Thursday, May 29, 2003

In Chester

A few weeks ago I "led" a group of four other guys on a mission trip to help out at Frederick Douglass Christian School in Chester, Pennsylvania. Things went pretty well, I'd say. It was my second time going, and I was "leader" essentially because I organized the trip (I also turned out to be the oldest, though I didn't know that until mid-trip). Ryan had been there twice before, and John had been not only twice before with the Navigators, but also several times on his own, and is a sort of unofficial "Big Brother" to a former student of the school. Drew and I headed up on Sunday, and I was supposed to get a call from Dave so I could pick him up that day as well, with Ryan coming on Monday and John on Tuesday. We didn't actually get a call until Monday afternoon, due to sleepiness on Dave's part and poor answering service by Virgin Mobile. Late that night, Drew, Ryan, and I drove down to pick him up and bring him back so he wouldn't miss two days of classes by coming up with John. The fourth grade teacher, Erin, had a TA from Pennsylvania Biblical University, so she didn't need a helper, but I was able to find places for everyone else. John had dibs on helping Shelley with Kindergarten and Ryan wanted to work with Barry in first grade (he'd helped Barry over Spring Break, too). I got Drew settled with Renee in second grade and later on Dave with Pam in fifth grade. I helped Vicki in third grade, though she had to leave to attend a wedding and so I was with her substitute, Bonnie, for the end of the week. After school, we helped with the afterschool program, and I was with Mrs. Graham (an awesome woman and great disciplinarian) with the Pre-Kindergarteners. Before I go any further, let me state again how awesome the teachers there are. They've given up a lot to work at this school, and they really care about their students. I could see that they all looked a lot more tired than when we were there over Spring Break, though, and were very ready for the end of the year. If you're a single man or woman and are looking for a godly spouse, these people are too good for you. Nonetheless, some lucky men and women are going to marry these guys and be thusly blessed. I'm blessed to know them.

I think we have several roles when we visit. Obviously, we're to act as role models and tutors to the kids. When they see that you're sincere, they trust you almost immediately and want to be your friend. Some of them are attention-starved at home, and even pretend to be dumb just so you'll sit and help them with their work. It was a fine line to walk between wanting to be their peer and needing to be an authority figure, and while I think I did an okay job, I still have a lot to learn. Of at least equal importance, though, we're there to help the teachers. Obviously, we're helping in the classroom by grading papers, tutoring, and helping maintain order. However, there's a lot more than that. It's lonely being young, single, stressed, and often far away from home, living in a ghetto getting paid essentially minimum wage (from the money you raised to work there). Hanging out with young college kids on break meant that they had new conversations, new faces, and some company. It seemed like simply being able to talk to another adult (well...) and tell them where they were from, where they attended college, and such, meant a lot. The menial tasks and paper grading we did also helped immeasurably. Sometimes a teacher simply needs fifteen minutes more than she has in order to compose herself, make a plan, and be ready for the day, and our grading math homework and the like provided that. It also meant that students who were slower in learning could be tutored and troublemakers could be disciplined without hindering the class as much.

The third grade class was pretty good. I won't use their names, but merely a letter to represent the kids. I already knew Y, I knew T and his father, D's younger brother, and had a general image of the rest of the class from my time over Spring Break helping in the computer lab. For most of the time I was helping W and L with make-up work. L was just a little slow, and that was mostly just due to a short attention span. W was very discouraged, and had essentially just given up on his work. He knew he'd be moving in with his grandmother in Florida starting in the summer, so he said he didn't need to worry about working while here. I kept trying to think of ways of motivating him, and for everything he always had a ready response. At one point I told him he'd end up without a home and without any food if he didn't get an education or a job, and he told me that his uncle was homeless and that he got along okay. He also mentioned one day that his cousin had been shot in the leg the day before. W was disruptive in class, and was constantly getting "think sheets" (you have to write what you did wrong, why it was wrong, a relevant Bible verse, and have your parent sign it). Consequently, he virtually never had recess. On Thursday, I noticed that W only had eight minutes taken away from his recess for the next day, and that so long as he did his work that day, he would get recess for the first time in a long while (I had once told him that if he did his work, he would get recess, and he told me that he never had recess and that he could simply play after school). On Friday morning, our group had been asked to provide the lesson for the chapel services, and we did an excellent skit presenting the book of Job (as the only liberal arts major, I wrote the skit, hence the brilliance). When I got back, I found that W had received about thirty more minutes of time off recess, along with having his chair confiscated for constantly leaning back in it. Later that day, I was helping in his small group for reading, and he kept being disruptive, so I told him he had to stand up instead of sit down like the rest of the group. He kept talking back to me, and so I asked him if he wanted a think sheet. He told me "I don't care," and almost before I realized it I'd walked across the room, picked one out of the filing cabinet where they're stored, and taken him out into the hallway to complete it. I then walked back in and was immediately told "good job" by the substitute. It was a weird feeling, knowing that I'd wanted so much for him to have one day of recess and seeing how not only had he destroyed his chances, but forced me to make his punishment even worse. I really do worry about him, and I'd appreciate it if you'd pray for him.

F and J had slacker attitudes, but most of the rest were pretty good. I pulled R (probably the smartest kid in the class) aside at one point, since he'd been acting up a little lately, probably due to boredom, and told him that the other kids looked up to him and that he needed to act like a leader, which means being humble and serving others. I think (hope) he listened, and he may be in my summer school class. Y is also smart, and with some training could really become a star athlete. A lot of these kids will go far if they can get a college education. A lot of other kids act dumber than they are, but show themselves to be quite bright when they need to finish their work in order to get something. There seem to be three kinds of children at the school. Sadly, there are some who will probably end up in a bad situation, even with the intervention of this school. There are also some who will probably do pretty well no matter what, though FDCS will help them go a lot further. Finally, there are the kids on the border, for whom FDCS is the thing which keeps them on track. I'm very worried about what these kids will do after they leave, since there isn't currently a World Impact high school. One is slated to open in Fall 2004, though that may well end up being delayed. One of the most common prayer requests among the staff and parents was a Christian high school, since not only is there a good chance of the lessons learned at FDCS being diluted or even lost at a public school, but the students here have been insulated from public school culture and are going to have a lot of trouble there.

Not all was gloom and doom, though. We played floor hockey one night for over three hours, Virginia Tech vs. the World (Impact). We won 7-6, 7-5, and then lost 6-7. The other team was down a player, and so there's no telling how things would've gone if we'd continued. An injury early in the fourth game ended it, but we were still going strong. There's also a competition to see which class can get the most pop-tops (they're reedemed for cash from some charity), with the teachers taking very seriously. Kindergarten was in first place, with about 10,000 tops. Second grade (Renee) was in second place, with about 9,000. Barry's first graders were dead last with about 1,500. As Shelley was married and didn't really hang out with us very much, Barry and Renee were raiding soda cans (including in the middle of a deli, where they asked strangers for their pop-tops) and asking we volunteers for the ones we were hoarding. Renee argued that only she had a chance of winning, while Barry argued that he needed all the help he could get. Barry also chased Drew around the entire school when Drew filched the top from Barry's soda. A good time was had by all.

On Saturday, Ryan, Dave, and John had to leave, but Drew and I stayed to help the students with Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful Day. I got to talking with two of the parent volunteers. Salim was the stepfather to R and the father of one of the Pre-Ks. He worked as a printer at a newspaper, and we got to talking about a lot of things. His main concern was that R had forged his mother's signature on a think sheet, and he was trying to teach R how wrong that was and tell his wife how it could lead to worse things. Rodney had two sons in the school, in first and fourth grades, I think. He had all sorts of certifications in building and construction work, and he was hoping to be able to go on some mission trips to help with things like Habitat for Humanity in the next few years. Both men talked to me about Chester and its problems and the problems of raising children. It's parents like these who give the teachers and volunteers a reason to work there, since the community hasn't given up hope and is willing to work to provide their children with a good start and to help rebuild Chester.

In any case, I've rambled, but I wanted to say how things went. I left out all sorts of things, such as how cool Pam and Andrew are, the dedication and blessing of having Mrs. Bowdre as principal, some horrible things Pre-Ks told me which of which they didn't yet understand the meaning ("my father died with a needle in his arm"), and the heartbreakingly cute "handshake" we learned from two Kindergarteners and are planning to spread among the Navigators.

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