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Starting Point

And eventually, good things do happen


Before her university diploma had even arrived in the mail, my daughter was flying off to New York to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Her assignment for the year, which she freely chose, was to teach second grade in the Bronx. In exchange, she would receive an $85 a month stipend plus housing. The principal of the school, in a telephone interview, asked her, "So how do you feel about never seeing trees?" No problem, Elizabeth answered with total confidence.

She could have chosen Maui, I sometimes remind her to make her laugh. Just 22, she had been working with kids at the YMCA since she was 14. A natural pied piper with children, Elizabeth knew from the time she was 10 or 11 that teaching was her vocation.

Now, six weeks later, she is doubting her choice of livelihood and battling hopelessness about making a difference in the children's lives. The subway she rides one hour each way was at first daunting but now has become second nature. She has found her way around the city with surprising ease.

But she realized after a month that she hadn't yet looked up at the sky because vigilance is so crucial to survival in her new environment. She wondered if her kids ever took the time to look at the sky and wonder about the world. The absence of beauty has been startling for her, and she questions what the lack of aesthetics means for 7-year-old kids.

In late August, thrilled finally to have her own class, she set to work in a frenzy. She decorated her classroom with a seven-foot apple tree, cheery welcome packets, a primary colors alphabet, a "God's Love Grows and Grows" poster with her students' names on pink and blue tulips. Elizabeth arranged her puppet theater, children's illustrated Bible, poetry books and paints in an art center, and waited for her kids to show up.

After that things started to go bad. Most children behave well, but a few are so angry and out of control that she keeps saying to me, "When do I get to teach? I'm so busy trying to discipline the disruptive kids that I don't even know who can read or write."

I advise her to pray with the kids. "Mom," she replies, "we pray all day long. When things get really bad, I turn the lights off and we pray for peace in the class, on the streets, in their homes. We pray that no one hurts anyone in the class, for me to have more patience. I yelled at them today and I swore I never would. I don't know if I can teach here."

Elizabeth tells me last year's JVC teacher spent every lunch time her first month crying at her desk. Elizabeth has had to put away her books because the students have torn out pages, ripped up the puppets, broken into her desk. The last straw was when one boy dropped a heavy wooden desk on her foot and slapped another child with a ruler.

"How many of you have seen violence in your homes or neighborhoods?" she asked them. They all raised their hands. And the stories began to pour out like poison from an infected wound.

One JVC member has packed up and gone home, too stressed and exhausted to continue. "Do you want to leave?" I ask her. "No. I can't leave them." One little boy, the one who hurt her foot, the one she couldn't find anything likable about, has won her over. He's still very unruly but she has started to see in him a child who needs love. He also shows a talent for art.

Last week was her worst yet. Her classroom was unfairly accused of throwing food during lunch. They came back to class frustrated and angry, kicking desks and swearing. "Well then, everyone take out your journals and write about what happened and how mad you are. Tell me how you feel about not being believed when you tell the truth," she told them. "This is a good way to show how we handle anger without hitting or name-calling." The room became silent as their small alleged food-thrower hands clutched stubby pencils.

There are good things, too. The kids have begun to love the Bible stories of creation and Noah's Ark. One boy has taken it upon himself to be the prayer leader and goes on praying for everybody until she has to stop him.

On average twice a day Elizabeth finds notes on her desk. "You my best teacher. i love you miss hodges." The kids all want a hug in the morning and when they leave. She's tutoring two children after school every day. She wants to take them on a field trip to the mountains.

"Okay, Mom. Good things do happen. I probably have a hundred good things happen during the day but by the time I get home I'm exhausted and frustrated. If the kids don't learn self-discipline, they'll never make it. I don't know if I'm able to help them. I'm only one person. How am I going to do it?"

To me, she sounds like every good teacher everywhere at the end of the day. Except she has chosen the most poverty-stricken and violent area in the country to practice her vocation. I am so proud of her I can barely stand it. There's a lot to be said for doing the hard thing. And my daughter, Elizabeth, is doing it. It's messier and harder than she ever thought possible, but she's doing it.

Janice Wood lives in Carlsbad, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996