Privilege Blog

Blue Berries Is Come The Stars, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:04am

I continue to volunteer in a local first grade classroom, twice a week. I am surprised by how much is expected of the children, and by the good will with which they attempt to comply.

I’m there to help with literacy. What that means exactly has evolved over the year.

There are 23 kids in the class, all but four of them speak only Spanish at home. Two of the Spanish-speakers haven’t yet learned English. And yet they are all starting to read and write in this new language. Can you imagine?

Is this a primary marker of the immigrant experience? Home is one thing, your future in the new country another. And when your family is only marginally literate, and you are learning to read in a language they don’t speak, does the gap grow? I imagine a divide not only between parent and child, but also between the child’s own feelings about her emotional self and her self of performance and participation in society.

I could be wrong. I’m a full-blown amateur.

In any case, two stories from Thursday.

The classroom is set up with small tables and chairs, four kids to a table. Each seated spot has a desk-like cubby for pencils etc., each kid takes the same spot every day. Usually the teacher sits or stands up front. When I am there, I have my own little U-shaped table by the window. I sit inside the U, four kids at a time sit along the outside, looking at me. We can talk quietly, and I have complete freedom to take a half and hour for each group wherever it will go.

When it was her group’s turn, O was first to the table. She said as she pulled out her chair, “The police came and took my mom to prison but she is going to come back. My big sister and me are staying at my grandma’s.” She sat down. She is usually almost wholly silent, whispering her answers when she does respond, occasionally getting caught in a flight of fancy from which she extracts herself with difficulty. That day she participated, chattering away, happily.

When it was time for the next group, J ran up with a little hop, as usual. J spoke only Spanish when he first arrived in September. While his accent still makes him a little difficult for me to understand, his sheer enthusiasm for whatever he has to communicate carries the day. He’s confident.

A note. I usually combine drawing with the literacy work, trying to allow the kids to integrate their emotions and aesthetics with what they are learning about language.

I could be wrong.

When I told this group “Today we are going to draw and write about anything that is your favorite.” J immediately said, “Blueberries,” and began to draw, four blue circles with green hats.

Then I asked the kids for some sentences about why they liked their favorites. J covered his paper, telling me it was a surprise. He wrote, without help, except on how to spell “delicious,”

“I think blueberries is delicious because the blue berries is come the stars”

I asked him why he said that. “Because my mother is tell me this,” he said. “My mother, she call me, ‘Sweetie, time for lunch.”

I don’t really have a larger idea to articulate. We all know children are endearing. We all know children have mothers of one sort or another.

But I have read that a sense of purpose is the strongest component of a happy life, and that’s what I am finding.

Have a wonderful weekend.

50 Responses

  1. Sometimes I think we work awfully hard to educate such poetic, metaphorical thinking out of our children, those connections at the edge of consciousness that lead to associating stars and mothers and blueberries. Then in 10th grade we make “metaphor” a vocabulary word and try to teach them what we’ve wiped away. Those who manage to retain that ability to make those connections -they become our artists and poets. Sounds like your volunteering is mutually beneficial. That’s good.

    1. @Kristina, It’s absolutely mutually beneficial, although, I’m no angel, sometimes I groan internally because it is work.

      And I agree – I feel that reading and writing can be bludgeoned to death in the teaching. No one’s fault, really, but an issue nonetheless.

  2. I love that his blueberries have green hats :)

    What magical, wonderful, imaginative thinking kids have.

  3. Could I ask if you told the teacher or maybe a counselor about O’s statement about her mother’s arrest? I hope there is counseling available to help O with this traumatic event.

    1. It sounded to me as if her mother being arrested was a relief. Who knows why. Maybe she is happier living with her grandmother.

    2. @Deborah Brimlow, Of course you may ask! I told the teacher I work with, she knew already, apparently the grandmother sent a note saying that O had a “traumatic event,” and shouldn’t go home on the school bus, and the teacher sat with O to find out what it was. The teacher I work with is a real star.

    3. Thanks so much for the reply. You described the change in the little girl’s usual behavior so clearly that I was concerned. And I am grateful that you, the teacher, and the grandmother are there for her.

  4. Before I retired, I worked in a school where some of the students lived in homes where one entire family rented one room in a trailer home (!) and other students lived in mansions on five-acre estates. Talk about diversity! And yet they all got along in school and the parents with much privilege helped out with donations to the school and the students in need. It sounds like you are enjoying the volunteer school experience and the feelings are mutual.

    1. @Jane, That sounds like an ideal school. This one doesn’t have any parents with abundant financial resources that I’ve seen, although some are comfortably middle class.

  5. I was a special ed & Montessori teacher before I retired. I think children, for the most part are resilient and in order for learning to take place they need to feel safe. Any time with children is time well spent and I applaud your work with them!

  6. Ah. How affecting to read about these children. They remind me of what an Italian man I dated in the 1980s said to me, “You are like glass, you are strong, but you are also fragile.” (That’s better if imagined in an Italian accent.) These children are strong, and resilient if they are loved, even within disrupted environments, if they have the steadiness of love, they can triumph. We adults see the potential fragility, the pitfalls, the possible outcomes more fully, so it reads differently for us. My mom, when we four kids were in college, or on our way to college, went back to work as a school librarian for a few years to add to my dad’s income as an engineer. She worked in an elementary school in a poorer area in our suburban town. Children came into her library who spoke Spanish at home and English at school. They were teased by other children for speaking Spanish. My mom told them they had an advantage the other children didn’t have, because they already understood two languages. I loved that she thought to bolster those children in that way. What you are doing with the children in your care by asking them to use different parts of their brains in talking, drawing, interacting with you while you exist as a reliable, calm presence is huge in furthering their development. Coincidentally, I was eating a bowl of blueberries while I read your blogpost, and I agree with your student who poetically wrote, “I think blueberries is delicious because the blue berries because is come the stars.” Thank you for doing what you are doing. It matters enormously in this world in which I think we are not doing enough to hold each other in the James Baldwin sense, “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” Thanks for helping to keep the light burning.

    1. What a beautiful poem, you always such an ability to recall the best poem for each situation – it’s really a marvel.

  7. My kids went to a VERY diverse elementary. My youngest’s best friend was Vietnamese. Her mother did nails and spoke next to no English. Her father, an engineer, seemed to speak mostly business English. Twice I took this child to Colorado to our 2nd home without exchanging one word with her parents. She told them what we were doing, they gave me a check for her plane ticket once, filled out a release form (sort of) another time…so they KNEW she was going. But they trusted her to tell them what we were doing. Amazing in this day of helicopter mom’s to take a child across state lines with not one word to the parents. And she is so Americanized (while still being a good Vietnamese daughter)! She is a Freshman at the University Of Texas this year, there on a full scholarship. Definitely a child of two very different worlds.

    1. @Nelson Bartley, I would love to talk to her. Her parents entrusted her with her own safety at such a young age. How amazing is that! And I hope your relationship with this girl, and your youngest’s relationship, has stayed with you as something that mattered.

  8. A thought-provoking post, Lisa. Teachers are so beleaguered these days that these children’s stories can so easily go unheard and the loss is all of ours, eventually. Thanks for doing what you do and for so readily admitting your privilege and putting it to work.

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, Thank you for the kind words. It is exactly that – the teacher has to get the kids in line, she has to train them to sit and to be quiet and to do as asked.

      I get all the fun.

  9. …” how much is expected of the children, and by the good will with which they attempt to comply.”
    There is no guile in these little ones.
    They NEED you. I wish there were more volunteers like you available

    Check out Lily Garcia’s (president of NEA) video on youtube:

    1. @joyce, What a great speaker. Thank you for the link. The kids have no guile at this age, I too wish more could volunteer or teach.

  10. Is ELS (English as a Second Language) a component of this class? Helping in a classroom is so gratifying for everyone. Just as you state. I’m sure the kids look forward to their time with you.

    1. @Susan, There is no ESL that I can see. The kids just have to dive right in. One or two came midway through the year and speak very little English so far. They are very sweet and all say, “Miss Lisa!” when I come. The teacher has had to lay down boundaries, I benefit because I can allow all kinds of tomfoolery;).

  11. Ah! I so envy you…to be embarking on this journey with sweet innocent young minds…I worked in the schools for 25 years and the students never failed to surprise me or put a smile on my face.
    You are doing a wonderful job…and thank you for sharing.

  12. This is simply wonderful! Some of them are going to remember you forever, you know. THIS is life!

    1. @MarlaD, This is indeed life. I’d be honored if any of them remembered me ever, my time there is so little in the face of everything.

  13. This is so interesting. My kid goes to the most non diverse school ever. It makes me so sad about that little girl’s mum going to prison. And the blueberry story. So poignant. I love it that you volunteer. xxxxx

  14. So glad you are so wholeheartedly volunteering with these kids – good reminder to us all. Thank you

  15. Thank you for sharing your experiences. At my school, I teach a group of adolescent refugees (most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) twice a week. We are supposed to do history, but mostly it comes down to language, learning ugly words like “conquer”, “invade” or “massacre” (our subject being Word War 2). Some of them pick up the new vocabulary to tell about what they have seen and lived through themselves. I often wonder how they manage emotionally, especially those who have come by themselves, without parents or family.

    1. @Eleonore, This is amazing. Watching language play what may become a transformative role, but is in any case a role in a transformation. Thank you for your work.

  16. I’m really in awe of the commitment you’ve made and followed through on. What a huge difference you’ll make to these lucky children, who have you.

    1. @Kathy, Thank you. I often think oof this is work and then am drawn in once again by a good day. I don’t know if I will make any difference but at least they might notice that literacy can be personal, and creative. I hoe. xox.

  17. The first time I read this, I mumbled into the screen, “I will never get over this,” clicked it shut, and just sat there. I think this is the most exquisite thing you’ve written, maybe ever. You have put that classroom experience into poetic form.

    And isn’t this why we have limitless empathy for each other, regardless? “I imagine a divide not only between parent and child, but also between the child’s own feelings about her emotional self and her self of performance and participation in society.”

    Thank you for giving this essay.

    1. @The Hunting House, I can’t thank you enough.

      It isn’t my writing alone at all though, it’s a testimony. The words come from the children. I had J’s paper in front of me, I simply told you what he wrote.

      I felt so moved that day, I am very happy that I managed to convey some of that feeling. We have hope if we have empathy.

  18. Your work with the children is amazing-you are literally (and literary ) changing their life for the better! They have your full attention,which is very important.
    World is a better place twice a week :-)
    Yes,I like this essay very much,too
    This is exactly the kind of volunteer work I would like to do

  19. Thank you for sharing these moments from your life in the classroom, Lisa. This is the human and innocent face of what border protection and deportation means. We have numerous issues in Australia about border protection, our troubled relationship with the original custodians of our land and some very worrying mainstream political views about religion. It’s hard to know where to start as one person in the midst of all of this and I admire what you’re doing in providing these children with friendship, hope and education.

    SSG xxx

    1. @Sydney Shop Girl, Thank you. When I was first reeling from the effects of our election, in asking around about where to start, the answer was, “Start locally. In your community.” It has worked for me.

  20. Such beautiful language fired by imagination. Thanks for sharing your experiences and for giving of your time. Did you see the Royal Jordanian airlines response to the laptop ban on planes? A recommendation to read a book and talk to your neighbour. Wonderful

    1. @amanda, Thank you. And no I didn’t see that response and I always prefer a book or a magazine to yet more hours on my laptop:).

  21. What a lovely vignette from your volunteer teaching experience – thanks for finding, and sharing, the poetry in children whose lives would seem to have little of it.

    I’m sure the time you spend with the children is as special to them as it is to you!

    1. @Victoire, I hope so. In some ways it seems that the most important thing I do is simply be one adult for four children at a time, vs. one adult for 24. I let them talk much more often than they usually do in class, often about things that have nothing direct to do with what I’m ostensibly teaching them. Just so they can speak in English, with focus on them.

  22. I love hearing the reports of your literacy volunteer work. Such fortunate children to have you in their corner.

    Just as an aside, my mother started school not speaking English. AND, her mother (my grandmother) was illiterate. She describes what a struggle it was to learn English well enough to catch up with the other children. But, catch up she did.

    The children sound very endearing. I’m glad you are working with them and that it benefits you as well.

    1. @Susan D., They are terribly endearing. I don’t remember, what language did your mother speak? Am I right in thinking it was Polish or did I just make that up out of whole cloth! Stories of people who make it through and prosper are what keep me going.

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