Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blurring the line between gift and giver

When my son was younger, he seemed perplexed that while he got the whole summer off from school, I still went to work. Wait, what? Did I do that on purpose? I wondered if he thought I just didn't want to stay at home and have fun. "What the heck is up with Tato?" (Years later I now wonder how the prospect and realization of a life with a job with barely three weeks off a year doesn't make him not want to 'grow up', or more to the point secretly scares him silly, but that is a different topic).

A week out from Christmas Day, local schools were holding their last day of classes before the year end holidays and I was in that suspended state of still going to work for several more days before my much shorter holiday began. Our office was undergoing renovation on that Friday, so I was supposed to work from home for the afternoon. In short I view working from home as no treat, so instead, I arranged to take the afternoon off as a community service time (This is the first employer I've had that offers such time off instead of making you take regular vacation, and it is one of several reasons I like this company I work for (I'm in one of those photos in the link, and I'm sure you can guess which one)).

Earlier in the week, there was a request on Grizzly Peak Cyclists email list for club members to go to Verde Elementary School in North Richmond and help out with the dozen or so out of 80 used bikes from the Pleasant Hill Police and Community Center that still needed some work, in particular fixing flat tires. The bikes would later be distributed to 80 lucky students at the school. This seemed the perfect solution to the possibility of a frustrating afternoon trying to work with all the usual tools unavailable, so after exchanging a few email with my fellow club member who posted the request, the visit was set.

Turns out that my club mate is one of the Kindergarten teachers at the school, though I wasn't aware of the link to the school when I responded. Makes sense, but I'm not so sharp a lot of the time. The deal was for me to pick up a couple of inner tubes for smaller wheels and show up at noon at the school. I picked up the tubes on my ride from work over to the school. I live in Richmond, but the school's neighborhood was one I didn't think I had ever been in. (Turns out I had been near there once as the Annie's Annuals nursery on the way to the school and my wife loves that nursery.) I had been advised by someone be careful on my ride over because the area near the school was 'a little shady'. Understanding that this phrase is dependent on perspective, while my own neighborhood isn't a textbook example of prosperous, North Richmond was clearly not doing quite as well. The only discomfort I felt though was in not being familiar with the route, and worrying about missing the turns.

On it's course down from the Richmond Hills, Wildcat Creek is channelized and often disappears from the map as it travels underneath shopping centers, crosses under freeways and other major thoroughfares. The creek has been tamed but not erased by the time it passes by Verde Elementary and a small, humped bridge serves as access to the school. Most vistas present themselves best when clear skies allow for brilliant sunshine, but the school grounds really didn't need that advantage. An expanse of green spread out to the west and disused greenhouses dotted the landscape to the north. I was a few minutes early to meet my contact at the school but the wait was enjoyable as I took in this scene, back dropped by Mt. Tam across the bay, and the blue skies above broken up by cumulus clouds.

My contact arrived and I was introduced as a 'bike expert' to the students I'd be working with. They had a million questions to ask and comments to make: "How many days do you ride?" "Why does your bike only have one gear?", "You are all sweaty!" Even though it's been 30 years since I was a student teacher planning a career in eduction, I remembered that a nine year old hasn't refined the filter between what they think and what they say, and after 53 years, I've worked it out that I'm a person that perspires just thinking about heat, so I didn't mind that observation one bit. I mentally awarded full points for accuracy on the observation, and noted that it was a statement of fact, and not of disgust.

The students that I would work with had been selected by their teachers for the task and it was impossible to miss their excitement at the prospect of getting a bike. Though our goal was to pick a few bikes with flat tires to work on, each student couldn't help having their eyes drawn toward 'their' bike, and yet we were able to cull a few from the herd and roll them outside into the sunshine to work on. It hadn't dawned on me to bring more tools than I normally needed for my commute bike so we had to make do with a pair of channel lock pliers, and choosing between a fourteen inch and six inch crescent wrench. We did have a set of plastic tire levers though so really we had all we needed. By the time that the hour was over, I realized that this really wasn't so much an experience of me giving something, rather I was the recipient. Eight and nine year old attention spans are short, we know this, so it was gratifying to engage in something that really is enjoyable for me but having a bunch of kids I didn't know hanging on my instructions, listening to my advice and really focusing on the task and finally relishing the success of a brand new accomplishment. I've been jaded quite a bit by the 'Holiday' season, and this one hour turned that around and set the stage for the best holiday I've had in years.