30: The Old Woman in a Shoe

30: The Old Woman in a Shoe

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Old Woman in a Shoe

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

~John Dewey

I was riding a New York City bus, scanning the advertisements above its windows, when a special request caught my eye. Volunteers were needed for a brand-new educational initiative in inner-city schools to help underprivileged students.

I went to an introductory meeting. Various positions were available. I didn’t seem to fit anywhere, since I had no experience in education.

The director was adamant. “Let me think,” she said. “No way I’m going to let an able, willing volunteer walk. I will find something for you.” And so she did.

I had submitted extensive personal and family information and references. When we initially met, the director commented on the excellent colleges that my two children attended. I mentioned how convoluted the entire admissions process had been, and based on that, we found my fit.

There was a small experimental “pocket” high school in mid-Manhattan with a number of immigrant children and students who were born in the U.S. of immigrant parents. These kids would become the first generation in their families to attend college, but many of their parents didn’t speak English and had no experience with the college admissions process. That’s where I fit — I could help the students choose schools and wend their way through the application process.

On day one I was ensconced in a tiny corner of someone else’s office and twenty-seven students lined up to see me. A nursery rhyme popped into my head. I felt like the old woman in a shoe who “had so many children she didn’t know what to do….” My one-day-per-week of volunteering suddenly jumped to two!

The next few months were hectic. I wasn’t just guiding the students — who by term’s end numbered over fifty — I was also formulating new protocol. But more than that, I was becoming aware of the special needs and challenges affecting inner-city students’ abilities to navigate the college admissions process.

These kids had no quiet place in their tiny apartments to complete applications. Many of them worked full-time jobs. They didn’t have the money for the application fees, and they needed help filling out the forms to get the fees waived. They didn’t have money for postage. They couldn’t afford college visits, so their choices were based solely upon photos and information in brochures. They would need financial aid and jobs wherever they went. The list went on and on.

This scenario was so far removed from the rituals of private prep classes, independent college advisors, and school visits with which I was familiar that I often worried if any of my students would actually be accepted. I began to covet the training “real” college advisers had, even though I had a growing understanding of my students’ difficulties, at times detailed in truly harrowing application essays.

Then there were cultural and religious issues — fathers who refused to allow highly qualified daughters to attend college; parents who were afraid to let children enroll in out-of-town schools; parents who insisted on same-sex schools; parents who felt higher education was unnecessary because no one in their extended families had ever attended. I started having meetings with parents, with their children translating. I never imagined all the variables in this volunteer position. But I learned so much — about different lifestyles, cultures, and religions; economic hardship; why families emigrated; how they adapted; how U.S. systems both helped and hindered them.

We finally got all the applications in and the waiting began. As early decision acceptances came in, the entire school started buzzing. Seniors who hadn’t planned on college started making appointments to see me. Then juniors started visiting. It was terrific! I was just as thrilled with each student’s acceptance, and just as sad with each rejection, as when my own children received their notifications. I had literally become that nursery rhyme’s old woman in a shoe with many, many children.

A poster was hung in a hallway listing the students’ names and schools as they got their acceptance letters. A few were accepted to two or three schools. Incredibly, every single student who applied was accepted somewhere. I was ecstatic.

But there was a new worry about “my kids.” Most had never left home, or even been out of the city. Would they be able to adjust to their new surroundings, far away, without family or friends? Unbelievably, only one freshman didn’t make it through her first term.

The following semester, before Christmas, a few college freshmen returned to the school to speak to the new senior class. And so a tradition was established: each year the college students would return and share their experiences with their peers.

In the end, though, I do believe that I was the one who benefitted the most. I became more patient, more aware, more understanding, more tolerant. This “old woman” of nursery rhyme fame, with “so many children,” learned never to question anyone, their motives or their actions unless I had first, personally, walked in their shoes.

~Marsha Warren Mittman

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