When I first saw the call for HZ volunteers on the Arts listserve, I knew that it was something I was interested in. But still, I hesitated. How does the program work? Will I be a good mentor? Will I make friends? Will I have enough time for school work? Will my mentee like me? Will I be spreading myself too thin?
I went back and forth about it for a week, but in the end, I knew I just had to make it work. I loved working with kids, and it was always my dream to become a teacher. So why wait until I become a teacher to start that dream? Why wait when I could start with HZ? Like Tom Branson says it in Downton Abbey, “Look, it comes down to whether or not you love me. That’s all. That’s it. The rest is detail.” Except in this case, it’s not about loving someone–it’s about loving something.
I was excited, yet a little nervous, on the day of orientation. When I got to New Rez, where the orientation was being held, I saw a girl who looked a little lost. I asked her if she was with HZ too. She told me she was, and we decided to look for the ballroom together. When we started talking, we discovered that we had quite a bit in common: we were in the same year, both from Toronto, and were both placed at Verdun Elementary. What’s more, she had lived in the room right above me in rez! Urvashi and I would later become great friends.
When we got to the ballroom, we found a table already occupied by twin brothers. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the one thought that was swirling around my mind for the next three hours (besides, of course, from “How can I be a great mentor?”) was: “I wonder if they are twins.”
At the start of orientation, as an icebreaker, we were each given a sheet of questions to ask a fellow mentor. I was paired up with Diego, who literally had the best answers to all of the questions. Honestly, I don’t remember now what he said, but I do remember saying “Wow!” a lot, and when it was my turn to answer the questions, I mostly just said, “Yeah… what you said!” When it came to break time, I pulled out a glass mug (the e-mail that had been sent out mentioned that there was free coffee), and the guys at my table laughed. I explained that I had forgotten my favourite brown mug back in Toronto, and that this glass mug was all I had. The subject of the brown mug would last the entire semester.
When I came home from orientation that day, I excitedly told my roommates about “the wonderful people I had met at volunteering.” And over the next couple of weeks, this thread would continue. I was so incredibly happy that I had finally found a group of people with whom I had so much in common. In fact, I remember coming home from the first HZ session and thinking to myself, “Wow, that was so great. I’ve been missing out on so much all of these years.” You see, McGill has not been all that I thought and hoped that it would be. I thought I was going to find that group of people who would become my Ross-Rachel-Monica-Chandler-Joey, but I never did.
But when I came home from HZ after that first session, I thought, “So all the great people are hiding out in HZ.” (Disclaimer: I am sure that there are “great people” outside of HZ, too, but I never did find them.)
After orientation that day, I was so incredibly excited for the first day of HZ at Verdun Elementary. Here is a passage from a journal entry I wrote that night (I know what you’re thinking, but all famous writers have journals):
The best part of volunteering is the kids, of course. I got paired up with a third grader named D-. When we volunteers arrived at the school, we all sat down in a big circle in the auditorium. The kids were very excited and jumpy, which made me very excited. Looking at the kids, I wondered, was I ever that young? I mean the answer is obvious, but I just couldn’t help thinking that. I leaned over to Michael, a fellow volunteer, and said to him, ”I don’t ever remember being that young.”
Soon, we volunteers were each paired off with a kid. When I first met D-, I introduced myself and asked her what her name was. She said it, but I couldn’t hear over the excited chitter-chatter of the auditorium. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you!” She repeated her name again. Still, I couldn’t hear her. I felt sorry for the little girl. She was small and shy, and here I was, making her exert herself. “Huh?” I said as I leaned closer.
D- started to get exasperated; you can imagine that it wasn’t the best of first impressions. I was getting a little nervous. A gazillion thoughts went through my mind: This isn’t good. She’s starting to get annoyed. She’s not going to like me! Maybe I can just pretend that I heard her name and later sneak a peak at her school folder…. Maybe I can go the whole semester without knowing her name….
Obviously, those were not good ideas at all, but luckily, D started to spell her name. First letter, then second, and then third.
“Kayyyyy,” she said.
I repeated the letter “K,” but she somehow heard me say “T.”
I had said the letter “K”, but since she was correcting me, I thought I had gotten it wrong. “T?”
“No! K!” Then she proceeded to count off the letters of the alphabet with her fingers. Five seconds later, “It’s after the letter ‘I’!”
“Oh! ‘K’!” I said. I didn’t tell her that that was what I had said.
Then she continued to spell out her name. Honestly, even as a 21-year-old aspiring writer/teacher, I still have a lot problems with processing spelling when people dictate letters…. I was never good at spelling bees.
After a couple of minutes, I finally got her name down packed–pronunciation, spelling, and all. After introductions, we went downstairs to the library where we began with homework. That day went by quickly. D- and I quickly became good friends. It was so much fun just to sit there and draw pictures with her. I never thought about school once, which was such a nice change. On the metro ride home, all the mentors were very talkative. We shared stories about our mentee and laughed and laughed; we were like proud parents boasting about the accomplishments of our kids.
During the next couple of weeks, D- would not cease to amaze me with her capabilities. Sometimes, though, she was easily distracted and homework completion was slow going. But it always made me laugh whenever I would say, “Don’t you want to finish your homework, so you can draw or play?” and she would say, “But it’s Homework Zone! We do homework at Homework Zone!”
Every HZ session, D- and I would always set aside at least 30 minutes to draw together, but our favourite activity was reading about dogs. D- loved animals, and she would always tell me about the various dogs she had and all the cute things they did. Now she was talking to the converted because I absolutely adore dogs, but with all the cute stories she told me, I was convinced that I could somehow sneak a dog into my building without my landlord finding out. I’m still working out how I’m going to do that.
Homework Zone has been more than I ever thought it would be. In the process of developing such a wonderful friendship with such a precious child, I learned what it really takes to be a good teacher. I learned that mentoring takes patience, open-mindedness, and perseverance. Good mentoring means leaving your problems at the door and focusing your attention and energy on the mentee. But the thing is, I never consciously had to leave “my problems” at the door–it just happened every time I entered the doors of Verdun Elementary. I never thought about the big midterm I had the next day because I was too distracted by the cute cubby holes. I never had to worry about the 50% paper I had due that night because I was too busy laughing at the knock-knock joke D- had just told me. I never had to worry about whether my Netflix account had been canceled because I had forgotten to pay my VISA bill, which would have meant no more Downton Abbey, because I was too busy trying to remember how to translate “Stuart Little went down the drain to fetch his mom’s ring” in French. Now if that doesn’t preoccupy your mind, I don’t know what will!
I’m not sure if I made a difference in D-’s life, but I’d like to think so. On the last day of HZ, as I watched her walk out the doors, I felt a slight tug at my heart. I told one of my fellow mentors that I felt sad but proud–I’d imagine that’s exactly how parents feel about their own kids.
Although I couldn’t return to HZ this semester, I have taken a lot away from it. Not only did I develop such a wonderful friendship with such a precious child, I also like to think that HZ has helped me become a better person and teacher.
And that really is wonderful indeed.
…and Alexander the Bear.