I have been tutoring in a few public high schools in San Francisco the past three weeks, and it has been one of the best things I could do with my time. I can write and think about race and gender and class and understanding and inclusion, but it is another thing to do this work out loud and in public.
One of the tutors gave me a compliment. He said that I bring a good energy to the group and that the students seem to be responding well to me. That is a compliment that I have earned. When I started tutoring nine months ago, I made a lot of mistakes with students. Not huge mistakes that looked terrible, but my assumptions were incorrect. For example, I expected the students to respect my authority and my time, and to listen to me and follow my instructions. Ha ha ha. I should’ve realized that with a young son that this is NOT how it goes. The best way to get my son to follow the rules? Explain why it is important. Explain why brushing one’s teeth gets sugar off the teeth and keeps cavities away. Put in some knowledge so that he will have the intrinsic motivation to want to take care of himself, or at the very least plant the seeds for this for the future.
I also do the lovingkindness (metta) meditation on the BART ride over. (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/lovingkindness-metta-meditation-sylvia-boorstein/2599) I think about everyone in my life and I send them these thoughts. Though it is called a form of meditation, I see it as a form of prayer. I also do this for the people who are commuting with me, for the students and teachers I will work with, and then I open it up for the whole world. I have no idea if it “works,” in that the people who I am thinking of suddenly feel enlightened or more loved by the world, but I will say that for myself it opens up my heart for the day ahead and the people I will encounter. I use it when I am driving too because traffic stresses me out and this is one thing I do that calms me down. This reminds me that I am connected to other people and that how we all feel as a whole matters.
On the BART ride over, I will also read something that centers me and takes me out of my own preoccupations. Last week I read David Whyte’s Consolations. He has a generous perspective that resonates with me. I also will read Pema Chodron, and tomorrow I will bring a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, whose interview I just heard on On Being and loved. Writings by people who believe in things like love, peace, and wisdom. People who are not so unbearably cynical about the world that they have no belief in humanity. People who are not wholly in it for themselves.
I write all this not because I want to convert you to my particular flavor of pseudo-spirituality but because I know that it takes a lot of mental preparation to give myself over to day devoted to students. I don’t have sophisticated expectations either. I am there to 1. connect with them 2. listen and see them (so many of us go through a day without feeling seen) 3. do whatever it takes so that they can see that there is real meaning behind the work the teacher is asking them to do 4. do the best I can 5. self-reflect so that I can learn from my mistakes, figure out what is not working, and what I can do better in the future.
I like being out in the world this way. It feels empowering. The world feels less scary when I’m walking toward the things I believe in. This feels like what will be one of my lifework. I have spent the last 10+ years writing, struggling with writing, I just had my first piece published this month. It has been a tough struggle where I doubted and continue to doubt myself some of the time. But then I see that I have this other thing, where I have deep empathy for anyone who struggles with writing and where I know I can help. There are many approaches to writing. There is more than one point of entry to writing an essay. I want to show students that a flexibility with writing and with ideas makes for better writing. There is not one easy solid right answer. I want to make writing feel less rigid and structured and like a dreaded school assignment. I want to push them toward seeing how writing can make them feel alive.
But most importantly this experience has been about learning so much from the students I have worked with. How impressed I have been by all of them, every single one of them. How most of them work hard in school (and have support of their families to do this) because they want to have a better life. How this makes me think we better make damn sure that they’re getting the education they need to be able to do this.
And if someone who looks as boring and as uncool as I do can do this, then anyone can do this and should go volunteer in under-resourced schools. (I recommend volunteering through 826 Valencia.) Just know that you will probably learn more from the students than they will from you. Just be open to the experience whatever it might be and that every time will be different. You don’t have to be the coolest tutor, the funnest person, you just have to show up consistently, listen and work with them, and be yourself. And no BS because students can look through that.