At 826LA, we try to be the biggest champions of the awesome work our volunteers do here every day.
From July to December 2016, Byron was one of our most dedicated and enthusiastic After-School Tutoring and English Language Learner Summer Camp volunteers. On Mondays and Thursdays, the Writing Lab was filled with the sounds of students bounding through the door shouting “Byron!” But it didn’t always start out that way.
Here is Byron in his own words about his time spent at 826LA:
After I signed up to volunteer at 826LA and informed a couple of my friends, one of them told me that I might find myself learning more from the students than they’d learn from me. I didn’t doubt that, seeing that my math and science skills were limited to say the least, and I did believe that it would be an incredible growing experience. However, I underestimated just how much.
I first heard about 826LA from a flyer I saw at a local restaurant in Echo Park. It was seeking volunteers for their after-school programs and read something like “storytelling wizards wanted!” While I didn’t exactly consider myself a “storytelling wizard”, it sounded like a great opportunity for me to share my passion for storytelling with young people and get further involved in the community that I was learning to love. I began volunteering at the Storytelling & Bookmaking Field Trips, which were very fun experiences where I got to work with a variety of students and write cool stories, but what I was most excited for was the chance to work with the same group of students overtime. I wanted to build the kind of relationships I’d heard about at the 826LA volunteer orientation, wherein the tutor feels less like an instructor and more like a friend.
I got my first taste of what that might be like during last summer’s ELL (English Language Learners) camp. One morning, I was assigned a table with three 4th grade boys. One of them was a friendly, quiet sorta kid while the other two… well, they were a hand full. One refused to do basically anything I asked him to do and constantly gave me this dead-eyed look while the other could barely stay in his seat and kept taking out toys and throwing them around the table.
Before I knew it, I was engaged in a power struggle with the two of them where they did something I didn’t like, I tried to correct them, they snapped back, I got defensive… and so on. Afterward, I felt small. Foolish. Wounded. Like I did when I was their age: the highly insecure kid who no one took seriously at school and was mocked for his futile attempts at asserting himself. Simultaneously, I felt like every teacher I ever hated. Bossy. Invulnerable. Unwilling to listen.
It also happened to be my birthday. Both literally and, as time would prove, figuratively.
I considered requesting a table change (which the folks at 826LA are more than happy to accommodate if they deem a particular student/tutor to not be a good fit), but then my inner voice told me, “No! Suck it up, dude. Try to make it work.” After all, what help would I be if I only focused my energy on working with the “good” kids? What would I learn?
When I returned the next day, it was as if the events of the previous morning (that I viewed as being so significant) never happened. I swore these kids hated me and never wanted to see me again. Instead, they were friendly and even seemed happy to see me. Did they forget all about what happened? Did they care? Or did they think they could get away with anything now? Whatever the case, we continued working together and, on more than one occasion, I was forced to stop thinking about myself and listen to the three of them. Really listen. To hear what they had to say with their words and their behavior. To gauge what they needed and do my best to attend to those needs. It was one of the most fun and educational experiences of my life.
I continued volunteering at 826LA for six months and loved every moment of it. My gratitude to the exceptionally supportive and hard working staff, my equally supportive and hard working fellow volunteers and above all, Osvaldo, Edwin, Alex, Ana, Sheyla, Emily, Yamilka, Gustavo, Eddie and all of the smart, funny, exciting, imaginative, and wonderful students is immeasurable. As Edwin, one of my favorite students, wrote in his poem regarding the most important qualities of a friend, “friends must always share.” To all my new friends at 826LA, I say thank you. Thank you for all that you’ve shared with me.