After 3 plus years, and lots and lots of diligent work,
Kathy has decided she is ready to take a break from our reading project. I’d be
lying if I didn’t admit her decision disappointed me, but it is my own fault. I
gave her the out.
Last week one of the women who work in the literacy office
stopped me in a store to comment on how remarkable she considered my success
with Kathy to be. She said none of the other tutors could seem to keep their
students interested beyond a few months, and in fact, every other reading team
had faded away. In her opinion the problem was the teacher’s manner and
approach to the task. These tutors, while having the best of intentions, come
in toting briefcases packed with homework, a determined set to
their jaw, a schoolmarm air, and a non-nonsense attitude. They’re going to be
great reading tutors- do or die.
I’m not that sort of teacher. I’m just as likely to come in
with a book of jokes as a book of poetry, or a basket of cooking items to give
chocolate chip cookie homework. I shoot the breeze with my student and take an
interest in her life, centering all our work on practical application stuff
that I hope will enhance her life at a non-literary level. For example, we
filled out an order form for the food bank one week and I bought Kathy
groceries for the holidays. It was a way to challenge her math and writing
skills while also helping her family, and teaching her how she could manage her
family food budget better. I made
her keep a date book, a diary, send Christmas cards, and taught her to play beginner
word games on a computer (which we gave her when we upgraded ours at home). I
enrolled her in a craft class at the local arts association and made her write
a page about the project as homework. I got her a gift card to a clothing store
for her birthday (and since she has never had a bank account or credit card, I
had to teach her how to use it too.) And all these things felt like fun rather
than work, so she kept learning, albeit in a less structured way.
It was kind of the same principal that was behind our
successful children’s dance program. Mark and I believed learning dance basics
could be camouflaged in fun activities, so we created a colorful, inviting environment
with props etc… to take the place of the traditional youth dance lesson. I then
wrote the syllabus, lectured at seminars about how well the approach worked in
today’s “instant gratification world” and we built a successful business on the
theory. Meanwhile, teachers who wanted to be taken seriously still swore by the
traditional dance programs they trained in a million years ago, so they pooh-poohed
and criticized our approach saying it was commercial nonsense, and that we were
“selling out” while they were teaching “serious” dance. All the while, Mark and
I were training better, more committed dancers, many who have respectful dance
careers today, and we built a school that was an artistic and financial success.
Results say more than trying to impress people by adopting an “I’m legitimate”
serious dance person attitude, in my opinion. Anyway, we always thought it was
weird people couldn’t see how well our fun approach to dance worked – and it
was always a source of frustration that we had to defend our methods over and
over again. Only after we left the
dance world did people proclaim our brilliance and the great loss the Hendry’s
retirement was to the dance world. (Ain’t that a kick in the Lycra pants.)
Anyway, that experience taught me that while I could appear
a more intellectual reading tutor if I wanted to wave my MFA around and be all
scholarly, demanding grammatical correct assignments, tests and worksheets, I should
follow my instincts and take another approach. I wanted to teach reading the
way I taught dance – with joy and a love of the craft the ultimate goal. After all,
I could sense the reluctance of my illiterate, repressed student the first time
I pulled out flash cards. It makes sense – if she didn’t take to traditional
education the first time when laws forced her to attend, why would I assume
she’d embrace it as an adult when she had the power to leave? I had to change the way she viewed
education, and make the process appealing. So, that is what I tried to do, and
I ended up with the most successful student to date in our literacy program because
of it. Kathy not only learned to read, but she lectured at the schools, in the
prison, and became a symbol of what could be done if an illiterate person is
willing to do the work required. Of course, it’s not like she is a college professor
now or anything that would make her a candidate for a Hollywood Hallmark movie.
She only reached the third grade reading level, but she can now read her bible,
school newsletters and mail. She can read the labels on things she buys in the
grocery store and read street signs. She has a basic understanding of a
computer (which in this world is necessary to get by since even library card
catalogues and driving tests are given on the computer now.) She functions well,
surpassed her husband and siblings reading levels, and has intentions to
continue her studies on her own. God willing, she will continue to improve. And
lets not forget that she gave up drugs in the process, changed her parenting
techniques for the better, became a healthier person and a contributor to
society. Only thing I couldn’t do was get her to stop smoking.
I was flattered by the nice comments the woman from the
office said about my work with Kathy. I responded that I was just lucky- I got
an enthusiastic student with a positive attitude, so it was easy.
“She wasn’t so positive when you started. I remember her.
She was like all the others that walk through our door, having problems with
drugs and low self-esteem. She had no teeth, bad hygiene, and if you recall, she
missed the first three lessons without calling, so she wasn’t all that committed
at the start. YOU made the difference.”
Well, that gave me a big, fat, conceited reading-tutor head.
Perhaps she was right and I was the reason Kathy held in there so long – at
least a little.
Then, just to prove her point, the woman marched into our
next lesson and said, “Kathy, you’re the longest running and most successful
student we’ve had in this program. Do you think you would have stuck it out
this long without Ginny as your tutor?”
Kathy said, “I would have quit a long time ago if I was
paired with any of those other tutors. I’m here because Ginny makes learning to
read easy. I never feel stupid with her, and even when I don’t do the homework
she wished I’d do, she is easy going and encouraging and never makes me feel
badly. She applauds what I get
done rather than reprimanding me for what I don’t do. If I felt pressured to do
more, I’d probably have given up on this whole scene long ago.”
The woman from the office gave me an “I told ya so” grin.
When she left, Kathy and I talked about all we had
accomplished, which lead to a frank discussion where I admitted I felt we were
sometimes just treading water, and perhaps I would be a better tutor if I were
a little more demanding.
After three plus years, we might want more results, and I
feared we were growing stagnant – I told Kathy she should consider enrolling in
a formal class in the GED program or something to provide new challenges and
intellectual growth. We couldn’t just keep meeting forever and ever and staying
with the status quo.
“I could do more, and I know I should, but sometimes, I just
feel overwhelmed with it all. I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done already. I
don’t really aspire to much more.”
In response to that I said (kick me please) that if she ever
wanted to take a break we could, and that I didn’t want her to continue showing
up for ME – and that after all we had accomplished, her stopping wouldn’t be a
failure, but just a sign that she had gotten what she needed from me – we could
always get back together later, even if it was a year or two later, to pick up
where we left off, if and when she felt ready to resume her studies.
She said she loved meeting me every week, and that our
tutoring sessions were not just about reading, but about friendship too. I thought I had at least laid a
foundation for some kind of evolution in the future, and perhaps she would
think it over and might even decide it was time to pour on some steam.
But don’t ya know, she came in the very next week and said,
“I thought about our conversation. If you were serious about my being able to
take a break, I think I’m ready. But I don’t want you to be disappointed in me.
What I want to know is, can we still meet once in a while for coffee or
something? I don’t want to lose you as my friend.”
“Of course. I’ll take you to lunch. I’ll make you read the
menu and if you start slipping and can’t make out the words, I’ll pop you
upside the head and make you come back to lessons,” I said, making her laugh.
So, we decided to put an end (or a temporary pause) to our
lessons. I knew our break was inevitable and natural, after all, we’ve been
doing this for three and a half years consistently, and I’m supposed to be her
tutor, not a crutch – but still, the reality that our work was finished plunged
me into depression for about a week.
Why? I worry that Kathy will slip back into ignorance, like
the character in Flower’s for Algernon – which isn’t fair to her at all,
because it shows my lack of faith that she will retain her reading skills. But
I also know when we take breaks for Christmas or summer, she does take a step
backwards. What if she stops all those habits I nag her to do – the ones that keep her reading daily? I also worry that without our weekly pep talks and
my ongoing influence, she will fall back into her old habits and maybe even get
involved in drugs again. Not that I’m some kind of knight in shining armor, but
having to face me every week has to help keep her straight. Surrounding yourself
with pulled together people (If I may dare put myself in that category) is a reminder
that there’s a world beyond the limited, repressed existence she’s been
trapped in for so long. Sometimes
the company you keep does make a difference.
I guess it is fair to say I feel the loss for selfish
reasons too. Kathy was the one thing I did in my life here that wasn’t self-serving. I mean, I take care of my family; I go
out of my way to do kind things for my elderly mother-in-law. I give to good
causes, and volunteer for community events now and again. I’m your basic
good-person, as everyone with any sensitivity from my background tends to be.
But Kathy was a serious, long-term commitment to something that didn’t have any
positive rebound for me, other than my feeling good about helping someone who
was less advantaged than I. Teaching her to read took thought, time and
attention away from my own interests, and watching her life change was tangible
proof that my life wasn’t just some endless quest to enhance my own existence.
Because of Kathy I knew I would leave the world better than how I found it.
I’ve no doubt some new cause will slide into the empty space
in my heart where Kathy took residence. I told the school I’d be willing to
take on another reading student, and perhaps that will happen, but deep down I
feel I’ve already had that experience and perhaps it is time to engage in
something new and different. I just don’t know what.
What I do know is that Kathy taught me as much as I taught
her. It was through Kathy that I learned the most about the Appalachian people
and the very different socio-economic class that surrounds us here – and I
learned what I know about these people not just intellectually by reading about
our differences or watching them from afar, but by intimate involvement that
forced me to question my preconceived notions and prejudices. Kathy also taught
me to look at the English language a new way and to see the world through new
eyes. She is an important part of my memoir – a very special friend, one without
pretense or competitiveness or even expectations – that made her different from
any female friend I’ve ever had. Our conversations were livelier and more insightful
than any I’ve had with intellectuals over cocktails at some highbrow event. Yes,
Kathy made me think . I’ll miss her.
So, I’m feeling sort of low…. Like I’m not of much use to
anyone now. I suddenly miss my passionate dance students, my work with downs
syndrome kids, my involvement with literacy. I feel isolated and sort of empty
as if my life needs a bigger purpose than writing (for myself) or toying with
animals (for myself) or doing laundry and cleaning house (for my family, which
in turn is for myself too). Suddenly,
I feel compelled to buy a cow (not for me, silly, for a family in a third
world), or go build a house with habitat for humanity or something. Amazing how a little thing, like
meeting one little woman a few hours a week, can make such a difference in how
you feel about your time on earth.
Anyway, I am no longer teaching someone to read. I am
open and eager to see what will come next.
This weekend I begin my Yoga Teacher’s Training, the first
of nine weekends that involve two twelve-hour sessions on a Saturday and Sunday. I got a hotel room for
this first Saturday because I’m guessing that after holding warrior poses all
day, I won’t be able sit much less drive the two and a half hours to get home.
I’m not the vivacious young dancer with the indestructible body I had at 30
anymore, sorry to say. Hopefully,
all that meditation I’ll be practicing will help me survive the muscle twinges.
Meanwhile, I’m armed with books on Yoga medicine, yoga theory, anatomy and
more. You know me, read, read, read, whenever a new subject tweaks the mind. As
if I might be able to think my way through the work ahead… but I also know intimate experience is
going to teach me more than any book, so I can’t wait to get into the training
sessions, meet the experienced yogi’s and be with other people starting a new
journey just as I am. The people in this course are hand selected by essay and
interview. Bet they all have interesting stories. You can bet I’ll find out.
Perhaps this is the new door I’m meant to walk through to
lead me to something new and meaningful. Perhaps Kathy’s disappearance from my
life was meant to come at this juncture, clearing the way for me to grasp onto
something new – something I’m meant to do – maybe even something yoga connected.
Or maybe that is wishful thinking.
Gee, I hate a void, especially when its in the soul.