Mermaids and Worms

~This is the fourth 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.  

When your six years old and someone allows you to use scissors, well you go a little crazy.

In fact, perhaps we all went a little crazy today.  I arrived at the school earlier than I ever have before. I was so early that there was only one child on the playground, though we were assured that more were on their way.  The preschool teacher lovingly held Louie’s hand as she sipped at her morning coffee.  She squatted right down on her haunches as only a very young woman can do, and sat him on her knee as she balanced herself.  He hugged her and sat quietly.  Louie has been very sick and is still not feeling well.  His cute little face and perfect smile betray the exhaustion in his eyes. His houndstooth hat tipped as he snuggled into her neck.

Soon more children arrived, of all ages and cultures, sizes and circumstances. A beleaguered man, wearing a well-worn coat walked in to drop off his little girl, who similarly, looked like she needed a long bath and a clean set of clothes.  Her hair was braided in an attempt at keeping her baby fine blond hair manageable. She hopped around playing as her hair, backlit by the bright early morning sun glowed like a halo around her head.

The school bell rang joyfully as Demarcus flailed it above his head with a huge smile and a feeling of superiority since he had been chosen to call an end to the morning gathering recess. As we lined up, Dayshawn said to his little brother, get in line, “your too small to stay here.”  Later at the end of the day, he would gather up the sack lunches given to him and yell to his sister, “look at least we have something to eat.” She smiled a toothless smile and nodded as they waited for her mother to arrive. Their younger brother (preschool aged) sat next to me, forehead wrinkled as if he were done with the day and just wanted to leave.

As the rest of the kids lined up, I was assigned to the first-grade class, where the teacher immediately attached me to a little boy who literally could not force himself to focus on any one thing more than 30 seconds at a time.  Jay bounced around and was loud and disruptive for most of the day.  When he wasn’t getting the negative attention he craved, he became upset and acted out emotionally, to let us know that he felt ignored, neglected and slighted.

Dayshawn and his sister dove into their school assignments and seemed to enjoy not only each other’s company, but got along beautifully with all of the rest of the children. There were 6 total, three boys, and three girls. Jay, however, seemed to make up for the rest of them and struggled throughout his day.

After lunch, Demarcus chose to work with a piece of paper and a pair of scissors.  He cut a shape out and said, “Hey this looks like a butterfly!”  He quickly attached antennae and flew it around the room. He came back and said, “I want to make a mermaid.”  I said, hey wanna make a cool flower?  He agreed and we folded a square cut out at least three times.  I made a pencil mark and asked him to cut carefully lest he catch his finger in the blades.  When he unfolded the flower, he quickly added a stem and said, “I want to make a mermaid.”  Facing my fear of failure, I quickly sketched an outline of a mermaid. I added a bra-like top and long flowing hair.  He laughed hysterically at her top but soon jumped in and cut along the outline until she was ready to be pasted onto a larger paper. He worked on her for a long time and proclaimed, “I’m proud of this. It’s beautiful.”  He glued the flower to one of her hands, and the butterfly to a corner of the paper and declared his joy.

A little later, the kids were split up so that they could accomplish some routine tasks. Three of the children would go outside at one time, brush their teeth in one of three sink areas, and then water the garden they planted weeks ago.  The other three would work inside and after a time, the two groups would switch. Jay was in heaven.

He brushed his teeth and headed out to water the garden.  I don’t think he even managed to water one plant before he started digging. It wasn’t long before he hit pay dirt and found a worm.  One of the other volunteers talked with him and helped him brush all of the dirt off the worm.  Jay took his job seriously and concentrated fully.  He observed the worm and talked about it to the other children as they used scissors to trim the mint plant to chew on its leaves.

Eventually, the volunteer asked Jay to return the worm to the earth so that he could go back inside. Jay carefully placed the worm back in the wet dirt and gently covered it up. He was, however, not happy about having to go back inside and immediately complained that someone moved his water bottle…on purpose.

At the end of the day, the teacher praised Demarcus’ artwork and asked if he would like to display it in the office.  He thought about it but declined.  He said, “I really like this and I want to look at it.  I want to take it with me.” She said she understood and helped him pack. Later, when his mother arrived to take him home Demarcus couldn’t wait to show her. She praised him and said it was beautiful.  He beamed.

At closing circle time the children talked about what they liked best about the day.  They took turns holding a marble as they shared their thoughts. As they talked it became clear that the experiences, while wildly varied, all contributed to a good time for all. Some liked reading, some liked doing their math, some liked drawing pictures, and some liked digging worms.   One of the kids asked if tomorrow would be Friday, and if so, would there be cookies?

As they waited for their rides, the principal came out and said, “Look, everyone, the Friday cookies came a day early this week!” The kids looked at each other excitedly and everyone went home happy….even Jay.

Thanks for reading.



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.
This entry was posted in Civic Duty, Social Justice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mermaids and Worms

  1. katmulkey says:

    I feel fulfilled about your work, and I wasn’t even there!


Comments are closed.