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Out of the Ordinary
It was five p.m. on a Friday afternoon in May at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, and most of the dedicated teachers and administrators had long since left the campus. I wished I could have escaped with them. I was exceedingly tired. It had been a particularly long week. In fact, it had been a long year.
Yet, this Friday I was able to push myself even though a long night lay ahead of me. A few months before, I had spoken to some outstanding teachers at a school in Los Angeles. One of them was friends with the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. When she learned of my love of baseball, she called him to arrange tickets. He graciously offered my class six tickets for several games during the year. I would be able to take five kids per game, and after picking names out of a hat, a schedule was made to ensure that eventually all the kids in the class would get to attend a contest. So on this Friday night, five students were coming with me to attend their first baseball game. It would be a fun night, but also a late one.
On Saturday mornings I normally work with my former students, a group of enthusiastic teenagers who return to prepare for college admissions tests and read the plays of William Shakespeare. Probably more tired than I, these hard-working scholars sacrifice most of their Saturday mornings to come back to Room 56 once more. Many of them yearn for a more relevant education than they are receiving at the schools they currently attend. But this was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, so I had given them (and myself) a Saturday off . I was truly exhausted, but I consoled myself knowing that after the ball game ended I could go home and get a good night's sleep.
Outside my classroom, I could see the crooked parking lot gates struggling to remain open. This sixteen-foot-high fence has two pieces that swing shut and can be bolted with a large padlock and chain. It's unfortunate that we even need this contraption, but the school is in a rough neighborhood, and keeping the kids and their resources safe is a big priority. Unfortunately, it is plain to see that the barricade is in real need of repair. Over the years it has been damaged by cars, climbers, and rain, so that the two swinging sections do not remain apart when they are supposed to and are difficult to close when it's time to lock up the school. Like the facilities they guard, the gates do the best they can under difficult circumstances.
Inside, though, the environment can seem like a diff erent world. On this Friday, as on all Friday afternoons, a group of amazing fourth and fifth graders had stayed late with me in Room 56. They were part of the Hobart Shakespeareans group, and had been working on an unabridged production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. The previous summer, these kids had volunteered to come to school through July and August to dissect the play's intricate language, learn accompanying parts on musical instruments, and unite for a cause that would bring hope to themselves and those around them. After eleven months of rehearsals, the kids were ready to perform the production for the public. They knew their show was brilliant. Just a few months earlier the Royal Shakespeare Company had spent the day with them and wept and cheered through an unforgettable per for mance.
School officially ended that Friday at 2:19 p.m., but these children had volunteered to stay daily until 5:00. As they said their good-byes, threw on their backpacks, and headed out the door, six of them stayed behind. Five were going with me to the Dodgers game, and they were understandably excited. But the sixth, Sammy, was not, and I quickly grew concerned.
When I first met Sammy, he was not popular with his teachers or classmates, and it was easy to see why. He couldn't sit still in class. He often spoke out of turn and rarely interrupted with a point that was even remotely relevant to the topic of conversation.
In addition, he was filthy. He was unwashed and his clothes were even worse. It wasn't that his personal habits were bad; he simply didn't have any. On the playground, he would take off his shirt, throw it on the dirty blacktop, and work up a terrific sweat running. At Hobart, kids know never to leave anything on the ground, because any unattended backpack or article of clothing disappears within seconds of being left alone. But no one ever touched Sam's clothes. No one even wanted to go near them. After his activities were finished, Sam would pick up his shirt, use it to wipe the sweat off his face, and then put it back on. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Sam didn't have friends among his peers or even supporters on the staff , and yet he and I slowly developed a friendship. Always on the outside looking in, Sam had spent his first nine years following the path of least re sis tance. Never a joiner of anything, he had eventually signed on to many of the extra activities I offered. He was the final kid in the class to begin staying late for Shakespeare. Over early-morning math lessons, lunchtime music sessions, and playing lots of catch, Sam had made tremendous progress. He discovered that he loved United States history, and once he found his great interest, a scholar was born. He devoured every book he could find on the subject, with a particular focus on the politics of war. His patriotic passion overflowed into his life. Sammy became more or ga nized in his thinking. He started keeping himself clean. Now, after eleven months in the class, Sam was one of the gang. He had a lot of genuine friends, and he never felt better.
But on this Friday night, he was depressed. He loved baseball, and I had to leave him behind from the game he desperately wanted to attend. He knew he would go to a game later that summer, but he was sad that he couldn't go that night. Spending an evening at Dodger Stadium obviously appealed to him more than being at home.
Sam told me his mother would be coming to get him around five-thirty and asked if he could remain in the room after I left. I wanted to say yes but I had been reprimanded several times by my bosses for allowing kids to stay late and study in Room 56 after I had gone home. I understood their concerns. Although the administrators trusted my students to do the right thing, they were worried about liability problems, and told me to discontinue the practice. As a classroom teacher withenough battles on my hands, I was more than happy to relent on this point and save my strength for more important issues. Sam promised me his mom was coming on the bus, and he sat on a playground bench near our classroom while he waited. The sun was shining, and although the ubiquitous gangsters had already taken over the basketball courts, there would be daylight for at least another two hours. I was confi dent that Sammy, the budding historian, would be okay.
Even on Friday at five p.m., challenges like this face teachers who put in the extra mile. With Sam squared away, I could turn my attention back to the ball game in our future.
A few minutes later, a quintet of fifth graders piled into my van, dubbed the Oprahmobile by my former students. Oprah was incredibly kind to help out my class several years ago and we will be forever grateful for her generosity. The children were simply giddy. They were going to their first game and were well prepared.
They had played baseball daily on the school playground, and I taught them to score games in October when we watched the World Series on tele vi sion. The Ken Burns baseball documentary was required viewing during their spring vacation evenings. Now, after a year's preparation, they were going to watch professionals play the sport they had grown to love. In addition, the Dodgers had kindly invited the children to visit their offices before the game to learn about the business of baseball. As an added treat, they were to be taken onto the field to watch batting practice before taking their seats for the game.
We arrived at the Dodgers' headquarters and were told by a friendly but firm security officer to wait until an official had cleared our admittance. Soon, we were met by our tour guide. She was courteous, but it was plain to see she was tired. She had probably led children on tours for many years, and I could tell by her eyes that this was about the last thing she wanted to do on a Friday evening. Don't get me wrong— the guide was perfectly nice when she introduced herself, but one sensed she had met enough disinterested and hyperactive children to douse any enthusiasm she might have had about leading yet another group of kids through Dodgers history.
And then something wonderful happened. It's the kind of moment I live for. It's why I love being both a parent and a teacher.
Our guide said, "Let's get started," and we entered the Dodgers' command center. She proceeded to march us down a long corridor past several offices, but the kids stopped short when they noticed something in the passageway. Hanging on the wall was a picture of a famous movie star from Hollywood's Golden Age who happened to be an ardent Dodgers fan. It was a wonderful photograph, taken at least forty years ago, showing him sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium, rooting for his team.
"Hey, look!" exclaimed Cesar. "It's Henry Fonda." All of the kids had recognized him, but Cesar, the leader of this par tic u lar group, gave voice to the thought they were sharing.
"You know Henry Fonda?" asked the guide, stunned that a fifth grader knew of an actor who had died a quarter of a century ago. Suddenly, her eyes were no longer tired. She was truly surprised and curious.
"Sure," said Cesar. "Henry Fonda…; star of 12 Angry Men, a great 1957 film by Sidney Lumet. But I liked him even better in The Grapes of Wrath. I think John Ford did a fantastic job putting Steinbeck on film. Did you like The Grapes of Wrath? We saw an incredible production at Ford's Theatre last year."
At this, a couple of heads poked out of the various rooms. Nothing was said, but from that moment on we had a transformed tour guide. She asked challenging questions, and the tour that we were told would last about ten minutes took almost an hour. After the kids expressed their appreciation and left to buy hot dogs before the game began, our happy but mystified guide pulled me aside.
"I don't really know what to say to you," she said haltingly, "but your kids are unlike any other group I have ever taken around.
They're so confident but so sweet. They're so beautiful and they glow." She paused, searching for the right adjective.
"They're extraordinary," she said in almost whispered respect.
I'm fortunate to hear this a lot, and that's what this book is about. From airport terminals to Shakespeare festivals to hotel lobbies, people stop, stare, and speak up. And the praise goes beyond "What a wonderfully behaved group of children you have." These kids are distinctive, a quality all the more remarkable given that our society often seems bent on preventing anyone from walking to the beat of a diff erent drummer.
But here's the secret. These students weren't born extraordinary— they became that way. This is the central theme of this book. These wonderful children didn't always glow or know about Henry Fonda. There was a time when fractions were a mystery and Shakespeare a boring dead white man. But they had been exposed to these concepts and ideals by a series of fine teachers, and had them reinforced by parents who understood how important they were to their kids' development.
Children are born with varying levels of talent and intelligence, but possessing natural smarts and skills is no guarantee of success. It takes more than that: it takes work on the part of parents and teachers to cultivate these qualities, to instill in children the drive and character necessary to translate their natural gifts into extraordinary results. There was a time when these children at Dodger Stadium had been only diamonds in the rough, and not the shimmering gems that delighted their guide. Over the years they had been polished by caring and wise adults. And here's the great news: with patient guidance your child can glow as well. It takes great sacrifice, effort, and preparation to make this journey with your kid. It's a hard road, one that many parents and children ultimately find too demanding to pursue. But as Robert Frost taught us, the road less traveled can make all the diff erence.
In Rome, kind Italians warn visitors that traffic lights are just suggestions. That's what you are about to read: suggestions. I've been teaching for almost thirty years and have watched my own children grow up. And I've come to one realization: there isn't one right way to raise children. There are countless points of view and many of them are valid and interesting. Yet, I have also come to understand why I take children out on a Friday night when I am too tired to do so. I want to help children become special. I know that every day matters. I have come to realize that even one night at a baseball game might be the moment a child decides to be unique. Children are capable of learning astonishing things in the most unexpected places. With our help and patience, the cure for cancer or the next great novel might be sitting next to us at a ball game. And there are steps we can actively take to help children reach the kind of excellence that we dream about for them.
I fear something for all the children I have been blessed to know, and it's not drugs or gangs. I fear that my children will be mediocre, that they won't live up to the tremendous promise that each of them possesses. I don't want my children to be mediocre, because I know they are capable of more. So let the polishing begin.
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