Homeless in Seattle: Part 2

Homeless in Seattle: Part 2

The following events occurred 12/13/11 in my Trailblazer Classroom, which contained eighteen 3-5 year olds.  Some names have not been included and some images have been altered per parent request.)
This morning was an important and special morning for the Trailblazers. We were having Isaiah John, a homeless newspaper vendor, come to visit our classroom before our first performance of “The Teddy Bear.” We wanted to raise money for the homeless people in Seattle and learn more about what it meant to be homeless after reading this great storybook a number of weeks ago. We raised approximately $325 in donations from the performance. Adults were not the only ones who generously shared their money for our cause; we had children, as young as three years old,  from other classrooms bring baggies of coins to our class after watching the play and having “Question and Answer” time. Many piggy banks were opened by child-request!
As a teacher, I have learned the importance of making experiences as concrete as possible for young children. If you are learning about building bridges, it is best practice to have blocks and other building materials to experiment with as you invent your own structures for vehicles to cross over and under. So it follows that when learning about homeless individuals, it is best practice to have a person who is currently living on the streets talk to you directly. I began my search for a representative of the community who would be willing and able to talk to a group of children, but who would also be a person that would be safe for us to have in our classroom. After all, we screen volunteers and clear other visitors who approach us to spend time with our kids and in our schools. So how could I find the right person?
In a moment of serendipity, I purchased an issue of Real Change. Real Change is a local newspaper that reports on community issues that is sold by vendors who happen to be homeless. As I was reading it, I came across the “Vendor of the Week.” Isaiah John was the featured vendor, and his unique personality came to life in that article in the newspaper he himself sells to make a living. Isaiah recognized that he needed a novel approach to get people interested in his papers, and since he had always loved singing, he decided that was his ticket to interacting with passersby. He inserted the name of the paper into his catalogue of over 100 well-loved songs, creating fun tunes such as “Rudolph the Real Change Reindeer,” to get people to buy a newspaper from him. Isaiah clearly worked hard, and sold more than 600 papers a month. I knew this was the type of person who might be a good fit for my Trailblazers.
After work one day, I went to Isaiah's street corner with a copy of “The Teddy Bear”, along with a copy of his article from Real Change and a copy of an invitation to be our special guest at the premiere performance of our play. Isaiah was very interested in our project, although he was a little surprised at learning the ages of my friends. But he quickly discovered that body size has no correlation to the size of one's heart.
The night before the big day, Isaiah surprised me by calling to confirm the date, time, and location of the event, and to express his excitement about meeting the children. He also wanted to make sure it was OK if he brought the children candy canes as a little treat. Isaiah was already breaking down my own preconceived ideas about homeless people by finding a phone to confirm his commitment to us, in addition to thinking about other people, and spending his money on them, instead of his own plight. I had a great feeling about the next day.
Isaiah was due to arrive at 9:30 in the morning, but was very late. This helped us understand an issue that relates to many homeless people - the lack of reliable transportation. We talked about how it was likely that Isaiah did not have a car, so he was probably trying to find a bus or was walking a long way to get to our school. Isaiah eventually was able to call to say he was lost and in a taxi cab trying to find his way to our school.
Isaiah arrived around 10:30 in the morning while we were outside, running off a little steam before our show started. To the delight and surprise of the children, he was decked out in a fantastic elf costume! After greeting the children warmly, he asked me if I could show him where to put his belongings, which consisted of a backpack and a plastic garbage bag of other possessions. While I took him to the classroom, co-teacher Jessica answered the numerous questions from the children related to why he brought all of his things with him and why he wanted a safe place for them.
I was humbled and in awe of the lengths Isaiah went to in order to get to our school. I was also shocked that he would spend money on taxi fare, candy canes, and a holiday costume to attend our event. We wanted to share with him because he was homeless, and he kept sharing to be with us! Fortunately, he allowed Jessica and I to reimburse him for his taxi and provide him with a “Speaker's Fee” since he took time off from selling his papers to be an important part of our morning.
When Isaiah returned outside, he sang “Jingle Bells” to the children. Three year old Julien stood close by, and when Isaiah finished singing Julien said, “You know, I know Jingle Bells, too!” Isaiah asked Julien if he wanted to sing it with him and Julien replied “YES!” They sang together and other children and teachers joined in as well. Isaiah then passed out candy canes to the children as they thanked him.
The Trailblazers fell in love with Isaiah after only a couple of minutes!
Time was flying so we quickly returned to the classroom for a quick meeting with Isaiah in the role of the teacher. He told the kids a funny story about how he used to be an elf at the North Pole, but really wanted to be a singer so he came to Seattle. Now he sings and sells his newspapers.
We had time for a quick dose of reality as Isaiah told us he was very fortunate because he had a sleeping bag and a blanket to keep him warm. He told us that many people are not that lucky. He also told us he ate at the soup kitchens many times a week but not every day. He helped us expand upon our current knowledge about soup kitchens by telling us that everyone stood in line and waited patiently to get their warm food.
Isaiah also told the Trailblazers that one of the best things they could do to help people who are homeless is to smile and say "Hi."  He said lots of people are afraid of them, but homeless people like to be friendly too. The Trailblazers told him how Julia helped us realize that “Adults can be lonely too.” He definitely agreed.
I think Isaiah's positive self esteem was good for the children to see. He told them, “Sometimes life is hard but you try hard and follow your dreams.” He didn't feel sorry for himself or make himself seem incapable of having a positive, happy life. In fact, he seemed to expect it and radiated joy. I also liked that he was personable and had fun with the children; they loved him and thought he was very funny. I hope they will remember their friend who sleeps outside in a sleeping bag and eats at soup kitchens as they get older.
Finally it was time for the play to begin! Many parents and family members had arrived as well as children from another classroom. We introduced our special guest and then the show started. Each child had important parts to play during the two times we acted out the story. These young actors enjoyed playing multiple parts and working behind the scenes. I was once again impressed by the Trailblazers openness to new experiences, hard work, ability to step into the spotlight, and be gracious hosts. I was so proud of each of them as individuals and as a team of friends.
The Boy and the Teddy Bear (Sara J.) are at home in bed.

 

The Dad (Manav), the Boy (Chen), the Teddy Bear (Dorje), and the Mom (Elizabeth) enjoy dinner at the diner.

 

The waitresses unknowingly sweep the Teddy Bear into the garbage  can!
The Man (Sara C.) finds the Teddy Bear (Dorje) in the garbage can.

 

The Man and the Teddy Bear find a dumpster to sleep in on their first night together.
The Man, all alone at the park, with just a newspaper to read.
The boy returns the Teddy Bear to the Man once he realizes how much the Man loves the Teddy Bear (Sara C., Dorje, and Chen).
After the play was over, many of the parents stayed to talk with Isaiah. Handshakes and hugs were plentiful. Julien's family gave Isaiah a ride to the Real Change newspaper office so he could pick up his newspapers, beginning his day's work.
Although I wasn't surprised, it was wonderful to see all of the parents and family members reaching out to Isaiah treating him so respectfully. I am confident these children will turn out just like their parents, and our world will be better for it!
As Isaiah left he said, “This is just the beginning, Karen. I can feel it! Can I use you and Jessica as references someday? I'd also be happy to come back any time you'd like.”
Update:
  • Isaiah had a few more visits to our classroom during this past school year. One time he brought two little candy canes for each child, one for them and one to give to another person who was not in our classroom. He wanted the children to know, “The best thing about presents is giving them.”
    Isaiah returned to visit us.  He joined Elizabeth and another friend for some quality time in the art area.
  • Isaiah spent Christmas with my favorite co-teacher Jessica and her family. They provided him with a shower, clean clothes, a sofa to sleep on, and some treats from our classroom friends. Isaiah, of course, snuck out early in the morning to purchase goodies for breakfast, which he helped to prepare for the family.
  • Isaiah came to the classroom without his elf makeup and costume on, giving us step-by-step instructions in “How to Become an Elf.” This was especially exciting and funny because a few of the kids did not realize that Isaiah was wearing fake ears and a fake nose on his first visit to see us. They just thought he had big ears and a big nose!
  • The Trailblazers talked about Isaiah often, included him in their artwork, and remembered Isaiah on their birthdays. He has had more than a few families search him out on the street so their child could give him a cupcake on their birthday. Because the best thing about presents is giving them.
With gratitude,
Karen
 

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