If you're 7 years old and have your own Marine, you greatly increase your peer status and your self-esteem.
Having one's own Marine is one of the many benign side effects of "Operation Rescue," a volunteer tutoring program, which has brought out, among hundreds of Washingtonians, nine Marines from the Marine Barracks.
Wearing their uniforms, they marched into the Birney School in Anacostia and taught wide-eyed children how to read and count. They were a sensation, and, as one official of the program says, "tremendous role models."
"Operation Rescue" is a success story, and it comes out of a school system that never got very high marks and a city that is often put down as one without a heart. It tells a lot about voluntarism, a word somewhat more spoken than practiced by the present administration. Apparently, all sorts of people are just waiting to be asked to lend a hand.
The program is recruiting again, mostly through posters in supermarkets, libraries and police stations. Already half of the nearly 1,000 volunteers who worked last year have signed up again to help elementary school pupils through the mysteries of the alphabet and the multiplication tables.
In its first year, "Rescue" operated in the first three grades; now it has been expanded into grades four, five and six.
It was invented in March, 1980, to meet a genuine crisis in the District's public schools, a crisis that came out of a decision to eliminate "social promotions" and to insist on program standards. The crisis was the result of the terrible discovery that 10,000 scholars in the first three grades didn't have a clue.
James Guines, then acting superintendent of schools, turned to Sterling Tucker, former chairman of the D.C. City Council, for help. In his Urban League days, Tucker had pioneered in a tutoring program for junior high school students called "A Future for Jimmy."
Tucker collared executives of several local companies to serve as his "Operation Rescue" staff and set up a tight infrastructure. He got the cooperation of the school board and the unions, assured teachers that no one was after their jobs, and generated a great deal of publicity.
Guines noted that, although the schools are 96 percent black, the original call for volunteers was answered almost exclusively by the white community.
It turned out that hundreds of housewives, lawyers, government workers, college students and retired schoolteachers were dying to pitch in. After Guines and Tucker brought to the attention of black civic groups the fact that they were lagging in recruitment, black volunteers began coming forward.
Volunteers were screened (the initial recruitment coincided with the Atlanta murders and parents were nervous), given 16 hours of training, and sent out to 40 target schools where the marks were most abysmal.
"They went into areas that were supposed to be unsafe," says Guines, "but we haven't had a single instance of tires getting slashed or stolen radios or any kind of attack. They found out a lot about the way those children live and about inadequate home reinforcement."
The volunteers found out that some children start school with literally blank minds. No one had told them stories or taught them words. They hadn't been held on anyone's lap to learn their ABCs. Some had been looking all their short lives for the undivided attention of an adult.
"Some of the parents are just barely surviving," Guines said. "Never had time to talk to them."
The results of encountering one large person who refused to believe that one small person cannot learn if zeroed in on were dramatic. Two thirds of the 10,000 failures were promoted after three months of coaching.
Once Washington has shaped up, Tucker would like to take "Rescue" to other urban schools similarly jammed with students to whom letters and numbers represent defeat.
"Operation Head Start" was a wonderful way of reaching deprived children, but its effects wore off. Pre-schoolers accustomed to small groups got lost and bewildered in large classes. Tucker thinks it was because Head Start was not integrated into the school system.
"Operation Rescue" has not received any notice from the White House, but Barbara Bush gave a party for the volunteers at the vice presidential residence last September.
"Rescue" operates on a grant of $65,000 from the United Way. It works. Everybody knows why.
"It's the arm around the shoulder," says Col. O. K. Steele, the commandant of the Marine barracks, which has sent another contingent to the Birney School to drill the pupils in the spelling of "cat."