Hug Life

~This is the third blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  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.  

I bounced into the administration office to sign in and was greeted by the program director.  Today the 4-grade class only has three kids so would you mind jumping into the junior high class?

Wait.  You want me to work with my favorite age group? I thought to myself.

“The teacher is not here today so you can help the substitute.”

“Sure,” I said, and off I went to the playground where the four boys were engaged in a game of organized dodge ball.

Yeah…dodgeball is not my favorite game.  And immediately I remembered why.  One of the boys AJ was silently being pelted by the more aggressive, outgoing kids on the opposite team.  His team member was not supportive, but neither was he derisive.  AJ just didn’t seem to want to challenge or further incite the gleeful opposition more than he needed to.  Eventually, the teams were changed, and while still not completely engaged, AJ was at least not the main target anymore. As much as I wanted him to nail someone with that ball, I knew he knew that it would only make things worse.

I addressed the behavior of the most aggressive child, Isaac and he scowled at me.  He became louder and wilder in his behavior.  The PE teacher corrected him, reminded him of the rules, and at times, helped the losing team by retrieving balls, stopping play and in general slow down the assault. Isaac continued to try to dominate and immediately decided he would not listen to me at all.

Time to go in and the teasing continued.  AJ simply drew his hoodie over his head and sat at his table. Isaac was dispatched to another room to do computer work. From there he continued to interrupt and draw attention to himself, disrupting the other students.  I went in and sat next to him to see if I could engage him.  He said, “This is stupid and way to easy.”  I told him he was right about the way too easy part.  So we made a game of beating the computer’s time standards and we chatted a little about his friends and where he grew up.

The day progressed and the boys were assigned a reading comprehension test.  The narrative described the life of Beverly Cleary, author of many beloved children’s books. Several questions followed.  Each youngster sat quietly doing their work.

Eventually, after lunch, the second substitute arrived at the classroom.  She, knowing AJ, asked that I take him to a different room for silent reading time with me so that he could actually read aloud.  She needed a better assessment of his ability. AJ grabbed his book, “Hoot” and off we went.

I asked him for a quick summary of the book. He readily provided a quick synopsis and we began.  He read well and with a strong voice.  Where he stumbled, I pronounced and defined the words so he could continue.  On occasion, I looked up videos of the animals described so that he could see exactly what they looked and acted like. He seemed to appreciate the help and before we knew it, it was time to return to the class.

As we entered, the boys looked up and Isaac rolled his eyes.  AJ joined the group and took notes while watching an episode of the series Earth.  There was a lively discussion about the mating habits of a particular frog, and why Chimpanzees are sometimes cannibalistic. AJ observed quietly and Isaac dominated the room.

Isaac had now softened to the idea that he was stuck with a substitute teacher and a volunteer he never met before. His humor started to show and at one point had everyone in the room burst out in laughter. We watched as a male, black and blue bird performed its mating dance, escalating his courtship to the point he was hopping all over the place, only to be denied by the female he was courting. Isaac turned to face the class and said, “Now that female is asking way too much.”  See for yourself, Bird of Paradise.

Between subjects, I snuck into the library section of the room and looked for any Beverly Cleary books I could find.  I located three and walked them into the room where the boys sat.  I showed them that what they had read about earlier was real and that they could choose to read her work if they wanted.  Both AJ and Isaac widened their eyes and smiled.

I later read that today was Beverly Cleary’s 101st birthday.  Imagine that.  I wish I had known that when we were studying about her, the boys would have been amused.

As the school day came to a close we walked over to the area where parents pick up the children.  Having an abundant lunch due to low attendance the staff handed off grocery bags filled with food for the kids to take home to their families.  As kids left, we exchanged jokes and smiles of recognition when the kids I’d spent time with saw me for the first time that day. AJ smiled shyly as he turned to say goodbye to me.

As the numbers dwindled, Isaac became louder.  He said to one of the other volunteers who looks a little like Hillary Clinton in hair and body shape, “I bet you drink tea on your balcony.” He mimicked what that might look like with pinky out and everything.  Other adults looked away to hide their amusement as the volunteer simply said, “Oh, you do, do you?”

Eventually, it was just Isaac waiting for his uncle to show up.  When he saw the vehicle coming he stood to peruse the contents of the remaining two bags of food set out for the children.  He asked, “Can I have one?’

I asked the program director if he could take both since he was the last child there.  She said, “Of course!”

Isaac turned and yelled at me, “HUG LIFE” and held tight.  He ran to the table and grabbed the bags.  As he struggled to carry the bags to the car his uncle said, “Here, let me help you.”

Isaac said, “No. I got it, I know how you like to eat.”

He shot me a smile and a wink and off he went. Hug life indeed.

Thanks for reading.

The school is called Mustard Seed of Sacramento and can always use monetary donations so that on occasion they can help parents keep their kids in school as they work to stabilize their housing situation. Look around, there is likely a Mustard Seed school in your area, too.



About Caro

I am a social worker by training and a peace officer by profession having worked with California’s delinquent youth and young adults for 28 years. I firmly believe that our development as humans depends on our environment and that sometimes we get stuck. As such, I write about those things we sometimes ignore or fail to see until we are forced to pay attention.
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