Friday, a platoon of suburban Moms took our elementary school Science Day exhibits on the road. We are Partners In Education with another school in a working class neighborhood, where the socio-economic status ranges from abject poverty to the comparitively comfortable lower middle class.
These children come from homes where parents work long hours at minimum wage jobs doing back breaking labor. Volunteerism is low, and enrichment programs that my kids take for granted are simply not possible at a school like this.
We set off full of altruistic vigor and self righteous do-goodism.
The school was very old, but well tended. The greenery outside was painstakingly groomed and the playground equipment had been freshly painted. The halls were cheerily adorned with all the things one would normally expect to find on the walls of an elementary school. But these embellishments could not hide the water stained ceiling tiles, or the cracks that marred the cinder block walls, or the worn linoleum underfoot.
Still the sounds of children laughing rang through the halls and the staff seemed good humored and friendly. They were touchingly and somewhat embarassingly thankful that we had come with our simple little production.
When I reached the room in which I would be peforming my experiment, I was shocked to learn we would be dealing with classes of forty children at a time. Forty. To put this in perspective, my youngest son's class has 22 children, and I complained loudly about the increase from 18 the previous year.
I settled down on the floor in the hallway, waiting for the "Animal Lives" presentation to conclude so my group could set up the "Simple Machines" exhibit. I chatted idly to another Mom and we commented to one another about the differences between this school and the one our own children attended.
As we looked around, it was easy to see that the student body was made up largely of minorities. I heard snatches of conversation in no less than five different languages. I saw children in every color of the rainbow, and they were inexpressibly beautiful to me.
After a while, the other mom left to get a beverage from the hospitality room that had been set up for us. I was alone. I looked around, enjoying the happy chaos that pervaded the atmoshphere.
After a moment, a little girl came bursting out of one of the classrooms. She was Mexican, with long, lustrous black hair and dancing gold hoops in her hears. She wore a leopardprint tracksuit with a bright yellow tshirt underneath and pink clogs. She was sobbing in big, hiccoughing gasps. Her plump little shoulders hitched up and down.
I was vaguely alarmed by the intensity of her upset. I approached her and asked what was wrong. She did not answer, but sobbed even harder.
"Are you sick, sweetheart?"
She looked up at me, her huge jet black eyes swimming with tears and wailed,
"Yo no hablas Englay-ay-ay-ays!!!"
I pantomimed a stomachache, and she shook her head. She repeated,
"No hablas ENGLES!"
I tried again.
"Are you hurt?"
I pantomimed stubbing my toe, hopping up and down, and she giggled a little through her tears. But she shook her head again and told me once more that she didn't speak English. I was puzzled. Surely my pantomimes demonstrated my understanding that she couldn't speak English. Why did she keep repeating it?
And then it occurred to me. No hablas Engles WAS the problem. She was crying because she couldn't speak English.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh." I said. "No Hablas Engles." And then I pretended I was crying.
"Si." she said dejectedly, and hung her little head so that her hair hid her face and her tears.
I hadn't the words to tell her how sorry I was that she was scared and feeling so alone, so I did the only thing I could think to do...I hugged her. An embrace is the language of motherhood I suppose; a universal gesture of comfort. She melted into me and sobbed her little heart out. When she was finished, I pulled a crumpled kleenex from my purse and dried her tears.
A voice startled us and we both jumped like frightened little bunnies.
"Marta! You scared me to death! You can't run off like that sweetie!"
I looked up to see an obviously unsettled woman whose t-shirt identified her as staff. All the adults had worn t-shirts so we could tell one another apart. Ours were bright green ones emblazoned with our school name, theirs were gray. This was her teacher, apparently.
I was a little irritated. How long had it taken her to realize the child was gone? But I tried to tell myself that one person in charge of 40 children can only do so much. Two eyes and 40 kids does not make for ideal supervision.
"She was crying." I said, unnecessarily.
The teacher nodded grimly.
"She's new. It's always hard for them at first."
"Is there no translator here?" I asked.
She shook her head, grimness again distorting her pretty young face.
"She quit a month ago. They haven't sent anyone else."
"What about another child to help her?"
She sighed and said,
"Half of them don't speak enough English to really help. The other half are doing all they can to get through their own work. It's tough."
My irritation toward her vanished. It was obvious that she was doing the best she could in a bad situation. She took Marta gently by the shoulders to lead her back to the classroom.
Marta turned back to look at me and said "Adios Senora neeza." (I think)
Unsure of what she had said, I simply waved a little wave and smiled. She smiled back.
Shortly after that it was our turn to perform. I was stationed at an exhibit with a fulcrum and a lever. Each child was to try lifting the load with the fulcrum at different positions. They were extraordinarily excited by the simple experiment. Their enthusiasm and earnestness touched me. One child asked me where I came from, and I told him. He said that he had never heard of that town, and mused that it must be very far away.
How do you tell a child that literally, my town is only a few miles away, but figuratively, it might as well me Mars?
As we reached the end of our visit, I heard another child remark,
"I wish school could be like this EVERY day!"
Me too, baby. Me too.Addendum: Please stopy by my friend Nina's place where she talks about how Real Moms Eat Pussy
. The link has been fixed.