Friday, December 18, 2009

Lessons from Christmases Past

The first years I worked in ABE, I taught in an evening computer lab with students of all levels and backgrounds. Each class in the program had one time slot a week for computer time, rotating through for 45-60 minutes each. Most of the classes were English language classes, but there was also one basic skills class and one GED class. For whatever reason, most of the ABE and GED students (and their teachers) weren't really interested in learning computer skills, and made very little use of the computer time allotted to them. But there was one student in that group who came down to my lab every week for several months, and of all the hundreds (maybe thousands) of adult learners I have worked with through the years, he's one that I will never forget.

His name was Greg, and he was a Native American man of indeterminate age (I was just a young mid-twenties - anybody over 30 seemed "middle aged" to me then!), possessed of a quiet, calm demeanor and a serious lack of confidence in himself. He had been in treatment for alcohol abuse, but was now living in a half-way house, trying to make his way towards a better future for himself. He had already gotten his GED but was brushing up on some skills before trying to get into technical college.

Being somewhat older, wiser, and more emotionally stable than his peers at the halfway house, he had come to be in something of a leadership position there. One of his responsibilities was keeping minutes of meetings and ledgers of expenses. The reason he came to the computer lab was so that he could learn how to do these tasks on the computer instead of writing things longhand. So I taught him how to use word processing software: how to use "tab" to line income and expenses up into neat rows, how to save to a disk, find his file from the previous week, print his work, etc.

At first he was pretty shy, and he always was a quiet and reserved sort of person. But as the months went by we struck up a real friendship. While we worked together on his computer skills we chatted about all sorts of other topics, and got to know each other pretty well. He really was a sweet guy, and I enjoyed working with him a lot.

For both of us, it was a great experience. For me as a teacher, it was really refreshing to work with someone who was so motivated, really liked learning, and was generally just easy to get along with. Besides that, all my other classes were full groups of 12-20 non-native speakers of English, which are super fun to teach but really wear me out. Working one-to-one was dream! And for Greg it was a chance to learn in a really safe environment, where he could ask any question he wanted and get as much or as little help as he needed. I could tell he was really excited by what he was learning, and it made him feel like a real leader in his house when he could demonstrate to some of the younger and wilder young men he lived with how he was improving himself and learning "cool" computer skills. It was obvious how proud he was of himself. For me it was really rewarding to watch his confidence grow as he became more and more proficient.

Around the end of the year, he decided to move back to North Dakota (where he was originally from) and apply to a local technical college. On the last evening of class before winter break he brought me a little Christmas present - small package of chocolates. I'll never forget what he said when he gave them to me: "Thank you for teaching me this year. You make me feel like I can do anything." I almost cried, right there in the computer lab. And to this day, it ranks up there with one of the most sincere, most touching, and nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

Every year since then I think about Greg when winter break approaches. I wonder what ever happened to him - if he made it in college and continued on the upward spiral he was on when I last saw him. I sure hope so. He deserves a good, stable life and I hope he got it. When I think of him I remember how powerful our work as ABE teachers really can be - how we can truly share the power of learning with the individuals we serve, and change lives forever. The computer skills I taught Greg were simple to me, something many of us take for granted. But to him they were exciting, powerful symbols of his own competence and intelligence. To the toughest audience in the world - the internal one - together we proved that he could do anything he set his mind to do.

Though your students might not have the language skills or the ability to overcome their shyness and tell you this themselves, trust me - you're doing this job too. Everyday you help adults develop their own pride, self-confidence, and innate abilities.

Happy holidays, ABE teachers and volunteers everywhere!

1 comment:

MLC Trainer said...

Thanks for sharing this inspiring story!