Sunday, March 29, 2009

"You Think I Care?"

“Everyone SIT. DOWN. NOW. You are not listening as well today Bryan. Don’t look over there Angel. Yes, focus on me,” Mrs. Conrey says with a firm but collected voice . Her speech has a Jersey twang as she circles around 15 small desks. Her hair is drawn back in a low ponytail, and glasses rest on the tip of her nose. She eyes their reading assignments one by one, and then asks me to go work at the “Math Station” with two of the students.
My first day helping at Hawkins Street School has been about what I expected. The children are rowdy, but then again so is Kids Club. They all want attention, and you can tell which ones will eventually become “problems” for the teachers. Some are street smart, while others are farther ahead in their education.
“It’s hard because we don’t have any honors programs here,” Mrs. Conrey mentions as she allows her brightest student, Jacob, to work on a different curriculum than the rest of the class. She explains that if she goes too slowly, he distracts the other students out of boredom. At the same time, there are also children that don’t understand the basic math or reading principles. I realize how difficult it must be to not only relate to each child’s different home life and culture, but also have to adapt to each student’s education process. With no honors or disabilities classes, teachers are left to fend for themselves.
Children across the street from Hawkins Street School
Picture By: Katelyn James
Mrs. Conrey must often yell at her students, but she tries never to be overly harsh; it’s simply the only way for her to gain full attention. I find her to be a respectable teacher who genuinely cares for her students. But Ms. Jodie, the teacher assistant scares me. She wears a hat that shadows her eyes, and she talks to the students with a lack of respect. Ms. Jodie especially dislikes the little boys in the class.
This was demonstrated at lunch time. Mrs. Conrey eats with the other teachers, while Ms. Jodie and I take students to the cafeteria.
“Get in line. Get I said! Never in my life…GET!” Ms. Jodie grabs Michael harshly, pulling his arm into an awkward position. His face contorts, but he says nothing. A fat tear falls down his cheek.
“Don’t you cry. Don’t you cry, you hear me?!” She gets close to his face. “You think I care if you cry? I don’t. I do not care at all. Not afta the trouble you gave me yestaday!” She steps back from him and begins to mumble about how much of a “little shit” he is being.
Ok. This was not what I expected. Even after we had been briefed on how these schools were different from the public education systems of the middle class, I was dismayed by the teacher aid’s cruelty and profanity. That wasn’t allowed right?
I glanced around the hallway. Looking to the left I saw a security guard yelling at a student, similar to how Ms. Jodie was yelling. No help that way, I thought. I quickly looked to the right just to see a random 5th grader without a hall pass. Nothing. There was no one to help me.
I looked back at Michael. He was sniffling and staring at the back of the guy’s head in front of him. I bent down next to him. “It’s ok Michael. Not a big deal, but you know you gotta stay in line,” I half whispered. While I wanted to comfort the boy, I didn’t want Ms. Jodie to become defensive; there is a balance. After all, this is her territory and I assume she grew up in similar conditions. Yet I couldn’t just let him cry.
Michael kept staring straight ahead. He did not make eye contact but whispered to me “I hate her. I hate her so much.” His lips crinkled up and his eyes burned with more tears he would not allow to fall.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Where you been?"

Monday morning comes quickly. After a night of chasing around what we thought was an intruder, our whole group is tired from actually chasing an old heater that was making loud tapping noise in the sanctuary. While comical the next morning, everyone is now running on four hours of sleep. I pull myself out of the warm sleeping bag and step foot onto the cold tile floor. I immediately regret my decision to not wear socks and quickly scamper across the basement to get in line for the bathroom. I’m one of the last ones up (of course) but this means less time waiting and more time sleeping.

Grabbing coffee and making a bag lunch is the morning routine.

Today starts slower than the rest of the week because we don’t begin helping teachers at Hawkins Street School until Tuesday. So presently we plan for the after school program we are assisting with from 3pm till 6pm each afternoon. Our group of about 14 CNU students creates an Olympic theme that will carry on throughout the week, with a new skit for each day. The rest of Monday’s program includes a game, worship, devotion, crafts, and free time. By Tuesday we will know what works and what doesn’t so the schedule can be tweaked to fit the children’s response to our activities.

Kids Club is held at Trinity Church.

To get as many kids as possible to come by the church, we bundle up and walk across the road to Hawkins School with flyers that advertize “Kids Club.” Its 2:50pm and the children are about to run from the doors of the decrepit building. Some will follow us, some will go to their houses a few blocks up, and some will run to the housing projects. But no matter your social class, the feeling is the same when school lets out: freedom is celebrated by all.
Right as the rusty doors open, my stomach knots up. I breathe deeply and say a silent prayer. Each year the first day is always nerve-wracking: Will I remember the kid’s names? Do they still recognize me? I begin passing out my quarter page pamphlets and speak to as many people as I can. Several children I know run up and say hello. This makes me feel more at ease…like I am supposed to be here.
The group of us still on the streets head back to the church around 3:15pm. I will be a co-leader of the green group, or the fifth and six graders, all week. I specifically signed up for this section because I worked with many of these teens from last year. They are at such an in-between age, I felt someone who had been here previously needed to help facilitate. This awkward age is the least favored of all the groups at Kids Club, but I enjoy the never ending spontaneity of these sometimes quite irritable children. Even so, they have redeeming qualities. One girl I am particularly excited in seeing again is ZaZa, the typical (but lovable) bully.
My first encounter with her went relatively well:
She glances at me from her seat as I plop down next to her.
“Hi Britney.”
“Hi ZaZa. How have you been?”
“Ok Britney.”
She fully turns to face me. I can tell she expected me to visit sooner than I did, which is upsetting. But I’m also glad she is still participating in the program.
“Where you been?” she asked. She would never say she cared if I came back or not. But I know she does. She told me last year before I left she wanted to see me again.

“At school ZaZa…down in Virginia.”

She nods and turns back to the others at the table.
I think this was her way of saying “Welcome back to Jersey Britney.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Newark, NJ Mission Trip

We stepped out of the van into the unseasonably warm night air. Thirty of us students had traveled from Christopher Newport University in Virginia seven hours to the grimy city of Newark, New Jersey for a spring break trip. Laughter ensued as sleeping bags and suitcases sprawled across the pavement. The luggage was grabbed by tired but excited hands. What was this week going to bring?
Across the road sits the Hawkins Street School. The three story building looks haunting, as though children from the 1930s should burst forth from its doors. At one point, this brick jail would have been a beautiful building with intricate architecture and large windows, where the sun could warm a classroom. You can almost hear the laughter and screams of first graders from a different world, echoing off now chipped and peeling walls. The edifice hasn’t been renovated in years and bars have been placed on the bottom floor windows to prevent break-ins. Hawkins Street School looks like a caged, crumbling fortress, forgotten by the very students who walk its halls.
Having traveled to Newark twice before this trip, I had seen the inner-city lifestyle and the poverty that plagued its streets. With the government housing projects on the same block, this institution experiences typical urban issues faced by public school systems. Even after being briefed on the severity teachers must show towards their students, my first day was an interesting experience considering my white, middle-class background. Needless to say, I was ill prepared for this humbling encounter with a world so different from my own.
More on Newark, NJ to come...