I am magic. A little girl said so.
You see, I’ve just finished my second day as a volunteer at my neighborhood school, Timothy Road Elementary in Athens, Georgia. Because of my Master of Education in Instructional Technology degree, they have put me in the school’s media center, which is a great place to work. I check books in and out, help kids with the card catalog, run errands and do little chores for the media specialist. I don’t know jack about any educational stuff below college level, but I can learn a lot in this school.
It’s not an elite place. Almost half the students qualify as “economically disadvantaged,” in a system where the majority of the students qualify for free or reduced-fee lunches. Only one other elementary school in the system has a lower rate. No bastion of white middle-class suburban kids, we’re about 37 percent white, 41 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, with a scattering of Asian, Native American and interracial kids.
The building is on its last leg, held together with baling twine and putty, or so it seems some rainy days. (We’ll be moving to a new one in November,) But it’s clean and welcoming, painted in bright colors with upbeat decorations, like student art exhibits. Outside each classroom is a display that reflects the students inside. Some colored cutouts of themselves. Others drew pictures. My favorite is the big multicolored puzzle, each piece bearing a student’s name, that says, “Everyone fits in Ms. Lester’s Fourth grade!”
This school has a soul. It moves me when I walk in the door. People are friendly, helpful and welcoming. If you look lost (which I frequently do) someone will offer to help. The children look happy, despite the occasional grumbler or sleep-deprived child that surfaces in most groups.
I was in the teachers’ lunchroom/workroom cutting out little stars (on the really cool, simple die cutter) for reading awards. There were teachers eating their lunches, their 20-minute break in the day. Think the talk would turn to the weather, shopping, politics? Wrong. They’re trying to figure out how to help student A get over his sensitivity to reading aloud. How to make sure Student B—I had him last year and I know he can do this—doesn’t slack off in math. Or—his mama tells him he has to play pro football and school isn’t that important. How can I help her understand he must get into high school before he can really get serious about football?
These men and women are so student-focused, it makes my head hurt and my heart burst! I see them teaching self-discipline (isn’t that the job of the parents?) in instructions about how to carry library books, how to walk quietly back to class, so as not to disturb those who are trying to learn in other classrooms. I see them teaching respect for others (hey, isn’t that the parents’ job, too?) by getting them to help each other, be nice to one another and by respecting the children themselves.
I don’t see how those teachers find time to breathe, much less teach, coach, referee, develop lesson plans, coordinate with other grade-level and subject-level people. I don’t see how they have time to even think about individual attention for a child, helping one who is having trouble. Or giving a little push to one who can do better. Heck, I don’t even see how they have time to go to the bathroom! Somehow they manage. It’s all for the kids.
For some of these children, school breakfast and lunch is about the only food they get. We have an active Food2Kids program that sends needy kids home on the weekends with food-filled backpacks. The food is always simple and something that the children can prepare for themselves: peanut butter and bread, breakfast cereals, chili in pop-top cans.
And then there is the kid who really needs glasses, squinting to see what’s going on. I watch the media specialist ask him to help her by writing some things on the board, recognizing that this puts him close enough to see without embarrassing him about being different.
There’s the little girl who has told me two weeks in a row, “I’m new in this school.” I said, “Me, too! This is only my second day!” She needs a little assurance that we know she’s here and that she’s special, so I tell her how glad we are to have her family in Athens.
There’s the guidance counselor, helping a little boy through a sobbing meltdown. “Did you eat breakfast this morning?” “Why are you afraid to tell your daddy about a problem in school?” “Oh, what does he hit you with?” “Hmmm. A belt. Does it leave a mark?” “Does your mama work, too?” “Oh, did she move away or does she just have to go to Atlanta to work?” I didn’t hear the rest, but I saw them walking down the hall together.
There are little tiny kindergarteners and big-for-their age fifth-graders. A few girls are maturing early, their t-shirts not quite hiding the beginnings of breasts and waistlines. There are the children whose parents are UGA international grad students, and they’ve been speaking English in school for all of three weeks now.
There are those who have moved several times since school was out last year, so they don’t know where that missing library book could be. There are the runny noses, “Thank you! Courtney! You covered your sneeze!” There are tired kids. There are hyper kids. There are kids I don’t really like, and can’t imagine how anyone ever will. There are the utterly charming children who seem that they’ll never have any problems in life.
And then there’s the little first grader. It was her first time to check out a book. To be sure I had the right child when I scanned her bar code, I glanced at the screen and said “Are you Amanda Jane Smith?” Her eyes got wide and she nodded. As she moved away, I saw her tug at her teacher’s arm. “That lady is magic!! She knew my middle name! How did she know my middle name?”
I am magic. A little girl said so. Being magic is about as good as it gets!