The Heart of the City

We’re driving on the freeway, the thick line of skyscrapers, pierced by the stretching Hancock and Sears Towers, ahead of us. We’ve been in the city, within the dotted map boundaries of Chicago, all day, but as traffic rolls forward, cars of all sizes advancing, falling back again, I can’t quite escape the feeling of crossing from one place into another, different place.

As a sea of red lights flash momentarily before me, and the roll and glide of forward motion slow around me, I turn to Karas, where she sits in the passenger seat. In two days, we graduate from college. Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our undergraduate accomplishments with the 20 other future teachers who learned and lived with us over the past four years. But today- on this Thursday in the middle of May, she’s offered to spend the afternoon with my sweet, chaotic kindergarten loves. She arrived at lunch, news of her arrival rippling through the eager little ones. I close my eyes now and still see how they perch on their knees on the long cafeteria benches, how they sway, unbalanced, over their un-touched trays as she arrives in that basement lunch room, greets each little child. Her presence, her humor, her genuine interest in the children whose hearts and lives I carried for those weeks, buoyed me up for far longer than her visit lasted.

But now we’re in the car, driving back to Moody, leaving four little ones in aftercare and piles of papers- mostly graded- on my desk. We’re quiet. Minds the odd mix of exhilaration, exhaustion, nostalgia and sadness brought about by the end of a school year; the end of an era. The radio plays- always, always plays- and I don’t bother to lower it when I speak.

I used to think that was Chicago. I say, motioning towards the lakefront skyline that slowly grows before us. But really, that’s Chicago. I motion behind me, vaguely indicating the school, the people, the houses bursting with life and movement that we’ve just barely left behind.

It’s those children who form the backbone of this city, I tell her, and she nods in agreement; she knows. Those little lives, whose stories are inextricably woven with the strands of Chicago, are the foundation of this city. They are not the businessmen commuting to their sky-high offices in the loop. They are not the workers, the staff and employees, who fill the downtown shops, restaurants, stores.

These children play baseball in the muddy ball diamonds of Chicago’s parks. They walk the busy streets- not among the towering buildings, but among the stores, the food carts rolling up and down, occupying valuable sidewalk space without anyone complaining. They slip into the little corner stores with their cousins on the weekends, the beg their parents to take them to the theater down the street, they ride their bikes around the blocks, snaking between short houses packed too close together.

They are the heart of the city.

More than the glitz of the Magnificent Mile, with its eccentric mix of classes. More than the tourists flowing along the beachfront. More even than the men and women who populate all those sky-scraping office buildings.

I love Chicago. I always have, and I imagine I always will. And with every passing year I spend more deeply entrenched in the lives of its people, the more I am convinced that they are the heart of this glorious, broken, beautiful city.

~Natalia

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