Letter from a Volunteer

Dear Friends and Family,
The morning started out slow. Greivin entered first, in his buzz cut, ragged shorts and striped polo shirt, grinning shyly and
leaning on the table. As there were only a few of us, he and I started making paper houses with little windows and doors and tape for glass. Greivin is 9 and in first grade. He's a bright kid, especially in math, where he's closer to a third grade level. However, he has trouble following directions and is easily distracted. While working, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. When I was a kid, I was full of dreams: artist, children's book illustrator, author, marine biologist, insectologist.... Grievin answers, squirming slightly, "I don't know."

I told him to think about it; that it is important to plan for the future, to work hard and reach your goals. A few minutes later, I asked him again. "I want to be a doctor," Greivin told me. I told him that he could be, but it would take a lot of hard work and studying.  After making the houses, I got Greivin to read a simple story with me, coaxing him along as he painstakingly sounded out words: "Me v-oy a la.... a la....p- p- pl- play- play-a. Playa. Me voy a la playa." I go to the beach. I was proud of him for his patience in reading the entire book, and praised him. Greivin is improving; I believe he will pass this year.
After reading with Greivin, I pulled aside Fernando and Michelle, a pair of eight-year-old siblings with huge grins, to practice reading a simple story. I knew that they weren't the best at reading, but I was surprised when they were unable to decipher one-letter words such as "a" and "y". I pulled out a wooden alphabet puzzle we had and held up a "J". "What letter is this?" I asked. They both squirmed and picked at imaginary spots on the floor. Finally, Fernando answered. "S." I bit my lip and corrected him. We slowly went through the letters. Michelle and Fernando, though both 8, only knew about a third of the alphabet and sounds that the letters made.

We took a break to play a marble game. Having fun is important, as the kids come to the school of their own free will, and I know that if they're not having fun they won't feel compelled to return. I started thinking about my three illiterate students, about how I could help them, and about the hours of tutoring it would take to teach each one to read, and about how unlikely that was to happen: it was a struggle to get them to spend a few minutes reading, much less hours of memorizing the alphabet and learning phonics. I thought of Mom, and her alphabet boxes of animals and objects that started with each letter, about the hours she had read the cat and mouse books with us. And I felt kind of sad.

The enormity of what I had growing up sometimes smothers me here. I grew up in a neighborhood without drug dealers on the corner,
without gangs, and without child molesters, without gunshots at night. I grew up in a school where kids didn't pull knives on each other, steal each other's shoes and clothing, or bring crack to school. I grew up in a family that glowed with a passion for learning, who encouraged and inspired my dreams, and provided me with every opportunity. I grew up with a mother and a father, both of whom were able to find enough work to pay for my school supplies, food, clothing, transportation, vacations, and toys. I grew up safe, secure, loved, and filled with the knowledge that the world was wonderful and that my future would sparkle.
That isn't the reality for most of these kids, and it isn't within the power of most of their parents. Even though they want the best for their kids, one's mom or dad is often underemployed, unemployed, working long hours as a domestic worker, young, and single. They may never have had the opportunity to go to school or they may have only completed third grade. They are unable to protect their children from the realities and fear of a poor, urban environment.

Talking to Kata, she told me the story of her uncle: he worked for 35 years in a church in a Chicago slum: decades of pouring his heart and soul into a community. When he retired, he was unable to say that he had done anything. It takes a lifetime to change someone's life for the better. Days, weeks, months, years, and decades of raising and nurturing a kid.

And I thought of Natalia, a four-year-old in the program whose mother had just left with her boyfriend to go back to Nicaragua, leaving her with her grandmother and abusive father, and how during the last months she had begun to speak in complete sentences and stutter less while in the Escuelita, and in the last year learned to share with the other children and put together a puzzle, and how now her father doesn't bring her to the program.

The other night, while opening the school for nightly art classes, a young couple had timidly approached. The man had heavily gelled hair and the woman balanced a chubby baby on her hip. Motioning to the sign outside the door, La Escuelita de Esperanza, she asked me what kind of school it was. I cheerfully replied that we did everything here: art, reading, writing, math, music, and English, and that we had kids from ages 2 to 13. They asked me about matriculation and cost; I replied that it was free and we didn't require any papers. The mother told me that she would send her kids, ages 5, 8, and 10; the family had arrived from Nicaragua a little bit ago and didn't have any papers. They were unable to send their kids to school because they were still illegal.

Sometimes I feel like I'm doing something really important. Maybe I'm even changing someone's life for the better. Other times, after long hours in the school, struggling to keep order during an art project, negotiating with the kids to read, or pulling out stickers to coax them to do math worksheets, I feel like I care more if my students succeed than they do. When my kids tell me how they escape from school to go swim in the polluted rivers and rob lemons and mangoes from others' yards, run out the door when I suggest reading a story, or disrespect me and misbehave, I feel like maybe I'm imposing my middle-class ideals and values on them. Sometimes I feel frustrated, because it seems like so many people here could be bettering their future, but instead they're throwing it away. And sometimes I feel like I'm wrong to impose my dreams upon theirs, like their future can be what they want. Perhaps my vision of a scruffy boy transforming into a professional with a glimmering future through hard work and long hours of studying is not their dream. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe my friend who dropped out of 7th grade at 17 years old is content to work as a cashier; maybe there’s nothing wrong with his sister having a baby at 15.

As Marcia and I prepare lunch, I tell her that sometimes I feel like these kids have so many opportunities, and that they don't even realize what they are throwing away. I tell her that they're bright, and that they could do anything that they want to do. I tell her that Greivin wants to be a doctor. Her hands fly over the tortilla on the counter, her fingerprints making little rays like a soft, golden sun.  I can tell that she's thinking of her son Julio, who stopped studying at 6th grade to work construction in Limón, of her daughter Magdalena, with only a year left to get her high school diploma, and Victor, who is struggling through 2nd grade, and of Stephanie, who is four and whose favorite fantasy game is school. Marcia never went to school. As a girl, she had to work to provide for her five younger brothers and sisters.

 Marcia taught herself to write while working in a shop and taught herself long division in her head while working in a casino. "Victor wants to be a policeman," she tells me.  I poke the tortilla that's already on the griddle with a knife.  "Not just yet," Marcia tells me.
After lunch, we go back to the school, where a new group of kids has already formed an unruly line at the door, pushing and shoving to be the first ones in.
Hope you are alive, awake, and inspired.