|Winner’s Circle Celebration at Franklin Elementary|
To read Part 1, click here.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
-Henry V (Act III, Scene I), William Shakespeare
When I signed up to volunteer and serve with The Partnership for Our Kids, something happened that I did not anticipate. A mental battle started to occur within me. I was fighting myself over getting involved in a greater way to support the kids who battle poverty.
Christianity would call this spiritual warfare, and that’s what I would call it.
Within the past year, I was asked to be on the board of directors for a local non-profit that combats poverty and advocates for justice. I heard the pitch, and it was good. A friend of mine was on the board. They do great work. They saw and heard my heart for social justice from afar, and wanted to get me involved in a greater way. I had all sorts of legitimate excuses as to why I couldn’t be on the board and be involved at that moment. I had a third child on the way. I was starting a new role at work. I told them I was interested, but perhaps at a later date. It all made sense in my mind, even though at that time I was wrestling with God pushing me toward an increased social justice involvement.
When is it ever going to be an opportune time? When over the next two decades am I going to have time? More importantly, what am I modeling with that kind of thinking and action? How am I leading with my inaction? What is the example I am setting for my family? What is the example I am setting for others?
I’m glad God is patient with me.
So, I signed up to get involved with The Partnership for Our Kids, and the mental battle started.
“You’re doing enough as is. It’s everyone else that needs to step up.”
“People will understand why you can’t do anything right now. Life is busy.”
“Is it really going to be worth your time?”
“It’s doubtful anything will come of this effort.”
“People and children in affluent parts of Omaha need help as well.”
“Are you sure your motivation is right? Is this out of white guilt and not wanting to help someone?”
“You have your own kids to worry about.”
“What are you going to have to offer these students?”
“Are you doing this just to make sense of your own broken childhood?”
What was I going to be doing? Spending two hours a month working with first and second graders at Franklin Elementary. Again, I was having this battle in my mind over TWO HOURS a month. That’s less than 1% of my time a month.
Now, I know why this was the case, but at the time I wrestled with this. It wasn’t this specific tasks I was going to be doing, it was me going to the next level that was causing this mental fight. The next level of involvement, the next level of helping students reach academic goals, the next level of combating poverty, the next level of loving my neighbor like Jesus expects.
To some, this may be over spiritualizing it, but I believe evil doesn’t want good to help others break free from evil. The darkness hates the light, and those of us that want to be a light to our community should expect resistance of some sort. The resistance may not come in the form you expect.
Whenever I’d doubt what I was about to do, I’d think back to what God had been challenging me with throughout 2011. I’d also think about the statistics that show the highest concentration of poverty, amongst African-American kids in the nation, right here in Omaha. How over 90% of the students at Franklin Elementary are at, or below, the poverty line. The reality that students in this area generally grow up in dysfunctional/broken homes. I’d think about this and remember these kids are good kids. They are kids who just need some positive reinforcement, an adult who can be a role model/mentor, someone that believes in them. I’d think about how these students needed people like me to act on their behalf. They need help to beat the odds stacked agains them.
JESUS: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
EXPERT IN THE LAW: “And, who is my neighbor?”
(The introduction to the Parable of the Good Samaritan)
The first day I went down to Franklin I was anxious. It was a number of factors that caused this, but I still think it was spiritual warfare…trying to get me to be afraid. I showed up early and sat in my car outside Franklin. I prayed a bit. I looked at the school and thought back to my time there as a student. I reminded myself that I have worked with students before, and I have three young boys at home, so working with first and second graders was not going to be hard. I had been in much more precarious spots when working abroad in China and Nigeria, I was safe here. I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and made my way into the school.
I walked into Franklin, and was immediately flooded with memories from third grade. Things I had forgotten about came rushing back to me. The layout of the school, the open classrooms, the library placement, the art room…nothing had changed. I wanted to walk around and explore, taking in the scene.
I met up with the other volunteers, and we were paired off to go to two classrooms. (Julia was my partner on this adventure.) I’m not sure if it was being reminded that I was in a familiar setting, or it was the fact that I was actually there doing it, but I started to be calm. I was relaxed.
And I had a blast.
We did introductions, and I brought in my iPad so I could show pictures of my family. A huge hit with the students. They were surprised to hear I had been a student at the school over twenty-five years ago. I mentioned that I was a pastor and Jesus was one of my role models. Some perplexed looks, but I laughed at the girl who got excited and then folded her hands and started praying. I also mentioned how I like Pixar movies like Toy Story and Cars. The kids then excitedly told me their favorite Pixar movies.
We talked about academic goals and the importance of reading, math and life skills. And you know what? The kids wanted to improve in these areas. Fun moments…lots of them. There were poignant moments as well. One teacher told us to avoid mentioning our moms because the mother of one of the students had been killed that week.
These students were full of life and joy. By all outward appearances, they were no different than any other first or second grade student you would encounter in affluent parts of Omaha. The students in both classrooms we went to embraced us and were fully engaged with what we had to say. They hung on our every word.
I’ve been back to Franklin a couple of times since that first time. The students are giving me high-fives, smiling and some are hugging me when I come in to meet with them. I work with them on their goals, and I see improvement in their reading, math and life skills. It’s wonderful to see their smiles when they see and hear me talk about how proud I am of them for reaching their goals. The students that don’t meet their goals I try to encourage. Some of them get down on themselves, but we talk. I help them with their reading and math, and they’re usually confident they’ll hit their goals by the next time I’m there.
This last time, some of them started opening up to me. They were telling me their stories. Stories about their families. Stories about school. Stories about trying to fit in. Stories about learning.
One girl told me a number of stories. She tells me about her hope with the court papers going through so she can see her dad for Christmas. She hopes for this since she only sees her dad at Christmas and during part of the summer. She tells me about the yelling at her home. She tells me about being the youngest kid in her family and being picked on. She tells me about being unsure of the number of siblings she has because she’s not sure how many sisters she has in another state. She tells me about feeling alone.
I listen. I then tell her some of my stories of when I was a kid. I tell her about how I was picked on. I tell her of my memories of growing up without a dad around at times. I tell her about how I felt alone at times. She is fixated on my eyes as I talk. I tell her it will get better. I tell her to not give up, to keep doing her best. I tell her life got better for me, and that it can for her to. A slight smile appears on her face.
She’s one of the smartest students I am working with at Franklin.
We talk some more about school, her academic goals and life. As our time ends, I tell her how proud I am about her academic progress. I tell her how I’m looking forward to seeing her next time. And, I tell her that I’ll be praying for her. I’m not sure that is appropriate for me to say as a volunteer in a public school setting, but I want her to know she isn’t alone.
There are a lot of students like her. Good kids that are smart, but also need someone there to be with them as they face life’s challenges. These students bring smiles to my faces.
The teachers at Franklin I interact with are amazing. I’m inspired and challenged by their desire to educate and empower these students. These same students that are often maligned by people in other parts of Omaha that have no connection or interaction with them. These teachers are fully aware of their environment, and the challenges with it, yet they willingly enter that breach for the benefit of these students. Are they making a difference? You better believe it.
The test scores for Franklin may not reflect well when compared with schools in more affluent areas, but the students there are learning. I attended a recent Winner’s Circle Celebration at Franklin, a quarterly celebration for students reaching their goals, and 13 out of 13 classes had 80% of their students reach their academic goals. Now, maybe these students are not at the level of their counterparts across town, but they are getting there. They are learning and growing.
They have hope.
Am I making a difference? I hope so. Not on the level of the teachers, administrators and staff at the school, but I hope I am helping out. The bigger difference that has been made has been within me. The growing understanding of what it will take to bring about change, to combat poverty, to bring about justice for those in need of it. The realization of how time and intentionality can be a spark in the darkness, and seeing how easy it is. The answering of the call to fight and defend the children who are victims.
The dire statistics thrown about, when it comes to North Omaha, should not be allowed to define North Omaha. That’s not to negate some of the reality that is there, but we (especially individuals who never come within 10 miles of the area) should not be resigned to their reality as fate. That part of the city is part of my city. It is part of my neighborhood by God’s standard. To think that it is not my problem because it is not in my part of the city is a grave injustice. It is a crime. We need to fight it.
I pray consistently for the students. I pray for the teachers and administrators at Franklin. I pray for the protection of the school and neighborhood.
I’m exploring ways to be involved more at Franklin. What’s next for me? I don’t know. I’m still growing and learning. I’m achieving the goals God has placed before me, but when I reach those I know he will establish new goals. I know reaching those goals will benefit others, but it will benefit me as well. I’m a better man because of this journey.
I never would have thought Franklin Elementary would be so dear to me almost thirty years after I attended there. The results of this action by me, others, teachers, administrators, parents and more may not be visible for awhile. It will take a generational commitment, the kind of commitment Jesus asks of us. However, these kids are gaining an edge in overcoming the forces that are against them daily. It’s not foolproof, but it increases their chances. Before, when I left Franklin as a student, I felt out of touch with life. Whenever I leave Franklin now, I leave with hope.