When trying your best to help just doesn’t work

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Dangerous Minds"
Cover of Dangerous Minds

Here’s a great/depressing piece from Salon.com by a teacher who worked in Texas’ worst school — burned out and gave up:

Before I came to Pearce I knew that many of its students scored poorly on standardized tests; the school was rated “Low Performing” the year before I arrived. The only other non-elementary school in Central Texas rated “Low Performing” was in the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center. I also knew that 80 percent of Pearce students received free or reduced-price lunch, and almost all were African-American or Latino.

Like many attendance-zoned high-poverty schools, Pearce was often a chaotic place where discipline issues, student absenteeism, low parent involvement and high teacher turnover were the norm. Why would a teacher with other options work in such a stressful, violent setting?  I chose Pearce because I was going to make a difference; I would do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. Full of youthful enthusiasm and self-flattery, I could change the world by working at Pearce. Why not?

Here is the hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact. Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives, much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but “Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is survival.

This piece hit me hard because I, too, tried my best — for 18 months in 1998 — to mentor a 13-year-old girl mired in multi-generational poverty and welfare dependence. Her family was noisy, chaotic, fractured; her mother had simply disappeared five years earlier, leaving C and her half-brother to live with their grandmother and an assortment of relatives.

I was matched with C — and a week or so later her mother turned up. Out of the blue.

The following 18 months proved an eye-opening, sobering and sad wake-up call. I liked C and admired her spirit; she was fun, affectionate, easy-going. I took her sailing, to play squash, to simply hang out at home and have dinner. We had some long frank conversations.

I had hoped — and tried hard through my connections there– to get her accepted on scholarship into a local prep school, a potential escape from the madness of her current life. She loved her visit there and said repeatedly she wanted to go to college.

But “college” seemed like Disneyland, a lovely far-off place she’d heard about and longed to visit, somewhere desirable that others went.

The slogging intermediate steps necessary to prepare for college-level work — consistent application, self-discipline, learning to study, acquiring and perfecting social skills — felt elusive, even invisible to her and her family. I heard no interest from her grandmother in how C might actually get there.

Instead, in front of me, she’d poke C in her belly, demanding: “Are you pregnant?”

My own privilege had, (embarassingly), been previously invisible to me. I didn’t realize that the gut-burning determination to climb the socio-economic ladder just didn’t translate or resonate with this child or her family.

The relationship ended abruptly and badly. We never even said a formal good-bye. No one ever called or wrote to me, and no one from the matching social service organization ever followed up to apologize or explain.

“Oh, that’s one of our most difficult families,” said her social worker, on one of the many times I called them, bewildered and exhausted.

C would now be in her mid-20s and I wonder if she ever did attend college, or graduate. Is she married? Working? Does she have kids? Is she happy? Thriving?

I also, selfishly, sometimes wonder if she ever remembers me.

Sadly, chastened, I haven’t volunteered for a similar role since.

Have you ever volunteered for a position where you’d hoped to make a difference in a child’s life — but burned out and gave up?

Do you regret trying?

Or giving up?

When Volunteering Fails: A Cautionary Tale

Helping Hand
Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr

Fellow T/Ser Michael Salmonowicz blogged recently about the need for, and the power of, volunteerism. There’s no question that choosing to offer your time, skills, intelligence and compassion to someone in need — and that someone might be, or have been, you as well — is the right choice.

It’s the moral choice. What if it doesn’t work out?

My goal is not to dissuade anyone from doing it, but my experience of being a Big Sister was sadly instructive and left me very wary of making such a commitment again. That quite likely deprives me, and others, of some good results.

We rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out because, after all, the idea is to encourage volunteerism, not scare people off.

I became a Big Sister in 1997 or so, handed into a relationship with a 13-year-old Hispanic girl I’ll call Pilar. She lived in a small, crowded, squalid house in my county, a mere 15 minute drive away but might have been in another country. Her mother had disappeared five years earlier and she and her younger brother were being raised by their grandmother, a woman of astonishing ability to lie, spin, deceive and manipulate. But it took me a while to learn this.

I liked Pilar from the first minute we met. Feisty enough to be fun but sweet enough to be likable, she said she wanted to become a writer. We spent about a year and a half together, seeing one another every three weeks or so, as mandated by our agreement.  I took her sailing with friends — her first time on the water, she learned quickly and eagerly. Same thing on the squash court. God bless her, she was game for all sorts of new WASPy adventures.

Sometimes we’d hang out at my apartment or go for drives or just talk.  I took her to her local library one day to work on homework, but she had no idea what a librarian was or how she could help.

By the end of our time together, I decided one way to help her escape the craziness of her home life — lots of shouting, a mother who’d returned suddenly a week after our match and now lived in the basement watching videos all day, junk food, nowhere quiet to read or study — might be boarding school, at a prep school near me that accepts full scholarship students. We went for the meeting, Pilar in her best clothing, her manners eager, awkward. I didn’t even think, I’m ashamed to admit, she’d need coaching for that interview.

They agreed to let her sit in on a full day of classes, to see if there was a fit. She never called, never showed up. I never got an explanation from her family or caseworkers. I had started calling her three days beforehand to help her choose her clothes and talk the day through. No one returned my calls and at 10:00 p.m. the night before, her brother casually mentioned she was at a a relative’s house.

Had she lied to me about her grades? Her eyes lit up when she saw the grounds and buildings of the prep school. “I’d love to go here,” she said that day.

I was, clearly, naive and idealistic. The more I got to know and like her and see her potential, the more I wanted to do to help her get a great education, make new friends, work with her athletic potential, get into college. My family had warned me from the start that this sort of aspirational intrusiveness was dangerous territory.

Her family wanted her as is, even if her granny made a habit of poking Pilar’s belly in front of me, barking “Are you pregnant?”

Only half-way through this increasingly challenging relationship did the caseworker finally admit: “This is one of our toughest families.” You think? Her therapist told me she thought Pilar one of the most manipulative girls she’d met.

Great — liberal, middle-class optimism/guilt/hope meets…what?

Volunteering demands humility. You have no idea, often, what effects — if any — your relationship has on this other person. Should this matter? Matter a lot?

Maybe you teach them a new skill and you can see that happen. But maybe not. If you are a goal-oriented person, this can be confusing.

I often think about Pilar and wonder who and how she is. She’s now in her 20s. Did she ever go to college? Avoid early single motherhood? Is she happy?

I wish I knew.

Here is Michael’s essay in Good magazine.

No Kids? No Problem

Family portrait with mother, father, two small...
Can you be a real family with no kids in it? Image by Powerhouse Museum Collection via Flickr

Any woman who chooses never to have kids — and doesn’t inherit any as a stepmother — ends up looking like a freak. All women want kids! Where’s your maternal instinct? Babies are so cute! There’s a loud, powerful, unavoidable litany. Not to mention the parade of celebs with their baby bumps, their babies, their toddlers, their kids, somehow suggesting it’s the coolest choice imaginable.

It’s a choice, as Laura. S. Scott discusses in her new book, “Two Is Enough”, the result of interviews with 171 people who chose not to have kids, experts and parents. She debunks a pile ‘o myths — parenthood makes you a better person, it’s different when they’re yours, parenting is the path to maturity.

As someone who never wanted kids, I know what people think of us. We’re weird, cold, unloving, selfish. Whatever. Here are a few things to think about should you feel the need to judge someone who didn’t procreate:

1) There may be serious medical issues, from cancers to mental illness, we don’t want to risk in having offspring who may be born with them. We know the costs, financial, emotional and psychological. We’ve made that calculation.

2) We may have had crazy childhoods, with parents who were mentally or physically ill, substance abusers or worse. Surviving our own childhoods was tough enough. Many of us were “parentified”, forced into taking charge of the adults who chose to bear us, taking care of them when we were way too young to handle it. We’re worn out. Parenting our own kids looks like another few decades of more wearying work.

3) Parenting, well, is really, really hard work. We’re not dumb! Sure, it’s deeply rewarding. So are many other activities.

4) Depending on your career choice or ambitions, handling the additionally relentless time, money and emotional needs of those utterly dependent on you is unmanageable. We want to do our work, or our avocations, really well, perhaps even obsessively, and we know something has to give — motherhood, or fatherhood, is it. We see the anger, resentment and fatigue of many women trying to juggle 12 kinds of excellence at once.

5) The choice carries consequences, of which we’re fully aware: people with kids may exclude you from their lives, we get asked to pick up the slack at work for parents’ needs, we have to think a little harder about what the future looks like. It’s not a predictable sequence of pediatricians/school/SATs/college/weddings/grandkids. It’s not predictable at all.

6) It’s just the two of us. Thanksgiving choices aren’t obvious. Neither is Christmas. With no distractions of kids and their needs, it’s all up to us to decide how to express our deepest values. Maybe it’s work, travel, volunteer work, mentoring. It forces many thoughtful conversations.

7) How and where can we connect with kids? I love talking to kids and hanging out with them, but with no nieces or nephews, it’s tough and a little lonely. I was a Big Sister for a while, but that’s a whole different story. This is something I’m still thinking through.

What’s our legacy? Big word, that. But parents take it for granted. They’ve had kids! There’s visible proof of their commitment to the future. For us, it’s deciding how or where we’ll handle our later lives. Who will receive the money and assets from our estates when we die? A charity, foundation, our alma mater? Knowing there will be no physical continuation of us, mortality feels very real indeed.

One of my few bookmarked women’s blogs is BitchPhd; here’s a poignant recent post on the exhausting challenge of single parenting.