The cafeteria at PS 11M was a scene of mayhem. More than a hundred children no taller than my shoulder were shrieking in the higher decibel range while chasing one another, backpacks bouncing, among the tables. Adults stood at ready around the room, but were doing nothing to maintain order, save keeping a running head count of their charges. I ducked and weaved my way to the center of the room, where the NY Cares crew was assembled, awaiting orders.
At some unspoken signal, twelve children broke away from the madness and fell into a line snaking up the stairs into the classrooms. We gamely followed them to a classroom perched just among the rooftops, where we would serve as tutors for those lagging behind or lacking nannies.
My buddy was a particularly energetic second-grader named Joseph, and as we sat down, the volunteer across the table rolled her eyes in his direction and mouthed “good luck” at me. That was enough to get me out of my chair and over to the makeshift library, where Joseph was now sliding book after book out of the bags with no sign of stopping. I succeeded in interesting him in a book about Husky puppies, but it took us nearly 45 minutes to get through the slim picture book with minimal copy. My fears over the state of American education increased exponentially.
The reward for less than an hour of work was, naturally, 45 minutes of play. Joseph had already succeeded in crashing several games before I was able to lure him away with a set of Memory cards. There seemed to be way too many cards there for a young kid to keep tabs on where the pairs might be, but as Joseph got to work schooling me at the game, crowing “Ye-ah!” and beating his chest all the while, I worried that my college drinking may have killed more brain cells than I had thought.
I ended up beating him soundly, much to my relief, just as the group leader clapped his hands to clean up. We marched the children back downstairs, with Joseph alternately bouncing and sliding down the handrails as I tugged at his hand uselessly. The teacher with us turned around and glared at me, and I made a face at her back as a thank you. The kids scattered as soon as we hit the cafeteria, and with a cursory nod to my fellow volunteers, I flung open the red exit door with as much energy as I could muster.
Parents and their offspring were still scattered in front of the school, but I kept my head down and powered through, thankful that Joseph’s karate instructor would soon be the sole deflector of his energy.