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Learning Matters: Past reflections during troubled times show similarities during new crisis

Following stay-at-home orders, columnist Joylene Wagner sorted through boxes and files in her house and stumbled upon two pieces she'd written that connect her memories to challenges faced during the current coronavirus pandemic.
Following stay-at-home orders, columnist Joylene Wagner sorted through boxes and files in her house and stumbled upon two pieces she’d written that connect her memories to challenges faced during the current coronavirus pandemic.
(Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

It’s time to sort, I told myself. Now, joined with the rest of our state in trying to stay safe at home; now when there are no nonprofit board meetings pulling me into the community, no Thursday night choir rehearsals or Sunday services; no trips to Pasadena to teach musicianship to my two small classes of young singers.

Now, as the coronavirus and COVID-19 force us out of our cars, what better time is there to sift through the boxes and files — those long-saved mementos of our time on this planet — before our children have to?

It’s a project my husband and I have each worked on over the years, with small bursts of energy and success along the way, but too many boxes remain. Some, through prior efforts, have already turned into distillations of years past, concentrated reflections of activities and relationships.

I came across one such box from the period I served as president of Glendale Council PTA and was struck both by the memories it revived and how little my interests and community concerns have changed from then to now.

In a Council PTA newsletter from the winter of 2000, I wrote the following account of a holiday event hosted by the larger regional PTA in support of the L.A. County probation youth camps. It speaks to the issue of young people already struggling at the edges of our communities.

“To tell the truth, I was not especially looking forward to the First District PTA holiday luncheon. It looked… like one more meeting blocking the path to a cleaner holiday house and a more festive welcome home to our college freshman daughter. And besides, I’d… already seen the camp directors from Afflerbaugh, Glenn Rockey, and Paige... But I had to go. The council had already paid for my ticket, and it’s my job. Once again, I learned that I can never know or experience too much.

“First, there was the boy from the firefighting camp for older boys. He was 18, tall, blond, with a wide smile. A woman and girl sat by him, (but there were still a number of open seats at his table). Then I’m not sure what I saw next: the woman entering the dining room or the boy getting up from his chair. She walked in, scanning the tables, and he stopped still. Her face opened and smiled; her eyes teared. I looked to see what she saw. She saw the boy, his sheepish grin greeting hers, his eyes twinkling and grateful. I didn’t know the details at the time, but I knew this was some sort of prodigal son story…

“Later, I found out she was his aunt, and she and another aunt, his sister and grandmother were seeing him for the first time since he had gone to camp…. His mother, who had been the only visitor allowed at camp, was the woman (already) at the table.

“Then the Glenn Rockey boy arrived at our table. He was 15, though he looked younger, and from Inglewood. An impishly sweet-looking boy, he had been incarcerated for four months, released on probation, and returned to camp a month later for some violation he did not disclose to us.

“His mother had not been able to visit him because it was too far, he said. He told us he wasn’t sure when he’d be released. But later the director told us, her hand resting gently on his shoulder, ‘When he can read the second-grade book I gave him.’ [Ninety percent] of the (camp) boys have reading problems, she told us. They need tutors, mentors, readers. How many of our GUSD students could use that sort of help, I wondered.”

In the 20 years since I attended that lunch, Glendale Unified and most other districts, aided by student achievement data and teacher collaboration, have done a great deal to match instruction to individual student needs.

But I wonder how those two boys are now that they’re men, the same ages as our older two children. Did things turn out OK for them? Did they eventually graduate and get jobs, or might we find them among our unsheltered population?

What about today’s incarcerated youth, deprived by coronavirus and COVID-19 of any visitors, alone and hoping they’ll see their families again?

Another memento I found in the PTA box was a printout of comments I made to the Glendale Unified school board in November 2001. It was about the importance of teaching choral music in schools, especially evident in times of sorrow, “something we’ve all been appreciating since Sept. 11,” I said.

I closed those comments with a reminder that it was a “a year for PTA to work in support of the arts in our schools.”

Some things don’t change, even in a pandemic. Outgoing PTA Council President Monna Johnson focused her efforts this year on arts, among PTA’s other priorities. And I’m still convinced the songs we carry from our youth can be a great comfort in times of stress.

Now back to the sorting.

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