For the past two months, I worked as an America Reads tutor at PS 142 in the Lower East Side of New York City. While exhausting, my time spent with my class was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. The America Reads/Counts program began in 1997 as a federal initiative to help public elementary school students achieve proficiency in literacy and mathematics by employing college students as tutors. The program is truly unique in that the learning process works both ways. While the children enhance their own knowledge, the adults learn about children, the public school system, the value of education, and a little bit about themselves.
I can marginally recall what my time was spent like in third grade and of course, from my now adult perspective, I don’t remember the third grade being as emotionally charged and dramatic as it really is. I would now like to take this time to personally apologize to Mrs. Messenger for any stress and headaches I caused her during my third grade tenure. I have an immense amount of respect for the teacher (as well as all educators) I worked with. Every day she came to work, ready to teach 20 students and deal with everything from the perpetual “I’m not feeling well” to “doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” I can only imagine what it is like to be a parent and constantly deal with the pre-pubescent emotions and concerns on a 24/7 basis. So in addition to teachers, I have just as much respect for mothers and fathers
I give even more credit to the children I spent each day with. Some of them trekked over 200 blocks or from outer boroughs (in other words, a 45-60 min trip) each morning (to avoid going to an unsafe school) and they always wore a smiling face. I would eat lunch with the students and some of them could barely afford their meal. As she ate her lunch consisting of a sole sandwich, one girl told me “it’s all her family had” and went back to eating and talking about Justin Bieber with her classmates. They never let at-home drama get in the way of learning and having fun. What I discovered is that children think and process just like an adult, but to the extent that their knowledge and life experience allows them. They want to understand and articulate. Even when they got frustrated with work or playground issues, the kids would always try to resolve the problem (though sometimes it involved tears and chest puffing).
The most important bit of knowledge I left with from my experience with America Reads is that education is KEY. I cannot stress this enough. And by education, I’m not just limiting it to only classroom work. Exposure to new things and personal differences, I believe, is the best way to promote tolerance, interests, and understanding. For example, one lunch period, I brought carrots to eat and a girl had never eaten them before. In fact, she said she didn’t like vegetables. I gave her her first carrot and she loved it, prompting her to try other greens (from what she told me). Being a Caucasian (a pale one for that matter) teaching at a predominantly Hispanic school located in a lower-income neighborhood, race was a major topic of discussion. Each day I dealt with questions and comments about my skin color and physical experience. While blunt in their delivery, these racial inquiries were not out of malice, just out of curiosity. These kids loved me (as I loved them) unconditionally. They didn’t know any better. They wanted to know more about me and the world I grew up in. From food to race to science fair experiments and everything in between, children want to learn. It is paramount that we help them as much as we can. I‘m grateful that I helped, in some small way, in the education of some of our country’s future leaders.
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