Tutors participating in Friends of Simon take a moment to share how the project has affected their lives.
A Field School Story
As you know I am currently away on field school in Southeast Asia. While overseas, I've had a few opportunities to play and interact with local children, and it's only upon reflection that I've realized how useful the skills I've learned at Friends of Simon are not just in a classroom, but in a "real-world" context as well. Not that the classroom isn't the real world, quite the opposite in fact. Just that it's often easy to compartmentalize our skills we have learned as being purely "for the classroom". This one story stands out to me in particular, and I just wanted to share, since I know how important storytelling is to FoS.
A few weeks ago some friends and I went trekking in the hill tribes just north of Chiang Mai. We had the opportunity to visit a Karen tribe, where women traditionally wear rings around their necks to make them longer (they're often referred to as the "long neck tribe"). I thought I was going for an authentic cultural experience, and was incredibly disappointed when I found out that it was just a tourist ploy. The place I was visiting was as far from an authentic cultural experience as you could get (this thankfully changed later that day though, but that's another story completely). Walking around quite disheartened, pondering the role that tourism plays in cultural degradation and looking half-interested at the crafts the women were selling, I spotted a young girl (maybe about 7 or 8) sitting by a small table with a school book. I immediately, but cautiously walked over to her and sat down beside her. She seemed hesitant at first, and her English was quite limited, but through single words and hand gestures I asked to see her work book and she gave it to me. I could see that she was learning basic English and Burmese words. It took a bit of time to warm up to me (I think that this was probably the first time that a tourist every took interest in what she was learning), but eventually we got on a role where I would teach her an English word and she would teach it back to me in Thai. This continued on for about fifteen minutes, and by the end we were both laughing at my terrible pronunciation of Thai. I left the village feeling happy and fulfilled, as I wasn't just another tourist looking for a cheap souvenir to buy. Instead I made a connection with someone that we will hopefully both remember for a long time.
I was recently thinking about this encounter and realized that if I hadn't been involved with Friends of Simon then I never would have had the courage to go up to that young girl, let alone try and interact with her in an educational context. In many ways it reminded me of a first day at a new site: the feeling of apprehension yet excitement. "Will they like me?" "What should I say and do first?" "What if my plans completely fail?" Having gone through this before, and using the skills I learned through FoS, I was able to confidently go up to and interact with that young girl. And despite not speaking the same language, we were still able to have a grand and memorable time together. I've had the opportunity to interact with a lot of kids while I'm here, and every time I do I think of how much our wonderful program has helped develop my confidence playing and interacting with kids, especially from different cultures.
So I just thought I would share the story and pass on my appreciation for the program. The skills we are learning really are more than training us to become good educators, but are truly life skills that I will use wherever I may go.
Looking at My Watch
I look at my watch. Two o’clock. I’m thirty minutes early for my first tutoring shift at Green Timbers. It’s been years since I first walked to into an elementary school and now, as then, I am nervous.
Are they going to like me? Will they care about what I’ve planned for them? Are they going to have fun?
I look at my watch again. Ten after two. I glance at my bag. It’s full of children books, flashcards, lined paper, blank paper, construction paper, pencils, markers, and pencil crayons.
I look at my watch one more time. Twenty-five after two.
I’m sitting in the classroom with two other tutors. One by one, children come in and join our table.
I look around the room. We’re playing games, exercising and stretching our bodies, learning each other’s names, drawing, writing, and reading Robert Munsch books. I’m hearing laughter and seeing smiles fill the room.
I look at my watch one last time. Five o’clock!
Katie is quiet and demure when I first meet her — and shy. She stays close to Marissa, the other Russian-speaking girl. She shrinks from the boisterous Marissa and the chatty pair of Rachel and Sarah.
We’re playing ‘Apple to Apples’. Most of the girls need help understanding the adjectives — especially Katie.
Katie is her usual quiet and polite self. As the game continues, Katie is doing well. She notices how many more cards she has than everyone else. She realizes she’s winning, and I encourage her to keep it up.
Katie’s sitting up straighter, leaning forward into the table, eyes open wider. A hint of a smile tugs at the edge of her mouth.
Katie can no longer contain her excitement, as she extends her lead. Now, she’s standing up, hands in the air! “Y-E-E-E-S!” she exclaims, and pumps her arms back and forth every time she wins a round.
I can see the others are getting impatient with Katie’s bragging, but I don’t want to stop her. When it’s time to go home, Katie doesn’t want to stop… she’s won and now she’s doing a victory dance!
John's not here. I knew it. Well, I didn't know it, but now that it's true, I want to say that I knew it.
I guess I just like saying ‘I knew it’ because it's emphatic, and it helps me to express my disappointment.
I won't get to use the blocks my wife, Anya, and I made today. How we worked and laughed and rushed to get them done. I was going to use them to help us understand the place value system of numbers. Small cubes, French fries, flats, and large cubes. I had placed a lot of value in this system!
But John's not here.
We won't get to use the blocks. Neither will we read another book.
Maybe he’ll comes next week.
I like this Mo-Ees kid, and no one is working with him, yet. He doesn't need to work on the place value system right now. We're multiplying double digit numbers. Elevens to be exact. I show him my trick. He gets it.
After a while, Mo-Ees doesn't want to do math anymore. We play chess and I teach him the moves. He gets it, plays well, and loses.
That's okay, I tell him, 'cause he played really well. I love losing in chess, because that's when I learn.
Mo-Ees won't be coming back next week, or probably ever. He's moving to Abbotsford. Sudan, Burnaby, Abbotsford — all in 11 years. That's not how I grew up, and it seems tough, but I think he'll do well wherever he goes.
I’ll pray for him when I leave.
Well, I hope John comes back next week. I hope we get to use the blocks.
Making A Difference in Each Other's Lives
Jeff hates homework. He doesn’t like working with tutors. He stalls and play games.
I decide to work with Jeff.
The first time, I’m overwhelmed… but we manage to complete the work. The next week, Jeff shows some interest, sits down, and we talk.
When I walk in the door, the following week, I hear: “Amedeo! Can I work with you today?”
David, the site coordinator wants me to work with Zack. I tell Jeff I’ll help him when Zack and I are finished.
I discover Zack has already completed his homework and I search for Jeff. I can’t find him. I ask David where he is. David heads to the closet and opens it.
Underneath the coat rack is Jeff, scowling, eyes welling up with tears. I ask him to come out of the closet — we can work together now. His eyes widen, a grin lights up his face. He grabs his bag, sits down at a table, and takes out his homework.
A quiet eureka moment: we have made a difference in each other’s lives.
A Flutter of Hope
“Gym time!” the children line up excitedly by the door.
But not Josh: “Don’t want to go to the gym! I wanna be outside!” he throws himself down on the floor, at the back of the class.
I volunteer to accompany Josh outside: in this tense moment, that’s how I can best help out the teacher. Later on, she’ll talk it out with him.
Josh bursts through the heavy doors to the playground. He takes a flying leap onto the platform of a zip-glide, teeter-totter contraption. Then, latching on to a triangular bar, he launches himself higher into the air, legs cycling vigorously as he slides across to the other end.
“Wee-ee-ee!” he squeals. Then lets go the bar, races back to the platform, and calls for me to slide the triangle back.
He grabs the bar, slides across, jumps off, and races back. I slide the triangle back to him.
Again and again. Josh doesn’t tire of going back and forth.
His round face is still plastered with a smile when he pauses to call out, chattily: “My mom smokes weed.”
I freeze. Stop breathing. Don’t know where to put myself; where to look, even.
“She puts it on a bong,” Josh adds casually, “and lights it up...”
I stare into the distance, the threatening sky, the dark, heavy clouds rolling in.
“My older brother and sister, too. They smoke weed.”
I’m studying the mess of houses across the street. The one with the broken yellow picket fence catches my eye.
“They’re in high school. Teenagers. Teenagers do that kinda stuff,” he explains. “They think it’s cool.”
I’m scrutinizing the platform contraption Josh’s teeter-tottering on now.
“Harveer… ” his voice drops confidentially: “Do you smoke weed?”
I’m brought back to here and now. At last.
My gaze comes to rest on Josh. I search into his round, brown button eyes — bright with anticipation:
“Nope…” I say flatly, matter-of-factly. “I’ve never smoked weed in my life.”
I’m wondering what this has all been about, where it’s going.
Josh sighs. Smiles. A long pause.
“Good,” he says with some finality: “Then I’m not gonna smoke it, either.”
I smile back. Nod.
My fear dissipates. My paralysis lifts. I feel only waves of sadness — and helplessness — wash over me…
And now, from deep inside, wells up a flutter of hope.
What We Teach
When Jas arrives, she greets me with enthusiasm… and a book in hand!
“Will you read to me, please?” she asks.
I recall, as a child, my reluctance to read. I’d hold my book open, but my mind would be wandering.
I ask Jas: "Have you always loved reading?"
She replies: "No! You made me love reading."
We teach kids to read… but, first, we teach them to love to read.
Only this moment, now
The smile of the little girl I’ve been working with warms me from across the room.
I sit with her as she practices writing her name. I follow her slow, tentative flow of exploration.
She bites her lip as her pencil follows a mysterious, invisible path on the page. A path she has been making as she walks the pencil.
In a moment, I look down… expecting to see what I always see.
I am surprised. On the page is her name with a flowing ‘e’ that no longer looks backwards.
She looks up into my face. I smile.
Only this moment, now. But, like her smile, it will warm me through the day.
What the World is Built Upon
The end-of-school bell has just rung, and already the door handle is rattling.
Jake sprints into the room, throws his knapsack onto the table, and abruptly halts before me.
“Great to see ya, Jake!” I beam. “How was school?”
Jake peers searchingly into my face: “Did you get it? … you promised?”
I sense the other tutors and staff holding their collective breath.
“I’m not quite sure this is what you want,” I reach gingerly into my backpack, “… but it does have a red cover, like you asked for.”
Jake doesn’t thank me for the notebook — or offer to explain why he wants it. As usual, he disappears; to the far corner of the room.
I continue to respect Jake’s reluctance to share his life. He has several family members in the Kla-How-Eya Club and, understandably, little privacy here. What matters to me is that Jake had enough courage — and faith — to ask me if I could get him some coloured paper; then a book with lined pages and a red cover.
I look forward to Jake’s next request.
Our work of literacy infusion into after-school programs focuses on children who are being forgotten every day and falling through holes in the support nets of family and community.
Their world is built upon simple interactions like making a promise and following through on it — or not.
In the book we’re reading together, we come across the word ‘nickname’.
The children hypothesize what the word means. I ask for examples.
One child shyly puts up her hand: "My dad used to call me ‘Cookie’," she says.
I’m wondering why she says her dad “used” to call her that. Is it a confusion of past and present tenses?
“Are you no longer a cookie, now?" I ask playfully. "Why doesn't your dad call you ‘Cookie’ any more?”
"I don't have a dad any more," she says, matter-of-factly:
Sneaky Way Those d's Turn Into b's
“I hate writing,” Eliza explains. She says she doesn’t trust the way her d’s suddenly turn to b’s. Or, when you least expect it, the way c’s clang like the beginning of KABOOM! … then hiss-ss like a s-s-snake. Most of all, Eliza fears getting ambushed by those silent, sneaky e’s.
Her teacher gives Eliza a journal with questions to answer on an in-class movie about helping people in her community.
Eliza frowns: “I hate writing.” She shoves the journal in her bag.
Three days a week Eliza comes to her Friends of Simon tutor. For the first two days, she hides her journal. She doesn’t want to try. She doesn’t want to look stupid.
On the third day, her tutor finds her journal. She looks inside and sees blank pages. She asks Eliza about the journal.
“I have to write four sentences… and I don’t have any ideas… and I hate writing!”
We brainstorm ideas. We create sentences together. We write them down. We fill the blank pages.
“I like how my words look on paper,” Eliza smiles. Especially the long ones: ‘community’ with its four humps; ‘homeless’ that’s two words squished together; and even ‘experience’ with its slithery ‘c’ and silent ‘e’.
Eliza writes six sentences instead of four.
The next day, Eliza hands in her journal. Her teacher reads her responses out to the class. Her teacher doesn’t mention Eliza’s name, but Eliza knows it’s her journal.
When Eliza gets her journal back, she finds comments in green ink from her teacher: ‘Great explanation!’ on one page. ‘I am impressed with your thoughtful response’ on another page. ‘Really good connections!’ on the last page.
Eliza smiles. She shoves her journal into her bag. But, this time, it’s with pride.
So They Don't Want to Read With Me?... And Be Inspired?
My first day tutoring. I’ve brought books — not any old books, my favourite books. This is going to be so much fun. I get to read with these kindergarten children, and I get to inspire them — the way I’ve been inspired by my teachers, this is exciting.
I walk in, and the kids are at a table, eating snacks. I introduce myself, I learn their names, and then I ask: “Who wants to rea-ea-ead?”
I’m waiting for a reply but nobody says anything. I ask again: “Who wants to rea-ea-ead?”
“We don’t want to read,” they chant.
“I want to play.” “I want to colour.” “Can I go home?” That’s what I hear.
So what is going on? I’m asking myself: don’t they want to read, and have fun with me, and be inspired?
The kids disperse, and some are playing with toys, some are on the computer, and others start colouring.
So I walk over to a table with two girls and a boy, and they’re colouring.
“Hey, guys, I have this really cool book… Wanna read it with me?”
“No,” they say.
“Do you want me to read it to you”?
“No thanks,” they say.
“Well, it’s a great book — look at the pictures… aren’t they cool?”
They glance over… but only just — they dare not read.
The day is over and I’m disappointed. I couldn’t even get one kid to want to read.
* * *
I come back again next week, with the same ambition: to inspire! I’m determined to get one of the kids to read.
It’s the same day, all over again.
I walk up to the two girls and the little boy. They’re still colouring: “Would you guys like to read with me today?”
“No,” they say. “No thanks.”
“Okay. Well, I’m going to read to you.”
I begin to read. I don’t know if they’re listening. They don’t look up from their colouring, but I still read all the way through to the end.
Then the day is over. I’m disappointed, once more, that I wasn’t able to get one child to want to read.
* * *
I come back again the following week, with the same ambition: to inspire! I’m determined to get one of the kids to want to read.
It’s the same day all, over again.
I walk up to the two girls and the boy who are colouring again: “Would you guys like to read with me today?”
“Can we all read together?” the boy asks.
“Sure! That’ll be fun,” I say.
“Can we pick the book?” asks one of the girls.
So we sit together, and I read to them, and they listen — they’re actually listening. Wow, I think: I can’t believe they’re listening.
The day ends, and I’m content. Okay, I think, today wasn’t too bad, they listened to the book, I’m almost there.
* * *
I come again the next week, yes, with the same ambition: to inspire. I’m determined to get one of the kids to read.
It’s the same day, again.
But wait…now, this little girl — she’s running up to me:
“Look, Amrita,” she says, “I brought a book from the library, I practiced reading it, can I read it to you?”
Wow, this is great, she wants to read. I didn’t have to ask and she wants to read. Have I done it? Did I spark an interest in literature; did I inspire?
I’m not sure. But this is ok, this little girl wants to read. We grab our chairs and sit down, and she begins to read: “Once upon a time...”
Waiting for Me at the Door
I walk towards the main building. I have no idea what to expect from this next tutoring session. School’s over; the children are outside on the playground.
Will they remember me from last week? Will they look forward to another session? Do they want after-school help, or are they there because they have to be?
I’m deep in my questions, focused on getting inside the warm building.
I look up at the door. A familiar figure. He’s peeping around the door at me. I wave.
He smiles excitedly. Opens the door for me. Greets me. He could have been playing outside, running around. That's what he did last week.
But, this afternoon, he’s waiting for me right at the front door. And now he walks me down to the classroom.
Helping with the Homework
By Grant Petersen
She looks me straight in the eye: “So, the difference between simple past and past progressive is…?”
I’m trying to convince her I know something — anything — about English grammar, even though she’s correcting my mistakes more often that I’m correcting hers.
“Erm…” I stumble, struggling to comprehend her Grammar 12 worksheet in the surrounding hubbub.
She smiles at my convoluted examples and tense face.
“Do you understand what I mean?” I ask.
“Sort of,” she laughs. “Why don’t I try a couple questions… and you can look them over.”
She focuses on her worksheet as I look around the room… Aha! A boy with nothing to do!
I remember him. Last visit, he was wrestling and calling out… and throwing paper rockets.
“So… do you have any homework?” I ask him.
“Nope!” the boy responds.
“Really? None at all? What grade are you in?”
“That’s not fair – I got tons of homework in grade five!”
“Games!” the boy yells.
“No,” I say, “we’re gonna try something different...”
“Aw…” he stares blankly at the table. “Well, yeah… I’ve got homework... I have to trace my hand five times on this piece of paper.”
“Cool! What’s that for? Social Studies?”
“Um… it’s like history, sort of.”
“Oh! And you talk about other countries and stuff too, right!”
“Yeah! And our country, too. All of that. All of that together is Social Studies.”
“Cool. Yeah, it’s not for Social Studies.”
“No! No it’s for art class! Weirdo.”
“Awesome! So let’s get to it then.”
“Can you help me?” he asks.
“I’ll support you,” I say.
“Okay, so you trace it for me then, okay? And I’ll watch.”
“No way!” I laugh. I’m not doing your work for you. You know that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to support you, not help you. Support you in doing it all yourself. ”
“But I suck at it!”
“How about we use this scrap paper for practice?”
To get ready for this endeavour, he sharpens his pencil, his brow furrowed.
One minute goes by. Two minutes.
“Do you think it’s sharp enough?” I ask mildly.
He shoots me a grin.
Three minutes go by.
“Alrighty! Time for practice!” I say, as I gently swipe the sharpener from his hands.
“Can I trace your hand first?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, excited at the prospect of pencil hitting paper for the first time today.
He traces around my hand, biting his lower lip and, at last, completes his squiggly creation. He sits back in his chair; tilts his head away from the paper. Then looks back at my hand.
“Gee, you’ve got small hands for a guy.”
“Okay, okay… let’s try with your hand now.”
He plops his hand down on the paper and traces out five copies of his own hand, not that much smaller than my own. He continues to bite his lip as he adds artistic flourishes to each tracing.
“Hey, that one hand looks like a mummy!” I say to him.
“You know those old Egyptian kings?”
“Pharaohs!” the girl shouts from her corner. She’s finished with her grammar work, so she comes to join the fun.
“Pharaohs… ” the girl explains: “They used to wrap them up in long strips of cloth when they died.”
I hope the doesn’t ask me about death again.
“Oh, I’ve seen those in cartoons!” he says. “They were real? I thought they were fake.”
“Well, they’re definitely real,” I say, “but they never came back to life or anything.”
“Hey, you drew this?” the girl asks him.
“It’s really good! And whose hand is that on the piece of scrap?”
“Oh, that’s Grant’s hand.”
“It’s pretty small for a guy, eh?” she laughs. “Look — my hand fits perfectly! Look at that, eh!”
Unable to contain my smile I snatch the paper from the girl as they both laugh at my tiny hands. I put the scrap in the recycling bin…
* * *
When I get back to the table, the boy looks me with wide eyes and a wider smile as he plops down his some papers.
“I got more homework!”
“What kinda homework? P.E.?”
He sifts through loose papers in his folder to find his new worksheet: ‘Antonyms.’
I look at the definition on the worksheet: “An antonym is a word opposite in meaning to another.” I guess I’m learning something too.
“So what does the title say?”
“Antonyms!” says the boy.
“Antonyms…” says the girl, overhearing us: “Doesn’t that just mean opposites?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I say. Maybe she should be tutoring…
“I’ve already finished two of the questions in class!” the boy says with a puffed chest.
“That’s a great start. So, then, what would be the antonym of ‘bright’?’”
He searches through the possible matches: “Ummmm… ‘untrustworthy’?”
“Well… What does ‘bright’ mean?”
“It means when all the lights are on.”
“And what’s it like when all the lights are off?”
“Dark…” He looks at the list of words again: “Dark!”
“There ya go! Nice job. So, what’s the antonym of ‘bright’?”
“It’s ‘dark’ I tell you!”
I laugh again. “Awesome! …Next: What is the antonym of…”
As I read off the questions, the girl peeks over our shoulders again and joins the fun. It becomes a group effort, and in five minutes we finish off the worksheet. This is the most work I’ve ever gotten out of that boy…
The session is over, and everybody is packed-up and ready to go.
“See ya next week, Ravi!”
Why I'm Here...Where I'm Going
My first day tutoring. I come into the classroom. I find the teacher at his desk. The teacher is in a wheelchair.
And that’s when it strikes me — like a bolt of lightning… suddenly illuminating my life in the brilliant flashback of a faraway and long ago memory.
I’m in Mr. Tanner’s Grade 4, Twelfth Avenue School. The recess bell sounds. We race outside. The shrieking and chasing and grabbing of freeze-tag draws me into the game.
Then, out of the turmoil and noise, something pulls me away: over there; something silent, still.
A wheelchair. In the wheelchair, a figure hunched forward. On the figure’s face, a sad, haunted look.
“Over here… come on!” My friends are calling me.
I hesitate. I waver between freeze-tag and the figure in the wheelchair. Now, drawn back to the shrieking and chasing of my friends; now, pulled to the lonely figure in the wheelchair.
I feel my friends’ eyes on my back, as I turn away from them. What will they think?
I push on towards the figure: "Hi…,” I call out, “What's your name? I’m Lindsey."
The boy looks up, startled. Then… quizzical… intrigued… delighted.
"Michael,” he whispers: “My name’s Michael.”
I think I hear my friends pause in their play. They’re staring our way. In a moment, the game picks up again.
Michael’s grinning. He tells me about his class, his teacher, his friends. As I walk and he wheels, his smile grows brighter, wider. Mine, too.
Something’s changed. The school’s the same. The playground’s the same. My classmates are the same.
It’s me. I’ve changed.
I’m still the same. But I’m also different.
Through this small act of breaking away from my circle, I’ve set something in motion.
I’ve opened myself up. To someone who is different from me.
And I realize I want others to share in this learning; to learn with me, alongside me.
And what I want them to learn is that sometimes we can act in a different way.
And so become different.
And so make a difference in the world.
One by one. One difference at a time.
And now, this afternoon… as a Friends of Simon tutor… I am reconnected to all this.
And I understand, more deeply, why I’m here. And I know, more surely, where I’m going.