~This is the second blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children. The title of this post is from Beauty by David Whyte. I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and more importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.
Arriving at the emergency school today, the children greeted me with smiles, surprised looks of recognition and in general a sense that something exciting was about to happen. Later in the evening at my yoga class, our teacher discussed the Spring equinox and its impact on the energy floating around us. Aha, I thought, that’s what was shooting through everyone in school today.
The 4th-grade classroom boasted 9 children today. Most were kids I’d met before, but two sets of siblings are new to me although the teacher said they had been there previously about two years ago. Homelessness comes and goes for these kids. Unfortunately, its transient nature impacts them more than if they were chronically homeless and as a result were enrolled in the school on a daily basis. For example, one of the boys (Andy) has been in class consistently having perfect attendance since the first day of the school year. As a result, he is excelling in his studies, is happy, and has established a set of friendships that he clearly cherishes. Sadly, however, his family is still not able to find a permanent place to live and continue to reside in a non-fully operational vehicle that they manage to move from place to in order to keep from drawing negative law enforcement attention to themselves. Meanwhile, Andy makes it to school every day and for a few hours, enjoys himself immensely. At the end of the day, he and a few others board a school van and are dropped off with their families.
Today started as a stormy morning complete with rain, lightening, and thunder. The kids were chock full of mischief. One of the “new” girls asked me to play one on one basketball with her. I pretended that I knew no rules and that perhaps if she had patience with me that she could teach me how to play. She tried to pull a few rule violations but when I spoke to her about it and consulted with another child, she smiled broadly and acquiesced. At that point, she resorted to taunting me, which indeed made me laugh. “Come on Old Lady, let’s see what you got!” She lined up with the other children to report to her classroom as the small, hand-held lunch bell tinkled away at the hands of a younger child who’d earned the privilege from the PE Teacher. The look on her face when I lined up behind her was priceless. “How you like me now?” I whispered. We laughed.
In the classroom, the teacher asked me to work with one of the new boys, whose older sister was in class as well. She sat behind us as I sat next to him. We were instructed to work on addition. First things first, I asked him to write his first and last name on the page. He wrote his name, Miguel at the top of the page in typical 8-year-old printing. When asked to write his last name, he turned to his sister for help. She wrote their surname on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. I asked him to pronounce it for me and he did. Except, I could not understand his words. He has a speech impediment that makes it difficult to understand what he is saying. I looked at the teacher, who said, let’s get some assessment as far as what he does know and where we should start with him.
I sat next to him and whispered instructions and made mental notes about his needs. After recess, the teacher asked me to pull him into a separate location so that I could speak more freely and so that he could focus better on the tasks before him. I pulled some short stories appropriate for him and off we went. I soon discovered that addition, in its simplest form, would require much one on one time. We tried to recite the alphabet without much luck. So we wrote the alphabet and practiced naming each letter and the sound it produces. Sensing that Miguel was getting tired, I offered him a snack and let him eat while I read some stories to him. Eventually, we were ready to read Green Eggs and Ham. He was engrossed in the story as I exaggerated the words and reactions of the characters. He smiled. When the story ended I heard him excitedly say, “Read it again!”
And so I did. Only this time, I left out some of the rhyming words and withheld some of the hand gestures I used before. He caught me. He started filling in the endings of sentences and while sometimes he used the wrong words, he was clearly engaged in the story. He found it particularly funny to see Sam I Am underwater holding the plate of food of which one egg was clearly about to fall off.
We read the book a third time. This time Miguel had no problem helping tell the story. He smiled and said, “I like that book. When’s it time to eat?” We returned to the classroom in time to prepare for lunch….No Green Eggs and Ham, though, just corn dogs and sides.
After lunch, I worked with Isaac who despite all his efforts seems to get in trouble every day. His transgressions are minimal in the greater scheme of things, but in a school where every second of the day counts and manners are a must, he just can’t toe the line. I love Isaac. He is funny, has a higher sense of humor, dances like a Jackson, and cares for others; especially, if it is he that caused their injury.
So off we went, armed with flash cards, blank paper, and a book to read together. His first test of me came immediately. “Can we sit outside?” he asked. After assurances that he would indeed be able to concentrate and pleading brown eyes, I agreed. As we sat we talked about why he seems to get into trouble with the teacher so much. He seemed genuinely baffled. But after a quarter hour of examples from me and justifications from him, he agreed that arguing with the teacher would always result in a recorded loss on his score card. He decided that when he was being reprimanded for responding to someone when he was supposed to be silent, that the best tactic for him would be to stop talking. Fairness is important to Isaac, but he understands that arguing in this case, will not help.
I pulled out multiplication flash cards. He zipped through all the ones I expected him to have memorized and when larger numbers came up, like 8×8, he patiently counted sets of eight fingers until he spouted off the correct answer. We decided to review the multiplication tables as a set of patterns that he could easily learn.
“Beauty is almost always found in symmetries: the symmetries seen out in creation, the wings of the moth, the airy sky and the solid earth, the restful, focused eyes of a loving face in which we see our own self reflected:”… (David Whyte)
We looked for the symmetries in the math. We looked for the patterns in the numbers. We looked for the reflections in the table as we worked left to right and top to bottom.
Within a short while, Isaac stopped abruptly, turned to look me in the eye and he proclaimed, “OH!! I get it!” We were off to the races. I showed him that he already knew much of table and that as a result, his task would be to memorize the methods we discussed, and ultimately, return the completed table to me the next time I see him. I made sure he took a pen with him and he happily took his homework with him.
I understand that I will not see him for a week and that even then, he may not be there when I return. But for now, he will be treated as any student would. He seemed to appreciate the expectations I have for him and also appeared confident that he could do the work.
The end of the day came much too quickly and as they lined up to leave the school the children spoke of the sun shining and no more rain, at least for the day. They quietly exited the room. As I was leaving, one of the boys, Miguel returned to retrieve a forgotten jacket. He smiled and waved at me and said, “See you next weekend!” The teacher escorting him shot me a questioning glance but I just waved it off. I know what Miguel meant. He was echoing my farewell when I said, “See you in a week.”
Sometimes we aren’t perfect, but we are perfect in our imperfection. Such a bounty I harvested today.
Thanks for reading.