This is a post about the partnership between the Cathedral of St. Paul and Emerson-Gridley elementary in the City of Erie public school district.
I remember it very well, my first-grade classroom at Asbury Elementary in Millcreek Township. I loved everything about it. I was so excited to finally be able to go to school and could hardly wait for the first day. My mother made me a special new dress; my name was embroidered on it so my teacher would know my name at a glance. Our desks were in neat rows and I sat in the front of the room. I remember this because our music teacher would roll the piano into our room right in front of my desk. I would watch her fingers fly across the keys, sparking my interest in piano lessons and asking my parents for a piano.
Now fast forward to this past February when I was heading into a first-grade classroom at Emerson-Gridley to volunteer. I had all of the clearances and training required and was excited about this opportunity. Probably not as excited as anticipating my own first-grade experience, but excited about spending time in a classroom. I have always felt the pull of becoming a classroom teacher, either in music or general education. My degrees are in organ performance, choral conducting and church music, applied music, not music education. At many points in my education and career I have considered adding teacher certification to my credentials. When the Cathedral began its partnership with Emerson-Gridley and the call for volunteers in the school came along, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try.
So my first day began by meeting the school guidance counselor who took me on a tour of all the first grade rooms ending in Mrs. Steele’s classroom. This is where I would be volunteering. Mrs. Steele welcomed me and introduced me to the class. The walls in the room were brightly decorated. There was a “Word Wall” with columns of words under each letter of the alphabet that the students were learning every week. There was a list of the children’s names on one board. I could only pronounce a few without help. The desks were grouped into three or four sections, not rows, and there was a carpet on the floor for story time. She asked the students to read at their desks and then called on a few children and me to sit with her to read aloud. We worked together to help students sound out words and read sentences. Once she saw I was comfortable working with her students she asked me to work with several children who needed some extra help with reading. We made flashcards and played relay games and all sorts of things to help them recognize the difference in their “w” and “wh” words. I was hooked. I knew my Monday mornings from then on would be spent with Mrs. Steele’s class at Emerson-Gridley.
As that first morning progressed, one student left the room and came back with a box of snack bags for the children filled with cherry tomatoes. Every day the students are given a mid-morning snack of fresh vegetables. They look forward to it. If the designated child doesn’t remember to go for it, she is reminded by her classmates. She always offers me a snack, too. She and others in the room often express concern that I might be hungry, too. The students all receive a hot breakfast before class begins, a mid-morning snack and lunch. Many stay after school for another snack and some for dinner before going home. Monday morning is difficult for them. Many do not have regular meals at home and they are very hungry when they come to school after a weekend. It is not unusual for several of them to fall asleep with their head on their desk while I am there. There are lots of red and watery eyes looking up from a book or paper as they struggle to stay awake and concentrate.
Now they and I are anticipating the end of the school year. I have been going weekly and have developed a good relationship with the class. Mrs. Steele has given me the freedom to prepare a music lesson each week. We are working on developing a steady beat, following directions, using body percussion, chanting poems using their rhyming words and recently added playing percussion instruments. They love to share their latest achievements with me, “Mrs. Downey, did you know that I….” Now I share their mid-morning snack with them. We chat and giggle about the fresh green pea pods or juicy tomatoes or squishy cucumbers. I love the big smile that comes across each face when I call them by name. I love it even more when they cheer when they see me come through their classroom door with my bag of instruments. I think about each child often. They are now in my prayers, not just as students at the school but as individuals with names, faces and feelings. Some days I leave in tears because so many were overly tired and out of sorts. But more often than not, I leave with a big smile on my face and a happy heart.
The City of Erie schools are stressed. The administrators and the teachers are stressed. And most importantly, the students are stressed. A volunteer’s job comes with little stress: just show up and spend an hour or two a week in a classroom with some amazing children. Learn their names. Talk to them. Smile at them. Read to them. Love them. And pray for them and everyone who works to care for and nurture them. You will be hooked. And you will never be the same again.
Sharon Downey, Canon Musician, The Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie, PA