Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I am familiar with tutoring people. I am familiar with working with people with disabilities. I am unfamiliar with tutoring someone who is disabled, as I did this week. I thought I was prepared, that I understood the issues facing the students of the Learning Bank but somehow the idea of a student with sight problems had never occurred to me. In the past year that I have volunteered at the Learning Bank I’ve tutored students with various external stressors: previous substance abuse, current substance abuse, low income, teen pregnancy, lack of family support, and all that develops from these issues.

The woman I tutored on Tuesday, Patricia, not only wore high prescription glasses but also carried with her a magnifier glass. As we worked through the assignment dealing with subtraction of whole numbers, her perseverance astounded me. Even with the magnifier glass she struggled to read the numbers, and to write her answers down on a line. As I grew frustrated with my lack of tutoring technique, Patricia continued to work diligently. Usually I am able to work with the students so that they arrive at the answers almost entirely on their own, but with Patricia I noticed myself taking short cuts.

Outside of the Learning Bank’s shelter there must be someone to walk with her through life. I caught myself with this thought. All the other people I’ve encountered with serious vision problems have had aids who help them through their day. For the most part they’ve had the resources to stay out of danger. In reality I have no idea if anyone greets Patricia on the other side of the Learning Bank’s glass doors.

Society is supposed to protect those that are vulnerable. Instead of being protected, this woman has likely been shown closed doors and averted eyes. My tutoring did little than pass the time during the class; even though she can grasp the concepts on a theoretical level her physical limitations prevent her from making progress. As the teacher of the class asked how she was doing, her eyes revealed that she had no comprehension of a greater plan for this woman. Patricia comes to class regularly. She comes prepared. She is attentive. She puts forth great effort. We show her nothing but empty hands.

The Learning Bank works to spread adult literacy throughout the Baltimore area. Patricia’s silent disorder is similar to Hemingway’s “white elephant”. The Learning Bank does not have the facilities or the instructors to provide Patricia with anything real; instead her disability is not discussed. In his short story, “Hills like White Elephants”, the sun’s blinding angle causes the hills to appear white, distinctly different than the “brown and dry” countryside. In Hemingway’s short story the girl’s “white elephant” was abortion. Baltimore’s “white elephants” are the issues not being served. My “white elephants” are those people and causes I am helpless to serve.

Patricia’s vision makes me wonder what other issues I am blind to due to the sun’s light. In the short story the girl saw the abortion as a “white elephant” because it interrupted the status quo of their lives. Patricia’s vision interrupted the status quo of my life and for that reason forced me to face it. However, I do not regret this recognition. This recognition has enabled me to acknowledge the existence of “white elephants”; the existence of bumps in life. Perhaps my morning spent tutoring Patricia served a purpose beyond, hopefully, increasing her math skills. Perhaps it pushed me, once more, into discomfort so that I could grow once more. Perhaps Baltimore could open its eyes to Patricia, grow uncomfortable with the status quo of relative misery, and grow.

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