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A Doorway Into the Bronx

Yismarie, Jade, Leeya and Kayla would like all of us to see what they see when they look around the South Bronx.

Their school, Immaculate Conception, is located at the hub of the borough—literally. The Hub is an area where five major streets come together over the intersection of three subway lines. Just a block away from this busy place, Immaculate Conception Church and School have anchored the neighborhood for almost as long as there’s been a neighborhood; the school has been in continuous operation for 170 years.

The news about the Bronx can sometimes focus on its challenges. While Manhattan has more people, for example, residents of the Bronx were more than twice as likely to die from COVID in the spring. Yet amid the health and economic challenges, Immaculate Conception students have been coming to school safely in person, learning and enjoying each other. And Principal Alex Benjamin has been determined this winter “to create an opportunity for the students to show some neighborhood pride during a time where we have to spend so much time discussing the challenges of their community.”

And that’s where these four students, all of their classmates, and a bunch of doors come into play. Each class spent time over several weeks discussing what they love about the Bronx, and how the school’s root beliefs and values emerge not just inside the school but out in the streets around it. Their discussions turned into a door decorating contest; now, every classroom door at ICS expresses a class’s love for the Bronx and for the values they see reflected there.

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When third grader Kayla heads out into the neighborhood, she sees “people always working for the community.” Indeed, the subway entrances around the Hub are full of people in uniforms coming and going—nurses and other essential workers keeping not only nearby Lincoln Medical Center going but laboring throughout the city, even during the hardest days of the pandemic. And her class’s door features pictures of such essential workers—police officers, firefighters, social workers—all in masks.

A detail of a 3rd grade classroom door at ICS.

Kayla also sees people socializing with each other. Her friend Leeya is quick to chime in, “oh, I love the park. You can make new friends and new memories there.” One of New York’s newest, Yolanda Garcia Park was open for less than a year when the pandemic hit, and it became all the more important to the students as a result. The girls recommend it with the same enthusiasm and authority that others might recommend a hot new restaurant.

Fifth grader Yismarie agrees about the web of relationships she sees in her neighborhood. Her class put a heart in the middle of their door, because, she says, “In the Bronx there is always love.” She agrees with Kayla that in Melrose, you are always “meeting new people, and figuring out how you are better together.” Those relationships make people comfortable, and as a result “you can express yourself—you have feelings you can show.”

A detail from a 5th grade door at ICS.

Kindergartner Jade is most interested in the famous people from the Bronx that adorn her class’s door. She does not hesitate to name her favorite Bronx native: Jennifer Lopez. “She makes me happy,” Jade says simply—and then explains that she likes to dress up “fancy” at home just like her. When you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, Jade is clear: “a fashionista.” As Jennifer Lopez on her classroom door reminds her, that and a host of other possibilities are plausible aims for someone who comes from the Bronx.

There are five root beliefs that Principal Benjamin, Dean Trista Rivera, and the rest of the ICS faculty both talk about and infuse into the day-to-day workings of their school:

  • We are made in the image and likeness of God.
  • We are made for each other.
  • We can do hard things.
  • We are always learning.
  • Jesus calls us by name.

When these four girls talk about the neighborhood around them, it is clear that the beliefs animating the school are ideals that the students are also then primed to see at work in a neighborhood as well. They see people living out the idea that we are made for each other—in fact, Kayla shares that when she sees people in masks, she sees individuals “who are trying to keep other people safe.”

ICS is an oasis of cheerful quiet (except during recess) in a sometimes hectic area, and a place where generations of striving families have found the academic and habit formation their children need to fulfill their dreams. It is also a place that reflects deep community bonds that may not be visible to visitors to the Bronx—and it is equipping students with the vision and habits to reinforce those bonds as well.

Indeed, the girls don’t let the conversation about their class’s doors end without mentioning one that none of them had a hand in creating. “You know Ms. McElligott’s class had to learn from home [due to  a possible COVID exposure in their cohort] but they put their whole door together anyway,” Kayla points out. “A lot of effort,” Leeya agrees.

These students already have the eyes to see others’ effort. They know people aren’t always nice (“in my building, there’s not much kindness,” one admits), but hours at ICS infused in beliefs about the preciousness of others means they are ready to see what is equally true—as Yismarie says, “in the Bronx there is always love.”