Wednesday, October 10, 2007

For the first time since last year, I tutored at the Learning Bank. Although I have been back a few times previously this semester I was either conducting a site visit or observing classes. Like a worn in pair of flip flops not worn since last summer, it was comfortable and energizing to be back again. Just like last year the students were eager to work with the volunteers. Just like last year the students opened up to the volunteers despite their vulnerability. Just like with everything though, things had changed over the past year. No longer am I only a volunteer, but now I must worry about the experiences of the other Loyola students more deeply.

My experience was rewarding. As soon as I got to the room a student, Dwain, raised his hand to say that yes, he needed a tutor. Throughout the night I worked with him on grammar, and sentence structure. By the end of the night we were comfortable enough with each other that he asked me if I was going to come back next week; it broke my heart to tell him that normally I’ll be coming on Tuesday mornings. The night was unique in that I worked with a new student, a different individual. All the while it seemed like an echo of last year. His story closely resembled those I had heard from students last year. He is struggling to achieve what he wants more than anything right now. The other students in the class reiterated the same ideas. Whether or not they are good at grammar or not, they are all lacking in other subjects. They want their GED so that they can go to college, or work their way to the job they’ve dreamed of as a child.

During the break I spoke with the other volunteers about their experiences. The students are eager to learn; it’s astounding to hear about their lives; they want to make sure we’re coming back next week. Through all this redundancy I can’t help but wonder why despite the number of adults with educational problems more is not being done to resolve the issues. Why aren’t the public school systems doing a better job preparing their students? Why is society pushing these people towards substance abuse? Where were the condoms and health classes?

I don’t mean to say that the Learning Bank is inadequate. My question and confusion lies in the path that brings these people do the Learning Bank. The America celebrated in Barbara Hamby’s “Ode to American English” brushes off the trials that bring so many people to the place of Learning Bank students. However, Tony Hoagland’s “America” recognizes the difficulties but offers no solutions. In this dichotomy the problem is again evident. Where is the solution?

This predicament leaves countless people stranded. At the Learning Bank the students are caught in a cycle of dead-end jobs and the never ending road towards the GED. The tutors are equally trapped, but in a cycle of another type. At Loyola we learn about the world in theory, we learn about formulas, abstract thoughts, and how things “should” be. Through our service, the theoretical and the realities of the world collide leaving many students bewildered. It is my job to offer relief from this confusion through a reflection on the service the volunteers have participated in. How can I give my volunteers closure when no experts have been able to concretely say anything except to continue as we are, continue doing service, and continue pushing for change?

Last year, I went to see Kweisi Mfume speak at Loyola. After reading about the world and participating in service I was eager to be pointed in the right direction. The world is so enormous and we are so small, how can we enact positive change? At the time, I was disappointed in his response to me, to just continue as I am and in doing so hopefully make even a minimal difference in the world. Now I have volunteers looking to me for guidance. I must be sure not to have them ignore the gritty reality as Hamby does but I must also offer them guidance unlike Hoagland. I will tell them to continue on making changes in their lives and hope that others will follow suit. I cannot offer a plan for reshaping the school system anymore than I can reform welfare. We can volunteer though, and like a ripple in a pond our encouragement and time will eventually affect more people until a wave is felt in society.

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