Three summers ago, looking for something more meaningful than weighing froyo containers, I signed up to be a counsellor at Wise Readers to Leaders, a place for children from low-income families to review and support basic reading and writing skills. The kids lived different lives than I had ever been exposed to. They came from families of 12 in one-bedroom apartments, from underfunded schools incapable of catering to their needs, from neighborhoods rotten with violence, where if police weren’t negligent, they were often aggressors.
So on my first day, I was a twitching knot of nerves. I had no idea what to expect, or whether I was capable of handling it. I stood in a solemn line of fellow newbies, waiting for the kids to file off of their bus. But they didn’t file off of the bus; they exploded out of it, jumping onto the counsellors, dangling off our arms and legs, shouting, laughing, smearing sloppy kisses across our foreheads. And right then, I got that feeling. That charitable rush. The sense that I was moving nobly beyond the boundaries of my own experience. At lunch, watching the kids slap each other in the face with quesadillas, I thought to myself: I’m making a difference in these children’s lives!
But during my years at Wise Readers to Leaders, I began to realize that this is a complicated feeling. Perhaps even a fraudulent one. For supposedly diametric conditions, the line between selflessness and selfishness can be shockingly thin. I was, in theory, there to bring whatever joy and knowledge I could to these kids; yet there were days when I felt that I was showing up more for myself than for them. For the thrill that I got from Doing A Good Thing. There were days, many of them, when the flow of empathy and compassion was reversed. There I was, gawking at Alex’s big toe and his tattered Vans with such naked dismay that he felt the need to comfort me. Was that helpful? Was I just some kind of self-congratulatory tourist of misfortune? Was I another Los Angeles teen checking off a box for my college apps, soon to write a college essay about how my time volunteering wasn’t just a way to check off a box for my college apps?
There’s no easy answer, of course. But I don’t think that the answer, or even the question, really matters. If there are truly selfless acts in this world, they are so rare and glittering as to be out of reach for most of us. What matters is this: When Stephen coughs and tells me he’s too sick to read during his turn in reading circle, I let him take a pass. Afterwards, I pull him aside and show him the ropes. “If you’re gonna fake sick,” I say, “make it a stomach thing. No one can argue with a stomach thing.” What matters is the smirk we shared, then. What matters is showing up, regardless of who you’re showing up for. What matters is doing the work to get to know someone, and accepting that your work will never be perfect. What matters isn’t Alex’s big toe; it’s Alex, and me.
* Name has been changed to maintain anonymity.