The room reserved for “construction” activities – such as building structures with wooden blocks, using an overhead projector to project lightscapes onto the wall, or using multiple materials for designing anything within imagination – was cleaned up and organized faster than usual. Three young boys aged 5-6 worked relentlessly to order the wooden blocks by shape and size, and even painstakingly moved an entire section of the blocks over to a different shelf because they wanted it to look “prettier.” The rug in the middle of the small room was clear, the blocks looking pretty on their rolling cart and on the shelf, the overhead projector was tucked back into a corner, and all the toy cars and other vehicles were in woven baskets awaiting the next day of fun.
I was surprised, then, to hear noise coming from the room and poked my head around the corner to take a peek. There was a tangle of two bodies, partly on the floor and partly flinging into the air. Grunts and squeals were coming from the tangle and it took me a second to realize it was Hugo and Dante.
They immediately stood straight up when they noticed my presence, but the wide toothless grins and slightly sweating foreheads signaled they were having a ball.
“Hi guys. Whatcha doing?” I asked.
“Wrestling,” said Dante.
“Having fun?” I asked.
“Yes!” said Hugo.
“Okay, go ahead. Try to stay on the rug if you can so you don’t hit the shelves.”
With a surprised look on their faces, the two boys looked at each other and commenced with wrestling.
Hugo and Dante (pseudonyms) are both 6 years old and live in the same neighborhood. In fact, they nearly share the same back yard, as the backs of their homes face one another but aren’t quite lined up perfectly. Independently, the boys are boisterous and creative and enthusiastic and insightful, always excited to build a new structure in the construction room of the Clubhouse, play running games outside, talk about the things they notice in the world, or design clothing with fabric. The two boys wouldn’t necessarily be considered friends, however, since it has been rare to find them doing anything together across the 9 months I have been spending time in the community. With all their similarities: playfulness and vibrancy demonstrated in outdoor playspaces as well as indoors at the informal education space I direct and we call the Clubhouse, the boys have one apparent different: Hugo is Latino and bilingual, Dante is African American and monolingual.
The tensions between African American and Latino children and youth in the neighborhood are salient, though typically tamed in the space of the informal education center that we call the Clubhouse. Young adolescent Latino boys have been overheard saying the N word, though not explicitly directed at anyone in particular, and even very young Latino girls and boys have voiced suspicions about some of the African American children and their presumed disposition for stealing.
It’s impossible to know, however, whether these tensions have always existed in the neighborhood and/or whether the tensions have been exacerbated over time by an after-school and summer program that had been in the neighborhood for years. The former program required a small fee and had regulations about registration and attendance, policies that might have marginalized a number of families and prevented a number of children from participating. Additionally, the director of the programs, a bilingual English/Spanish white woman, could communicate with the Latino families, which might have resulted in a greater comfort level for those families and their children; but she didn’t have any exceptional rapport with the African American families, which might have resulted in a lesser comfort level for those families and their children. Likely because of these reasons and others still unknown at this time, the former after-school and summer programs drew more Latino children than African American children from the neighborhood.
One African American boy who lived near the center where programs were held seemed particularly distraught about not being able to participate. Volunteers from the program reported that he could be seen standing just beyond the chain link fence staring at the playing kids and adults inside the fence.
This was Dante’s older brother.
Dante himself didn’t have much experience being inside the center where the programs took place until that center closed and a new one – what we call the Clubhouse – opened. But once he gained access to the space, he took hold of it as if he had always been there. Dante could be seen running, jumping, designing, singing, dancing, and comfortably chatting up the adults at any given time. He seemed to find his bodily comfort quite quickly in the new space, especially when compared to his older brother who seemed to have a more difficult time being in the space that was once forbidden. Specifically, in the early weeks of the new space being open, Dante’s brother often cried, complained of things not being fair, moved quickly from room to room or activity to activity, and would occasionally yell at other children.
Dante found his groove much quicker, perhaps not as attuned to their exclusion as his older brother was. Hugo was the same age as Dante and perhaps also not as aware of the exclusion of Dante and his siblings from the space, but his older sister seemed to be well aware of the inherent tensions.
As I washed up the dishes in the front room and coaxed the kids in the library/design space and the painting room to finish cleaning up, I listened in to Hugo and Dante’s play. They were definitely wrestling and definitely doing so in a friendly, “this is fun” kind of way. In fact, it was another one of those moments at the Clubhouse when I had to wonder when and where I got the idea as an educator that physical interactions such as wrestling should be avoided (and even punished) at all cost.
Then I heard it.
And some scrambling.
It was Dante’s older brother. He pushed Hugo off Dante and was yelling at him.
Hugo’s older sister ran into the room and grabbed Hugo, yelling at Dante and his brother.
And I found myself standing in the middle of the racial and ethnic tensions of the neighborhood, trying to convince the older siblings that Hugo and Dante had found a way to transcend their differences, the histories of the after-school and summer programs, and the histories of the community.
“They were fine, I told them they could wrestle. They were just playing.”
Dante’s brother wasn’t having it. After many weeks of no crying and an overall more settled way of being in the space, tears sprung from his eyes and raced down his cheeks.
Hugo’s sister’s panic twisted her face.
And in the rush of the other kids heading home for the evening, Dante and Hugo were carted off by their siblings.
And I sat in the empty building knowing that Hugo and Dante had used their wrestling bodies to learn about one another, to become friends, to transcend tensions they didn’t fully understand, and that I – a white woman not from this community but from another working-class community where physical fights between kids were used for both bonding and revenge – didn’t know how to respond to their older siblings who were only doing their duty of protecting those in their care.