On One Hand

December 21, 2004

Volunteering

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 11:25 pm
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I was with April last night when she told me she’d agreed to volunteer at some school the next day. “Oh, cool!” I said, not thinking much into it. She waited a while to tell me is that she had actually volunteered both of us. “It’s at 8:00 tomorrow morning,” she said, “and could you pleeeeaaasseeee go do it with me?”

“Ummm,” I said, not sure how to answer. Being there at 8:00 meant getting up at 7:00, which is five hours earlier than I usually get up, and only two hours later than I’d gone to bed the night before. I begrudgingly agreed, not even sure what I was signing up for. “Is this some kind of a religious group?” I asked, knowing that April is religious and noting that the place was in a church. “I don’t want to be volunteering somewhere I’m not welcome.” I assumed we would be going to some sort of special parochial middle school, and I was worried because I don’t know anything about teaching kids, especially about religion. When I was still Catholic I taught LBC to fourth and fifth graders, but I had a lot of help then, plus I actually believed what I was teaching then.

I finally agreed to the plan, stayed at April’s house that night, and got up deathly early and everything, covered in prickly hairs and smelling like dog, because evidently her dog likes to cuddle. April and I found ourselves driving to an old neighborhood in Denver near Downtown, in a section of town called “Five Points” known for being the region’s largest African-American neighborhood. The old, decaying Methodist church we arrived at had the smallest sanctuary I have ever seen in my life, and a smaller assembly room (former sanctuary) that we gathered in. There were about thirty kids inside, ages ranging from about four to thirteen. We came up to the doorway to see the kids buzzing around like a swarm of bees, energetic, aggressive, loud, and confrontational. Initially, working with these children was a scary prospect. My memories leading a Boy Scout troop when I was fifteen are filled with images of frustration, anarchy, and chaos. The boy scouts used every opportunity they could to undermine authority, and argued and bickered over campsite chores, leaving the scout leaders like my friends and me to roll our eyes and do most of the work assigned to the younger kids. April and I were still unsure as to what we were supposed to do here, and nobody helped by filling us in, so we just came inside, got our name tags, and started talking to the kids.

Surprisingly, the inner city kids were very obedient and respectful. A small group might be biting and scratching each other without refrain, but if you would only step in and tell them to stop, they would pause everything to look up at you, waiting for further instruction. They looked up to April and I, and were even more friendly with us than they were with older adults. They never told on each other when they fought. Babysitting the little kids in my family usually implies hearing a lot of “he stole my gum!” or “she touched me like… like this!” These kids handled quarrels on their own, standing up for themselves aggressively and always having an individualistic sense of retributive justice. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is certainly debatable, but it was something I took note of.

When I was this age, I was always the brunt of group mentality. Cliques frequently aligned against me, and in all my experiences leading other kids I observed the same thing happen again and again. But the inner city kids seemed not to have the same clique mentality as their white suburban counterparts, and whenever a group formed among them it dissolved quickly. Kids were liked if they were nice and not liked if they were mean, lacking in concern over who seemed nerdy or who was unusual. Popular, socially savvy kids joined up with the awkward ones and the awkward ones had just as much ability to start an idea, movement, or appeal for the group to decide who had been wronged by someone.

There was one kid there who really stood out. She was about ten or eleven years old, initially unidentifiable as male or female. Very heavyset, awkward, and shy, she looked much more like a boy than a girl, and was dressed in tattered boy’s clothing, but I still wasn’t sure. It wasn’t that she looked dykey or masculine; she was just genderless, physically ambiguous at the most structural level. Like a statue of Buddha. I was afraid to ask if she was male or female (I was pretty sure she was male but unsure), knowing it would be an embarrassing question, but the answer came down on us anyway in the most disastrous possible way. One of the leaders referred to the kid as “he,” sparking an explosion of laughter from the group. “That’s a girl,” the kids shouted, laughing, “and you called her a boy! That’s a girl!” Unwitting, the group leader referred to her as “him” once again, inciting further laughter from the group. They were laughing more at the group leader than at their peer, but she took it personally regardless. Embarrassed, she ran and sat under the table, tears streaming down her face. Oh God, I thought, this is awful. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know if it would be appropriate for me to approach her and say, “it’s OK, when I was your age everyone thought I was a girl,” which would have been a total lie anyway, but it was all that came to my mind to say. Being male, I was an unideal counselor to an eleven-year-old girl, unless maybe I could come out to her, which wasn’t a good idea here. I waited for someone else to help, but no one stepped forward. Then other kids began to notice that the girl was crying, and pointed it out, some mirthfully, others concerned. She only started crying harder when her tears were made an object of group attention. Finally, April got up from across the room, peeled off the wide-eyed five-year-olds clinging to her legs, and approached the crying girl, who began to howl loudly as she fled outside into the hall. Good girl, April, I sighed, relieved, as April followed the despairing girl outside to talk to her.

I gathered that this was some sort of day care service for kids on winter break. They get free food and eight hours of babysitting, while their parents go to work or attend to whatever they need to. Anyone who wants to come and help can come help; the small group is struggling and will take whatever assistance it can get. There was a religious theme, since the event was put on by a church, but most of the kids were not religious, especially the older ones, and most of the activities, while religiously themed, were not religiously oriented.

I’m so glad I did this! I recalled a time that the kids were painting. They were painting on canvas cut-out doves, and were told to manifest “whatever messages God inspires them to paint.” One girl, about six years old, stared intently at her half-painted dove, nodded, and said “yeah, I think this might be a message from God.” I recalled another time when a group leader was talking to the kids about movies. She was talking about all the roles on a movie set and what they do, teaching the kids about directors, actors, and set technicians. She asked, “And where do movies originally come from?” referring to the writers, and a younger kid replied by saying “they come from Hollywood, China or Tokyo.” I looked up at April and we both laughed. I don’t know what it is about young kids that allows you to connect with other people, but I know I want that so badly. I don’t think my life could ever feel complete until I have the opportunity to raise children. I want to be married to a man that I’m raising my kids with, who I can love even more whenever our child says something cute.

On a more short-term level, I want to volunteer again, and I probably will the next opportunity I get, which is a few days after Christmas.

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6 Comments »

  1. That poor girl 😦

    I’ll never understand childrenss thirst for cruelty. I didn’t understand it when I was one and, I definitely don’t now. I probably could have been with the “cool crowd” had I joined in picking on the other unpopular kids, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I knew what it felt like and I couldn’t bring myself to make another kid feel as low as I did then.

    Comment by johnnya — December 22, 2004 @ 9:02 am | Reply

    • Well they weren’t really cruel to her at all, they just thought it was funny that some guy got her gender wrong and didn’t understand the sensitivity of the situation well enough to not laugh. They were just ignorant, really. They are all pretty nice to her most of the time, surprisingly so. She’s just really sensitive about being called a boy, and I don’t blame her, because she really does look like a boy. Even after knowing for sure, it’s still hard to think of her as female.

      Comment by ononehand — December 22, 2004 @ 9:26 am | Reply

      • Reminds me of when I was a kid, I was the one everyone tried to pick on. I think that is why I am so emotional now when I see someone getting picked on, cause it turned me into the school bully. Granted I only bullied the bullies but still I was changed into something I am not, just it was cool that they didnt harass her about it.Thought to my self that is the big change of todays youth compared to when I was growing up.

        Comment by akumahermit — December 22, 2004 @ 9:46 am

  2. merit badges and hi-c.

    i don’t know why, but i am scared of children.
    their unfiltered mind and speech intimidates me.
    i never know what to say.
    i have a stepsister who is seven years old.
    and i want to be her big brother at times.
    i can never tell what point they are in their lives.
    is it time to use words like gullible and tardy? or are we still on wide-ruled paper tracing the number eight.
    i admire your courage to “babysit” those children.
    i am an eagle scout and at times i had to “lead” my patrol. it was usually a disaster.
    keep ’em up.

    Comment by octoberxswimmer — December 23, 2004 @ 3:00 am | Reply

  3. untainted hearts

    Young kids are awesome. I love any story involving them. I think the reason why they’re a catalyst for connecting with people, is because they’re so innocent & pure. They represent on so many levels the way things “should” be fundamentally… ya know? Like for example, on the playground at recess. They all play with eachother, regardless of race & other differences that divide & cause tension amongst adults. They just see other little people to play with who are just like themselves.

    Comment by apocalipsticks — December 23, 2004 @ 6:13 am | Reply

    • Re: untainted hearts

      Heh. Well one thing that stood out about the experience was how worldly the kids were: at age five they were about as streetsmart as I was when I started high school. But since they’re kids you are always aware that they didn’t CHOOSE to know the things that they know, so you forgive them for threatening to kill each other in jest or using the violent language they tend to use. You realize that they all start out well-intentioned or innocent, and that they’re just learning about the world, trying to imitate what they see in their environment, as children always do. The experience calls into question the idea that poor people are responsible for their condition. It teaches you that you can’t blame people in a ghetto for being in a ghetto. But at this age, they still have hope, and you can’t help but feel it with them.

      It was sad, seeing so much potential in the very intelligent ones, and having a lot of hope for them but also noting that there are about thirty indigent people wandering around outside on this block alone. You feel like the kids could get out of the neighborhood if they would just stay in school and do the things Bill Cosby says, but you know that it’s more complicated than that. They all want the lifestyle that they see on MTV, and the young ones say they want to be doctors or lawyers or the President. The older the child you are questioning, the more pessimistic his or her life goals. I know the statistics on people growing up in poverty actually getting out of poverty. It’s not like you can just say “get a good job” and they’ll be able to do it.

      The kids’ moms come in to pick them up, with decayed teeth and hair falling out, bringing along older siblings who seemed as hard and callused as their mothers. I don’t know what to think about their futures, whether it’s fair to assume the best or the worst or what. I pick one boy out and say “there’s the future polititian that makes a huge change in the community,” or “there’s the future famous painter, or poet.” But I think that their parents once seemed that way too, and look where their kids still are.

      Comment by ononehand — December 23, 2004 @ 10:23 am | Reply


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