May 16, 2011

a stone's throw

Not too far from where I live is an inner-city elementary school that I visit once a week. The school district is in academic emergency with a graduation rate of 58% for the 2009-2010 school year. The neighborhood around the school is best described as modern urban blight and decay. About half the houses are boarded up; the others have overgrown yards and rubbish strewn about. The sidewalks are heaved and broken.

I'm part of a program that goes into the classrooms and helps the children learn about working in communities and begin career planning at a very young age. The idea is to encourage and nurture ambition and goals for the future. It's a very well received program.

My most recent assignment is two combined classes of 30 first graders. They are in so many ways typical children; smiley, happy, wiggly, excited. This past week was no exception. Spending the morning with them always lifts my spirits for the day. Last week, it also gave me something to think about that hasn't left me alone.

Our lesson was about jobs people in our families do and part of the lesson involved creating a classroom job book. We talked about different things people we knew did for a living. As the students shared the sort of jobs their families do, I heard such examples as:

The Dollar Store
Mowing Lawns
McDonalds
Subway Sandwich Maker
WalMart cashier
and, repeatedly,

One of the only college educated people these children encounter in their journey is their teacher. I asked the kids if they had to go to school to get these jobs they mentioned, and for every job, they understood that you did have to go to school. One little girl earnestly explained to me that her mommy had to go to work an hour early every day for a whole week to learn how to make the fries and put the sandwiches together. They share stories about how their folks work two jobs and they help care for their smaller siblings. Many of them are single parent homes but have many people in their homes with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents together.

In an era when teachers are regularly disparaged, it seems to me that we ask quite a bit from our educators. These thirty little people have dreams, too. The first step to fulfilling those dreams is a good role model. While their parents are honest hard working folks, retail or fast food job will not ever take them out of their blighted neighborhood. A teacher is their beacon of light to a different world.  

photo courtesy of Inmagine
This school is less than a 10 minute drive away from my very tall, but not insurmountable, picket fence. The neighborhood is only a stone’s throw away. Maybe that stone doesn’t need to be thrown at windows, but instead can be used to measure distance. It’s not too far away from any of us. Getting closer keeps those arms from throwing stones and instead reaches out. A little one on one encouragement may be the difference between learning to make fries and learning to change lives.  

Thank you to all the teachers who make a difference every day. 

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