Kathy and I had our picture in the paper this week. We were both delighted – not because there was a short clip about our activities, but because the picture just happened to be a good one of both of us. (You see, we may be advocates of literacy, but we are women first, and what woman isn’t pleased when someone finally gets a decent picture of her. I am not at all photogenic, as most pix on this blog make evidently clear. It’s the dopey smile and the over-generous nose, you see. And the magic photo fat that appears when a camera is aimed my way.)
Anyway, I was thrilled to see the mini-article because I considered it a perfect reading exercise for Kathy for our
next lesson. I am always looking for interesting things for her to practice reading. She read the article in her faltering, stumbling way, and I looked on, proud and amazed at how well she is doing. She could actually read the words “education” and “specific”. She has a long way to go, because she still has to sound words out letter by letter and her writing skills are behind the reading progress, but nevertheless, it is very rewarding to see how much she has accomplished.
In fact, she is doing so well that the director of the program said, ‘We will have to think about moving Kathy into a classroom environment soon and consider assigning you a new student.”
I thought Kathy was going to faint.
She said, “I’m not ready.”
I agreed, and the director, seeing how nervous the suggestion made Kathy, said we can talk about it another time. The comment did foreshadow an inevitable issue we will one day have to deal with. I can’t be Kathy’s teacher forever. But I can certainly be her friend for all time.
The article attached to our nice picture was a call for literacy tutor volunteers, and sure enough, FLAG (the literacy program at the college) got seven new recruits. I am the gal in charge of training them now. Next Thursday I will begin teaching adults how to teach other adults to read. Ee-gad.
I have spent a lot of time contemplating how to go about this new responsibility. When I directed the dance school, I ended up spending more energy and emphasis on working with teachers than any single class of students. I knew the strength of the school lie in having enthusiastic, informed teachers. You can only be in one place at a time, and as such, your ability to spread knowledge is limited. But when you work with teachers, your efforts expand into many classrooms and touch many individuals. I had a motto that was no doubt very annoying to the people working for me. I always said “There are no bad students, only bad teachers.”
When teachers made excuses to me, such as saying “This is my worst class because the kids are not committed. They don’t come to class regularly and they don’t care.” Or, “These kids are out of control.” Or, “I get all the students with the worst feet (or attitude, or bodies, or stage personalities) I’d respond with, “So, what you are saying is you are not making the class interesting or fun enough to inspire the students to show up,” or “What I’m hearing is you have let discipline go and now your class is out of hand. So, what are you going to do about it?”
I always felt the responsibility lie in the person at the helm, because our students are what we make them. If we want them to be responsible, enthusiastic, and committed – or if we want them to be good turners, have nice feet or whatever, it is up to us to put emphasis in those areas. Our job is to make kids fall in love with discipline and commitment. You see, success begins with the person introducing the subject matter in a way that is engaging. Leadership is all-important.
Anyway, I feel the exact same way about teaching adults to read. It requires a lot of instinct, psychology, and enthusiasm to keep an adult interested in learning. You can’t expect them to come to the table devoted to the cause, because obviously, they have a history of discarding educational venues. So, the question is, what can we do about it? How can we do this job without boring the student or making them feel inadequate, and help them see the benefits in the long term are worth the effort in the short term?
I am planning my lectures and materials, doing all I can to paint a comprehensive picture of the students we will work with and how our methods, if positive and creative, can make a difference in their lives. I may not be a formally trained educator, but I think I am a good person for this job. I just hope I can teach these tutors to not be judgmental, or condescending, and I make it clear how important it is not to combine religion with education (a problem up here, because most volunteers are also church recruiters) . I need to help them understand the mindset of the non-reader, then give them the tools to teach the skills required.
Today, Kathy and I went to the high school to speak to the students in a remedial class. The focus was supposed to be about drugs and alcohol and how substances can ruin your life (Kathy’s specialty) but I was there to talk about education and how it opens the door to a stronger future. We live deep in the Bible belt, and everyone here (teachers, students, social workers, politicians) are bible thumpers who feel the only way to save your soul and live a decent life is to give your life to God. Needless to say, I believe there are many paths to a good life, and when I voice my honest opinion, it is not always appreciated. I would never, ever discredit religion and its role in serving society or forget how it gives people peace of mind, but I am also quick to profess that Christianity is not the only path to personal salvation. We talked to the kids for about 1 ½ hours. It was interesting, albeit sad, to hear their stories of family tragedy and struggles with drugs (mostly meth) and drinking. The whole time Kathy and another speaker kept saying, “God will change you if you let him. God is the only way to live true and fight evil in yourself.”
I suggested they try journaling (don’t laugh, I did.) Who needs to clarify their thoughts more than a troubled teen with substance abuse issues? Journaling is like therapy – it can be a slice of heaven when life feels empty. Yes, God is good and all, but journaling is the ticket. It will fight the evil in your soul quite well, thank you very much.
Obviously, I didn’t offend anyone too much with my liberal attitude. When we were done, an administrator asked me if I would consider mentoring a troubled teen. It involves coming to the school one hour a week to counsel a student, one on one.
Although I am always strapped for time, I agreed to help.
The woman felt it only fair to make it clear that I’d be working with an emotionally handicapped young adult. “Can you handle that?” she asked.
I smiled and said I certainly could. I then told her that for years I volunteered at a school in Florida to teach dance to emotionally and physically handicapped students. I explained that I was probably a perfect candidate for this sort of mentorship because I do not fear people with mental problems and, thanks to experience; I don’t ever feel out of control or threatened working with them. I also have a great deal of experience with teens. I relate to them rather well.
She tilted her head and said, “Do you still do that sort of thing. Dance, I mean?”
And there it was . . . that pivotal moment when I was once again at the dance crossroads.
I could have said, “I’m retired now,” and let dance slip into oblivion again. But I didn’t. I looked at the faces of those kids, their confessions and personal grief still ringing in my ears, and said, “You bet I do. Want to set up some classes?”
Now, I should point out that around here they don’t have much in the way of arts education, at least not in the dance venue. So my class will no doubt rock their world. The fact is, for all that I don’t teach dance for a living anymore, I still believe in the power of dance to reach deep into the soul of someone who needs an outlet for expression. And heck, I’m the girl to help get the job done.
I have some strong feelings about dance and its role in my life at this point. When I was young, I felt I truly made a difference in the lives of my students. But as the years wore on and the culture of Sarasota changed, shifting the mindset of the students, I started to feel that what I was doing for a living was superficial nonsense. Dance lost its magic for me when it became clear our role was nothing but to stroke egos and entertain kids. I wanted my life to have more meaning than that.
I wrote a book in my master’s program about a dancer who is retiring. The character is filled with anger and
disappointment and bitterness about her art. But she begins teaching a class of mentally handicapped students, and this becomes her salvation. By working with this bedraggled lot of awkward students, she rediscovers love for the art, remembering the purity and beauty of dance when competitiveness, ego and the pursuit of perfection is cast aside. She rediscovers how dance can bring out the extraordinary in a person. Teaching heals her and helps her cope with the inevitable way an artist looses dance firsthand through the aging process. When Mark read the book he said it was very disturbing because it revealed the complex feelings I was dealing with in regards to my life’s work. And, of course, it reflected what he was going through too.
Anyway, thinking about all that now, I realize that teaching a few classes to lost souls who need something positive to help their self esteeme would not only be helpful, but would probably be just the thing I need too. I certainly am qualified, and while I’m older than I once was, I can still out-dance and out-teach more than a few people who are active in the field. I’m retired, but, heck, I’m still me.
I’d say the hardest thing Mark and I have had to cope with during our life change is this nagging feeling that we are not using our God given gifts. It feels downright wrong for us not to be involved in dance anymore, and the guilt and remorse we experience over that loss is hard to describe. But despite these feelings, we can’t go back because having witnessed all the disappointments and frustrations selling our school triggered, we can’t bear participation in the dance world anymore. It is painful. Nevertheless, if teaching will make a difference to someone (beyond the superficial) I can and will be a part of it .
So, I’ll be teaching a class for mentally handicapped students, and another one for emotionally handicapped kids, soon. Can’t wait. And I’ll be a mentor to one teen. Bet that will be interesting too.
Speaking of interesting, the other day I accompanied Kathy to her drug court meeting. It turned out to be a court appointed Alcoholics anonymous course. There were 95 people participating with only one therapist and one volunteer trying to oversee everyone. I was overwhelmed with the futility of the task at hand considering the lack of resources.
All evening I heard people stand and say, “Hi, I’m Dave and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi Dave” the crowd says in response.
“Hi, I’m Sandy and I’m an addict.”
“Hi Sandy,” we all recite. Then she gives us her testimony.
I learned so much by observing these people. It helps me understand Kathy and her struggle better too, which was the point of going. But I must say, my heart bled for the troubled people I met and the stories I heard about their struggles.
For a while, they were working in small groups and I was just observing. A group of about 10 women were trying to interpret text and have a discussion about it, but often they missed the point. It killed me not to speak up or try to lead them back into what the book was trying to teach. They even had issues with understanding the actual words on the page when reading aloud. One time, they came to a word no one knew (I think it was “manifest”, and they all looked at each other, lost. Then Kathy looked at me, and all eyes followed. I explained what the word meant, and they were like, “Oh. OK. That makes sense.”
The fact that these individuals are dealing with drug addiction, family violence (one woman had a black eye that she explained was “man trouble again”, and to top it off, they had inadequate education, made the problems they face seem tenfold. I admired them all for their resilience, yet felt deeply for their plight knowing most of them will never know the lovely side of the world that I take for granted, thanks to the advantages I’ve had.
On the walls, I saw pictures drawn by participants that stated their goals. Several women wrote “I just want to get my kids back.”
One said, “I just want to stop hurting the people I love.”
Several referred to wanting a decent place to live, or “to not lose my house.”
Kathy’s said, “I want to learn to read.”
It was so real – so dismal – it shook me to the core.
When I came home I said to Mark that it kills me to witness so much need in our community, because there is only so much one person can do to help. I felt inspired to volunteer at that organization, but I am already committed in several other places, and no matter how strongly I feel about the issue, I can’t take on all the problems of the world.
I have thought a lot about my personal skills and what I have to offer others, and I keep thinking writing may be the best vehicle I have going for me at this juncture of my life. I haven’t mentioned it, but I have been asked to help design and promote an adult education program at Tocco College and I am working with the director to organize classes. The first class they want to introduce is a memoir writing class and a fiction class taught by yours truly. Yes, I’ll be teaching others to write in January. I guess that’s a no-brainer considering I’m a natural teacher, a writer, and now, I have the degree to authenticate my teaching. But planning that class has got me thinking. If I am going to become a writing teacher and prepare lessons, I don’t have to limit it to tuition paying adults. Imagine what I will learn if I choose to turn those skills on to people with remarkable, heart rendering stories to share with the world? All repressed, hurting people need is someone to help them learn how to expand their universe and understand their obsticles.
I think writing is a healing process and a way to discover the best in you. It certainly clarifies my thoughts, and I believe I tapped into my authentic self when I began putting my feelings into words. Why not share that experience with others?
So, I talked to a woman involved at the Ester House, which is a halfway house for women overcoming drug addiction and we are going to discuss setting up a memoir writing class for the residents. It is a start, I think. And if it goes well, perhaps I’ll branch out to other populations that need someone supportive to help them work out their feelings on paper. If nothing else, I will learn something from my efforts. It will teach me to be a better writing teacher at least. Practice makes perfect.
The point is, I feel myself evolving. I am creating a world where I am carrying the best of what I once was forward, while exploring what else I have inside too. Who knows where it will lead. Someplace new, I guess.
So now, dance is making a comeback in my life, albeit a small one. And writing is gaining a foothold, expanding it’s presence.