I stood before a vibrant wave of energy, the pulse of enthusiasm pushing toward me tempting me to find a chair and hang on tight. Next to me my daughter, Kate, spoke in a rather non-Kate voice, loud and commanding. (When I talk to her on the phone I have to always ask her to speak up.) But here, she insisted on respect because this…THIS…was Gummy, her mother, and her students were NOT going to show anything but respect! (Yeah, I thought, listen up y’all!)
The kids immediately responded, lowered themselves to the floor and crossed their legs. They are in 6th grade, and they come from a place and culture much different from Farmington Utah. Our pioneer stock came westward to the mountains. Their Latin roots sent the branches of their trees northward into Houston.
Last Monday I spent the whole day teaching Kate’s classes at the KIPP Preparatory School where she works. These kids have a pretty long school day, from 7:15 am until 5 pm. That’s hard on an adolescent kid. But let me tell you, that long school day just about did-in this old grandmother! Holy Tamale! I have no idea how Kate does it day in and day out, for 11 months a year, with Saturday school as well. (But that’s not really my point here. I’m just exhausted all over again thinking about it.)
I stood before Kate’s class to teach them a little bit about Utah history. The 6th grade class at KIPP is making their annual class trip to Utah in May. They travel by bus and sleep in tents. This year they will visit northern Utah for the first time, and we are really excited that they will be able to see the beauty of this place we call home.
“Last week during spring break Ms. Connors and her Aunt Libby and I visited San Antonio,” I began. “Have any of you been to San Antonio?”
Most of their hands shot up.
“Do you know who first settled San Antonio?”
They stared at me, puzzled.
“Have you ever heard of the Alamo?”
Again, their hands waved.
We talked about the Alamo, which began as a mission. We discussed the string of missions that the Spaniards built along the San Antonio River. We talked about the displacement of Native Americans, and the religious fervor, and making a beautiful city out of a desert place.
“Utah has a similar history, only the religious group that settled Utah’s desert place was not Catholic, they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some people call them Mormons.”
I asked them what kind of character traits it would take for someone to leave the familiarity of their homes, travel many miles over oceans and trails, sometimes in a wagon, sometimes with a handcart. What kind of person could start with nothing and make something of it, and interface with strangers, some of whom don’t even speak your own language? I expected responses like courage, and strength, and faith. What I got were these words:
I nodded my head. “Indeed!” “Absolutely!” I was stunned that they would choose these uniquely fitting words to describe the kind of character pioneers might need. We’re talking eleven year olds here.
I asked them if they knew what a pioneer was, and surprisingly they did not. So I told them. And I followed my explanation with the suggestion that they might be pioneers. They might be the first in their family to go to college. Or the first to work at a different kind of job. They may be one to break a chain of abuse or unkindness, or the first to not join certain groups that everyone else belonged to. They would need to know and seek and find those unique traits in themselves. I felt their genuine interest…and not just because I was Ms Connors’ mom. I felt them calling up something from inside themselves, even if just for a moment, and I silently prayed that they would have the courage to act on their positive inspirations.
We showed them pictures of pioneer children, and of the Salt Lake Valley then and now. We explained why the seagull is the state bird, and what a yoke would be on a pair of oxen. I sang them pioneer songs, some delightful, some serious, some funny.
The night before, Kate and her co-teacher best buddy, Cassetta, had helped me make a triple batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, pressing huge circles into large cooking sheets and baking them into small pizza sized cookies. Kate cut out pieces of cardboard and we wrapped the cookies (16 of them) and hid a handful of them in the classroom for each of the classes. I sang them this song I had written years ago, to be sung by a young pioneer boy (cue music):
It’s my job to gather buffalo chipsI’ve done it every day since we started this trip
It’s not so bad, I’m a happy kind of guy
‘Cept when the chip I’m pickin up it isn’t dry.
Out on the prairie it’s hard to find woodAnd a buffalo chip is almost as good
We make our fire with what the buffalo ate
And it makes our mama’s cookin’ smell great
It was pretty funny to watch the faces of the kids as they listened. One or two would raise their eyebrows and look around, as if to say “Is she singing about what I think she’s singing about?” None of them knew what buffalo chips were before. But now they do J
The kids searched for buffalo chips in the classroom (giant Choc Chip Cookies), and as each kid answered review questions they got to come up and get a piece of “chip”. When the bell rang I stood at the door and high fived each of them, breathed a sigh of relief, then inhaled as the next class entered. Like I said, I don’t know how Kate and Cassetta do it!
There were many sweet and meaningful things that happened that day, including a tender and intimate round table with half a dozen young girls in the counselor’s office. (She wanted me to tell them that you can be raised with less than wonderful circumstances, especially in the way you and your mother are treated by your father, and still grow up to be loved and well adjusted and marry a man who treats you with love and respect. That was not hard for me to say.)
I admire the people Kate works with, and the people she serves. Mostly though, I admire Kate.
When I went into her classroom to pick her up the next morning, so she could drive me to the airport during her planning period, I noticed the following signs on the walls of her room.
She and her fellow KIPP workers are teaching those kids how to be pioneers. Strong, courageous, faithful pioneers.
(good thing it's them taching...I need a nap!)