“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…”
Don Quixote, Chapter. 1
The school is best found in winter, when the days are short, or on rainy afternoons when the drizzle blurs the details on Stanhope Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Then, as one walks from the Dekalb subway stop in the direction of Irving Avenue, a façade with large windows draws the eyes, pouring warm light onto the sidewalk.
On most afternoons, from Monday to Thursday and also on Saturdays, you can see inside — a room full of color, full of children seated in a circle and engrossed in conversation. You’d be forgiven for wanting to eavesdrop. And the door is always open at Still Waters in a Storm.
If you wandered in, as I did, in late January, this is what you would have heard:
“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay.”
A vivacious man in his fifties, with ruffled, pale hair, is leading the discussion. He reads the passage in heartfelt Spanish colored by an American accent, glancing up from the text with eyes as playful as those of the fifteen students around a table, listening to him.
The character he is voicing is Don Quixote, a dreamer dreaming himself to be a knight, and the story goes that there are no giants in sight, only windmills. What follows completes one of the most famous scenes in world literature. Quixote charges on horse against these imaginary giants, and the very real whirling sails of a windmill send him rolling through the plain. Emboldened by the chastening experience, however, the mad idealist pledges to continue his chivalrous quest to right the wrongs of the world.
A similar idealism seems to pervade the class, and the very nature of the school. A unique educational institution, completely free of cost, Still Waters offers an afterschool program whose work is consistently tearing down the limits of what can be expected of its students. Here, children and teenagers from migrant families study masterpieces, and make them their own.
Over the course of two hours, Keyla, Bryan, Jalee, Michelle, Jason, Bryant, Jamie, Leslie, Jonathan, Keyla, Elías, and a few others, gather straight after school to become a gifted team of bilingual translators. After eight hours of regular classes, they sit a table together, confidently raise their voices, listen to each other, and take turns reviewing each phrase of the passage, brainstorming, understanding ancient verbs, their young voices merging like a choir. The work they are translating exists in dozens of languages, from Czech to Tagalog, but it’s never been done like this. The oldest among the translators is barely sixteen; the youngest is seven. Together they are taking on Don Quixote, perhaps the most influential novel written in Spanish, and slowly translating its early 17th century Spanish into English. They call it the Quixote Project.
All the students are of Latino origins, and all are children of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Ecuador, if not undocumented themselves. All are committed students of the unique school founded by Stephen Haff, an educator whose mission the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has described as “Inventing impossible projects and making them possible.”
“This group of children is meeting with Cervantes,” says Haff, who started this Quixote project last September. To him, there is nothing farfetched in their undertaking: It is a purposeful meeting that bridges time and language, “bringing what happened 400 years ago to this time and place.” In Quixote’s travels through a distant Spain, the children recognize the echoes of racial prejudice, extremes of wealth and poverty, and the fear of persecution. All things that they also sense in today’s America.
Most of all, in the company of Quixote, and alongside each other, the students are finding the words to express and denounce the uncertain times their community faces, even since November. Here, they wield words and beliefs against politics more hostile than they have ever known: an eight-year-old doesn’t have to contend with the fear of monsters under her bed but the sight of agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the supermarket; a thirteen-year-old who was all but born in America, who studies up to twelve hours a day, worries if she can complete a future in the only country she knows. So rain or shine, twice a week, books are opened and metaphors are donned like the armor of Cervantes’ timeless knight, as these youths defy the odds together.
“Bear in mind, Sancho, that one man is no more than another, unless he does more than another; all these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly.”
— Don Quixote, Chap. XVIII
The taxi drivers still call it the “new building,” despite the fact that the school it houses is nearly a decade old. It might soon lose that nickname, too, as Bushwick gradually changes around it. But the expression is a reminder of how little real estate development the neighborhood attracted when Stephen Haff started Still Waters in 2008.
The building was meant to be a medical facility, he remembers, and his first impression was of “just a room with a concrete floor. It had just three narrow windows that didn’t open.” It was close to the subway, however, and better suited to host classes than Tony’spizzeria on Knickerbocker Ave., Bushwick, where he had been meeting students and friends from the various schools and projects he had taught over the years, who he mentored after they had kept in touch, to continue an education they were not offered anywhere else.
He was unemployed back then, “ruined by students loans,” and turning to food stamps, those conversations at Tony’s planted a seed. Haff had an old friend, Jeremy Ratchford, then starring in the CBS TV series Cold Case, whom he told about his idea — an innovative educational project serving local youths, fully free of cost. With help from Ratchford, his co-star Kathryn Morris, and other members of the cast, Haff put down the deposit to rent and the school on Stanhope St. was born. Ten years after he had started teaching in public schools, Haff finally had a chance to put into practice what he believed education should be, with Still Waters.
The guiding principle was to be “Everyone listens to everyone,” with the belief that putting this principle at the center of teaching could change lives, and that it should be open to all committed youths in the community, irrespective of their age. The break he sought from traditional education is enshrined in each part of the definition he gives of Still Waters as an “independent, voluntary, one-room schoolhouse.”
Classes are taught by volunteers, and in addition to the Quixote Project on Mondays and Tuesdays, where Haff is aided by the composer Kim Sherman, the school offers Latin on Wednesdays, mentorship on Thursdays, and invites visiting artists ever to speak to the students every Saturday. That has allowed these children from Bushwick to meet writers such as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, or Michael Ondaatje.
Haff’s desire for independence has meant the school works with no government funding, and after years of striving for recognition, Still Waters is sustained entirely by donations and grants by foundations such as Fractured Atlas, The Robert T. Keeler Foundation, The Harry Chapin Foundation, Distracted Globe Foundation, and Two West Foundation, as well as a corporate sponsor, JBT Capital. Benefit events have drawn stars such as the violinist Joshua Bell and the author Salman Rushdie.
Alongside Haff’s need for independence was also a desire for transparency. The first thing he did when took over at the “new building” was to have large windows cut into the façade. “I didn’t want to separate from the life of the neighborhood,” he said. “I wanted us to always see the neighborhood and the neighbor to see us.”
People started to visit, and the word spread through the neighborhood. When a family first arrives at the school, Haff walks up to the child: “I tell kids this is what we do here, we tell stories; does it sound like something you’d like to do?”
A man of the theater, Haff first found his calling as an educator in Bushwick High School, where he started teaching in 1998. He said he had begun to feel useless in theater, “so I applied to be a teacher and came to Bushwick. I needed to feel needed. Just like Quixote there, but in Bushwick High School, twenty years ago.”
For a Yale graduate who had come to New York for the life of the stage, the school’s conditions were challenging. “The school was packed and overcrowded. All the pressure funneled into the classrooms. The kids got the message that they were like criminals.”
So they acted out. Outbursts included a dog being thrown to his death from one of the top floors, and bulletin boards lit on fire. “I don’t agree with lighting a fire, but the fire inside them I could understand,” Haff said. Looking at the school, he was reminded of a time he visited a cousin in prison. “I remember the sound of all those men, the saddest sound in the world. In Bushwick High School, if you went there, kids were throwing books and furniture out the windows.” But it was what he was looking for, ever since his role as a workshop director had started feeling meaningless and he was once again threatened by the depression that had periodically plagued him. At the school, he could find “real need” and meaning among “lives that were emergencies”
Bryan A. is nine, all smiles and larges glasses. He sits on a sofa to the left of the classroom with his little brother Anthony, who is seven. He is bilingual, his parents are from Ecuador; has he ever wondered what it’s like there?
“I never want to go to Ecuador.”
“Because of Donald Trump.”
He pauses, and then adds, “Because my parents don’t have the papers.”
The food is ready when the students arrive at 4:30 p.m. At Still Waters, the first order of business is always to eat together. “It creates a family relationship,” Haff explains. On this Monday, the food consists of a large serving of fried quesadillas filled with potatoes, accompanied by a salad and tomatoes. The students eat and catch up after the long day in school.
“Schools are hectic, kids don’t have time to play. Here, they can spend time talking to each other.” Eating together is one sign among many of the community building that has been underway for years, though in recent times changes in the neighborhood have forced some student’s families to move.
The decorations around them are a reminder of what they have studied in past semesters; a painting by Picasso, a poem by Pablo Neruda, an illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré. One wall is covered in Latin vocabulary from children’s Thursday class. Lining most of the walls are books for all ages, either donated or bought by Haff, from illustrated books for the smallest, to young adult fiction, to complex works and essays.
When the children have finished eating, everyone sits around a long, rectangular table. “Does anyone remember where we left off?” Haff begins.
“Windmills,” Keyla answers.
Haff finds the passage and reads it in Spanish, then takes out a yellow notepad and goes over it slowly, asking for opinions or picking specific students to offer an English version. How would they translate Don Quixote’s name for his love interest, Dulcinea, a nickname that conveys sweetness in Spanish? Bryan immediately suggests “Ladylove,” to general approval.
Some verbs prove hard to agree on. When Quixote is “defeated” by the windmill, does he turn, tumble, or roll? These are not superficial questions for translators, even more so when some of them are children. “I’m trying to visualize and see what makes sense,” Jonathan says.
The students are learning as they go that the best translation isn’t always through literal meaning. “Something opens every time we meet,” Haff says.
The next day, the students return to Don Quixote from a new perspective: “Today, I want you to do drawing,” Haff announces. It’s time for the students to visually render the translations they have been doing since September. Each student has a favorite scene from the book to work on. For Jason it is when Quixote builds his armor; for Michelle the scene when the innkeeper knights Don Quixote; for Keyla, the time Quixote renames his old horse with the chivalrous name of Rocinante.
The idea of the exercise is to represent, as in Quixote’s mind, the melding of imagination and reality. “This is about two worlds in one. How do you make two worlds into one? Ultimately what you’re doing is putting yourself into the story.” The drawings can be of them instead of Don Quixote, he says, bicycles instead of horses.
During group work, three siblings, Jalee, Jason, and Keyla, are drawing together. Jalee is trying to draw Don Quixote and Rocinante. “What’s a horse like?” she asks. Her brother answers “A big dog, with like a ponytail at the back.” In April, donations will allow the students to go horseback riding and meet their very own Rocinante.
In the resulting drawings, Rocinante gallops endlessly, armors take on many shapes, and windmills grow hands or frown in the background as Don Quixote points the way to them.
The project has reached chapter eight — of seventy-four. It has been conceived to last for years, with final samples of work to be completed each semester in various forms of art. For students like Jonathan, this is an exciting prospect “I’m hoping to stay the whole time.” He plans to continue coming all though high school to see the project through. As students come and go, moving homes, graduating, or otherwise unable to continue, others will take their place.
Haff envisions the project as a long-term commitment, where, just as the novel has travelled through the centuries, its translation will be passed on from one group to another over the years and “different generations will pick up the work, a lot of kids will make contributions.” For him, it is as much a journey alongside Quixote as across the lives of the Latino youths growing up in Still Waters. Devotion is the word that sustains this long-term ambition. “Quixote is devoted to his quest, Sancho to Quixote, the kids to this story and their own, and each other.”
“He hit upon the strangest notion that ever a madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honor as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself.”
Don Quixote, Chap. I
On Haff’s first day at Bushwick High School, the principal, Renée Pollack, took him for a walk. She had just interviewed him about his philosophy of teaching. The bell rang as they started and soon the hallways were packed with students changing classes. There were also cops. The principal moved through the facility like a general, Haff remembers, interacting with students and officers alike, giving orders. When the tour was over she asked him, “Do you still want to work here?”
Haff replaced a teacher who had recently died. “Just go in there and get them reading and writing whichever way you can,” he was told. As soon as he had his own class, he fell in love with the children. He saw them as different from how he had been at their age, full of vitality and humor. “They had something that made me want to work with them. They were wide open.”
A retired teacher, Nick D’Alessandro, was his mentor. “He showed how to have a running conversation with thirty children; to respond to messages, to what they want you to understand. And if you don’t understand, ask them, make that the relationship.” Violence was still present, however, with fights in class and aggressions against colleagues. Haff learned to show students he had “the potential to be crazier than they were.”
For as long as Pollack was there, Haff says, he was allowed to put his own ideas into practice and design a special program for the students. He remembers, “She could be abrasive, brusque, adversarial, rough, but if something had merit she would support it.”
By 2004, however, Pollack had left and Haff was burning out. He quit Bushwick High School, then left New York. He describes his next three years as an “all time low.”
But he returned to teaching in 2007, taking successive jobs at a high school in the Bronx, a night school in East New York, and Bushwick High School for a second time. The jobs didn’t last long, and bridges were burnt, but the relationship with the students from each place remained. Gradually, he started meeting them independently, on Saturdays. By 2008 he was devoted full time to the nascent group, which continued to grow until “Suddenly the group was so big we couldn’t be at the pizzeria anymore and my apartment was too small. So I looked around and I saw a sign on this new building…”
Michelle sits by the table where the newspapers and magazines are placed. She distractedly flips through the pages of the Daily News until she stops at a photograph of Donald Trump. Then, she takes a pencil, puts the tip on his face and starts scraping, until the paper gives way.
Do the children know what might happen to migrants across the country? Do they talk about it at home? “Yes” they answer. “We talk about it all the time,” says Leslie.
Do they have a plan? Yes, every family does. “We got everything ready.” Bryant says. Jamie nods. “My parents are getting me a trespass,” Bryan announces. Does he mean a passport? “Yes,” his parents are getting him a passport.
“Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!” That’s how class starts on January 30th, with Jonathan quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost, studied the year before, to wake Jamie from her usual nap at the back of the room.
Today the class will focus on songwriting, based on the passages they have read and translated so far. Kim Sherman, a composer, is there to help them with lyrics and composition. Taking its cue from Quixote, the theme of the song is rescuing. It is an idea that pervades the Quixote Project — Who or what do they want to save? At the start of the project the children made a video in which they listed these goals: one by one they appeared, saying, “I want to rescue my family,” “I want to rescue my childhood,” “I want to rescue all immigrants,” “I want to rescue my future.”
Among the passages the students remember best is when Quixote rescues a boy being whipped by a landowner, in chapter IV “Discourteous knight, it ill becomes you to assail one who cannot defend himself; mount your steed and take your lance.”
“Here we treat others kindly and always try to save something or someone,” Keyla says.
Kim suggests closing their eyes; taking three deep breaths and thinking words for the refrain that best resonate with them. When the children open their eyes, the class is abuzz.
“Will,” says Keyla
“Rise up,” says Jason
“Embrace,” says Leslie.
“Courage,” says Amelia
“Love,” says Jonathan
“Salvage,” says Bryan
“Freedom,” says Elías.
Then Keyla remembers another passage when it is Don Quixote’s turn to be rescued after being beaten. She improvises: “I’ll clean you without knowing you. I was sad when I saw you laying on the ground and I lifted you up and took you home.”
On January 30th, as they arrive at Still Waters, the children have already heard about President Donald Trump’s executive action barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. As they come together around the table, they start venting.
“Muslims in JFK wanted to get back because they live here,” says Bryan.
“Donald Trump has a small and dark heart,” Keyla says, her usual smile gone. “In my school we sang a song because of Donald Trump.” Then in a low voice, she starts singing to herself the song City of Immigrants, by Steve Earle. She is eight.
From there, the children’s worries extend to the possible treatment of others migrants. Leslie says that America is “shutting Latin America out.” To which Bryan adds, “The Mexican president was going to come and he canceled.”
Bryant, fourteen, knows they live in a safe city, for now, but worries that the president “wants to take away budget from New York.” Here Jonathan, fourteen, makes his voice heard “We are the symbol for freedom. America isn’t, but New York is.”
Bryan is prone to shyness, and once covered his head with his hoodie when his mother was talking about him. But now he raises his voice to state, “Donald Trump should visit the statue of liberty and see the broken chain on her foot.”
Haff, who had been listening, cuts in to explain the meaning of this to those who do not know it: the broken chain symbolizes “freedom from bondage.” He has let them express themselves, vent their worries and convictions, and now returns them to the task at hand: “The way to fight back is to excel.”
On Monday February 6, when the children sit down for class, Haff announces they will skip to chapter XIV, p. 98, in the English version, for a wholly different passage of the book. Today is not about translating, but about reading and comprehending an important theme he believes needs discussing. It is the story of the shepherdess Marcela, a feminist monologue in a four century-old book.
Marcela, the story goes, is reputed for her beauty, and sought by many, but values her freedom above all else. For this, she is judged and despised. Haff reads the accusations leveled against Marcela, who men say pushed their friend Chrysostom to suicide by spurning him.
Cruel basilisk, Marcela is called out. “What’s basilisk?” Haff asks.
“A monster,” says Jonathan
“Like Medusa,” adds Bryant.
“So that’s not a very friendly speech,” Haff concludes.
He then moves on to Marcela’s speech, explaining it speaks of the freedom of women, of the assertion of their right to independence, an unheard-of idea at the time. While Haff reads the four pages, children follow along in their books, underlining phrases, circling words. Leslie, fifteen, races her pencil along the woman’s words. “Why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me?”
Haff reads out loud: “As you know, I have wealth of my own and do not desire anyone else’s; I am free and do not submit to another.” When he concludes, he turns to the class and asks them, “Is this love they feel?”
Jonathan calls it infatuation. When Haff asks the difference, he pauses thoughtfully. “Love is that old couple you see on the street. Infatuation is…like high school.”
Leslie apologizes if what she says may seem be inappropriate, and adds, “They don’t feel love, they feel lust.” She identifies one girl she knows who gets this type of attention. A boy she doesn’t like touches her hair in school. “Get over it,” she’d tell those who act that way.
Haff asks if this is a recurring problem at school. Jamie agrees that it is, and that boys will pursue girls and won’t stop. Leslie nods, “That’s their anatomy.”
Haff then asks when women were allowed to vote. “1920’s,” Jamie swiftly responds.
“And yet there are other problems,” Haff says. “Women have made progress, but don’t get equal pay. Women have to deal with a lot, even today you are perceiving that,” he tells the class. How do these problems manifest themselves?
Leslie criticizes the portrayal of women she sees every day. Michelle adds she sees it in beer commercials. Bryant mentions music videos. They describe how women act in them.
Haff points to the passage they have just read. “This speech from 400 years ago speaks about that. If a woman stood up and said this, you’d be impressed right now. Women are still fighting for equal rights in this country, and men need to support them.”
From the example of the monologue Haff says they will now write a monologue of their own, about something they feel as strongly about as Marcela did her independence. It will be the monologue of a migrant, young or old, trying come into the country or afraid of deportation. “You want people to understand what you’re going through.”
He asks them to imagine themselves facing the wall that may be erected on the southern border, and to think the thoughts of someone standing there — Haff raises his head and lifts his hands at this point, as if touching a mass rising above him. “You can picture yourselves in front of the wall. What would you say to the people who built it? Start with ‘I want you to understand,’” he says.
The children take to their pencils, and fall silent. Some need only a phrase, others write feverishly, their notepad on their knees. After five minutes, Haff tells them it’s time to finish. Then, one by one they read out their call before the wall.
“I want you to understand I come here to have a better life and get away from gangs. I want to live,” Bryan reads.
“I want you to understand it took a long time to cross, to reach my family,” Natalia reads.”
“I won’t stop coming, so let me in,” Keyla reads.
“I just want to be safe again,” Jamie reads.
“I want you to understand, to hear, to listen to my voice. I don’t need to be adored, just understood,” Jonathan reads.
“We are still human,” Jason reads.
“I want you to understand what we immigrants feel, the sadness and discrimination. Is there one percent of kindness in the president?” Elías reads.
“I want you to understand…my dream is being stopped,” Jenny reads.
Leslie reads last. “I want you to understand…as they say, I didn’t cross the border / the border crossed me. One day you too had to pack your things because of the conditions of your home, you had to cry on your soil and kiss it goodbye, and go, to another place.”
“Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it.”
Don Quixote, Chap. LVIII
Most days, Stephen Haff opens Still Waters at 2 p.m., to receive the slow trickling of children arriving early for the next two hours, until by 4:30 p.m. the full class is there. Sometimes, his daughter Kiki sits on the sofa, or plays with a doll as he prepares. But for the first hour he is usually alone in the classroom and sometimes, before the children come, he is weary. Around him are the remains of yesterday’s learning — drawings of windmills on the tables, cut-out shapes of cardboard on the floor, the crumbs left by twenty hungry students that end their school day and choose to come here instead of going home.
At this hour, he goes to the bookshelf for children’s books, left in disarray. Some books are mistreated, shoved backwards or into another, their covers damaged. He kneels and puts them in place one by one, notices every bruise and folded page. These are donations, a common good for all who come, a resource. That is not always an easy idea to convey. Still kneeling, he explains why it happens. The children have no books at home, no libraries to call their own. Still Waters brings a unique resource to the neighborhood. Some parents do not understand this either. He wrote them a letter that in Spanish read, “You have travelled much and worked hard to give your children opportunities in this country. Please, take the next step and give Still Waters the same respect as you do their schools.” Still, children miss classes, sometimes to do chores at home instead, “I tell the kids and the parents, ‘This is rare, no one else is doing this.’” He knew a family whose children had dropped out of school, and who he taught as best he could. He gave them books to read at home. One day the father sent back the books, “because they made the house messy.”
But as the books find their place, whatever strain Haff feels gives way to the needs of those arriving. They too are tired sometimes, and take naps, or stress over the tests they took, the pressure to succeed they still carry with them from their homes and schools. By then Haff has readied the daily experience in store for them, he has set the newspapers and magazines on the table, selecting the articles, photos or comic strips that could inspire them; special guests have been planned weeks ahead, the food is ordered.
Every day in class, there will be an intensity to Haff — of feeling, of empathy, of dedication — a care and focus on each activity you’d assume would wear out whoever lived by it. To this he would argue that his method reflects the urgency of his work among those who cannot wait to learn, that “When you need to be understood there is no leisure time available.” Haff will bend, he admits as much, but he will not break.
Draft for “Rescuing Song”
By the students of Still Waters in a Storm
Can we help?
Can we help?
We will protect you with our song
Can we help?
Can we help?
We feel in our hearts you belong.
I beg you to understand me
To listen to my voice
I’m not asking to be revered
I just want to have a choice
Por favor entiéndanme
Ignorance built this wall
I don’t want to live in fear
My family is my best of all
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.