United States 7 April: New York

A glimpse into the world of teaching from home

As the Peace Run is presently on hiatus, we were inspired to share some stories with the same spirit as the Run -- recognizing and honoring the crucial role that individuals play in serving humanity, and thereby contributing to peace in the world. There are so many of these stories happening at every moment during this pandemic!

Last week I came across a story in The New York Times that really struck me. It was about how quickly the teachers in New York City had to adapt to remote teaching, and how incredible they have been at it. You can read the whole story here.

The founder of the Peace Run, Sri Chinmoy, gave great importance to children. We normally spend a lot of time visiting schools. The Run is in its 33rd year, and we estimate that over 7 million children from more than 160 countries have taken part by holding the Peace Torch and sharing their own hopes and dreams for peace -- in many simple, deeply sincere, creative and brilliant ways!

I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools. Children always capture our hearts, but I also have found it extremely insightful to see the genuine love and concern that the vast majority of teachers and counselors have for the children.

When we ran 10,000 miles around North America in 2018, I began to feel that the sincere dedication of these teachers is holding up America. Children are the future of our society, and for a number of reasons, many do not get all of the support and guidance that they need from their home life. The teachers add to this wherever they can- not because they get paid to do it, but because they know how important their work is, and more importantly because they really care.

I work at a vegetarian cafe in Queens, New York, called The Panorama of My Silence-Heart. We have customers from all different faiths, backgrounds and cultures. Over 800 languages are spoken in the borough of Queens, and two thirds of the population were born outside America, so it is an incredibly diverse place to live and work.

One of our most long-time, regular and beloved customers is Jerrica Nicolaou, pictured here at Panorama holding the Peace Torch.

Jerrica teaches chemistry and biology at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, an area which has recently received a lot of attention because of the large number of COVID19 cases there. She kindly agreed to let me interview her. As soon as she began telling me what she is dealing with, I was captivated. I could almost write a small book of everything she told me, so this is just a summary!

Jerrica has lived in our neighborhood for many years, and has been eating at Panorama and our sister vegetarian restaurants since before she had her children! She has read many books by the founder of the Peace Run, Sri Chinmoy. From these books she learned of the importance of meditation, which she practices, and of living in the present, among other things. She also frequently saw Sri Chinmoy out running and walking around the local streets before his passing in 2007.

Jerrica is a vegetarian, as are her children, Anna and Nikos, who also frequently visit Panorama. Before we transitioned to Takeout Only, her son Nikos worked pretty much every day from our cafe on his laptop and is like part of our family! Her husband Costas does not come to Panorama so often, but because they live just down the street we see him from time to time.

When New York schools were closed because of the virus, the first job for teachers at Jerrica's school was getting laptops for the hundreds of kids who did not have a computer at home. There are about 1,700 students at her school, and the majority of them do not speak English well. This is a big challenge for online teaching, so she is also having to teach English and how to use technology, as well as chemistry and biology!

Jerrica is using her basement as her classroom and has a whiteboard there, but she is actually working from wherever she is -- on her phone and laptop. Even when she is waiting for food at Panorama, she is answering kids' messages from her phone.

Jerrica gets up at 6am and sometimes does not go to bed until 2am! This is for several reasons. Because there is such a huge learning curve, she has had to absorb many things about how to use the technology and give the children access to all the resources they need.

Many of the parents do not speak much English, so it is very hard for them to help their kids with their schoolwork. Since there is so much to do, Jerrica does not always get to answer the kids' questions until late at night. Also, some of the kids, for various reasons, do not get to do their work until late at night, and she wants to ensure that she answers all of their questions!

The main online platform they are using now is Google Classroom. They were all set up on Zoom with many resources, but now the Department of Education has just banned Zoom because of privacy problems, so overnight Jerrica had to learn a whole new way! Luckily the students and her own children are able to help her a lot with the technology!

Many of the kids at Newtown High School are registering on Google Classroom. The school decided they will not penalize the students who are not participating because the school officials don't know what the students are dealing with personally and at home. Many of Jerrica's students are participating in the classes right now. She teaches four classes of chemistry and one biology class. She has a personal relationship with every kid and says, "They are all amazing!" She calls the parents when she is concerned about a particular student.

Newtown High School has many students from low socio-economic areas and broken homes. Some of them are in foster care or homeless, which means they likely live in shelters. Many live with their extended family in one-room apartments and speak little English. Some of the kids are living with parents who have the virus, and they are scared.

Unbelievably, 22 million children in the United States rely on school meals. In New York City, 74% of kids in public schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Newtown High School is closed, so kids who do not get breakfast and lunch at home can report to any school that is open in their neighborhood to get these meals. Children who live far away have bus passes to get to a school, while others can walk there.

Jerrica's family has been watching her the last couple of weeks, and they cannot believe what she has to deal with! She knows every student's individual needs. Some of the kids have various kinds of learning difficulties. These kids often find it extra challenging to learn online, but Jerrica says she "loves each one of them and deeply admires their sincere eagerness to learn."

Jerrica posts work on Google Classroom, and then has 30 minutes a day speaking with each class on live video. "The kids love this because they can also see each other at that time," she says. Many of the kids really look forward to it and are so motivated and eager to learn. Some are very concerned they will not learn everything they need to. She knows they get restless, so she lets them kid around to have fun and express themselves, and then get back to the lesson. "Now you have to focus," she says. "We need to stay focused so that we will all get through this. We need to keep going, we cannot let anything stop us."

Jerrica says, "What is most rewarding is when the kids trust you. They look to us for reassurance, and it's hard because the teachers don't know what will happen from day to day, but they have to keep the kids going."

All the kids have individual concerns. One wants to be a pharmacist, and is very concerned that he will learn everything he needs to get into the school he wants to go to.

"The only way to reassure them is not with lies but with the truth, by letting them know this is part of life. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful children," Jerrica said. "You can learn teaching at school, but the kids make you a teacher -- caring, loving, devoted, the best you can possibly be. The kids challenge you to be this. I tell the kids they are my teachers and I learn from them -- and every time they ask me questions, I get better at teaching." When she began teaching, she had no idea how it would change her!

In a recent class, Jerrica related genetic engineering to evolution. If we can overcome this virus, she said, it will be the same thing as with our immune system -- we will be overpowering it.
She asked the kids, "Why do some people not get sick?"
One replied, "Because they have a strong immune system."
"Who does Darwin say will survive?", she asked. "The ones that are the fittest and can adapt, who can take care of themselves, who can take vitamin C, keep their distance, wash their hands and eat well, they will survive."
"When you hear their voices change to become more optimistic, and then start joking around, it is incredibly rewarding," she said.

Jerrica gives a lot of credit for how well things are going to the Newtown High School Principal, Mr. Ficalora. She said he holds everything together -- he is supportive and takes care of the teachers. He makes sure that each teacher is called by the Assistant Principal for support every week, and wants to give teachers all the tools that could possibly help the children succeed.

She also said they have a great community of parents. One parent recently sent her a message, saying that although she did not know her, she wanted to thank her for motivating the kids.

Jerrica is pictured here (on the right), outside her house with her two children, Anna and Nikos. Anna volunteers every Saturday at Newtown High School by tutoring biology to kids who speak limited English. She has been doing this for five years and told Jerrica it gives her a real appreciation for what her mother does. Nikos has been helping Jericca with the many technical challenges she has been faced with.

Thank you, Jerrica, for sharing your story! We know there are millions of teachers and parents around the world all facing similar challenges. Knowing the extent of sincere concern and love that just one person can embody gives us all great hope, inspiration and faith in the power of collective goodness and dedication to sustain the world. Let us all wholeheartedly play our part!

The vision of a oneness-family
Will one day cover
The length and breadth
Of the world.
--Sri Chinmoy