Alex* showed up to Wise Readers to Leaders with his Vans duct taped together, big toe jutting out through the rubber. The shoes had been passed down from Oldest Brother to Older Brother to Alex, and now even he had outgrown them. When his dad found a new job, he promised to buy Alex FOUR new pairs of shoes. But for now, there was that toe, like some tiny burrowing animal suddenly exposed to light. I couldn’t stop staring at it. When Alex noticed my face, he wasn’t upset, or embarrassed, or even shy. He leapt onto me and smothered me in a hug. An 8 year old, comforting me because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes.
Three summers ago, looking for something more meaningful than weighing froyo containers, I signed up to be a counselor 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.
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 counselors, dangling off our arms and legs, shouting, laughing. 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 joyfully gobble down their 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. 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?
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.