Thursday, February 6, 2014

Farewell to school reading

For nearly five years, I have spent a couple of hours each week reading with kids at a local primary school. Most of the kids at that school are from a refugee background; many of their parents had very little schooling themselves; and books and reading are rarely part of their home life. Many of the kids come from large families, and so even those parents who might be able to provide reading support in the classroom tend to be at home caring for younger children.

Yet children need assistance to learn to read, preferably one on one. A teacher in a classroom doesn’t have time to read with every student every day; this is where volunteers come into play. Most middle class schools have a host of parents who volunteer in the classroom. At this school, because of the family situations of the students, other adults step in.

We volunteers can’t provide the daily reading with each child that is recommended; and yet even our few hours are something. What, I’m not always sure. There are many weeks when the reading is the point – I see a kid make a leap in fluency, or really understand a concept. Other weeks, the relationship is the point, and I was given the bangle in the photograph to prove it! Still other weeks, the point might be nothing more than to show through our actions to a group of kids that not all Australians are hostile to refugees.

They are all good reasons to be there, and yet I feel like it’s time to wind up my involvement. Stop reading with these fantastic kids, stop traipsing down once a week for even that little while, and start doing something else with my time. The problem is, having once committed, I struggle to step away – especially since I have no pressing reason not to.

Moreover, I am aware that I am the powerful one in these relationships. I can choose to be involved, or to move on; whatever I do, people will still be grateful for the paltry efforts I have put in. Meanwhile, the kids turn up to school week after week without the educational consolidation that many other kids’ home lives provide; they have no choice in the matter. For several months now I have grappled with these entwined feelings – that I have had enough, and that I feel guilty about stopping – as I try to decide what I will commit to this year.

One morning late last year, as I was preparing to head down, I received a text from the school reminding me that it was mini-Eid. This meant that almost no kids were at school, and so there was no point in me going. I unexpectedly had the morning off. So I dropped my daughter at kinder, then basked in the freedom. I didn’t do anything amazing: I hung out the washing, wrote a blog post, checked my emails, read a chapter of a book, and picked up my daughter again. And it was fantastic – an unexpected gift, a few hours to centre down in what had been a busy week.

More, I felt deeply relieved. I was glad to be home, glad not to be negotiating books and behaviour, glad not to answer the same questions that I am asked every week. ‘Can I call you Alice?’ (No, my name is Alison); ‘Where’s your little daughter?’ (at kinder, you know that!); ‘How will she go on your bike?’ (on the trailer, which is parked at kinder); ‘Why you cut your hair short like a boy’s? Tsk, so ugly!’ (I like it that way); and so on.

The deep relief I experienced when I stayed home is a clue, I think, that my involvement in the school should come to an end. My low grade annoyance at the weekly questions is another. If I am tired by these kids and this situation, I am not giving them my best; there are many days when I struggle not to get cranky.

It’s not that there isn’t a pressing need; it’s just that, for whatever reason, I am no longer the one to meet it. In this world, there are billions of pressing needs, and billions of people to meet them. I am not indispensable. I have to trust that, if I let this go, someone else will step into my shoes – with any luck, someone more gentle, more humorous, and better with kids. And I have to trust that, if I let this go, something else will arise to which I can offer my time, and my self.

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