Leah Awkward-Rich ’17
“I witnessed the kids I spent several hours a week with mature emotionally and personally, and I was given the opportunity to participate as they learned brand new concepts.”
During September of my first year at Oberlin, I began tutoring for America Reads, a national organization that places college students in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms around the country to provide literacy tutoring to younger students. My placement was at Oberlin Head Start, which is located about three miles from campus off of a highway that is dangerous to bike or walk along. I ended up tutoring at the school mostly because I was one of very few Oberlin tutors with a car on campus. I knew next to nothing about Head Start as an organization when I began tutoring, but I soon learned that I was working with some of the most disadvantaged kids in the school district. Head Start’s mission is to provide children from low-income families who would ordinarily be unable to afford to attend preschool programs with the academic and social skills necessary to excel in kindergarten and the grades beyond.
Although Head Start is not without its problems—underpaid teachers and staff, limited federal funding, a small pool of trained and interested teachers, and uneven quality of programming in locations across the nation—I loved working with the children in my class and genuinely felt as though I were making a difference in their lives. As three, four, and five-year-olds cannot read or have very limited reading abilities, my job consisted of doing activities with the kids, reading them stories, supervising them during play time, and just hanging out with them.
During the nine months I tutored at Head Start, I witnessed the kids I spent several hours a week with mature emotionally and personally, and I was given the opportunity to participate as they learned brand new concepts through exploration and play, formed relationships with their peers and the adults around them, and developed distinct personalities shaped by their ever-changing likes and dislikes and their unique experiences of the world around them. I worked with kids who threw tantrums every day; who forgot my name every time I came into the classroom; who wept because they missed their mothers; who had better handwriting than I did; who wanted me to read them the same book over and over again; who challenged me to be more patient, more gracious, and more grateful; and who inspired me to approach my days with more innocence and wonder. I made plans to return to tutoring the next year, and looked forward to spending time with some of the same kids who were too young to go to kindergarten in the fall.
These days, the Oberlin Head Start sits empty on the side of the highway, looking much the same as it did when it closed its doors August 2014 due to low enrollment. I am still devastated and angry that the neediest children in Oberlin, those who do not have the advantage of being born professors’ kids and the opportunities to benefit from private schooling, highly educated teachers, and generous funding, are unable to attend Head Start in their town. Yet I feel just as lucky to have been able to spend hours with those same children as they played, colored, learned, and taught me in turn.
This summer, I’m working as a counselor at a camp for economically disadvantaged kids from the Philadelphia area. Although I often feel as though I have no idea what I am doing as I teach swimming, referee sports, break up fights, soothe hurt feelings, attempt to impart life lessons, and try to alleviate the pangs of homesickness, my experiences tutoring at Head Start allow me to approach my work with a more open mind and heart, with more patience, and with a greater willingness to be flexible. Just as in the preschool classroom, I am learning every day that this is the kind of work I would like to do for the rest of my life because, even though it is tiring, incredibly stressful, often thankless, and certainly underpaid, I am genuinely delighted to help kids discover their strengths in a world where they are granted fewer opportunities than their more privileged--but no more deserving--peers.
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