Classroom in the Concrete Jungle

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I was working in the busy San Francisco Financial District when I noticed a woman sitting on the ground with her two children. She was just a few short steps away from my office, sitting at the corner of two busy streets.

Her son was sleeping in an old stroller, and her daughter was trying to keep herself entertained while her mother begged for money. Passersby would not pay them much mind as they rushed to get lunch.

San Francisco Bay Area is tough on those experiencing poverty. Gentrification keeps creating homelessness or pushing the population experiencing homelessness from city to city. In some areas, hostile architecture is common. Rocks, spikes, restrictive benches, loud music, barricades, or the absence of restrooms or fountains in public areas are all examples of hostile design.

I have a soft spot for children who are experiencing poverty or homelessness. Seeing that little girl sitting on the cold San Francisco concrete got to my heart.

I got some snacks from the CVS store across the street and offered them to the little girl. She looked at me with her hazel eyes and shared a warm smile briefly. I would see them sitting there every so often, but since I wouldn’t normally leave the building for lunch, I probably missed them a lot, too.

Another time I got the little girl some colorful street chalk so she can draw on the ground and a toy or her brother.

Children shouldn’t feel the harsh world so young. Talking to her, I learned that she is eight years old and doesn’t go to school. I ordered her some children’s activity books that my niece loves focused on math and letters, and got her colorful pens.

She was so excited to receive the books! I sat in front of her on the concrete, showed her the books, and gave her an age-appropriate activity book for her little brother. I told her that I would be back to check on her progress. Her mom became emotional, and for the first time, I learned that the mother doesn’t speak or understand English well. They are Romanian. But this mother was excited at the opportunity to have her child get an education. She asked me to teach her daughter. She asked me when I will be back, telling me the times they tend to be there.

Something interesting happened while I was sitting there in my business casual attire, in front of this family, going through the book with the little girl. People passing by were suddenly noticing the family, even though this family was never invisible before. People in suits stopped and offered the mother money. Her humanity was visible to others because one person decided to stop and sit with her family.

I went back again a few days later, and the little girl beamed the moment she saw me. She got her book and showed me her progress. Seeing that she struggles with addition, I started teaching her how to approach the different problems. At that moment, this little girl with her blond hair and hazel eyes was no different than my niece with her blond hair and hazel eyes — both of them becoming excited when they learn something new.

Recognizing that the mother is unable to help the little girl with her activity book, I went online and found Romanian to English alphabet flashcards. I hoped that would help the family. They would all smile big every time they would see me, and I just wanted to do more.

I had one more gift for the children when I stopped seeing the family. They likely had to move because of police patrol or some neighborhood complaints. Eventually, I stopped working at that office and never saw the family again.

I still have their gift…

Thanks to Dane Grigas.

This post was previously published on


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