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Shambhala Sun | November 2012

Is This Worth It?

SARA ECKEL discovers that volunteering isn't about getting back more than you give. It's just about giving.

I stood at a whiteboard in the Time-Life cafeteria, which at 6 p.m. smelled like a mix of disinfectant and slightly spoiled milk. My adult literacy students—the three who had shown up—sat at vinyl-covered lunch tables with their essays.

“Would anyone like to read their piece?” I asked.

All three stared at the floor, still as granite. Apparently, this week’s topic, “My favorite pastime,” had failed to inspire.

“Ramon?” I said, my voice slightly pleading. A heavyset Hispanic man, Ramon usually cooperated when called on. But tonight he jolted, as if suddenly awakened, and shook his head. The other students, two young women I’d never seen before, also declined.

“Okay, how about we write one together,” I suggested. “Who would like to tell us about their favorite pastime?”

More blank stares. I sighed and passed out a worksheet on prepositional phrases. A few minutes later, Ramon placed his head against the wall and began snoring softly.

This was not what I had expected. Volunteer work was supposed to make me happier and more fulfilled. I knew this because I had written many articles proclaiming the psychological benefits of donating one’s time, citing research that showed that people who did so enjoyed better health, stronger relationships, and higher overall well-being than those who did not. My Buddhist studies at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York also touted the benefits of selflessness, and I had often heard teachers there repeat Sakyong Mipham’s famous quote, “If you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.”

And yet, each week I began my volunteer teaching job with a heavy heart. It was definitely not bringing me greater joy or deeper meaning. It was a job—a job I didn’t get paid for.

Granted, not every class was as sluggish as tonight’s, when the mood was as dreary as the March drizzle outside. On the first day of term last September, my eight students had generously shared their essays on that day’s topic: “What do I want to improve about my life?” Delilah wanted to get a better job and lose weight. Jake wanted to quit smoking. Bastian wanted to go to college and become a lawyer. They all wanted to pass the GED.

Even the grammar exercise was lively and productive. In a half hour’s time, nearly every student learned how to punctuate a compound sentence. “That’s the first time I understood this,” said a young woman named Rebecca, clapping her hands.

Was there a better example of basic goodness? Here was a group of people who, either through poor judgment or bad luck, had missed a crucial life step: getting a high school diploma. They had difficult, exhausting jobs—janitor, shoe salesman, fry cook—and they were so far behind. How tempting it would be to give up, grab a couple of Big Macs after their shift, and kick back with an episode of Jerseylicious. Instead, they came to the Time–Life cafeteria and listened intently as I described the proper use of a semicolon. I felt like I had fallen in love.

As the weeks went on, many students proved to be excellent dharma teachers—especially for someone trying to drop preconceived ideas. One evening, a man named Robert asked me to work with him on the essay topic “Describe a big change in your life.” A squat, muscular man in a gray hoodie and black do-rag, Robert described his big change: he had an apartment now and was no longer living on the street.

I blinked. Yeah, that qualifies. Then I showed him an outline template that would enable to him organize his thoughts and explain the impact his one-bedroom had on his life: (a) he’d gotten a job, (b) he’d returned to school, and (c) he now had a place to call his own. He picked up the template and nodded. “This is good,” he said.

But for every moment that I felt like the Hilary Swank character in an uplifting teacher dramedy, there were doz- ens more that ranged from mundane to disheartening—my botched attempts at explaining verb conjugations I didn’t fully understand myself; the blinking stares I received when I asked who had done the homework.

Robert never returned to class. Did he lose his apartment? Did his new boss change his shift? I never knew. Like so many students before and after him, he just disappeared. By November, more than half of the students from that first day had gone AWOL.

Even those who did show up seemed to be experiencing doubt. Nearly every week, at least one student closed her eyes or used the table for a pillow. One night, two young women snickered at my inability to write legibly on the whiteboard. I wanted to whip around and shout, “Hey, I could be home right now eating spaghetti and watching Project Runway with my husband. I do not have to be here!”

But being unpaid didn’t absolve me of the responsibility to teach well. Although I contemplated unconditional confidence—the belief in my fundamental worthiness, regardless of results—I wasn’t feeling it. My students needed to pass the GED, and they needed a teacher who knew what she was doing. How arrogant of me to think that a college degree and a three-week training program qualified me to enter this profession. I was an amateur, and they deserved better.

With attendance so uneven, I couldn’t build on the grammar lessons. Even more frustrating, I never witnessed my students’ progress—they didn’t stick around long enough. I was standing by the side of the road, hurling verb forms at them as they raced by—to where, I had no idea.
As I headed for the train each Thursday, I thought about quitting, fantasizing about all the other things I could be doing—writing a novel, seeing an outdoor concert, sharing a glass of wine with a long-neglected friend. My mind was constantly engaged in a grim calculation: Is this worth it?

Meanwhile, my Buddhist training in selflessness was going swimmingly. I adored loving-kindness meditation and the way I felt when I wished happiness for my husband, my friends, the guy who made my sandwich at the deli. I also enjoyed the meaty struggle of sending good thoughts to a neighbor who was seriously pissing me off at the time.

The teachings inspired me to start making small, spontaneous sacrifices—quietly taking the heel of the bread so my husband could have the better slice, letting an able-bodied stranger grab the last free seat on the subway. In these instances, Sakyong Mipham’s words were true; putting others before myself did bring me peace and harmony. But this was so small. Taking the heel? Seriously? That was the best I could do?

On that gray March night, I didn’t force Ramon to read about his favorite pastime, but I did wake him up. “Ramon, would you like to read the next exercise?” I asked in a clipped, high tone.
He rubbed his face, apologizing. He had just finished a double shift at the fish market—seventeen hours straight. A few minutes later another student, Leena, hustled in. Sorry for being late and for missing the week before, she said, then explained that her schizophrenic brother had tried to attack her family with kitchen knives and was now in jail. “But it’s okay,” she said, slipping off her coat. “Nobody was hurt.”

She set her zebra-print bag on an empty seat and sat down. “So what did I miss? Was there any homework?”

How ridiculous I had been. My students had difficult and chaotic lives—who was I to take offense when they couldn’t get to class or stay awake? What, exactly, was I expecting to hear when I asked them about their pastimes? Stamp collecting? Beekeeping? For most of my students, their only “pastime” was falling into a heap in front of the television after the daily marathon of work, school, and child-rearing.

I had been lured into volunteer work by the idea of “getting more than I gave.” Now I saw how wrong-headed that was. I also understood why it wasn’t making me happy: because I expected it to make me happy. I was still on the “me” plan.

Gradually, I learned to accept the humble reality of my task— teaching people how to write, one comma at time. I couldn’t control whether the lesson would take, or whether it would help them pass the GED, or even if passing the GED would get them a better job. I could only teach the class as best I could, without expecting a psychic payoff.

A few months later, I worked with a man named Luke on that week’s essay topic, “What would you do if you were president of the united States?” Luke was a quiet, serious student, whose gentle energy belied his gangster apparel—square gold earrings in each ear, muscle shirt, sideways trucker hat. A few weeks earlier, he’d read his essay on “the qualities of a friend,” calmly stating that he didn’t know much about the topic because he’d never had a friend. But his ideal friend would be loyal, honest, and have his back.

Now Luke explained that if he were president he would improve the job situation for ex-cons. “I applied for a job and the manager asked what I’d been convicted of. When I told him, he said he couldn’t hire me,” he explained. “But if I don’t have anything positive to do, I’m going to end up doing something negative.”

As I tried to imagine sweet, friendless Luke in prison, I was—once again—struck by the vastness of the lives before me, which I only caught in fleeting glimpses. In a movie, this might be the part where the ex-con discovers his voice, and with the help of a soulful teacher, begins an exhilarating journey that culminates in rousing congressional testimony.

But in reality, in the Time–Life cafeteria, this was the last time I would see Luke. He was accepted into a jobs program that conflicted with my class. I congratulated him and thanked him for telling me why he was leaving. He said he wanted to keep working on the essay, so I scribbled my email address on a slip of paper and told him I’d love to read it when he was ready.

He smiled at the notepaper. “I’m going to email you,” he said. I’m still waiting.

Sara Eckel is the author of a forthcoming book about single people, to be published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin books. She lives in Ulster County, New York.

From the November 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.


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