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|
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.
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?