One of the volunteer activities I truly enjoy has been stolen from me by the pandemic. I come from a long line of teachers and spent a good part of my career as a consultant (teacher). Engaging with young people is satisfying and, I hope, helpful, to them. My last in-class interaction was in January of 2020:
The hand in the very back of the room shot up. The boy was waving it vigorously back and forth to get my attention. "Mr. Lowry, Mr. Lowry," he almost shouted, " I know the answer!" Since this the first time in three weeks he had shown much interest, he was rewarded with my response to his plea.
What was going on? Where was I and who were these 26 children, none of whom knew me or I had even met them just three short weeks ago?
For the last several years I have spent part of each Spring and Fall, teaching 5th graders about our economic system through the Junior Achievement program.
More importantly, I was hoping to inspire each one of them to not see the limits that society may impose on them, but grasp the opportunities and a future they could craft.
The school is located in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, about 5 miles from my home. The 10 and 11-year-old kids were clean and well-dressed, the teacher supportive and eager for this extra instruction for her kiddos.
Most came from homes where both parents worked, often in places like auto repair shops, neighborhood grocers, barbershops, or beauty salons. Older brothers and sisters held positions at McDonald's or Target stores. Most of the children were like sponges, looking to soak up whatever I could pass along to help them get a job and support themselves.
At first, each semester the children had the same reaction, sometimes unspoken, other times, not: "Who is the old man, and what is he doing here?" Old enough to be a grandfather or even great-father to a few, naturally they wondered about my appearance in their classroom. Yet, like most children, any interruption to the normal routine of math, English lessons, and quizzes was welcomed.
I am provided with teaching lessons to help me stay on track and various supplies to keep the kids engaged. When I bring out giant game boards, a pair of dice, special take-home bookmarks, and flashcards all eyes are on me.
After several times through the material, I have learned how to skip some parts of the prepared lessons and bring something of my own into the lessons. For these kids, the key is to make what I have to share relevant to their real-world experience. Talking about college prep is important. Stressing the use of technology and keeping up with the latest trends is important.
But, the day-to-day reality of what these boys and girls face is more important to them, right now, at this moment, in their young lives. Learning about credit, how to get it, use it, and not abuse it is high on my list of lessons. Several had no idea that what is put on a credit card must be paid back. Checking accounts? Most had never seen a check or what it was for.
How to get a job, whether it is at McDonald's, or eventually at Microsoft, is a skill they will need in just a few more years. Most of these children have teen-aged siblings who contribute to the family income; they expect to be in that position, too.
Understanding how to market oneself, stress skills, and aptitudes, what not to do during a job interview, like not responding to a text while seated in front of your potential employer - these are crucial to my kids and not given enough stress in my teacher's guide. So, I use my experiences and basic employment-oriented presentations to help equip them for something only a few years away.
One week is designed to focus on the global economy and how we are all interconnected. That is all true, but these kids were very much aware of the message coming from Washington over the past four years. So, they had all sorts of questions about what are trade tariffs and why should they care, what about the border wall and our country's position on immigration. Several of these children had relatives in Central America and were rightly concerned about ever seeing them again.
The time in the classroom allowed me to calm some of their fears, explain how world economies work, and the effect of politics on the present situation. Without taking any side, it was my desire to give them a glimpse of reality, a helping of hope, and enough information to begin to think about these issues on their own.
At the end of the five weeks together, these young minds had the beginnings of an understanding of how the world and local economy works, how to get and keep a job, manage one's income and outgo, and glimpse a future that their hard work and dedication could create for them.
For me, personal satisfaction was enormous. By the third week, I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and (after I OK'd it with the teacher) the children coming to me for a hug. By the end of the last lesson, there were moans and displays of unhappiness that I would not be back. Our time together was much more than teacher and student: it had become more like friends sharing time together, a granddad teaching his kids something important, and the sharing of affection and concern from both the front and the back of the room.
As the last class came to an end, I gave the teacher a $100 gift card for her to use for class supplies or anything she felt her students would enjoy. In return, I was presented with a card signed by all the students, along with a framed picture of all of them.
Considering all of the horrible things we have had to endure because of Covid, my missing a chance to teach a few classes of 5th graders ranks quite low on the damage list. Even so, I am sorry for the opportunity both the kids and I have missed to learn from each other and prepare the next generation for some of what they will face in the near future.
Damn you, Covid.