Grasping the Meaning of Volunteering
By Joanne Stiles
The role of volunteer inevitably turns out to feel like something Zelda Fitzgerald once said: “I’ve come in at the middle, and can’t stay for the end, but somehow must grasp the meaning.”
Offering your best self to someone, or many someones, for some length of time, however faithfully, is all it takes to volunteer. But the energy, hope and commitment you put into your volunteering is nothing—nothing compared to what you receive in return. It’s almost embarrassing. It’s deeply humbling. What is this joy? Is this the “the meaning” Zelda was talking about?
I started volunteering at the Austin Bat Cave in October 2015. A fresh transplant to Austin from the Great Northeast, I heard on KUT that the Bat Cave was looking for volunteers to help teach writing skills to kids who wanted to be the first in their families to graduate from college. How could an old copywriter and PR hack resist the opportunity to help kids discover the power of the written word?
The ninth graders I worked with from Austin and Manor were break-your-heart-extraordinary in each individual way. They tumbled out of school buses for the first Saturday writing workshop at Green Gate Farm, displaying all their colorful and individual sizes, accents, hair styles, fashions and frustrations. Collectively they could have easily overwhelmed the Breakthrough Austin staff and Bat Cave volunteers. But they didn’t.
They’d lost their eighth-grade swagger now that they were ninth graders, at the bottom of the high school pecking order. They weren’t happy to be among strangers either, giving up a precious Saturday to a writing program and to learning Breakthrough’s rules and traditions. They no doubt recognized some of the Breakthrough staff, but they must have wondered, “Who are those other people?”
The Bat Cave volunteers seemed very young to me, twenty-somethings mostly. I sucked in my gut and smiled, just a little, trying to appear younger and savvier than my 64 years. Nobody made eye contact during the opening remarks and introductions. It was a rare moment to conserve my energy. I expected the rest of the day to be non-stop engaging, reaching out, digging deep inside for all the tricks, gimmicks and beguilements I could use to help these kids do something they didn’t want to do—put language on paper.
Assigned a group of five, I let them have their choice of where to sit. They chose a tree house platform, eight feet above the dusty farm yard, out of reach from the rooster who patrolled the area, but not out of hearing. Roosters do not say “cock-a-doodle-do!” They say “Hark! Hark! Listen to me you fools!” Were we foolish to expect these kids to actually sit in a barnyard listening about the short story form? Reading? Writing? Yeah.
Some of them did listen, read and write. Most bent their heads over their black and white composition books, chewed on their pens, drew doodles on the page, whined that it was boring, or put in their ear buds and pretended to be thinking. A few, just a few, were openly distracting. One of them was in my little group up there in the tree house—a handsome, funny, scared young man who didn’t dare to expose himself on paper or any other way and who was doing all he could to make sure nobody else would either. I lowered my expectations, struggled to get through the writing plan, and spent myself wheedling, cajoling, humoring and nudging each one to get something, anything on the page. I was mildly successful.
The next month, the Breakthrough writing program focused on interviewing and writing about a family member or other adult. My young disrupter was at it again—disengaged and trying to get everyone else’s attention. He’d probably successfully bullied and frustrated many little old ladies in his short career. I had to make myself more interesting to the group than he was. I had to impress him with my own “cred.” So when he challenged me and said, “I’ll interview you,” I let it rip.
To answer his question, “tell me about yourself when you were young,” I told him about an alcoholic father and a chaotic household of seven people and about the day my parents weren’t home and I got into a fight with my older sister. She pulled my hair. I punched her in the face breaking her glasses, blood everywhere, and the cops came and took her to the hospital. She almost lost her eye. A plastic surgeon put seven delicate stitches in her face.
For the first time my little writing group was quiet. The rooster’s call seemed far away. Their eyes were wide. Their mouths open. They were shocked and my little disrupter was impressed. I wasn’t a weak and clueless little old white lady anymore. I was interesting.
I wasn’t proud that I had brought out my gory tale of sibling violence. And I told them that. I told them that from that day on I never again hit anyone in anger, that I never once spanked or laid a hand on my son. But I also told them my sister never pulled my hair again and that she forgave me that very same day when she came home from the hospital, half-blind with her eye swollen shut and without her glasses.
“I had a temper,” I said. And I hoped they understood the cautionary part of my tale.
The next few writing workshops were less dramatic and a little more productive as I got more comfortable with the kids and program. The slam poetry session was a great success and I hope we can do that again. But by the time April rolled around, my little disrupter’s notebook was practically blank—he’d never gone beyond a quick write-up of his interview.
Our last workshop involved editing and putting together a final presentation for the group and family visitors. “What are you going to present?” I asked my little disrupter. He looked down at his meager entries in his notebook. “I’m going to finish this one about you,” he said with all the bluster of an adolescent. “Oh my God,” I said to myself. “Ok, let’s do it!” I said, calling his bluff.
It turned out not to be a bluff. He told my story on the page. He spoke it out loud to everyone listening. He said, “she’s not just another white lady who doesn’t care about us.” He called me a friend.
And that’s the “meaning” Zelda was talking about.