First-grade lessons on life and God’s love at St. Agnes

OUTSIDE CLASS — From left, Daniela Gomez, Daniela Lopez, Douglas Manzano, Rachael Carrillo and Jaydee Velasquez get together outside their first-grade classroom. — Credit: R. W. DELLINGER

First grade — the real “Wonder Year!”

A time of transition from the unhurried, serene play days of pre-school and kindergarten to be with the big kids in elementary school. In today’s supercharged academic world, there’s not only educational and life lessons to be mastered in class, but also the daunting task of take-home assignments. Yes, real honest-to-God homework.

On a warm June 18 morning — the next-to-last day on the 2013-14 school calendar — The Tidings paid a visit to St. Agnes School at the corner of Vermont and Adams in the City of the Angels to ask some real life cherubs the basic query: What did you learn in first grade?

 “In this school I learned how to add and subtract, without using my fingers,” said Daniela Gomez. The seven-year-old was sitting at a long metal picnic table with four of her seasoned classmates — three other girls, dressed in red school sweaters over plaid jumper uniforms and matching red cross ties, and one slightly-out-of-place shy boy wearing the red sweater, white shirt, loose blue tie and blue slacks — right outside the doorway of her color-exploding classroom. “I learned the time. I learned about coins. And religion.”

Another seven-year-old, ponytailed Daniela Lopez, couldn’t agree more. “I learned how to write, read and color nicely,” she said. “And I learned how to add and ‘regroup’ numbers.”

Rachael Carrillo, 7, was most proud of mastering those pesky parts of a sentence. “I learned verbs,” she reported and then explained: “A verb is an action word like ‘run’ and ‘hike.’ And nouns. [No explanation needed.] I learned to read. And I learned more shapes like a cube. I love cubes.”

With turtle-shell-frame glasses down on her nose a bit, Jaydee Velasquez, 6, looked pretty studious, like she might grow up to develop mega-Cloud software for Wall Street, and she appeared to have gotten a healthy running start. “I learned how to count money, dimes and pennies,” she said, before proceeding to add up a quarter, two pennies and a dime placed on the picnic table faster than any of her classmates.

By the time the question got around to Douglas Manzano, all the good replies had already been taken. So the seven-year-old simply summed up, “I learned a lot.”

But the “funniest” thing Daniela Lopez did during her first-grade adventure was making a clay pot, then admittedly going a little crazy painting it blue, white, yellow, purple and a different kind of green before taking it home. Jaydee also enjoyed art the most, especially drawing a turtle and then decorating it with crosses and Xs. Douglas’ favorite art project was drawing a non-still-life frog.

Still, the other Daniela would tell other neophyte students when school started up again in August that the coolest thing about first grade at St. Agnes was that Ms. Sandra Benitez “let us read our book that we brought from home.”

Which broached the always-hot recess topic of conversation — teacher quality.

“I like that she’s nice,” Rachael volunteered with an astute sidebar observation: “Sometimes she’s strict. But I like that, because when she’s strict she lets us learn a lot.”

“We can do a lot of work and learn more,” concurred Jaydee.

Douglas thought his teacher explained things well and readily answered all your questions, dumb or not.

The two Danielas were greatly impressed with the way Ms. Benitez dressed and how she always topped off her wardrobe with eye-catching black, yellow or silver earrings.

When it came to going to a Catholic school, however, the five first-graders agreed St. Agnes was way better than the local public school alternative — but, again, for different reasons. “Because we have Mass on Wednesdays and we learn about God,” pointed out Daniela Gomez. “I learned that he gave up his son and he sent him to earth, and then Jesus taught the people about God.”

Daniela Lopez was nodding approval, but added, “Because there’s no mean people here.”

Taking the cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness high road, Douglas said, “Because after we eat we have to clean the tables. So it’s nice and neat around here.”

Rachael picked up on the safety issue in the working-class urban neighborhood where gangs and graffiti are everyday normalities. “I like this school because they can protect you,” she maintained firmly. “And if someone hurts you, they say, ‘No!’ They protect you.” Getting back to God, she noted, “I’ve learned about Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes with wings.”

Perhaps her best friend, sitting right there beside Rachael on the long picnic table, summed up best what St. Agnes and other Catholic schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese are all about.

“I like going here because they teach you about God, too,” Jaydee said, those glasses a little farther down on her nose by now. “We learned when God sent his son, and Jesus talked about God’s love.”   


Voices

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Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

Have you ever noted how we spontaneously react to a perceived threat? Faced with a threat, our primal instincts tend to take over and we instantly freeze over and begin to shut all the doors opening to warmth, gentleness and empathy inside us.

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September 21, 2014

  • Sunday, September 21

    “Paths to Just Peace: Interfaith Celebration of International Peace Day,” cosponsored by Pax Christi Southern California and Campaign Nonviolence, 12:30-5 p.m., Holy Spirit Retreat Center, 4316 Lanai Rd., Encino. (818) 784-4515

    “Meet & Greet,” Mass and reception with Bishop Oscar Solis, hosted by Simbang Gabi ministry, 10 a.m., Immaculate Conception Church, 740 S. Shamrock ave., Monrovia. (626) 233-7313.

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