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.

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.

In the meantime, the ICE program continued to grow, and now includes courses on "social ethics" that require students to perform at least three hours of tutoring or mentoring in low-income neighborhoods. "The house is the symbolic center of what ICE does," Levy says, but "we run our tutoring programs throughout East Dallas." Much of the work is centered on Robert E. Lee, but the program's 135 tutors--100 in work-study, 35 in course work--also help students with reading and test preparation at William Lipscomb Elementary, Woodrow Wilson High School and J.L. Long Middle School.

At the house on Bryan Parkway, the tutoring involves after-school reading and helping kids with homework. Help with homework is a special boost to those who live in homes where English is not the first language and college is a distant dream, if it's thought of at all, the tutors say.

But if one of the ICE house's goals is to teach students to encounter the world and learn how communities are built and hang together, then Clyde McClendon has some advice for the program's current crop of tutors: Step outside the schools and start knocking on doors. Meet the neighbors. A talkative 75-year-old grandmother who lives one block over from the SMU house, McClendon sent four of her grandchildren through the ICE program in its early days, beginning in 1994. "My children, once they got out of school they were over there," McClendon says. "It was fantastic. You couldn't have asked for anything better. It wasn't just a school setting--do your program and then boom--tutors were involved not only as tutors, but as mentors. Their heart was in the program, and the parents were very involved, too."

In a neighborhood that offers few community programs for kids, McClendon says the ICE house has provided a vital service. "Children need somewhere to focus their energy after school, away from school," she says. "They need a friend. Sometimes you can say more to a friend than to a mom or pop."

Back at the ICE house on a Friday "fun day" afternoon, the energy of a handful of kids is focused on painting pumpkins. Dabbling in watercolor paints poured on paper plates, the kids laugh, argue and chatter among themselves and with a half-dozen tutors. "Miss, we need white, white, white," says one boy who's busy mixing paint, trying unsuccessfully to blend primary colors to produce white.

As one boy spreads paint on his pumpkin, another tutor--a girl--arrives and sits next to him, but too close. He jokingly threatens to sue. What grounds, Martinez asks. "She's invading my privacy."

And possibly, somewhere in the future, another SMU law grad is born.

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