Stop forgetting: an ethnographic vignette

“Derrick, do your homework” I repeat for the 7th time. The entire room is filled with voices; kids laughing and talking over one another, teachers and other mentors chatting. I don’t know why I’m expecting this 3rd grader to focus on math problems when I’m zoning out every couple minutes myself. But I do. And I get irritated when he doesn’t. Derrick picks up his pencil, turns his paper over and pretends to skim some math problems, turns his paper over again, says random numbers under his breath pretending some more, flips the paper over again then puts it down. “If you don’t finish this sheet we won’t have time left over to play a game” I warn. He rolls his eyes and drags out a long, heavy, exaggerated sigh. He sits up a little straighter and picks up his pencil again “ok fine.”

I watch him as he actually reads an addition problem and counts by 10’s to solve it. He knows all of the answers and could do this worksheet in 5 minutes if the room wasn’t so full of his friends. I watch as other children and their mentors go through various stages of trying to get their work done, just like Derrick and I did. I can’t help but burst in laughter as this younger boy, maybe in 1st grade, drops an entire box of colorful blocks in the corner and whispers “oh my God” in the most innocent voice I’ve ever heard. I get up and walk towards him and we begin picking up the blocks together.

A couple minutes later I walk back to my table with Derrick and he’s almost completely done with the math worksheet. “Ms. Marie stop making friends! I’m your student!” He shouts at me. Laughing, I sit down and remind him to hurry so we can have time to play a board game. I find a note on top of my seat and he looks up and says “Don’t read it yet, but I promise I’ll pay attention.”

Every week Derrick and I have to argue about finishing up his work and staying on task. I ask myself why they thought it was a good idea to place 20 kids in one room for mentoring time. It seems like we would all do a better job of relationship building and getting homework done if we had somewhere quieter to work and talk. But I remember that space is limited and there are more than a hundred students this service site works with. I remember how all of the rooms are occupied with kindergarten to high school students doing some type of activity until they have to be picked up at 6pm. I remember that one of the rooms is filled with old computers so that locals can have access to email and online job searches. I remember that another room has been turned into a kitchen so they can serve meals during the day. I remember a room upstairs has been transformed into a “shop” where people in the neighborhood can go to get free professional clothes, winter coats, baby clothes. I remember how this nonprofit relies on donations and volunteers to be able to do all of this. I remember that forgetting about an entire community less than three miles away from the prestigious inner harbor, is a form of violence.