Last Friday Whitney and I visited an elementary school in a South Side Chicago neighborhood that’s been the center of a national focus on violence and guns the past couple of weeks. That very day, President Obama was at a Chicago high school nearby giving a speech about his new antipoverty policy initiatives. Our mission at Oglesby Elementary was far less controversial: Whitney and I were there to talk about writing, Seeing Eye dogs, and what it’s like to be blind. Judy Spock (a writer in my Thursday afternoon memoir-writing class) has a neighbor who works for a Montessori program at Oglesby, and the two of them accompanied Whitney and me on the visit.
Judy sat at my side while I talked to the kids, and as she rhythmically flipped through Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to show off the beautiful illustrations, she noticed a boy in the class had his hand up. “Can you color?” he asked. I could, I said, but I’m not very good at staying in the lines. “Can you paint?” I had to consider this one a bit. “I could get the paint on the brush,” i said. “But whatever I painted would be kind of, well…abstract.” Next question: “What’s a stract? Hmmmmm. “I guess I meant it’d be a mess.”
The class grew quiet. I didn’t have to see to know their little minds were thinking, thinking, thinking. All of a sudden another hand shot up. “You could finger paint, couldn’t you?” a little boy asked. “We made a wreath!” And just like that, all of them started talking at once. “It’s right there! Behind you! We painted it with our fingers” I turned around to look. Don’t ask me why.
“No, over there! Not there! Behind you! On the wall!” Judy to my rescue. She turned around, looked up at the wall behind us, and described a huge piece of paper with a beautiful green circle of painted handprints: a holiday wreath. The boy was right. I could do that. “Maybe you and that dog could come next Christmas to try,” one of them said, which led to the next question. “How does the dog know where to go?”
I’m the one who tells Whitney what direction to go to get our errands done. I told the kids how we travel one block, she stops at the curb, I tell her, ”Good girl, Whitney!” Then I give her a direction. “Whitney, left!” She turns left, I tell her how smart she is, and we go to the next curb. “Atta girl, Whitney! Good girl!” I say, then give a direction. “Whitney, right!” Whitney turns right, and we’re off again. I explained how I listen very carefully for traffic when we have to cross a street. When I think it’s safe, I command “Forward!” Whitney looks both ways, and once she’s made sure it’s safe to go, she leads me across. More questions followed:
- How do you wash up?
- If you can’t see, how do you know where the doorknob is?
- If you can’t see, can you play any games?
- Did that dog write the book by itself or did you help the dog type it into the computer?
- What if you got to a hole in the sidewalk and the dog took you around and right then a big bus came by an beeped really loud and you fell in to the hole?
- How do you know where to press your fingers on the piano if you can’t see the sheet of paper?
- Why is your hair so blonde?
That last question gave me an opportunity to tell them how I tap the lane marker to keep my place when I swim laps, and how the chlorine in the pool makes my hair turn lighter . “Do I look like Beyonce?” They chorused a joyful, “Yes!”
Just as it was getting time to leave, one girl asked, “How can that dog keep you safe?” She must not have been listening when I’d explained our routine at the stoplight, or what Whitney does to prevent us from falling into holes. I repeated my story about Whitney checking both ways before we cross a street, and then Judy and her neighbor led Whitney and me out to the car. We spent the entire drive home yammering about the delightful and curious kids at Oglesby and how thoughtful their questions were.
It was only when I got home and turned on the radio that I realized that last question might have been about a different sort of safety. The radio story said that in his remarks that afternoon, President Obama had paid tribute to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had attended a high school near Oglesby. “Too many of our children are being taken away from us,” the president said. “last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.” The school where the kids want me to come back and fingerpaint is located at 7646 S Green St., right where the Englewood, Auburn and Gresham neighborhoods meet, and on the Friday we visited, the Chicago Red Eye reported:
In Englewood, a 29-year-old man was shot to death Friday in the 6900 block of South Morgan Street, officials said.
Englewood has recorded three homicides so far this year. This South Side community area logged 21 homicides last year, RedEye found.
Oglesby Montessori is a free, open enrollment, elementary school that is a part of public (non charter) Chicago Public Schools. You can help them grow by letting Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools (773-553-1500) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel (312-744-3300) know that the Auburn-Gresham/Englewood neighborhood deserves an ever-growing and expanding Public Montessori school.