As 2016 comes to the end of it’s death march and 2017 awakens with all the elegance of a passed out tramp rousing from a night-long bender, like many, I can’t help but reflect on the year’s events and what they meant for me.
New Year’s Resolutions are poppycock for most, wishful thinking if you will. For me they’ve become personal challenges and a promise I hold to myself. As a kid, every year when Lent rolled around (a 40-day holiday about sacrifice and contemplation like many religions), my Grandma Gert would drop cigarettes for 40 days, cold turkey. She smoked cigarettes every day for over 70 years, and every Lent she dropped them without fail as a promise to herself (and God).
That dedication and determination always stuck with me. The ability to say something and do that thing is no easy task in this modern, 24/7, over scheduled, always on-call life we live (granted, Gert didn’t grow up with all the buzz of technology, just old-school technology like the radio and atom bombs).
At the beginning of 2016, I was feeling unfulfilled. Donating to charities has always been a part of my life, growing up in a religious household (donate 10% of your income they say), and although I’m no longer religious, I still believe in a circular economy, in which those who can afford to give, give what they can afford. Funny thing is, giving money never provided me any real fulfillment. Maybe a thank you letter comes in the mail, but you it’s not the feeling you get when you use your hands to create something for someone, to see the look in another’s eye of establishing a relationship and providing a needed service.
As 2015 vomited the last of it’s bile, I decided 2016 would be the year I donate 100 hours of time to a charity I could physically be at, to work with human peoples.
My skill set is rather limited. Everything I know and study is pretty much about maths, sciences, economics, and religions; everyone’s favorite topics. Math though, that’s something people have always struggled with, and a subject I’ve tutored throughout middle school, high school, and college. I asked how I could apply this skill with a charitable need, and a quick google search 0.52 seconds later brought me to School On Wheels, a service that provides free tutoring to thousands of homeless youth throughout Los Angeles.
Immediately I signed up, and after a few hours of prep video (which I cried my eyes out to) and a quick meeting and background check, I started in January, 3 hours, every Saturday, at their Skid Row center, from 9a-12p.
My very first day tutoring, I was excited to talk and teach math to whoever was curious. Aristotle looking for his Alexander the Great (nerd alert!). Instead, I ended up making puzzles with children of various ages. One girl stood out because of how bored she was with everything. When a child gets bored, they usually become a “disruption” (not her fault, the puzzles were easy). I sit next to her with a book and start reading quietly to myself. She sees me, asks what I’m reading, and I tell her it’s a story about three little pigs and an agro wolf.
She leans over the pages and I say, “Here, why don’t you read it to me”. We spend the next 40 minutes reading fables from a book. She has a hard time sounding out words and I keep gently reminding her, “Slow down. There’s no rush. This is the place you’re allowed to take your time to get it right”. Every time we came to a word where I’d hear her voice waver, I asked her with an intense curiosity, “What’s that word mean”? If she didn’t know, we looked it up. That’s how she learned the word “cozy”.
After the kids left back to their shelter, the woman who runs the org lets me know that’s the first time she’s seen the girl be still that long, much less read out loud.
The experience I had that day wasn’t what I wanted, or what I was expecting, and it turned out to be so much greater.
Every Saturday I returned, sometimes I’d teach math, other days it was science, reading, or even (with the younger kids) just the basic alphabet. Sometimes I would see the same kids, sometimes one and done (over time, that became a bitter-sweet reality of the work, when kids are there a long time you get to develop relationships, but that means they’re without stable housing longer).
Quickly, I was known as the math guy. The king of nerds. I would walk around during their free time when they can do anything, “Math? Anyone wanna do some math? We can talk fractals, algebra, calculus–this isn’t about me, it’s about YOU! What do YOU want to know”?! Now, there’s a crop of kids who love doing math, and request to do math their entire time. It’s enough to make my big, robot heart swell from their enthusiasm for what’s, by many, a despised subject.
Experiences I couldn’t have imagined a year before began to congeal.
Having a young black girl tell me she wanted to kill all white people to later that day asking if she could hold my hand.
Two young boys watching help and old man who dropped his personal items, then ask me why I did that. “Because that’s me”, I said, “I need no other reason. I don’t need money, a reward, even a thank you, it’s just what I do”.
Helping a handicap boy conquer his fear of heights by climbing down the side of a (low-angled) mountain.
Time after time, week after week, I learned a new lesson about myself, how I explain the world to a child, and the very special cases of the children I tutor.
Life for these children is beyond any difficulty I have ever faced or imagined. When doing problems involving “squares”, I would often give the example of the person’s bedroom and talk about the application of square footage. I would catch myself, realizing, these kids don’t even have their own room. Not only do they not have that private space, the public they interact with (Skid Row) is often filled with open drug use, the smell of urine, and temptations to fast money like prostitution (which I saw happen in front of me, a madame solicit an 10 year old girl to use her body when I was just working with that girl on her English homework). Volunteering makes me even more grateful for the life I’ve had, and makes me happy to be there, for those situations where I can tell young girls never to take money from someone who wants to make money off their body instead of their mind.
Most people my age or younger I talk to, who have this deep sense of cynicism, who feel this void/emptiness in their lives, aren’t involved in anyone else’s lives but their own. I live in Los Angeles, in a community bubble of mostly comedians, actors, and writers. Everyone strives so hard for their own pursuits, the accomplishment of their own personal goals (career, family, lifestyle), we quickly become an acidic level of selfish where we exclude the selfless and social activism needed to solve world problems. No amount of likes has given me greater a greater dopamine rush than the hug of a friend or the high five of a child.
There is no minimum either. One hour helping is better than no hours helping. If every person in America donated 1 hour of time a year, at 300M people (low end), that’s the equivalent of 34,000 years of donated work/energy. Small amounts on large scales stack up quickly (math!)
I only contributed 100 hours this year, an average of two hours a week. The average American watches 3-5 hours of television PER DAY. There is time to be shared, and the impact of an hour a week tutoring, mentoring, cleaning, food preparing, filing, whatever job or service you can donate, has a net positive impact on the community and your life personally.
There’s no denying all the garbage the sea of 2016 washed on shore. 2016 wasn’t a good year because of the global or national events which took place, 2016 was a good year because I made a change in myself I wanted to see in the world. Even if I stopped in 2017 (which I don’t plan to), no one can take away the work I did in 2016, and that’s a good feeling. Starting with yourself is an old message, and a corny message, but I like talking about math, science, history, philosophy, music, etc. It should be no surprise that for me corny is (=) cool.