The Nicest Place in Arizona: East Gershon Lane in Tucson

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Speed Building Protocol"

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When a teacher needed a hand to make sure kids got the education they deserved, a neighbor went to extraordinary lengths.

When the pandemic hit, schools closed and Arizonans were told to hunker down and keep distant. Melvin Williams thought, “No problem.” He’s used to handling tough situations—he teaches science to 13-year-olds for a living at the Booth-Fickett Math/Science Magnet school in Tucson, the largest city in southern Arizona, where the sun shines 350 days out of the year.

But, like some of his young learners, Williams soon realized that he and others tasked with implementing the big educational experiment called distance learning had failed to consider all of the variables. “To paint a picture of the household, we have a five-year-old, eleven-year-old, two thirteen-year-olds, and a college athlete, age nineteen, sent home from her school in Iowa. We live in a three-bedroom house, with a two-car garage, and there is no extra space for a home office.”

For the poor math students out there, that’s seven people, three bedrooms, no offices.

“I thought I had a plan, with putting up a computer in the garage with a stool and I would be good to go,” Williams tells Reader’s Digest. “As I started to get everything together, it was clear that was not going to work,” he says, calling it a “disaster area.”

It was Friday night, school looming Monday, and the nearby OfficeMax long sold out of desks. E.A. Smith, a friendly neighbor, came by to offer moral support but when he saw the scope of the problem, he did what folks in Tucson do when there’s a need.

“If you had to have something made, what would you want?” he asked.

desk in progessCourtesy Melvin Williams
The custom desk taking shape in Melvin Williams’s garage

Together, they took some measurements and sketched out a design for the perfect remote-teaching setup. With only a few days to work, the job would call for Smith’s special “Speed Building protocol!” he later wrote in a note about the project to neighbors.

Starting Friday night and working all through the weekend, Smith sawed, screwed and sanded. Williams cleared out some space while his five-year-old shuttled back and forth between garages, doing what five-year-olds do: asking a million questions, at a proper social distance, of course. Come Sunday night, the desk was put into place and Williams was ready for a month of remote-teaching teens while sweltering in a hot garage—as ready as he could be.

The Nomination

My neighbor built me a desk. I am a teacher in Southern Arizona and my district had go on spring break, but to keep everyone safe the district extended break to see how things would play out. As all good plans fail, and at the time 42 more school days to go, we went into distance learning mode. Now… I am no stranger to technology and I can hold my own with my 13 yr olds, but the distance learning thing was challenging to say the least. So to paint a picture of the household, we have a 5 yr old, 11 yr old, 2x 13 yr old, and a college athlete age 19 sent home from her school in Iowa. So we live in a 3 bedroom, with a two car garage, and there is no extra space for a home office.

the finished custom deskCourtesy Melvin Williams
The finished desk gave Williams a new place to call his classroom.

I thought I had a plan, with putting up a computer in the garage with a stool and I would be good to go. As I started building my doomsday station, my neighbor was talking to me and asked me if I was ready for the change. I said with confidence “Sure!!!” as I started to get everything together it was clear that was not going to work, and as I was standing there looking at my disaster area, he asked “If you had to have something made, what would you want?” Needless to say, I had already gone to the local OfficeMax, and saw that I was not going to be able to get a desk on the cheap. He asked me to draw a pic and we took some measurements. That was Friday evening… He asked that I get the area cleaned up so we could slide the desk he was going make for me slide right in. My 5 yr old made many trips between the house and his work area, practicing social distancing, and continued to ask Mr. Smith what he was doing. The sounds of sawing, drilling, sanding, and hammering ring out all day Saturday and Sunday, and Sunday evening, I had a desk, for my neighbor who could have listen to my story and said good luck. From out of nowhere he helped me be able to service my students, even in the hot garage.

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