Loved

I pulled into the school’s parking lot this afternoon just before the bell rang to end lunch recess.  There’s a metal gate that separates cars from children.  Gathering my stuff, I slid out of Ruby and started for the office.

And then I looked to my right.  Six or seven Grade 5 and 6 kids were leaning over the gate towards me.  One girl yelled out something like “I know who you are!”  She meant that I was Bruce Kerr but in a deeper way these young ones do “get” me.  They know I love them. They know I challenge them to be full human beings.  They know I make them laugh.

I walked up to the throng and tried to absorb all the words that were flying my way.  Apparently a professional wrestler had been speaking at this morning’s assembly and the general consensus was that he was totally cool.  As the collective babbling reached a crescendo, I understood: They wanted to hang out with me.  They wanted me to know what they were thinking and feeling.  The lean was real.

After signing in at the office, I headed to the classroom.  Silent reading held sway for the first fifteen minutes.  I sat in a chair at the edge of the carpet and pulled up The Last Leopard on my phone, the closest kids only a few inches away.  Jeremy remarked that I had quite a crew around me.  He was right.  Children often come close.

Towards the end of the day, I put on my coat and told the students that I was heading to Toronto for a few days, especially to hear a marvelous choir from Los Angeles on Saturday evening.  One boy asked me whom I was going with.  “Me.”  A girl said “Take me.”  And then a young guy said the same.  Somehow I don’t think parents would be too interested in that prospect.

***

So what do I make of all this?  Humbly, I know that I impact many children.  I wish I had grandkids of my own.  But I don’t.  What’s left for me are the hours at school, in which there are minutes of connection between 11-year-olds and a 71-year-old.

What a blessing to reach young souls
What a blessing to contribute to the lives of others
What a blessing to walk the paths of the planet … with you

Day Twenty-Nine: Rigueur/Douceur

The kids’ vests said it all: rigor and softness. We’ll ask the children to work hard and we’ll love them.

Lydia, Marie-paule and I visited the Toubacouta school for young students yesterday. I was there first so I walked through the gate into a courtyard with swings, hanging backpacks, and shoes lined up in neat rows outside of the main building. I sat on the step and wondered if this place would be a big part of my life someday.

When the women arrived, we walked towards the door and were greeted by a teacher in a lovely African dress, splashed with colour. She smiled radiantly and ushered us inside. Kids were spread over the floor in two groups, all sitting on big mats. Eyes widened and bodies started bouncing. Marie-paule and Lydia began talking to a few adults but I didn’t want to do that. I sat on a chair beside lots of young ones – about five years old. Within seconds, legs lifted bodies, hands extended to mine and personal space was just some weird Western concept.

Kids reached for my glasses. They rubbed my white arms. They sought my grey hair. I said no to some of it but mostly I loved the contact.

A shrill teacher voice in a language I didn’t understand jolted eyes wide and sent feet scurrying back to the mat. Tiny blackboards were distributed and students got to work with their chalk. Drawings, rather than letters, were created. Rags and a bucket of water were nearby for erasing and starting again. It reminded me a lot of the Grade 5/6 class back in Canada when the kids were doing Math.

The space was packed with noise … and movement. I smiled to think of teachers’ reactions to this situation back home. Every minute or two, a Senegalese teacher would yell at some kid. At least I think that was what was happening. It was rapid-fire words with definitely an edge to them.

Later in the morning, I got to attend a language class with about fifteen kids. French was the language being learned. It appeared that a new girl was joining the class and the lesson was about how to welcome her. As well as coaching the students about what words to use, the teacher had each child approach the new one, make eye contact and shake her hand. Very cool. When each student completed the task, the teacher smiled at them, drew them close and placed a kiss on the cheek. Yes, I was in another world, but it was still reminiscent of tender moments in Canadian classrooms.

During my time in Senegal, I’ve given away most of the gifts that the kids in Belmont had made or provided – bracelets, books, beach balls. What remained was four skipping ropes, donated by a creative young lady in Grade 6. Lydia advised me to give them to teachers at the school so everyone could enjoy them. Good plan. So I did.

At recess, one of the teachers took an orange rope outside. Soon she and a child were on either end and kids took turns jumping in. I should have suspected that they’d be naturals. Then Lydia grabbed a rope and demoed solitary skipping. Woh! Small eyes followed the bouncing human.

***

Lots of young faces
A few old faces
Faces

Kids!

I’m back volunteering in the Grade 6 class.  Although I talked to some of these kids last year, they’re essentially new to me, except for a few of them who were in the split Grade 5/6 class last year.

Today was my second visit this fall and I’m enthralled to be with these children.  Since the Grade 6’s will graduate in June and head to a school in another community next year, there’s a real sense of loving them for ten months and then letting them go.  Perhaps my life is largely an accumulation of moments in which I often make a difference in the present environment … with new folks showing up after that.  Maybe a few kids will look back when they’re 40 and remember me fondly, or maybe not.  What I do hope is that I plant a few seeds that will blossom when they’re adults.

The Grade 6 teacher is new to the school.  I’ll call him Ben.  He’s already showing a great willingness to have me contribute to the life of the classroom.  The discussion early this morning was about 911.  When I arrived in the afternoon, Ben invited me to share my memories of the day.  Thank you, Ben.  I love sharing my history, in hopes that my stories will touch a heart or two.

I told the kids that I was in an elementary school that morning in 2001.  All the TVs were on.  Students and staff members were crying.  All I could think of doing was going around to kid after kid and saying “You’re safe.”  Of course I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know if Toronto would be attacked next.  I was terrified.

Most of the kids were with me as I spoke.  In general, I think they watch us adults like hawks, trying to figure out how to be one themselves.  So we need to speak the truth, and kindly so.

At one point, Ben had the class read a short story in which a boy ends up applauding a girl who bested him in a hula hoop contest – another great lesson for these young ones.  The victorious girl was Rachelle, and I noticed that as each student read a sentence or two they all pronounced her name “Rachel”.  Afterwards I asked them the question “If, while people were reading, you thought the girl’s name should be pronounced ‘Rachelle’, would you have made the change when it was your turn to talk?”  And then I told them there was no right answer – it’s just something to think about.  The opportunity to say things like this to 11-year-olds is absolutely precious to me.  Thanks again, Ben.

When I’m volunteering, I’m always on the lookout for kids being kind to each other.  It’s what the world needs.  Today I didn’t notice anything but I’m sure it will come.  And when it does, I’ll take the giver aside and privately thank him or her for doing something that helps.  For school is most deeply about growing human beings.

 

Cabin Fever Reliever

It was play day at school on Thursday … all afternoon.  Kids from JK to Grade 6 had eight activities to choose from, and they got to pick three of them.  What a marvelous thing for the school staff to create.

I decided to roam around the various rooms to see what tickled my fancy.  And “Minute To Win It” was my fave.  First there was “Elephant March”.  Imagine a pair of panty hose with a tennis ball bulging from one foot.  The waist band goes over your head, with the ball hanging in front of you.  Then the trick is to knock over two rows of plastic cups and water bottles.  If your elephant trunk swings are gentle, you can do it.  Too much oomph, however, and you get wildly out of control – about a zero chance of  upsetting anything.  It was hilarious.  Tiny kindergarten kids and confident Grade 6’s – it didn’t matter.  Everyone looked silly and laughter filled the room.

If impersonating a huge mammal isn’t your style, how about “Junk In The Trunk”?  Strap an empty Kleenex box just above your butt, fill it with eight ping pong balls and try to get them all dislodged in a minute.  Good luck!  Kids were upside down, right side up, jumping up and down, twisting and shouting.  Fun, fun, fun till the clock said 60.

I’m a pretty good spectator, but it was time for action.  My task was to keep three balloons aloft for the minute.  “I can do this.  I’ll pile the balloons on top of each other and then throw them straight up.  They’ll therefore be close to my body as they descend and it’ll be no sweat to send them vertical again.”  Ahh … the delusions of seniorhood.  How long did I last, you ask?  Three seconds.

Not everything was indoors.  The scavenger hunt covered the snowy schoolyard.  125 painted stones littered the landscape, apparently stuffed inside the bodies of deteriorating snowmen, hidden at the base of a climber, tucked into a little hollow – everywhere!

I told Jayne, the Grade 5/6 teacher, that I was on a mission to find one of those stones.  An hour before, I had watched a group of kids refine their search skills, and I vaguely looked around to locate my own personal treasure.  But I didn’t find anything.  Now, refreshed with preventing balloons from touching the earth, I knew this was my moment.

I told a gaggle of wandering children about my quest.  Immediately, I was deluged with:

“I know where there’s one, Mr. Kerr.”

“Come over here.  Look right there!”

“Let’s find one together, Mr. Kerr.”

So I was out and about with this short human being, then that one, and somebody else again.  Following speedy legs to all sorts of destinations.  But I still hadn’t located a stone on my own.  As the bell rang, signalling the end of the session, I trudged back towards the school, happy about my time with the kids, but sad with my empty hands.  And there, steps from the tarmac, sat a little snow drift, with a spot of yellow peeking out.  I too am a successful treasure hunter!

It was a smiley afternoon – for me, 15 adults and 200 young’uns.  Good for us.

Grade 6 and Me

It’s been a long time since I’ve had kids in my life.  I went on short term disability in November, 2013 to care for my dear wife Jody.  That was it.  Now I’m retired.

On Monday, I received word from the Ontario Provincial Police that my fingerprints were fine.  I had passed the criminal check.  So on to volunteering at an elementary school near Belmont.

On Tuesday afternoon, I started with Grade 6’s, led by a lovely teacher whom I’ll call Nicole.  “Would you like to read to the students?”  Of course.

The class was devouring Matilda, a book by Roald Dahl.  It’s the story of a remarkable 5-year-old girl, gifted in math, literature and tipping over water glasses with her mind.  Matilda becomes fast friends with her teacher, Miss Honey, and fast enemies with the school principal, Miss Trunchbull.  Here’s a taste of what Matilda had to overcome:

“You are a vile, repulsive, repellent, malicious little brute!” the Trunchbull was shouting.  “You are not fit to be in this school!  You ought to be behind bars, that’s where you ought to be!  I shall have you drummed out of this establishment in utter disgrace!”

Head down into the words, I launched myself into the roles, having entered the story midway.  I love reading out loud and I gave the Trunchbull all the nastiness I could muster.  Never once did I look up to see how the kids were reacting but I sensed they were having a grand old time.  Later Nicole told me so.

What an opportunity I have, to influence children once more.  May I help them see the gifts that they are.  Matilda had almost magical powers, probably beyond anything that the Grade 6 kids, Nicole or I can bring forth.  But every one of us has our own way of moving others, and may we discover that unique richness in each other’s company.

Missing Kids

I’m a retired teacher.  Jody and I didn’t have any children.  I miss kids.

In May, when I knew I was moving to Belmont, I imagined myself volunteering at the  elementary school in town.  Except there isn’t one.  Some local human, sitting with me around the Diner lunch counter, told me that Belmont kids go to school at South Dorchester Elementary, on a country road a few kilometres south of the village.

Six months later, I hadn’t made any move towards being a presence at the school.  And still I was missing kids.  So yesterday I ventured along the beauty of Crossley-Hunter Line.  And there on my left was my beige brick destination.  It was lunch recess.

As I walked into the office, I sure hoped the principal would welcome another volunteer.  I talked to the secretary (Trish?) for a few minutes.  She seemed nice.  And then I asked to speak to the principal.  Lynn told me a bit about the school.  It was a small place – just 200 students.  Perfect.  She said I’d have to go through a police check at the station in nearby St. Thomas.  Did I know where it was?  In the spirit of winning friends and influencing people, I said “Oh yes.  I’ve made use of their luxurious accommodations many a time.”  Lynn smiled.

As we wandered through Lynn’s “ten cent tour”, I asked if the staff were intelligent (or maybe if they were nice people).  All this within earshot of two teachers chatting near their classrooms.  “Definitely.”  More smiles.

I suppose I should have been more discreet on first meeting, given that I wanted to become a part of the school.  Oh well.  Discretion is not my middle name.

Up next was the OPP station (Ontario Provincial Police).  Fill in the form, sit down and wait for the response.  And it was “You need to be fingerprinted.”  Ouch.  I’ve done lots of fingerpainting but never the printing stuff.  I’m pretty sure I’m not a hardened criminal.  But that’s okay.  My ink session is next Thursday.

I’m hoping that by the first of December I’ll be accepted sufficiently at South Dorchester to do my usual Christmas schtick … reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas.  I love doing that.

Yesterday evening I went to a fish fry at the Belmont Arena.  The girl plunking a bun on my plate looked to be elementary-aged.  So I asked her about the school and she said the teachers are great.  Yay!  A character reference.  Later I asked three other kids the same question.  Their mom smiled and the children pondered.  They like it, and I got that their responses were genuine, not just mouthing stuff that would please an adult.

So … my educational future beckons.  May there be a place for me.