I volunteer a couple hours a week at a Springfield after-school program called Compass for Kids, but it's for adults. It's for both, I suppose, and I'm sure these elementary-school kids from low-income families get a lot out of it too. If we described it as a program to help adults learn how to be around children, to think about children and get along with them, we volunteers might be reluctant to join up. But even if teaching people like me is not the stated purpose, I'm here to say, however, that I learn a lot.
This week the activity was building shapes and structures out of toothpicks and mini-marshmallows, using the marshmallows as connectors. We had a printed sheet with pictures showing what forms were possible, but the instruction was for the kids to make whatever they want. I "helped" two boys, neither of whom paid much attention when I tried to guide them toward some of the more difficult suggested projects. One of my guys put together what he called a marshmallow sweeper, which he steered into the white pile on the table, like a snowplow moving the marshmallows out of the way. The other boy made a triangle, then a square. When he picked up the square by one corner it sagged into a different shape. "Look, a diamond!" he said. Some kids stay inside the lines, others invent marshmallow sweepers. It was the one who made geometric shapes who first popped a marshmallow into his mouth. I let him get away with it, but then he wouldn't stop, even when I said stop. I'm learning, slowly, why teachers and other leaders need to use rules.
Academic time finds me trying to help third- and fourth-graders with math. One week it was just me and a boy who isn't far along in his multiplication skills. We had a game board with a key for each problem. One key says, for example, 4x1. The child says what he thinks is the answer, then punches the key and the right answer, 4, comes up. Sometimes we had to count fingers, but by the end of our time he'd gotten 26 right, maybe his personal record for multiplication success. The next week he could hardly wait to do multiplication, but I ended up instead doing flash cards with two boys who had all their multiplication and division tables memorized. I think I made the wrong choice about whom to help. I suppose real teachers, even whole schools, often face the dilemma of how to divide their time between slow learners and the fast ones.
These children are sharp, polite and kind. A few of the older girls give me a little wave when I first see them at Compass. We meet in a church near their school, and some are curious. "Is this a church?," I've been asked, as the fourth-grader looks out over the sanctuary, empty on a Tuesday afternoon. Yes, it's a church. She said, "My grandmother has a Holy Bible." I picked up a book from a pew and asked her to sound out the words on the cover. "Ho...ly Bi...ble," she read. "Is this a Holy Bible?" Yes, it is. Knowing that some children have a respect for church and a curiosity about religion makes me think that both churches and children are missing out by not having each other.
Sometimes I start to make friends with some of the children and get a little attached. Then the next week they don't show up and I learn they've moved away from that school, or their parents' schedule has changed, or they didn't like something about what we do at Compass. I mourned a little about some children who've dropped out in recent weeks, but then new children showed up, as though to take their place. I've learned to just say a prayer for those who leave, and be thankful for those who come. I can imagine the high "mobility rate" for public schools is heartbreaking for teachers.
Getting acquainted with these kids makes me want to understand why some of the smartest don't read very well, or can't spell. Some adults are quick to blame parents. But the children I know, sometimes several siblings from one low-income family, have perfectly braided hair, wear nice clothes, and are eager to show their work to Mom or Grandpa who comes to pick them up. I'd like to understand better the issues in schools and neighborhoods, and how systemic inequities can limit progress and opportunities for these children we care about. I have some hunches, but I've learned not to be too sure too soon. Smarter, more caring and more thoughtful people than me deal with troubling systemic issues every day without insisting on immediate grand solutions to poverty and racism.
Maybe we just haven't had that lesson yet in my Compass for Adults after-school program. We did have a lesson, with the children, on planning and prioritizing, putting first things first. In the video that went with it, the rabbit spent his money and time on trivial things, while the bear saved his resources for what he believed was truly important. Then the bear shared with the rabbit. That was a lesson I needed to hear.
Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.