Sunday, June 05, 2005

To Miss Young and her colleagues,

I wrote this last summer to the NashvillePTOTalk list. And I'm sharing it now in hopes that you will forward it to teachers and administrators that you know who are working on the lists for this coming August.

This isn’t a story about us…it’s a recounting of the struggle of two other families and my hope that by my telling it, something better can be done.

"This afternoon two of my daughters and I were in Wal-mart at Rivergate looking for a pencil sharpener. Last week their shelves had been crammed with supplies and the aisles filled with parents jostling with lists in their hands and their faces displaying the earnestness of Christmas Eve shoppers. Everything you could have wanted or needed was there. But by today…

Today, the shelves were uncharacteristically barren. I’ve never seen their shelves in such disarray and empty. Today, standing in the aisle, alone, was a Hispanic man holding a pencil intently looking from the paper he also held to the shelves before and behind him. It was obvious that he was having trouble. He approached me and he asked “What is…” and pointed out an entry on the list that said “ Elmer’s glue sticks”.

I read the line out loud for him. It didn’t register. Obviously, he wasn’t fluent in English. I’m not fluent in Spanish. How on earth do you explain glue sticks to someone…and then explain that Elmer’s is a brand? I looked around at what had become a “Mother Hubbard” school supply aisle and there wasn’t one to be found. I sent my 14-year-old daughter to the next aisle hoping she could locate them.

In the meantime, this father pointed to the next entry on his list: “Box of highlighters”. Box of highlighters? How big a box? What color? What brand? All these questions zoomed through my brain. How on earth was I going to be able to help this man without a few more specifics?

Then came “Fiskar scissors”. I asked how old his child was. “Five”, he said. Great, at least I know to get safety scissors…at least that’s what I’d send my child to school with at 5. Who knows what was really intended. He picked the lime green ones and put them in his cart.

Next on the list was “School supply cigar-style box”. Searching around again, up and down all three office supply aisles yielded not one school supply ‘cigar box’. Lots of plastic school supply boxes. Why did it have to be a ‘cigar-style’?

Next came “headphones (Dollar Tree)”. He knew Dollar Tree was down Gallatin Road a ways but he didn’t know what headphones were. Cupping my hands over both my ears I bobbed my head up and down as if to a musical beat…that he seemed to understand. But why he should have to drive 4 miles down the road to attempt to obtain headphones that may not even be there while he was already at a Wal-mart remains a mystery.

My daughter returns with a package of off-brand glue sticks. That was all she could find. A month ago you could not have counted the number of Elmer’s glue sticks in that store but today…we couldn’t discover one. I handed them to this obviously bewildered man and apologized. He seemed to understand.

And on down “Miss Young’s List” we went. Either we were unable to find the stated item or the entry wasn’t clear enough for me to figure out what exactly Miss Young had in mind so that a similar substitution could be made. Several times the father repeated “Money OK, money OK” as if to say he’d pay whatever it cost. I began to realize that if *I* was having a hard time filling this list this man might be in big trouble if left to his own devices.

Eventually, Mama and the 5-year-old daughter found us. They were carrying party hats, balloons and goodies. Neither the mother nor the daughter spoke English. Papa did manage to convey that tomorrow was the child’s 6th birthday. We smiled and said nice things trusting that they knew we were hoping she had a great day.

By now we’d gone through the whole list and despite our best efforts we did a pitiful job of obtaining all the items required. I apologized. He thanked me. We moved on. But my heart was nearly breaking for this family. I got only a small glimpse of how difficult their life might be. I was amazed at how inadequately the school system their daughter was entering had communicated to them about this task.

We came back around that area of the store again on our way out. Papa was still begging help from strangers to fill the rest of the list.

And so here I offer, for any in the system that have ears to hear, a few practical suggestions that might make next year easier for families like this and for those kind Samaritans that attempt to help.

1. Pictures would be great. It’s not hard to capture copies of these items from the Internet, paste them onto the list and write Arabic numerals next to them or make photocopies of what is needed. Even English speaking kindergarteners can help shop if they’ve got pictures to refer to. If you’ve never even seen a cigar box style schools supplies box…you might be able to read the words…but what sense does it make?

2. Lacking pictures, more specifics and perhaps some reasoning behind the selection. “Box of highlighters” might be better described as “Box of 6, fluorescent yellow, wide, Avery brand hi-liters”. If I can’t find a box of six at least I know how many and what color. If color or width doesn’t matter say so. Why Dollar Tree headphones? How long could those last? And we’re assuming 1/8” plug, right? What happens if Dollar Tree doesn’t have any more? What is a reasonable substitute?

3. And while I’m all for English as our national language…I don’t see a big downside to providing this list in Spanish, Kurdish or any other language that a goodly number of these families speak if you actually want to get the supplies you request. And you may need to provide a bit of explanation about who Elmer is and that the children aren’t actually going to smoke in class despite having ‘cigar-style’ boxes.

My apologies to Miss Young if she’s reading this. No offense was intended. I don’t know you. You’re probably a fine teacher. Your name just happened to be at the top of the list this man was working from.

We never did find the pencil sharpener we were looking for…I’ll probably have to pick it up at Dollar Tree.

Same song, second verse. This happened again the following week.

This time it was a young Asian couple that needed help with their school supply list in the Wal-mart aisle. Their understanding of English wasn’t really any better than last week’s Hispanic couple. “Jumbo Crayons, box of 8” was the stumper for them…along with "1st grade writing tablet”. "

I sure hope someone is listening and making plans now to improve the lists for this coming August. It's scary enough handing over your children to strangers, without also being completely frustrated and stumped by this first big requirement from the system. These parentls obviously wanted to do everything they could to make this beginning for their child the best possible. Maybe we could do more toward communicating better and make this start easier. The upside will be actually getting the supplies needed and a better start for everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kay -- I recommend you forward this to Dr. Garcia. My younger son came home with his supply list at the end of school. The next time the lists will be handed out will be during orientation -- August 8 and 9th. Also, please copy Woody McMillin at MNPS.