Through a bubble, darkly

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Statue of Alwine Fenton, beloved elementary school teacher, at Hayward City Hall.

I live in a bubble. Always have, in one form or another. I think we all do. It’s essential. Without our bubbles to protect us, we all would blow apart. Life is a fragile and temporary sphere, destined to burst and dissolve. And in the fleeting moment while our mortal bubble is aloft, it is a fraught and wondrous work of magic.

Pop.

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The year was 1979. I didn’t want to leave again. Even though we didn’t belong in this place, at least it was familiar. I hated moving. We moved too often. I’d make friends, then we’d move and they’d be gone. I’d be on the outside looking in, the new kid, once again. But this time, my mother said, we were finally moving back home! I still cried.

We drove all the way across the country, east to west, the four of us. The journey lasted eight days and eight nights. My brother and I were stretched out in the cargo area of the station wagon, nestled among blankets. There were no seat belts in those days. My brother played with his toy cars and I mostly read my books, drifting in and out of wakefulness and dreams. It was late in the summer, the hot sun angling into the broad windows of the rust-red Pinto. Sometimes we drove on through the night, accompanied by the strobe of passing headlights.

I loved the road. No matter where we moved to next, the road was always there, familiar, constant. The station wagon was our world. The road was thrumming and vibrating all around us, my parents confident and in control in the front seats. We were all here, tucked in close, together and safe. Moving. The desert stretched out into the world beyond as far as my eye could see, out there through the window. I wanted to live on the road forever.

My parents were very young, with two small children and very little money. They also were and still are a mixed-race couple. I didn’t know back then how often my parents encountered people who were prejudiced against them, against our young family. How people made their darker feelings known in subtle and overt ways. My parents found ways to avoid such people and insulate my brother and me from them. Sometimes I could see or feel a tenseness in my parents’ bearing afterwards, but to my child’s mind it was hazy and refracted, as if seen through a bent window. They never let it show, but I could sense it, darkly.

On our trek across the country, after each long day’s drive, we’d stop somewhere and camp for the night. One day we stopped at a roadside motel. My father rolled up my brother into a big woolen blanket and carried him into the motel room under his arm. My brother and I thought it was funny. You couldn’t even see him in there! But my mother told us not to laugh. He looked like a bedroll, the kind my father learned to roll in the Air Force. My father was very good at packing things away.

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The day the bubble came to school. Feature item from The Daily Review newspaper, 1980

I will never forget the day we moved to Hayward, California. It was October 1979. I was seven years old. There was a huge statue of a lumberjack on the side of the highway, leaning forward on a street closely crowded with pavement and buildings and cars. There were no trees anywhere in sight. I thought that the lumberjack had cut all the trees down. His hands were frozen awkwardly out in front of his body, one palm up and the other palm down, as if he was holding something impressive and heavy. But his hands were empty.

We pulled into a two-story apartment complex. It had two long rows of apartments, each facing the other through black metal railings. All the doors looked the same. It was like a roadside motel, except it was plainer and had no signs or swimming pool. We drove down into the sunken driveway between the two blocks of buildings. Past the rows of carports on either side. This was where my mother’s sister lived with her boyfriend. We were going to stay with them until we found a house for our family. They lived in a one bedroom apartment over one of the carports. It was only for a few days, my mother said. It will be fun, like when my aunt comes for a visit at Christmas. I loved my aunt. We walked up the concrete steps. There were gaps between the steps. I gripped the metal rail tightly, afraid of falling through.

The apartment was small, much smaller than our duplex on the Air Force base. But it was bigger than the back of the station wagon, and we were all together in this new strange place. My aunt was there, and she made it happy and welcoming for my brother and me. We slept in the front room on the floor, all four of us.

We walked over to the nearby library and had a picnic in the park. We went into a hot dog stand with a big statue of a funny dog’s head wearing a white hat, smiling. My father borrowed a film projector from the library and a movie in a flat round metal can. We brought them back to the apartment and my mother hung a sheet on the wall while my father set up the projector. The movie was a cartoon with songs, Yellow Submarine. It was about a loner man who went on a journey and found his friends. One of the friends had a submarine. They all climbed in and went on magical and fraught adventures together, far away under the sea. 

Days and weeks went by. The apartment walls seemed to shrink, closing us in. I forgot that we were ever going to move somewhere else. I remember my mother crying in my father’s arms. I had never seen that before. I stood there, staring. She told him we would never be able to find a house. My father held her close and said nothing. They noticed me standing there and the moment passed.

A few days later we drove across town to a neighborhood with big trees leaning over the street. We stopped at one of the houses and went inside. It had a big screened-in patio and orange trees in the backyard. My father rented the house from a lady who had lots of houses. She wanted a nice family like ours to live in this one. We put down roots and lived there for many years.

The apartment complex is still there to this day. I now drive past it every morning on my way to work. I work in the library where my father once had borrowed Yellow Submarine so many years ago.

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Moving stars. Feature item from The Daily Review newspaper, 1980

My parents enrolled me in the neighborhood school, Eden Gardens. It was the middle of the school year. My family had just moved in from the other side of the country. I had a distinct southern drawl from my time in the Florida panhandle, a habit of my speech which lingers to this day. I spoke differently than the children here. I was scared and had no friends. I thought that I would be rejected again, on the outside looking in.

In that moment of uncertainty, I met the woman who would change my life forever. Her name was Alwine Fenton. We called her Mrs. Fenton. She was the third grade teacher, and I soon leaned that she had an extraordinary and transferable gift. Mrs. Fenton had a gift for making children feel important and special. And she could make children believe that all other children were important and special too.

In her classroom, every day was an adventure. Many were the moments when we all would find ourselves looking around the room at each other, singing songs and laughing and lit with wonder from within, and in those moments, we all knew that here, in this fleeting bubble of childhood, was magic.

One day Mrs. Fenton brought a giant bubble to the school. It was a traveling planetarium, inflated by a box fan. We were going to learn about the constellations in the night sky, and how explorers used them to navigate their way across the dark and mysterious seas. We all got down on hands and knees and crawled in through a tube and into the pitch darkness of the bubble. Mrs. Fenton crawled in behind us. Once inside, we all sat around the edge of the bubble, giggling while Mrs. Fenton set up the projector. The box fan enveloped us in a low humming sound. She told a story about an ancient mariner while she worked the machine. Then all at once a burst of light, and the dome above was filled with thousands of scintillating stars. Mrs. Fenton used a special flashlight that made a red arrow in the sky, to show us where to look.

The years flow by and dissolve like so much sea foam along the shore. Later, when I encountered teachers who gave less of themselves to their calling, I realized just how fortunate I had been to find Mrs. Fenton at that seminal moment in my life. She changed me. She set my dreams aloft and helped me believe that I could fly with them. Even in the darker moments of my life, and there were many in the years to come, I could look up and see the lights against the darkened dome above, Mrs. Fenton shining a red arrow in the sky to point the way.

Born in 1927, Alwine Fenton inspired generations of young people, myself included, to rejoice in learning and find the wonder within us. She taught in Hayward elementary schools for nearly fifty years, from 1949 until her retirement in 1986. After her retirement from teaching, Fenton continued to be a driving force in the local community through her voluminous volunteer work.

A gifted musician and educator, co-founded and directed of the Southern Alameda County Youth Orchestra and introduced many children to orchestral and symphonic music. Mrs. Fenton played an important role in the establishment of the Hayward Arts Council and organized art exhibits at many Hayward locations. She was a dedicated supporter and patron of local botanical gardens, and she led many tours and hosted many events in support of these precious resources of our area. She helped establish the Friends of Hayward Library, and the Kaiser Hospital support group for heart patients.

Shortly after her death in 1999, local leaders renamed a garden at Hayward City Hall in her honor, and commissioned a bronze bust of Mrs. Fenton and installed it in the newly dedicated Alwine Fenton Sensory Garden.

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EPILOGUE

In 2010, a former student of Mrs. Fenton’s came upon the garden behind City Hall, which he had never done before. He’d come to work for the city two years before. His journey to that place in life had been long and fraught at times. He’d taken a rear stairwell leading out of the city hall building for a change, and it deposited him, unexpectedly, out in the middle of the garden. Stunned by the flood of sunlight, his eyes slowly adjusted and he saw Mrs. Fenton again, in a new and verdant place. The woman who had affected his life so powerfully had been honored and held aloft for all to see, by the very same city that had borne witness to so many of his own struggles and triumphs over the years. In that moment, it dawned on him that he held something valuable inside his heart, something that no one could ever take away. It was a weighty and visceral feeling. He felt as if he could hold it out in front of him with two hands. He realized, for the first time, that he was home.