The ringing work phone startled me as I gazed out the back door waiting for the old dog to wander back in from his late night necessities. “Hello?” I am sure there was a note of surprise in my voice. I squinted at the green glow of 11:30PM on the clock. In my sleepiness, I had forgotten my usual, professional phone greeting, thinking the call would likely be some sort of wrong number. “Mrs. King?” The soft voice was that of a young girl. “Yes, this is Mrs. King. Can I help you?” “Hang on a minute.” I heard the phone drop to the floor and a clamor of voices and activity in the background. “Mrs. King?” The new soft voice of an older woman came to the phone. “Yes, this is Mrs. King. Can I help you?” “Oh my! It’s 11:30 at night! I can’t believe you answered the phone! I didn’t expect anyone to answer the phone at this hour.” I started to explain to the unknown caller about my old, beloved dog and his frequent nighttime necessities and how my work phone was in my kitchen near the back door and how I had happened to be right next to it when it rang, when I interrupted myself mid-thought, “Excuse me, may I ask to whom I am speaking and how I can help you?”
“Mrs. King, this is Edna White, Christina White’s grandmother. She is a new student in your class.” “Yes, Mrs. White, how can I help you tonight?” “I am so sorry to call you so very late, Mrs. King, but I am Christina’s guardian and I have never used a computer before and I need to know how to check up and make sure Christina is doing her work. You see, I am almost 70 years old and I didn’t plan on raising children at this age. But, my only child, Christina’s mother, was killed when Christina was a baby. Christina was in public school, but we don’t live in a very good neighborhood anymore. Christina came home every day crying last year. The girls at school spit on her every day. They called her names. They smeared dog poo on her locker and her coat. They tripped her, and hit her and kicked her almost every day. At the end of last year, she came home with a broken arm and I decided I had it.” The voice spoke passionately now. She paused and I could hear her working to try to compose herself. She began again slowly. “You see, Mrs. King, the problem is that I have never used a computer before but I must learn now to be able to help Christina go to ECOT. Christina is all I have left of my daughter. I just couldn’t send my baby back to that school. I know it might be wrong of me to think I can use the computer at my age, but I just didn’t know what to do. I work two jobs during the day to provide for us and my sister comes over to sit with Christina while I work, but she doesn’t know anything about computers either because she is older than me. That’s why I called so late. I didn’t know what to do. I was planning on leaving a message and begging someone to call me maybe on a Saturday. We need to figure this out because we don’t have any other options other than to let Christina be hurt and spit on every day and I just can’t do that. I was just going to leave a message to see if you might call me on Saturday to help me over the phone. I never thought anyone would answer.”
As the woman spoke, I pictured what it must have felt like to be her…or to be her granddaughter being spat on and ridiculed and physically harmed every day. I thought about the soft, shy voice that I first heard on the phone when I answered. My eyes welled with tears at the suffering of this little girl, the shy, motherless voice coming home to cry in her grandma’s arms every night and to beg her not to make her return to school the next day. The aging grandmother trying to find a way to keep her little one safe…afraid of what she does not know…afraid of what failure will mean to her…desperation in her voice.
I talked the woman through the basics of her computer and she was able to learn how Christina could find lessons and complete and submit her work. When we finished, we began to say our good-byes as I set-up our next phone call on the following Saturday to see if there were new questions. I was tired and my alarm would ring early the next day. “Thank you Mrs. King. You saved my granddaughter’s life tonight. I just know it. You see, if we couldn’t figure this out, she would have to go back there. School is important to me and I know she needs an education. When I heard about ECOT, I knew it could be the answer. You are an angel for helping us. I will pray for you, Mrs. King.”
From that day forward, I knew why I worked at ECOT. I knew I had the heart, patience, and beliefs to help children like Christina and parents like Mrs. White. I knew my work, my school, meant this little girl would be safe and unafraid. That she would never again see the spit of her classmates on her sleeve…or in her face.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this story, is not that I answered the phone at 11:30PM. It was when I first realized that there were hundreds of other ECOT teachers answering similar calls after hours. That I worked with so many like me, who worked tirelessly with the same heart, patience, and beliefs. That the educators of ECOT were “angels” like me, going the extra mile because we knew of the need. Always, always trying to re-engage the disenfranchised…making thousands of phone calls, sending innumerable emails, stuffing envelopes to mail letters, knocking on doors, driving students to test sites in all types of weather and conditions who simply needed a ride to try meet the state’s requirements for them. Planning field trips and proms and hosting clubs so our kids could feel normal and have the experiences that all schoolchildren cherish, but in a place that felt safe and warm and welcoming.
My colleagues and I even joked about “the ECOT way,” which meant never saying no, or giving up on a child on your list. Realizing that for some students, it was after twenty calls and emails or even hundreds when something might click in that student to reply and give us an opportunity to help this child believe they had now found the one person who would help them…who believed in them…who wasn’t angry at them for their childhood weaknesses or their previous failures or that they had given up, but had the patience and heart to help…even at great inconvenience to themselves.
Yes, Ohio media, you are correct. There were times this troupe of educators failed to get the child to log-in and failed to get them to take advantage of us…of our help…of our heart, patience, and beliefs that that we should never give up. Their poverty, their teen pregnancies, their doubts, their disabilities, their family deaths, their depression, their medical issues won, and we lost. Sometimes this happened. And we cried and met and said, “What else can we do to get these kids engaged? To help them? To teach them?” And we rolled up our sleeves and we tried new things and made more calls and knocked on more doors. And still sometimes we failed. But it wasn’t because we didn’t try. It was never, ever, ever, because we didn’t try or didn’t care. Not once….that’s why 12, 000 Ohio children chose to stay enrolled in a school that their newspapers said was a bad place. That their elected officials targeted because of a dislike of someone far removed from these children and their struggles and the teachers who kept calling, and emailing, and telling them they offered help. Because those children knew we, the educators of ECOT, were trying…always trying….
We get it. You want people to think we weren’t working to educate every student on our lists…to think we were taking money we didn’t earn. You are wrong. We worked hard every day….and sometimes at 11:30 PM to help a scared child and her devoted grandma. We documented our efforts. We can prove how hard we tried to help our children and families, even if we didn’t always succeed. Can you?
ECOT is currently involved in a legal action with the Ohio Department of Education. The department is moving to limit school choice by ripping funding away from ECOT and other eschools based on selective and retroactive enforcement of absurd attendance rules.
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