School lessons for adults who want to help

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By Sherry Robinson

When I started as a volunteer tutor four years ago, I wondered if I had the know-how to help a first grader catch up with his peers in reading. When school ended this year, I wondered if I’d need to throw myself on top of my student in the event of an active shooter.

The answers are yes and not yet. The program prepared us for one but not the other.  

When I started, I, like all the other school volunteers, simply wanted to help. But I also wanted to learn because schools are much in the news, and I write about them. It’s been a fine adventure.

I learned that one little guy who doesn’t like reading but does like sports overcame his reluctance to read when offered books about sports at his reading level. Books like these are somewhat scarce, and for Hispanic athletes, they’re nonexistent, so at times I just wrote my own stories from web information about the lives of athletes. I leave in the hard stuff like divorce and poverty because my students experience both.

Once when my little sports fan was having a bad day, I happened to have a book about the baseball player Jackie Robinson. 

The book didn’t varnish the difficulties Robinson faced on and off the field, and it seemed to lift my young reader out of his own situation.

I learned that a third grade girl was already aware of herself as a person of color. 

Given the opportunity to choose a book from a box that happened to be sitting in the tutor room, she picked one about a minority girl who becomes a doctor. I started looking for books about Hispanic girls and, except for Dora the Explorer, those too were in short supply.

In great supply are books about little blond kids in two-parent families living in decent homes and doing wonderful things. I learned to avoid these because my readers can’t relate and lose interest. They enjoy books with some familiarity. I embraced animal books because kids like animals, and talking animals can have adventures and learn lessons without crossing ethnic lines.

Some of us have lost students because they were absent so often we couldn’t spend enough time with them to make a difference.

Four years in, I was surprised to discover that I volunteer in a failing school. From the hallway and classroom discipline I’ve seen, the caring teachers, two astute principals and an army of volunteers I would never have guessed. My son, a former teacher, says school grades are only a measure of parental income. 

I can certainly see that in the difference between my grandson’s school and the school where I volunteer. My grandson has two educated parents who stay on top of his homework and reading. He reads (and tests) like a champ and, not surprisingly, attends an A school. 

My tutor student gets nothing at home, says his teacher. 

“What’s wrong with them?” asks my husband. Well, some parents aren’t educated or didn’t like school themselves or work two jobs to pay the rent. Or they’re captives of drugs, alcohol or jail.

One day my student said the school had been on lockdown because a “bad guy” was spotted nearby. 

Another time, a teacher told me a student’s dad got out of jail and came to the school to see his kid; the secretary (!) told him he couldn’t enter because he was wearing gang attire. 

After the latest school shooting, the principal instructed tutors what to do in the event of an active shooter. It wasn’t reassuring. This school and everyone in it are frighteningly vulnerable.

So, I return to my search for new learning activities and the morbid contemplation of my own actions in a worst-case scenario.