Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What the Tutor Learned

     As I mentioned once before, this fall I started volunteering as a tutor at the Writing Center of our local community college. I found the position through a connection I made with -- a website I recommend if you're looking to volunteer in your community.

     I applied for the job which included filling out an application, going for an interview, taking two writing tests, and supplying two recommendations. I trained for three days, then was given a badge and sent to help college students improve their essays and assignments, and to offer guidance on how to become better writers.

     The age range of students is 18 to about 40. So far, my most rewarding experience came when a 30-something woman asked for help on an application essay for a scholarship to nursing school. She'd written a powerful piece on how as a child her sister had fallen sick in their native village in Ghana, and she'd accompanied her sister to the hospital and watched as a nurse gave her sister medicine, held her hand, and helped her get better.

I volunteer here at the library
     The essay was powerful, as I said, but it was a little confused and riddled with bad grammar. I helped her straighten it out, and went home proud of myself, hoping that perhaps I might have made a difference in her getting that scholarship.

     I've assisted a couple of kids who are applying to continue on to four-year colleges; and obviously I've helped, by now, 25 to 30 students complete various class essays and homework assignments.

     Probably half of the people who arrive at the center are non-white -- blacks, Hispanics, a few Asians. But all of them come from families of modest means. I've seen exactly two students who seemed uninterested, who were probably there only because someone told them to come. The rest of the students are struggling to learn and develop their skills, in an admirable effort to make their way in this competitive world.

     Yesterday I was especially struck by a young fellow who I'd seen several times already. When he arrived I was busy with another student. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I could help him next. I was flattered that he wanted to wait for me, rather than seek help from one of the other volunteers. (There are typically three or four tutors in the Writing Center at any time. There are no appointments. Students come and go at their convenience; and in the month or so that I've been volunteering the Center has consistently been crowded with students seeking help.)

     This young fellow, about 25 or so, was born in Africa and grew up in Brooklyn -- not hip Brooklyn where the 20-somethings live, but a rougher part of the city. English is his second language. He's majoring in computer science, but taking a writing course to improve his English skills.

     The first thing a tutor asks the student is:  What's the assignment you're working on? This fellow was supposed to interpret and react to an essay by Maya Angelou on Joe Louis and a boxing match he won against an unnamed white opponent. (The essay is actually an excerpt from her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)

     The student summarized the essay, included a couple of good quotes, described how blacks at the time felt pride for themselves and their race, yet were still afraid to go home that night, fearing a white gang might descend on them and take violent retribution.

Joe Louis
     The conclusion my student reached is that despite the victory by Joe Louis back in the 1930s, despite the success of many black professionals in the decades since then, and despite the country electing a black president, the racism felt by regular, ordinary blacks in this country is just as bad today as it was when Joe Louis won that fight.

     When he read his conclusion (I try to have students read their essays aloud to me), I had to stop him. Sometimes the students get confused, or they don't write down exactly what they mean, and the flow of their essay comes out muddled.

     I asked him if that's was he really meant. Didn't he really mean that progress has been made in racial relations, as exemplified by those first steps by Joe Louis, but that much more needed to be done?

     No, he said. He meant what he'd written. Yes, he told me, some blacks have climbed up into the middle class. But the majority of blacks face racism every day, when they walk the streets and fear being stopped by the cops; when they go into a store, especially a high-end store, and are viewed with suspicion; when they rent an apartment, buy a car, go through an airport, or somehow end up walking through a white neighborhood.

     I suddenly realized what I was doing when I asked him about that statement -- I was projecting my own view of racism, which has only been formed third-hand through the media and by interactions with those blacks who have managed to work their way into professional jobs and who fit into the middle class.

     So I shut up. I let the young man finish reading his essay. I did help him make a few technical corrections on the paper, but I did not try to change his mind. He knows better than I do.

     That day I went home, not patting myself on the back for helping kids at my local community college. I went home chastened, maybe a little embarrassed by my own cluelessness. I don't know what I can do about it, except go back and try to help more kids as best I can. I wonder what paper this young man will bring me tomorrow?


Barb said...

Tom, both my kids were raised in multicultural, multi racial, multi ethnic. neighborhoods and schools that also had varied incomes (we lived in a bronwstone but there were apartments two houses down kind of thing). My kids will regularly tell you that they are not sure that middle class income game them many advantages but that the wasp stuff and being blonde into their teens is a huge difference.

When we lived in Washington DC and other areas, my tall blonde son who wears a hoodie would often walk from one neighborhood to another after doing homework with a friend as late as midnight. Knowing my son, had a stranger not a policeman had yelled at him and told him to stop, he would have done what his mother taught him to do when approached by strangers which is run or call 911.

Unfortunately he knows many african american and hispanic friends who are stopped regularly for behavior that he would consider normal.

Meryl Baer said...

You are doing wonderful work and everyday learning more for yourself, and to help others. A great story.

Anonymous said...

Good for you Tom. Although the one-on-on interaction is rewarding, I don't have patience for editing poor writing I once had. Dianne

Douglas said...

Perception is reality. There have been great improvements since the time of Joe Louis, you were correct. However, the day to day reality is what blacks experience and seeing the relationship to a period they did not experience is not something easily done.

He spoke of his reality, you spoke of historical accuracy. He is correct. But, hopefully, he will learn the history and of the changes.

rosaria williams said...

Wow, that you are volunteering. Wow, that you discovered how even a small interaction as this can help the tutor be tutored.

Stephen Hayes said...

I experienced similar situations when I was a teacher. In the end what WE learn from our students is as important as what they learn from us. Great post.

DJan said...

A post to ponder. I read it and realize that it is definitely true, the day-to-day experience of people of color is really no better. In a strange way, it seems that Obama being elected has polarized our nation even more. I pray that I will live long enough to see us come out the other side. Great post.

Dick Klade said...

I'm going to check around here and see if a similar program is available. If so, I'm signing on. I've been looking for just the right thing to spend some time helping those who need it, and you have shown the way.11 ersuctst

Anonymous said...

Apparently, your African student must be watching too much television. You should have told him that a few short years ago, Blacks couldn't even shop in a store such as Barney's NY let alone have taken cause for charging up $2500 for a handbag.
Also, a few short years ago inter-racial marriages weren't tolerated, yet Barack Obama got elected and now it looks like D'Balsio (married to a black women with 2 iter-racial children) is going to be elected Mayor of New York. I would suggest you advise your student to rent and watch the Lana Turner movie 'Immitation of Life' and he'll get a read eyeful of what life was like in America. You won't find much of that hatred anymore.
Bias is just an ordinary thing. I am a Jew. Do you have any idea what I and my family have been through with discrimination? What Italian or Irish or Asian or blonde has not felt some sort of bias? Continuing to wallow in it is the real pity and shame. I've often been turned down for jobs, rental apartments because I am a Jew. I can see it in people's eyes. I just move on.
I went to New York City Community College back in the 1970's and I was part of the 10% whites who attended. The rest of the school was 90% black. I think we had better black/white relations back in the 70's then we do now. Why? Because the race baters and your liberal agenda keep this bias alive. Rather than ask your student for specific, personal examples, you just shrugged and agreed with him. I would have been more investigative as to how he came to his conclusions. Isn't it odd that Oprah and now black shoppers in NYC all seem to find bias in their shopping habits? Coincidence?

I find it almost unbelievable that coming from Africa, as your student has, he feels more bias here in America that from his homeland. Doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

Again, for clarity: The above "Anonymous" comment did not come from me. I try to assure that I affix my screen name to my anonymous comments. I would get fewer emails if others followed the same/similar practice.
Cop Car

Bob Lowry said...

Thanks for directing me to this post, Tom. Based on your career this seems like a natural fit for you.

Thanks for sharing your eye-opening experience. All of us with certain backgrounds and lifestyles need occasional reminders that the world is not as neat and predictable as we are led to believe.