Patrick’s finger rested on the oversized print of each black word on the page. It moved in circles over brightly colored images of a tiny Prince hopping from mountaintops to castle turrets in purple, red and yellow “magic boots” given to him by a queen with a massive crown and a robe covered in stars.
It took a long time to begin, but now that we had started, Patrick was in another world. He ceased his characteristic pestering of Francisco (his classmate seated beside him,) and enjoyed the story. I wasn’t sure if he had actually finished his homework (he doesn’t write anything down in his school diary, so I can never be sure if he’s telling me the truth about how much work he has to do…) but it didn’t seem to matter as I watched him learn from a cartoon character just his age.
There had been difficulties, but there was also progress. There was the giggling at a bikini-clad animated figure in a book that was too mature for him (but that he refused to give up.) There were the constant efforts to distract me from the fact that after forty minutes Patrick had only re-copied one sentence of his grammar exercises. There was the time he decided I was a dog and he spent ten minutes petting me and avoiding any obligation to the work books stacked in front of him. The refusals to even take a maths book out of his backpack and the countless times my fellow tutor Sommer and I pulled our tutees apart as they pressed their heads together and slapped at each other’s wrists–trying hard every time to wrinkle our brows with sternness and stifle smiles.
But then there was the discussion of trees. The book we read together last week about coniferous forests and pine trees that are chopped down at Christmas. He asked questions about forest fires and the lives of animals perched in branches. He was curious about how paper is made, and the girl quietly working beside us joined in our talk about recycling and lumber mills. I asked him questions after every page to make sure he was understanding. He answered every one with surprising intensity. In those fleeting moments, I knew he was realizing that he didn’t have to be the class goofball. He knew how smart he was.
When he had finished his work (at least when he told me he had…) we played hang man and drew pictures of Giants. (We were lucky last week to have a substitute teacher in the room who was much more lenient than the usual overseer, so this was an appreciated opportunity.) I taught him the strategies of guessing vowels first, and he eventually guessed my word of “conifer.” He made the connection between our reading and this game. He asked me to draw a picture for him that he could take home. He was excited to see me the next week.
After we met again this week, conquering more struggles with distraction, he (and his classmates around him) expressed their excitement at the opportunity to visit NUIG and see a presentation by our Service Learning class next week. Kuku proudly took out the permission slip to show me–carefully punching holes in it and placing it in a well-organized binder to make sure it would be signed and returned. The three boys surrounding me each told me that if they go to college, they want to attend the University.
I told them it wasn’t a matter of if.
I told them I knew they could all go.
It is hard for me to think already about saying goodbye to the lively faces of room 2. I’ve gotten to know so many of them over the past weeks, and I have learned so much from their antics and triumphs. I have been strict, encouraging, sarcastic, and affectionate with each of them–playing with tactics until one finally sticks. I have asked them about their personal lives and their future plans in whispers when the teacher who runs the classroom has her back turned. I have gotten them to trust me. I believe that I have made a difference, but I know that given more time it would be a truly great one.
The Service Learning program run by our Professor Dermot Burns is a great one. It draws in American students each semester, and works with the same school and returning students to achieve well-outlined goals. It exposes the children (and their tutors) to experiences and people they never would have interacted with otherwise. Its strength is in longevity, consistency, and innovative minds. After my cohort’s semester, I know that our conversations and ideas will enact future change. Several of my classmates already have plans to help develop similar clubs in their home states–utilizing the visions of “ideal” homework clubs we’ve worked through in the now habitual hours of lecture on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
We have each established new lives here. We begin to talk about bringing what we’ve learned to our “home” communities, but we quietly wonder about the “homeness” of this place. We are saddened to let it go as a new crop of bright-eyed Americans with new ideas are flown across the Atlantic to the same seats we’ve occupied for the last 3 months.
This service learning class, Dermot Burns, my classmates, the children of Scoil Bhride, and the larger community and experiences of Galway have given me a pair of magic boots.
I know I’ll find a way to use them.