It has been almost a decade since I moved to New York City. New
Yorkers have told me if you can make it here for 10 years you can call yourself an official New Yorker. No matter what happens New York will always be a part of me. There are so many experiences, memories and iconic symbols of this great city that warm my heart, but none quite like the Statue of Liberty.
This Summer I taught dance at a day camp program at the Staten Island
Children's Museum. This meant that I rode the ferry past the Statue of Liberty for a week. Even though you might think passing by the statue everyday would become old hat, it did not. Even folks in business suits reading their papers would look up and take her in when we passed in front of her.
When I ride the ferry and see the Statue of Liberty it sparks a memory of when I first moved to the city. I had a life long dream to live here. My intention was to move here in the early 90s, but due to so many circumstances, life offered me other choices. One day I turned around and 14 years had passed. So at the tender age of 38 I knew if I didn't give it a shot I would probably never live in the Big Apple.
I had saved some money, and family, friends, and patrons, encouraged me with emotional and financial support. I knew living in New York would be expensive, but I was not really prepared for what would be a paradigm shift in lifestyle.
I immediately began applying for jobs. I even had solid leads and recommendations, but no one seemed interested. Even though I had over 15 years experience in dance education and the performing arts. One day I saw an ad on Craigslist's that a after school program was hiring down the street from my apartment. This time instead of sending out a cyber résumé I put on a suit and marched down the street a block and a half and asked to interview with the Executive Director. She granted me an interview and it seemed to go well, but two weeks passed and I heard nothing. My money was running out. I felt defeated.
My dear friend and champion, Jennifer Hodson had not yet moved to the city but was up from Tennessee visiting a friend and asked me to join them for a street festival and a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. I declined because I told her I was running low on funds. She informed me the ferry ride was free and she would be happy to buy me some stand up street food at the festival.
The festival was filled with people from all over the world, laughing, singing, eating. I remember asking what festival we would attend? Jennifer's friend replied "I'm not sure yet? There is always a street festival in New York City." This one happened to be around Grand Central Station and it was magnificent. I must admit that now stumbling across a street festival is a common occurrence, and they all seem to be the same to me.
However, seeing Lady Liberty never fails to stir something deep inside my soul.
On that day, after the festival, we rode the Staten Island ferry. It was one of those eerily perfect September days. As we passed in front of the statue I was overcome with emotion. It had been less than a year since my Father had passed away and seeing Her made me think of him. Not only him, but all that she stands for in welcoming immigrants (even a Southern transplant) to her shores.
As I took in her magnificence, tears started to stream down my face, and then my phone rang. It was the after school program down the street offering me a job as a tutor.
My Father was a teacher and it made everything seem to come full circle.
I took the job and eventually became the Enrichment Coordinator for the program. The neighborhood, Jackson Heights, is primarily made up of a cross section of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants from all around the world. It was such a privilege to work with these amazing children. After being there awhile I started to get to know the students and their parents closely, and was continually amazed at the sacrifices these parents made to give their child more opportunities, Often times, the parent was a scientist, engineer, or professor in their home country, but because their degrees could not be recognized in the United States they were put in a position to take a menial job here. These were some of the hardest working, devoutly religious, doting parents I had ever seen.
With this job I poured my heart into celebrating the diversity of our students. We learned about each other's traditional clothing, food and dances. Unfortunately, like many arts programs I have worked in the funding was cut. Nonetheless, I will treasure my time with the children of Jackson Heights.
So this Summer, a decade later, while crossing the waters from lower Manhattan onto Staten Island, surrounded by people from all around the world, I took stock in my experiences in the Big Apple. On the boat rides I listened to the Jewish boys camp sing folk songs. I watched the elderly Chinese lady hold a toddlers hand while climbing the stairs for the best views. I even gave some tourists from Ohio directions on how to get to Times Square! All the while stealing glances, and a few pictures of Lady Liberty. When I passed her I was clearly reminded of what is written on her pedestal. Yes I know the poem from reciting it for a speech competition in college. It goes like this.
The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she