Back at School: Volunteering in an Elementary School
September 15, 2022
I should have known that I would stop volunteering at the garden when I finally bought gardening gloves. For more than six months I worked bare-handed or wore gloves from a box of cast-offs in the garden’s potting shed. Then, I got my own gloves. I wore them once and now they’re on the floor behind the driver’s seat in my car. I’m trying to decide if I should put them in the trunk, hidden and unneeded, or keep them where they are, a reminder that just because the gloves fit doesn’t mean I have to wear them.
My Wednesday mornings in the garden’s nursery were wonderful. The other volunteers were, generally, the right amount of interesting and talkative to make the morning feel like an outing among friends and not hours repotting plants in the heat. But I began to feel more of an outsider as the other volunteers would talk about their evolving plans for their gardens (or “land” as one referred to her acre) and their familiarity with different plants, while I was only fostering a lone bromeliad on the lanai and uncovering no desire to immerse myself in botany books. I remained a plant lover on a “looks beautiful” basis, not a “Latin name and uses” basis. I also began to wonder if my volunteer hours would be better spent directly helping others, rather than puttering around the garden so it could raise funds through the sale of potted plants. It seems that for me the right volunteer activity needs to effectively blend dedication to cause with personal fulfillment. A true give and get.
So, fun in the garden is out. Tutoring in an elementary school is in.
My Tuesday mid-days are now spent with 1st and 2nd graders in a high poverty school, helping out their teachers and them. Two weeks down. I feel of use there applying some skills, some compassion for the students, some empathy for the teachers, and lots of love being part of the village raising our children. And they are our children, because this isn’t about yours or mine, but about making each child feel valued.
I’m there to help with reading and writing, one-on-one or walking around the room helping whoever needs it at the moment. It is surprising, in a good way, how quickly I feel that I’m part of the group. In the first week, one girl was dismissive, as she had a right to be; after all, who is this new person in our classroom and why do I have to interact with her? This week, when I was at the door ready to leave, she came up and gave me a hug. Momentary mission-accomplished.
Not being the teacher in the classroom responsible for lessons and assessments is freeing. It is a distilled version of teaching, which, distilled even further, is an adult helping a child. Within the two hours I was there, I tied shoelaces, commented on drawings, enthused over sentences, and gave pep-talks on reading, oh, and permission to go to the in-class bathroom. Time well-spent. Experiences like this show me that I made the right move when I became a teacher mid-career (abandoning high-tech marketing writing), because one way my soul expresses itself is by reflecting back to children what is within. It also shows that retirement is the time to fully live that expression—in between a late breakfast and a swim in the pool.