When I first started teaching at MLK, the school was in dire need of some "normalizing." There weren't very many typical high school activities happening after school. During my second year, a crew of teachers came on board that felt we could impact the school's overall climate by providing some after school activities that would make the students want to do better in the classroom. So, we started a variety of things to engage students in the school community. This, of course, was a good thing. However, keeping kids after school meant providing some means of getting them home. For me personally, it meant the beginning of daily car rides with my students.
First of all, riding the neighborhood with students has a language all its own. Kids know the streets, but they don't know how to talk about the locations in any kind of coherent way. I had to learn, sometimes the hard way, that the "neighborhood" that MLK served is (1) HUGE! and (2) divided into several sections. So, I had to learn to ask, in kid lingo, which section a student lived in to at least give me a ball park direction to head. They recognized sections by major landmarks or by major intersections. Sometimes, I'd get a vague "sort of near...". Otherwise, students would let me just drive and wander the streets for hours.
Of course, the wandering driving had its benefits. Students would open up to me in the car in ways that wouldn't even compare to the classroom or school environment. I learned more about my students as real people on those trips through the neighborhood. I learned about their families' culture and practices. I learned about the students' hopes and dreams. I learned about hidden talents and responsibilities. I learned about their fears. I learned about their strength and resilience in a real and almost tangible way when I heard their words of hope juxtapose themselves against the stark reality of their surroundings.
I definitely learned my way around the city, at least the east side of Cleveland. I learned to be cautious without being afraid of that neighborhood. I also came to be recognized by the adults who frequented some of the streets I traveled most often. Even the unofficial (but official enough) "protectors" of the housing projects recognized my car and would let me roll through unchecked and unchallenged. I often wondered what they thought of me with my posse of students, and I heard them mutter "teacher lady" a couple of times, but that was all.
I appreciated those afternoons riding around in the little green Honda. I packed a lot of kids into that car and listened to a lot of stories while driving it. I think the intimacy of the closed space, with no one else to hear, made the car a safe place to talk. I think too that my eyes were on the road made it easier for some kids to talk about personal things than they might otherwise have done if eye contact had been required. I also didn't force them to talk about anything. We were just two (or three or four, sometimes five) people out for an afternoon drive, having a "Car Talk."