Marie Ebacher leads me up the stairs, down a hall and into a classroom. I see several children, all African immigrants, working quietly on homework as a veteran teacher, Gladys, observes them.
“This is basic math,” says Marie, a student of mine back in her Assumption College days. “So you should be able to do it.”
Marie’s not trying to be ironic, or reveling in some “the student has become the master” moment – although that is certainly the case this afternoon, my first as a volunteer tutor for African Community Education. Instead, Marie, ever considerate, is merely addressing the anxiety I’d expressed an hour ago. An English professor by trade, I had made it abundantly clear to Marie that I was among the math-impaired. This was at least a little hypocritical: As the director of Assumption’s Community Service Learning program, I constantly utter the cliché about the value of “getting out of your comfort zone.” I can’t help smiling at the irony that now it’s my turn. I’m a sucker for poetic justice, even when I’m its victim.
I settle down next to a slender African girl in full Islamic garb, from the scarf on her head to the ankle-length skirt – the same clothes she wore on the basketball court when I was happily helping her shoot, something I could teach without fear of unwittingly undermining her academic future.
Now, though, I am staring at a worksheet of 20 or so numbers, most of them in the millions. Her job was to identify the slot in which a certain digit rested. For instance, if asked where the “7” was in 1,407,429, she was supposed to say the “one-thousand” slot. Marie was right – I could do this – but that begged other questions. For instance, what was the exact title of each slot? I don’t want to be just guessing its name, only to find out the hard way that her teacher has a different lingo. She allays this anxiety by producing a second sheet listing the terms.
Then there was the deeper question: How do I know what I know? Back in the early ‘60s at Northington Elementary, was this how I learned that the thousand came before the comma? As far as I can tell, this fundamental knowledge was just downloaded into my brain from The Cloud. (For certain, clouds were involved, if only in my memory.) I’ll never know. But my new friend helped me get past these issues; before long she had completed the entire sheet, and it was time to go back downstairs to a group activity.
The next morning it was my turn to be tutored. Colleagues Sarah Cavanagh and Jim Lang met me at NU Café for the latest meeting of our writing group. Each of us are working on books, and their manuscripts are in one way or another about the psychology of learning. Sarah’s is particularly intriguing, since she’s a professor of psychology – which I might’ve majored in if not for, yes, that whole math obstacle. Somewhere in our discussion, it comes up that emotional engagement enhances learning – and that learning, even when you potentially ruin it by making it your day job, can be pleasurable.
My mind flashes back to the afternoon before at ACE, a classic example of both. It doesn’t take long to get emotionally involved with kids period, especially immigrant kids who have come so far just to be here – and yet, in many cases, have so far to go in terms of catching up with lifelong English speakers from homes more affluent than their own. That emotional desire to connect started with me asking them to educate their tutor – before the official tutoring period started, several of them politely pointed out in a textbook where they were from in Africa, reminding me how little I knew. Just knowing I was about to start volunteering, I automatically read any news about Africa with heightened interest.
That’s certainly incentive enough to volunteer. But then there is the pleasure of learning – and not just book-learning. There’s learning how to decode homework assignments by teachers I’ve never met, working at grade levels I’ve never taught, in methodologies of which I’m largely ignorant. There’s learning even more respect for the teachers, the tutors, and most of all the students who are striving to put together those basic building blocks I’ve long ago forgotten. There’s learning how to listen – a task complicated by my hearing, not as good as it used to be, and by our distinctly different accents. Learning the New England spin on English is challenge enough – now they have my Southern accent thrown into the mix. There is learning to focus and concentrate amid distraction – a challenge that the student occasionally meets more effectively than the tutor, glancing at commotion elsewhere. By the time my Thursday debut at ACE rolled around, I had taught four college classes and two independent studies, and yet my time with my ACE students may have been my most intellectually engaging hours of the week. And now, even as I write this, I’m fascinated with how I can become better at it.
I chose ACE after this year’s cross-country, community service road trip, finding that after all my much-varied volunteer gigs, what I most wanted was a chance to connect with people different than myself, doing something that I was both good at and, at the same time, not so good at. Something in which the clientele and I would not only grow closer – but grow together.
Thanks to the good folks at ACE, that search appears to be over.