Sunday, May 18, 1997
Simple story with cast
of terrific kids

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I have an almost irresistible urge to make this more complicated than it is. I am just itching to talk about race and education and opportunity and the future of our nation. Are you nodding off yet?

But it is a simple story, a beautiful one, really. So I will try not to ruin it.

Sue Hughes, the mother of a sixth-grader at Ayer Elementary School in Anderson Township, volunteers once a week at Washington Park Elementary School in Over-the-Rhine. She helps third-graders having trouble with reading or, well, just having trouble.

Wouldn't it be great, she thought, if the kids from the two schools could ''connect some way.'' Ayer is suburban and bucolic and well-heeled. Washington Park is urban and concrete and poor.

Finding a match

Sue matched up every sixth-grader at Ayer with a third- or fourth-grade student at Washington Park. The kids exchanged letters, slow going at first.

Ramondo Whitehead, 8, told William Cole, 12, about his gerbil, Michael. Then the boys discovered they both like football. Big surprise. T.J. Rilling, 12, says Michael Jordan is 8-year-old Greg Kimble's favorite athlete. So he gave the younger boy a laminated picture of the Chicago Bulls star.

But I am getting ahead of the story. There were many letters and many cupcakes before they met Friday.

''I thought there would be a lot of roadblocks to an outing,'' Sue says. But teachers and parents at both schools went around every one of them. Food? They begged. JTM Co. donated enough burgers, chips and pop for 300 kids and about 40 adults. Money? Ayer kids sold cupcakes and used books to rent buses to bring their pen pals out to Ayer.

Many of the younger children had never been out of their neighborhood before. ''Are we out West?'' one boy asked as they looped around from downtown over the Interstate 275 bridge near Coney Island.

It was a growing experience all the way around. ''This day is as important as anything we do in the classroom,'' says sixth-grade science teacher Jim Enright.

But this was definitely not a classroom experience, except for the few moments after the buses arrived and kids went inside for an awkward first meeting. Uncertain smiles, downcast eyes.

Life isn't easy

But 15 minutes later, they were at the park across the road, hula hooping and three-legged racing and laughing and running and generally being kids. Not everybody, of course. Life isn't that easy.

About 25 percent of the Washington Park students are special-needs kids with behavior or learning disabilities. Perry Ratto, a special ed teacher, says the school uses an ''inclusion model,'' which just means kids get special attention in regular classes.

By the time we got to the park, I couldn't tell which kids were from which school, let alone which children were potentially more difficult.

Except for one little girl. She was painfully, and I mean, painfully shy. Her game sixth-grade partner stuck with her. When the younger girl fled to the safety of a familiar teacher, the older girl hung nearby.

''Maybe you'd like to join some of the others,'' someone suggested quietly.

''No,'' said the girl, ''Let's try again. I really think we can show her a good time.''

Eventually the little girl joined the group. And eventually she did smile. I can only begin to guess what this effort cost her. And what it cost her older pal.

What a good day this was.

After lunch, everybody gathered around a little garden, financed with some of the cupcake and book proceeds. Pink geraniums, dianthus and a burning bush. A marble stone was engraved: ''Growing Together, Ayer - Washington Park, 1997.''

There was a little ceremony. Then the goodbyes. Some hugs. Some manly back pounding. Addresses and phone numbers were exchanged. There were promises to meet again. Some promises that will be broken; some kept. But promises.

And promise.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.