Like most people, I enjoy helping others, but I’m not very good at it. I sometimes offer people help they don’t want, or I think I’m helping when I’m just getting in the way.
I give, but I rarely feel like I’m making a difference.
It’s easy to give tidbits of help, and sometimes that’s all people need, like when someone drops a package and you return it to them. But effective help, the kind that enables people to change their lives, is a lot harder. It takes time, patience, focus, and consistent effort. That’s what I learned from helping my 18 year old neighbor graduate high school. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and what it means to really help.
Four years back, Roland enrolled in a Catholic high school that was more demanding than his public schools had been. They were teaching concepts and requiring students to demonstrate what they had learned. It was a much better education, only available to him because a cousin in Spain decided to fund his tuition, along with financial aid.
Roland is a total sweetheart who has been taking care of his three sisters and disabled grandmother for several years already. He helps with my mobility equipment and on two occasions has helped pick me up when I have fallen. He’s great, but he has some glitches that interfere with academic work. He got through three years of high school at a B- level with assistance from academic counselors.
Then COVID-19 hit, and school went online. Roland was cut off from the teachers, counselors, and fellow students who helped him focus. Having to do all his assignments on various Web platforms, he gradually stopped turning in most of them. He would do the work but then fail to submit it, not believing his work was good enough.
As the adults in his life watched his grades slide, we asked him to please turn in what he had completed, or please consult with us how to negotiate the system.
He never did. He always replied, “I’m OK. Everything’s OK.”
Nobody in Roland’s immediate family has graduated high school. Grandmother and he both said they wanted him to be the first and to inspire his sisters. When we saw a notice from the school that he had four incomplete courses to finish along with his current classes in order to graduate in June, I could see his graduation was much in doubt.
The family has so many needs that my partner Aisha and I often find it easy to consume hours trying to deal with various issues, not really getting anywhere with them. I had come to believe that their situation was hopeless. But this time, I decided I wouldn’t worry about any of their other problems. I would focus on Roland and commit to seeing him graduate. This commitment became a great learning experience, and unlike most learning experiences, it did not involve much suffering, only focus.
I started by clearing out two hours a day when Roland could come and work on my computer, since his home three doors down is so disorganized. He downloaded the various platforms the school used. We started a practice where he would read material and write assignments while I watched. When he seemed to be getting off track, I would ask things like, “What do you think about this paragraph?” or “What are you trying to say in this sentence?” or “What is the question they are asking you?” But most of the time I kept quiet and observed.
When he would write sentence-length or essay-length answers, I could help him with organizing and structuring the writing so it made sense. My experience as a community college tutor helped, since C.C. work resembles what this high school assigned.
There were some frustrating days when Roland’s perfectionism drove him to go over the same sentence a dozen times trying for some idea I couldn’t get him to explain.
At times, I would say, “You go ahead and keep working on this if you feel you must. I’m going to go do something else. Call me when you’re done.” Usually, he would call me back after a few minutes. I was only able to spend this much time with him because of being on disability and thus having time to give. Others might have to set less time-intensive strategies.
I felt rewarded as I noticed his focus and ability to complete work improve week by week. I no longer had to walk him through the submissions: ‘Click on this; attach that.’ Then I no longer had to get a firm agreement from him to submit; we could just agree it was ready. When he reached the point of completing and submitting work without asking, I realized he actually could graduate. But he also needed some advocacy.
Speaking up for people who don’t speak for themselves
Because Roland was so far behind, and because one of his classes was a Digital Art (DA) class where I couldn’t help, I realized we couldn’t do this alone.
The school has a large academic support department, and he had an assigned advisor, but she wasn’t helping. No wonder: she would meet with him and ask how school was going, and he would say ‘I’m OK, I’m working on it.’ In his conversations with teachers, he would say similar things.
I felt I had to go over his head. People weren’t communicating, and I could act as a platform for them.
I started e-mailing and calling Roland’s advisor. We set up some 3-way Zoom meetings. I contacted his teachers to explain some of his problems. Eventually I went to the head of the counseling department, and he found another class Roland had passed that fulfilled his art requirement, so he could drop the DA class. His advisor contacted the teachers who had given incompletes and got them to create make-up assignments with which he could pass their class. Each time a counselor helped or a teacher made an adjustment for Roland, I insisted he send a thank you e-mail, and I sent one, too.
I went back to sitting with him while he did the make-up work. But it had gotten so much easier! He would go home and continue working and submitting assignments on his own. I was delighted. He was doing the work himself, on a level that was definitely passing or better.
June came, and Roland graduated, on stage! His two grandmothers were in the audience, and he brought his diploma home to show me. That was a great day.
In the following months, I got to see how much Roland had grown. I helped him get documents he needed to apply for work, and he’s got a job. He’s learning to drive and exploring what he might do with his life. He still helps me and other neighbors when we need it.
What I learned from Roland
● My presence was as important as what I actually did. Just being with him kept him focused. I may have taught some writing skills, but I don’t know. Mainly it was just being there for him.
● Asking questions and listening is usually far more helpful than advising and talking.
● Speaking up and making waves is sometimes necessary to help someone. Don’t be afraid to bother people, including the person you are helping. Willingness to be demanding also applies to speaking up for myself.
● Helping people isn’t a one-off; it involves forming a relationship, continuing beyond the specific help. It might bring new demands and new rewards.
● Help can spread out from a focused start. I was surprised to see how, as Roland grew and had more success, two of his sisters also pulled it together. The 15-year-old who had been way behind and in-and-out of trouble has become an A student. I doubt I had anything to do with that, but it’s nice to see.
I think the same rule applies to other areas, like activism. Focus on one thing and watch the ripples spread.
● When you really help someone, they will always be in your life. Roland will always be in my life. At least, I hope so.