by Heather Zydek
There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.
You cross the invisible border around 40th Street. Situated near this border is the Miller Brewing Company plant, the Miller Park baseball stadium and a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks – old and young, black and white – stand idly as they wait in the cold for the bus. Across the street, stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” [WIC – Women, Infants, Children – is a federal agency subsidizing food for low-income families.] Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust. Jaywalkers cross cracked streets, entering decaying mansions that were long ago converted to low-income housing.
This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury cars, jog along beautiful river walks after work, drink organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants while listening to live jazz and discussing business and home restoration. This is my world.
I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I am an English tutor at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong and Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just to obtain their financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat daddies, babysitters who failed to turn up, or unreliable bus schedules.
Despite the fact that 60 percent of my students fail my class each semester, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity and the fact many of them have a burning desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life in the suburbs. I forget the borders that divide us until I make that drive back home.
And then I remember. Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In my world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid the “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have obtained master’s degrees, even PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.
I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic wand that would open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, maybe little by little things could change for the better.
The ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.
I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.
I am happy where I live and sad for those living on the other side of the border, yet I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist. ❖
Heather Zydek is a writer, college English instructor and sustainability activist. She is the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World and author of the children’s novel, Basil’s Search for Miracles.
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011