Robert Haydon Jones
and Matthew Levine

Matthew Levine
“Abandoned Power Plant”
Inspiration piece

By Robert Haydon Jones

Jimmy O’Hara started reading to sixth graders in a rundown school in a rundown city, nine miles up I-95 from his home because there was a call for volunteers at his Unitarian church and reading to kids seemed a pretty safe way to be a good guy.

He read once a week for 30 minutes. He loved doing it. He was a very good reader. He had an AFTRA card. He had done quite a few Voice Overs back in the day.

Jimmy was also good at being a White Old Guy character. He was still an active high school baseball umpire – and he let it be known he was a former Marine. So in addition to being the Reader, Jimmy became a persona for his class.

They called him Mr. Jim. When he entered the classroom, the kids said, “Hi, Mr. Jim!” Over the years, he developed a routine. Reading was still Job #1. But early on, Jimmy started to do shorter pieces that gave him more time for other business.

He had unused game balls from his umpiring and he gave out these “Pearls” to two or three of the children at the start of each session. Most of the kids did not play baseball, but they all loved their Pearls, even the girls.

He gave a regular five to ten minute talk about being aware, about staying awake. He told them he knew it was very, very hard to stay awake and not numb. But he said he felt it was worth it.

For instance, one day the snack the class had was a banana and Jimmy talked about where the banana had come from and all the people involved in getting it to them from the tree in the jungle.

When his 30 minutes were done, he had two kids walk him out to his car. He used this time to find out more about them. Big family or small? Did they live close or far from the school? What was their top interest or hobby? Next time, he would try to bring a book to them about it.

He would also take a photo of his escorts with his i-phone. At the end of the year, he would leave a box with the teacher with a framed photo of each child.

So, even though he was just a Reader, Jimmy managed to establish a relationship with the class. He knew all of them a little bit. He had given each child a Pearl, a book on something they cared about, and a framed photo to take home.

Jimmy liked each child in the class. His goal was to make sure they knew it. Most of them did know. Most of them liked Jimmy back. It slowly dawned on him that he secretly luxuriated in their affection. He had a massive hole in him that the class tended.

The good thing was that it was a two-way deal. He really did like these kids.

He especially liked the girls. Most of them were eleven. They were surprisingly feminine and already wary, especially the Latinas. All of them were just a little sad. Even when they were smiling, there was that sad bounce.

The boys were bigger and much younger. Much more approachable. Still children, even though some of them were being recruited by gangs. Still children, although many of them were acting as the man of their house. Most of the boys appeared surprised that Jimmy was interested in learning more about their lives.

So it was a solid two-way. Even though no one knew how good it was for Jimmy. As the years rolled by, occasionally a teenager would hail him and Jimmy would wave back. Or ask how they were doing.

He learned as he went. He tried to persuade a boy not to join a gang and he was successful. Then the Police Chief asked to see him and he learned the gang had put out a contract on his life. Jimmy promptly told the boy if he wanted to join the gang it was okay with him. The boy joined the gang and the contract was withdrawn.

So, Jimmy coasted through year after year and teacher after teacher with the sixth-grade class at his school. Occasionally, people would learn what he was doing and praise him for his service. Jim accepted the praise although his secret was that this so called, service was of deep benefit to him.

Then at the end of the school year, the Head of Volunteer Services for the city called Jimmy and asked him to please consider reading in a different school that had just been re-opened in another part of town. She said this school was in a very distressed neighborhood and she hoped Jimmy could be a calming influence.

Jimmy’s teacher was taking the next year off to have a baby, so he agreed to go to the other school. It turned out it was a very stupid decision.

Jimmy had taken the management at his school for granted. When he read or talked to his classes they listened. In September, when he began reading to his new class in the newly re-opened school, the kids were talking to each other as he was reading.

He looked at the teacher and she admonished the class to be quiet and pay attention. There was a brief silence but as he resumed his reading, the kids started talking. There was a constant under current. It was very unnerving.

To make matters worse, every five minutes or so, a speaker mounted over the teacher’s desk would blare with an instruction from the Front Office. The school was K through 8 and every instruction to every class played in every room. It was exceedingly difficult to maintain concentration.

Jimmy did all the things that had worked for him in the past. He gave out baseballs. He had one-on-one sessions with the two kids who walked him out. He brought the kids books on subjects they said they liked. He took their photos. Nothing worked.

When he entered the class at the appointed time, it took five or ten minutes to get the students back to their seats. Then they talked under Jimmy. Every few minutes, the speaker blared away. It was hard.

Then, in March, his teacher suddenly left. Jimmy learned she had found a better paying position in a school closer to her home. Numerous substitute teachers appeared over the next months.

Finally it got to be June. Jimmy decided to pass out the framed photos early. The kids were excited and focused on their photos. Jimmy talked to them about making a difference. He told them that the area around the rear entrance to the school that he used was strewn with litter.

His session had only fifteen minutes to run. Jimmy asked for five boys and five girls to volunteer to clean up around the rear entrance. Then he went with his volunteers as they did the cleanup.

To his surprise, they were energized. The school guard trundled out a heavy duty Trashcan and the kids capered around it. Amazingly, in just ten minutes, the area was completely cleaned up. The huge trashcan was full. Jimmy was happy as he walked back to the class with his volunteers. Perhaps they had learned they could make a difference.

His next session was his last of the year. A new substitute teacher greeted him. The teacher then read from a memo from the Principal that the children had been observed picking up trash without gloves on their hands. A child had picked up a condom. All trash collecting was to cease immediately.

Jimmy promised the kids that if the trash collecting went well, at his next session, he would read had them the scariest story they had ever heard. So, he read them “The Velvet Band.” They were quiet all through it and screeched at the end.

Then Jimmy said goodbye to them and wished them all the best.

The class said, “Goodbye, Mr. Jim.”


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  1. Posted June 19, 2017 at 6:32 am | #

    Moving and deeply informative about the state of public education, society’s lamentable unconcern, and the challenges we face and must overcome to secure our future.

  2. Posted July 1, 2017 at 10:31 am | #

    Inspirational story,,,,Jimmy is a modern day saint, makes me feel like I don’t “give back” much beyond opening my wallet.

  3. Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:34 pm | #

    Should be required reading for school teachers and especially school boards .the rights of children to be safe happy and educated
    Beautifully constructed Bob

  4. Posted July 18, 2017 at 4:51 pm | #

    Moving story about how big the small things really are, how best efforts can be doused by short sighted authorities, how giving is a form of getting.Great painting, too.