Fumbling toward clarity

Last spring I started volunteering in Detroit Public Schools as a literacy tutor. Those few months were a warm-up for the challenges of this school year.

This year I am matched with two first-grade girls. We meet for an hour on Thursdays. We read and practice writing sentences. But it’s more than that.

Right before winter break, Girl No. 1 grabbed me in an awkward hug outside her classroom.

“Are you gonna miss me?” she asked, head down but dark eyes peering up, wide and pleading.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” I said.

“Are you my friend?”

“Yes. I am your friend.”

She asks me these questions every week.

Sometimes she throws a curve ball.

“Do you wear panties with flowers on them?” she asks in mock seriousness. I make a face. She tosses back her head, quaking with giggles that make her hair beads click.

Here we go again with this one. She’s smart, but plagued by dark moods and sharp shifts in temperament. I’m guessing these emotional storms get in the way of learning.

“Back to work, my friend,” I say, grabbing the reader. We begin going over long and short vowel sounds.

Girl No. 2 is a different chapter in the story we are writing. She struggles. The alphabet. Words. Sounds. Putting it all together is a major challenge. Additionally, she is almost impossible to reign in. The sighing radiator, padding feet in the hallway, leaves and wrappers swirling about in the courtyard outside all compete for her attention. At our last meeting, I detected the slightest movement toward progress with her. She didn’t ask me if I’d miss her. She didn’t want a hug or even a pat on the back.

Ah, these kids. Some weeks I feel the warmth of pride as they grasp a concept. Other weeks, panic rises in my throat as I hear things that drag me down dark roads: What kind of lives do these girls live? What messages play on their daily soundtrack? How can a young child have so much anger, sadness and resignation?

I know some of the answers. Although we lived on different streets, came up in different eras, these girls and I  have something in common. I had trouble learning. I didn’t achieve my academic potential.  I spent far more time in detention/the principal’s office/ time out than in the classroom. Teachers, counselors and social workers constantly leaned in to ask: “What is bothering you? What is wrong?”

If we stick to letters and words and simple readers, I’m good.

But when I start hearing and seeing the reasons why we are together in this stifling storage room, crushed together in a small wooden corral, in this crumbling building in a crumbling city, I want to run out the door. In the next beat I think I should be here every day for an hour. How else can I make a difference?

I guess this is similar to how new teachers feel. Touching young lives. Making a difference. How many seasoned educators are bitter, burned out, cynical? I know two such teachers who quit the system. They advised me to be cautious in taking on this quest. I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

But I’m doing it anyway, in spite of bureaucracy, politics, cynicism, doubt, bitterness, fear, and every thing else.

Why do I do this? To help them? To help me? To figure out what to do next with my life?

All of the above.