Cortland Street

I was frantically driving around areas of town I’d never even heard of, much less been in.

I had no real idea where the school I was looking for was, except for that it was in Highland Park on Cortland Street.  My mother recommended that I avoid the freeways and take surface streets across, so I had driven down Eight Mile Road across town and then made a left on Woodward Avenue.

I’d never gone left off of Eight Mile before.

I was a suburban girl, and in the Detroit area, no road signified the divide between the city and the ‘burbs than Eight Mile Road.  So much so that a movie was made later about it by Eminem, with the street name as the title.  But in 1991, Eminem was probably still in middle or high school in south Warren, living the experiences that later led to that movie.  In 1991, I was listening to Vanilla Ice thinking I was hip with the rap scene, which just goes to show you how very out of touch I was.

I was looking for Cortland Elementary, where my advisor and my teaching cohort group would all meet before getting our assignments for our first student teaching experiences.   I had opted to work my “urban experience” first.  My mother worked in the city, after all, and I went to school in the city.  I drove every day into neighborhoods that I couldn’t have imagined growing up in Macomb County.  My mother’s secretary lived not far from where I was driving, so she gave me directions.  Of course as I drove south of Seven Mile, and even Six Mile, I remembered that my mother said her house got broken into a lot.

It was snowing.   The start of winter term, January, 1991.  Every nerve was tensed as I drove further south, watching the neighborhood look more and more neglected.  Boarded up houses and businesses were everywhere.  There were no white faces amongst those few that were walking up and down Woodward Avenue in the snow.  No gas stations, no grocery stores, but I did see three pawn shops and two check cashing establishments.

I crossed under the Davison Freeway and started counting the streets.  Cortland should be on the right, the seventh street down.  I tried to remember the landmarks, because after our morning session, I would be heading back to Wayne State, going the rest of the way south on Woodward Avenue until I reached the university.

There it was.  I signaled and turned.

Suddenly, everything seemed so still, and so quiet.  I drove slowly down the street until the school came into sight on the right.  We’d been told that only teachers could park in the locked parking lot, so I kept driving until I found a free spot to park my car.  I was right on the edge of the “drug free zone”.  There was no one else in sight as I locked car and walked as confidently as I could back towards the building.

What was I thinking?  How was I going to do this?  I was a small, scared, young girl who had no experience with the city.  Here I was thinking that I would pull this off, but standing here on Cortland Street, in the middle of Highland Park that winter day, I had no idea if I’d made the right choice or not.

I swallowed.  I didn’t have a choice.  I had to get my teaching degree, and learning how to teach anywhere was going to be a valuable skill once I went to get a job.  And I needed to get that job as soon as I could.  Zachary was growing every day, and he needed me to be a grownup, here.

I opened the door with without shaking and strode inside.

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