Walking across St. Monica’s schoolyard on a rainy Friday morning — six people sharing one umbrella — was a rare SoCal wet adventure. We were headed for the elementary school’s new Learning Commons, which was part of the new middle school program. Four classrooms had been remodeled just for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
“Historically, what we’ve done is we’ve turned away these students because we didn’t have the capacity to serve them,” Principal Neil Quinly told me. “Now we are able, obviously, to serve more students. But we’re able to also fulfill our mission as a Catholic school better.”
After a moment, he went on: “What I always brag about, of course, is that Catholic education seems to be diminishing in many parts of our city and our country. But Catholic education at St. Monica’s is growing.”
Inside the Learning Commons, we settled around a wood table in a small study room off the library. There was one sixth-grader, Isabella Macias; two seventh-graders, Colin Clark and Tommy Gasper; and one eighth-grader, Stephanie Sowa. The girls wore dark sweater-vests over white short-sleeve blouses. The boys had on the same color sweater-vests and white shirts along with dark pants.
The middle school students were here to discuss what they thought were the major social problems facing our new president, Donald J. Trump.
Immigration and racism
“I think there’s actually two really big problems: immigration and racism,” said Colin. “They can be separated even though they’re connected to each other. Because of racism, some people judge other people before they get to know them. It’s been a hot topic in recent events with white police officers shooting black young men.”
That put serious expressions on his fellow St. Monica students.
“I would say that our country is built on immigrants from all over the world coming to this country,” Isabella pointed out. “Some people come here to get a fresh start. And if we are declining so many people who won’t have good opportunities in this country, that’s not good.
“My mom always told me that her family came from Mexico and Spain,” added the 11-year-old. “They always thought of America as being like close to heaven. And now that she’s seeing the way immigrants are being treated, she thinks, ‘Well, we’re close to hell’ because so many people are denied. And it should not be like this.”
Colin spoke up again, “On immigration, I think sometimes people don’t think certain people might be American citizens.”
Tommy thought another issue concerned immigrants from the Middle East. “Because terrorism is a really big problem and it’s rising with ISIS and other groups,” he said. “I feel like it’s good to put some more beefy security on it. But it’s not good to get rid of everyone who might not be related to it. Still, it’s just putting people’s lives at risk.”
Stephanie reminded us that our nation was a melting pot. And if we didn’t have all these immigrants, then the United States wouldn’t be what it is today. She agreed with Isabella that we are keeping too many single people and families from the American Dream.
And just seeing people of color being discriminated against confuses her. “Some of my best friends are different races than me, but that doesn’t matter,” she said. “There’s two quotes for this: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ and ‘Do unto others what you would do for yourself.’”
About building a wall, the students were in total agreement. Colin called it “disrespectful” to separate us from Mexico. Stephanie thought it was a bad idea. And she noted what Pope Francis has said about immigrants: “They’re gifts not burdens.” Tommy said it was embarrassing, not to mention we’re only putting the wall on one side of our country.
Next on the list of problems facing the new president, according to the middle schoolers, was poverty. Seeing the growing number of encampments in Santa Monica and its neighbor Venice, they were well aware that tens of thousands of men, women and children were homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County.
“Instead of building a wall, they could use the money to build more homeless shelters,” observed Isabella. “Those shelters can turn someone on the street living next to a garbage can into someone who has clean clothes and a clean bed to sleep in at night.”
She asked what many have asked, “Why do we have poverty when there’s so many rich people here?” And then answered her own query. “I mean, for you to have more than you should and you don’t want to give anything, that’s what creates poverty.”
“I think it’s really tough to understand that situation because everyone here, we’re all privileged.” reported Stephanie. “We go to school at St. Monica’s in Santa Monica in one of the nicest places. We’re right across from the beach. But we just go 20 minutes outside of our little bubble and we can see homeless people.”
After a moment, she pointed out, “It’s hard to work your way up when you’re poor in America. Because the rich just get richer. And a lot of people are just stuck at the bottom. I think it’s important to move those people up, because we become a stronger country if we don’t have so many people in poverty.”
Tommy straightened up in his chair. “I feel like poverty is just a great sadness,” said the 13-year-old. “Because pretty much what happens in our society in America is like once you get into poverty, you pretty much can’t get out of poverty unless some miraculous thing happens to you. And God loves everyone, but I don’t think he can make that many miracles.”
That brought laughs in the study room.
Tommy noted that people in poverty can also include single moms trying to raise their kids as well as down-and-out folks living on the street.
“People in our country frown down upon people in poverty,” he said. “They think of them as a disgrace to society. Sometimes that’s where a lot of that racism and hate comes from. I’m sure a lot of poor people don’t want to be living on the street or in their cars. But they might have a good reason why they’re there. It could be drugs. It could be catastrophic illness or mental health issues.”
Stephanie sat closest to Tommy at the table. Glancing over at him, she said, “Yeah, it’s so hard, especially if you’re trying to help someone but then they refuse. And you can’t make someone do something.”
Another thing that came up was the environment. And Isabella had some practical advice for President Trump. “First, I would have every house have solar panels,” she said. “It’s cheaper and also helps the environment. The sun in California is around 24/7 — well, not today.” And she broke up. “It’s really useful, and we can use it for so many more things than just laying on the beach.”
Colin was nodding. “I think it’s really important that we get the knowledge out that our environment is declining because we aren’t using it properly and restoring it,” he said. “And I think, like, recycling and using electric cars are going to help our environment a lot because more people are transitioning.
“I think it’s important that we start doing that stuff,” he continued. “Because otherwise our grandchildren aren’t going to have the same things that we did. And they might be living in fear that it’ll all go away.”
Stephanie simply explained that “the environment is a gift from God, which I think many people take for granted.”
Other concerns hashed over were affordable health care and individual rights.
Stephanie was leaning over the table now. She said, “If the government doesn’t try to fix these things, then our country will, like, totally decline.”