I believe deeply in hospitality. I’ve been fortunate to travel around a bit, meet different people and experience different cultures, and doing so has taught me what a profound difference simple hospitality can make. It’s a way of putting love into the world. Who’s going to argue with that?
Lots of people, apparently. I believe in orderly processes and domestic security and all that, but I also think that in America we’ve either collectively forgotten what our country is supposed to be about, or else we’ve gotten collectively apathetic about reminding our representatives, political, social, and otherwise, about its importance.
I can’t change minds overnight (don’t I wish!). But I can put some love into the world by showing hospitality in my own corner.
To put that into practice, I’ve been tutoring children in the ESL (English for Speakers of other Languages) program at the local elementary school. By spending time with them and helping them, I try to show them that I am happy they are here, however they got here, and I want them to be successful. Most of the time, the children are delightful. They make a strong effort, and they seem appreciative of my efforts to help them.
A few weeks ago, the experience wasn’t so fruitful.
One of the girls I work with, whom I will call Jane, was not trying. And she hadn’t been, for a few weeks. She mispronounced words that she pronounced correctly in earlier sentences. She didn’t follow the rhythmic patterns in very basic books. But when she took tests, she read passages and marked them correctly–too often to be guessing accurately.
In other words, we (her regular teacher and I) suspected she might be playing me.
At first I felt annoyed. This is my volunteer time, and if she doesn’t want help, I will gladly help other people. But on the drive home I reflected on my purpose for tutoring in the first place: It’s not about what I get out out of it. It’s about putting a gift of love out into the world, specifically to those children. What they choose to do with the gift is beyond my control. But having put it out there is a worthwhile service in itself.
The teacher is protective of my time. She doesn’t want it wasted; after all, she wants me to come back. Last week she told me she thinks Jane craves the one-on-one attention from an adult. That reframed my thinking.
I know Jane lives with her mother and an infant brother. Jane’s mother works a late shift, maybe 3-11 pm. Her mother is fearful, and doesn’t let Jane go out to play in their neighborhood. She came from a violent place, and it’s hard to let go of anxiety. Believe me, I can relate to that.
So Jane comes home from school to an empty apartment, and cares for her infant brother the rest of the day. I am not clear on who takes care of the infant while Jane’s mother is at work. They never go out at night.
Jane, by the way, is ten years old.
I tried to imagine how it must feel, to be ten years old and not have the luxury of being a child. The only time she has to play with friends, outside, is for an hour a day at school. Beyond that, she’s studying, or she’s being a pint-sized adult.
Jane’s a clever girl, and she’s in a hard position. She moved to another country and set up from scratch, by no decision of her own. She left her friends and extended family behind, and who knows when she’ll see them again.
I can understand her wanting the close attention of someone resembling a mother. And she’s serving up the results (i.e., regular failure) she thinks will get her that ongoing attention. She doesn’t appreciate that she needs more remediation than we have time to give her; she’s not going to run out of need. How can she? She’s ten.
It’s possible I’m projecting too much, but that’s beside the point. My wondering about the circumstances driving Jane’s behavior creates a channel for patience and compassion to seep in. Patience and compassion are two of the values I want to live into.
I’m practicing noticing my feelings (like that frustration) as they occur and observing them as simple reactions. (“Hey, I’m feeling frustrated. What’s that about?“) The frustration is not who I am; it’s a response to a circumstance about which I have limited information. Recognizing that helps me take a step back from venting about her, or shaming her (which is definitely not one of my values) for wasting my time. Then I simply make space for a girl who needs some attention.
Which is the hospitality I want to live into.
Have you ever had a reaction like that? How did you handle it?