January 15, 2021

Stolen From Me and Some Youngsters By Covid


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.


33 comments:

  1. A beautiful story, Bob, thank you for sharing it. I'll share one of my own in return.

    I have been able to return to outdoor volunteering at a local ocean tidepool. One day we had a single father with two pre-teen children on the tour. As we walked along the rocks, the leader of the walk began pointing out the various creatures that live in the tidal zone, including several sea stars we were fortunate to see due to an extremely low tide. Everyone scattered among the rocks to see what they could find, calling out for others to come and view their discoveries. When the time came to turn back and end the tour, the father asked if it was OK to stay back and not return with the group. He said his son, about 11, was excited about something for the first time in a very long time, and he wanted to stay back and share in his son's excitement for as long as he could.

    The irony, of course, is that if not for COVID forcing the father to dig deep for somewhere to go with his kids, they might not have found their way to our tour. I think of this incident frequently as a way to remind myself that while the pandemic has taken much away, it has also made space for a single father and his children to discover each other again.

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    1. I know that tidepool area; it is beautiful and stimulating. You are so right about one of the side benefits: the extra time parents and children are "forced" to spend together. For those smart enough to see it as an opportunity and not a burden, experiences like that dad and his son would be commonplace.

      Thanks for sharing. That should be a reminder to us all, with children or grandchildren, that we can find ways to turn an everyday into a very special day.

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  2. Best. Post. Ever. Bob, this literally brought tears to my eyes. You taught those kids critical and much-needed lessons. They assured you that your knowledge, wisdom and life experiences were respected and more important to them than your age. Everybody won. Here's hoping that you'll be able to saddle up again in the future to ensure that the circle of knowledge and education continues.

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    1. My experience with this teaching experience is interesting: I am always somewhat apprehensive in the weeks leading up to my first classroom visit for a new semester. But, I come home with a smile on my face, ready to start work on next week's lesson. The nerves and worry about keeping the kids engaged disappears.

      Thank you for such strong support for this post, Mary.

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  3. Bob, may I respectfully suggest that you google Dr. Micheal Greger pandemic? You'll find several YouTube videos that are fascinating and 100% backed by scientific research. Thank you for your blog. I enjoy reading.

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    1. I did look at the videos. Dr. Greger is discussing the importance of a vegan lifestyle to prevent disease and keep the body disease resistant. I'm not sure how that fits with this post, but for those interested, he has several videos available.

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    2. Thank you for your reply, Bob. Dr. Greger predicted this pandemic many years ago. All pandemics can be traced to animal agriculture. You wrote that we've all had to endure horrible things because of Covid. I just wanted to share this knowledge with others who may want to help prevent future disease. I'm writing not to confront or argue, but to share important facts that I've learned. https://plantbasednews.org/lifestyle/dr-greger-warned-coronavirus-risk-2008/

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  4. I surprised Junior Achievement is still around. I still have fond memories of taking part in it 60 years ago and I still have a few of the things we made and sold.

    You taught some valuable life lessons.

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    1. Junior Achievement is very active in schools, as well as in exercises where kids take part in marketing and selling products and running a store in a mock community environment.

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  5. Oh Bob, I hear you! Those kids are missing out,too. What a wonderful thing all the way around for you to share with them and support them with real life skills, and your warmth! I,too miss my volunteer activities soo much. We regularly spent time at Paz De Christo in Mesa, where a hot meal is prepared and served to anyone in the line who needs it— seven night a week, in Mesa. After we prepare and cook the meal, we serve, then we sit down and share a meal with those in need, then we clean up and go home, with a lot of gratitude em our hearts. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are prepared and given out so they have another small meal to enjoy at another time. DAMN COVID for stealing away these times. Paz still serves.They only allow 7 people in the kitchen at one time now, and the meals are put in containers and bagged, and the people in need pick it up.No more dining room. ANd of course, we :”elderly” volunteers are not the ones out there right now,till we get our vaccines. I’m so weary of this. Knowing the vaccine is right around the corner is making me even more antsy. I know those kids will be waiting for you!!!

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    1. I guess there is some hope that the fall semester may be safe enough for this program to restart. They have approached me about a virtual version, but I don't believe that would work well. At least in my case, I need to move around the room, engaging with the kids, keeping them focused, and joking with them. In comparison, the same material. presented virtually, would be flat and dull.

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  6. Great heartfelt post! I think working with children this age would be so satisfying and rewarding. I often thought about how we can teach the young about personal finance; simple principles of budgeting, saving and compound interest. A few examples would probably be eye opening and all the new apps that are available to help save and keep track might also be appealing. I had to stop volunteering at our Food Bank due to COVID- sad.

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    1. I guess like any teacher in any setting, I have learned where I have to take the underlying message of a particular lesson, and modify it a bit to fit the kids. At times, the written class material seems to be directed at kids in a different economic situation, and it certainly doesn't reflect our world right now, with tariffs and questions about the place of global economy.

      So, by keeping the core but modifying the examples and exercises, I think these children are able to see how the current state of things affects them directly, and how to navigate the environment.

      Occasionally a child would ask a question that would break my heart: "Will my sister ever be able to join us from Honduras," or, a question that was raised in late February just as Covid was making headlines and just before future classes were cancelled, "are we all going to die from the virus?"

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  7. Lovely, Bob! I know they miss you as much as you miss them.
    This stupid virus has taken away one of the things I loved most. Pre-Covid I worked as a volunteer at a facility providing social and recreational outlets for adults with special needs, I loved being there and it is honestly the only place I have ever been when the entire group was happy to see me. Covid has changed all of that. Even though the facility is still open they are allowing no volunteers and it is only open to the staff and participants. I have interacted with them via Zoom a few times but it is not the same as being there.

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    1. I am pretty sure that once we start feeling safe around others, this lockdown will prompt a flood of volunteers who have been kept from their passion for too long. Personally, not only am I likely to restart JA work, but probably at something like a food kitchen for the poor and homeless. We donate money now, but the personal interaction is important to both me and the people coming in for food.

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  8. I participate in something called Book Buddy, sponsored by United Way. We read to 4 year olds once a week from October through April. It was cut short last year and we haven't been doing it this year. I miss their energy and how they changed throughout the year, often becoming more outgoing and talkative. I did record a video of myself reading a book, but it's just not the same. I completely understand what you're missing.

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    1. Another very important way we can give back and impact young lives has been put on the shelf. I wish you a return to Book Buddy as the earliest possible moment. Anything that helps kids get excited about reading is money in the bank for their future, and ours.

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  9. What you are teaching those kids is so valuable and, although I'm not sure why it wouldn't be part of their regular curriculum - among many important subjects that don't seem to get covered - it sounds like they are eager learners. Bless you for doing this and I hope you'll be able to get back into the classrooms soon!

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    1. Thanks, Janis. Financial literacy should be part of every child's education but it is not.

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  10. Very good post and good work. I enjoyed it a lot. I hope you get to go back soon.

    Do you really get 25 face to face hours (5 weeks x 5 days X 1 hour per day) with the kids? that is huge and gives you a lot of time to really get into their heads. At 11-12 years old they are sponges and soak up data and experiences.

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    1. No, I guess I wasn't clear. It is one hour, once a week, for 5 weeks. Even with just one class a week, they really learmnd a lot and fully participated.

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  11. Such a wonderful contribution to your community. It's so beneficial to the kids to have community members come in to the school to build community with one another. So many countless volunteer hours. As this pandemic response drags on, I'm starting to settle into my small life. I trust that I will feel the pull to resume volunteering once again.

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    1. In addition to the kids, the teacher enjoyed having someone in the room to give her a bit of a break. She would help me check the kids' progress on a particular exercise but that 45 minutes right after lunch one day a week was something she told me she looked forward to.

      The elementary school I worked with had several JA volunteers. We passed each other on the schoolyard.

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  12. Bob, kudos to you for offering important practical lessons to these kids. I myself have been teaching ESL. We've been continuing thru Covid with Zoom. We make it work, kind of, but it's not the same.

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    1. A friend teaches ESL through the local library. Like you, he moved his classes to Zoom but says it isn't as effective.

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  13. Bob, what a fabulous way to contribute to the community, with such benefits for the young people and for you. In my case, I’m a member of the local Lions Club and we volunteer in a number of ways to fundraise and to provide community service. However, most of the club members are seniors, and most of our activities involve face-to-face contact, and therefore have been suspended for now. I’m becoming very tired of the COVID restrictions, but there are still many more months to go before everyone will be vaccinated.

    Jude

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    1. I trust the new president not only takes Covid seriously but convinces the silly people who reject masks to change their attitude.

      I predict a wave of people volunteering again when we feel save. Canada is likely to be ahead of the U.S. in this regard.

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  14. Great story Bob you are doing some great "feel good" work. Quick question I've been thinking about doing something similar teaching young people about F.I.R.E. minus the R.E. part and donating copies of my original book "Victory lap Retirement" to school libraries. My question is do you think it best to approach high schools or colleges - where would it have the most effective impact?

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    1. That's a good question. Based on the "Retirement" in the title, I would imagine colleges would be more likely to accept copies and students read them. While the material in that book would be good for High schoolers, the title would be a hinderance.

      Whichever way you go, Mike, that is a great gesture. Heavens knows learning financial basics at a younger age is so important.

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    2. I totally agree with you on that Bob. When I was in school we had a class called home education which taught us the basics, cooking washing etc. We need to bring it back and add a financial literacy component to it. How to live a frugal lifestyle, how to balance a cheque book and how to invest etc.

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  15. What a great experience, for the kids and for you!

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    1. I have been doing it long enough that I often get the younger brother or sister of someone who was in my class the year befote.

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  16. A wonderful evocation of the joys of teaching.

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