“Carmen, I don’t want to give these presents at school. I don’t like to have the other kids feel that I’ve singled some of them out. Can you help me see that they get them?”
“Do you want to take them to their homes?”
“I’d rather stay behind the scenes. Could you see to it that they get them? Or I could take care of the little ones, but would you see to it that Rosa gets the jacket?”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
She looked closely at him and said, “Are you sure that’s the reason?”
“Have you been out at the apartments?”
“I drive by them every day, but I’ve never been in one of them.”
“I’ve never had reason to go. I’ve never been in one of my rich kids’ homes, either.”
“Don’t you want to see how they live?”
“Yes,” Neil admitted, “I really do, but I don’t want to look like big bwana coming in to look at the native village.”
Carmen shook her head in mild dismay. “Neil,” she said, “I think you’re more ashamed of their poverty than they are.”
# # #
The next day a substitute taught while Neil attended the cooperative learning seminar. It was a pleasant surprise. After the fiasco in Oakland, Neil had expected a wasted day, but this was not so rarified or theoretical. It was a nuts and bolts approach that could be utilized immediately in the classroom. The presenters were convinced that cooperative learning was an answer to all the problems in education. They did not convince Neil that it was, but they convinced him to try it.
He went back to his apartment that night and made a list of his students, ranking them as high, medium, or low performers, then grouped them in fours with one high, one low, and two medium performers in each group. Then he rearranged them so that each group had a balance of Chicanos and Anglos, and of boys and girls. He made up a seating chart to show where his groups would be in the new room arrangement.
When he had finished it did not seem so different. He said aloud to the empty apartment, “I hope it works.”
He would find out in January.
# # #
Christmas inched closer. The children were ready for vacation and their attention wandered at any excuse. Juan Rogers went back to Mexico for the winter, and Joaquin Velasquez followed three days later. Attendance had never been great at Kiernan; by the week before Christmas, it was not uncommon for one fourth of the students to be gone on any given day. Neil preached the values of school attendance and all but tore his hair out in frustration; it did no good.
The children’s minds went on vacation a week before their bodies were allowed to follow.
Then, two days before vacation, Jesse Herrera went on a rampage.