Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The "Oneness"

I volunteered at The Learning Bank in West Baltimore, an adult education facility. In short this means that I tutored “adult learners”, a phrase that in this context refers to people ages sixteen and up whose level of education ranges from basic literacy to the GED level. Adult learners intimidate many volunteers, and when I first started I was anxious too. However, as the hours I spent at The Learning Bank passed I came to view the age of the learners as a positive. It was largely because of their age, and in turn their life experience that they were able to share so much of their wisdom with me.

Over last year, I tutored in two different classes. One was a social studies and English combined GED level class and the other was a fractions and decimals math class. The actual content and organization of the classes were standard: teacher explains topic, class is given worksheet, tutor answers questions about worksheet. Despite the straightforwardness of the lesson plans, the actual classes were more fluid.

One day the teacher for the social studies/English class was sick and so I became the teacher for the day. I had never taught a class before, and though I was given the intended topic of the class I was dumbfounded as to how to go about teaching it. How do you teach people to link paragraphs together in order to form essay? My first method proved unsuccessful largely because I began where my teachers began with me, and therefore ignored the differences between us. Because that technique wasn’t working, I tried explaining the essay as being composed of five separate paragraphs. Before too long though I realized the communication block remained.

I hesitated. I looked nervous. I didn’t want to mess up. Before I could even think of another approach, one of the learners spoke up. “Don’t worry, here we can work together.” This learner, this person, this adult, this woman was able to make me feel comfortable. As a unit the class and I were able to figure out what they needed to learn and how they learned most effectively. I taught them sentence structure and essay form. They taught me how to teach, how to be comfortable, and how to relate. Despite our differences in age, education level, and background we were able to mutually serve each other. Despite our differences we are one.

In the fractions and decimals class I sat next to the same lady, weekly for an entire semester. In between the teacher’s lessons and the math questions we chatted about life. She mentioned her son to me one week, and the next showed me a picture. As we got to know each other better, she shared with me how proud she was of him, how much she loved his new girlfriend, her frustrations with the amount of respect he gave her mother, her need for him to be responsible; she let me into her life. I have an older brother, and I’m sure my mom has shared the same proud moments and frustrations with people. Even though my mom and this lady have never met and despite their many differences they have innumerable shared experiences. Despite their differences they are one.

Amongst the decimals and grammar, the people I was supposed to be teaching ending up teaching me. The book, Whale Rider, deals with a concept of “oneness”. In the context of the book the “oneness” refers to the magic and the concrete, the past and the present. However, this concept can also be applied to the differences between people. Some people believe society has concrete divisions. That is to say that they believe that outside of your gender, socioeconomic class, and age people are unable to relate to one another. My experiences are evidence that though these are differences, they are not divisions and that oneness with all humanity supersedes these superficial boundaries.

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