Inspired by the election of Barack Obama and his call for citizens to volunteer, two summers ago I gave my time at a daycare center at a civil/criminal/housing court here in New York City.
It took the directors of the program three weeks to accept me, even though I have a daycare license and had worked with children, at that point, for 25 years. In fact, they thought I was a pest, I suppose because I showed up at their offices three times, thinking I was making it easier for them.
Once accepted, the director gave me a tour of the two daycare centers he was considering for me. He decided on the smaller of the two and was excited that I was an artist, asking me to let him know what supplies I might need. I proposed that I work three mornings a week, and I started that next Monday. Children were dropped off for varying amounts of time while their parents were in court. Many of the kids were living under enormous stress. I was constantly struck, moved by and impressed by how seamlessly most of the kids entered this new environment and got right to work. A friendly and welcoming adult is often enough encouragement for children to get started.
After spending time that first week in the classroom, noticing what equipment they had, working with the kids and talking with the teachers and volunteers, by Friday I asked both the head and assistant teachers if I could suggest ways to make the classroom more effective. To their great credit, they said: “Yes! And please feel free to contact the director! Our requests have been ignored for eight months!” This was the length of time they had worked there. Over that weekend, I emailed the director and very respectfully asked if I could make suggestions to change the classroom into a more child-friendly atmosphere. He didn’t answer me in writing, but did show up at the daycare center, extremely agitated, on Monday morning. In the room were the head teacher, the assistant teacher, a “grandmother volunteer”, a young volunteer, and me. There were no children in the room at that point. After walking around the small classroom for a few moments, he turned to leave without looking at or saying anything to me. I seized the moment and quietly asked him if he had gotten my email over the weekend. He said he thought he might have, and asked: “What do you want?” Feeling I had only moments to make my point, I said: “A lot of these toys are broken or are missing parts. Some need batteries. The children keep coming up to us and asking us why they don’t work.” This seemed to make him really angry. He said: “Well! These toys have been here for a long time and belong to the center.” He turned away from me and began to leave the room. I felt I needed to say something in a hurry. I raised my voice a bit and said: “These children’s lives are broken; they don’t need broken toys!” I surprised myself. And everyone else in the room. He stormed out of the room. Moments later he knocked on the door and asked the head teacher to step out into the hall. When she came back, a bit shaken up, she told us he instructed her not to listen to me. Who did I think I was? (He came back twenty minutes later with the batteries he promised eight months earlier.) When he left again, she was excited but scared that she might lose her job. I said that I would feel horrible if that was an outcome of this. But, I added, nothing ever changes unless we speak up. She said: “Let’s throw out some toys!” We were all energized. It was a very happy day.
We filled three huge garbage bags with broken toys, old stuffed animals, and obsolete forms. Now there was room in the closets to put the broken computers that were piled up in the back of the room. We made that corner into a science area. We found amazing posters and a lot of educational material in the closets. Now there was plenty of room on the classroom shelves for all the wonderful, engaging material that had been tucked away and out of reach. The next day I brought in dozens of blank books I had made at home by folding three pieces of cardstock paper in half and sewing them along the folded edge. When kids came into the classroom they were invited to write a story or simply draw in them. The head teacher came up with the idea of bringing in her classical music CDs to play in the classroom. When she ran this idea by the director he said: “They won’t like that music.” We were all deeply offended by that remark. And, of course, played the music anyway.
The following week, I was told that the director said I was not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. It was the number of hours I was giving anyway! I kept a low profile with him, and we never spoke directly again. When the summer came to a close, I began to cut down on my hours so I could prepare for the start of my playgroup year. I’ve continued to bring in toys, books and games that I’ve asked parents I know to donate. Sometimes I hang out a little with the kids.