How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

I don’t post much anymore and this post is long and it’s not funny but I really hope you will read it. I ask you to read it. And share it because it matters not just in Portland, not just in Oregon but throughout the U.S.

My mother was a teacher before I was born. She began her career in upstate New York and then moved to Portland, Oregon. In Portland she taught at Boise (pronounced Boyce) Elementary in North Portland which in 1963-64 was a very nasty neighborhood. Race relations in the U.S. were not good at that time (not that much has changed) and the Albina neighborhood where Boise is located, was a violent, rough place.

Albina 1969

Joan, my mom, was 100 lbs of Irish power (her maiden name was Powers). She was a tough little customer and had tons of colorful stories from her time teaching at Boise. Joan taught a little girl named Maria Pia Gompetro (sp?). Maria was a spitfire and when parent-teacher conference time came, Maria had to sit in and translate for her mother, who was from Italy. My mom would say, “Maria needs to settle down and pay attention in class.” Maria would translate and her mother would nod and smile. “Maria, I don’t think you’re telling your mother what I just said.”

She had an African-American boy in one of her classes who she walked by one day and placed her hand on his back to look at his work and he winced. She took him out of the class and looked at his back. In her exact words, his back looked like “hamburger”. She called his mother to come in and his mother said, “Don’t you worry Miss Powers, I’m making sure so and so does his work.” Her method of making sure the little guy did his work was whipping his back with a wire coat hanger. My mother told her if she touched him again, she would have her arrested.

My mother had a theory, had a goal of identifying children who were smart and had the drive to do better and getting them the education that would get them out of the ghetto they lived in. She went to Boise school officials and Portland Public School officials and begged them. “I can tell you who these kids are, get them out of here and give them a chance.” Nope. No can do, that’s not fair.”

Floyd. I can’t remember Floyd’s last name. Floyd was far too old to be in the 4th grade at Boise. He was smart and funny and his home life was a violent hell hole. Floyd loved my mother and was very protective of her. He would walk up and sit on the corner of her desk when the class was acting up and lecture them all to shut up and listen to Miz Powers. He was NOT happy when he met my dad, Joan’s fiance at the time, when my Dad came to the classroom. But he skeptically gave his approval of the marriage. A couple of years later, my mom saw Floyd on the local news. He was arrested for armed robbery.

Fast forward to 2016. I am tutoring reading at the Portland Public School for homeless children, the Community Transitional School. I tutor two kids for 30 minutes each. Homer is in kindergarten and Maria is in 1st grade. I am sorry to say that Homer is a lost cause. He is a tiny, darling African American little boy who has no attention span, can sort of kind of read a few words. One of my kids couldn’t read in kindergarten but she also had a stable, engaged family and a safe, comfortable life. Homer doesn’t have that and I think society’s ills will win with Homer.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Oh my dear little Maria. Maria and I are pals. M is for Maria and for Maggie. I told Maria that my middle name is Mary, “Maria is Spanish for Mary.” Maria told me, “No, Mary is English for Maria.” This little girl is a live wire and she is smart. A couple of days ago, during our 30 minute time together, Maria said, “that word can’t be ‘babies’, baby has a Y in it.” Hurrah Maria! We spent the rest of our time thinking of nouns that end in Y but their plural is ‘ies’. Maria picked up on that, I didn’t point it out to her.

This kid has it goin’ on. She doesn’t want to be too obvious with her smarts but she brings it when it matters. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She is smart. I want to help her progress. A few weeks ago I spoke to the reading program coordinator asking how can I spend more time with Maria? And the coordinator thought that Big Brother/Big Sister would be a good idea. Nope. The school doesn’t have a connection with them. Okay, what about Trillium Family Services? A local Portland non-profit that does amazing work with children and families. Nope.

Unfortunately, CTS, as a school, does not match students with mentors through any programs. There are a number reasons for this. One is that we are not able to extend the same services to each child. It is a matter of equity. We want our families to feel we are providing a service of teaching and helping every child.


Are you shitting me?! What if mentoring at CTS caught on?! What if we, the privileged of this country no matter what color, what if we go out and try to save one starfish at a time? What if it’s not fair? There is still good to be done, children to be helped and nurtured, it’s not always fair but it can work.

Must Maria, who is only 7, be lost to the lowest common denominator simply because if she gets extra help, it’s not “fair”?

I was raised by Joan Powers O’Connor and my siblings will remember one of Mom’s favorite lines, “life isn’t fair.”

12 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

  1. Anonymous

    I think you’ve got a dissertation in you somewhere, Mags! One very specific thought I had through my dissertation journey is that when it’s all over, I cannot do nothing. Based on my research about the “imperceptible apprenticeships of the family upbringing (Bourdieu’s words, not mine), I began to think that whatever I do has to be longitudinal. I therefore arrived at BB/BS and will check them out when I’m done. It’s bleak, and interventions should come very early in children’s lives.

    I love Maria’s perspective on the name Mary. Check out this article on the skills of bilingual children. Maria’s got some of these skills down in spades already, and you’re helping to address the gaps.

    1. Sandra

      Mags I loved this memory of your mom and your mentoring. I love what your doing. It must be heart wrenching at time. May Maria have a guardian angel in you. She deserves it, and you deserve the kudos.

  2. Anonymous

    Bravo Maggie – our country promises: “with liberty and justice for all” – not equity. This country was built on (the promise of) merit. Too bad this school is pushing parity for the poor when the prosperous have worked in a prejudicial system for ages. – this is unfair. And unjust.

  3. Wow. Lots of prayer for lil Homer and Maria and all of their tiny contemporaries. Children who are not properly nourished in their first three years get gypped out of crucial brain development, sounds like a possible issue for young Homer 😢. Maria blessed you with some hope and an opportunity to identify an area of need that perhaps you can help fill. God bless you Maggie!

  4. Christine

    Don’t write off a 6-year-old as “a lost cause” because he can barely read and has a short attention span! For goodness sake, he’s homeless, of course he’s distracted and hasn’t had an academic preschool experience! Not to mention only half the kindergarteners in my kid’s top-rated school district can read; it’s perfectly normal for kids to learn to read in 1st grade. My sister struggled to learn in 2nd grade, for that matter, and is now finishing her PhD at an Ivy league university. Since you volunteer tutoring underprivileged kids I know you mean well and want to help: please never communicate to this boy that he is hopeless. Maria is already so bright, she will be recognized and is much more likely to succeed. Much better that you should mentor Homer and give him encouragement and the benefit of the doubt.

    1. C — you know I would never say anything like that to a child. My comment was more a condemnation of the system he is in. I’m happy to say that Mr. Homer has been moved to a male tutor. I think he desperately needs a reliable male presence in his life. One of my kids read before Kindergarten, one read in the first grade. My thoughts on Homer had far more to do with his plight as an African American male in Portland Oregon.

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