I wonder. If I could see, would I have been afraid to visit the Chicago public schools Hanni and I went to these past couple weeks? Volunteers drove us to each school we visited, and we were so busy discussing the kids I was about to meet that no one mentioned what the neighborhoods looked like outside the car window. It wasn’t until all three visits were over that I did my research. Turns out we were in neighborhoods I hear about in gut-wrenching stories on Chicago nightly news. Little Village. North Lawndale. East Garfield Park.
At one school, I was told the kids never get to go out for recess. “Gangs,” the teacher told me. “Too dangerous for them to be outside.
Safe inside the schools, the kids were like any others their age. They wanted to know how old Hanni was. They told me stories about older relatives who were losing their sight. One girl raised her hand and said, “I think you’ll like this poem.” It was one of her favorites from the third-grade reading textbook. “I’m going to read it out loud to you.” She did. And she was right. I loved the poem. After I explained how Hanni looks both ways for traffic before she leads me across downtown streets, a third-grader had a question. “Is your dog brave?” he wondered. His question reminded me. We were in a rough neighborhood. This little boy probably knew firsthand how hard it can be to be brave sometimes.
Two of these schools Hanni and I visited participate in a literacy program called Sit Stay Read! (SSR). In order for a school to participate in Sit Stay Read!, 95 percent or more of the students enrolled must qualify for the National School Breakfast program. The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Center for Literacy helped Sit Stay Read! design the program to coordinate with school curriculum — it’s meant to improve children’s reading fluency, encourage them to become successful readers, inspire them to explore the world through books, and help them learn to respect people and animals.
The school we visited in Little Village wasn’t part of the Sit Stay Read! program. There’s a waiting list for schools who’d like to participate. The Little Village school would certainly qualify: Every single kid at that school participates in the National School Breakfast program, which means every single kid at that school is from a very poor family.
My friend Pam teaches science at that school, so I offered to come with Hanni and talk to the kids about the senses. They must have really been listening! Days after my visit a package came in the mail. Each student had carefully glued yarn onto construction paper to create words I could read using my sense of touch. “Thank you, Hanni and Beth” and “It was nice having you.” Feeling the letters reminds me that there’s more to those neighborhoods than gangs and crime. Kids live there, too. Thoughtful kids. Resourceful kids. Sweet kids.