Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"I'm tired!" (or, Why I Sometimes Question The Human Desire to Procreate)

"I'M TIRED!" Georgia flops her head down into her reading comprehension homework. She squints one eye at me from beneath her folded, hot-pink-sweatshirt clad arms. Deep breath, Hilary, deep breath. You are Mary Poppins. You are light and airy and holding a magic pencil. "You can't be tired!" I smile jovially, as if letting her in on a big secret to the nature of reality. She isn't buying it. Seriously? SERIOUSLY! You've been here five minutes! The walls are brightly colored and full of friendly faces! There are snacks in the next room! Your homework does not include a six page annotated bibliography!

Georgia grins mischievously, and continues to resist my efforts to put pencil to paper and name the three types of clouds or give three example of citrus fruits. Just as I'm thinking, "Fine! I give up!" Ms. Mary walks by. Ms. Mary is the leader of the Little Lights program where I'm doing this service learning project, and Ms. Mary is the person I'd need to impress if I was ever trying to prove that I deserve to work with children. Just as she pauses by the desk to listen, Georgia slams her pencil to the paper, draws a dark line straight down through the paragraph, questions and blank spaces for her answers, and kicks her feet against the desk. Great. Just great. She picks this moment to throw the big hissy fit and make me look like an incompetent fool. Score: Georgia 1, Hilary 0.

I didn't make a comeback for the Georgia-Hilary showdown. She finished her homework as crankily as possible, shoved it into her bag and huffed off without so much as a "goodbye." Fine, I thought to myself, that's fine. But what I was probably really thinking is, "That girl has an attitude I'd like to kick to the moon and back a few times!" or maybe, "How is it that a seven year old can manage to procrastinate with 'I'm tired' ? What exactly do seven year olds DO that could possibly be so tiring that a paragraph is too much to read?"

The truth is, of course, that students like Georgia are precisely the reason that I want to teach. I seriously think children calculate the exact right moment to tip the flower vase over, spill soap on the floor, cut their sibling's hair, throw their peas at the wall, and throw a homework fit. They know when it will make a maximum impact. They know somehow that if they wait until a teacher/parent/cool adult/impressive person is there, and THEN they explode/implode/wreak havoc/freak out, me, the babysitter/tutor/weak adolescent/poor college kid will look stupid. Children know these things.

But there is something profoundly humbling about realizing how much Georgia needs help with her homework. There is something about watching her sound out the words slowly and hesitantly that makes me stop my tirade and think about the opportunities I've been given to learn and grow. Mrs. Budd poured into my first grade mind the knowledge of how to read books. Mrs. Panikian poured into my third and fourth grade mind how to write paragraphs and science reports. Mr. Columbo poured into my fifth grade mind the knowledge of the three branches of government. Mrs. Cooper poured into my sixth grade mind a love for asking questions and writing good sentences.

And then high school it becomes blurred into the names: Yasmine, Allegra, Josh, Jim, Charles, Peter, Neil, John Wigglesworth, Christiane, Matt, Vicki, Holly, Greg Moss, Francis, Steve, Tim Bakland, Tim Averill... there are so many, I couldn't count them. And don't get me started on the influential people at Gordon (we'd be here forever).

And then I look at Georgia. She's wearing a hot pink shirt, her black hair pulled back by a rubber band. Her chewed fingernails skim the surface of the paper as she points to each syllable and speaks slowly. She comes from the Potomac Gardens, a low-income housing project in DC. She comes from a family who looks very different from mine. She thinks of school as hard and frustrating. Her shoes have city dirt on them, and her voice has a slight accent, Southern and not at the same time. Her dark eyes look at me skeptically, and I can't say I blame her. I've sat in my folding chair fuming that she won't do her reading, won't work on her homework, and that she pitched a fuss in front of Ms. Mary.

Maybe she is tired. Maybe she is tired of having trouble with her homework, of it always being hard. Maybe she is tired of seeing a new visitor or volunteer at the program every day. Maybe she is tired of wondering whether or not she is good enough at something. And with these thoughts comes the stunning realization that as a teacher I could help Georgia not be tired. I could help her with her homework, teach her to love books, be a consistent presence in her life, teach her that she is good at many things.

We've been talking about vocation in class for the past two weeks, and this is the first time I think I've seen the possible future of my own sense of calling. Georgia might have been tired this afternoon; but if teachers exist who can make learning exciting, who can love their students and want to see them grow, who can be faithful presences in young lives, then Georgia might not be tired the next time I see her.

It's late, all. Thank you for reading.


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