The Details of Life - All Children Need More Than Test-Taking Skills. Pet Burials, for Instance

Article excerpt

"Peter's dog ate Jefferson's cat," says Mother Martha in a letter I received from the South Bronx.

Mother Martha is the priest of St. Ann's Church in the Mott Haven neighborhood, still the poorest section of the Bronx and, as physicians tell me, one of the most unhealthy places for a child to grow up in this or any other country of the Western world, with pediatric asthma rates and HIV infection rates for females in their older teenage years believed to be the highest in the nation.

St. Ann's is an Episcopal church. Martha Overall, a spirited and gutsy graduate of Radcliffe, used to practice law with the noted trial attorney Louis Nizer but gave up the law during the eighties and now, as the pastor of St. Ann's, she spends most of her days and nights surrounded by young children. Peter is a 10-year-old who lives above a store on St. Ann's Avenue directly opposite the garden of the church. His cousin Jefferson is living with him now, because the 7-year-old's mother has been seriously ill. She will be ill, as it turns out, for a long time and is for now, according to the priest, at Lincoln Hospital.

"First his mother. Then his cat!" says Mother Martha. "When I found him here this morning he was sitting on the front steps of the church. The cat, or what remained of her, was in a cardboard box. I sat there with him and we had a long talk about animals, because I think you know that some denominations don't believe that animals have souls, and he's been told a number of conflicting things.

"After our talk we found a cookie tin. Armando dressed in black for the occasion. Jefferson and Armando dug the hole. We said a prayer and sprinkled water on the cookie tin, and then the little ones threw dirt into the hole. I think that he was pleased, because he kept on bringing people out to see the grave. He dug her up three times to show his friends."

Armando is the sports director at the church. He tries, as do most people on the staff, to give emotional support to kids like Jefferson when they have troubles in their home. Jefferson doesn't open up to many grown-ups, though. He's rather bashful and has melancholy eyes. When things are going well with him, he likes to race around the churchyard with the pastor and her dog. When things are going badly, he hardly talks at all. He gets a hunted look, like that of a small rabbit frozen by the headlights of a car.

Mother Martha says he chose the prayer they read during the burial. Later, he found two sticks and made a cross to stand above the grave. When warmer weather came, he went back to the grave and planted flowers in the grass. "The dog who ate his cat," says Mother Martha, "is named Diesel-a good name, if you ask me, for an antisocial character who eats his friends."

Jefferson is one of six or seven children from the neighborhood who spend hours of their time with Mother Martha and for whom she sweeps away appointments with all types of visitors, to the dismay of many who have often traveled a long way to get some time with her. Four of them are boys, and two or three, depending on the season or the year, are girls who are their sisters or their cousins. Katrice, a woman from the neighborhood who runs the free-food pantry at the church, refers to them as "Mother Martha's gang" and disapproves of how they pester and pursue the priest all day. "Look at how they pull her clothes!" she says when they surround her as she's coming from her car.

Jefferson brings animals he finds around the neighborhood into the garden of St. Ann's. He seems happy with the animals, more than he sometimes seems to be with people. He likes to hang around at night with Mother Martha and her dog before it's time for him to go across the street to sleep.

Why does this story about Jefferson set off some warning signals for me as a writer? Perhaps simply because I know the fairly hard-nosed attitudes that govern social policy in urban neighborhoods today and can anticipate that this may be perceived as a preposterous distraction from the bottom-line concerns with "discipline" and "rigor" and "job preparation" and "high standards" and what is now known as "high-stakes testing" and the rest of the severe agenda that has recently been put in place for inner-city kids. …