Monday, February 24, 2014

My Reading Buddy

Charlie Leck made a point last week about our collective lack of outrage over the widening achievement gap between white students and students of color. In the process, he referred to efforts I make to even the playing field, one student at a time.

It took me a few days to sit down and write this because the attention embarrassed me. I have a very public persona when it comes to some things but I like to keep it low key when giving of myself to those in need. I subscribe to the wisdom of the Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides whose 8 Levels of Giving opined that anonymous charitable giving with no expectation of recognition is among the most commendable. 

Nonetheless, Charlie threw down a gauntlet and I think it requires both public acknowledgment and advocacy on my part. A good basic education is the building block to everything else in life. If we turn our backs on whatever shortcomings exist in our educational system, we ("Royal 'we'") damn ourselves to creating a society in which more and more citizens cannot function independently and productively. The investment, now, in the education of our children, pays dividends for generations.

Here's how I know that to be true. One of my few vivid memories as a kindergarden and elementary school student is the recurring lecture I received from my father about the need to complete my homework in order to get a good education. Dad likened my early education to the laying the foundation of a wall that I would rely on all through my life. Because "New Math" was using brick imagery to teach us about base-10 arithmetic, the lectures hit home and have stayed with me. My young mind accepted that, unless I made the effort to learn while young and build on that, I was going to go through life with a crumbling wall built on a weak foundation.

For the last four school years, I've been volunteering once a week during the school year to work with second graders to firm up their bricks. "Everybody Wins", a reading mentoring program formerly affiliated with the Hennepin County Bar Association, attracts about 80 attorneys, judges, clerks  and court personnel each week to a school in North Minneapolis to help second grade students develop reading skills. The attorney who initially invited me to join the program explained that statistics show the need to develop reading proficiency by the end of second grade to avoid a subsequent lack of academic achievement and disaffection with the learning process. I haven't bothered to verify the studies. Based on four years of personal observation, the theory seems to make sense.

Which brings me to Darnell. As noted by Charlie in his blog, I have developed a close relationship with Darnell since we were "reading buddies" four years ago. When I started volunteering about three weeks into the school year, I kept bouncing around among various students, covering for volunteers who were absent that week. In about the fourth week of my participation, I was paired with Darnell. He protested, saying he wanted to stay with another volunteer. Darnell's teacher told me that the other volunteer had begged off working with Darnell, deciding that he was too needy and troubled.

I remember how, when the protest was lost, Darnell still hustled me into getting out of reading by feigning a stomach ache. I took him to the school nurse and watched him squirm while trying to keep a straight face when explaining why he was there. The next week I returned to Darnell's classroom and sat down with him, explaining that I was his only choice. I asked for a chance. I might have bribed him with candy. I can't remember when that started. 

Darnell read better than some of his peers, not as well as others. His biggest problem was a lack of interest. He read everything in a monotone and I would regularly reread passages aloud to him to show the importance of inflections in conveying the sense of story. It never seemed to matter and I felt like I was not making a lot of headway with my reluctant second-grader.

Then something remarkable happened. We were reading a book about a boy whose mother died. The child was referred to as an "orphan". I told Darnell that I was learning something new because I thought both parents had to pass on before someone was an "orphan". We looked it up and found that the book's use of the term was accurate. The book gave us the opportunity to talk about death. Darnell's protests and his lack of interest were manifestations of the 7 year-old's inability to deal with the death of his mother 8 months earlier, when he was a first grader. It gave me the opportunity to tell Darnell how much we had in common. We both had mothers who were from Chicago who had died from cancer when they were young. We were both orphans. He could not believe that someone else shared his experience.

From that moment on, we bonded. He looked forward to our Wednesday sessions (probably as much for the candy as anything). We would read and we would talk. He became more enthusiastic about learning and, by Spring, when I wrote a short story for him about the farm animals and Deb's horse Oliver, he was hooked. 

The reading program prohibits outside contact with the students, but I worked with the school and the aunt who was raising Darnell to get permission to maintain our relationship after the school year. I received a meaningful education in the difference volunteers make in the lives of the students when, a year after we met, out and about on one of our "Darnell Days", an elderly woman in a restaurant asked Darnell how he and I had met. 

"We both had mothers from Chicago who died when they were young. We're both orphans."

His aunt, a saint, mixes love and discipline as she raises her sister's children with her own. Darnell has gone on to become an "Academic All Star". He gets A's and B's on his report cards.  He is on the Student Council in Vadnais Heights Elementary, a great athlete, polite and funny. 

Last year, after he was grounded for participating in some minor shenanigans with his older cousins, we had a talk about making good choices. He knew that he had done wrong, but didn't know how to say "no" to his cousins. Referring to the WWJD bracelets that had become popular, I told him that in the future he should stop and ask himself "what would Sam do?" WWSD became our code. 

This weekend, I asked him if he had needed to rely on WWSD. In fact, he had. Faced with a tough problem in math, he realized he could use the calculator on his phone to arrive at an answer. But he told me he asked himself "what would Sam do" and worked it out on paper instead.

Darnell's foundation is strong; his brick wall is getting higher and higher. He now wants to be a lawyer rather than a football player when he grows up. Obviously, there's improvements yet to be made.

The pride I take in Darnell's maturing sustains me as I drive to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School every Wednesday and take on another year of challenge. After my time with Darnell, I had a year with three students, another year with one and this year with two. 

Everybody Wins is no longer subsidized by the Bar Association. The volunteers chip in to cover school bus transportation costs for the weekly round trip from the Hennepin County Government Center. Judge Allan Oleisky, who administers the program, covers the shortfall out of his own pocket. I'm in the process of setting up a formal 501(c)(3) in order to be able to solicit a few thousand dollars from local foundations that support educational endeavors. 

We have no choice but to keep the program going. There are a lot of Darnells out there. Reaching 150 students at one school for a year, through the efforts of one group of volunteers once a week, stands as a strong declaration that we are not going to allow a collapse of our public school system as it strives to serve populations of color.

Charlie was right. It is up to all of us to make, and act upon, a similar declaration. There are a number of reading mentoring programs in our community. Search online for "Minneapolis Reading Mentoring Programs" and Google will provide you with 1,370,000 results in 0.39 seconds. Your mentoring may never give you the pride and satisfaction I enjoy as I watch Darnell mature from a troubled, challenged second-grader to a Student Council officer and Academic All Star, but, more importantly, it might.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Joan of Art and Long Goodbyes

I am not much of a philosopher but weekends like this one demand some big picture reflection. It occurs to me that I've entered  a sector in the Circle of Life that is going to involve acknowledging mortality and saying a lot of goodbyes. I am fairly certain that I will have more enthusiastically enjoyed the education, courtship, marriage, and nascent family sectors of the Circle. Since, however, being upright and in a position to face the emotional challenges of the end-of-life sector is better than the alternative, I need to find, and share, a coping mechanism to serve me and minimize the pain of loss.

On Saturday, I attended the funeral of Joan Mondale, our former Second Lady. I did not know her well, other than from her public persona. But one meeting in particular amounted to more than exchanging pleasantries at mutually attended political functions and I wanted to demonstrate the depth of my appreciation by paying my respects through my attendance at the funeral.

The meeting of significance occurred in 1978. Mrs. Mondale hosted a tea at the Vice President's Residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. I was given the opportunity to claim the invitation extended to our U.S. Senate office where I was Legislative Counsel. I don't recall the "why", other than to speculate that it would allow me to escort my recently widowed grandmother, who was visiting from Palm Springs. Escort Nana I did. Mrs. Mondale was a gracious hostess, giving her guests a tour of the Residence and discussing the art she had on display. 

It was a highlight of Nana's well-lived life. Nana had been to Monaco during Princess Grace's wedding. She'd brought back a llama skin from Machu Pichu in the 50's. She visited the pyramids in Giza before the Six Day War. She bought me my first transistor radio in Hong Kong in 1960. But she had never been accompanied by her attorney grandson to meet the wife of the Vice President of the United States. The pure joy experienced by my grandmother as a result of the kindness of Joan Mondale has stayed with me for the past 36 years. On Saturday, I had a chance to say "thank-you."

I was not alone. There were hundreds of attendees, all there to express their own thank-you. As I listened to the remembrances by Joan of Art's family and invited dignitaries, I thought about the idea that those who have left us live on in the memories of the goodness they shared during life. All the more reason to engage in some self-examination. Whatever your concept of an afterlife, nothing will matter more to your survivors than the depth of your compassion for others and the efforts made to enhance the lives of those whose path you've crossed.

It was clear from the love and admiration showered on Joan Mondale on Saturday that the memories she created, her passion for expanding awareness of the arts among all walks of life, and her ability to bond with disparate communities to promote peace and friendship will assure her a place in our hearts for a very long time. To paraphrase President Jimmy Carter's eulogy, she lived her life as a work of art.

While a mitzvah, saying "goodbye" at a funeral does not represent the most challenging aspect of the end-of-life Circle sector. The other thought provoking event of the weekend provided a greater challenge.

A week ago, a lifelong friend, closer than family, collapsed and was taken to a nursing home. I've known him for 59 of my nearly 62 years. He financed my college education by hiring me to drive his trucks during the summer for Teamsters' wages of $7.00 an hour. $10.50 an hour after 8 in a day (Yesterday he reminded me I wasn't worth it). We celebrate all Jewish Holidays together. He loves my chopped liver. He insisted I learn to play golf and included me in his foursome every week until I could nearly break 100. His wife is my surrogate mother. I have vivid memories of him coming on the scene and chasing away an overly friendly adult male who approached me as I wandered from a family picnic when I was five. He's 92 (93 on Wednesday) and his Circle is nearly complete.

I hope, pray and expect that he will survive his latest health setback. He's in good hands as he's guided through rehabilitation designed to return a modicum of strength to a troubled heart. Nonetheless, as we sat together and talked and laughed on Saturday, we both knew, without the need to say so, that most of our time together was already etched in memory. 

I chastised him for not giving up his car. He gave me credit for being right but protested his loss of freedom if dependent on others or Metro Mobility. He described being bathed while naked by two female attendants, which I then described as an example of things at 92 that are better than driving.

As I was leaving, his grandson's family, including his two great-grandsons, arrived for a visit. The youngest, a month old, is his namesake. My friend had been beaming a half hour earlier when telling me that fact. The oldest great-grandson, nearly three, reveled in pushing great-grandpa in his wheelchair. Until he reads this a few years from now, the toddler will never understand how proud great-grandpa was of the photograph I had taken of him with his son, grandson and great-grandson that serves as the wallpaper on his iPad.

Driving to the celebration of Joan Mondale's life from the nursing home, I hit upon my coping mechanism. While devastated at the prospect of what's to come, I am determined to treat each remaining encounter as a blessing, to create new memories and to let the object of my concern know how much he is loved and respected. I intend to contribute as  much as possible to  his peace of mind and appreciation for life and to his recognition of all the goodness he has created in the work of art that is his life.