6: The Teacher Learns the Lesson

6: The Teacher Learns the Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Teacher Learns the Lesson

Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.

~William Butler Yeats

Laughter rang out as the cake knife in Raúl’s hand cut through the thick white frosting. It was a small graduation party. Only Ed, Max, Raúl and I were there. There were no caps or gowns. “Pomp and Circumstance” was not played, nor were diplomas handed out.

But a celebration was in order.

All three men, each over the age of fifty, had achieved a first in their lives.

They could read.

Overcoming decades of embarrassment and a lifetime of covering up their illiteracy, these three men, along with four others, had signed up for a free three-month course, taught by me, at a local church in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, Texas.

Volunteering was nothing new to me. I had been doing it since childhood. Collecting mittens for children, singing carols to seniors, being a Sunday school teacher and Special Olympics coach… I gladly carried on my family’s multi-generational motto: “To whom much has been given — much is expected.”

Unlike other countywide classes, which were filled with immigrants and refugees, mine was to be conducted with all native-born Americans.

I wondered how someone born here couldn’t have been taught to read. Since my earliest years, reading had been a joy — from the nightly stories read aloud by my parents to my adult practice of falling asleep with a book in my hand.

However, on my first night as a reading teacher, as my car’s headlights illuminated the church’s parking lot, I was far from feeling curious or excited.

I was just plain scared.

The neighborhood was beyond seedy; it was dangerous. Just driving the two miles off R.L. Thornton Freeway I had witnessed numerous people leaning into parked cars for drug transactions and other illegal activities. I was so nervous that I decided to scurry inside the building with all my supplies in one trip. When I dropped everything with a crash, doors flew open and people looked out to investigate.

My new students scrambled to help me as I entered the classroom. I had seven students, all male, who ranged in age from thirty to sixty-three.

At twenty-four, I was the youngest person in the room, and the palest.

“Not exactly the entrance I wanted to make, but thank you for your help.”

Aside from my klutzy entrance, the class went well and everyone returned the following week. I was still afraid of the neighborhood, but my students helped me. Ed had been waiting in his car to help me carry in the supplies and Max walked me out and stood by until I started my car.

By the following week, and all the remaining ones, I realized Raúl’s battered, bright blue pickup truck trailed directly behind my car as I drove through the war zone. When I turned safely onto the freeway I would honk my thanks with my horn to be followed by a blast of the song “La Cucaracha” from his.

By the end of the first month, four students had quit but my gallant trio of protectors remained. Their determination to succeed combined with their natural intelligence and the results were amazing.

“I take the bus every day to work,” said Ed. “Have done for over thirty years. Just yesterday I figured out what the words ‘Emergency Exit’ mean.”

Max reported that he was able to understand much of Monday’s newspaper sports article on his beloved Dallas Cowboys’ win over the Washington Redskins. Previously, his break time was spent pretending to read in the hope his co-workers would never discover his shameful secret. Max also reported that his six-year-old granddaughter had asked him the name of America’s first president. “Pop Pop came to the rescue,” he laughed. “I pulled the newspaper out, pointed to the word ‘Washington’ and spelled it for her.”

As our final night came to a close, hugs were exchanged, jokes were made about my less than graceful first entrance and then Raúl took my hand between his rough and calloused ones: “You gave me a future. You gave me a new life.”

I looked into his smiling brown eyes, which were wreathed in wrinkles, and felt overwhelmed and humbled. I thanked him for allowing me to help him.

Being so young, I did not grasp the full wisdom of his simple statement until my own gray hairs appeared, lines streaked out across my forehead and an economic downturn robbed me of my work and financial security.

Now I’m the age of my former pupils and my future needs a restart button. I realize that limiting my destiny because of my age or my lack of skills is as ridiculous as being held back by fear. A future with many wonderful opportunities could belong to me as long as I have the courage to seek it out and work for it.

Like Ed, Max and Raúl, I am determined to make a new life for myself.

They taught me well.

~Linda J. Bottjer

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