Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas in Vallejo

This story came to me through a neighborhood email list. I asked the teacher in the email if he'd let me share the story on my blog and he said "Of course. That's the idea: to keep it growing. Please delete my name, though." 

So here, name deleted, is a report from DAP's classroom in Vallejo.

Dear Neighbors, Our Winter Auction was a great success THANKS TO ALL OF YOU! The Vallejo Heights Neighborhood Association joined our Bay Terrace group in supporting the classroom's Winter Auction this year, allowing the students to get gifts for their family and friends that they otherwise would not be able to afford. And your response was truly moving.

It was such a big event that word spread through the school, kids hanging outside the classroom just to get a glimpse of the mountain of donations that had been accumulating for the last few weeks. In fact, it caused a bit of a commotion. At the end of the day, as we all prepared for a long vacation, some of my colleagues told me that I was a great teacher; and to those with whom I am close, I confided that I was just an average teacher of curricula, but a pretty good teacher of love (thanks to my mom). And as you read on, you'll see how the love you showed by donating so generously will continue to grow for a long time to come.

Prior to the very morning of the Auction, I assumed that claiming one of the five $20 Target gift cards, or one of four $15 Best Buy cards, or maybe the digital camera would be the single most popular item in this year's Auction. Along with some extra large stuffed animals - some of which even sang and danced - and a lot of new electronic items, I think they were leading the pack. But on the morning of the Auction, I received a lovingly-used bicycle. And when it rolled into class, I knew that practically every child in that moment really wanted that bright green, slick-looking bike.

And they did. Without a doubt. Each of them wanted it. For themselves. "Give it to me" was an omnipresent sentiment... Then, out of the back of the class, I heard a student call out, "Let's give it to Javier, so he can get to school." Javier - not his real name - is one of my students, whose single mother has a work schedule that interferes with transportation to and from school. In fact, just the day before, I had asked the kids to find out if they could help Javier with rides. He was being bullied when he walked back and forth from school to his home near Kaiser Hospital (a distance of about 3 miles!). Javier is a boy of above average intellect and has great potential, if he can just overcome the obstacles which he confronts and in which he played no part in creating.

Despite the palpable lust for that bright green bike that charged the room, another voice chimed in, "Yeah! Let's give it to Javier!" Of course, I could have, but I told them that I couldn't just give it away, since it was donated to an auction in which they were supposed to buy items with money earned for good behavior. The kids knew that Javier didn't have a lot off class money, because so frequently he was absent or late. But I also told them that if Javier made a bid and no one bid any higher, he'd automatically get the bike. Since Javier was late as usual, he had heard none of this.

The auction continued after Javier's arrival with a few more items - a bath robe, scented candles, a baby blanket and bib - and I made sure to wait until he understood how it worked before I brought out the bike. Typically, the kids just yell out, "Five dollars!" "Ten dollars!" (and even "$100" for the largest gifts), with the loudest voice driving the bids. You know, an open auction. Competitive. But with thirty-three 11-year-olds. When I rolled the bike across the floor, I asked, "And what is my bid for this almost-new bright green bike," and I paused before adding, "Javier?" Surprised at being singled-out when no one else had been before, he fumbled with his meager stash of cash before making his bid, which he knew was too low to win. "Fifty dollars."

Now I was on the line, personally. Not to make this about me, it's not. It's about my precious kids... what I'm trying to teach them between integers and earthquakes and Ancient India... and it's about all of you who made such kind donations. But to continue, I wondered whether they would show me that they had learned the lesson I teach and reteach and teach again: "From Egocentrism to Altruism." I know it sounds too advanced for sixth graders; but with a little help, they come to understand it. And in this moment, I would understand whether or not I had been successful. If everyone was quiet, they were putting Javier's needs before their own desires. But if someone spoke, I would know that I had not yet reached them all.

And someone did speak. As those first vibrations of sound moved through the air, I thought that I had failed. But when they reached my ears in their fullness, I knew the students had learned how to be altruistic. "Don't say anything!" came the hushed admonition from the crowd, along with an ample chorus of "Shhh!"s, until there wasn't a sound in the room. Complete silence. "Well, Javier, it looks like you've got yourself a new bike, young man," I told him, more pleased than I've felt in a very long time. The other students cheered and surrounded him, before escorting him to his new bike and intentionally making a big deal of how awesome it was. I shed a couple of tears in class that day and Javier arrived bright and early and on time for school the very next day.

Call me crazy, but that's a holiday miracle in my book (and if you know much about 11-year-olds, probably in yours, too). And as you all can imagine, the love didn't stop growing there. One item after another was scooped up, wrapped, and taken away, until well over 100 gifts had been purchased with money earned for actively demonstrating responsibility, good citizenship and altruism. Some gifts were delivered right away, causing a few tears and a lot of hugs - I've been told - while others were stashed away to be a proud surprise.

But rather than me recounting their gratitude in my words, here are some of their own - a little cleaned-up - from thank you notes addressed,

Dear Neighbors, 

You guys are like the world's BEST neighbors! It's heart-warming that you are so sweet and caring and awesome. 

 The gifts I got made me feel like this is the best Christmas ever! 

 This is the first Christmas that I [was able to] give my mom a present... Thank you! 

 If you guys [hadn't] donated, I wouldn't have anything to give out this Christmas. I hope you have a great Winter Holiday! 

 I love that you give to people you don't know. I'm very thankful for that. 

 I feel great because I know there are still generous people in Vallejo. 

 I appreciate the fact that people I have never met before would offer so much to our class. 

 And the love just keeps growing, moving among us, being paid forward even as you read this, perhaps:

 [In addition to gifts for my family,] I got a gold-wrapped chocolate box. I gave it to a very poor family that I see a lot in the park. It made them tear up. 

 I didn't get myself anything because I want my family to be happy. That will make me happy this Christmas. 

 I think this is the sweetest and kindest thing anyone can do. Thank you very much for everything you have done. I hope we can return the favor! 

 Well, they did for me. How about you? THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Prayer by Langston Hughes

I ask you this:
Which way to go?
I ask you this:
Which sin to bear?
Which crown to put
upon my hair?
I do not know,
Lord God,
I do not know. 
                    -Langston Hughes