As my volunteering experience has progressed over the semester, I’ve been slowly starting to work more and more with the first graders one on one each Thursday. When the semester started, I was simply sitting in the classroom and folding “decodables” together for the teacher (a job which was still necessary and helpful), but I was still sitting in the classroom, paying attention to the way in which the teacher interacted with the students. At my most recent volunteering hours, however, the class was split up into a group which worked on math problems with the teacher, and a group that was supposed to be working individually on math worksheets, a group that was supposed to go to me if they had any questions. Certainly, I was a little bit nervous, not really knowing how to best interact with the children or how to help them figure out the math problems without telling them the answers. Surprisingly, I found myself absolutely loving helping the kids, edging them on by having them reread the questions, giving them hints that built off of questions they had already done, and in general giving them the push they needed in order to figure out a problem by themselves. By this point, the kids know me and aren’t afraid to ask me for help, but what really was exciting about working with the kids was just how much they wanted to learn the math and figure it out for themselves. While certainly there is a certain amount of wanting to impress myself or the teacher, and of course there is the added bonus that once they finish their work they have a little free time (of course their free time activities are all math related), I truly believe that they want to learn and actually have fun doing math. Was I that excited in earnestly wanting to learn math? I really don’t remember my elementary school experience much, but I wonder if I was. At any rate, despite sometimes having trouble and coming to me to help figure out what the question was asking, the kids really did the work themselves, and were excited to do so.
How this may relate to The Color Purple is an interesting enough question. As far as interpreting the actual events of the narrative into the experiences of these kids, one might not have much hope. No one except the children and their families can really say what is going on the personal lives of the kids, and its not really my place to assume anything about them. Undoubtedly some of the kids come from happy homes whose young lives may have been a lot like my own, and there is a chance some of them don’t, but to compare the struggles Celie faces and the myriad issues tackled in the novel (religion and spirituality, race/gender relations, rape and domestic abuse, etc.) with the lives of these children wouldn’t make much sense. Rather, one of the most important things about The Color Purple that I took away when reading it was the struggle for independence and Celie’s finding of her voice as the novel progressed. Surely she was up against insurmountable odds and in the first half of the novel only lived in hopes of a better afterlife, but with the help of Shug she was finally able to come into her own as an individual. This is where I see the connection between my experience volunteering and the novel the most – no matter how one feels about Shug as a person, one has to respect her because she gave Celie the push she needed to rise above everything dragging her down. Most everyone has this power within them, the power to rise up against odds, the power to be one’s own person, the power to speak up and do something that surprises people. Sometimes we just need a little push, just a little help to find out that we had this power all along. Thus the importance of mentors, of friends and family, of teachers, etc.: to unlock that potential which everyone already has.