We know it has been a while — too long — since we published an essay on this blog, The Staple.
Fortunately, staples don’t go bad. (As we can attest, given the state of our supply shelves.) And this essay will, we hope, be worth the wait.
Magdalena Zenaida is a workshop leader and volunteer who says, “I started volunteering for 826 after I spent time teaching in Peru. I had a much more difficult teaching environment in the slums of Colombia a few years later, and a lot of the philosophy of 826 helped prepare me for a classroom with little resources and zero structure. It really let me see how strikingly similar children are in all environments in some ways and how we connect with them as volunteers.”
This piece gave us chills — and a renewed sense of energy for the work of 826. Read on.
In a class of energetic children, Juan was somehow simultaneously the wildest, and the quietest. During games, and outside of the class, he was full of roars and exclamations — a total chatterbox. During lesson times, he was silent, often distracted. It was only a few days into classes that the other students told me that Juan couldn’t read. When I asked him to look at a book with me after class, he just looked at the book and said that he saw nothing. I nudged him a little further and he shrugged his shoulders resolutely and said, “I can’t read.”
“So you can’t tell me anything that’s going on in this story?” I asked. Then he smiled and pointed at the pictures, animating a fairy tale with heroic words and vivid descriptions. He saw the interest in my eyes and said, “I write poetry too.”
He began reciting his own verses like a skilled orator, creating a poem that I kept for myself, and printed out for him too. Recognizing his talent, he began to participate in our classes, as the descriptor of events and the connector of ideas.
Yet he had already imbued himself with a number of unfair nicknames and destinies according to things he had heard and overheard in the barrio. It wasn’t long before I knew his family better (the make-shift neighborhood classroom was their back porch) and I asked his mother about his difficulty reading. She said that Juan was born too young and offered to take me to see the learning specialist he was able to see once a week as part of a government-assisted program.
We walked into a sterile room at the end of Juan’s lesson. He was swinging his legs and looking around the room as absently as when I had first seen him. I was conscious of my role as a supplemental educator, alongside those who work in tough conditions permanently, and I let Juan’s mother introduce me to his assistant. She said,
“His teacher is trying to help him learn in another class, could you explain to her why he struggles to learn?”
“He doesn’t know how to read,” the assistant answered.
“He seems to recognize words sometimes, but it seems like he puts them together backwards…sometimes he write the letters backwards. Do you think he could be dyslexic?” I asked.
“He has no reading skills,” she answered. “I have another lesson to teach.” The dialogue had ended, and Juan’s mother had a pleasant, bittersweet look of resignation. Juan bounded up to her, full of questions as always, thin arms hurled around her waist like rubber bands. He was excited just to have us there with him, before we parted for our respective homes on opposite sides of the highway that separated the shantytown from the city.
I did some more research and went back to spend more time with Juan and his family after class. His mother and I went through books and pages with him while letters, words, and numbers jumbled together in all sorts of patterns for him. It was certain that Juan had a learning difficulty that required a learning specialist that could help him with more than just repetition of the same basic reading practices. I wasn’t trained in that field, and his school didn’t have those kinds of programs. The school struggled to run for a half-day.
Those are the difficult volunteer moments, recognizing one’s limitations, of the desire to help, the ability to help, and how far one can, or should extend their reach. Yet it is the kind of moment that volunteering in-residence at 826 helped prepare me for. Being an assistant to teachers, the 826 volunteer brings passion, commitment, and creativity without interference. It’s a position completely of service to the teacher and student. That spirit of service is one half of what makes 826 brilliant.
The creativity — the raw, unbridled spirit of imagination and exploration — is the other half. As part of 826 I’ve seen the breadth of the writing parameters given to children of all ages, the glee in the freedom of expression. I knew from the trainings and handbooks that this was an organization built on the hearts on the students, and far from the study of grammar and perfection (gargoyles of the insecure student). It is a cultivation of creativity and self-expression in the written form.
I couldn’t teach Juan to read beyond his learning difficulty myself, but I could unleash his wild imagination. I decided our next class project could be chosen from a number of mediums, one of which was drama. He paired up with his best friend who wrote down Juan’s thundering monologues about subjects like the fraternity of man and the dignity of animals. He was infectious, and the other students abandoned their plans to create dramas as well. It all culminated into one fantastic performance. Its something I learned at 826, practiced as far away as Colombia, and re-affirm for myself all the time — we all have a creative, valuable voice, and there isn’t just one way to use it.