Serving the Dear Neighbor in Mississippi

by Associate Candidate Kristen Franke

I arrived at Sacred Heart Catholic School on the morning of July 12. In the midst of desolate country land lay the school, church and community center. The Mississippi sun was strong even in the morning and the humidity was very heavy. Sister Donna Gunn led my best friend, Elizabeth Knop, and I into the building and started introducing us to the staff. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming! It was a modest school with a kitchen, three classrooms, offices and bathrooms. After bringing our supplies in, we prepared for the classes.

My first class was composed of first through third graders totaling about 10 students. I introduced Elizabeth and myself and got started. I explained that they would be making artist’s trading cards out of felt. Most clearly, I remember making a statement regarding spinning the wool into roving. I tried to make the comparison of Sleeping Beauty and the spindle she pricked her finger on. So many blank stares filled the room after that analogy that I immediately threw it out. These children had no idea what this Disney movie was because it was not a part of their culture. I was now in their world and had to try and figure out how I could successfully teach them. When they began layering their roving, I realized that this was a new concept. Many of these students did not seem familiar with the concept of making art, thus leaving their education at a disadvantage. I decided to compare the process to making a peanut butter sandwich. The first layer of roving would be the bread, the second layer would be the peanut butter, and the third layer would be the bread again. The students really took this concept and hit the ground running!
One of the most difficult obstacles I faced during the school day is timing the lessons. My first lesson was fairly short and I probably needed something to supplement it. The other problem was that I never knew if I would have the kids for 60 minutes or 90 minutes. The time depended on what was going on with the school! Talk about hard planning!

Just within those three days, I realized the importance of thinking on your feet during teaching. The students were very loud in line and all over the place so I taught them the quiet statue game. This proved a great idea because they thought it was the funniest game and it kept them quiet! When I had extra time with the sixth and seventh graders, we played Hangman with the vocabulary learned from the lesson. I attribute this genius idea to Elizabeth!

After the fourth and fifth graders’ behavior the first day, I knew that I had to set some parameters even for this short summer class. At the end of the class period, on the first day, I asked them what they thought went right that day and what they could improve on. They knew that their behavior had not been good and I laid out my expectations for behavior during the following day. The next day proved to be an improvement over the first day. I refused to continue with instructions until they were quiet because it is not appropriate to try and shout over them.

During the second day, the actual felting process took place. I remember swiftly walking up and down the hall trying to get hot, soapy water because there was no sink near the classroom. Of course I was always giving the kids jobs like carrying the buckets or assisting in teaching other students. If a child got finished early, then I would give them the job of being an “assistant teacher” and helping me assist more students. I just literally could not be everywhere at once! I remember feeling like, “Oh my gosh! I am going to change my name!” Giving the children jobs was one of my favorite things to do. They would get this eager look on their face like, “If you pick me, then my life will be complete!” I loved working with them because of their excitement for art. It is true not every student loved the art room, but I fell in love with seeing their faces light up with excitement! I came in with the attitude that every student can succeed and I am hoping that idea traveled with the students out of the art room. Aside from my running up and down the hall, the outside of the building was lined with about 50 towels and 50 pieces of felt. It felt great to be taking over the place with art projects! The staff did not mind because they knew the kids loved it.

On the third day, the fourth and fifth graders came in 15 minutes apart. This was challenging because I had to give the directions for the day a second time. Not to mention some of the kids were still wearing their swimsuits! It did not upset me because it was summer school and a more laid back environment (and it was the last day). Right after this class, my first through third graders came in for their last class. After instructions were given, the students got to work right away. Suddenly, I look over and one of my boys has a big puddle of glue on his head and it is running down his face! He was absolutely paralyzed with fear and did not know what to do! I quickly wiped the glue off his face and head, trying my best not to laugh. It seemed that he was attempting to get the internal seal off of the glue when it exploded on him.

Perhaps most vividly, I remember the sites of Camden. S. Donna took us to visit residents and check up on how they were doing. This old woman lived in one of the worst trailers I have ever seen. It was a one room, dark and dingy trailer. The floor was tilted and she had fallen through her front porch a few months back. Despite all of this, she still possessed a kindness and genuine welcome toward us, inviting us into her home. This ability to share even the little bit she has was remarkable. The kindness on her face reflected the true virtue of the Sisters of St. Joseph: love the dear neighbor without distinction.

S. Donna also spoke of the racism still present in the world today. I know that it is everywhere, but I think I sometimes forget to recognize the problem at home. Unfortunately, I get so used to driving by the same schools and neighborhoods in St. Louis that it seems I don’t even notice. I think it took really getting out of my usual environment to wake me up to this issue again. One of my kids told Elizabeth that someone in her parish hates white people. It is a true fact of life that the world has a long way to go in overcoming racism.

All in all, my trip was amazing! I think most profound was the feeling that I am on the right path and doing what I love. It is funny how you just know when you are supposed to be at a place at a certain time. I know that I was supposed to teach art to these kids and for that I am thankful! I look forward to returning to Camden in the future and to further art education everywhere!

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