Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seniors as Literacy Volunteers


By Alan Zendell

Does this sound familiar?  I retired at sixty-five, spent three years helping one son manage his business, then six months rehabbing my other son’s sweet dog after brain surgery as recorded in my short story, A Boy and His Dog, an Unfinished Love Story.  What did those efforts have in common?  Neither earned me a cent, but what I got back can’t be enumerated.
Six months of serious writing was satisfying, though I missed the utter joy of helping out my kids.  But they didn’t need me anymore.  I’d spent forty-five years as a scientist, engineer, and software developer, and I’d thought fleetingly of teaching math, but I knew I could never deal with the bureaucracy and politics of schools systems at my age, much less having to put up with kids who didn’t want to learn.
Then, I discovered Mathnasium, a California company that supports learning centers in math all over the country.  I could have purchased my own franchise, but I’d had enough of running a business, so I stopped by one seven miles from my home and offered my services as a tutor.  I had no idea what I was getting into, and given what the job paid, it certainly wasn’t about making money.  After nine months, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Sixteen of us teach nearly two hundred kids from age seven to eighteen, typically two to four at a time.  We tutors range in age from twenty to our mid-seventies, and represent six countries and a variety of racial and professional backgrounds.  The kids are the most ethnically diverse group you can imagine.  And this unlikely and continuously evolving group has developed a synergy like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
I never know what I’m going to have teach on any given day or hour, and what the kids learn in school these days looks very little like what I learned over fifty years ago.  It’s a constant challenge, that I think I’ve met well, but it’s the kids who make this special.  Whatever they learn from me, they give back many times over.  They’ve exploded every stereotype I ever had about their generation, especially the teenagers.  They’re motivated and eager to learn, but what’s really special about them is their basic goodness.  They are absolutely blind to their differences.  White, black, yellow, brown, young, and old, all each of them sees is other kids.  They share and help each other, they’re sweet and respectful both to us and each other.
I work mostly with kids eleven to sixteen.  Remember how awful your kids were at those ages?  But these are focused and serious.  They work harder than I ever did in school.  When they and I have worked hard together for hours to master something, when their eyes finally light up with understanding and their faces are transformed by smiles, I hear, “Thank you for teaching me that, Mister Alan,” and I know exactly why I’m there.
The first time I walked into the place I thought I’d be altruistically giving something back – we hear that cliché a lot these days.  I never imagined what an energizing, enriching experience it would be.  This isn’t a commercial for Mathnasium, though I love what they do.  It’s about remembering what kids are all about and how to invest my retirement in something that never stops giving back.

Alan spent more than thirty years as a scientist, aerospace engineer, software consultant, database developer, and government analyst, writing really boring stuff like proposals, technical papers, reports, business letters, and policy memoranda.  But trapped inside him all that time were stories that needed telling and ideas that needed expression, so with encouragement and cajoling from a loving baby sister he plunged into fiction.
Since then, he has written mostly science and extrapolative fiction, the genre he loved since he was nine.  But his stories are about more than aliens and technical marvels.  He creates strong, three-dimensional characters a reader can care about, because it’s people and the way they live and love that are important.  It’s the things they believe in and how much they’re willing to invest to preserve them that make a story worth telling.  It’s convincing interactions and well-researched credible plots that make a story worth reading.
And, of course, like any writer, Alan loves having an audience.



Gail Kittleson said...

Wow - your post brought tears, Alan.

I love literacy workers!!!!!!

Gail Kittleson

H. Kirk Rainer said...

Fine example of how good intentions become great rewards--for everyone!


Caroline said...

Love it when sterotypes are proven wrong. Glad it worked out so rewardingly for you!

J.B. DiNizo said...

Wonderful post! How much we have to give the world! I went back to work as a school librarian in a urban district after five retirement years and I love my job and the kids with whom I work.

Claude Nougat said...

Love this, yes, this is what retirement should be, congrats!

alan said...

It's gratifying to find so many people who get this. Thanks.