One of the tell tale signs of summer in our neck of the woods is the emergence of a particular young girl who loves to dress like a fairytale princess and make the street her playground every Saturday morning, dancing as if no one is watching.
And I mean full on princess garb with colourful flowing dress, tiara and wand.
I typically meet this girl while I am out walking one of our dogs. And every time she sees me coming she immediately runs over to greet me. I always want to ask where she got her dress and why she enjoys wearing it. There is something about her childlike abandon that fascinates me. I want to but I never have. From time to time though I have allowed myself to imagine…
From Princesses To North End Neighbourhoods
When my wife and I decided a few years back to adopt internationally we also happened to be in the process of trying to move. Which meant at the time of our move we were faced with a necessary question.
Where did we want to raise our eventual son or daughter?
At the time the only sure thing was the Country our son or daughter would be coming from and the language they would most likely speak. And so we decided to make an immersion program one of our top priorities. As life sometimes goes, our search for an immersion program found us moving back to the same neighbourhood that we had moved from 10 years prior. This was the neighbourhood of our young married life, the beginning moments of our building a life together. And so there was something special about beginning a family here as well. And in many ways it really did feel like “coming home”.
Fast-forward a few years.
Our adoption was as a success, our son has just completed middle school and is now leaving the immersion program behind for a new high school. At which point we find ourselves faced with another important question.
Where will our son attend high school?
The easiest answer would be to enrol him at the high school located across from the middle school. The harder path was to lobby for a school outside of our catchment area (neighbourhood), which meant the difficult process of applying, advocating for and eventually “maybe” getting accepted.
We chose the harder path.
Which brings up yet another question.
Why did we choose the harder path?
To be fair there were some practical reasons for our decision. But the one that sticks out for me is the one that I feel I did my best to ignore- no longer wanting him to attend school in our neighbourhood.
So what changed? What made me resistant to the idea of our son building further roots in the neighbourhood we had chosen to raise him in? To explore this question I think offering some brief context for our neighbourhood might be helpful:
From North Enders To The Suburbs
We live on a figurative but very real jurisdictional line. We could literally move across the other side of our street and find ourselves in a different jurisdiction. And what’s important to note about this fact is that this jurisdictional line is what essentially separates the “north end” from the sprawling “northern” suburbs. To say you are a north ender in the city in which we live is to qualify that you somehow live on the “wrong side of the tracks”, to borrow from a long running joke that we sometimes use ourselves. To live in the north end carries certain connotations and assumptions, ones that ironically would get erased had we chosen to simply live on the other side of the street.
And here’s the thing about this fact. We thought nothing of this when we first moved into the neighbourhood 10 years prior. This was our neighbourhood, our home. We took pride in our North End home. But when you suddenly have a kid your senses become that much more heightened. This is true not only of the sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle apprehension of others towards sending their kids to hang out with our son “in our neighbourhood”. Just the other day we witnessed a parent awkwardly caution their kid about not going outside of our home while he was here. And this is not the first time this has happened.
This is true not only of the familiar pause and questioning we get when we declare ourselves to live in the “north end”, as if it is hard to wrap ones head around why we choose to live where we do. We have gotten that one a lot to be sure.
But it is also true in the way I allowed those perceptions to influence my own thinking over the last 3 years of us being a family. Somewhere along the way I started to adopt the same attitude and “act” the same way myself.
And what’s sad to me is the message this has sent to my son. Watching him slowly begin to recognize that where we live is not like the other neighbourhood his friends and other families live in on the right side of the tracks, followed by effectively removing him from any opportunity to make friends in the place we have chosen to live ourselves. And what is perhaps most ironic, or most painful, about recognizing this way of thinking is the image we have of our sons orphanage. That for as run down and dirty as it was, it carried a sense of pride and home for our son. The same sense of pride and the same sense of home that he once had for the North End in our first few years as a family. Where our house was big. Where our neighbourhood was safe and exciting. Where everyone in this new Country was the same.
As I watch our son commuting every day out of our neighbourhood and slowly but surely losing all of the neighbourhood ties he had managed to build in his first two years of middle school, I feel sad that the message he has heard from me and from others is that our neighbourhood is not good enough for him, and that by living here he is not the same as others. That there is something inherently wrong with being “north enders”.
From The Suburbs To The Florida Projects
On the surface the film The Florida Project tells the story of an existing community living just outside the grounds of the massive Disney World complex. But as we meet the families that make up this community, the story itself begins to form into a compelling and unexpected social commentary, a stark conversation about that invisible line that separates the affluent from the less than affluent in any given city or neighbourhood. Just in this case the Disney image exists and persists in a hyper-realized function of this reality, a fictionalized but very real demonstration of an “out of sight out of mind” attitude.
The film is most expressive in the smaller details, such as the use of space, allowing the camera to capture “kids in motion” by narrowing in on tight corners, rooms and slightly obscured views, allowing every turn, every new corner to carry with it an element of surprise and exploration. It captures the power of the unexpected, and it is the ability to wonder what lies behind the next bend or the next corner that awakens us to the joy of being a kid that the film wishes to express and celebrate.
At the same time it is the unexpected, the just obstructed view, that awakens us to the darker side of this social divide that the invisible line projects onto its characters, using the camera to hide the sight lines of the grand Disney complex just out of view of the reality of life in this forgotten and neglected community.
Or details like the use of setting, allowing the faded exterior of a former castle like hotel to contrast against the castle that we don’t see, shedding further light on the lives that call this crumbling neighbourhood construct home.Those brief moments in the film of tourists accidentally showing up at a hotel they believed was something else, a hotel they perceived was on the right side of the tracks, function as an incredibly powerful witness to the social divide. Or the way the film gives us a picture of the kids contextualizing their own fairy tale experiences into their own situation and setting, turning even the most derelict portions of this community into something celebratory (imagining the destruction of an abandoned home set fire against those recognizable Disney fireworks).
The end result is this idea that there is a world for these kids to explore, but one that comes with a very real sense of boundaries, and that beyond these boundaries exists a world in which they do not belong and in which these kids are seen as intrusive, unsafe and unwelcome.
The sense of two worlds existing so close together but remaining so far apart.
From the Florida Projects Back to North End Princesses
As I encountered this young princess dancing through our North End streets like no one was watching, I was reminded of The Florida Project. I considered the idea that our own invisible line was literally measured by the side of the street that we chose to live on. And I was hit with the realization that the answer to my question was two fold. Nothing has really changed from the days our son spent walking those 6 blocks to his school right down the street from where we lived. And yet something had changed- my own perception of those 6 blocks.
And then my mind began to create a picture of our neighbourhood streets, imagining a massive castle existing across the street from us that I somehow cannot see but yet I know it is there. And as I imagined this castle I felt shame and regret over thinking that merely living on the “wrong side of the tracks” would make me immune to measuring our neighbourhood against the image of that castle. Shame and regret that when push came to shove my actions did not speak louder than my words.
… And then I imagined this little girl. Who was she? What caused her to put on that dress and dance through the streets with such expressive joy? I imagined this little girl spinning and twirling in the shadow of Moonee, played with child like abandon by the wonderful Brooklyn Prince in The Florida Project. And I imagined her meeting a Bobby, played with an unrelenting compassion by the talented Willem Dafoe, someone who could tell her that no matter what the world told her that she had a place to belong. And I imagined her putting on her dress and running through the gates of Disney World to celebrate with the children on the other side of that divided line regardless of her slightly run down house, ethnicity or neighbourhood stereotype. And I turned from my imagination to offer up a prayer. A prayer that this little girl might never lose that sense of joy. That she would aspire to be a Moonee. A prayer that the next time my own actions needed to speak louder than my words that I would chose to do more than simply ignore it. That I would aspire to be a Bobby.