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It’s January and the flu season is in full swing. We’re discouraged from shaking hands or joining hands at church services. But here at the L. Community Center after-school program, Yonas spent most of the afternoon sneezing and coughing on me and on all of the various papers and pencils we were using to work on his math.
I try so hard not to touch my own eyes or nose after being near him.
I like Yonas a lot, but it’s just so difficult to warm up to someone who’s a walking germ factory. This leads me to wonder how I will deal with the occasional students in my own classroom who are just, for whatever reason, difficult to like. Each time I come to the Lincolnia Center, I choose who I want to spend time with, and tend to avoid the kids I don’t have a soft spot for. I’m not so sure this is a good idea. I know I’d learn more if I found ways to work with the kids who are stand-offish or not as appealing.
There was plenty of time after school to walk around on Tangier, and the quiet town encouraged the wonderful sort of walking meditation of the wandering mind. And each walk usually ended up with a mental soundtrack that I took as a clue to what I’d been mulling.
So there’s no daycare, preschool, or summer enrichment. Kids spend the summers helping out on their fathers’ crab boats, or just running free on the island. Children running around free. I saw kids on their bikes, alone or in pairs, with that rare spirit of a free childhood.
One would think that this is a great place to raise kids … basically in the arms of one big family, free from abduction, hit and run drivers, strangers. There’s a strong value of self-sufficiency and independence throughout the community that translates into competent, confident children.
But I think the freedom ends after childhood. On this island boys become watermen and girls become mothers. Or they leave. With that belief system, children aren’t encouraged to fully engage in the developmental stage of questioning and exploring their individual identity. I’m not saying the teens don’t go through the adolescent rebelliousness. I saw a number of kids who probably weren’t in their parents best graces at the moment: There were a few tattoos and piercing, and I’m sure there’s truancy and mischief.
What’s missing, though, is an atmosphere that fosters deeper questioning, or encourages big dreams. I wouldn’t last a month. I’d be burned at the stake. Or I’d learn to keep my yap shut and do a lot of journaling.
Unlike many other small rural towns I’ve visited, though, there’s plenty of young families on the island, so they seem to accept the status quo.
Religion is very important in the community. Nearly 98 percent of the residents belong to the single Methodist church, which is also the center of social activity. There’s no alcohol on the island. Men and women still lead very separate lives. Even though there’s no bar, there’s a sandwich shop that only men go to. It’s as though along with their dialect they’ve also frozen cultural time. I think because their values are so tightly woven into the fabric of their everyday lives — rather than compartmentalized the way most modern children’s often are — they wouldn’t think of questioning it any more than they’d question gravity.
Still, in spite of being surrounded by water, their horizons are so small. They’re free and bound at the same time.
I arrived early for my first day at the L. Community Center, an after-school center in a low-income housing development in Alexandria, to take care of paperwork and get acquainted with the facility before the kids arrived. Miss Angelica, the program director, was setting up a snack on the peninsula counter of the kitchenette. The Capital Area Food Bank supplies the snacks, and they like to make sure there’s some nutritional value. She poured half-cups of Juicy Juice, and set two Fig Newtons on each napkin. When I started to open another box, she told me to wait so we don’t have to waste them. Huh?
Her goal was to get each child to take at least two bites of a Newton.
Apparently, the children are so used to such highly-processed foods (colored, salty, or loaded with HFCS) that Fig Newtons are simply repulsive to them. I was skeptical. I’ve never seen a group of after-school kids who wouldn’t scarf down whatever was in front of them. From Brownie Scouts to Shakespeare Troupe, I’ve been a snack mom enough to think I know from hungry kids! But she was right, of course. While a few of the kids were eager and enjoyed their snack, most had to be cajoled into even having Newtons near them on the table. And I saw lots of rejected chewed up bits on the napkins later.
I’ve heard at least a dozen different languages in most every school I’ve visited, but this little detail gave me a peek at the reality of the very different worlds we live in.
Each month in the magazine I work for we run a short essay under the heading of “First Person.” Sometimes it’s a reflection by the writer on one of our major stories, or it might be a rumination on some timely topic of the day. Kathleen wrote about her 6-year-old son’s school cafeteria choices to accompany her cover story about school nutrition.
Since the June issue is my last, my editor suggested that I write a little farewell essay. (I’m proud to say her only edit was the addition of a single comma.) The front matter of the magazine isn’t included in our online version, so here it is: my farewell in 300 words or less, with its accompanying photo…
GOING TO COTTON
You probably haven’t read my name in this magazine before, unless you happened to see it in 7-point type as an occasional photo credit. But as art director and production manager, I’ve had a hand in the look and style of each page of ASBJ you’ve read for nearly two decades. That will be changing next month as I leave the world of publishing and prepare to join the Mississippi Teacher Corps, where I will teach English in a critical-needs high school in the Mississippi Delta.
I know the work I’ve done here has helped school districts in many ways, but I know, too, that policy alone cannot reach far enough into the deepest pockets of poverty and inequality so many rural and Southern school systems face. I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time in all sorts of schools as I’ve traveled with ASBJ’s writers to photograph their stories. From an adult-education initiative in Pointe Coupee, La., to an ESL program for migrant children in Indio, Calif., or a “last chance” high school in Southside Boston, I’ve spoken with and documented the efforts of teachers in dozens of schools where they struggle every day to make a difference in the lives of the children most often forgotten or discounted.
One of worst forms of prejudice that threatens impoverished students is that of those in power who simply throw up their hands in defeat against what they believe is an unsolvable institutionalized problem. And it is, in fact, unsolvable from afar. But from within, and through the efforts of everyday educators, change can happen.
I won’t change the world … but one of my students just might.
Art Director and Production Manager
Yes. Rolling Fork.
I was out for a long farewell lunch with good friends, and 5 minutes after I got back to the office, my phone rang and there was Dr. Andy Mullins with the news that come August I will be teaching English at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
OK. So then I pretty much spent the rest of the day Googling, instead of getting started on that book layout I'm supposed to be doing.
I'm still taking this in. What I know so far is that I will be one of 4 Teacher Corps first-year teachers. (1 math, 2 biology) This is MTC's first year at South Delta.
Some 2003-04 enrollment stats from the National Center for Education Statistics:
9th Grade: 126; 10th Grade: 110; 11th Grade: 53; 12th Grade: 67
There's a roughly 50% dropout rate between sophomore and junior year. All but one of the students are eligible for free (not reduced-price) lunch.