For the past few months, I’ve been reading once a week to pre-K students at Muscogee Elementary.
I’ve been the one getting the education.
My first day, a man and woman were fighting in the parking lot of the apartments across the street. He was drinking out of a paper bag. It was 8:30 in the morning.
I went inside the school, not knowing what to expect. The floors were spotless, and the students walked quietly down the hall in neat lines.
My own children attend Blanchard Elementary, Veterans Memorial Middle and Columbus High, which are run well and have good leadership.
But at Muscogee Elementary, where every single student is on the free lunch program, the stakes seem higher. Teachers and staff members address students as if they are kind, obedient and bright, and as if the day holds exciting possibilities.
When I met my first reading buddy, a 4-year-old boy, I extended my hand for him to shake but he grabbed it. We walked down the hall to the cafeteria, holding hands all the way, and a teacher we passed grinned and nodded as if to say, “This place will change you; it will change you in a good way if you will let it.”
I had two reading buddies. Each lacked the vocabulary of other children their age, but they were funny and sharp and most of all curious. They didn’t have pets or even a backyard, and they’d never been to a zoo or an aquarium, but they loved animals. One of them told me he’d seen a big snake when he was in “the tattoo store” with his mother.
I read them “Goodnight Moon” and “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.” We colored pictures and drew lines from symbols to words. I showed them how to tie a tie (they didn’t know that men wore ties for any other reason than to attend church) and how to tell the difference between a poisonous snake and a friendly snake (“red and black, friend of Jack; red and yellow, kill a fellow.”)
My last day was Thursday. I took pictures of the boys with my phone. They thought it was a big deal.
On the way out, I went to the principal’s office to see Mary Avery, who’s retiring next month. Like her students, she grew up in poverty. She was raised by her grandmother in Montgomery, Ala., then attended college in New York and began her teaching career in the Bronx.
When she got to Columbus, she was prepared to handle one of the toughest jobs in the city. On any given day, she might be arranging for students to get new shoes or figuring out ways to increase parental involvement.
She understands the anger that some of her students feel.
“All my students know how to fight,” she said.
So what does she do?
“You have to touch them in the heart,” she said. “They have to know you believe in them.”
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.