A One-Room Schoolhouse In Brooklyn

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I first heard of Still Waters in A Storm— of course! – watching BBC, who interviewed its founder Stephen Haff about his unusual and innovative “one room schoolhouse” in a storefront in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Haff is a quiet, soft-spoken man whose life is dedicated to the admirable and challenging idea that low-income kids, and adults, need and deserve a clean, bright, welcoming physical space in which to gather, write, read, play, talk and grow together.

As I watched him on BBC, I emailed and offered to come visit and talk about my own work as an author of two non-fiction books, one about women and guns in the U.S. and one about working in low-wage retail work. To my delight, he emailed back that evening and said, “Come!”

So, last Saturday, I drove an hour from my home north of New York City to the storefront in Brooklyn. There I met a handful of female graduate students working on their MFAs in creative writing, who volunteer with and tutor the kids during the week. I also met about a dozen children and adults, ranging in age from eight to about 30, regulars there.

What I liked most, and found truly lovely, (albeit demanding of some patience with diversions and whispered sidebars), was the intergenerational piece of this — beyond classroom or family, when do adults and kids just sit together and get to know and trust one another’s creativity and possibilities?

I have no children in my life at all, not even nieces or nephews or friends with kids who  I am close enough to to be included in their family activities. I like kids, even though I chose not to have any myself, and miss their energy and humor and relative innocence. I felt lucky to be able to join them.

The afternoon began with fresh pizza and juice boxes. Then we settled in around a long row of tables pushed together and got down to it — writing. Whatever came into our heads. Then — gulp — we read it aloud to one another, and waited to hear what others saw, heard and felt. Criticism and praise are off limits, only honest reactions to content.

It was amazing.

One very brave girl shared a brutal story of a personal crisis. Two little boys, giggling and strutting, did a rap song about their teacher. I normally work alone at home and never share my work face to face with a soul! My editors and agent all work, as I do, by email or telephone so we never have the joy — or challenges — of seeing someone’s face crumple with dismay or confusion, or light up with pleasure.

There was an immediacy and intimacy to the afternoon, as the light faded outside into evening, that was powerful and extraordinary.

Stephen needs: two couches, violins, a floor lamp, more wooden tables and chairs — and donations for their $2,000 a month rent.

I hope you’ll consider helping!