I began tutoring in a literacy class at a city high school in Madison at the beginning of this school year with the intention of helping a few students, lightening a teachers' load. The students are all things I remember being in high school: awkward, acne-prone, insecure, tired and perpetually hungry. (Hell, I'm still all those things.) But they have a disadvantage when it comes to school — they're well below their expected grade level in literacy, which can be a formidable barrier to academic success and steady employment.
One student (we'll call her A, for privacy's sake), shuffled into class late one day, looking distracted, totally zoned out. I didn't really think much of it but the teacher asked what was up and it turns out A's family was forced to move from their home and A would now be staying at friends' homes and with other family members for the time being. Devastating. But this doesn't stop her from continuing working at her retail job part time and attending school regularly. It hasn't stopped her from reading with me (and on her own) and independently seeking out supplemental material for the book. The resilience of this young woman, who in the face of many prohibitive factors, is still quick to smile when I ask where she got her awesome leggings amazes me.
These struggles, although not something I had to endure, are not entirely new to me. As a student at Lansing Eastern High School (in Michigan) — a school deemed a "dropout factory," beset by financial woes and a one-way flow of students to suburban schools — I watched as peers moved into friends' houses, worked long hours at family-supporting jobs and took care of siblings.
Seeing the challenges faced with varying success by those peers whom the system was failing is what got me interested in volunteering in schools. It feels like there's nothing I can do on an individual level but at the same time I feel like I must try, like it's not an option but a duty. There's nothing fair or right about any of it. But I can't fix the system. I can't rewrite and undo years of laws and trends that reward families who live in the "right" districts with continued success and doom others to face disparaging odds at any kind of academic success.
So I do what I can and I tell myself, "maybe this works."
Maybe my two hours of reading and joking and high-fiving won't make a difference, but maybe it does. All I can hope for is that some of the "maybes" become "definitelys", become change.