Is This Worth It?
SARA ECKEL discovers that volunteering isn't about getting back more than you give. It's just about giving.
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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
ILLUSTRATION: Kim Rosen