ICE, ICE Babies

SMU kids learn about life outside The Bubble

If you want to hang at the ICE house, first you have to know the rules. It's easy; they're posted on the living-room wall, scrawled in felt-tip on a poster. There are six, first among them no cursing. Second, no violence. Third rule, show respect for...wait a second, let's go back to No. 2.

Trouble is, rules were made to be broken, and fifth-grade boys were made to break them. That explains why on this muggy Friday afternoon two boys from Robert E. Lee Elementary are thrashing about on an ICE house couch just under the rule board in a flagrant no-holds-barred wrestling match. A laughing 18-year-old SMU student tugs on one boy's ankle as she tries to stop the tussling. It suddenly ends after one contestant is pile-driven to the floor with a wicked thump then retaliates with the coup de grace, a rapid wedgie delivered straight to his opponent's boxers.

Game, set, match. Rule No. 2 takes a beating, and No. 3, "show respect for and obey your tutors," is a bit wobbly, but No. 6, "have fun," appears intact.

SMU student Coco Martinez helps East Dallas kids decorate pumpkins at the ICE house.
Mark Graham
SMU student Coco Martinez helps East Dallas kids decorate pumpkins at the ICE house.

That seems fair enough, since Fridays are fun days at Southern Methodist University's Intercommunity Experience house on Bryan Parkway in the Garrett Park neighborhood, three miles away from SMU's University Park campus.

Built roughly 10 years ago with contributions of money and volunteer labor, the four-bedroom house serves as both student housing for SMU and the university's embassy on this working-class street. Its purpose is to teach SMU undergrads about community building, as house residents and scores of other SMU students tutor a roughly equal number of kids from the mostly minority neighborhood. In exchange, the tutors get their own lesson--plus some class credit or work-study money. "The point is, it's a way of teaching students about the world they live in but don't encounter. It's eye-opening," says Dr. Bruce Levy, an English professor and director of the ICE program, which also places tutors in neighborhood schools each semester. "There are students who don't realize that sometimes families live in one room."

Four students live in the house full time, paying $1,200 a semester in rent, which helps maintain the house and pay for activities for the neighborhood kids. (Donations and grants also support the ICE program.) Non-resident students volunteer or do work-study at the house, helping with twice-weekly afternoon tutoring sessions and Friday activity days.

The punch line, of course, would be obvious: Think clueless SMU frat brats collecting used ski gear and designer shoes for the impoverished masses. Then think again. It's not close to being true.

Take, for example, resident Omar Salas, a 21-year-old finance and Spanish major from Oak Cliff. "On a personal level, for me the culture shock hasn't been there," he says of living in the 'hood. "It's no big deal for me."

The bigger deal was learning to handle the students he tutors. "My first couple of weeks they pretty much picked on me," Salas says. "Basically what they try to do is see what they can get away with before they can get their work done."

For other residents, the move to East Dallas is a greater leap. Coco Martinez comes from Lewisville, so she perhaps takes more notice of the occasional sound of gunfire in the night or the sights and sounds of hard-looking men hanging out on front porches and drinking until the wee hours.

"I've had my car egged, tomatoed," she says. "We found a bullet on the ground" in the back yard.

Undaunted, she has also approached neighborhood toughs about stepping up and helping the ICE house, since the younger kids look up to them. A gutsy move, but not too surprising for a young woman who spent two weeks living in homeless shelters in San Francisco and Nashville as part of alternative spring breaks.

"For the [neighborhood] students to see us as college students gives them hope they can go to college, too. We're like role models," Martinez says, then pauses as the doorbell rings. She admits two boys, among them R.J., who'll deliver the wedgie a couple of hours later.

As the role model returns to her seat, the bell rings again, but this time no one is at the door. It keeps ringing. One of the two boys--R.J. most likely--has lifted the wireless doorbell button from its holder and is ringing the bell from the back yard. Technically, that's probably a rule violation, but it's pretty clever nonetheless. Laughing--there seems to be a lot of laughter at the house--Martinez retrieves the ringer and returns to be interviewed.

"It's kind of like study abroad," she continues. "Just three miles from SMU, it's like a whole other world."

Three days later, Levy will say something similar, echoing the words of Chris Lake, the SMU student who founded the original ICE house on Lindell Avenue in 1990. "You can do SMU in London, and you can do SMU in Paris, but in some weird way we're not doing SMU in Dallas. We don't really encounter life as it really is in this city," Levy says.

The first ICE house was in a former crack house rented through Habitat for Humanity. It would serve until 1993, when SMU shut down the rat-infested home because of safety issues. SMU students and staff then collected donations to build the current house, again with help from Habitat for Humanity. The house on Bryan Parkway was built in eight weeks, and Habitat turned it over to SMU in 2001.

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