The assignment was to speak to a group of teen-age tutors in the Mayor's Summer Jobs Program. The subject: the joy of working.
After 15 years as a newspaperman, I know how much fun working really is, especially in the summer, when you dress up in a suit and tie and run to catch cabs that won't stop and conduct interviews while sweat drips from your forehead and dissolves the ink on your notepad.
About 100 14- and 15-year-olds showed up in an auditorium at the Kenilworth Elementary School in Northeast Washington that was not air conditioned. It was hot; they were irritable. But my job is so much fun I couldn't just explain what I do. I had to show them how I do it.
"You all want to be in the newspaper?" I asked.
Naw. I dunno. Yeah. Okay.
The heat was worse than I thought. The kids -- and this column -- were wilting before my eyes.
"Look, let's help each other," I said. "I'll tell you about me and you tell me about you. Okay? Who would like to start?
"No, they aren't shy," said Carolyn Holland, their supervisor. "They are well-behaved."
"In the newspaper business," I explained, "reporters do not wait for people to raise their hands. If we need a quote or two, we just go right to the horse's mouth.
"So, you, young lady, why did you decide to become a tutor?"
"I like helping people," said Michelle Flanagan, 14, who teaches fourth grade math.
"Oh, how nice," I said, explaining that when I need a longer quote, I often ask a follow-up question such as, "Are you good in math?"
"No, not really."
"Okay -- how 'bout the boys. Any volunteers? No? Then how 'bout you, young fellow. Tell me about yourself . . . no, I didn't say poke out your lip. Talk.
"What's your name?"
"I like working with children."
Out of a hundred kids, surely there was one or two who was really into this tutoring and who wanted to talk about it. I mean, all a reporter needs is one good quote. "Come on, kids, you all are representing the youth of the city. Show your stuff.
"A hand! Well, awriight.
"What's your name?"
"Why do you like tutoring?"
"To get extra money."
"But why did you choose tutoring?"
"I didn't. This is what they chose for me."
"Another hand! Well, come on with it, son."
"My name is Aaron Washington. I'm 15. I teach reading to sixth graders and I like it because it gives me a chance to see what teaching kids is all about, in case I decide to become a teacher someday.
"Besides," he continued, much to my delight, "I like helping black kids, then seeing them make better grades as a result of our efforts."
"That's what I'm looking for. Did everybody hear that?
"Another hand? We're on a roll, kids."
"My name is Sonise Muldrow. I'm 15. I tutor fourth, fifth and sixth grades in math, reading and in the computer lab. I like working with children because they teach you how to be patient. They have a different attitude. A different pace for learning. It's quite challenging."
"My name is Tiwan Jones," another youngster entoned. "I'm 14. I'm not a tutor. I'm a book clerk. I help other book clerks put books on the shelf in the book room."
This my was my first look inside the summer job program for this year, and it was clear that the potential for Mayor Marion Barry's program was great. In all, about 21,300 youths had signed up, although sadly enough that was 4,000 fewer applicants than jobs available. And this with double-digit teen-age unemployment in the city.
The tutoring program for summer school kids was only a couple of weeks old, and it was evident that some tutors hadn't gotten into the swing of things yet. But they had gotten a chance to see how I do my thing, for what it was worth, and the mayor, for his part, had managed to get a whole bunch of them off the streets and at least thinking about the joy of having a job.