At our Feb. 13 meeting at the senior center I was saddened that some of the students from my group were out with a virus. However, we temporarily picked up four others as one of the teachers was also out. I wondered what altered dynamic would occur as new voices were introduced.
Before we got going a surprise presentation was made to my fellow volunteer, Miriam, and me. We each received a charming handmade paper alligator about 10” long, covered with little red hearts and bearing a message on its lower jaw: ‘I’D SNAP AT THE CHANCE TO BE YOUR VALENTINE!” This very thoughtful gesture touched and delighted us both.
Although our homework assignment had been to write a letter to either a paper or a politician about changes we wanted to see in our community that would benefit future generations, I noted that almost all of the letters were addressed to “Dear Editor,” and I prefer to think that’s an accolade to the perceived power of the press. Even the students who were absent had turned in letters, and that impressed me.
Concerns covered a range of topics, an ambitious roster filled with concepts that clearly meant something to these students, as set forth in the excerpts I’ve included.
Safety occupied one student’s mind. “Everyone would like to see a change in Inglewood,” he wrote. “One of the changes we would like to see is more protection for our schools. We need to do this because many of our children today are dying from people’s bad behavior. In order to make this happen we need to put more police near our schools so the kids can be safe. But before we can do this we must attack the source, GANGS! I hope this letter will change the planet.”
Finances were an issue with another, who wanted “to see more kids included in getting a job so that they can support the family as well as the father. I know that you guys think that kids aren’t mature enough to get a job, but then you can include jobs that require little or no skill like simply cleaning up or being a messenger in a call center. I want kids to have the ability to get a job that pays them well so that if somebody in the family loses their job, they can be backed up with three more.”
Littering worried several students.
One was concerned because “trash that is left on the streets usually finds its way into a gutter or storm drain and goes to the ocean. When the trash enters the ocean animals eat it thinking it is food. The animal could die or get poisoned from the trash. Even if the animal doesn’t eat the trash, the trash still pollutes the water and makes a harsh environment for marine life. Also, if a fish ate the trash and then a fisherman caught it and sold it to a restaurant, we would be eating the trash the fish ate. If we don’t stop littering, we will be eating the trash we leave on the side of the street.”
This same writer also suggested punishment as a deterrent, such as having “to clean one whole street, from where it starts to where it ends. There should be someone who is paid to look for people that litter. I am not saying on every street, but just on the streets where there is so much trash.” She offered an alternative suggestion, should the first one prove ineffective, that cameras be installed on light posts and be checked weekly, with a $50 fine to be assessed against the litterbugs. I flashed back to a trip I took to Singapore many years ago, where the guide strenuously warned us not to drop even a chewing gum wrapper onto the street, as the consequences would be dire. And those streets were immaculate.
One student was so concerned about the trash and pollution in Culver City, writing “it’s getting way too dirty to even breathe fresh clean air,” that to make her point she appended a photo to her letter showing garbage in the street. She headed it “before” and alongside it above a blank space she typed “what will be after?” Her solution was to recruit volunteers through billboards and flyers. “I know there might not be a lot for the volunteers to do about the carbon and pollution, but they can start by the trash,” she explained.
Santa Monica Beach got its share of attention as a repository for trash, as one student stated that “Santa Monica isn’t exactly known for its wonderful and clean beaches, so I think that we should have more volunteer services for the beaches in Santa Monica. I also think that the lifeguards should also look for people who litter as well as people who are encouraging littering or disturbing the environment in general.” The writer wanted additional information disseminated in schools “so that children are more aware of the situation at hand” and also suggested commercials be made to encourage people to help by volunteering at the beach.
Another student who mainly frequents Santa Monica Beach referred to it as “one of the top 11 dirtiest beaches in L.A.” and suggested signing up for a beach cleanup program and picking up trash, believing that “another reason why this can make a change is because lots of sea animals live at Santa Monica Beach and possibly they could think that the trash is food and die.”
Traffic congestion was another biggie, as excerpts from the following two letters show.
“There is so much traffic it is hard to get places. There should be special no car days in the city. This would prevent traffic and pollution. More people should have bikes to get around the city. When I want to get to school it takes way too long because of the traffic in Los Angeles. Maybe we could also add more lanes on the freeway.”
“I am writing to you for the sake of traffic, and making the freeways bigger for more cars to pass and no angry drivers. I play competitive soccer and we go to different tournaments all over Los Angeles, and they are always getting angry, mad or annoyed. This is because the freeways are too crowded and cars never move at certain times because of the hour, because the freeways are too thin and need more exit ways. When driving on the 405 it can be frustrating sometimes. Parking is really tough because there are so many cars and especially in Beverly Hills because it is small and has tight parking.”
Another letter combined traffic, energy and economics, with the student wanting “to propose changes in Los Angeles. I think we should use less energy and have less traffic. The easy way to solve these problems is to install a subway in L.A. Morning commuters could basically all carpool together in the same train. Also, car dealers should be encouraged to sell electric cars. That would help us use less natural resources, and we would also save money by not buying as much gasoline.”
Energy issues caused another student to express some long-range thinking by bringing up “the topic of conserving energy through solar power and how L.A. may be able to do just that. My possibly outrageous plan is we put aside a teeny piece of land (specifically an area that gets a lot of direct sun) to just solar panels. I was thinking about two acres of land dedicated to this idea. By doing this, the city could really save a lot of energy and money. Solar panels are expensive, especially when they are bought in big increments, and I do understand that. The amount spent on the solar panels will probably be more than how much energy it saved the city in just one year. After 20 years of this put into use, how much energy and money would that save compared to the cost of it all? Now you may be thinking, ‘Okay, this kid might have a point. But where would the energy go?’ The energy that these solar panels generate would go to public places that everyone uses, for example, a grocery store. This may seem like a whole lot to ask for, and I know that it is, especially with all the financial problems that the US is going through. Please, just consider it. It doesn’t have to be this year that this idea is put into use – maybe five years later. Or ten. I just would like to introduce you to this concept. I think it would benefit Los Angeles and even the world. Less global warming!”
Improving the public school experience was the goal of a student who felt that, among other things, better staff and better cafeteria food were needed. He felt that “parents should pack kids their own lunch, thus giving them the nutrition that their parents want them to have. Also, public schools need more funding. If the city of Los Angeles gives schools a little more funding, that would make all the difference. I think that I would sleep better at night knowing that our city has well-educated children who are the future of tomorrow. And another thing, I do not approve of budget cuts that get rid of extracurricular activities. Instead of having to get rid of them, why not have volunteers do them? Speaking of extracurricular activities, there should be a required one hour of play in gym class each day or every other day. If the state can’t afford these things, either raise taxes by 2% or get people to volunteer! Also, I find it a disgrace that kids miss a week of school due to budget cuts. That is one week that they are just sitting on the couch and flipping channels.”
That letter, although addressed to “Dear Editor,” seemed more like an open letter to politicians as it ended with the following: “I do not mean to sound pushy in any way or cause any offense, but I am speaking the truth. I know that I am not the only one concerned about this issue. I thank you for your time. I know that you get tons of letters every day but please pay special attention to this one. We elected you to read, then based on what the public tells you, you should lead. So please read and then lead.”
And two students gave their take on homelessness.
“One thing I think needs to be changed in Los Angeles is the amount of homeless people on the streets of downtown,” wrote one student, emphasizing that “what I am proposing is not more jobs, just clearer paths to jobs. There could be offices that have directories to work places that need help. This would not be the government paying for these jobs, but third party businesses that need help and are willing to pay for an extra employee. Of course there are also homeless people that simply don’t have job experience or education. To account for that, the job directories will also have jobs that require no experience and/or little education.”
Another student poignantly wrote that the change she “would like to see in Culver City is for people to have a heart for the homeless. By having a heart I mean when a homeless person asks for change, instead of walking away and pretending like you don’t have any change to give, you reach for your wallet and take money out. The number of homeless people not being paid attention to makes me feel really sad because they are people just like us, but they have had some really hard times. I would like for the government to invest more money into homeless shelters and food banks. The reason I would like to see this particular change is because almost every day I see someone without a place to call home asking for the littlest things such as a dollar and then they get ignored as if no one even knew they were there. So please help and be aware of the homeless around you, and don’t forget that every little bit helps.”
During the discussion between some of the letters Miriam, my fellow volunteer and I mentioned differences between the schools of our youth and those of today, including disciplinary measures. I shared that if a child misbehaved in my school, a visit to the principal’s office ensued that included strapping. One of the students asked what I meant by “strapping” and when I explained, the silence was profound. I suggested that when they went home that day they should hug their parents and thank them for the care they are given, including the opportunity to attend this school.
After the letters had been read Miriam, who had been a teacher, shared some poems that had been written by her former students when they were the age of this group. Her intriguing presentation included picture poems, where images expressing the subject of the poems had been created by the words and punctuation marks.
The hour was just about up so we quickly read a sample poem called “Peace Begins With Me,” as a lead-in to our next homework assignment: Write a poem about peace – personal, global or local.
As I walked to the bus stop I couldn’t believe how much we’d packed into such a short time. I had to remind myself that the outpouring of concern had come from children. As adults we learn to emphasize our credentials and expertise, yet several letters contained a touch of self-deprecation: “I am only a student, but . . . “ I think that added power to their messages, showing that one can be very young and still quite aware, affected and involved. If these youngsters are representative of the citizens of tomorrow and retain their passion, compassion and commitment into adulthood, I believe positive changes will be inevitable.
Reaching the bench I felt a twinge of hunger and remembered that my delightful Valentine alligator had been designed to be a container – and I’d felt something in it! I retrieved it from my tote, very carefully opened it, and found (ta dah!) two mini Hershey bars, one of which I promptly devoured. So far as I’m concerned, chocolate is a legitimate food group.
That welcome taste, the thought behind it and the stimulating exchange that morning will just have to hold me until our next session on Feb. 27, when we meet at the school. And after that we’ll have our final session for this year back at the senior center on March 6.
From March 7 until the 5th Annual Intergenerational Writing Project commences in 2014 I can see myself consuming a lot of chocolate to compensate for the absence of the sweet experience provided by this interaction. But for now, with two more sessions to savor and share, I still have a mental sugar rush to anticipate. And that feels delicious.