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Opinion

Learning Matters: Two encounters provide unifying message

homeless people in glendale
“These back-to-school encounters brought a new perspective to my ride-along experience and the homeless individuals I’d met earlier.”
(File Photo)

I’ve had two very different types of street-side encounters recently, with very different groups of individuals. But they share a unifying theme.

First came the ride-along with my friend who delivers home-cooked meals to about a dozen homeless individuals living on the industrial fringes of Glendale.

It’s a mission she and a neighbor of hers undertook a couple of years ago, quietly and without fanfare. The neighbor cooks the meals twice a week, packs them in eco-friendly boxes, and my friend delivers them along a route the recipients have come to know and anticipate.

My friend asked that I not use her name, though she has a couple collaborators in her efforts, and her neighbor wished total anonymity.

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The second set of encounters came with students and parents, during the first days of the new school year in Glendale Unified, when I had the opportunity to join in the red-carpet welcome initiated by new Supt. Vivian Ekchian at all the district’s schools.

I went to Glendale High on opening day, not as one of the alumni — they were the target invitees for the morning — but as a parent of three Glendale High grads and one of the community supporters Ekchian had encouraged to join in the welcome.

I’ve loved first days of school for as long as I can remember, including my own start, when I embarrassed myself by being the only child who cried when my mother left. That wasn’t supposed to happen to me, I thought.

With a brother and three cousins who’d started kindergarten before me, and an active PTA mom, I wasn’t in a new place. I’d even met the teacher, Mrs. Hoegee, already.

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But my crying stopped quickly when she called us all to the rug and got us singing.

Maybe it’s partly because of my experience as a child and then as a mom that I’m drawn to the first-day mix of excitement and anxiety, hopes and fears.

Through my own years in PTA, and later as a school board member, I’ve seen first-day emotions expressed on all sides, by children and parents, teachers and administrators. First days are full of life.

At Glendale High, the fun was already beginning when I arrived at 7:30 a.m. to see the drum major getting the marching band into place. The cheer squad joined in soon after, pom-poms in hand, ready to cheer their classmates up the red carpet and through the school’s gates.

Whatever their own first-day jitters, these students were there for their team and school.

District and school administrators came, too, shepherded by Glendale High principal Ben Wolf, along with officers from the Glendale Police Department, teachers and other staff, many of them sporting yellow “Glendale Unified Graduate” buttons.

Early on, students trickled in, including some who’d missed the orientations and had no idea where to start.

As the first period bell approached and the band played, they came in droves, their expressions ranging from shyly downcast to broad grins as they were met with spirited greetings and high-fives.

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At John Muir Elementary on the next two mornings, I encountered parents and students as I helped at the student drop-off lanes. As with the high school students walking through the gate the previous morning, car traffic went from sparse to jammed as the morning progressed.

Again, I remembered my own experience, when our children were sometimes the last ones in line as the bell rang.

I could sympathize with the harried parents, trying to get their children out the door. But still I yearned to remind parents of the dangers that escalate in the rush of the morning commute.

Hadn’t they heard of the tragedies that have happened as children crossed busy streets, when just a moment’s misplaced attention ended a life?

I know they want their children to be safe. Schools want all children to be safe.

These back-to-school encounters brought a new perspective to my ride-along experience and the homeless individuals I’d met earlier.

Once upon a time, those men had started school, too, and some of them had known considerable success.

One, who called my friend “Mama,” had run a plumbing business. Occasionally, my friend pays him to fix a toilet.

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Three of them try to keep their areas clean and serve as unofficial watchmen for the businesses adjoining their campsites.

In exchange, the owners allow them occasional use of their restrooms as well as access to drinking water or an electrical outlet.

One man collects recycling to earn a little money.

Another, hoping for a job interview, was especially grateful when my friend offered to take his laundry home and return it on her next visit.

We learned that one person on the route, a former math professor who’d lost his job to cocaine and heroine, had moved on, location unknown.

The chattiest man I met was a proud Glendale High grad, Class of 1975, who showed me clippings of his athletic victories, including his very successful career as a horse jockey.

In one week, he told me, he once earned enough to buy his mother a house. He admits to having drunk up his money but expressed confidence his luck will change now that he’s sober.

I wonder if any of these men’s lives might have been different had more people welcomed them as this year’s students were welcomed, or if more teachers got them singing.

Maybe they’d be better able to deal with their challenges if their parents had more information on getting help to keep them healthy.

Maybe there wouldn’t be so many homeless on our streets if more people shared my friend’s philosophy: “You help each other. That’s what it amounts to.”

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