Marcus Gonzalez, a portrait of destitution, peeks through layered hats, scarves and jackets, a frigid rain threatening his makeshift shelter.
“You’ve got to smell this,” he says.
Gonzalez has an old can filled with older water, a few coffee grounds floating aimlessly. It isn’t much, but for two hours, it’s just about all he has.
“A lot of people were unemployed, and they were looking for jobs,” Gonzalez explains, his the first of two fifth-grade classes at Bethel Elementary School to take residence in a Hooverville-style shanty town Friday morning. “It was named after Herbert Hoover.”
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Lee Pearson, who teaches fifth grade, wants students to see how life worked during some of the darkest economic times in the nation’s history. She wasn’t expecting the light rain or near-freezing temperatures but they added levity and realism to the lesson.
“We’ve been studying the Great Depression, and they had to do a research project,” Pearson said. “We learned about hobo symbols, how they let other hobos know this was a good place to stay or get something to eat.”
Students created shelters from cardboard, blankets and tape. They stuffed pillow cases with newspaper. They briefly kicked a can around for entertainment. They lined up quickly for the soup kitchen, volunteers doling ladles full into old cans or bowls.
“We’re going to feel what it was like,” said student Brandon Bailey.
History lessons are just stories when they fail to impact or enlighten the present, so Pearson stressed the importance of remembering two hours in the cold. Then, perhaps, of thinking up ways students could help others.
“There really are people today who are still living like this,” Pearson said.
Students enjoyed their time outside, under a pavilion shelter but still somewhat exposed to the elements. Yet they were ready, after two hours, to head back in to class. Many of them with new perspective on how others brave far worse conditions.
“We actually learned it was probably pretty hard,” Bailey said. “It would have been all the time for them.”