February 12, 2011

Stopping the Leaks

One sad reality in today’s world is that only about 70% of high school students will actually graduate. That statistic is closer to 55% at inner city schools, in crime ridden areas with high poverty levels.

Yesterday, I was afforded the opportunity to volunteer as a last minute substitute for 3 hours at an elementary school in such a district. I mustered as much enthusiasm as possible and tried to ignore the blight as I drove through the tired neighborhood filled with boarded up homes that surround the school where I was volunteering.  I reminded myself that my car had an alarm as I parked it and tried to put aside my concerns. I wondered what it must be like to walk these streets where most of the sidewalks were heaped with snow, unshoveled, every day to school.

I came into the bright shiny building and hope surged. The building was only 4 years old and the walls were decorated with student art. We met in the library/media center and were briefed. I was assigned a class of 21 second graders.

I walked into the classroom and it was stacked with crates and papers in a state of complete disarray. The teacher explained in an exasperated voice that the roof leaked in her classroom and that the contractor and the architect were fighting over whose fault it was and instead just kept replacing ceiling tiles. My first impression was how sad it was that such an investment was being wasted. Then I realized the investment wasn’t the building but the 21 little people whose bright eyes stared back at me with enthusiasm and energy.

Well, actually only 20 of those 21 eyes. One little guy was sound asleep, head down on his desk. As I went around the room introducing myself to each child and asking what they wanted to be when they grew up, the teacher yelled from her desk, “You’re not allowed to say football player or basketball player!”

My heart tugged a bit as I thought what kid doesn’t want to be a sports hero? I wanted to be Nadia Comăneci. I could barely do a somersault let alone gymnastics so that dream remained simply that. I understood why the teacher would encourage a dose of realistic thinking, even though it saddened me to dampen youthful dreams.

When I got to the sleepy guy, his table mates said, he always sleeps. I glanced at the teacher and she nodded her head in agreement. I felt sad that he would miss our fun and educational time, but neither did I want to disrespect the teacher who dealt with him on a daily basis. Apparently, it was acceptable to let him sleep. I wondered momentarily about a second grader whose parent(s) didn’t make him go to bed, or perhaps even worse, who for any variety of reasons didn’t feel safe sleeping in his home.

My children excitedly announced that they wanted to be police officers, fire fighters, nurses, veterinarians, singers, soldiers and teachers. Typical second grade dreams, past the sports heroes. The teacher continued to glance up from her desk and loudly hush the children, to the point that I knew, her typical day was spent just trying to keep the children quiet. One little girl loudly told me she wanted to be a NICE teacher, as she glanced at her teacher, with a little gleam in her eye. I hoped she didn’t get in trouble for her ornery pronouncement later that day. I had to pause for a moment when one little boy told me he wanted to be a gang maker. I asked him to repeat that and explain to me what he meant. He said you know, like video games, I want to invent video games. I blushed at the mistaken conclusion I had reached.

The time I was there was filled with the lively boisterous eagerness of second graders. They were wiggly, bursting with excitement, and had a hard time sitting still or taking turns. It didn’t take more than a gentle reminder, but we also had their teacher, who clearly was worn out, yell and threaten them about every two minutes. I wanted to tell her I was okay with the kids and she could go take a well-deserved break -- that I had it under control, but I also didn’t know anything about these children and what may trigger a problem. I didn’t want to be overly arrogant in my ability to keep the program rolling smoothly, so I deferred to her iron fist. Meanwhile the sleepyhead continued to sleep. After about an hour, the teacher called his mother and told her to come get him, but I had already discerned enough to know that the mother wasn’t coming and the boy would keep sleeping.

At one point the teacher and I had a moment to talk adult to adult and she just said, the stories of these kids would break your heart. I looked at her face and realized that her veteran teaching heart had been broken a thousand times and that it had become hardened. Her job was to keep chaos from ruling, maybe instill some respect and pride, and get through each day, one minute at a time. I didn’t fault her in the least. I had three hours with these kids, I knew nothing about them other than they were excited I was there and wanted to know what I could teach them.

I wonder if it was an asset that I didn’t know anything about these children or their lives and I only saw eager faces. Almost every child at some point in time came over and wrapped their little arms around my legs as they barely reached my ribs. They worked pretty well together for their group project and seemed to have a good time. There were class leaders, shy kids, clumsy kids, and sweethearts. All in all, to my unjaded eyes, they were just a fun group of kids. I loved my morning.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what it must be like for someone who deals with it every day and the kids who have seen more in their seven years than most of us ever will see. I hated to think that statistically, only about half those children will even finish high school. I hated to think of the violence and crime that surrounds their world, as I only have to look on the front page of our local paper for proof. I hated to realize that my hopeful game maker, with a few bad influences, could indeed become a gang maker instead.

I want to keep the faith. I want to believe we can make a difference. I think it takes the naïve enthusiasm from someone who hasn’t lost their hope, whose spirit hasn’t been dampened from leaks. I want to think about a building that is solid from the inside out, where leaks aren’t ignored by bickering about where to cast blame. We can stop the chaos one leaky drop at a time. 

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