Straddling the division between Kansas City’s predominately black East Side and the white, bourgeoisie Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center stands the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A beacon of culture in this cow town, it stands with Ionic columns on a formidable lawn. The building was built in the midst of the Great Depression, erected in 1933. One can’t help but wonder at how inappropriate it was to build such a mockery of abject poverty — an ostentatious art gallery, originally housing private collections of the wealthy.
On the building’s limestone facade, an elaborate relief is engraved. The carving depicts the “March of Civilization.” White families in covered wagons leave the East, and pioneer Westward toward opportunity. Funny how well this metaphor ties to the inevitable white flight that would occur along identical migration patterns within Kansas City only two decades later, migrations that left the East Side a relic of past wealth, a Miss Havisham’s wedding cake of a neighborhood.
Rolling along the East Side of the lawn are the Bloch buildings, a contemporary addition to the Nelson. Unveiled in 2007, these buildings are frosted glass illuminated cuboids. They line the side of the sculpture garden, bequeathing light upon the East Side, in a detached severe modernity
Roughly eighteen months after the Bloch buildings’ glowing cubes were first illuminated, I began taking students to the Nelson each Saturday morning. Initially an attempt to strengthen relationships with students, it quickly became apparent that the same three students — Rayquel, Devinay, and Linda —wanted to attend every Saturday. We made a routine of it: first the library, then the museum, and finally, Winsteads, the diner, for lunch.
Each Saturday morning, the girls will begin to call my cellphone. “Ms. Boody, when you comin’?” As every other day of the week, I will cross town in a silver Corolla. Linda likes to be picked up first. Her house is a crumbling shirtwaist in a decent part of town. She lives in an inherited home; her mother is an aging alcoholic. The water gets turned off regularly. For some reason, there’s always a mountain of dirty children’s clothes and toys in the dining room. Linda’s been held back twice. She has a heavy lisp, and is quick to “jump a motha-fucking bitch.”
Devinay lives down the street from Linda. Devinay is a quiet girl, a responsible student with practiced, neat handwriting. New to the school, she transferred in from a high-performing suburban district after her mother lost her job and was diagnosed with cancer. By all estimates, she’s expected to be proficient on this year’s state exams.
Rayquel is a Goliath of an adolescent. At 5’5”, her skin is a true dark ebony with a shaved head; her shoulders have the breadth of a linebacker. Because of her size, her clothing clings to her body as if it’s wet. Hanes Her Way panties always hang out the back of her uniform pants, held up with a twine rope. A natural born leader, she has the power to move a classroom for good, or collective rowdiness.
“Y’all be quiet, I wanna hear what happens to Ponyboy,” she yells at her talkative reading class, while puffing her chest out in aggression, as she slams herself down in front of The Outsiders. Her classmates follow suit.
“This nigga is triflin’,” she says another day, while flipping a desk over and cajoling the rest of her class to stampede out of the classroom to witness a fight.
She has two younger siblings, and three older ones. Her mom is pregnant again. She has a brother in prison. She can be found around the neighborhood, faithfully making sure her little sister has a jacket on, that her little brother is in school uniform.
Rayquel will sit next to the other two girls in the middle of the austere, white art gallery. Across from her is a Fairfield Porter painting The Mirror. The painting depicts a little girl, dressed in red, staring at the viewer. In the background, a faceless man stands, appearing to paint the girl. On the mid-century black leather bench, she says to the painting, “Look at the man standing behind her. Look, his face is blank, the little girl is staring, she’s looking past him, like she doesn’t see him. Do you think that’s why his face is blank? Because she’s not focusing on him? Because he’s not really there? Do you think it’s her daddy?” The other two girls offer their quieter observations of the painting.
As we enter the diner for lunch, I ask my well-rehearsed questions:
“What did you like best?”
“What did you learn?”
Two of the girls will talk about the furniture in the Victorian era rooms. “The couches were so fancy.” I listen as we order milkshakes at the diner.
“I liked the giant Buddha.”
“I liked the Chinese temple room. All the red.”
“I like the sculpture with the macaroni hair,” Rayquel says.
We repeat this ritual almost every Saturday for the year.
Two years later, Rayquel calls for a favor. Her family has lost their house. They’ve moved back into the projects. A year ago, her new little brother was born. Her mother has fallen ill. They can’t afford school supplies. She wants to know if I can help. I pick her up from church and take her shopping. I buy her a book on the Plaza. We vow to have a book club. We text back and forth for a while. We become Facebook friends. For months, I silently observe her over-sexualized posts, her typical teenage self-portraits, her references to getting high. I don’t know how to address them.
Months pass and I propose that Rayquel help out with some yardwork at my house. She comes over, and we pull weeds on the side yard, while making small talk. She speaks about how she’s a better student now. “I quit startin’ stuff,” she acknowledges. She loves going on errands; eventually she starts coming over practically every Saturday. We go to a particular lawn store out South in the suburbs. Rayquel looks out the window while we drive. “Ms. Boody, are these mansions?” she asks. We’re driving past a post WWII sub-division. Identical ranches with beige siding, and sprawling green lawns.
“No, Rayquel, this is just the suburbs,” I respond.
Now attending one of the city’s most notoriously low-performing and violent high schools, Rayquel talks about how she wants to be a lawyer. Once she’s a lawyer, she’ll move out to the suburbs and buy a house with a pool.
We pass by the middle school I went to. It’s an enormous building, with a nature trail wrapping around its grounds, and a glass encased library. The middle school where I taught Rayquel was a windowless concrete box, with leaking ceilings.
Rayquel asks, “Oh, Miss Boody, what do you have to do to go to a school like that?”
“Nothing anymore, it’s closed,” I tell her.
“But it’s so nice,” she says.
“It is. Almost brand new.” I say.
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
We get to the garden store. Rayquel is partial to roses and columbines. We discuss the difference between annuals and perennials.
Two weeks later, we find ourselves back at the museum. Walking through the museum chronologically, we discuss the polytheistic nature of ancient societies. We spend a lot of time in the ancient Egypt section. We discuss dates and pomegranates, symbols of fertility.
Eventually, we climb the winding stairs to the Indian art exhibit. We find ourselves staring intently at a 13th century sculpture of Shiva Nataraja, the god of death, destruction, and creation. In one hand, the dancing Shiva holds a drum, signifying the beat of life, creation. In the other hand, he holds fire — destruction. He stands atop a dwarf, symbolizing his triumph over ignorance. I explain the symbolism to Rayquel: Life and death are part of a cycle. The only way to transcend inevitable death is to triumph over ignorance, says the placard under the statue. Attached to the statue is the figure of a snake, seemingly about to strike the dwarf. Rayquel asks, “What is the snake?”
“What do you think the snake might symbolize?” I ask.
She shakes her head, looks at me.
“What do snakes do?”
“They kill,” she pauses. “Oh.”
This time we leave in a hurry, late for a commitment. We rush out the ornate iron-clad doors of the museum. We quickly walk to my brand new red Honda. We speed past the “March of Civilization,” and return to the East Side.
Photo courtesy of Frankphotos