Did They Know?

starchild-2001-space-odysseyOne of my all time favorite movies is 2001 A Space Odyssey. It is an enigmatic journey beginning with Neanderthal man realizing the destructive power of tools and ending with the rise of a fetus, a star child. It poses many questions about who we are as people and where we are going in the future. It is fitting that it proposes a child as our hope. Whenever I see a baby I find myself considering what magnificent gifts he/she might one day present to mankind. I wonder if some loving relatives saw the bright eyes of a Leonardo da Vinci in his innocent look when he was just a boy. Did they know that he was going to change the world?

There are many stories of omniscient mothers and grandmothers who predicted greatness in their young. Lyndon Johnson’s mother is supposed to have told everyone that he would one day be President of the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s grandmother insisted that he had been saved from death after a treacherous fall from a second story window because he was destined to do important work. Are these self fulfilling prophecies or is it really possible to indeed see something in the faces of our young that tells us that they are somehow gifted in ways that will change the world? Do we subconsciously train our little ones to follow a certain path or does it just happen with or without our help? These are questions that I have often considered but I know for certain that the smallest among us represent our greatest hope for tomorrow. For that reason we must cherish and develop each tiny person in every possible way.

Sadly there are too many children who suffer and even die from neglect, lack of resources and abuse. If we spent even a third of the time and money that we expend on entertainment to help create better lives for children everywhere many of the problems that plague the world would be eliminated. A child who grows up in a healthy and safe atmosphere of love is far more likely to fulfill his/her potential than one who does not have such opportunities.

Most of us work hard to provide our children with lives conducive to full development. As I attend events with my grandchildren I witness the caring attitudes of men and women who understand the impact that their concern will have on raising happy and confident youngsters. Such care is not limited to those with high incomes. Even without money a loving parent makes a difference in a child’s life. My own mother struggled to provide my brothers and me with the basics but above all we understood without question that she was our protector, advocate and the person who encouraged us to fulfill our destinies. There was no better cheerleader in our lives. It did not take money for her to let us know that we were important members of the world and that our opinions and contributions mattered. This made us strong and able to navigate problems because we knew that we were never alone.

It is well documented that much of the testing that our children undergo is experience driven. A child who has read or been read to is more likely to do well than one who has not been exposed to print matter. Those who travel and see many different places and hear many ideas are more likely to achieve. A child who lives an isolated existence in a stimulus deprived environment is at a grave disadvantage. Luckily there are ways to counteract such problems.

The KIPP Charter Schools place a high priority on exposing students to a variety of experiences. They take children on field trips and introduce them to cultural events and opportunities. It is not uncommon to see entire classes traveling to Washington D.C. or New York City, thus giving them insight into the world at large. These adventures make a tremendous difference in the lives of kids who might otherwise never see such things but they cost a great deal of money and all too often the funds are simply not available. I often think of how wonderful it would be if each of us decided to forgo at least one luxury and instead donate that money to an educational cause. Perhaps we should have a tip jar in which we place the coins that we might have spent on a latte or another new pair of shoes. At the end of the year we would have more than enough to have an impact on somebody’s life.

When my mother died she had a small amount of money in her bank account. It was a rather insignificant amount but my brothers and I decided to use it to fund a charitable act. A teacher friend was in the process of building a library for her English class and we were able to purchase a number of books for her project. I knew that my mother would have been ecstatic to learn that her humble offering had made such a grand difference for children who might otherwise have limited exposure to literature.

When I was teaching I learned soon enough just how many of my students had no form of reading material in their homes. There were no newspapers, magazines or books of any variety. This was not because their parents did not appreciate reading but because they had to limit their spending to essentials. They had to choose between providing basic needs and filling their homes with the volumes that so many of us take for granted.

In my own experience in the classroom I learned that my students truly enjoyed the mini-libraries that I often created for them. I found myself wishing that I might simply give away my books but I never had enough income to be so generous. I realized that my own daughters had lives filled with resources, lessons and opportunities that would rarely be available for my pupils. I saw the effects of their paucity and it was heartbreaking.

I recall taking a group to participate in an Academic Pentathlon competition. They were already nervous but when they drove through the wealthy neighborhood where the games were being held they became silent and I saw the sense of deprivation that they were feeling. Finally one of them declared that she was afraid to go into the school because she was so unlike the people who lived in that area. I gave the group a pep talk. I told them to walk in with their heads held high because we had prepared them for the tests that were to come. We had purchased beautiful team shirts for them to wear. Each of them had copies of the books and questions that might be asked. I insisted that they had nothing less than their wealthier counterparts.

As they walked in with their confidence renewed there were whispers from the other teams who were wondering from whence my students had come. “They look as though they are from a prep school someone shouted.” Smiles appeared on my kids’ faces. Their confidence went up several notches. They were winners that day and I suspect that they later parlayed that victory into their lives. Sometimes all it takes are a few gentle reminders that genius is possible in anyone for it to take hold. They were able to find the talents inside their souls and bring them to the surface.

Our future begins with the tiniest among us. It starts with healthy habits and care for expectant mothers. It continues with opportunities to enrich the minds and bodies of all of our children. There is no greater contribution that we might make to society. It is an investment in what is most important and it doesn’t take that much to become involved. Even the tiniest bit of help has the potential to change a life. Instead of relying on the government to make a difference it’s time that we all found ways to support the youngest among us. We will all win.

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