Tutoring brings good times, needed help

Jul. 12, 2014 @ 01:26 PM

Tutoring elementary school students is not for everybody.  When I signed up to join the city's “Rotary Reading Rangers” volunteer program, I was pretty sure I would find the experience annoying, if not painful.  But I understand numbers. Way too many of our kids are behind in their reading skills. That’s bad for the community, the economy and society.

So, earlier this year, I joined the ranks of volunteer tutors who have helped more than 30 elementary school students at Y.E. Smith Elementary School and Neal Middle School increase their reading skills.  Overall, nearly 90 Durham volunteers have pitched in.  The program enters its third year next fall and is looking for more volunteer tutors.

To join, you don't need to be a Rotarian, though I have been a member of the Durham Rotary Club for many years.  The club organized the program in partnership with the Durham Public Schools and the East Durham Children's Initiative.  If you can read, you can help and even if you start out anticipating a grind, you may find you enjoy it.

My memory of Day One:

Things are noisy.  There are kids of all shapes, sizes and colors and it seemed chaotic compared to my otherwise quiet existence.  A few bewildered parents are at the reception desk, uncomfortable, maybe a little scared, but wanting an education for their children that some of them may have never had.  I take a deep breath.

I get my assigned kid from the classroom.  He’s cocky, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but polite.  He’s a grade behind where he should be in reading skills.  He goes along but with little enthusiasm while we look for a quiet place in the media center.  To my surprise, he actually can read pretty well for about 10 seconds out of every minute, but he's easily distracted.

You start noticing little things right away about what interests him and I began to start playing with ideas to help him focus.

One day when I get him from class, the teacher is showing the students how to play tic tac toe.  He’s interested and reluctant to leave the classroom but it gives me an idea. When we finish an exercise, I flip over the paper and draw the tic-tac-toe grid.  He’s good.  He often beats me.  I'm embarrassed.

Over time, the human connection takes root.  He’s telling me little things about his brother or sister or the dog he used to have or the one he’s getting.  He starts asking about me.  I show him a picture of my dog on my cell phone.  He knows how to operate it better than I do. He asks if I can come more days. We’re starting to be friends. 

A subtle shift in the relation with staff and teachers also occurs.  I find myself becoming  part of the team helping these children, many from tough situations, many who are learning a second language that their parents can’t help them with.  The principal’s reputation is that she’s tough, no nonsense and totally committed to these kids. When she gives me a hug at the end of the year, I’m a little embarrassed.  I’m no Brad Pitt.  On the contrary. I’m old. I’m grouchy. I’m a numbers guy.

However, I’ve learned something. These kids are not statistics. They are real people that often need a little extra help. And whether your motivation is duty, love of children, or you could just use a break in your routine, you will be welcomed and, like me, may find it unexpectedly rewarding.

Join us. We need a lot of help.

Jay Zenner is a Rotarian and Reading Ranger. To learn more about the program and how to join go to the club’s website www.durhamrotaryclub.org and click on the “wanted poster” in the sidebar where you can also contact founder and Chief Ranger, Todd Taylor, to join.