Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Grown Man’s Blankies

Woodland Park’s Pre-3 class had its Fall Orientation parent meeting on Monday night. It was my first time back in the school for 3 months and I’d forgotten how much in disarray we’d left the classroom last spring. All 42 families, from both the Pre-3’s and 3-5’s had pitched in to give the place a year-end scrubbing, but since our rooms weren’t going to be used for awhile, there was no real effort made to put things back into place. That will be the job of our set-up crew next week, but in the meantime, the gym had become a sort of catch-all temporary storage place, and our courtyard/playground had collected more than its share of the urban debris that comes with the territory, not to mention the unpleasant reminders of the vagrant who had taken refuge there during part of the summer.

If this had been a mid-year meeting, I would have just waited for the first parents to arrive and in true co-op fashion ask them to help me tidy up, but since the Pre-3 class is mostly populated by families new to our community, I was concerned with first impressions, so rolled up my sleeves, put on some gloves, and got to work.

The first order of business was hauling the pile of left-behind street person bedding down to the dumpster. It took three trips to get it all cleared away and as I worked I noticed our garden hose had been uncoiled from its usual spot. Beside the spigot was a blue sponge, like the kind we’d used to scrub small toys during the year-end cleaning. Our anonymous “house guest” had apparently been taking sponge baths in the courtyard.

I avoided looking into the secluded corner that will be receiving the attentions of hazardous waste removal professionals this week, new ground cover, and additional pressure washing for good measure.

Amanda and Jaimee, a pair of parents who live near the school, and who both have kids in this year’s Pre-K class, took the lead in working with the police, our landlord, and the church-run soup kitchen across the street to get our visitor moved along. They consulted with the parks department and other facility manager types who have to deal regularly with these situations. Based on their work, proper clean-up is underway, our fence is now over 7-feet high, our gate locks, and our outdoor lights come on at night with every movement.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being pissed off, especially considering what it’s cost us in terms of time and expense.

At the same time, it was melancholy work carrying a grown man’s blankies down to the dumpster. One of the sheets even had little teddy bears printed on it. As I tossed them, a part of me felt as if I were tossing away a human being.

Our school is located across the street from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and we’ve all noticed that the last year has seen a huge increase in people living in campers and vans parked along that blank space where there are no residential driveways to block or homeowners to complain. They are the same vehicles in many cases that I used to notice parked a few miles away near the B.F. Day Elementary School until the city put up signs forbidding overnight parking. This is a safe, middle-class neighborhood which is probably why these people, like the rest of us, want to live here.

I’m sure it will be only a matter of time before the city puts up more signs and another safe, middle class neighborhood will be forced to install motion-sensitive lighting and 7-foot tall fences.

After making the courtyard presentable, I attacked the helter-skelter mess in our gym.

I was sweating by the time the parents arrived, but at least things were presentable. We set up our snacks in anticipation of the break that would come an hour later. I gave our new health and safety officer a tour of the classroom, showing off our first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and emergency evacuation plans. We engaged in slightly nervous getting-to-know-you chatter while waiting for everyone to arrive. Per usual, more that a quarter of our families are alumni, and they demonstrated their experience by casually arriving just as the meeting was about the start.

When we convened, we sat facing one another in a circle. Our fantastic parent educator, Dawn, kicked things off by having us introduce ourselves and tell the group a few things that “help comfort your child when he’s upset.” Listening to each parent share about her child is, for me, one of the most life affirming exercises on earth. There were no surprises: these 2-year-olds, like the ones before them, respond to books, singing, hugs, toys, talking, and distraction. But in the mouth of each parent, speaking from her love, these banalities told heartwarming stories about unique, beloved treasures.

We then got down to nitty-gritty of running the school. We learned about our budget, the schedule, enrollment, tuition, fundraising, cleaning and maintenance, health and safety, each report delivered by the parent in charge of that part of the school’s business. In what has become an annual ritual, Rene warned us about her daughter’s peanut/tree nut allergy and taught us what to do in an emergency, including a demonstration of how to use epi-pens. I’m always impressed by this down-to-business exercise in community building on behalf of our children.

During the break we filled our vacant parent jobs, created “buddy” alliances, and learned about the challenges of our co-ed bathroom.

As we mingled cozily around our table of crackers and sparkling water, I stole glances through the window at our now darkened courtyard that had until recently been the lonely summer home of our unknown intruder. I thought about the beer cans I’d carried down to the dumpster and wondered if he even remembered the hugs, stories and songs that been the true comforts of his childhood. I’m haunted by the image of that teddy bear sheet. I hope he didn’t need it to sleep last night, wherever that is.

The Woodland Park Pre-3’s are going to have an amazing year because of the safe, middle class “neighborhood” we’ve created for them here at school. Amanda, Jaimee and the rest of us spent our summer trying to figure out how to keep it that way. I honestly believe we approached the problem with love in our hearts, but I think we all know that a higher fence with a locking gate represents a failure, just as it will be a failure when the city puts up its “No Parking” signs by the zoo.

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Eternal Lizdom said...

I am so touched by this post. I'm very intrigued by the resident your building had and what happened to him. I wonder why he specifically chose this place as a place to crash. Was he attracted to the memories of childhood and play and simpler times?

Bittersweet, Teacher Tom.

Teacher Tom said...

You're going to make me cry, Liz. I hadn't even thought of that. I was just marking it up to the fact that our courtyard made a semi-private place to bed down for the night.

PJ Mullen said...

This reminded me of an experience I had when I was helping a friend with his Eagle Scout project. We were cleaning up a local park that was just behind a firehouse. We built a few new bridges over the streams that ran through it and picked up the place. One area was abandoned, but you could tell that it had been someone's home. I was maybe 14 at the time and didn't give it much thought, but looking back it makes me realize I need to appreciate better the things I have.

Bug said...

This is a sweet post. Its neat to think that he chose that place to rest his head.

Pumpkin Delight said...

Oh, that breaks my heart. Certainly, you can never be too safe, but did you have to mention the teddy bear sheets??? (sniffles)

learningparade said...

Hi Tom,
It sounds like you have a wonderful community around you...parents who are willing to come in and scrub during the break?! Wow!! I'm so glad that I found your blog and will visit often. Very refreshing to have a male role model working with young kids, we need more in the UK!!

Jenn said...

I hope he's okay, whoever he was..and I hope you are as well.

Daddy Files said...

You're a good man. Far better than I am. Because I have very little sympathy for homeless people after living in Boston for years and having them demand (not beg mind you, but demand) change from passersby and even get grabby on a few occasions.

Maybe the collective sense of entitlement from MIT and Harvard snobs has rubbed off on our homeless.

WeaselMomma said...

That's heartbreaking. Reality often sucks.

The Devoted Dad said...

That is a sad reality, that there are so many who do without so much. We often take for granted things that we have, including computers, cars, houses- negating that there are those who are missing food, water, shelter, and meaningful relationships.

jaimeep said...

You so perfectly described the anguish I've been feeling all summer about our courtyard. Years ago, when I taught 4th grade in S. Seattle, I would feel the same way...this dissonant feeling of relief when I arrived home combined with sorrow/frustration for whatever "my kids" were experiencing that night. All summer I knew we really needed to clean the area up for our kids, but at the same time, I couldn't shake that we were taking someone's home. Then I would get angry that the city couldn't at least bring in a port-a-potty....but then I thought of the gigantic pandora's box that would open if I even suggested that. We've lived in our neighborhood for about five years now, and like you said, we've seen a surge in the homeless population. Truly, I don't mind sharing my neighborhood. I just wish there was a more equitable way of sharing.

Thank you for this post.


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