Harry Wong
April 2014
Vol 11 No 4

Observations of a Gradeschool Volunteer

By Lee Goldstein

It is always difficult for me to seek a new volunteering post. I use an electric wheelchair, I’m 77 years old, I was new in this agricultural valley, and my name is Goldstein. In this Christian, provincial, rural valley, I fully expected those features to raise eyebrows when I applied for volunteer positions. Indeed, when I applied at the first local school, they did not respond after my brief interview with their secretary or after my several follow-up calls.

Therefore, on my next try, I approached the tiny, 80-student rural grade school near my home with some trepidation, and a folder full of recommendations from my past volunteer posts and substitute teaching positions.

The principal, a charming woman who it turned out is also the district’s curriculum director, interviewed me, scanned my credentials, and then warmly welcomed me to the school. She then walked me through the building, which houses only four classrooms; 2nd through 5th grades.

I’ve now been volunteering with the school for a year and a half. I love the kids and they provide me with daily hugs. They walk me to the gate at the end of my day, endlessly fool around with the control lights, horn and joystick on my chair, and excitedly raise their hands and want to be chosen for tutoring when I appear at the door of their classrooms. It has been the most fulfilling volunteer experience of my life. And to think, I was afraid of the reaction of such young kids to someone in a wheelchair. Yet, there was never a moment’s hesitation on their part to allow me into their lives. It was an education for them and for me.

I even decided to be fingerprinted and go through the FBI background check to become a substitute teacher in the district, with the specific request on my application that I only wanted to work at that school, and no other.

Here are some of my volunteerism vignettes:

*  THE GREAT PENCIL SCAM – I was asked by their teacher to help several 4th graders with class assignments. They came to my small office one at a time. The first child brought his own pencil. It was less than two inches long, and had no eraser. He could hardly hold it. I always carry a box of sharpened brand new pencils, so I gave him one to use and keep. He was obviously pleased with the new pencil. He finished his project, and I asked him to tell the teacher to send in the next pupil. That new pupil arrived carrying the same tiny pencil, which I recognized from the first student. He said the first kid gave it to him, and that he had no other pencil. I gave him one of my brand new pencils also. When the third child arrived, a girl this time, she had the same miniscule pencil. I gave her a new pencil, took her microscopic pencil from her, and put it in the wastebasket when she left, thus ending the great pencil scam.

NICK’S SHOES — “Look,” said Nick. “I have my shoes on the wrong feet. I’ll leave them that way; they feel good.”

VI’S PUMP — “Do you want to see my new pump?” “Sure,” I said, wondering why the 2nd grader would be bringing her new shoes (pumps) to school. Then she began to pull up her shirt, and I suddenly realized she meant a new diabetes pump attached to her body under her clothes. I quickly turned away, flustered, before she could show me, and said, “Oh no thanks, I didn’t know what you meant.” I’m still not over my embarrassment, and Vi is probably still wondering why I refused to see the pump she was so proud of.

DALTON’S YOYO – Three easily sidetracked students needed to take their math test in a quiet place away from their classroom, where there were too many distractions. So their teacher assigned them to me in my small private room where they could take the test under quiet conditions. None of the three overactive kids even tried to finish the test. Finally I said in desperation, “Hey, if you guys work on this test I’ll give you prizes.”  The kids sat down, and two of them nicely completed the test in short order. But Dalton had the biggest distraction problem. Even after the first two students left, he was all over the place in our little room, jumping up, trying different chairs, breaking his pencil, circling numbers on a calendar hanging from the wall, and not looking at the test at all. He obviously had some severe attention difficulties. However, finally, when reminded of the prize several times, he got a grip on himself and accurately finished the test. I later brought a novelty pen to each of the three, but also quietly gave a small yoyo to Dalton due to his surprisingly good finish. Later, on the playground, the other two students stopped me to remind me they had not received yoyos. Dalton had ratted on me. Now I have to locate more yoyos.

MIKE’S RULES – The school principal told me there was no one in the school with whom Mike could play chess. I was glad to oblige. I love chess. I went easy on the seemingly quiet, introverted 4th grader. I allowed him to place my king in check, but I knew I could easily take his man with my queen. When I accomplished the move, Mike said, “When you’re in check, you can’t move your queen.” I replied that it was a standard chess move, and that he was playing with his own rules. But Mike insisted he “won” the game, and proclaimed that “no adult could beat him at chess”. The next day, from the “Rules of Chess”, I printed out the proper page on my home computer to show Mike he was wrong. I brought it to school, but couldn’t bring myself to give it to him. Instead, I simply handed the sheet to the office for their future chess players. Mike remained with the prideful knowledge that no adult could beat him at chess.

THE GRANDPA CONUNDRUM – Each morning as I bathe to get ready to go to my volunteering at school, I slap on some Aqua Velva aftershave. One morning at school, I was helping a surprisingly happy, verbal boy with his math.  When we were through with his work, he jumped up and said, “Hey, you smell just like my grandpa!”  Was it a compliment or insult? The next day I didn’t know whether to slap on less or more Aqua Velva, or none at all.

HEAD BOBBING – We all understand how important it is for every child to learn their times tables. So when I test them on any number, let us say the “twos” times table, I occasionally observed head bobbing. As an example, when I showed the flash card 2×7, it often caused a delay while the head bobbed seven times for 2,4,6,8,10,12,14. Then, of course, I understood both the slight delay and the seven bobs showed that the student was quietly counting up by twos in his head. I explained that was not “learning” the twos, and I would have to re-test on the next day. Now I watch for bobbing.

RILEY’S WILD RIDE – For work well done, I often offer the student a prize. Sometimes it’s a seashell, sometimes a novelty pen, sometimes a small plastic animal. Riley has, among other problems, a severe attention span deficit. My efforts to teach him any times table came to frustration for both of us. Finally, he offered to learn the “twos” times table if I would do one thing for him. “What’s that?” I asked. “Let me run around the school in your electric wheelchair,” he responded. I asked the principal’s permission to do that, and received it. Within an hour, Riley had learned all the “twos” perfectly. The principal brought her comfortable desk chair to the gym, and I transferred to it. Riley jumped into my wheelchair, set the speed control on “high”, and for half an hour roared around the tables in the gym, which had been converted for the lunch hour. It was perhaps the strangest symbiosis in the history of education, but for both the volunteer and the student, it had worked.

Since the beginning of my involvement with the kids in this wonderful school, I substitute teach in the school occasionally, but prefer the volunteer work, where there is no pressure on either the students or me. The experience has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of rural gradeschoolers. We’re simply friends. Eighty new friends who give you hugs and honk the horn on your wheelchair. How can you improve on that?


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