I rushed out of the house with my negative TB test in hand. My first day as a volunteer at a local, private emergency school for children whose parents are homeless. Children attend school to learn, play, eat, relax and in general, forget about their circumstances for a little while. I had no idea how I would be able to manage a full day of what I considered might be emotional at best or difficult at worst.
I arrived just before a young father came in to drop off his daughter. He acted erratically and was suspicious of me when I offered to walk his child to the classroom since I was going that way. The paid staff waved me off and took over the discussion. The little girl never made it to class. Most likely her dad changed his mind.
I gently knocked on the green door and was hailed inside by a baseball cap wearing gentleman with an easy smile and a friendly voice. I explained I was there to volunteer. The three little boys sitting at their desks glanced at me then turned to their seat work, while the teacher and I whispered our hellos.
I learned that on any one day there could be anywhere from a couple to a dozen children in this classroom. Today there were only three. Eventually, I was introduced to the boys, all about nine years old and they learned my name as Miss Caro. Together, we went over the schedule and the rest of the day was spent following it to the “T,” while the boys took turns explaining to me what each activity entailed.
The boys were each remarkably similar and yet, drastically different. All three boys struck me as very open to me even though they didn’t know who I am. Each child beamed at being able to teach me about the classroom routine. Each child showed signs of street life. Each child smiled broadly and laughed easily. Yet, not one talked about himself outside of school.
Mike is tall and athletic with developing broad shoulders and has an exotic look about him. Everything about Mike reeks of manipulation. All the rules of the basketball game he joined were somehow tweaked to his advantage and while he was kind, clearly his goal was to be the best at all costs.
Mike is super observant. While reading The Wizard of Oz aloud to them I asked them if they knew what a lion’s mane is? They did not. I explained it and kept reading. Later that afternoon as they read their creative writing exercise Mike proudly used the word “mane” in his story. He was rewarded with the teacher’s acknowledgment that his accomplishment was worthy of great praise.
Similarly, while shorter and with a more generic, round face of a mischievous child, Andy also made it clear that his voice was to be heard. Andy is more cerebral and has a vocabulary of a much older, wiser child. His ideas are well developed and it is clear that he has a love of reading. He too argues on the playground and puts himself in the simultaneous position of arbitrator and player; I get another turn because…; that doesn’t count because…, and on and on.
In the classroom, Andy excels in all areas of study. He is a voracious reader and his vocabulary includes words like “affect” and “opportunity.” Andy’s writing assignment also incorporates his experiences from earlier in the day. He writes that he wishes he could fly like a bird. He would squeeze himself into an unsuspecting flock of black birds and go all over the world. He would want to fly to see Santa at the North Pole more than anything else.
Dan is stout, sports a mohawk that was clearly just touched up and developmentally seems to be much younger than the other boys. While playing a game of pickle, he fell and outright cried saying he didn’t want to play anymore as he lay on the court. The other boys ran to help him and treated him likewise, as a child much younger than they. After a band-aid and a hug, he resumed play but not in the manner of the other two boys. He was content to hang back and watch the other two try to out maneuver each other.
In the classroom, I learned that unlike the other boys Dan has literally never been in a regular school. In fact, he has rarely attended the emergency school. He struggles with reading, has not yet mastered the concept that when adding numbers by counting on his fingers that he can start by knowing he has five fingers on each hand and count six, then seven, then eight, etc. Dan has to begin counting at one every time. Often, he has to start over because he loses his place on the number line. He does not know his birthdate. I took dictation for his creative writing assignment. His writing prompt asks him to describe his favorite Christmas present. He talks about the ChooChoo train he received as well as the chameleon that can hang from the ceiling by its tongue.
At the end of the day, the teacher rewarded the boys for their hard work and good behavior by letting them pick a game to play with me. We played Candyland and despite their best efforts Andy and Mike were not allowed to change rules to suit them. We snickered at bad draws and guffawed when a player had to go back so far they would never catch up again. Soon the teacher said, time to line up, signaling the end of the school day.
I reminded them that had a great time with them and that I would see them next week. They went to the area where their parent would retrieve them and I walked out through the office entrance.
As I headed to my car I heard, “Miss Caro! Miss Caro!” I turned to see Andy waving furiously as he waited to board a van that I came to understand would take him to the shelter for women and their children. I waved back yelling, “ciao dahling!”
I plopped into my car to check emails and texts, and peek at FaceBook. As I looked up to grab my shoulder strap of the seatbelt I saw Dan walking down the sidewalk. He was with his mother, brother and two sisters, the youngest of which was fast asleep in an umbrella stroller. His mom pushed her as the other children skipped around them. They walked down the street, going to a shelter. No, hopefully going to a shelter I thought.
I wondered what circumstances lead a woman with four children to be chronically homeless. I wondered why she couldn’t work a little more with Dan. I wondered why Andy’s intelligence was being ignored by his parent. Clearly, he has a crazy amount of potential. Why was Mike’s natural athleticism and leadership not being developed?
I stopped myself. I cried. I drove away in the silence, listening to my thoughts. I found myself saying,
“Give without expectations. Help without judging. Love without condition. Repeat.”
I can’t wait to go back just to be there.