…My husband and I recorded one of Stephen Haff’s younger students—a little girl, eight or nine years old—while she argued passionately…over the exact way to translate the words “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be to practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness.”
– Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive
We live in a time of story. On the radio and in our daily podcasts, in StoryCorps booths or onstage at the Moth, in the interviews and listening circles that feed theatremaking and train us to live together more compassionately—we enact the belief that stories can help us fix what’s broken. We can translate across our differences, and, in hearing each other, one story at a time, we can heal.
Stephen Haff’s remarkable first book, Kid Quixotes, makes a clear, persuasive case for this mutual translation and its potential for repair. The subtitle tells you what it’s about: A Group of Students, Their Teacher, and the One-Room School Where Everything Is Possible. The writer of the book is the teacher of the title, and his humble authorial voice captures his pedagogy: At once learned and accessible, the book speaks to the scholar in the child and the child in the littérateur. He simplifies complexity and complicates what appears simple, weaving three living stories around another, four centuries old.
Story One: In which a soulful director/dramaturg, trained at Yale School of Drama, quits the theatre and enters the belly of urban affliction in Bushwick, Brooklyn to teach high school English to teenagers seemingly condemned to the school-to-prison pipeline. This autobiographical thread has all the makings of a Hollywood white savior movie—including the crappy apartment over a bodega in a building that’s sinking on one side—but it transcends the genre.
Haff’s dream of rescuing the needy fails. He doesn’t save his students, doesn’t triumph. The system nearly kills him. His grandiose quest consumes his life. He writes personal correspondence to 150 students a night. He lets the kids call him “Dad.” He breaks up brutal fights each day in school, walks at least one student to Alcoholics Anonymous, brings dinner to others in jail, and joins them in their cell. He founds a touring Shakespeare company—“translating” the verse into contemporary urban vernacular—called Real People Theater (RPT).
Yes, he helps kids without a chance get into Ivy League colleges, but he can’t keep them there. When he witnesses the teenagers he won’t give up on giving up on themselves—succumbing to violence, drug dealing, and the sinkhole of low expectations—he abandons them. Just walks away. “They didn’t appreciate my sacrifices,” he laments to his therapist. He descends into a suicidal bipolar depression, fleeing to his family home in Canada, where he spends two years in the basement, getting psychological help, medication, and his mother’s love.
Story Two: In which an “impossible” project gets hatched, a tyrant gets elected— threatening the families of our student-heroes—and a one-room schoolhouse becomes a sanctuary worthy of its name: Still Waters in a Storm.
Having climbed out of the dark, Haff returns to Bushwick, where he teams up with Angelo, a verbally virtuosic member of the defunct RPT, to start a homework help program, this time for all ages. Angelo lands back in prison and, over the next eight years, Haff and an army of volunteers—former students, leading university professors, lay professionals across the disciplines, and world-famous writers—transform the storefront reading and writing project into a beloved community of learners. By 2015, 25 students are spending a full year reading and translating (through their own experiences, in their own tongues) John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
As if tilting with Milton isn’t quixotic enough, as if spending a whole year on one book isn’t a radical enough rebellion against the hurry-up of deadline-driven education, Haff and 25 regular students set a new challenge: to translate in their entirety the 900 pages of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote from 17th-century Spanish into contemporary English. They will pore word by word over this famous picaresque about an ancient, addled romantic who believes himself a knight errant on a quest to save his nation. Yes, the whole damn thing.
They each have a copy of their common book, thicker than their Bibles at home, but they don’t have a common language. The self-dubbed Kid Quixotes come from Spanish-speaking immigrant households, mostly undocumented, and often translate for their parents, but they don’t all read Spanish. The youngest doesn’t read at all. Haff’s Spanish is “fledgling,” but he’s a whiz at Latin, with which the kids will fall in love. They teach each other. Adding ambition to impossibility, they simultaneously adapt the tome into a musical, each lyric and line of dialogue hashed out by the group with songs by the wonderful composer Kim Sherman, a friend of Haff’s from school. Because every choice of word is an adventure in rigorous consensus-building, even the title takes a village: The Traveling Serialized Adventures of Kid Quixote. Three years in, they saddle up to tour their show through New York City and beyond.
Story the Third, Which, Being the Heart of Things, Is Really the First: In which we meet our hero among heroes, another windmill tilter: the shy six-year-old Sarah Sierra, who, for the next several years, will play their Don Quixote. This tale you must read for yourself, but I’ll tell you this: Sarah’s story also belongs to her mother, Maggie, whose description of seven crossings from Mexico to “safety” in the U.S. becomes a harrowing 11-page 11 o’clock number in the book. The haven of Still Waters can’t protect from the storms of Trump world. Someone calls immigration on Maggie, and she must leave her family and go into hiding. Sarah is about eight at the time, just finding her voice and power by playing an aged 17th-century knight.
Sarah’s story is also available in a companion book for young readers: Becoming Kid Quixote: A True Story of Belonging in America. I haven’t seen it, but I hope it contains the illustrations she draws in the margins of Don Quixote. (I think of them as medieval illuminations.) As described, the pictures reveal her inner life to us. They usher us into her dreamscape: the tiger that carried her mother across the desert to safety. The ICE people who keep immigrant children in refrigerators under that same desert. There’s a quiet intimacy to late afternoons at the escuelita, as Sarah walks Haff through her unfolding graphic story.
“That’s a big puddle from the Ice Person melting.”
“Why did he melt?”
“Because I listened to him.”[…]
“Who’s this over here?” Haff asks, pointing to a stick figure.
“That’s the first kid I can reach.”
“That’s the path of water from the melted Ice Person so I can just walk up to her.”
“And what’s happening here?”
“That’s me hugging the girl.”
“And what’s all around you?”
“What do you say to her?”
“Nothing. I only hug her for a long, long time.”
“Five hours.[…] I’m squeezing out all of the tears. She has a lot of tears inside her.”
Listening is, itself, a kind of translation, which Haff reminds us “comes from the Latin, meaning ‘carry across’”—languages, borders, cultures, identities, generations. Still Waters in a Storm has one rule: “Everyone listens to everyone.” This listening practice draws from what Haff calls the “careful, reciprocal attention” of AA, Quaker prayer meetings, and psychotherapy. It engenders deep respect and makes of the schoolroom a sanctuary, allowing children of different ages, personalities, and abilities to collaborate and flourish. This listening can, in the mind of an errant knight or a little girl who plays one, melt the Ice People.
I met Stephen Haff in 1996 when I started as artistic director at New Dramatists in New York. He was casting there and organizing the new play workshops. We all saw his real calling, though, when he spoke of his work with the “kids” at the extraordinary 52nd Street Project, where he served as an adult mentor to kids in Hell’s Kitchen making new plays. That work lit him up and must have led him here, where at long last he’s been translated into the person he was meant to be.
Haff’s translation is only one of the miraculous crossings in this story of stories, each act of translation reminding us of the urgent, eternal work of finding common language, building safety and respect, creating culture together across the deserts that separate us, whether in a shared country or a single neighborhood. It’s the work of hours and of centuries. It’s the work of this fine and beautiful book.
Todd London is a former managing editor of this magazine. His novel, If You See Him, Let Me Know, came out this year from Austin Macauley (London); This Is Not My Memoir, co-written with Andre Gregory, is due out in November (Farrar, Straus, Giroux).
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