Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Room With A View
I was at a high school yesterday afternoon. I was there to help some students with their English papers. There were a lot of students in the Learning Resource Center, which is available for one hour after classes are over. Many were working on their own. Perhaps just taking advantage of an atmosphere that is conducive to studying. Others were using the computers. And others were there in search of academic assistance. The latter group is the smallest, though not for lack of need.
It can be difficult to ask for help. Difficult to admit uncertainty or reveal any sense of vulnerability. This is true for most of us, but it's an insecurity that can be especially acute among adolescents. Though some of the students did seem to be more comfortable asking for help with some subjects than with others.
I sat at the table designated for English tutors and waited for students. There were students at the math table, and several at the science table. One student asked me if I knew anything about quantum mechanics. I told her that I didn't, but that I'd try to read through the work with her and help in any way that I could until a more qualified tutor became available. Thankfully the cavalry arrived sooner, rather than later.
I also talked with a teacher for a moment. We discussed the low levels of writing proficiency among many of the students. That was something that I'd seen firsthand through tutoring, but that she was more intimately familiar with. She nodded at the empty seats at the English table and said, "that's a tough one for them to admit they need help with."
I thought about that statement for a while. For better or for worse, math and science are subjects that many people in our society struggle with. Perhaps that lessens the feelings of inadequacy for the students that need help in those areas.
But English is different. Our relationship with words is personal. We use language to communicate with each other. We use it categorize and organize everything that we encounter in the complex world around us. And, perhaps most importantly, we use language to sort through and define our own internal thoughts and feelings. And in that sense, our words are intricately and inseparably tied to our sense of self.
In that light, it makes sense that students would be hesitant to ask for help. The insecurities, anxieties, and self-doubt that seem part and parcel of being a teenager, would make the already difficult task of opening oneself to personal criticism seem absolutely unbearable.
However, being sympathetic to that doesn't really help me as I sit at the table waiting for a student. I can create a recipe that spices up constructive criticism with sincere praise, but I still have to get some food in the kitchen in order to cook.
I'd like to say that I had some sort of epiphany while waiting for students. That I discovered a method for miraculously breaking down the defensive barriers built by pride and fear. It feels good to wrap a nice little bow around the solution to a problem. But that didn't happen.
I did eventually get a student to work with though. He was writing a paper on Macbeth. He knew what he wanted to say, but he wanted my help with the structural aspects of the paper. He knew that there were improvements to be made, and that those improvements were escaping him. He listened to my feedback openly and thoughtfully, and seemed eager take what he could from our exchange.
His willingness to acknowledge his linguistic shortcomings was both refreshing and endearing. And I found myself searching for the source of that courage while we talked. He apparently excelled in other areas, such as the hard sciences. Maybe that success helped give him the confidence to address the things that he struggled with. Though I'm sure that there is much more to it than that. My interaction with him was brief. And any conclusions that I might come to about what makes him who he is, would be hopelessly incomplete.
We finished up, and I looked at the clock. The hour was almost over. I looked around the room. I looked at the students. Watched them interact with each other. Saw a few knowing glances exchanged among friends. Noticed the top of the high school hierarchy of strong boys and pretty girls. And I saw a few fevered pencils quickening as the time to leave approached.
There was something comforting about the familiarity of it all. There were plenty of outward differences between this environment and my own adolescence. But underneath, there was something timeless and reassuring. Something that said that all of life's dilemmas were here long before I was, and that they'll all be here long after I'm gone. There is a peace that comes with the moments that I can see this, and yesterday I got that peace for a little while.