Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Homework Club

Throughout my time in Baltimore, one of the best things I did was to work as a tutor for the Remington Homework Club. It was a once a week commitment over the academic year, ostensibly helping kids with their homework, more realistically doing my best to keep them from fighting one another or calling each other too nasty of names, and, on a good night, playing a little basketball with them.

When people ask how I got started with this group, I tend to give them the generic answer--that I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and Googled around until I found this one.

That version of the story isn’t untrue, but neither is it complete.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

I pulled up to a red light and rubbed my eyes, 2:30 on a Sunday morning. I had been careful not to drink too much at the Christmas party, but I’d been up early that Saturday. I was tired and a little buzzed and low on fuel, and driving the only car in sight, on some neighborhood back road after I made a wrong turn en route to the highway.

And I was heartbroken.

That fall I engaged in all-too-short romance with a woman I thought I might love who summarily dismissed me after a few weeks of dating. In the weeks to follow, Delia and I had remained friendly, exchanging the occasional text message, remaining in the same social circles. It all culminated in that Christmas party when the two of us stood on our own and I mustered the gall to ask if she’d had any second thoughts about us seeing one another. I made it pretty clear that I had.

She hugged me and told me she loved me.

Like a brother.

I made a clumsy exit and headed outside to my rust bucket Honda Accord to drive home.

And I thought about how much everything sucked. How I’d had a miserable time when I went home for Thanksgiving the month before and I was headed back there in a couple days. How my budding romance had frozen over with the first autumn frost. How I was faced with the choice of still seeing Delia all the time, or giving up our mutual friends--the entirety of my Baltimore social circle at the time.

I thought of how I was fed up with most people in my life, and most of all myself.

I called my best friend and got his voicemail. The two of us talked just about every day at that point, and for months, he had listened patiently to me prattle on about Delia—about the courtship, about the dates, about the aftermath. On this call, I told his voicemail that I might need a couple days. Not to be alarmed if I didn’t answer his calls.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

Sitting at that red light, a new thought crossed my mind. That as badly I felt everything was going, I had a job. I had my health. I had a best friend whom I could call, and dozens of other people I could have called on if I were in bad enough need. I had family to return home to and to stay with.

And so, at my low point I realized that, objectively speaking, I was still pretty fortunate.

I thought of how I always intended to do more.

Intended to do better.

Intended to give back.

For a few years running, I had volunteered at a soup kitchen Thanksgiving mornings. Waking up early, stocking shelves, taking out the garbage--it was a good day’s work at a good, symbolic time of showing thanks and an interest humankind. Just the same, it was isolated to a once a year endeavor doing work in a place and on an occasion such that, were I not there, someone else almost certainly would have stood up in my place.

It wasn’t enough.

So that weekend I Googled volunteer opportunities in Baltimore. Opportunities to have a positive impact, and perhaps equally important to me at the time, to redirect all of the hurt and negative energy I felt to something worthwhile.

That January, I started with the Homework Club. I worked with a pair of boys, seated cross-legged on the dirty gymnasium floor, upstairs from the church community room. I spent more time trying to keep the boys from grappling with each other, or at one point me, than I did actively tutoring. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

But I made it through.

And I kept going, straight through the spring and starting again the next fall. And I came back the next year. More sure of myself when I stopped kids from running in restricted areas and when I refocused them on homework. Better prepared to laugh and play along when they made up their own rules to a game of chess.

On many levels this endeavor worked for me. Long after I got over Delia, volunteering provided a welcome diversion from whatever office, school, or personal stressors were taking over at a given period of time. I met some new friends and some cool kids.

Just the same, there came a point when I wondered if, for all the time and effort invested, I was actually making a difference in any meaningful way.

As if answering a question I hadn’t spoken, that very night one of the boys I was working with looked up at me and said, “I wish we had Homework Club every night.”

And though I briefly tried to explain that most volunteers wouldn’t be available for every night, and that the kids would probably get sick of it if they met much more than once a week, and that the church was used for other purposes—despite all of that, the core of what this kid said got through to me.

That Homework Club offers these kids a safe place to play basketball and football and board games after dark. That the tutors are the best kinds of role models--not just setting good examples week in and week out, but choosing to show up for these girls and boys. That some of the kids actually do get homework done in this setting, and find help from their peers and this set of adults that they might not find at home.

Funnily enough, after that first time I heard a boy say he wished Homework Club met more frequently, I heard more kids say virtually the same thing. I don’t hold illusions about having changed the lives of every kid who came to the church Monday nights, or that many of these kids will remember me ten years from now. But I can also see that that sense of appreciation, and that those relationships we formed, as tenuous as they may have been, were still fundamentally important.

Aside from a couple of semesters when my grad school classes conflicted with Homework Club, I worked with the group for six years. A month removed from Baltimore, this particular community and this work is a part of what I miss most. Just the same, I’ll take the lessons from the experience with me. To put others first. To serve. What to do with all of my negativity.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

The truth is, I made the most of the journey back up.

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