Last Thursday, at approximately 4:00 a.m. a fire erupted at the school where my wife teaches. This school, while maybe 10 miles as the crow flies from the prestigious Stanford University, is located on "the wrong side of the tracks" in a very poor neighborhood. This is a privately owned and operated, non-profit school that runs entirely on donations and sliding-scale tuition. Most of the kids attend on scholorships, which are entirely privately donated. The fire completely destroyed the building that housed the administration offices, the teacher's workroom and a couple classrooms that house Special Ed and 3rd grade. The building was a "portable" and when I say destroyed, I mean roof caved in and nothing is left standing kind of destroyed. The main electrical feed to the site melted, the transformer blew and phone lines and data infrastructure melted away too. It was bad, folks. All classes were cancelled on Thursday and Friday because the Fire Dept. wouldn't let anyone on the grounds while the cause of the fire was investigated.
Word went out on Friday that a volunteer Work Day would be held on Saturday to help clean up the site so they could re-open for classes today. As of Saturday morning there were only 9 people that responded to the call for volunteers and as my wife, daughter and I loaded up to go we were all kind of despairing over the lack of community we felt in response to this disaster. We brought a stack of shovels, brooms, gloves and cases of water and hoped for the best as we got to the site about half an hour before the designated start time. What we saw when we got there was really encouraging - there must have been a good dozen people on the ground when we came through the gates. By the time the official start time was reached, there were at least 50. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Everyone that showed up brought what they could - some brought a shovel or a rake, a few folks showed up with pressure washers or "sawzalls". Some brought a simple bucket and sponge or a single broom. A few more folks brought in food and coffee, or boxes of trash bags. It was truly amazing. By noon the fire site was cleared away and a couple truckloads of ash and debris were bagged up and hauled out. The smoked-up exteriors of the buildings in proximity were all washed down, still-standing classrooms were re-arranged to make room for the displaced students and the utilities guys had a new transformer and power feed in place and the school once again had power. Everyone left feeling pretty damn good about what we had done together.
I've spent a lot of time reflecting on that day and I've got to say it was really eye-opening and has skewed my perspective considerably. Like I said, this school is in a very poor, crime infested hell hole of a neighborhood. The parents of the student body are primarily immigrants and frankly I've held a lot of ill-will towards them because of my feelings on immigration, welfare, etc. My family volunteers nearly as much time as my wife works (she's barely part-time there) and we spend out-of-pocket money we can't necessarily afford every year to help keep things afloat while they keep churning out more babies or getting new Pit-bulls and Chihuahuas... For us it's all about making better lives for the kids, as it's not their fault their parents suck. But on this day I was smacked upside the head with the good side of what we do. These folks - many of whom make their living as housekeepers and landscaping laborers - really came through for the good of the school. They may not have much, but they came with whatever they had and they worked their asses off just like everyone else. Most of these people recognize that getting an education for their children is what matters most. And there were a LOT of people that came to work that had either graduated in the past or have kids that have already graduated. These people know that this small school made their lives or their kid's lives better and they are grateful for it. They appreciate the opportunities they've been given because they were fortunate to attend this little enclave of excellence in the midst of a city full of crap.
It will be a long time before I forget this day. There is still a lot of work to do before the school is whole again, and it's going to be an up-hill struggle. But I know I'll never again be able to lump one group together as a whole again for the rest of my life. The whole concept of "those lazy (insert ethnic group here)" doesn't hold water. When it comes to community, especially when it comes to kids' well being and education, people from all walks of life, and in every size, shape and color will come together and do good work. Good people are good people - it doesn't matter what race, religion or socio-economic group they belong to - good is good. And I was surrounded by good people on Saturday.
When I'm frustrated or angry I'm going to remember this. When I see the writings of so many who scream "No Hope", "No future", "We're all doomed" or what ever negative crap they are spewing, I'll remember this day. I don't care what colors we all were, or what languages we were speaking, we came together as Americans that day in the truest sense of the word. It is something I won't soon forget.
Thanks for reading,