Saturdays are my day to volunteer at the library. I get myself downtown to the big public library. Usually I plan to take the bus, but I wind up being late and driving and having to pay to park. Today, I drove and found a spot that was far from the library but free on Saturday. Today was a good day.
I settle myself down at the table on the fourth floor, get out my computer, or whatever papers I have to grade, and then I wait until the students come. I have some regulars.
"Betty" is an elderly black lady who is teaching herself algebra. She travels from library to library in search of math help. I've seen her at least once a month for over a year at two different libraries. We've sat down together for hours at a time, and I've walked her through problem after problem. After a year, her math skills are about where they were when I first met her. I think she has a little memory loss to overcome while she learns. Betty always has her "homework" and she comes prepared with questions. Secretly, though I think that Betty is using algebra as a prop to get tutors to sit down with her for an hour, interrupting her math problems with tidbits about our real lives. "What kind of math do you have today, Betty?" doesn't take long to detour to "How was your Christmas, Betty?".
Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Betty loves doing the math. I'm sure she gets off on it, in a truly nerdy way, and perhaps if she had been born in a different generation or if she had been born white or male, she might have found her way to a continued study of mathematics. She says that she wakes up in the morning sometimes, having dreamed about math, and then she has to get up to finish a problem before she even gets dressed. She once said to me that a system of equations reminded her of a marriage, and that solving for x and then using it to solve for y was like peeling away the layers of your relationship to discover who you each are as individuals. Only true math nerds can make relationship analogies to algebra.
"Leroy" is a middle-aged black man who fears math but knows that he needs to go back to school in order to work his way out of a dead-end job. The first time I met Leroy, he brought a blond husky-voiced woman with him. She also had math homework, but she refused to ask any questions, and I soon realized that she was the crutch he needed to get through the door to ask for help. Once he found out how the whole tutoring thing worked, she never returned, but the amazing thing is that Leroy does return, again and again, even though after an hour or two of math, he looks like someone who needs a cigarette - at which point he excuses himself for a smoke break.
Leroy has been coming to the library on and off for at least nine months. He even took the test he needed to get into school, failed it, and battled his way back to the library to get over that defeat. He says he has a calendar at home to keep track of the days I work at the library. Now that I'm only at the library every other week, it stresses me out on days like today, when Leroy doesn't make it. He might not learn enough math before his next test if he only works on it once a month. I'm a little worried that he only has one more test in him, and if he doesn't pass the next time, he won't be back. Unlike Betty, Leroy has improved a lot on his math. Mostly, he has gotten over the deer-in-the-headlights fear he feels when he first looks at a problem, which allows him to relax enough to remember what we've done for the past nine months.
And then today there was a dirty white guy at our table, and I had a bad feeling. I have never had a bad feeling at tutoring before. I didn't want to tutor him, because I felt leered at when he looked at me. I also felt like a dick for not wanting to be friendly. So, when he asked me when I'm available for tutoring, I told him my actual real hours, because I didn't want to be a dick. When he said he'd come in two weeks and bring some calculus homework, I said OK, but, I said it unenthusiastically, because I had a Bad Feeling, and I was pretty sure the calculus was a ruse to get me to talk to him. Then I started to wonder whether I was having a real honest-to-goodness Bad Feeling or whether I had some sort of homelessness prejudice that was keeping me from being helpful. The good news is that all of my homelessness stereotypes indicate that he will not be able to keep the appointment and I will probably never see him again, so I might not have to play the game of pretending to tutor him in math, when all he really wants is to sit next to a friendly woman for an hour.
Besides, isn't that all Betty wants, too?