Who You Tutorin' Today?
by Liz Hacken

From the writer: As a requirement for Service Learning WRT 105, I was involved in a tutoring program at the Bishop Foery Foundation. I met a young boy there who was the focus and inspiration for my story "Who You Tutorin' Today?" This experience taught me the value of quiet observation. I learned that even the most common everyday occurrences offer subtle nuances of inspiration if you just take the time to pay attention.

From the editors: "Who You Tutorin' Today?" chronicles a 105 student's encounters with rambunctious Syracuse schoolchildren as part of the Writing Program's Service Learning Project. Liz Hacken deftly addresses the unique moments of fear, fascination, frustration and fun that anyone who has tutored will recognize. Hacken's experiences exemplify purposeful participation in the Service Learning Project.

From the teacher: In my Service Learning WRT 105 class, students were asked to write about their service experience in a focused, meaningful way. What Liz presents here is not only a look at her service site and its importance, but also a personal journey where she discovers how to connect with children.

As you near the corner of West Onondaga and West Streets, you see a large gray building. From the outside, it is hard to tell what exactly is housed there. But as you venture down the narrow driveway, you soon see a large crowd of children running around and playing basketball. When they see the large blue Bishop Foery van pull up, they realize that the tutors have arrived and it is time to get down to business. The level of excitement rises and all of the children ask you "Who you tutorin' today?" This is the beginning of a typical day at the Bishop Foery Foundation, the site of my community service and one of the most enjoyable service experiences I have had. Through Bishop Foery, I learned a lot about how I interact with other people.

The Bishop Foery Foundation, funded through Catholic Charities, provides an afterschool and tutoring program for children in the Syracuse area to offer them with a constructive alternative to other unsafe activities. Based on the Bishop Foery Foundation mission statement, they are looking for volunteers with "a genuine concern for youth" that are willing to "establish a basic trusting relationship with one youth or a group of youths." After learning more about this valuable service that they provide for their community, I was proud to contribute to their cause by donating my time.

Bishop Foery was not my first choice for a service site. One important feature of my potential service had to be that it worked with little kids. Many of my most positive volunteer experiences involved children. I had intended to do my community service with STEP (Science and Technology Entry Program), which tutors students in grades 7 through 12. But after researching the program, I found out that it would probably not suit me very well. I decided that I would be much more comfortable tutoring younger children; the age range of children at Bishop Foery is grade 2 to 6.

I was very apprehensive about my first day at Bishop Foery. The volunteer coordinator, Sarah, told me over the phone that she picked everyone up at 3 o'clock behind Bird Library. I decided to get there early just so they wouldn't leave without me. Luckily, I saw "Amelia", a girl in one of my other classes who had begun tutoring last week. She reassured me that the children at Bishop Foery were very sweet and that I had nothing to be nervous about. Just then, I saw an enormous blue van with the phrase "Catholic Charities: Bishop Foery Foundation" painted on the side and two children jumping up and down in the back. When the van approached, I introduced myself to Sarah and the little kids began to pester me (almost as if they knew I was new blood), asking "Who you tutorin' today?" a question that I would become all too familiar with that day.

As we approached Bishop Foery, I saw the swarm of children waiting outside for the tutoring van to arrive. On the ride there, I was feeling a bit nervous because we were venturing into a part of Syracuse that I had not seen yet. It was very different than the Syracuse University campus and its surrounding area; some of the businesses were boarded up, litter strewn around, danger seemingly lurking around every corner. But these less than appealing conditions did not dampen the spirits of the Bishop Foery kids. They immediately ran up to the van and started to tug on Sarah's sweater, proceeding to tell her all at once about what they did that day in school. I then realized that the kids had a very strong relationship with Sarah and that she had a lot of authority over them.

When I entered Bishop Foery, I was surprised by the humble dˇcor. The only decorations on the white walls were assorted paintings and crafts made by the Bishop Foery kids. There were various video game machines, a bumper pool table and a foosball table that quickly retracted as soon as "HOMEWORK TIME!" was announced. The fun and games atmosphere was quickly replaced by large groups of kids working together on homework assignments, others in the "A Room" for kids with more than two pages of homework, and the remaining few in another secluded room.

At Bishop Foery, one child in particular stood out in my mind. This little boy was running around spastically and tormenting the other kids. Intuitively, I knew that this was the kid that I would be tutoring. It was almost as if someone was trying to test me and see if I would actually stick with this program. Just as I had predicted, Sarah told me that I would be tutoring "Brian", the wild child who seemed more concerned with causing trouble than actually getting work done. For a moment, I doubted whether I would be able to get him to focus at all. Little did I know that this lack of focus was not the only reason he needed help with his homework. I was still optimistic about the whole situation; however, this was before we actually started the tutoring sessions.

My first impression of Brian was not totally accurate. At first, I thought Brian would just be a terror that would make my service a very difficult experience. But when he calms down, he is actually a really good kid with a lot of insightful comments and interesting ideas. This side of him comes through only when he is calm and has taken his medication. Before my tutoring with Brian started, Larry, the director of Bishop Foery, pulled me aside and told me that Brian had Attention Deficit Disorder and was currently on Ritalin. This was not entirely a shock to me; I knew there had to be some underlying reason why Brian was hyperactive all the time. Knowing about his condition changed the way I approached our tutoring sessions. I did my best to read about A.D.D. and find out how educators dealt with it in the past and adapted it to our sessions. Even when I tried to structure our sessions more clearly and provide an environment free from distractions, I could not work effectively with him. No matter how I utilized the methods they suggested, I had a lot of trouble getting through to "Brian."

In retrospect, I don't think that I was much help to Brian in regards to homework. Whenever he would come to tutoring, it seemed that he had no homework at all to do. Only once can I remember him having a worksheet to do, and that took less than 15 minutes to complete. It seems like we were defeating the purpose of the tutoring program. I also thought that my duty as a tutor was to get him more interested in learning any way I could. So, after all his homework was done and the kids were allowed to play games, I tried to pick something that had some kind of educational purpose. We soon grew to love Monopoly Junior and other games loosely based on math.

One day, I tried to make a game out of looking things up in the outdated encyclopedia set at the tutoring center. We ended up looking up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a topic that seemed to interest Brian. That discovery about his interest in African American history ended up dictating most of our tutoring sessions. From that point on, we started looking through the books they had (which Brian had previously deemed "stupid and babyish") to find ones about African American heroes. We found books about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. He was so happy when we read those books; he was actually taking initiative and asking me questions about who people were and why they were doing the things they did.

Even though Brian really seemed to enjoy our tutoring sessions, he soon learned that he could get away with a lot more with me than he could with Sarah because I did not have as much authority over the kids as she did. One way he took advantage of me was when we attempted to do his math homework. He kept complaining that there were too many problems and that he would simply not do it. I had no idea how to deal with this situation and did not feel that this was the time to test how much I would be able to do to discipline him. I felt so helpless and lost all control of the situation, something that I was not used to. So my logical response was to go talk to Sarah about it. She left the kid she was tutoring to go have a talk with Brian. I could hear him screaming back at her through the thin walls of the cubicle. This episode showed me how much authority Sarah had over the Bishop Foery kids. I felt bad that I "turned him in" for not behaving, but I did not know how else to deal with the situation. To this day, I still think Brian is holding a grudge against me for what I did that day.

I soon learned that my two hours a week tutoring Brian would not fulfill the hours required of me. I talked to Sarah, and she proposed that I come on Thursdays to help out with the after school program. We both thought it would be a good change of venue for me and give me a more well-rounded feel for what Bishop Foery was all about. I soon learned that Brian was a relatively good sample of the Bishop Foery kids; they are all pretty rambunctious and starved for attention. They have no inhibitions and are not afraid to go up to strangers just to say what's on their mind. One day, a little girl came up to me, grabbed my hand, and led me over to her backpack. She then tried to get me to guess what was in her backpack. I was initially a little apprehensive; we were in an urban area in a large city, so being from the suburbs, I expected the worst. But it turned out that she only had a pumpkin. I asked her where she got it, and we got involved in a twenty-minute conversation about our trips to pumpkin patches around Halloween. It was very exciting to be able to have a shared experience with one of the kids. I felt much more at ease during the Thursday sessions after that conversation.

Another feature of the Bishop Foery kids is their excitement and unbridled enthusiasm. When you enter the center, you instantly have about five kids running up to you, tugging on your sleeve and asking for help with their homework. My third Thursday, I had a little girl come up to me and ask if she could read a book to me. She was very proud of the fact that she could read this book and simply wanted to share it with me. So we sat down and before she even began to read a word, there were five other kids crowded around to listen to the story. After the first book was done, the kids were waving around about ten other books for me to read. Episodes like this made me feel very appreciated, like I was actually making a difference at the Bishop Foery Foundation.

One thing I noticed was that the kids are very comfortable with the system and know how to use it to their advantage, much like Brian does. Another Thursday, the kids did not have school the next day, so one little girl got the idea into her head that we should all take a field trip to the playground at the school across the street. She initially asked me, but since I don't know the procedures for things such as that too well, I told her to go ask Sarah. Pretty soon, we had about fifteen little kids who overheard and wanted to go to the playground. There was nothing else to do but take them all over to play outside. It was a lot of fun and it gave me a chance to see the kids doing what they do best: being themselves and just playing around with each other. Their youthful energy was infectious. After a while it was hard to tell who were the tutors and who were the kids; we were all swinging on the swings, sliding down the slides, and hanging from the monkey bars. I felt so happy when Brian was playing with me on the monkey bars, introducing me to all of the other kids as "my tutor." It was a great feeling to know that he actually remembered who I was and was proud to "show me off" to his other friends. Our trip to the playground was cut short by a sudden thunderstorm. I think everyone would have liked to stay there all day, including my fellow tutors. It is an amazing feeling to escape the stress of papers and other college homework and just be a kid again for at least a few hours.

One of the kids, besides Brian, sticks out in my mind from my experiences at Bishop Foery. During one of my Thursday sessions, I saw that a bunch of the girls were crowded into one of the quiet rooms with the door shut. I thought I would go investigate, since that would hopefully be more exciting than standing by the foosball table. I was lured into the room by the squeaky noises of a little girl trying to practice with her violin. This almost made me cry because I have played the violin for eleven years, and I could remember those awkward and sometimes frustrating few years when it didn't even sound like music, just nails on a chalkboard. I went over to her and started to ask her questions about her playing. I soon learned that her name was "Melissa", and she was in fifth grade. She had been playing the violin for only two years. Just by looking into her eyes, I could tell that she appreciated that I paid attention to her and took a great interest in something that she obviously loved to do. Melissa and I share a common passion for music and I hope to bring my violin to Bishop Foery one Thursday so that we can practice together. Since that fateful Thursday, I have developed a strong relationship with Melissa and she is one of the main reasons that I enjoy Thursdays at Bishop Foery.

There are a lot of differences between the hectic Thursdays at the after school program and the comparatively calm Tuesday tutoring sessions. But both of these aspects make Bishop Foery a unique and vital part of the Syracuse community. The children at the program make me excited to do community service. Bishop Foery met my expectations of an ideal service site with a caring environment for the children and a friendly group of people to work with. A strong desire and enjoyment is necessary for a community service experience to be worthwhile. Even though I only know a few of their names, the personalities of the kids at the Bishop Foery Foundation will stand out in my mind for years to come.

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