Seven-year-old Nile Ruff's house is a little more than a block from a busy intersection in Northeast D.C. What appears to be an ice cream truck is parked next door, with the words "Goodies in da Hood" artistically spray-painted on the side of it. The landscape that tumbles out from Nile's front yard suggests that the city she lives in has not--not for a long time, maybe not ever--been an ideal place for children.
Not that it matters much to Nile. To her, her home and her hometown are magical places.
We're out in her front yard one sunny Sunday afternoon. She drags me to the curb and points out the remains of a shattered car window. The car is gone, the victim of vandals or a smash-and-grab. Little, smooth-edged bits of glass--the treated kind that won't cut skin when it's broken--are scattered all over the pavement and the grass. Nile calls them crystals. She scoops them up by the handful and sprinkles some on a couple of budding violets along the walkway to her house, hoping the magic will help the plants grow. She stuffs the rest in the pockets of her jeans. She'll save a little magic for later.
Officially, Nile is a Buddhist--her family got involved in the religion before she was born--but she isn't one for meditation or heavy self-reflection. "I hardly think anything about it," she says. "Right now, I'm looking for the ladybug I just saw."
It's not that Nile doesn't value or doesn't understand the importance of the large, lofty things in life--religion and family and ambition. It's just that the 7-year-old's values are a jumble of big things and small things that, in her mind, hold equal importance.
Before we head inside for a lunch of turkey hot dogs, Nile runs the list of priorities she's gathered over seven long years: "Family and friendship and money and a house." Then she pauses. "And... learn[ing] something new on the monkey bars."
To judge from her looks, Nile has a sort of movie-star quality about her. She's about average in size--4-foot-3 and 64 pounds--but strong and muscular for her age. She has shoulder-length, thick, wildly kinky hair, but her mom or a family friend usually smooths it into neat braids or twists. But even the carefully constructed twists get tousled after a while, and often her hair stands out in a sort of semi-controlled mess from her round, sweet face. When this happens, she looks almost like a young lioness. It's hard not to stare at her.
Nile lives in a cozy, three-bedroom house in the Woodridge section of Northeast D.C., with her mother, Patricia Elam, a lawyer turned writer, and two older brothers, Denzel, 11, and Justin, 17. Her parents separated about two years ago and are in the midst of a divorce; Nile usually spends Wednesday nights and some time on the weekend with her dad, Coles Ruff, director of government relations for AT&T Broadband Services, who lives only a 10-minute drive away.
Nile has a busy schedule: She has regular school every weekday from 8:45 to 3:15, followed by Spanish tutoring that lasts until at least 4 o'clock. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, she goes to school early, at 7:30, for additional help with her reading. She stays at the Oyster Elementary School, located temporarily at 300 Bryant St. NW, most days until about 6 o'clock, watched over by parents who run an after-school day-care program. On Saturdays, she goes to African dance class at noon, then ballet at 3. During the late spring and summer, she also has a Saturday swimming class. Her ballet class meets again on Monday evening. And on Tuesday, she takes a tap class.
It's exhausting just to watch, but in class, at home, during dinner, while doing her homework, Nile seems happy to be perpetually on her way to the next thing. On a Thursday evening, for example, Elam quizzes Nile on the following day's spelling test. "S-T-R-A-I-G-H-T," Nile spells back, while she circles through every room on the first floor--from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room to the family room, and again, and again--practicing her dance moves and climbing over any piece of furniture that blocks her way.
Nile is a drama queen. Elam says her daughter has recently become obsessed with Hollywood and acting, but that she's always loved to perform. Nile started dance classes when she was 4. She also likes to sing. Aside from the songs she makes up, she knows all the words to most Lauryn Hill songs and likes to listen to rap with her brothers.
Nile has many best friends. Her "best best friend" is Lourdes, whom she met during the first grade at Oyster. Nile is eternally grateful to Lourdes, who befriended her during her first scary year at a new school and even stood by her when she broke her arm on the playground. Ngozi is another good friend. Nile is not related to Ngozi, but their mothers are close friends and Nile calls Ngozi's mom "Aunt Lydia," so she says Ngozi is her "best fake cousin." Nile's "best friend who's a boy"--but not a boyfriend, mind you--is Adrian, who also happens to be Lourdes' real cousin. Adrian is in Nile's second-grade class at Oyster, but the two don't play together much outside of class. Nile doesn't care for the clubs that Adrian always forms with his sister and other girls at their school. "They don't talk about anything. They mostly just eat Adrian's candy," she says.
Nile's room is on the second floor of her house. It's a small, simple space with plenty of toys--a doll house, a crowd of stuffed animals, and some fake styling products Nile got from her aunt, like a little plastic curling iron and a purple carrying case. But Nile doesn't seem too interested in her toys and would probably much rather be outside or in dance class than playing quietly in her room. Take Addy, for example. Addy is a stuffed doll with black skin that Nile has placed in a small doll bed right next to her own, bigger bed. That's where Addy stays. "Oh, that's Addy," Nile says as she points the doll out to me one evening after school. "She never gets dressed. She's always sleeping so she doesn't have to sleep when she's an adult."
Nile is only in the second grade, but she's already a veteran of the myriad school options that make up public education in the District. She spent her preschool and kindergarten years at a Montessori program at Woodridge Elementary School. Her mother moved her to an African-centered school, known as Bethune-Woodson, for first grade, but the school closed during Nile's first week because officials couldn't secure a permanent building. She went to Edison-Friendship Public Charter School next, but the teacher complained during the first week that Nile was too active in class. Elam figured that was typical for a then-5-year-old but not so typical for a 5-year-old's teacher, so she moved her again. Nile recalls that she left the school because she and her mother didn't like what it served for lunch.
Whatever the reason, Nile now attends classes at Oyster, a school that provides bilingual education by having both an English-speaking and a Spanish-speaking teacher assigned to each classroom. In Nile's classroom, teacher Nilda Ramos conducts most of her instruction in English, and her partner, Julia Garcia, teaches the students almost entirely in Spanish. The students call them Ms. Ramos and Senora Garcia to distinguish their roles. The teachers can be stern when they have to be, but for the most part, they're fun and friendly. Nile says she likes them both. "But I don't like like them," she distinguishes, noting that they are teachers, after all.
Even so, second grade is still the time when kids idolize teachers, maybe even develop crushes. In a few years, Nile and her classmates won't feel compelled to draw pictures and write get-well notes to their teachers, like the one that's on the wall in Nile's classroom. "Mrs. Ramos," it says, in sloppy penciled handwriting. "You are like a rose to me. I love you like you were my mather...."
The quasi-love note is posted right above the classroom rules, which say:
In this classroom we follow the I-CARE-Rules:
We listen to each other.
Hands are for helping, not for hurting.
We use I-Care-language.
We care about each other's feelings.
We are responsible for what we say and do.
School starts for Nile and her classmates each day at a large square of orangish-red carpet spread out in the center of the room, where Ms. Ramos and Senora Garcia gather the kids for announcements, a look at the day's schedule, and the bureaucratic tasks that are part of even a 7-year-old's life.
Most lessons begin with an initial stage of confusion, during which almost every one of the 24 students in Nile's class conducts a frenzied search for a pencil. Ms. Ramos and Senora Garcia keep a few plastic cups full of pencils, but there never seem to be enough--which means that the kids who don't get to the cups fast enough have to turn to their backpacks and hope they can find what Senora Garcia calls their "personal pencils."
The wild pencil chase is followed by several minutes of pencil-sharpening. No matter what the condition of the pencil, Nile and her classmates can't help but be drawn to the electric pencil sharpener on a chair in one corner of the room. One after another, they trickle over to the contraption. One after another, they insert their pencils and an annoying buzzing sound fills the room. Hmmmmmm. And then the next. Hmmmmmm. This process can take so much time that on some days, Ms. Ramos and Senora Garcia have to ban any more pencil-sharpening.
On a Monday morning in February, Nile's class is assigning students to the "room helper" chores, roles with names like "Doorholder," or "Librarian," or "Messenger." Nile ends up with the room helper chore known simply as "Materials"--which means she's responsible for handing out folders and paper anytime the class starts a new lesson.
Later that afternoon, Ms. Ramos passes out a practice test for the Stanford 9, the standardized achievement test the students will take later this spring. As Materials, Nile's job is to hand out spare folders so that her classmates can prop them up around their tests, creating (the teachers hope) cheat-proof barriers between students. Nile has a great deal of power in this situation. She determines who gets the colorful folders with pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh or Pokemon--which are, of course, in high demand--and who gets the plain single-color folders.
Where the room helper chores are concerned, Nile and her classmates allow little room for transgression. They take the division of duties very, very seriously. After the practice test is completed, for example, one boy makes the mistake of attempting to gather the folders and put them away. Another student, Alaina, quickly reminds him about the process. "Nile is collecting them. Nile is Materials," she says sternly, holding her folders with a white-knuckled grip.
The core task of being a student has its share of trials. Although it's indeed time to gather the folders, Nile's a little frustrated with her performance on the practice test and starts to tear up. Ms. Ramos notices and glances at Nile's paper. "You did great, Miss. There's no reason to cry," she says, handing her a tissue. "Do you want someone to help?"
"No," Nile says, sniffling. Even second-graders understand duty. "No, I can do it," she says, starting to circle around the tables.
A second-grade classroom is a fine equalizer--a place where, say, discussions of whether Tweety Bird is male or female, how to break a rock, and the horrors of slavery can be conducted with similar levels of seriousness and rigor.
One February Tuesday at Oyster starts with this announcement from Principal Paquita Holland: "I have a long message, and it's very exciting. Today, for the first time, Oyster will celebrate Black History Month." She goes on to say that the celebration will start with each grade touring the cafeteria, which, for the day, has been transformed into an exhibit on slavery and the Underground Railroad. An all-school "interactive" assembly will complete the program.
It's been a few weeks since Nile and her class had their slavery unit, so Ms. Ramos starts up a refresher talk. "We're not going to the railroad tracks, are we?" she asks the class.
"Nooo," the kids intone. They work together for a while to come up with a definition for the system of people and places that helped slaves escape to freedom.
"And who helped people along?" asks Ms. Ramos.
"Ooh-ooh," a couple of students lurch forward, their arms thrust in the air, before they all blurt out, "Harriet Tubman!"
Ms. Ramos goes on to explain that Harriet Tubman is also known as the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad. "That's the prince of Egypt," says Malcolm.
"That's the worst movie in the world," says Sara.
Ms. Ramos, trying to keep on topic, provides a brief explanation of Moses' role and why Harriet Tubman was given the moniker: "In the Bible, Moses helped free people. And that's all I'm going to say about the Bible, or I'll get in trouble."
A few kids offer blank looks. "But everybody knows who the prince of Egypt is," says one.
"We're not supposed to talk about the Bible," says another.
Later that morning, a couple of older students guide Nile and her class through the cafeteria exhibition--fifth-graders who are a bit sheepish about their roles of authority. Inside, Nile and her classmates circle through the different displays: maps of the routes slaves took to the North, replicas of quilt patterns slave families used to guide each other to freedom. They are as attentive as they can manage, and they goof around only a little with the hats and dolls that are part of the display of artifacts from African countries.
The station that gets them most excited is the one about Henry "Box" Brown, a former slave who mailed himself from the slave-holding South to freedom in Philadelphia. The exhibit is little more than a short explanation of Brown's story, accompanied by a plain brown cardboard box--to replicate the one Brown used. Nile and her classmates wait anxiously while a parent volunteer recounts the story, knowing what's at the end. When the parent finally finishes, the kids line up to climb inside the box; Nile's the first. An older student shuts the flaps and shakes the box to simulate the movement Brown must have felt during transit. But the entire exercise is almost more than Nile can bear. She is ecstatic when she gets out. "I thought we would just get in," she says, grinning widely. "I didn't know he'd shake it, too."
Sometimes, things happen in the classroom that even serious-minded 7-year-olds have a hard time breaking down.
The same exciting Tuesday the students celebrate Black History Month is extraordinary for other reasons. On this afternoon, the students eat lunch in their classrooms. Normally, of course, the students eat in the cafeteria, but it's being used to other ends.
Nile and her classmates gather around the handful of tables in their classroom. Seated on the sky-blue plastic chairs that only a child's rear end can fit in, they spread out lunchboxes and brown paper bags and the metal tins that hold the hot lunch from the school cafeteria. They eat and chat happily. A few minutes before 12:30, Senora Garcia calls for a cleanup and lines the kids up for recess. They head downstairs and wait in a line along the cinder-block wall for Senora Garcia to lead them out.
Just then, kids start bursting in the doors that lead to the playground. Their faces show real panic, not the fatigue from hard play at recess. "Somebody's shooting!" a couple of the kids squeal. They are followed by teachers, equally panicked, who tell Senora Garcia to turn her class right back around. "Go, go!" they holler as Nile and her classmates stampede up the stairs.
It's not clear exactly what's happening, but the possibility of violence is well-known and frightening even to 7-year-olds. The room is in turmoil. A handful of students, Nile included, are in tears. A few others are panic-stricken--not exactly crying, not exactly speaking, not really doing anything. Others respond with nervous excitement, talking wildly about what's happening, making up stories, and clamoring to the windows to see.
The next day's papers will show that on that same morning, only hours earlier, a 6-year-old Michigan boy allegedly shot and killed a 6-year-old classmate. Nile and her classmates are luckier than those Michigan students--the cause of their crisis will turn out to have been not a shooting but a scuffle between two brothers who live in the Kelly Miller public housing complex, across the street from the school's playing field. Teacher Eric Hodge was out on the field during recess and overheard one of the men, who also appeared to be wearing women's clothing, say that the other had a gun. A police car was already at the scene, but Hodge wanted to be safe, so he herded the kids inside. (A police report says that the two men were arrested for simple assault, that they'd thrown a couple punches, but that neither one ever brandished a gun.)
None of this is immediately apparent back in the classroom. Someone from the main office comes on the intercom to say that recess will be held inside, but offers few details. That announcement is followed several minutes later by another message saying that police have handled the matter and that a note will be sent home explaining what will become known as "the incident."
The mood in the room lightens a bit, with the weave of fear and nervous excitement giving way to just excitement. A couple more kids flock to the windows to see what more they can of "the incident."
"I think he's going to Juvenile," says Darnisha, after the cop car drives away.
Never mind that both men are older than 18. Darnisha, like many of the other students, resorts to words she only barely understands to describe a scene all too familiar, but still puzzling.
Ms. Ramos, who's been out running errands over the lunch break, returns to the classroom and calls them all to the center of the room. She asks for a recap.
"There was a gun problem!" shouts one.
"Somebody was shooting," says another.
"It was very, very serious," adds a third.
Once she's gotten the full story, Ms. Ramos reminds them that no one actually saw a gun and that, anyway, they're all safe now. Eventually, their dramatic language gives way to talk they're more accustomed to. Malcolm asks the inevitable question, meant to determine the impact of the event in second-grade terms: "Does that mean we can't come to school tomorrow?" Ms. Ramos assures him that class will continue. Malcolm's shoulders drop.
A state of crisis doesn't usually last too long when you're 7. By the end of recess, "the incident" will have become just one among many classroom dramas. During the unusual indoor playtime, one student tries to use a classroom computer without permission and finds himself getting a lecture from Senora Garcia. Another student, in a rush to grab some toys from a classroom shelf, knocks the shelf over, and a potted plant falls to the ground. The clay pot shatters. This event, to some of the students, turns out to be just as grievous as the other "incident."
"There were two bad things that happened," says Darnisha after recess. First the gun thing, and "now someone ends up breaking the plant."
Really, though, for Nile, classes stand in the way of the time that matters most to her: any time she can find to spend on the monkey bars. That's the first place she bolts during recess. And sometimes, right after the school day ends and if she can sneak out the door before someone stops her, she'll run like crazy from the classroom to the playground to squeeze in a few minutes of monkey-bar play before her after-school tutoring. She can be there and back before anyone notices.
Nile and Lourdes and Ngozi like the monkey bars so much that the huge metal contraption has taken on a sort of personal quality to them. "Sometimes we call them 'monkey friend,'" says Nile after school one day.
The girls use recess, after-school time, and any other spare minute to perfect many stunts on the curved contraption of blue metal attached to the end of a massive piece of climbing equipment in the middle of the playground. The latest stunt involves climbing up the wooden step or using an orange metal handlebar to hoist one's body from the edge of the climbing equipment, and, skipping the first two rungs, leaping to the third rung of the monkey bars. Not the first. Way too easy. Not the second. The girls figured out how to do that a long time ago. Of course, not everyone has perfected the third-bar jump. Nile can do it, and once she even made it to the fourth rung, but she was only holding on with one hand and quickly fell to the ground, so the fourth rung has officially not been achieved. Whoever nails the fourth-rung leap will quickly become a playground legend.
Of course, the much-heralded fourth-rung attempt was not the only time Nile fell from the monkey bars. During her first week at Oyster, she slipped from the top of the climbing equipment to the ground below. She broke her right arm and had to have it in a cast for six weeks.
Her injury is another part of monkey-bar lore. On the playground, and especially on the monkey bars, injuries are like hard-earned battle scars. Nile's broken arm is no different. It serves as proof that she's a tough kid who doesn't shy away from hard play, that she's made it through some of the brutal challenges of childhood and lived to talk about them.
During one day at recess, the kids share their tales of injury as if they were war stories. Aside from Nile, a round girl with long hair and overalls smiles and talks excitedly as she tells me that she also broke her arm while climbing on the monkey bars. Nile backs her up and provides a little context to show just how extraordinary their injuries really are. "There have only been 17 people who have broken their arms while playing on the monkey bars. Me and her are two of them," Nile says, pointing to the smiling girl.
Novice monkey-bar climbers might think that climbing is just about having fun. They would be wrong. The monkey bars can also be a place to prove stamina and raw physical strength. And according to Nile, some people, no matter how tough they think they are, really chicken out when it comes to climbing.
Like boys, for instance. Nile has the standard love/hate relationship with boys. She loves only a few: her father, but he's more of a man; her brothers, even though they pick on her; a boy cousin whose name she's forgotten; and her friend Adrian, a sweet boy with big ears and a closely cropped haircut. Nile says she shows her affection for him by touching his head.
Most other boys, she pretty much hates. Well, "hate" may be too strong a word, but she doesn't like them, and she certainly doesn't like like them. Nile says she's never kissed a boy and doesn't plan to anytime soon. She will "never ever ever" get married. She just can't tolerate most boys' attitudes. "They act like they're cool people, and they walk like this," she says. She stands to mimic a smooth little strut, jerking her arms at her side. Even her brothers give in to the posturing, says Nile. "[Justin] likes to dance differently," she adds. She gives another demo, gyrating around with a smooth little bop and a goofy look on her face. "And that's what I don't like about them."
The boys at school are worse. In addition to acting cool, they like to act really tough. "They're always playing soccer. They always push the girls around," says Nile. "They're boys, period. And boys are tough." But Nile finds this supposed toughness laughable, especially when you consider what the boys like to play during recess. Most of them stick to soccer or some other field sport. "We're, like, tougher than the boys, because some of the boys are, like, scared of going on the monkey bars, but girls are not," she says.
Nile pauses, then admits that there are a few boys she makes exceptions for, like Malcolm. "Malcolm is not afraid," she says. Malcolm is the tallest boy in Nile's class. He's funny and talkative, and tells a lot of stories about his church and his cousins.
Nile admits that she and Malcolm have a romantic history--but it's a complicated one. We're on the playground after school one day, and Nile and Lourdes are assuring me that they are disgusted by most boys. But at one point, Nile liked Malcolm and Lourdes liked another boy at their school named John Paul. Only they were really just pretending to like them.
Lourdes: "I have this other boyfriend named Dennis, and Dennis said he was pretending to like a girl; he's using her. He told me to pretend to like a boy in my school."
So Lourdes picked John Paul as a fake paramour, and Nile figured she'd pretend to like Malcolm. This went on for a couple of months, but the girls got kind of bored, so they decided to switch. And then things got really complicated: "We were pretending to like them, but then they started to like us," says Nile.
It's a little unclear exactly how Nile and Lourdes could tell that Malcolm and John Paul liked them, but apparently the boys showed their affection when "they started to make jokes about us and running after us," says Nile. Of course, that sort of behavior eventually pushed Lourdes and Nile away from Malcolm and John Paul. Nile remembers the day specifically: It was the first day of second grade, and the students were lining up to go back into school after recess, and the boys' attention just became too much. "They started to bug us," she says.
So Nile and Lourdes decided to stop pretending to like them, only they're pretty sure the boys still harbor some feelings for them, because they still tease Nile and Lourdes and chase them. The girls are not one bit interested. "Now Malcolm always tries to talk to me, and I say, 'Malcolm, if you want to talk to me, then just save it,'" says Lourdes.
Nile admits that the end was a little bittersweet and that sometimes, just sometimes, she misses the days when she and Lourdes liked the boys, even though they were both just pretending to like the boys. "They were both cute," she says.
This makes Lourdes squeal with disgust: "Oooh, I hate them. I don't think they're cute."
Nile is quiet for a second and then adjusts her position on boys. "A tiny bit," she shrugs.
Maybe, just maybe, one day you'll see Nile Ruff's name up in lights. In her dreams, "Nile Ruff" is all you would need to say, and the rest of the world would know who you were talking about. And maybe the movie directors or the Academy or some high-up politico in California, whoever makes those decisions, could post her well-lit name right near those mountainside letters that spell "HOLLYWOOD." Nile knows about those letters because she's seen them many times on the opening segment for one of her favorite TV shows, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Nile is more prepared for stardom than many kids her age. She prides herself on being a little more critical about the cinema than her fellow 7-year-olds. She thought Pocahontas was just OK, found Stuart Little sentimental enough to make her cry, and wouldn't mind seeing Snow Day. But, unlike many girls her age, she doesn't really care for Leonardo DiCaprio films, like Romeo and Juliet and Titanic. When I ask her if she liked the Oscar-winning movie that, in my opinion, sank just like the ship, she offers a thoughtful criticism. "Not that much," she says, crinkling her nose. "I didn't like Romeo when he sunk down," she says, recalling a creepy look on his face.
In January, at a family friend's urging, Nile auditioned for a part in an independent film a University of Maryland professor is producing. The movie is called Jolie. It's set in the 1950s and features the story of a precocious young girl who eavesdrops on her mother's kitchen-table conversations with adult friends. Nile tried out for the part of the precocious young girl. It's a role that should suit her well.
Nile says she's been waiting, like, forever to hear anything. She's been asking her mother about it every day, and it's been so long that she's practically given up asking. Then, finally, one Tuesday after school, Nile's mom offers up some news. "Guess who I heard from today?" Elam asks in a sing-songy way as we all pile into the SUV. From the back seat, Nile responds with a blank stare. "The lady from the movie called," Elam continues, turning to look at Nile. "You got the part."
Nile smiles silently. Her mom fills her in on the details: The filming will take place on weekends in May. There's no pay for the part, and the wardrobe budget is only $10. But it's a start. Elam and I turn to look at Nile. Nile usually thrives on attention, but today our stares seem to embarrass her. She celebrates the news by burying her face in the seat, eyes wide open, looking into a future only she can see. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.