Published on August 20th, 2019 | by Nandini Patwardhan2
Are You My Grandmother?
I have been going to a nearby church on Wednesdays to serve as a volunteer mentor for elementary school students. The program is run by the YMCA. I get to work one-on-one with my student, so, there is an opportunity for us to get to know each other. The idea is that in this way, the mentor can become a reliable and trusted adult in the life of the child.
Almost all the students are African-American. Their parents (I only see mothers) are very committed to their children’s betterment; the YMCA’s mission is to “build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all” and offers financial assistance for low-income families. Each mother comes in a timely manner to drop and pick-up her child. She informs the program’s directors about her concerns, and keeps them updated about homework expectations.
My student is a first grader named Deanna. Her hair is always neatly braided and she wears a uniform, because she attends a charter school. She has beautiful long eyelashes and is a happy child. She skips and jumps, does handstands when she gets bored or antsy, and sometimes breaks into a rhyming song. But she is also usually reluctant to do her homework. She keeps asking to go out and play. And, if not that, then she asks to play one of the board games from the abundantly supplied mini-cabinet.
I grew up in India and, in my experience, students respected and somewhat feared their teachers. They addressed their teachers as “m’am” and spoke to them formally and deferentially. It would simply not have occurred to the young me to disagree with my teachers, let alone refuse to cooperate or outright defy them.
My two US-born children attended American public schools. So, I got plenty of opportunities to witness the less formal and dare I say it, more egalitarian, manner in which American students interact with their teachers. On some level I worried that this style of communication had the potential of leading to chaos and lack of classroom control. Even so, I found this practice healthy in the sense of allowing students to develop a voice and growing in them a sense of their own agency — attributes that they would need when they became adults.
So, not having had any experience with such a reluctant student and one who is so resistant to direction and to obeying an adult, I sometimes feel out of place. At such times, I go fetch one of the directors, who then speaks in the direct-yet-polite way that I see as a trademark of American teachers. After this, Deanna works on her homework for a brief 15-20 minutes before getting distracted again.
Sometimes the distraction is caused by the handing out of snacks and drinks. It is impossible to get Deanna to simultaneously eat or sip her juice and continue with her homework. Another reliable distraction is a bathroom break. This ends up taking a good 7-8 minutes. I get the feeling that this is just an excuse to get away from her homework.
I confess I feel a little frustrated and ill-prepared. I want to help these children reach for the stars, to somehow overcome and kick aside their difficult legacies and limiting circumstances. Instead of feeling effective, I just feel useless.
Even so, I have hung in there in the hope that this tapasya — a Sanskrit word that means worshipful sacrifice or service — is the least I can do, if I want to feel even marginally useful in this stage of my life. I am retired, too early for my liking. My children are off on their own. I would like to be a grandmother, but that will happen on my children’s — not my — schedule. So, I sometimes feels rudderless.
On one particular afternoon, I was not immune to the usual doubts. Deanna started our time together with one game and then another. Then she completed just two of the six math problems that were her assigned homework before asking to go to the bathroom. She asked me to wait near her stall, which I did. While I waited, I wondered if I should leave this gig. What is the point of all this? I asked myself.
When Deanna came out of the bathroom, I helped her wash and dry her hands. As we walked out, she said, “Can you be my aunt? Or my grandmother?” She had a smile on her face as she said it and turned to give me a half hug. I leaned down and planted a quick kiss on her cheek. I felt as if she was seeing me as a real person for the first time. As if, for the first time, she was feeling my compassionate and committed-to-her energy.
We got back to the classroom. Even though I was feeling flattered and uplifted that Deanna had seen me as a maternal figure, I had no way of knowing if she had said it with conscious intention. Maybe it was just a childish whimsy, and I didn’t want to read too much into her off-hand remark.
“I have only one grandmother, but she lives far away,” said Deanna. “So, you can be my grandmother here.”
All thoughts of leaving the program fled from my mind. I cannot imagine abandoning this sweet little girl who is just starting to trust me and to see me as a presence in her life.
That day, for the first time in my life, I felt like a grandmother. I was so happy.
The next week I arrived late because of a prior commitment. Deanna had already had a chance to play. I hoped that she would be more amenable to doing her homework. She was not initially, but then she worked quite fast and finished writing her twelve spelling words quickly. After that the director asked her to complete a worksheet of patterns, which she did.
Because she had completed her homework, she had time to do her favorite activity. She really got into coloring a picture, and wanted me to color with her as well. Each time I stopped, she urged me to keep going! Soon, it was almost 5:30 and since her mother had arrived to pick her up, it was time to leave.
But Deanna did not want to go. I was sitting in one of the low kid-sized chairs and so when she stood, we were at the same height. She wrapped her arm around my neck and said she wanted to stay. I relented, agreeing to stay for a few more minutes. This happened a few more times. At one point, she just shifted around my knee and planted herself in my lap and continued to color.
I felt glad and grateful.
When I got there the next week, Deanna came running to me and gave me a hug. She was playful and was mock-upset. I imagine she was looking for me to indulge her. She still needs a lot of coaxing, but I am now happy to keep doing it.
I tried new ways to get her attention. When I let her write on the whiteboard, or when I wrote on the whiteboard, she was more amenable. I borrowed books from the library that were shorter and easier for her to read. So a feeling of accomplishment came within reach of Deanna.
With the end of the school year, my time with Deanna came to an end as well. As a parting gift I gave her a small drawstring bag made out of a sari border. It is small, bright, and glittery. Maybe Deanna will use the little bag to keep her precious doodads. Maybe each time she sees it she will think of the “grandmother” who gave it to her. Maybe she will continue to read easy books over the summer and maybe she will catch up to her grade level by the time she starts second grade in the fall.
Deanna’s openness to loving and being loved poured an elixir into my life. It is as much a gift from her as it is from the Universe.