In the past few months, while I’ve been working to set up the conditions to enable Victor to do the Reading Kingdom on a regular basis, I’ve also introduced the program to two learning centers run by School on Wheels. The other day I visited one of the centers in the neighborhood formerly named South Central. In 2003 the city of Los Angeles, in an effort to dissociate the infamous neighborhood from its image as the emblem of urban blight and gang warfare, renamed it to South Los Angeles. But most people still call it South Central, and while crime is down and the area has seen moderate gentrification, it’s still a locus of poverty and gang violence.
Like many other neighborhoods in LA, the area is sun-bleached, drab and not easily understood from the street. But one of the pleasures of living in this city is experiencing the different worlds, sometimes wondrous and at times awful, that you can find in these anonymous buildings. To know these worlds you have to walk inside.
The learning center is a bastion of cheerfulness. Charles Evans, a School on Wheels regional coordinator has run the center since 2008. Five days a week for a couple of hours after school somewhere between five to twelve kids show up to do their homework with “Mr. Charles.” Most of the kids live in the transitional shelter across the street.
Charles runs a tight ship and the kids appear to love it. As soon as I walked in a first-grader asked me, “Are you a social worker?”
“No,” I answered, “I’m with the Reading Kingdom.”
“Oh,” he said, “I go there all the time.”
I love the fact that a web site we launched a few months ago is already a place where a kid can “go”.
“Do you like reading?” he asked.
“I love reading.”
“Will you read this book with me?” The little boy held up the first book that I ever learned to read for which I have an undying affection — Dr. Seuss’s “Ten Apples on Top.” How could I refuse?
“Yes, as soon as I’m done talking with Mr. Charles.”
Mr. Charles has his hands full. He orchestrates snacks, reading and homework time for a roomful of kids at different grade levels. I asked him what his biggest challenges are.
“A lot of these kids are behind in school, because of the transitional nature [of their lives]. They’re not up to grade level, and we get a wide range of kids in here,”he said.
On the day I visited, the kids ranged from first to seventh grades. Yet, miraculously, (or more accurately, due to Charles’ skill) the atmosphere of the room was calm, ordered and happy. There were several kids at the center who did not yet have Reading Kingdom accounts. I went around the room and they carefully spelled out their names for me, eager to try the program.
After I read “Ten Apples on Top” with my new friend, I asked Charles what was the most rewarding experience for him about his job.
He reflected for a moment and then replied, “Giving these kids a break away from the shelter life. These kids are in pretty bad living conditions. Here they have an opportunity to be on a computer and do their homework in a nice, calm environment.”
When I left the center I drove by the shelter across the street, imagining the vastly different world that lay inside.