teaching

Me and Mr. Jones: On Being Pulled Out of My Comfort Zone

I meet Mr. Jones at the public library. I am browsing the shelves, passing time until one of my students meets me for a tutoring session.

“Excuse me,” says a man, stepping into the aisle beside me “I’m so sorry, but I wondered if you could help me.”

“What do you need?” I ask.

“I’m trying to fill out a job application, but I can’t read and write very well. Do you think you could help me?”

“Yes,” I say. “I can do that.”

I follow him to a desk where he points to a paper job application and hands me a pen. I sit down and start quizzing him. “Name? Address? Position you’re applying for? Previous work experience?”

He stumbles over the address question. “Hmmm…I don’t think she will want me to use her address anymore,” he mutters to himself. “Let me think on that.”

As we work our way through the application, he has questions for me too. “What’s your name?” he asks. I tell him.

“Ms. Dunn, Ms. Dunn,” he repeats. Then, “You don’t seem like you’re afraid of me.”

“Why would I be afraid of you?”

“I don’t know. I’m a stranger, walking up to you in the library, asking for your help.”

“We’re in a public place,” I said. “You’ve been very respectful. I’m not afraid.”

He seems satisfied with that.

“Ms. Dunn, how old do you think I am?” he asks me.

I study his face for clues and find myself perplexed by the evidence. His hair is going white, but his skin is smooth and unwrinkled, the color of rich, dark chocolate. His teeth are white and straight. His clothes are old-fashioned, but meticulously clean.

“Maybe around fifty?” I hazard a guess.

“Would you believe that I am sixty years old?” he says. I tell him he looks much younger.

“I guess you think it’s kind of a pathetic. How does a man get to be 60 years old without knowing how to read and write?” he says.

“You never know what’s happened in someone else’s life to bring them to where they are today,” I tell him. “I try not to judge people too quickly.”

He says, “I wonder, Ms. Dunn, if you would teach me read and write.”

“I would love to do that,” I say.

***

A few days later, we meet at the library again. Today, there aren’t any tables free, so we pull two chairs up to a windowsill and sit in the afternoon sunlight.

I write the first 10 letters of the alphabet on an index card. We go over the sound that each letter makes.

A few minutes into our lesson, he stops me. “Ms. Dunn, I have to tell you something,” he says. “I want to be honest with you. The truth is, I’m actually homeless,” he says, watching my face.

“I thought you might be,” I admit.

“But you’re not worried about that?” he asks. “You’ve never asked me if I can pay you or anything like that.”

“I’m not worried about it,” I tell him.

His face lights up. “I was talking to God this morning,” he tells me. “And I told him, ‘God, I think maybe you let me meet Ms. Dunn for a reason.’ “

“I think maybe that’s true,” I say.

***

The next time I meet Mr. Jones, he is distracted. The library is being renovated and the only place we can find to sit is in the middle of the first floor lobby. People are walking in and out, and he has walked miles across town to get to me. He has diabetes, and I can tell that something is off with his blood sugar.

 

He was bright and alert when he arrived, but now that he’s sitting down and resting, the exertion and the lack of proper food are hitting him. He is trying to concentrate, but his eyes keep slipping closed, even as he talks to me.

We make our way through the rest of the alphabet, but he is out of it. I give him a down blanket, some oranges, and a pair of wool socks. We decide that next time we meet we will find a place with fewer distractions.

That night it storms and I lay in my bed listening the rain and praying that Mr. Jones is somewhere warm and dry.

***

A week later we meet again. This time, we read together. He sounds his way through the first few BOB books. We read about Peg and Ted and their pet pig and hen. He asks about my husband, something he does every time we speak, and he tells me he is sorry he was so out of it the last time we met. That he’d walked too far that day and his body was shutting down.

I bring a pack of sugar-free gum and a box of peanut butter crackers. We talk about the trees that are blooming now and the greenish yellow pollen that’s settled over everything. We talk about Korea and what’s up with Kim Jeong-Un anyway? We talk about how he became such a high-functioning illiterate by memorizing the way certain words looked the way you might learn the name of a painting. We make a plan to meet again next week.

***

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I walk a tightrope between trust and self-protection with every interaction. I don’t know if this man is telling me the truth or not, but I choose to believe that he is. Everyone has a story. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. For some people, those choices just come with more obvious consequences than others

I am not a noble person. I am out of my comfort zone here. Way out. Most days I would prefer not to set up a meeting. I would prefer not to navigate that blurry boundary between meeting a real need and taking away a man’s dignity, between loving the downtrodden and treating him like a charity case. There are so many dynamics at work here and I am painfully conscious of them. I do not want to be a naïve, privileged white girl who thinks she can swoop in and fix a problem that has been years, even generations, in the making. But I can’t ignore this man while I claim to believe in a God who chooses the poor, the sick, and the needy.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here, big picture. I just know that each time we meet, I walk away a little brighter. Mr. Jones applies to jobs every few days. He tells me, “I think things are gonna change soon, Ms. Dunn. I just gotta stay positive,” and the pessimist in me marvels.

“I think God brought us together for a reason,” he says again and again

I can’t help but think he’s right.

Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure #41: Everyday I’m Tutoring, Tutoring

Even though tutoring is an ordinary part of many people’s education, the word “tutor” still conjures up a 19th century Ichabod Crane type schoolmaster in my mind. It also always makes me think of this comic which my friend Christina’s family has a long-running joke about.

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I enjoy tutoring because unlike most classroom teaching I have the opportunity to work one-on-one with students and can try more than one method of explaining something until the student understands. The thing that makes tutoring an adventure for me is that I rarely know ahead of time what assignments the student will bring to work on together, but it’s my job to be competent to help them with whatever they’ve been assigned. This sometimes means a quick Google refresher coupled with liberal use of the Socratic method (“What do you think it means, Johnny?”) and a healthy dash of BS. I will admit that I’m amazed sometimes when some long-forgotten tidbit of knowledge pops into my head while tutoring and I realize those long hard days of elementary school really paid off.

In a given week of tutoring here are all of the things I need to have mastery of:

  • The basics of how the digestive system works.
  • What are xylem and phloem?
  • How to explain exponents to a fifth-grader.
  • How to make a 7th grade boy answer questions in complete sentences. (I’ve determined that it’s basically impossible).
  • How to master the  Reading Comprehension section of the ACT in the allotted 40 minutes. (How exactly do you make a student read faster? Besides making them read a bunch of things on a timer?)
  • How to use “credence” in a sentence and how to explain that for some reason, we only ever use this word in the phrase “give/gave credence to.”
  • How to write compelling personal essays for college applications without putting my words in someone else’s “mouth.”
  • What happened in Tom Sawyer? All I remember is the part where he paints the fence. Also when he and Becky Thatcher get lost in the cave at Becky’s picnic. Thanks a lot, Wishbone.
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I’ve realized that tutoring is similar to substitute teaching in that you can’t get by with mastery of a single subject or grade level. Tutoring is also unique in that, if you’re doing it right, you should really be working yourself out of a job. Which is good for them and bad for you. So the key is getting your students to improve enough that their parents think the tutoring is working without making them think the tutoring isn’t necessary anymore. (Just kidding, just kidding. For the record, my goal is definitely to have the students improve to the point that they don’t need me).

Things in Columbia continue to be strange and disjointed in the aftermath of the Great Flood. Parts of roads are still closed and many houses have to be knocked to the ground and rebuilt from scratch. Driving through neighborhoods there are mountains of debris in the yards from houses being completely gutted. It will take this city months to years to fully recover. The flooding has put a damper on both our adventures and on my job search progress as things here ground to a halt for an entire week. But this coming weekend we have a day trip planned to Wilmington, a beach town in North Carolina where one of my dear friends lives. We are looking forward to getting out and trying some new things in Wilmington and I will hopefully have a more interesting adventure to report back next week!

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can also click this button to read other bloggers’ adventures. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few. If you missed last week’s adventure about the 1,000 Year Flood, you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.

Fifty Two Weeks of Adventure #37: Tales From the Seventh Grade

I have a friend who teaches 6th grade history and media studies at a private school in Raleigh. She is pretty great at what she does and seems to really enjoy it (for the most part).  I’ve always felt a bit in awe of her, knowing that she voluntarily goes into whole classrooms full of tweens on a daily basis. Another friend (the one we went hiking with in Charlotte last week) teaches history and Latin to middle schoolers and also coaches several teams. Again, a fantastic teacher who seems to genuinely enjoy what he does. I’ve always felt that it takes a special person and personality to enjoy that awkward middle school age group and I’ve also always felt that I was not one of them. This week I put that theory to the test.

I am still actively seeking employment here in Columbia as several part-time and freelance opportunities I’d been trying to line up have fallen through. One of the few things I have been successful at was getting hired on as a tutor at a local (very nice) private school. When I interviewed to be a tutor I also interviewed to work as a substitute teacher and this week I got my first call to come in.

I got a text at 8 AM asking if I could sub last-minute. I was still in pajamas and hadn’t even had a first cup of coffee. So naturally I said yes. I had no idea what grade or subject I’d be teaching, but I pulled myself together and said a quick prayer that it was something I knew something about. Especially since this was technically my first time teaching in an American classroom.

When I arrived at the school I was taken to a middle school classroom full of maps where I deduced that the class had something to do with geography. It was 7th grade geography. Luckily, the teacher had created a PPT presentation for that day which was on the computer. I quickly tried to remember everything I knew about maps, globes, equivalency and confluency. The reservoir in my brain proved to be decidedly shallow, but, as every good teacher knows, when in doubt, fake it! Or Google it if you have time and/or can do it discreetly.

The first class came in wearing neon green and orange and yellow (it was Spirit week, and “Neon Day,” a memo I clearly had not gotten in my black and white ensemble) and talking a mile a minute. “I’m Mrs. Dunn. I’m subbing today,” I said over the sound of their chatter and my own pounding heart. And then…I taught.

I taught four geography classes and a homeroom class. To 7th graders. And I kind of loved it.

Sure, they were more chatty and rambunctious than was probably ideal, but I was surprised by how endearing I found them. In seventh grade they’ve reached the age where they’ve realized that one great way to get out of work when they have a sub is to distract them with lots and lots of questions, most of which I didn’t answer.

“Where’s Ms. H? Are you our permanent sub? Could you be our permanent sub? You have an accent (hah!) Where are you from? What’s on your shirt? Is it kangaroos? Is it dinosaurs? I think it’s cats. Where’d you get it? Where is your necklace from?”

And a few of which I did:

Student: Are you normally a geographer teacher?

Me: No, I used to teach English.

S: Then how do you know so much about geography?

M: Because I’m an adult.

S: I can see why you were a teacher. You’re good at it. I actually feel like I’m learning something.

M: Thanks. (Maybe this was sucking up, but it still made me feel good!)

There were also the funny compliments which were possibly meant only to distract me, but I like to think they were genuine.

S: I love your eyebrows.

M: Thanks.

S: No, really. They’re perfect. Look! (All the girls in the classroom look and sigh in envy) Wow. They really are.

M: Ummmm, thanks… (If only they know. My eyebrows are actually the bane of my existence beauty-wise. They look ridiculous 92% of the time).

In the end we made it through with few casualties and apart from feeling rather more tired than normal I have to admit that I had fun. Perhaps teaching middle school is not quite the hell I imagined it to be, but it still was a big adventure!

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can also click this button to read other bloggers’ adventures. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few. If you missed last week’s adventure hiking in Charlotte you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.

Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure # 32: Summer English Camp and the Last Days of Teaching

Last week I taught the last classes I will ever teach in Korea. (Though I suppose no one really knows the future, so maybe they won’t be the last!)

While the regular school semester ended on July 24th, one of the weird quirks of the contract for native English teachers is that we are still required to go to work from 8:30 to 4:30 every day over summer vacation, even though school is not in session. Every school is different in terms of what they expect their native teachers to be doing during this time. Some schools will ask the teacher to teach some low-level classes to a small group of students who are behind, some will ask teachers to practice English with the students by calling them all at their homes, and almost all schools will require their native teacher to run an English camp that can last for anywhere between 2 days and 2 weeks.

Even with English camps and other classes, most teachers will end up with a lot of time doing what we call deskwarming. Sitting at our desks streaming TV shows and reading books because there is no real work to do, but we are still required to be physically present. Some days when I am desk warming I don’t see another living soul all day. (The regular teachers get vacation like the students do, so they might pop in and out occasionally to take care of something, but for the most part they are gone). Some teachers find this maddening. I don’t mind it so much since I feel like I’m basically getting paid to come sit at my desk and work on my own writing projects.

This summer is admittedly a little different because there’s so much packing and cleaning and sorting that needs to happen, so sitting at my desk for 8 hours really does feel like it’s wasting valuable time, but we are managing to squeeze everything in in the after-work hours and I think we’re going to make it. Wednesday is our last day of work. We’ll move out of our apartment Thursday morning and head to Seoul, then we’ll spend the night near the airport before flying to America on Friday. In the midst of all the busyness, I don’t know quite how to process all that it means to be leaving Korea permanently and to be returning back to a home that’s not quite our home.

This summer Jonathan and I each had a 3-day camp and we were able to help out at each others’ schools. His school is a bit bigger than mine and had about 4x the number of students attending, so it was significantly more stressful. My camp ended up only having 14 students total so it was very relaxed.

For camp we prepared themed lessons with special games and craft activities we wouldn’t normally have time or freedom to do within the normal curriculum. In the past I’ve done a Winter Olympics camp and a Harry Potter camp. This year we just did a bunch of random topics like music, sports, movies, dinosaurs, space, under the sea, pirates, and superheroes. As always, they liked some of the themes and activities more than others, but overall it seemed to go OK.

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My Co-teacher added all the cutesy stickers and fonts to the pictures. 🙂

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This is the big rock outside of my school. It says "Daegu Ehyun Elementary School" in case you were wondering.

This is the big rock outside of my school. It says “Daegu Ehyun Elementary School” in case you were wondering.

How cute is my CoT? This is NOT the infamous CoT, by the way. This is my other adorable, sweet and very helpful CoT, May.

How cute is my CoT? This is NOT the infamous CoT, by the way. This is my other adorable, sweet and very helpful CoT, May.

And so ends my two years of teaching in a Korean elementary school. While I’m ready for a break from teaching, I know I’ll miss these sweet little faces. I’ve learned so many things about teaching, about the world, about myself, about Jonathan, and about God during these years and although sometimes they have been very hard, they have been richly rewarding and fulfilling. Besides our decision to get married, both Jonathan and I consider Korea the best decision we ever made, even when we’ve hated it. This experience has shaped us profoundly and I believe it will continue to do so even as we move on to a new adventure.

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can also click this button to read other bloggers’ adventures. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few. If you missed last week’s adventure about my trip up Daegu Tower and out to a Korean village, you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.

Friday Book Chats: My Teacher Made Me Do It

Today’s book chat is a tip of the hat to some of the literature teachers I’ve had over the years who assigned me some great works that I may have never read on my own. Of course, not every book I read in school was a smash hit. A lot of the books on my Books I’m Supposed to Love But Can’t Help Hating list were also assigned reading. But this post is about celebrating the gems I discovered and  about saying thank you to the teachers who made me do something I didn’t necessarily want to do because they knew it would make my life richer. (Or because they were required to by state law, but either way…)

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I can’t say for sure that I would never have read this book if it hadn’t been assigned, but I certainly wouldn’t have read it when I did and I think this is a book that impacts you more when you read it as an adolescent. As a teenager in the American South this book had an impact on my developing understanding of race and justice in America.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I wouldn’t call this a favorite book, but it is a book that I’m glad to have read. As a sophomore (or maybe junior?) in a small Christian high school I remember my sheltered self being appalled and disgusted by parts of this book (particularly the ending) but after a few years of maturing and, frankly, growing less prudish about literature, I came to really appreciate its message about the Haves and the Have Nots, the scope of moral vision, and the endurance of human dignity.

3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In retrospect, it’s strange that this book was assigned at my conservative Christian high school, but I think it had more to do with it being a story set in Louisiana and written by a local author. This book is considered a comedic masterpiece and follows the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, “a Don Quixote of the French Quarter”  on a series of comedic adventures.

4. Light in August by William Faulkner. I read this book in college having previously only read The Sound and the Fury (a book I was not thankful to have read in high school). Light in August is one of my favorite modern classics and its main character, Joe Christmas, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.

5. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. I happen to love Shakespeare so who can say whether or not I would have gotten to this play eventually had it not been assigned, but it is one of the less famous of Shakespeare’s plays. I read this during a study abroad in England and later saw a stage production of it in Stratford that was so creative that it brought the play to life for me in a way I’ve never forgotten.

6. Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford. I had to write a paper on this collection of short stories while in college. Initially I thought it was bizarre and disturbing and I kind of hated it. The stories in this book are strange bordering on the absurd with elements of magical realism woven throughout. After studying the text and learning more about the author I came to understand these stories as showing the strange and unconventional beauty of the misfits of society.

7. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Elaine Risley is a painter who has returned to Toronto, the town where she grew up, for a retrospective, only to be confronted with the shadows of her childhood. As someone who has spent much of recent years trying to make sense of the complexities of my own childhood, this book resonated with me on a deep level. It was heart-wrenching and tender and funny all at once and I remember it as one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.