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Thursday, June 2, 2005 12:39 am

What I learned in elementary school this year

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Last week the faculty and staff at McClernand Elementary School held a breakfast to show appreciation for its volunteers. A lot was said about how we mentors plant seeds of hope in the kids we come to see once a week. Though we may not think we’re making much progress with our child, just the fact that an adult comes regularly to ask him how he’s doing lets him know somebody cares. We were given a tea mug (“You’re tea-rrific!”), a refrigerator magnet with our kid’s picture on it, and a packet of flower seeds with a poem: “They’ll grow and blossom/ and change each day./ Just like you helped me along my way.”

It was nice, but backwards. We mentors should have been honoring the kids who put up with us and showed us the ropes all year, and the teachers who offered us glimpses of the real world. When I went to Communities in Schools asking to be a mentor, I let them know up front I’m not particularly good with kids. I don’t know whether they hid this fact or discussed it openly with the pool of potential mentees, but they were able to find a fifth-grader willing to give up his lunch hour once a week to take me on. He became my ticket into McClernand, a world of vitality I’d driven by for 15 years without having been inside. At our first meeting he gave me a tour of the school like he owned the place, and introduced me to his teachers. He gave one counselor special praise. “For a while she talked to me every day about my problems. Without her I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.” Though he occasionally was impatient with me (“Why you ask so many questions?”), we became friends. He taught me how to play Uno, though I found it strange I never won a game which seemed to depend on chance. I thought someone slick at cards would enjoy the marked deck I brought in, but when I showed him a “magic” trick, it offended his moral code: “You cheatin’, man!”

He furthered my education on the field trip he and I took to the Illinois State Museum. We’d planned a quick fast-food lunch, but at the drive-up I discovered I only had $5, which I thought just wouldn’t work. No problem, he said, and had me get one order of McNuggets, which he divided equally between us. Then he directed me across the street to Get ’n Go, “The Home of the 25-cent Soda,” where we had enough change for a pop apiece. Thus nourished, we went to the museum, where he found the most interesting interactive exhibits were about personal transportation: He took me for several rides on the escalator and the elevator.

The children were always trying to boost my confidence. Once when we were painting pictures a classmate took a look at my work and told my kid, “Your mentor draws a real tight horse,” which I think was a compliment. Another time a group of us were playing basketball and the boys told me we didn’t have to go inside until the second bell. That turned out not to be the case. When they were about to get in trouble I stepped up and told Ms. Hunter, the principal, it was all my fault and she let us off the hook. I became the hero of the fifth-grade special ed lunch table that day. On Cinco de Mayo I ran the work station that helped 37 kids make mini-piñatas out of construction paper rolled up like a cone, stuffed with candy, and covered with red crepe paper to look like a chili pepper. At the end several of the kids voted mini-piñatas the best activity, while others said it ranked a close second to making chimichangas.

By letting me follow him around, my kid helped me shatter some illusions about educating kids in poverty. Some like to blame teachers, but I met so many dedicated teachers who love these children I find that explanation insufficient. Others blame parents, which would have been easier to do before I met some struggling parents and learned what they’re up against. Administrators must be the culprits, I thought, until I heard them speak knowledgeably and passionately about their plans and hopes for these children.

My education about education has just begun. But my “mentee” has planted some seeds that will “grow and blossom and change each day.” Thank you, kid, for helping me along my way.

To learn about becoming a mentor, call Communities in Schools at 544-1783.

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