As a college junior, I knew I was capable and citified enough to teach New York City children the fundamentals of reading. I applied for the America Reads tutoring program. It seemed like a perfect opportunity - work with kids, which is something I like, and get paid for it. Easy.
On the first day, I realized I had a lot to learn about kids.
First of all, you can't just teach them to read. Kids don't always sit quietly, listen, understand, and learn. And sometimes they find constant reading a bore. Some of them don't even know their ABCs.
On top of all that, there are the nonschool factors to account for - the influence of families, neighborhoods, other kids, music, and the outside world in general. Much to my surprise, kids are not the epitome of innocence. Not all of the kids came to school in the morning bright-eyed and ready to inhale letters, words, and ideas; some of them were tired, angry, and upset. They seemed to be experiencing and overcoming some things in life that I never had to understand at their age.
One student I became extremely attached to was very angry. He came to school randomly because his mother sent him randomly. His randomness led to isolation and inadequate skills. These problems were severely increased by his uncleanliness and a slight learning disability. He shouldn't have been in a grade-level class, but the mother wouldn't sign papers to move him into special ed.
Being an immature college student, at first I reacted to him as his six-year-old classmates had: not helping him because he smelled, because he was hard to understand, and had a hard time understanding. But I started to realize that as an America Reads tutor, my position in the classroom was significant. I was an authority figure so I was respected, but I was not responsible for reprimanding the children. Therefore, I was cool.
I began to go out of my way to look out for the student. His classmates still teased him, as kids do, but a little less. I worked with him diligently, tried to get him to think and to talk, gave him hugs and encouragement, and tried to cover his ears as best I could to the discouraging taunts of other kids.
I doubt that it was enough to matter in the big scheme of his life or even enough to add a curve to the path he's been forced onto. His nonschool factors have had a much greater impact on his life than my attempts to protect him from them.
But as lost as this child was, he impressed me. He kept trying, kept right on raising his hand at school even though he never had the answer, even though his mom neglected him, and even in spite of the snickering from his classmates.
Knowing kids, this boy will probably forget about me. I, on the other hand, am a college student in that current constant state of confusion that college students tend to enter when they exit the "real world" for four years. I'm into my head too much and seem to fall into the trap of looking at the meaning of life through the words of dead people, believing somehow that the right quote will explain it all. The first-grader whose life I was supposed to enhance with all of my insight has neither learned to read nor to write because of me. Instead he taught me a few things, kind of humbled me without really saying a word.
* Willa Reinhard will be a senior at New York University majoring in English literature and minoring in metropolitan studies. She is looking forward to working with America Reads next year.