At the front of Marilyn Treshow’s classroom in Salt Lake City hangs a map of the U.S., crisscrossed with brighty colored yarns that look like sutures across the face of America. In fact the spidery threads, under bold letters reading, Places I Have Been, are her students’ way of tracing their personal odysseys—from Colorado to Washington to California to New York. The strings mark an itinerary of places where jobs and hope ran out for the kids’ parents, and there is one spot that is not on the map. For Treshow’s students there is no place called home. All are temporary residents of the five clustered orange-and-white trailers that serve as Salt Lake City’s family shelter, and they are taught in another shelter room that the kids call, with mocking pride, the “School With No Name.”
Created in 1984 by the Salt Lake City school district and the Travelers Aid Society, Treshow’s classroom is one of a few in the country organized exclusively for kids without homes. Treshow, 40, was recruited from a local elementary school shortly after the one-room school opened, and she has had to develop some special skills. She has learned to cope with classes of from three to 35 kids, ranging in age from 5 to 18. This year alone she will work with about 160 children from nearly every state in the union, some of them there for a few months, some for only a few days. “Most of them do well,” she says. “They just need continuity. But it’s difficult. The best thing I can do is try to let them know that nothing has to last forever.”
“Difficult,” though, is a bland understatement, masking Treshow’s pain and frustration. “I try not to take my job home with me,” she says. “And I’m a lot better now. At first I was just a giant marshmallow. But these kids have taught me, too, you know.” Still, there are many nights at home with her husband, Michael, a biology professor at the University of Utah, and their children, Nathan, 16, and Anne, 15, when Treshow simply breaks down and cries. “Many of these children,” she says in her soft-spoken way, “have seen a lifetime of hurt.”
The School With No Name offers relief from that hurt, if only Monday through Friday. “If it weren’t for this school, my daughter would probably be way behind other kids when she goes back to regular school,” says Rose Garcia, who came to Salt Lake from New Mexico in search of a job. “The homeless have been forgotten in so many areas. It makes the going easier to know that somebody else cares about your child’s future.” Observes Ellen Woodard, a volunteer teaching assistant and “grandmother”: “I’ve taught in public schools before, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen where kids can’t wait for the door to be unlocked so they can get in.” The children do seem to love the place, which is not to say they are happy to be there. “Mrs. Treshow makes learning fun,” says Herdreanne Ben, 13, who has been in town only 16 days. “She’s a great teacher. She takes time to go through the assignments with me. But I don’t like being poor—I hate it—and I can’t wait to go back to public school.”
Treshow herself had a rootless childhood as the daughter of a Navy officer who took her and her mother and sister “everywhere from the Philippines to Washington” before settling in California in 1952. Treshow moved to Utah to get her education degree from Brigham Young University. Her method of teaching is basic. From 8 a.m. until noon she drills students in the three R’s. After lunch she often takes them on field trips to the city’s museums, the zoo, the planetarium or simply a park. To help make the older kids more comfortable in a class with 5-year-olds, she asks them to be teacher’s aides and help the younger kids with their assignments. There are still disruptions, though—shouting, fighting—and to encourage good behavior she awards yellow tickets for diligence; any child who earns 12 of them is entitled to a puzzle, a book or a doll. When things really get out of hand, Treshow stands up and yells, “All right, class! Double tickets for everybody who listens, cooperates, contributes and works hard!” So far it has worked every time.
Unfortunately, some problems can’t be handled so easily. The school district provides sandwich lunches. But for dinner at home the children are often given only bread and jam, although hot dinners are available at a soup kitchen a dangerous and dark half mile away and at the Salvation Army, which is nearer but serves skimpier food and is also a dangerous walk. Their playground is a muddy field peppered with broken glass, and the children often arrive at school dirty, tired, hungry, shoeless or sick. “We have a high absentee rate,” Treshow says, “because many of these kids are around each other 24 hours a day. If one gets the flu, half the class gets it.” The shelter has a box of donated clothing that newcomers pick through, searching for something that comes close to fitting. Nearby, in a shack built of railroad ties, derelicts sleep.
Treshow tries to provide compensation. The children are encouraged to express themselves by filling out How I’m Feeling cards, which they place in little pockets near the bulletin board. The cards often read, simply, “happy,” “excited,” “hungry,” “hurt,” “scared” or “sad.”
And then, one day, there will be cards that aren’t filled out at all. One day, Bev or Anthony or Herdreanne will not be there anymore, and there will be one or two strangers instead. It happens all the time.
Marilyn Treshow has almost finished her work for a master’s degree in labor economics at the University of Utah, but now she isn’t sure that she’ll use it. Nor is she sure that she wants to. “I decided to get the degree in case I wanted to change careers,” she says, “but now…” The sentence trails away into silence. “Kids say goodbye to me all the time,” she continues finally, “but I’m not sure I could say the same to them.”