I’ve taken risks all of my life, even after the childhood accident that left me no longer
able to run or practice ballet steps or to roller skate – which was my life. The passion
I had for dance and skating would be internalized and redirected. Cerebral risk-taking
was now for me.
High school introduces me to the Debate Club: I apply and am accepted. I enjoy it and excel
at it. Then one day, I see a television show called Private Secretary. “Susie
McNamara,” the character who plays a hotel manager’s secretary, is much smarter
than he, more organized, and does her job and most of his job – in spite of her boss. That’s
what I want to be when I graduate, a secretary – personal, private, or confidential – it
doesn’t matter. Of course, this is during a time in U.S. history when businessmen (yes,
men) were not hiring women like me (a woman of color), and if they did, it was as office cleaning
women. No matter. A secretarial job is what I want and that is what I’ll get several
times in my lifetime, with different titles. I will work in a Fortune 25 corporation (correspondence
supervisor, then promoted to stock transfer agent ), toil in a highly prestigious international
academic foundation (Fulbright scholars), languish and resign from the only women’s foundation
at the time (personality differences between me and the woman director – she was a tyrant
and I wasn’t subservient enough), and mentally stretch in a world famous copyright law
firm (as legal administrator).
Way to go! But, what is the next risk you will take? Why not tutor English to college students
from different parts of the world? They need help with increasing their English skills, and
you have the time to offer help. Viola! You are named the 2005 Volunteer of the Year for your
community college, and are entering your sixteenth year as a volunteer English tutor.
And yet, the adventure of traveling was missing. Through the Elderhostel Program I will find
a service program that needs and wants me. Hooray! I have chosen to go to the Navajo Reservation
in Cameron, Arizona, fifty miles north of Flagstaff, to tutor elementary age students. But,
I hate children. They are a blight on the planet. Yes, but these children have never met any
people who did not live on the reservation. This is a dream come true: I will be on an airplane
going over 600 miles per hour, I will see a real Indian reservation, and they need my English
skills and anything else I can offer the children.
Please God, don’t let any teacher ask me what “present-perfect-continuous” means,
because I have not been formally trained as an English teacher, and I do not know the answer.
Not to worry. The kids are adorable, funny, and smart and they love all of us, even me with
my very obvious limp. They want to know what states we come from, how far we’ve traveled,
if we have children “like” them, meaning the same ages, and last, if we will stay
with them and not leave.
Maria is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever seen. Her hair is black with navy
blue highlights; her skin color is darker than mine, like the darkest walnut, and she has the
biggest and most lustrous brown eyes God ever created. All of the tutors – perhaps twenty – are
asked to sit with the children in the cafeteria during their lunch period. Maria sits next
to me, and at the end of lunch she grabs me around the waist and holds on for dear life. She
looks up at me and says something in Navajo. I am told that she is saying that I am her black
mother. How can that be?! I hate children. How can she feel that way about me?! She doesn’t
know that I am thinking, “I wish I could take her home with me.” It doesn’t
matter. I hug her back and she holds me tighter.
Almost before we know it, the two weeks have gone and we have to return home. I arrange to
stay an extra day to return to the school, visit all of the teachers, help the children in
each classroom … and see Maria for the last time. The day ends; the children file out of
the classroom and pile into the bus.
Where is Maria?! I am frantic. I must say goodbye. I find her in the third bus and she runs
to me. We hold each other for a few minutes. The bus driver clears his throat and I get off
the bus. Maria and I wave to each other, but my tears blur my eyes. Maria is gone. Someday
very soon, I must return to the Cameron School and, if possible, find out if Maria is all right.
Do I want to write about Devon? I don’t think I have the strength, but here goes. We
were told before we reached the reservation, that Navajo children are not touched, kissed,
or spoiled the way America children are. To this day I do not know if that is true. I do know
that a boy at the school was very hyper and may have had some sort of attention deficit disorder.
In the beginning, I spent a great deal of time calling Devon’s name over and over again
to get his attention. Naptime for him and the other children was a nightmare. He couldn’t
seem to sit or lay still enough to fall asleep. I decided to lay down with him. As he lay flat
on the floor, I stroked his back then his stomach. Amazingly, he fell asleep for the full half
hour naptime. The teachers, children and other volunteers got a chance to relax because Devon
was asleep and not racing around the room being disruptive. At other times, I simply held Devon
and rocked him until he fell asleep. After the first time, other children wanted their backs
and stomachs rubbed or they wanted to be held until they, too, fell sleep. Oh, to be an Octopus.
What new risks shall I take now? Almost as an afterthought, during the course of this exercise
I wrote down that I would like to return to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and tutor English
in Cameron again, or go to Australia. Working with the Aborigines – good lord, what have
the English or the English language ever done for them? After seeing a show on the indigenous
people in Maori, New Zealand, I thought about going there, too. Perhaps after I am certified
as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I will apply to all three places. With determination
and perseverance, I can network with Smith alumnae who live around the world and may know of
such opportunities. I would definitely commit to such tutoring/teaching projects for two years.
But what about opening my English Language Tutoring Business?
What am I afraid of? What are the personal risks of living in a foreign country so far away
from my family and friends? And do I really want to run another business? I love work, but
not the administration of a business – buying paper clips and sending out invoices was
not for me.
The excitement of seeing students’ happy and confident faces when they’ve done
a good job at pronouncing a word correctly or writing a complete sentence gives me the same
excitement and rush that I feel when a jet plane is racing down the runway before taking off – before
soaring into the sky. I love to soar!