Sitting in my inbox is an email from the agency that runs my reading tutoring program, inviting me to a volunteer appreciation event. Or rather, I should say, ANOTHER volunteer appreciation event; I think it’s the third such invitation this year. I went to the first one, which was held at the school I actually volunteer at, hosted by the principal himself (who seems to be a guy younger than I am, which kind of blows my mind.) I won’t be RSVPing to this one, because frankly, I feel a little overappreciated already.
It’s not that I don’t like being acknowledged when I do good. Sure I do. But I tend to get a little squirmy when the acknowledgment starts to exceed my estimation of the deed. And I don’t do it for the recognition, and I certainly don’t do it for thank-you luncheons and receptions. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a true communist at heart, and believe “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability.” If I’m in a position to help someone, I generally believe it’s my honor and duty to do so, (unless I’m in the throes of a misanthropic phase). That’s the rent I pay for living on the planet, and for being blessed in multiple ways. And for being able to look myself in the eye without flinching when I look in the mirror. You gotta share the wealth.
There are kids who cannot read. As a lover of reading, and as a retired teacher, I know just how much reading contributes positively to my life, and has subsequently contributed to my academic success over the years, and my ability to teach myself new things since I left school. If kids can’t read, innumerable doors they can’t even imagine at age 8 are going to be closed to them. That’s unacceptable to me, for the kids’ sake and for the world’s. Which is why I show up every Thursday morning carrying two heavy bags of books, and read with 3 little boys: because I have the time, energy, and wherewithal to do so, and because I don’t want any doors closed to any children. To have your life’s path narrowed before you’ve gotten all your permanent teeth in is nothing short of tragedy, to me. I can’t fix the whole problem, but I can help my little starfishes.
I have to admit, I’ve been more than a little weirded out at the outpouring of gratitude I (and I’m sure other volunteers) have received. I swear, someone, whether it’s the reading coordinator, one of my kids’ classroom teachers, or the principal, thanks me every single day I show up. Which is very nice, but unnecessary. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t want to be, if I didn’t believe in the program, and didn’t believe that we owe kids the best chance possible to be successful in school, and in life. So I say, “my pleasure,” because it is, and because inside I’m thinking, “but of course–where the hell else would I be when there’s important work to be done?” There are all kinds of important work in the world, and enough of us, with diverse enough interests, that we can all find our “but of course” cause to lend our efforts to. I don’t need certificates or luncheons or prizes to do this. Watching the kids become better readers in front of my eyes, and a single “thanks” is plenty for me.
The overt gratitude is especially odd in comparison to my teaching experiences. Right now, I work one-on-one with a child for half an hour at a time, an hour and a half total each Thursday, and all we have to do is talk about reading, read, fill sticker charts, and play the occasional game. I don’t have to grade them, discipline them, or talk to their parents. At the end of the time, I collect my books, throw them in the car, and don’t have to think about it until next week, unless I need to stop by the free library to get them more books. For this modicum of effort, I and my fellow volunteers are praised to the skies.
However, when I taught 170 kids a day, coached their activities, bought them lunch and drove them home in some cases, spent hours every evening and weekend of my nominally “free” time either grading work or preparing new and interesting lessons, going to their sports and their plays and art shows, tutored them for free outside of class, called their parents with updates, and followed up with other school staff when I thought they were falling behind, struggling due to a disability, or being abused at home, no one ever said “thank you.” In fact, all we teachers seemed to get was flak, from the students (which is to be expected to some extent), but also from their parents, the school administrators, the coaches, the state government, the business sector, and every adult who’d ever been to school and was certain their opinion on public education, and public educators, was accurate, fully informed, and valid. Everybody loves to hate public education, failing to realize that without it, full participation in democracy, even a representative one, is impossible. They will only realize it once they’ve managed to finally dismantle it; only understanding what they have destroyed once it’s gone, only the plutocrats’ children get any education, and we devolve into feudalism once more.
Having been a teacher myself, I’m fully aware that, as in any place of employment, there are people who are better and worse at the job, some of whom who should probably be fired but rarely are. And I’m convinced that I could ask anyone if such people exist at their work, and they’d say yes. But having been a teacher myself, I walk into that school every Thursday, and all I can see around me are people who appear to be trying their damnedest to fight every societal ill that walks in the door with these kids, and teach them reading and arithmetic and music while they’re at it, against difficult odds (especially in this state). And they keep fighting the good fight, even when I know they’re frustrated and exhausted. Because I was frustrated and exhausted, too. That’s why I left. My starting pay as a teacher was $21,600. My ending pay 7 years and two states later was $22,400; I took a huge hit when we left Minnesota for here. The joke was that in Arizona they pay you in sunshine. (Sadly, sunshine isn’t legal tender.) I got tired of struggling against people who were so-called “stakeholders” in the project of raising and educating young people, just trying to do my job, for so little money, not even cost-of-living increases, and nothing but general criticism of the work I’d dedicated my life to, that I finally walked away.
So when someone thanks me (again) for volunteering, I know they’re doing it because they really DO need the help, and they couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it, school budgets being what they are, and they are truly glad I’m there. But as a former teacher, it irks me a little how much gratitude I receive as a volunteer for doing so little, when I got so little for how much I gave when I was a pro. And as a current volunteer, I feel a little embarrassed accepting so much gratitude for the little bit I do when all around me are pros busting their asses (and their budgets as they try to make up classroom shortfalls on small, stagnant salaries) all day, every day, in anonymity, if not outright enmity from the public.
For my part, I’d be happier if the mayor (the host of the upcoming event) took the time and money they’re putting into the volunteer recognition event, and put it back into the schools, for the same reason I’d rather charities not send me address labels and notepads. The money, attention, and effort are better spent where they’re needed, on kids and teachers who work much harder than I do. I’ve been thanked enough.