Insecurities and triumphs: Byproducts of a volunteer venture


I got an email a couple of weeks ago: “We’ve matched you with a student!”

My time as an adult literacy tutor was about to begin. Yay!

It seemed like a long time coming. I had signed up last November,and had to wait until January for a training class. Now, I was assigned a student..

He’s a 31-year-old Jamaican, fairly new to America, who dropped out of school in the third grade. The assessment report of his skills, done last October, said he didn’t recognize the letters of the alphabet and couldn’t sound out words. It sounded pretty daunting to me to be the one responsible for teaching someone at the most basic level.

Bu the Adult Literacy League people said when they called to let him know he would be getting a tutor soon, he was excited and said: “Ya, mon!”

I went and picked up the packet containing the books we would use, and then called him to set up a day and time to meet.

He sounded tired and annoyed when he answered the phone. And I couldn’t understand a word he said, due to his thick accent.

“I’m sorry?” I kept saying, so he would repeat himself. It didn’t really help. Finally, I understood when he said: “I’ll ask my wife and call you back.”

OK. It seemed like we were getting off to a bad start. That made me nervous. I didn’t want to fail this guy.

So I waited a couple of days. He didn’t call, and I didn’t feel like I could text him if he couldn’t read. So I called him back. This time when he answered, I decided to try some small talk first.

“Good morning!” I chirped. “Is this a good time to talk?”

He seemed to respond better to that approach. But I still couldn’t understand him.

“Can  you talk slower for me?” I asked.

After that, I was able to understand about 75% of what he was saying. We agreed to meet Saturday. Then he asked, “Can we meet Sunday too?”


What started out as a way for me to have something useful to do in my free time created by my now-empty nest, seemed to be turning into something else altogether: A truly meaningful way to help someone else with a really basic life skill.

He called back an hour later to ask: “What should I wear?”

“Anything you want; just be comfortable.”

A while later he called again: “I just wanted to say I am very excited to learn.”

The next day, he called once more: “I wish it was already Saturday!”

His joyous anticipation filled me with both excitement and a bit of dread: What if his expectations were so high that reality wouldn’t measure up?

Meanwhile, I studied the teaching materials for Lessons 1 and 2 and made some flash cards of some letters and words.

Saturday finally arrived. We met at the library, where I had reserved a private room for us to use. I pulled out one of his books, turned to the first lesson and started to go over it with him, but he stopped me. “I already have that book,” he said. “I already did that lesson.”

Sure enough, when I asked him to tell me the letters and the words, he was able to do so; and even could read the little story in the first lesson.

“How far have you gone in this book?”

He flipped through to Lesson 11. “To here.” The book only had 13 lessons in it.

“OK, OK, let’s start there,” I said, trying to look calm. But, in fact, I was sweating inside, as I hadn’t looked that far ahead in the book and had not prepared that lesson plan. Somehow, we got through it and agreed to meet the next day.

When I got home and had time to think about it, I was confused. He clearly was ahead of what the skills assessment report said.

So I sat and thought about what he said.

And then I figured that maybe he had been given the first book when he went for his assessment. And instead of just passively waiting for a tutor, he had gotten someone he knew to help him work through the book because he was so eager to learn. (Something I confirmed with him later.)

But that also meant they had not had the teacher’s book, so they didn’t have all the lesson plans and weren’t able to go over the lessons with him in the way we were supposed to.

That created a dilemma for me. I didn’t want to make him start over at the beginning and hurt his confidence, but I knew there were some exercises he hadn’t done because those were only in the teacher’s book.

So today, I told him we were going to do a little review to reinforce some of the things he already learned, and then we’d work on some new things. He was OK with that, and the time flew by. Before I knew it, we had been there an hour longer than planned.

I felt like he was doing an amazing job, considering what the assessment of his skills had said. So I asked him how he felt.

“I’m not confident,” he said.

I gave him the flash cards I had made and asked him to work with them on his own this coming week. “Just try 3 or 4 a day,” I encouraged him. “You’re doing great, and the more you practice, the easier it will get.”

He asked if we also could meet during the week, and I had to tell him no, since I never know what time I’ll get home from work and couldn’t commit. He looked very disappointed, making me worry that maybe he is expecting too much, too fast. But I guess I can only do my best and try to manage his expectations.

How about you? Have you ever made a plan that had to be thrown out at the last minute and deal with the situation on the fly? If so, how did you handle it?

And do you have any advice for me? If so, I’d love to hear it. I really don’t want to let this guy down.




Not all about me?


Becoming a volunteer is a refreshingly humbling experience.

I decided to to so as a way to help fill some of my free time that stretches before me thanks to having a newly emptied nest.

I blame my misconception of how my first volunteer activity would go on the fact that I had gotten used to the hyper-competitive corporate group meetings.

You know, the ones where you have to go around the room to introduce yourselves, say something witty and answer questions like who would play you in the movie of your life and what book you’re reading now.

You have to think up intelligent answers so you look interesting and relevant.

But you don’t want to be “that guy” who is too cocky and full of himself. Nor do you want to be the “crispy critter” who says something so dumb that he just steered his entire career onto a rocky shore.

So as I was preparing to leave for a tutor training class for the adult literacy league where I had signed up to become a volunteer, I started running the scenarios through my mind.

How would I present my occupation?

Would I say my job title and place of employment, or just the general industry category?

Would I tell them I’m reading “Book of Ages” about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, even though I think it’s boring and may not finish it? Because even though it’s what I’m really reading, it sounds pretentious.

And what should I wear? Etc., etc., etc. I was focused on me, me, me.

Reality check. No one cared to know anything about me.

At all.

I signed in, took a name tag and sat down in a room of about 20 other volunteer trainees ranging in age from late 20s to probably early 70s, a mix of ethnic backgrounds and genders.

We were asked to go around the room to state our name and how we had heard about the organization.

The answers ranged from an online search for volunteer opportunities to seeing a newspaper story about it to hearing a guest speaker talk about it.

My answer: a friend from work had told me about it years ago.

The reason they asked that question?

Not because they were interested in us. It was because they wanted to know if their volunteer outreach methods were working. That’s all.

As the 3-hour training session went on, they told us about the students we would be working with: 65 percent do not speak English as their first language.

They told us about the workbooks we would be using and how to use them.

They told us how to think outside the box to make the sessions with the students interesting.

They told us how to fill out monthly progress reports online.

They thanked us every 5 minutes for coming in, as there are 80 students who have been on a waiting list for a tutor for 3-7 months.

They said they would match us up with a student next week and we could start tutoring them once a week, for roughly a year, after that. But never once again did they ask us anything about ourselves.

Because it wasn’t about us. It was about the students. And that’s as it should be.

As I drove home, it struck me how splendidly freeing that was:

To not have to think about how I might measure up next to someone else in the room.

To not have to think about the fact that someone else in the room might want to try to take my job.

To know I was appreciated by the organization simply for being there and agreeing to do a task to the best of my ability.

I think I’m going to like this.

What about you? Do you volunteer?

If so, I’d love to hear about how you got started and why, and how it has worked out for you.

New year, new experiences: Trading empty-nest malaise for volunteering, art, travel and more


2014 will be the year of new experiences for me.

After becoming an empty nester four years ago and no longer ferrying my 2 sons to after-school activities, I found myself becoming a homebody on my days off from work, rarely leaving the house if my husband works on those days.

And then, I started not really wanting to leave the house even when he was home with me.

I don’t suffer from any form of agoraphobia — it feels more like mild mental malaise.

So I’m determined to try new things this year.

In fact, my goal is to go somewhere/try something new every week.

That way, when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I can tell them something about me, rather than only being able to talk about my sons’ or grandkids’ latest exploits.

I’ve signed up to become a literacy tutor, and hope to take the training class in January so I can get started.

I’ve also asked my husband, who used to paint, to pick up that hobby again, only this time with me, so we have a shared hobby.

I may try to kick-start that by signing us up for one of those one-day classes where people all go and learn to paint their own version of the same thing.

And I want to get back into photography (forcing myself to go out to get interesting shots), and possibly incorporate prints of some of my photos into multimedia paintings.

Plus, we will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary next summer, so I hope to plan a cool trip.

I’m thinking either a cabin in the Smokey Mountains, an island cottage in South Carolina or a jaunt to Rhode Island.

Smoky Mountains

What about you? What have you done to overcome empty-nest malaise, and how did it work out for you?

Also, what’s the coolest trip in the U.S. you’ve taken recently?