About five months ago, I returned to elementary school.
Joining a number of my colleagues at the newspaper, I volunteered to be a mentor at Robert Moton Elementary School. Since January, I have spent an hour each day of the school week reading, talking and playing with the fifth graders in Betty Smith's class.
It had been more than three decades since I spent long periods of time in a school. As a parent, I attended my share of parent-teacher conferences, school plays and assemblies and even monitored the lunch room a few times, but I had never actually sat through grade school classes, gone out to the playground with five dozen highly energized children or sat through a lunch period in cafeteria week after week.
Returning to elementary school took some adjustment.
First of all, the furniture, drinking fountains and toilets are designed for people half my size. The first time I bent over to get a drink of water, I thought I would never return to the upright position.
I also had to get reacquainted with regimentation. I forgot that standing in line, staying seated during class and keeping silent are major facets of the daily experience in elementary school.
I relearned this lesson in the cafeteria. About five minutes before the end of lunch, the cafeteria monitors require all the children to be quiet. The children silently read books, draw pictures and fiddle with pencils, rulers and other odds and ends.
Since I hadn't brought a book to read nor a game to play, I decided to talk to some of the boys sitting at my end of the table. I asked them how they liked missing school the last couple of days because of the ice storms. They told me how they had played video games all day, watched television and tortured their siblings.
Our voices apparently carried across the room because the cafeteria monitor came running over to hush us up. If we didn't behave, we would lose five minutes of recess tomorrow, she warned.
Upon hearing this threat, my table mates put on their penitent faces. I sheepishly looked down at the table, wondering if I, too, would be subjected to detention.
As soon as the cafeteria monitor turned her back, they immediately started talking.
"What a witch," one said.
"She is the worst," piped in another.
I nodded in agreement. Smiles returned to their faces. Apparently, they considered me an ally rather than a foe.
I considered this a major accomplishment because a small number of children I met this past year didn't like adults.
All the children who were assigned mentors had one thing in common: They needed a positive and nurturing relationship with an adult.
They demonstrated this lack of interaction in many ways. Some were disruptive in class, some had trouble with their school work and some seemed lost much of the time. There were some who had no trouble at school but lots of trouble at home.
The mentoring program was supposed to give them an adult "friend" who could give them the companionship they lacked and possibly fill some of the large voids in their young lives.
On its face, establishing a relationship with a child doesn't sound difficult.
I discovered that it was.
Just getting a conversation going with some of these children was often difficult.
They were fearful. Their comments were always very guarded. They answered questions in monosyllables. No matter how hard I tried, these children skillfully rebuffed every effort I made to establish some type of contact.
A number of them were struggling with their studies. Their reading skills were poor. Even though they were in the fifth grade, a number of them barely could read third-grade books. They stumbled over words and understood little of what they had just read. Reading was a chore rather than a pleasure.
Ashamed of their deficient skills, these children seem to have erected psychological walls around their egos. They know they are the "dumb" kids in the classroom, but they find it difficult to acknowledge they need help and accept help when it is offered.
Although I am no expert, these troubled kids appeared to have a great deal of innate intelligence. When they are talking with their friends, they can recount in exacting detail television programs they saw the night before. They also can discuss all the nuances of the latest video games out on the market or the best features of a new toy.
But somehow, this intelligence and enthusiasm don't get transferred to their school work.
Robert Moton's teachers and counselors all seem to know who these children are. I was amazed when I spoke to the teachers about these children how well acquainted they were with the children and their problems. I was also impressed with their dedication as they tried to reach these children.
It is often an uphill battle to win over these students because of indifference and hostility at home.
What was even more impressive was that for every troubled kid there were two dozen enthusiastic, hard-working children who were sopping up instruction. It is reassuring to see that despite all the carping about today's schools, there are plenty of children getting as much out of school as they possibly can.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.