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  • Writer's pictureSue Schleifer

How Do We Help?


I heard her voice first and then stood up and peeked into the next room to see Clare (not her real name) in a cap and gown. She was smiling and crying at the same time as she stood tall to have her picture taken. While I probably shouldn’t admit it, Clare has been my favorite student among the many that I have tutored during the past year.


The adult students who come to the non-profit center are studying to get their high school diploma. For one reason or another, they didn’t complete high school and are now giving it another chance through an individualized self-study program and with the help of volunteer tutors as well as a dedicated staff. Most of the students that I have worked with are smart and motivated. Most are eager to finish and some are hungry to learn.


What I loved about working with Clare was her enthusiasm, desire to learn, and ability to show her gratitude. I helped her with writing, a subject that I enjoy and that I happen to know something about. For an assignment, she decided to write an essay about taking her kids to Disneyland. What started out as a boring piece anyone might write, became more personal and poignant as I asked her to tell me more about her experiences and the senses that were enlivened. Tears came to her eyes. We explored her emotions, and I encouraged her to write about what she was experiencing. She asked, “I can do that?” “Yes, that’s what makes your writing unique,” I told her. She ended up writing a piece filled with detail, emotion, and power. She was so happy with her writing and what she was learning, and so was I.


This week I was working with a student (I’ll call him Jason) on his government textbook and answers to the boring questions that accompany the text. He wasn’t into it and I tried to enliven the text with real world examples. The Supreme Court had just that morning made the decision that overturned affirmative action in colleges. I asked him if he had heard the news. No. Did he know about affirmative action? No. Did he want to know about it? No. He just wanted to get through the assignment. I’m sure he left our tutoring session just as dispirited as I was.


How do I help Jason and show the same respect and encouragement for him as I did for Clare? How do I find a way to engage him and spark a desire for learning and curiosity that will last him a lifetime? These are the questions that teachers and parents ask themselves every day. I will continue to reflect on these questions, ask other tutors and the staff for suggestions, and explore different ways to be of help.


I’m reminded of a book that I read many years ago, “How Can I Help?” by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman. Perhaps it’s time to reread this book.



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