Thursday, November 8, 2007

Day 5: So Who Have You Helped?

So now it is Day 5 of A Week of Positive Blogging. This day concerns things that I have done to help others or to save their lives. Much of what I write in this regard deals with me learning that sometimes when you help others, even without knowing it, you are helping yourself.

I grew up with a number of self-esteem issues. Due in part to being picked on, and also because for many years I did not feel like I had a purpose in life. Putting my self esteem issues to rest has been a long and hard fought war that in some respects is still being fought. The growth I do have in this area came by way of people who were a part of my life and cared for me and showed me how to care for others. It also came with people thanking me for being myself and doing things to help them.

Finding Purpose

One of the best examples of a boost to my self-esteem came during my years at Prairie View A&M University doing community service. It was in that time that I felt the most joy in helping others and even with the difficulties that I was experiencing I felt a great deal of joy in tutoring math at the Upward Bound program at the University of Houston - Downtown. When I was a tutor in the Upward Bound program teaching math to high school students, between the years of 1994 to 1998, I did it initially only for the community service merits that I could receive from it. Yet, as time went on it became more to me, it was a way for me to help others and I began to really care for the students I taught. I hated it whenever I missed a tutoring session, and I didn’t know what to do after a day of tutoring was complete. What is Upward Bound you ask?

Upward Bound provides fundamental support to participants in their preparation for college entrance. The program provides opportunities for participants to succeed in their pre-college performance and ultimately in their higher education pursuits. Upward Bound serves: high school students from low-income families; high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree; and low-income, first-generation military veterans who are preparing to enter postsecondary education. The goal of Upward Bound is to increase the rate at which participants complete secondary education and enroll in and graduate from institutions of postsecondary education. Upward Bound projects provide academic instruction in mathematics, laboratory sciences, composition, literature, and foreign languages. Tutoring, counseling, mentoring, cultural enrichment, and work-study programs also are supported. (source)

It was not just the tutoring of math that brought so much joy to my life back then, but also the personal interaction with the students I taught. In between tutoring I would talk to my students about faith issues, life, and the need for early scholastic advancement. I would do all of this in my normal comedic manner and often made my points while being able to make the students laugh. During the time I was an Upward Bound tutor I enjoyed the varieties of high school kids that I taught. I enjoyed all of the kids who came to learn, especially my group of Latino kids. I enjoyed how studious they were and how eager they were to learn. I would always laugh at how respectful they were since they called me “Mr.” all of the time. I would often remind them that I was not that much older than them and they didn’t have to call me mister. They of course would say okay and then call me “Mr.” again.

There were also a group of African American girls that would always make me laugh with their lingo. They had some of the funniest expressions and slang I had heard of. It was not like the whole Ebonics thing, but was simply their way of being funny with each other. There was also a group of African American boys that were really great to teach. During lunch I would gather both groups together and I would talk to them about life, in particular my own struggles with being a moral and studious person. This included my own failures and victories during my time in high school and in college.

When it came to issues of God and faith I did not change my stance in order to be politically correct. I often spoke to my students about the importance of faith and coming close to God in their youth. I related to them my experiences with God that began when I was a child and came to a critical point when I was 17 years old. I also worked hard at encouraging them to not have sex before they married because of the psychology that goes along with it and the spiritual ramifications of it. I would often cover this subject more for the sake for the young girls because it was my belief that if I could get them straight morally then the guys who are seeking morality would follow suit. I would also talk to guys and tell them to start checking out the good girls while they were young. Not just for temporary dating and such, but look for girls that may have the qualities that are good for marriage. I believed fully the Jewish adage that a man should seek out his wife in his youth. I would often point out the good girls to the guys in the hope that they would not make the mistake I made in waiting so long to do this. I also had the ability to be up front about religious matters since I was a volunteer tutor, which gave me a sort of freedom in these matters that the paid workers of Upward Bound did not have. It was also my hope that I could make up for the various mistakes I had made in the past, when I did not live by a code of morality. If could inspire these young men and women to live moral lives, maybe I could balance the scales. Maybe, I could make up for not doing more earlier in life to help people.

When I was tutoring at Upward Bound I felt more alive than I had for most of my life. I felt like I had a purpose, and I felt like I had a home. I felt like I was making up for years of bad decisions and hurting people during my youth. I felt like I had chance to really change the world by showing up every weekend and working with those kids. It felt as if I had finally found my life’s purpose and I thanked God for the opportunity all the time. My week was not complete if I was not able to go to Upward Bound and work with those kids. On the weekends where there was no Upward Bound I often felt empty. Because Prairie View A&M University was about 1 hour and 20 minutes away I would have to wake up early to go, but I delighted in this even though my roommates thought I was crazy for waking up at 5:00 a.m.

During the week I looked forward to the weekends when I could tutor and joke around with the kids that I taught. I loved to talk to them about how college works and what things they should do to prepare themselves. I loved the feeling I got when I had conversations with the men and women who worked at Upward Bound. They were a group of men and women who toiled daily with the responsibility of trying to be a light to a generation of kids, many of whom grew up in dark environments.

Yet, as time went on I wondered if I was really making a difference. As time went on I began to work with students who didn’t take me seriously when I was trying to help them with their studies. There was some students I stayed away from because they had really bad attitudes. One student once threatened me and I told him out right that he was lucky he hadn’t met me several years earlier or I would have had to set him straight. Another student would always look at me with disdain, while another would make jokes about with me with her friends. It got to the point where I made a decision to only work with those students who wanted the help.

I was also spending a lot of time on the weekends working with this program, but was I really having an affect? All of the other tutors would start out strong at the beginning of the semester and then stop coming after about a month. Even when I tried to get the fraternities and sororities on campus involved it was the same response. Was I working with a lost cause?

I began to question what I was doing spending so much time at Upward Bound at the expense of my own social life, which due to my involvement was non-existent. This along with other things going on in my life made me feel like this scene from Spiderman 2. In this scene Peter Parker is dealing with his powers starting to not work, as well as the pressures of his own life. How can a person try to be a hero when things aren’t working out in their own life? What about our own dreams and desires? Do we put those aside in order to do what is right in life?

The Return and the Encouragement

It was during this time of self-questioning that I was helping with an Upward Bound fund raiser that the students put together. I was working at a table with one of the young women that I had taught since I began working with the program 3 years earlier. We sat there talking as we collected money and during a quiet moment she told me something that really put things in perspective for me. She said:

“You know I really want to say thank you. I remember when you first came to this program and began to tutor us and how you came with a group of people from your college. Yet, as time went on all the others stopped coming, but you would always come back. You would sit with us and joke around with us and you talked to us about God. You also told us how it was better for us to not have sex and to wait until we were married. You would encourage both the boys and the girls to keep their eyes on the good in life, and you would always make us laugh. The thing is that you don’t have to be here and you don’t get paid to do this. I just want you to know that I really appreciate what you are doing for us.”

Needless to say this caught me off guard since I didn’t think I was really doing anything special.

Once I was sitting in the Upward Office and I was reading a new copy of the Hebrew Bible I had just bought. One of the students came up to me and asked me what I reading. I told him it was the Bible, but in the original Hebrew. He got really exciting and he wanted see it. He was so cyked and he asked me where he could get one, and where he could learn Hebrew. I told him, and then about week later he came to me and said he could not find one, but that he was going to search around town for one.

Years later, after I moved to California, I made a trip to Prairie View A&M University and I bumped into several students from Upward Bound who told me that they decided to attend Prairie View A&M University because of my influence on them. I was amazed to see two kids that had given me the most problems when I tutored. One young man I figured would never even make it out of high school because of his attitude. When I saw him at Prairie View his attitude was completely different and he had mellowed out. He greeted me and told me that he was going into engineering like I had done. Several years earlier I just knew that this kid would fail in life because of his confrontational attitude. Now he was kind, respectful, and thankful. Several years earlier he also would snicker at me and look at me as if he wanted to bury me alive, and now he was a completely different young man.

The Change In Me

I don’t see myself as anyone special, even though part of me that I have been working on for years, wanted to try and act like I am. Yet, seeing these kids succeed put so many parts of my life into perspective and helped me to gain something. Seeing them taking the lessons that I tried hard to give them and making a good life out of them made me feel like more of a man. It put more swagger in my stride and I felt like going to the highest mountain to wave my hands in victory.

Maybe this is what is meant by the expression that when you help others you are really helping yourself. I felt like Peter Parker at the end of this this scene from Spiderman 2. Before this scene the woman he loves, Mary Jane Watkins, learns that he is Spiderman and he tells her because of him being Spiderman and the risks involved in such they can’t be together. She was set to marry another man, even though she loved Peter Parker, and she leaves to find Peter. Her words to him in his time of loneliness and despair about being Spiderman and also being alone in his responsibility, is what many of us men need to hear when we trying to do what is right in the face of our own personal despair.

After I graduated from college and left Texas for California I was never able to find that same kind of experience that I had with the Upward Bound at the University of Houston Downtown. I tried in the various places I traveled to but I could never find the same type of program. For one reason or another the day had set on that part of my life and I felt a bit shaken by it. I came to care for those kids like they were the younger brothers and sisters that I never had. Yet, the sands of time slipped through my fingers and those days are gone. I still miss that time of my life and I still desire to have that joy in my life of teaching. The joy of making kids learn and laugh, as well as bringing them back from the brink of despair. Yet, it is now up to me now that I live in Israel to find something that I can do to recapture that part of myself that seeks to do something that changes the world.


Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Ehav,

Very nice post. Helping kids is like putting money in the bank. It may take a while for the intrest to acrue but eventually it will.

Those kids deciding to go to college was the dividend on your investment.


Lisa said...

Well done!! We have an Upward Bound program at our school. . . Now, if we could get more tutors with your dedication. . .

guerreiranigeriana said...

what a great story...amazing how even when they feign hatred/disgust for you, they are secretly taking note and admiring what you do...this happend to my mom a lot...she's a teacher...i really enjoyed reading this...three cheers for you and this idea...i am still rooting for you instituting it at least four times a year:)...

Ehav Ever said...

MDC - I completely agree with you. The kids I worked with in Upward Bound were the best investment I made with my life thus far.

Lisa - I really have a lot of respect for he Upward Bound program. That was the best time of my life. I really miss that time. There are volunteers out there, but sometimes it takes something to spark them. My involvement in NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) was how I heard about the tutoring opportunity. Had I not joined NSBE I never would have known about Upward Bound.

Guerreiranigeriana - Thanks for your kind words. Yes, it is moving when you actually see something you did affect someone for good. It is also interesting to think about those kids who I never saw again and where their lives went. We will see about doing this four times a year. I will comment on that on the last day. Thanks for joining in.