Answering the President — Part 2

27 03 2009

Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to be a literacy volunteer in response to the President’s call to service in our communities.


So far, it has been a very positive experience!

I had to attend a Saturday morning workshop to learn how to be a literacy tutor. The most realistic sounding part of this was the instruction near the end that we probably wouldn’t really need much of what we had been taught, that it probably wouldn’t apply to the specific person we were asked to work with and we had to meet that person where they were and work as partners toward their goals.

Then I had to attend another brief workshop on the rules of being a library volunteer. This was truly boring and basically told us not to be jerks. 🙂

But then I met my assigned person, Patty (not her real name, of course). She had married an American and moved here from South America, with her son. She works hard and understands some English but wants to improve her language skills and become a teacher, as she was in her native country.

We started off with the workbooks the literacy office gave us and did fine with them for a couple of meetings. But more and more, we spend a lot of the time talking. Which is what Patty needs the most help with — conversational English.

Idioms, expressions, pronunciations — these throw up roadblocks in Patty’s daily life.

Take the greeting “Ma’am.” What’s that all about? She wondered if it was some sort of insult. We discussed it.

Or when to use titles, when first names are appropriate.

Or how slowly words are pronounced here. The letters — like a short a — so drawn out.

Or the difference between “want and “won’t.”

Or how to discuss her future students with their parents. She will be teaching pre-K. How to say something positive? How to say the child did or didn’t listen? How to say the child catches on quickly? Does or does not enjoy this or that? How to say things gently to parents who want to hear good things about their small children?

This was also related to the certification Patty needed to begin substitute teaching in pre-K classes. We looked through the test — it’s online and the librarian was very helpful, getting us a computer and a quiet place to use it.

The test, though. The test was like so many standardized tests. Poorly written, ambiguous, pushing a certain view but not clearly.


The view being pushed was that workbooks and other rote activities are not appropriate for pre-K. OK, she got that. Patty and I discussed how things have changed since we were in K — no rulers across knuckles as Patty had experienced.

But then the questions! What was the question asking and which vague answer did they want? We talked about it. If you read the question this way, the answer was A. If you read it that way, the answer was C. The best we could figure out was to guess and see what happened and chalk this up to a lesson on the ambiguities of the English language and poorly worded test questions.

She took the test the following week, btw, and passed! 🙂

The next goal Patty has is to take her citizenship test. Again, the library was a tremendous resource and had a citizenship class meeting the very morning we asked about getting study materials. They gave Patty the information she needs to start the next series of classes.

This led to a brief review of a study guide the library had and an interesting conversation about American history. 🙂


When Patty begins her citizenship class, we have agreed that she will bring material from that class to our meetings when she has questions.

So that’s where we stand. We meet once a week for 2 or 3 hours and will continue indefinitely, with scheduling changes as life intervenes. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with. Patty is determined to get the most out of every minute we are together. It’s actually pretty exhausting! 🙂

But she’s pretty determined in general. Determined to make a better life for herself and her son and working hard to get it.

On the broader question of answering the President’s call, I can see how people don’t. It is a commitment. You don’t want to disappoint someone. You get to know them and they depend on you and you’d better be sure you really can get to the library most Fridays.

And the training is oh-so-sincere but extremely boring. I suppose any sort of serious volunteer organization would have some tedious start-up procedure but it’s another hurdle.

And it’s not glitzy. It’s reading in a tiny room in the back of the library. Discussing the ins and outs of colloquial English as practiced in Florida. Puzzling out how to explain the next idiosyncrasy in our language.

But it is rewarding on a personal level, especially if you are working with someone you enjoy being with, if you see the progress they are making and the joy you are helping them have in learning. I keep thinking of Patty in her future job as a teacher, confidently reading fairy tales to her class. Or helping her son with his school work or meeting with one of his teachers, able to communicate well.

She’s a Mom like me and trying to make a living and make a nice life for her family. And when she succeeds, I can say I helped! 🙂





13 responses

27 03 2009

I was right — this was worth waiting for. 🙂

28 03 2009

Ahh, Nance…good job! Thumbs up, my dear. Wish our gun toting rebels could all read this and learn from it..

29 03 2009
Mrs. C

Betty, you have gun-toting rebels? Wow. Around here they don’t let you in the library with rifles and muskets and stuff. :]

Nance, I’m exhausted just reading the volunteer work you are doing, imagining how hard it is for “Patty” to absorb all this information. Hopefully you will be able to keep in touch. I agree that volunteer work is a big commitment and THANK YOU for realizing that going into it (surprising how many people don’t!).

2 04 2009

Something I know Nance knows and is dealing with, that we haven’t talked about much yet but should — public libraries aren’t little socially immune havens any more than public schools, despite what a populist minority of homeschool separatists insist.

I suggest this shows in pretty dramatic form, that even without compulsory attendance laws, our most difficult policy challenges in public institutions would still face us.

“We hope things get better,” said Lt. Paul Vernon, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, noting the difficulty of policing libraries. “The library is a place where people tend to congregate, and from a public and government standpoint, you can’t really restrict people.”

See Daryl’s NC newspaper blog thread on police officers tasing kids in school for more.

2 04 2009

Dana at Principled Discovery recently had a provocative thread re: homeschoolers and public libraries, see the comments for an ideological flavor completely opposite the urban ills story above.

How far off the deep end would the ALA have to go before you would stop patronizing your local library? And have you ever thought of the library system as yet another public entitlement-type program?

I was stunned by the framing, couldn’t even wrap my mind around asking this question!

So I followed the conversation closely; my impression as a lifelong library lover and one-time member of the ALA myself, was discomforting — concern that conservative Christian homeschoolers were seeing the “public” in public library or public school as meaning only how well rival slices of private interest shall be served separately and kept separate, not that “public” can and should also mean to bring rival groups together in public, and to connect or even integrate their interests in some united “public interest” mission.

I always thought it was just School that home education parents railed against, and that their distrust was somewhat justified because of compulsory attendance. That without compulsion public schools would be like public libraries — community resources to freely choose to use as one sees fit — and even homeschooling families as good, civic-minded Americans would love them and support them wholeheartedly, as truly public education and in the public interest.

If I follow along to where separatist homeschool ideology logically leads, is there any room for — even any such thing as! — integrated community-wide public interest? Does public merely mean tax-funded, each person’s separate individual claim to control a minescule private share of the public coffers?

Back when I was a public schoolgirl in the South in the 60s, I remember not really understanding why riot-spawning court-ordered racial rezoning was pointedly called “de-segregation” rather than “integration” — I get it now though.

Rather than creating or contributing to any larger sense of integrated “community” service, in this view one’s local public library (school, park, newspaper, museum, neighborhood, economy) is judged solely by how dutifully it responds to a partitioned, divided citizenship with distinct or even conflicting little slices of service expectation. The only thing the groups have in common is that none wants there to be any “common” — the public resource should not treat their groups as one public. Instead the demands of each rival group want to remain separate in their homogeneous identity, comfortable in defining common interest with other groups mainly by their mutual desire to remain separate.

So the whole town square meeting place, one-community-in-this-together kind of “public” purpose is overlooked and thereby devalued, even actively opposed.

I never thought of the public good that way but if that’s what I means, I don’t see it as public or good.

I’m wondering if that could help explain why not just individuals, but public institutions and our communities, are in crisis — because there is no “we” any more, to believe in any common or “public” good or purpose beyond the sum of the tiny shards and fragments we can break a resource into and parcel out to different tribal representatives, by their entitled share of what once was our sense of the common (as in Common Sense?)

2 04 2009

I sometimes have to read your posts through several times to really get “all” the great stuff you pack into them, and to attempt to follow your oh so creative thought patterns! I did the same with this and came up with so much thought for conversation..I have to sleep on this, but it fits very much with my feelings of fragmentation of society into these self interest splinters…who just can’t seem to find any commonality of being American…or your common sense..:)

3 04 2009

Oh, good! Our intertubes were struck by lightning Thursday right after I wrote that and we just got it restored. I’ll look forward to some conversation. 🙂

And after watching our President and First Lady creating a sense of global common good and common good will in Europe this week, I am full of hope and pride, so I don’t mean to sound otherwise. Just (as you say) some ahem, “creative” thought patterns . . .

4 04 2009
Nance Confer

OK, some thoughts:

People get possessive of their library. Take the older gentleman running the AARP tax workshop every Friday morning. He wasn’t thrilled when I needed a room every Friday. Not that he objected, mind you, but it took a “look” from me and a friendly follow-up to get him to back off of questioning what room we were “supposed” to be in, etc. His group is performing a highly-valued and much-used service. But the feeling wasn’t so much about his thing being better than mine. It was that his space was invaded. Then he got the message that, yes, he was going to be invaded, but I was going to smile at him. If he backed off.

Translate that to any other conflict over space and services at the public library.

Take, for instance, the response I got when I mentioned the article above to the head librarian and the volunteer contact librarian (I guess that’s what he is — probably that among many other hats). Oh, they had read THAT article. And, boy, did they get it.

The problem is not exactly the same — no violence, yet — but there are sooooo many more people in need of services. Services that had previously been offered at other govt offices like filling out a resume. There used to be help with that at the unemployment office. No more. Like food stamps. Many people who have never applied for any sort of help are applying for food stamps. Some don’t know how to use the computer, some are embarrassed. Many have not been regular library patrons and now get annoyed when “those kids are just playing games and I need to do something important.” At one point, I thought our library had too many computers. Now, there are not enough!


So the library is swamped with the usual requests and all the new ones. And, because of budget constraints, the library has less money and less staff and is closed an extra day each week.

At some point, and maybe we are already there, decisions will have to be made. The kids’ hours will be restricted so the grown-ups can file for food stamps. The resume-writing will be limited to just a few computers to free up others. Nobody will be happy and people will be fighting over these scarce resources.

And even in this all-for-one-one-for-all community institution, people will be unhappy with the decisions. As enforcing desegregation or integration laws disrupted even those not directly involved, the Mom looking to take her youngsters to the library may well be put out by new rules necessitated by new needs and shrinking options.


4 04 2009

Absolutely. Very real and real-world, Nance, very human and humane.

That’s real life community give-and-take for a public resource even in better times than these. What I was thinking about and have been pondering all day as I read other things, was how all that real-world human concern stuff is the Stuff of Life, and our lives are not played out in private little homogeneous enclaves no matter how much (or how little) money or status we have, no matter how much or how little faith in god or each other we have.

I just posted this for more thinking and conversation . . .

4 04 2009
Living in a Material World? If You’re Smart « Cocking A Snook!

[…] just because these both are men, I further refer you to Betty and me in this conversation, sharing both our Methodist community background yet also a happy, hopeful YES human intelligence. […]

4 04 2009
Crimson Wife

There was a study done at Harvard I read about maybe 18 mos or so ago that found racial and ethnic diversity hurts civic engagement. I guess it’s easier for people to support the “common good” in those homogeneous enclaves where there aren’t “tribal” groups squabbling over their little piece of the pie…

4 04 2009

I remember that too, CW. It’s probably one of our least attractive qualities but apparently “real” enough . . .

4 04 2009

An Emmy-winning commentator and Esquire mag columnist adds this at HuffPost:

And we wonder why the likes of Miley Cyrus or Joe Jonas don’t understand the wrongness of going around making “Chinese eyes.”

That fact is while many were offended when Attorney General Eric Holder chastised us for being “a nation of cowards” when it comes to having discussions on race, when we head home at night there’s rarely anyone except people like us to have these discussions with.

More than just a fact of life, diversity is an attribute of our nation. For children diversity needs to be real, and not merely relegated to learning the names of the usual suspects during Black History Month or enjoying south-of-the-border cuisine on Cinco de Mayo. It means talking to and spending time with kids not like them so that they may discover those kids are in fact just like them.

But our kids aren’t the ones who pick neighborhoods or buy houses. The life is theirs, but the choice is ours.

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