Monday, January 16, 2012

When Sorrow Comes

This past week, there was a terrible shooting in Juniata Park in Philly.  After a feud on Facebook, a car of 7 teens aged 14-16 showed up at a predetermined spot for a fistfight only to find their opponent's stepfather ambushing them with a sub machine handgun.  Two kids died that night and a third kid was taken off life support the next night around the same time as the man was found hiding in a hotel.

The community was outraged, and on Friday when I saw the girls again after the incident, we took some time to think about it.  We went on Facebook to one of the boy's pages where people were writing all over his wall. We watched a memorial video that someone had put together for the three of them.  In the pictures, some of the kids were drinking and smoking.  "Sometimes people didn't feel bad for them cuz they see what they doin'," said one of my girls, pointing at the pictures.

But we sat in stunned silence and grief watching the video.  It was a smaller crowd that day, just a few of us, trying to figure out how to deal with it.  "I gave him my bag of chips," the same girl whispered beneath her breath.

We finished the video and watched a news clip on the incident.  We talked about how the third boy had been taken off life support.  One of the other girls looked up at me with the most innocent look I'd ever seen her give, and she asked me, "Why'd they take him off life support, Miss?"  The other girl answered before I could.  "He had brain damage."  He had been struck in the back of the head.  The girl still looked shocked and muttered something about him maybe still being alive now if they hadn't taken him off the machines.  I didn't have the heart to explain to her about vegetative states or being brain dead.

When we started the program that day I wasn't prepared to help these girls deal with the emotional shock of such an awful incident.  They already knew almost all the details and had seen both videos before, but watching them together, safe in our room, touched us all a little deeper.  I hope that having that safe place to mourn and share would be something, at least.  They had my support.

"Oh man," the second girl continued as the others got back to work.  "I know my cousins do stuff like that.  I don't want one of them to get killed.  I don't know what I'd do if one of my cousins died."  She was lost in her own thoughts but she shook herself out of it.  I guess you can't dwell on that kind of stuff when you're powerless to change it.

I was so proud of how well the girls treated each other through our processing time.  No one called anyone a harsh name or made fun of anyone for feeling sad or asking questions.  We didn't end with a nice explanation or closure- how could you?  But I think we all drew a little closer together.

Moar Quotable Kids on MLK Jr Day!!

Last Friday I posted about MLK Jr Day, which is getting pretty big in Philly.  Yet again, the kids at the afterschool program where I volunteer decided to go on another awesome field trip!  And, yet again, my middle schoolers all bailed on me for more sleep.

Today's trip was to a nursing home just outside the city.  We had a small group today because some of the kids were nervous that the "old people are going to kidnap me!"  The brave ones, their teachers, and I, along again for the ride, took off for an afternoon of crafts.

The bus ride was pretty uneventful this time.  They weren't quite ready for us when we arrived, so we played with some Jacob's Ladders and pictures.  Still mostly uneventful, and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have anything to blog about.  But I forgot that we were still missing one very important piece of the day: the residents.

The kids were a little nervous at first when entering the rec room.  The Activities Coordinator introduced us to a man and a woman sitting at one table playing cards.  The man, James*, looked up at us and asked who we were and where we were from.  Then he asked, "Where are these kids' mom?" and he looked expectantly up to me, as if to say, "these are your kids, right?"

"Yes," I thought, "I birthed all 7 of these same-aged Latino and African American kids.".

"It's an afterschool program," is what I actually said.

A few kids sat down at the table and one student, Carlos, was so excited about James that he started to tell him, "I want to be your friend!  You're going to be my friend!"

Another girl asked, "Do you have any teeth at all?"

"Nope, none.  I need to go to the dentist.  How can I do that?"  He asked me.  I told him I had no idea, I was with the kids.

"So wait, do you even have one tooth?"  The girl continued.

"Nope, none."

Meanwhile, Carlos was in mid construction of a little sign that he wanted to give to James expressing his desire to be friends.  He proudly finished with this:

After some gentle guidance from the teacher he made it a little clearer:

Unfortunately, James still couldn't figure out why we were there or what we were here for.  "What are you here for?  Is this therapy?"

"I guess," I replied.

"For you or for us?"

James did take a picture with Carlos and the sign** even though he didn't really understand.  Carlos didn't get why James was so distant, but he did tell me on the bus later, "I made a new friend today!  He's old, but he's still my friend."

Two of the lady residents had to be moved from the room.  One woman thought that all of the kids were her own and kept making them sit down next to her and be quiet.  She had quite a collection of sullen looking kids going on before the staff were able to explain to her that these children were not hers.  She still didn't understand, so she left.  Behind her was a woman who apparently only spoke Polish, and so adamantly that she was beginning to scare some of the kids, so she left, too.

Eventually, Michael Jackson made it on the radio and we were all chorused by the kids who sang along absentmindedly while working on their projects.  To say that MJ is a huge hit with these kids is an understatement.  Of course their was break dancing before the song was over, and that continued for the rest of the afternoon.  One resident sat in the corner watching the troupe yelling, clapping and laughing, "Beautiful!!  Beautiful!!"  She grabbed the hand of the man sitting next to her and pointed in delight.

After enough crafts and dancing for everyone we were escorted to the elevator out.  While waiting, we were directed by the Polish woman who was conducting the kids in what I can only imagine was the Polish National Anthem.  Unfortunately, we are not well versed in the song and the kids just stood there watching.  One kid was so confused that when she threw her arms open wide during the big finish he threw himself into them  for a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.  The woman only broke for a second to return the gesture before going right on back to her grand finale.

We got back to the bus before the older kids who came on informing us that "WE HAD ICE CREAM!"  It was going to be a good ride home.

*Some of the names are changed for privacy.

**Sorry I can't post any pics of the kids!  But take my word for it.  They are CUTE!

Friday, January 13, 2012

More than Just a Day Off

 I don't know about you,  but when I think about MLK Jr the first thing that pops into my mind isn't soup kitchens or homeless shelters or street cleaning.    Or at least, it wasn't.

For 16 years, Philadelphia has hosted the MLK Day of Service where instead of taking a day off from work or school people decide to donate their time to the service of their neighbors in need.

My senior year of high school some good friends and I spent a memorable day sorting inventorying* in-kind donations of office supplies** stacked floor to ceiling in a tiny room.  We were avoiding avalanches and valiantly leaping over boxes of pencils and stacks of desks spreading ourselves throughout the room to make sure no box was left unaccounted for.  Our fearless self-elected point person fielded shouts from unseen corners and marked accordingly on the clipboard, "I've got 16 uh, I guess these are notepad covers or something, over here."

What would have taken one person a lifetime and one of these to accomplish took the 6 of us just four or five hours.  Time that an understaffed, under resourced non-profit could probably use better.

The MLK Jr. quote everyone uses for this day is:

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?'"

 I think Dr. King took this idea pretty seriously.  It's hard for us to think this way; I kind of want the day off on Monday.  But the truth about service is that it isn't just a day, it's a lifestyle.  It's a persistent question in our lives.

Mural at 40th and Lancaster in Philadelphia

Sign next to mural 

*I'm coining this new word.

**Apparently a box of Nat King Cole video cassettes is considered office supplies.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Welcome back!

It's back to the grindstone after, as the girls informed me yesterday, a 13 day break during which most of my students reported their high as "getting money for Christmas" and their low as "missing their friends."  This month we are working on Goals.  Each of the girls gets a calendar and every day we will write what we did that  day to help reach our goals for the month.  I'm already a step behind in working out 3 times a week, but some of the girls are on the right track with getting their homework done in order to boost their grades by the end of the month.

The last day before the break was really fun.  We got to take three of the girls who were still around after school on a field trip to see the light shows and Christmas Village in Center City.  The relaxing day was what we all needed to have some fun before heading home.

The light show at Macy's.

The girls also did a great job with telling thing Christmas story.  One girl was Mary (with a little attitude!) and another was a part of the choir of angels.  One of the girls was a soldier wearing kids plastic play armor, and the rest sang solos or directed props.

I'm excited for the rest of the year!