Zee Pacifici would drop a rug over the mice droppings and dead cockroaches that littered the basement floor.
The underground room had but one window and was poorly lit. Yet, this was her classroom at Key School in the 1990s, an alternative school in East Harlem.
“I wanted to teach kids that didn’t have the best but did their best,” Pacifici said. “That was my dream.”
Now 86 and living in Riverdale, Pacifici is helping yet one more student achieve her dream, inspiring freelance filmmaker Vivian Rivas to document her life as part of her City College of New York master’s thesis.
In Pacifici, Rivas saw the story of “a great connection” between a teacher and her kids in conditions that weren’t so great. That connection? Rap.
At the time, just 6 percent of Key School students were reading on or above their appropriate level, Pacifici said. She would teach some of these “overlooked students that the school had given up on” in a separate building, two blocks away.
“They were considered the hardest students in the worst room,” Pacifici said. If the critters and feces weren’t bad enough, a furnace exhausted noxious fumes she and the children had learned to ignore.
Rivas first met Pacifici through the director’s life partner, and from then on their relationship grew. Soon Pacifici and Rivas were going to the theater and seeing movies together.
When Rivas decided to go back to school to study documentary filmmaking, she knew exactly what her master’s project would focus on: Pacifici’s teaching career.
While no one from the school to this day will acknowledge the basement or the furnace, Pacifici filled the space with Langston Hughes and other poets despite the fact none of her students could read or write.
“She applied their interests to the lessons in order to teach them how to read and write,” Rivas said. “In the ‘90s, it was very untraditional, but she made the kids rap.”
Pacifici’s goal was to incorporate their dreams and goals into something that flowed. At first, however, the students resisted.
“One kid said, ‘I have no dreams, they’re for sissies,’ and I said OK,” Pacifici said. “That’s good. You just said two lines for a poem.”
She then asked the student to talk about something that he loved, and as he spoke, she wrote down his words. When he was done, she read them back to him.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I wrote a poem, but I still think it’s for sissies,’” Pacifici said with a laugh.
With the poetry came a piano, which the students used to create beats, music and colloquial language in their raps.
“Everyone had a poem in them, and it was so achingly beautiful,” Pacifici said. “I was very lucky.”
Over the years, Pacifici had also taught at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and the James Baldwin School in Manhattan — where, in a flip from Key School, she taught on the roof.
For the documentary, Pacifici had the chance to reconnect with one of her former students. Back then, she knew him as Melvin Coleman. Today he’s an entertainer that uses the stage name Mel Love, a singer and rapper who writes and edits music videos.
“She was incredible,” Coleman said of his teacher. “She helped me to develop my passions for what I do today and allowed me to express myself. She allowed me to get it out.”
Their reunion, caught on Rivas’ camera, was quite emotional.
“I can’t explain it,” Pacifici said. “It was such a shock. Something about him was different, but there was still something about him that was Melvin. I had to stand on my toes to meet his shoulder. It was such an honor to meet him.”
Rivas has condensed all the footage and interviews into a 15-minute documentary. Editing is her favorite part of the process because it is where the story is molded, Rivas said. The documentary will be presented at City College next month as her thesis.
Apart from her documentary on Pacifici, Rivas also has other upcoming projects on the horizon, with topics ranging from immigration and trans issues, particularly trans women migrants from her home of Guatemala in relation to the first trans woman who was given asylum in the United States.
While Pacifici inspired her quite a bit on this project, it also prompted Rivas to think about the teachers who influenced her own path throughout her career.
“My teachers are definitely one reason that I made the movie,” she said. “The ones that impacted me were the ones that really listened and the ones that pushed me to try.
“They never judged and were always supportive and encouraged me to not be afraid to fail.”