Monday, December 18, 2017


Aboard a flight from Los Angeles, California to Houston, Texas, I sat next to a young woman who appeared to be asleep for the first few laps of the trip, a woman who looked to be of Hispanic background about 25 years old. She didn’t seem anxious to talk; however, when I volunteered to pass a glass of water the stewardess thrust at occupants on our row, the young woman smiled and looked open for conversation. We quickly passed through introductions. I discovered her name was Robinette Ramirez, and her parents were natives of El Salvador now living in the San Fernando Valley. Robin teaches kindergarten in a charter school in this district, and most of her students are underperforming children from women’s homeless shelters. They are among 100,000 children in the U.S. living in homeless shelters who face a formidable statistic:  two-thirds of students in the U.S. who are unable to read successfully by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. An even worse statistic: one in four children in America grow up without learning how to read, and 90 percent of high school drop-outs are on welfare.

These facts about literacy seemed to challenge Robin. She talked about helping build confidence in these underperforming “shelter students” so they could achieve, particularly at a basic level of learning to read. “A lot of these children are in survival,” she said. “They have social and emotional problems, and many of them are angry and easily bored. My job is to help them develop a positive sense of self-worth.”

Robin had begun majoring in Sports Medicine in college but switched to Education and Child Development where she quickly found that her passion involved helping children become successful in school. When she told me about her experiences as a soccer player early on, it became evident to me that she had developed her poise from having a strong family life, engaging in sports, and traveling with a team worldwide. In fact, I recognized that she had the humility of a team player and knew something about servant leadership. She spoke Spanish but said she scheduled Castilian Spanish so that she could learn to speak the language correctly and scheduled English for the same reason.

Robin leaned forward in her seat and faced me directly. She spoke slowly and precisely. “This year was my best year,” she said. “A little girl, 7, and two years past kindergarten level, was sent to me to teach her to read, and I wondered if I could reach her. I needn’t have worried because she came to me eager to learn. I repeated letters and words until she had the sense of a story being told, even sang songs I made up with the words, and she responded 100 percent. She came to school on time, and never complained of the reading assignments being boring like many of the other kindergarteners. She really came alive with each new letter and word she learned. She also had perfect attendance because the school was her haven. If I do nothing all year except teach that one enthusiastic child to read, I’m satisfied. This is a challenging job but I loved seeing that little girl wake up to words.”

Robin said that most of the students in her class were part of Afro-American and Hispanic families living in the homeless shelters, children who had no real privacy and whose needs were frequently ignored. Empathy is often an unknown quality of the students’ parents, and many of the children develop the idea that they will never achieve or be successful in jobs and social situations.

As Robin was en route to El Salvador to visit relatives during the holidays, we parted in Houston, but she shook my hand and strode off, a young warrior with a mission. She was determined to help homeless children build confidence by becoming literate so they could one day be among healthy achievers — and feel good about their lives.

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