A country without children

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April 5, 2004 // UPDATED 1:11 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

Wistful for something missing in the kid-free zone that is Downtown

The 4th graders are seated at scattered desks, bodies bustling and turning, twisting in their seats, jumping up to sharpen a pencil, pulling at hair or earrings or T- shirts, yanking them over skin to meet waists. When I ask them to tell me what color they think embarrassment is, they begin to shout: "Purple!" "Crimson!" "Yellow!"

Their voices tumble like their bodies, leaping over each other. When I ask them to tell me where embarrassment lives, they chatter, "behind a bush," "on the top floor," "in the basement behind the furnace."

I am with them for an hour then move on to another class. At the end of each hour, they stand up and read what they have written about fear dressed in gray, waiting by the window for parents to come home, about sympathy, in white ruffles, living in an orange kitchen.

As I leave the school, I walk by the cafeteria. It is chaos in there, yet modulated, somehow in control, young voices exuberant with stories or songs, ideas or laughter, occasional tears, too. A teacher bends over a girl in blue who is holding her elbow, a grimace across her 8-year-old face.

When I drive away, I notice I am wistful, not satisfied by my visit. I will be back next week and the weeks afterward until my residency is up. We will put together a book, invite parents to a final reading. It all feels on track, rich, the way it is when you work with kids and language.

I arrive back home and stop to get the mail. As I walk toward our lobby, I realize what it is I am missing. When we moved Downtown, we moved away from young voices on the streets, kick ball in the middle of the block. In this loft, we hear an occasional baby cry, or a visiting child as he runs down the huge hallway. For the most part, though, it is childless here, and those with babies are already planning to move to a house with a yard.

Yet we chose this place, in the middle of warehouses, blues bars and artists studios. We have a growing sense of community here: a book club for the building is beginning, parties are planned in the garden area in warm weather. Of course, I would like to have it all. I miss the buzz and high pitch of a congregation of children, a kind of energy I was surrounded by most of my life. I would like a school nearby, perhaps in the lot near Bunkers. Then I could walk across the street to volunteer, fight to keep "my" school open during these tough times. I want to complain about the noise at recess, the traffic on parent nights.

Someone told me that when you move into a new neighborhood in New York City, you feel like you have moved into a new country. I feel that here, a country without children, focused on work, or symphonies or working out at the one of the health centers nearby. And I believe that when we are not around kids we lose a grittiness, a touch of reality, the organic way lives grow and evolve. We lose a sense of what children need -- the importance of warmth, food, quiet and a space to spread out their homework. I worry, in this new "country" here in Downtown, we may turn too much inward without their light voices.

There is no solution to this right now, right here where I sit, silence welcome as I write. In other cities, I have fallen asleep to the sound of children playing below my apartment window. I have seen playgrounds in the center of things.

In a few days, I will go back to the school, ask the kids to imagine hope, how she dresses, what songs she sings. They will answer me with ideas I never could have predicted. And I will leave them still noticing just a slight regret, no children visible for miles when I get home.

Julie Landsman lives in North Loop.