organization. I worked there for only one summer, but the experience left a mark on me.
I learned so much, not only about how to help homeless individuals obtain the meager government benefits available to them, but also about how our system creates and perpetuates economic and housing insecurity. I also learned that the advocates who did this work every day, all year long — lawyers, social workers, medical providers, and others — knew the names and stories of many of the homeless people sleeping on our streets and in our shelters. It mattered to me that someone, somewhere, knew their names.
I am a lawyer now at a different organization, and I walk the same streets to work as I did when I was an intern. I pass homeless people at every corner, and at some point, I stopped noticing them.
I realized this “blind-spot” (for lack of a better term) a few years ago when my other sister, an emergency room physician, was talking to me about the impact of the opioid crisis on the homeless population. She talked about stopping on her way to and from work to check people’s pulses and, on occasion, resuscitate them on the street, the same streets I travel almost every day.
At that moment, I realized that I didn’t see what my sister saw.
During my commute to work, I tended to focus on the sidewalk and think about the briefs I was writing, or a sticky plot point in my WIP, or something one of my kids said. It’s easier to focus on these topics — something I can do something about — rather than homelessness — something that will require far more than my change in a person’s cup to truly alleviate it.***
I started to look more carefully at the people around me during my commute, and when I did, I saw some of the same faces I had seen years ago, when I was an intern. And, of course, there were many new faces of people who deserve to be noticed and treated with dignity.
The experiences of these people and the reasons for their homelessness are closely tied to the work I do as a civil rights attorney, including litigation and public policy initiatives to improve economic equality, health care access, and safety, and it’s a shame there was ever a time I wasn’t paying attention to them.
All of these thoughts about the importance of visibility came back to me as I read Meg Medina’s short story in Flying Lessons. I am looking forward to discussing it with my twins, who are reading this collection now.
*Happy Birthday, Z!
**I wonder whether the story I didn’t like is one that will appeal more to my ten-year-old children, who are closer in age to the intended audience. [Update: From a very brief conversation with them, it seems to be their favorite. Ha. I will find out why later.]
***There is a debate about giving people money. If I have change or cash, I usually give something. It’s a small amount of money to me that hopefully makes another person’s day a tiny bit easier. That said, there are arguments that when the change adds up, it may fuel dependencies that contribute to their homelessness, and giving in small amounts to individuals will not result in systemic change. I still give money, small amounts, but I also donate to homeless advocacy organizations and other groups fighting to protect all of us, including our most vulnerable, from economic insecurity.
****For more information on homelessness and what you can do about it, see National Coalition for the Homeless, The Current State of Homelessness (April 2018) (PDF).