As we grow older and things that used to keep us ‘connected’ to the greater flow of life and society – namely family and work – occupy less of our attention, we risk increasing isolation. The process is insidious because it’s slow and can only be seen in retrospect, like evolution.
There are two types of isolation: individual isolation, where we lose total contact with the world and turn into hermits, and group isolation, where we only hang out with our like-minded peer group.
Volunteering is a healthy antidote to isolation, and volunteering with youth expands our understanding and appreciation of the world to come.
For four of the most enjoyable volunteering years in memory, I tutored students ages 6-18 at 826 Seattle, a free afterschool tutoring center and RSVP site partner. I got the emotional benefits we all get from volunteering (which is why we do it!) – self-esteem, energy boosts, the feeling of giving back, satisfaction in having helped someone – and I got a lot more, too. I got smiles of thanks, the thrill of watching ah-ha expressions suddenly light up a student’s face, and exposure to an emerging generation.
Reflecting back on that experience, I think I learned more than I taught. For one thing, I discovered where the holes are in my own education. Some things I had just forgotten, like simple algebra and geometry, and was able to get up to speed with the help of the textbook. But there were plenty of other times when I simply didn’t know (e.g. Question: Mr Langmaid, what’s the capital of Vermont? Answer: Uh…[Montpelier is the correct answer]).
But many of the things I learned (or re-learned) had nothing to do with math, reading or science, but were lessons in being a complete person.
I got lessons in compassion. The first point the director of the program made during training was that our role was to help and support these kids, not to frustrate them; they’re already frustrated when they arrive. This bit of wisdom shaped my tutoring style away from taskmaster and towards coach – an effective transformation.
I learned that it’s okay to give a student the answer to a math problem if it encourages them to try harder on the next problem.
I learned that if a student wasn’t getting it, perhaps the problem was more my limits as a tutor than their limits as learners. I learned patience both with my students and with myself. When one approach didn’t work, I took a deep breath and tried another.
And I learned about the silent power of companionship. I remember one grade school girl who would ask me for help, then quietly and efficiently do her homework while I sat beside her and just watched. The help she needed was having someone to be with, and I was honored to be selected as that someone.
And I learned how hard some of these kids worked and the challenges they faced. I came from a middle-class household with lots of help and encouragement with my school work from English-speaking parents. Many of the kids I tutored came from immigrant families where no English was spoken at home. Imagine the effort it takes to try to master subject matter taught in a language you’re trying to learn at the same time!
The most enduring lesson I learned from these kids, however, is optimism. As we age and our bodies ache, our memory fades, our families and friends scatter, and the news headlines scream doom, it’s hard to stay positive about life.
Tutoring youth radiating hope and enthusiasm teaches you that optimism is inherent in all of us, but that it must be nurtured to be sustaining over a lifetime.