As summer races towards fall and I see kids buying new backpacks, notebooks and crayons for another school year, I can’t help but think of a group of third graders who came to tour the Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter just before summer began.
They had been learning about human rights — how everyone deserves access to the basic necessities of life (food, water, shelter), and how all people have the right to pursue health, happiness and wellness. I had gone to their classroom at Swansea Elementary School in May as a guest speaker. Some of them were surprised to learn that even here in America, people struggle to meet their own basic needs. Even kids, just like them.
The same the third graders chose the Mission as their next field trip. On a rainy day in June, the kids piled out of a school bus and raced into the building full of spunk. As they funneled up the front stairwell, they began pushing one another, anxious to get to the top and see the sleeping hall.
“I’ve never seen anyone so excited to get up here,” I jokingly mentioned to one of the chaperons. “But then again, they’re not here to stay.”
As we entered the room where 100 bunk beds are lined in rows, I heard a boy exclaim, “Wow, this is so cool!”
He scanned the room, his eyes glowing and imagination firing. I could just picture his fantasy: one giant sleepover with his friends, leaping from bed to bed, sliding on the slippery tile floors and playing hide-and-go-seek.
The sleeping hall is “cool” in a sense. It allows 200 men to get off the streets and have a warm place to sleep. But the boy’s teacher saw he was missing the point.
“This just seems cool to us because we’re just seeing it for the first time,” she said. “It wouldn’t be so fun if you had to sleep here every night and had nowhere else to go.“
The boy didn’t seem to hear her, but she was right. The daily grind that each of our homeless guests endures is far from fun. Perhaps the kids missed that. Maybe they left the Mission thinking of it more like summer camp. Perhaps their minds weren’t ready to know the harsh realities of homeless life.
No matter how they perceived the Mission though, it was awesome that they came. It was inspiring to see them explore a reality outside their own. It was adorable to see their hands dart up to ask questions and their eager minds thirst for answers. Some of their questions were simple, others not. The magic was in the asking.
It was our hope that as the kids toured the Mission, walking the same steps our guests do daily, that their minds would activate. Now our hope is that their curiosity was tickled enough to keep them asking questions, and that their hearts will stay warm and tender enough to keep caring. Warm hearts are contagious you know. The third grader’s empathetic souls taught me that. If only all of us could maintain that child-like warmth and never grow cold, never get jaded.
I heard a quote once about how we spend the first part of our lives learning and constructing our perception of ourselves and our world, then we spend the second part unlearning and deconstructing the misconceptions we’ve piled on throughout the years. The third graders reminded me of this.
So as they enter another school year to learn more, I hope to unlearn a little more. I certainly could use a little more child-like empathy, faith, imagination and awe. I think we all could.