On Thursday, I had my holiday party for the adult literacy organization where I volunteer as a tutor. The whole thing stressed me out, as most things do. I find socializing with respectable adults challenging, especially when sparkling apple cider is the most exciting beverage served and the event takes place in a painfully well-lit public library conference room. But I realized my concern over my potluck contribution, Safeway cookies, was for naught when I spied the buckets of KFC on the table, and had I known the raffle would take half hour (I won two movie tickets) I would’ve contributed some anxiety to having the patience for that. Had I known there was going to be an ice breaker, prescription pills would’ve been needed.
The icebreaker involved finding the few other people in the room who had the same symbol on their nametags and then sharing answers to a few questions. I hid in the corner, figuring that my learner, S., an incredibly gregarious person, would be too busy chatting up other folks to bother with me. But within minutes, I saw him in the center of the room, towering above everyone, waving his tree trunk arm at me. When I walked over, it turned out that not only did S. and I have the same symbol, but he’d found the one other person with our symbol. In even more of a statistical coincidence, both the other guy and S. had brought bean pies to the potluck.
After the three of us discussed navy beans and bean pie, a favorite subject of S.’s since he’s been bringing bean pies to the holiday potlucks for much of the last 8 years (long before he and I met) we turned to the questions on our ice breaker sheets.
S. read aloud slowly and I let him stumble a bit. “What is the best advice for other learners?” He slapped the line green paper down against his leg and without hesitating said, “Keep coming back.”
“Oh, yeah!” said the other man. “I skipped a week once and it took two years to come back.”
The two of them bonded over that one as if it were the only answer, and I thought about all the times I needed to tell myself, “Keep coming back” to tutoring, writing, yoga, anything for which my first response is flight. When I got to my half of the question, “What is the best advice for other tutors?” the answer came to me instantaneously: listen to your learner.
And that’s what I did for the next five minutes, listened to the two of them talk about their accomplishments with such pride that I thought they might burst from their own expanding self-esteem. At one point, S. told a story about driving and understanding the words on a sign. Alone in his car, he shot his arms into the air and screamed, “I can read!”
Seeing this childlike glee over something I learned to do in elementary school from a sixty-year old man so big he could probably do biceps curls while holding me by my neck and knees never ceases to inspire me, and break my heart a little.
At the end of the party, I reached my hand out for his, ready to shake as we do to conclude most of our sessions. But he hugged me instead, as he had done once in the past, more NBA chest bump than embrace with a final tap of his fist against his chest. “Thanks Nick,” he said. “I couldn’t do this without you.”
I pretend it’s the no-booze, awkward socializing, and environment so outside my element that makes me anxious or stressed out about these types of events. But really it’s that look in S.’s eyes when I see how much I mean to him that terrifies me most.