Earn and Learn part 2

I cried all the way home from the work site where the camp bus dropped us off. I curled up in a ball in the hatch. My heart ached like I had never known. I remember a light sky, my wet face, that I rocked as I cried and the physical pain in the center of my body, pain of home sickness for a place I would never return to. Even now as I write this, I’m crying. I know that little girl holding tight to her knees. I know her sincere heart, her intense desire to grow, to shine out. She has company all over the world. O God, let us reach the children while they still know they can sing. That’s the thing. Rick Weiland believed in each of us. He gave his heart and soul to Earn and Learn. Ease is not the way to happiness, nor is discouragement. Challenge, loving mentors, accountability and loving encouragement grow a child. Love is the key and respect. We had all that.
I was going to work over the summer, after camp. I must have hated the first day in the institutional feeling building next to Haven Middle School. Maybe I worked all day or only 2 hours. However it went, it wasn’t the joy of nature. It wasn’t full of laughter, feeling the afternoon breeze on my skin. I decided not to go back. I quit.
Instead of returning to the work site the next day as I’d said I would, I went to Allison’s house. My parents showed up there after a while, said it was time to go. This was not unusual, so okay, whatever. Then I noticed we weren’t going home. Where to then?? NO! Not back to that place, not back to the work site. I don’t like it. I don’t want to be there! They responded with silence. They ignored my tantrum, ignored me kicking the inside of the car, being called liars, told they couldn’t make me. They were helping me honor my commitment to see this program through for a year. Again, I was huddled up crying, this time very angry.
When we pulled into the Earn and Learn driveway Rick came out to get me. He didn’t get tough or stern. He saw me. He smiled so kindly. He joked around and made me laugh. Then he led me into the work site, now willing, though still tender and scared. There were only a few others there that day. We stuffed envelopes for what seemed like hours. How long was it? I sat across from someone named John. He was funny and sweet. We laughed all afternoon, tears running down our cheeks, the kind of laughter that makes every sad thing fade for a time.
Once school started, each Earn and Learn student took a slip of paper to school. After every class, the teacher marked the appropriate box with a 1 or 0. Categories included getting to class on time, doing class work, homework, I think something about participating in class discussions. The more 1’s in a day the longer one could work at the site that afternoon, the bigger one’s paycheck. I liked school so this was fun. Being on time became a happy game.
Once at the work site, we were divided into stations. These included, on various days, envelope stuffing, small parts assembly, collating and many other simple repetitive jobs. A short time into the school year I was allowed to work in the office which was way more fun to me than being on the work floor. I remember the office being a privilege for those who showed themselves to be reliable and wanted the change of scene.
Earn and Learn was considered a dork program by the general student body at my school. I knew I was seen as a bit defective but I didn’t care. I may have disliked it a bit, but in a way a 14 year old knows things, I knew I was in a lucky position. I remember 8th grade better than any year of school. My closest friends went to two of the other Evanston schools. I was part of a group, the core being Leslie, Chuck, John, Melissa and I. I wish I could remember the names of others. I see their faces against the plain walls, the metal framed windows, their smiles when bonuses were passed out.
Friday was payday. We were a sight. A line of 7th and 8th graders shuffling on the lobby carpet of the bank. Cash in hand we’d stroll out into the sunlight. A diner was nearby. We easily spent our money on cokes and french fries. I see us in a booth, merrily conversing, full of antics and laughter. One day I pretended I was going to spray coke from my straw onto…oh, which one was it…Leslie I think, but since she didn’t know I wasn’t going to really, she hit the straw toward John. He received a lovely blessing that afternoon. Or was it the opposite?? Either way, I was amazed that friendship could be so independent like this…money, time, a common bond.
We even worked voluntary overtime during weekends putting advertisements on door handles in little plastic bags. Street by street, house by house all day. Mary and Ray drove the bus. The work was hard, sometimes tiring,but I usually signed up. Purpose has that effect.
I took in that wonderful year with Earn and Learn the way a fish swims in water. It needs the water to live, but hasn’t a name for the air.

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