So here’s something happy.
Back in 2015 I watched all of The Wire, and decided I needed to volunteer in a challenged school district. As my son told me later, such a white person thing to do. But, good acts may rescue poor intentions.
In any case, early this year I finally organized the paperwork to work in one of our local grammar schools. It’s just down the street from me, but serves a nearby community made up primarily of Latin American immigrants. Spanish is the first language, English the second. The school underperforms the California metrics by a large margin, and California has poor public schools to begin with, due to Proposition 13. Passed in 1978, Prop 13 means that here, in some of the richest neighborhoods in the country, our property taxes can be extraordinarily low. During a 30-year period where house prices might increase eight-fold, property taxes might only triple. Without property tax revenue, schools are comparatively poor.
That’s not the happy part.
I asked to teach reading to younger kids. I found myself in a classroom of first graders. They had been taught to read in Spanish. They were good at it. They’d learned, on their own to speak English. They were pretty good at that too. Starting in second grade, the district has no money for bilingual education, so they will switch to reading in English only. The teacher was also a native Spanish speaker, with 20 years experience. Very good at her job.
I was there to help prepare for transition. It’s so easy to attach to children at that age. The sweetness of their faces, their brushed hair, the little cheeks to hold oneself back from pinching. I have to bite my teeth together when I’m around cute small children, they are so delicious. In full disclosure, sometimes I was annoyed at the commitment.
I spent two hours, two afternoons per week, sitting at a table with four kids at once. Ten to twelve minutes a session, so everyone in the class got a turn. So little time. But we reviewed word lists, wrote stories, told stories, drew pictures, labelled pictures, talked.
Took me a while to learn all their names. Old brain meet 24 kids. So it became kind of a game, they would rush in from the playground and crowd around my little low u-shaped table, saying, “Miss Lisa, what’s my name?” “And me?”
I don’t want to get too sentimental about this, or distort my importance in any way.
One week it was really warm. The classrooms are trailers, without air conditioning. Anyway, one day, maybe 15 minutes into our class time, the teacher looked at me and said, “We can’t do this. It’s too hot. Let’s go outside.”
So out we went. Luckily, there’s a small playground in the front of the school with a lawn and trees. First I read the kids a book. Do any of you know the Henry and Mudge series? Very cute. Then we just let them play. You could see them, free and at the same time well-behaved, teaching themselves all sorts of things.
One group played tag, working out a game with rules and exploring social dominance. One group followed a caterpillar around, wondering where it came from, chiding those who wanted to experiment with bug squishing. Three boys played the whole time on the push roundabout, only they didn’t push it and they didn’t go round.
When the time came to go back to class, I gathered up the boys at the roundabout. “Miss Lisa,” one said, “We are talking about how we could make a fountain!” They’d dug a moat, and were thinking about how they might run a hose through it, if they had a hose.
I did say to them, “You are engineers!” We did talk about being fountain designers. It’s hard not to want to give kids glimpses into the worlds they might enter. But you can’t marry yourself to outcomes or feel special for what you do. Just walk along next to three little boys, chatting on a hot day, following a line painted on the walkway. Try not to get a sunburned head. I did learn their names.
If you are in any position to do so, go help someone this year. You might have ulterior motives, you might make mistakes, but if you stay close enough to see that is the best I know about good.
Have a wonderful weekend.