In real life, I am pretty hesitant to talk about the things that I think I do well at; I’m always waiting for someone to jump out accusing me of being full of myself, self-absorbed, an inflated view of myself and my abilities and the effect I have on people. But there are some things that I think I do very well, and here I boast.
I used to work as a physical therapist assistant, before I returned to school full time. Do you know what I miss? I miss getting the wild animals to eat out of my hand. I had recalcitrant people–oh, they gave me new meaning for that word. I had this one guy who would literally pretend to sleep in the waiting room, just to avoid eye contact with anyone else. He worked in a factory, and I had it on good authority that he was even more withdrawn than the other reclusive workers, opening up to no one. I had him talking about his grandkids.
Another young man, probably just older than me, looked as though he sucked on lemons and had entirely forgotten how to smile and that he would trust no one or no thing and you couldn’t make him happy. I chiseled a smile out of him in the first 30 minutes, a smile he tried to hold in as though it didn’t belong on his face. But after that I got all sorts of expressions from him. I earned trust from him that I didn’t think would ever be possible.
I sparred with grouchy and belligerent men, who were intent on testing your mettle, and wanted to see what you would do under pressure. I worked with a guy who spent a whole half-hour complaining behind my back about how he didn’t want to be treated by me, and finished his course of therapy by telling me I did “a hell of a good job,” and meant it.
I worked with people who were depressed, and coaxed life back into them. I work with people who were unmotivated and didn’t know how to work, and convinced them to earn their healing. I worked with women who were so discouraged they were crying, fearful they’d never be able to function, and helped them through to the other side. I got to see people achieve their goals–and more than achieve them, surpass them. I challenged, I comforted, I encouraged, I listened–and I got to see the results. It was exhausting–and exhilarating.
The break from the emotional exhaustion was good, at first, but I’ve soon begun to miss it. People all over the world are hungry for a few words of hope and comfort and encouragement, and I am literally sitting on my bum at a desk? What it is wrong with this picture? The sparking of human life was what I was good at, and now I’m doodling in the margins of my notebook, wondering how I’ll every be able to remember the charges of polyatomic atoms and random solubility rules.
So when the chance presented itself to being some tutoring, I took it. I would teach, I would encourage, their grades would turn around–instant gratification! I admit I had visions colored with past experiences–all successful, some stunningly so. What I found instead was sadness–situations I couldn’t fix. People who’s academic problems ran deeper than I had any confidence in an hour or two a week of tutoring to influence. People who were coming for help when it was too late to fix their grade, people who couldn’t or wouldn’t help themselves between tutoring sessions.
It kind of came to a head last Friday. This poor woman wants to pass the physics needed to become a physical therapist assistant, and I want to help her. But only a few of her homework problems are done, and it’s due in an hour. Why? Why didn’t you work on it before? There should only be a few areas you are stuck on, not begin at the beginning and explain it all! I told you that before!
I didn’t say that. I said, “How is your husband? Is he doing better?”
“No, he’s still in the hospital with the heart monitor on, and I hope he won’t get an infection at the hospital, and now my son has a fever, and my homework is due, and there’s so much I haven’t done!”
And my heart breaks for her, because I can’t fix this. If she doesn’t have the time to work on the homework, she won’t pass this course. If she can’t pass this course, her plans for future employment are dashed. I work with her as much as I can throughout the hour, but I know we can’t get it done in time for the deadline, and in all honesty, I don’t think she will pass this course. Am I even helping her, or just wasting her time with a false hope?
“It’s hard to learn when your mind isn’t here–it’s over there with your husband in the hospital and your son with a fever.”
“But I need to do this! My head has to be here!”
“Sometimes, we have to make choices that are hard to make. When you have to choose between being with your husband in the hospital and doing school work, well, it’s not a choice that you want to make. But in the grand scheme of things, your husband and children are much more important.”
“I want to chose both!”
I left the tutoring session feeling so worthless. I’m not going to see the look of delight in her eyes when she pulls out her next exam to show me her results. But even more troubling to me was the realization that it may not matter. Just the evening before, I’d heard of the unexpected death of one of my classmates who had gone through the physical therapist assistant program with me. And now, all I could think was that the next time I met with the student I was tutoring, she was going to tell me her husband had died and would likely have to pull out of the program to support her two young children.
I had wanted to be the one to turn that magic key and unlock the world of delight. I had wanted to to see the fruits of my labor, and see that they were good. I wanted to make everything all better, I wanted to feel that high of seeing the look of gratitude from success in someone’s face. This was exhausting without any of the exhilaration, and I felt like I never should have picked any tutoring up to begin with.
But somewhere in the back of my head, I thought I heard something else, too. A quiet voice reminding me that what we look for is the measurable results, the instant gratification. On that grounds, the entire experience feels like a fiasco. But maybe–maybe I wasn’t there to raise her physics grade. Maybe the whole reason I was there was so that someone would be there to tell her, “Your husband and children are more important than school.” Maybe she needs to hear that more than she needs to pull a good grade.
I’m not happy with that. I want my rush of I-made-everything-okay. I wanted to be able to display my prowess at getting inside of someone’s head, and bringing them through the finish line they thought they’d never reach. Having the privilege of telling someone that, in light of the frailty of human life, it was okay to chose to fail at physics–was not enough. Where is the hope in that? Where is the delight of success in that?
Then again, I didn’t start out this post talking about how totally awesome I was at physics. I started out this post talking about the human need to be valued, respected, cared for, drawn out, comforted, encouraged. I talked about how I learned, through my job, to not doubt my ability to see through the shrouds and barricades thrown up around peoples’ hearts. I learned to say what I believed they needed to hear in order to heal, putting aside the self-consciousness that comes from speaking to the core of a being you’ve only just barely met.
There are a hundred thousand people who can tutor physics. I do not think there are so many people who can see the relative worthlessness of their tutelage in light of what really does matter, who can come expecting to discuss specific heat and then realize what really needs to be addressed is human worth.
I wanted to be her hero of physics and education. In that, I feel like I’m failing. But it occurs to me that my whole encounter with her may be utterly beside the point of those few hurried words as I scrambled to get to my next class: In the grand scheme of things, your husband and children are much more important.
Did not that use the skills I’d learned? Did not that use the talent I secretly know is mine? But all I can see is her anguished face, saying, “I want to chose both!” I’m not enough to bring her both.
Sometimes, being able to get inside someone’s head means that you get to lead them to joy, and rejoice with them, and it is exhilarating. But sometimes it just means you climb in there and look around and see the fear and the darkness, and there is nothing you can do but hurt with them. It’s hard to remember that hurting with them has value–that hurting alone is a torment a thousand times worse than hurting with someone by your side. It’s hard to see the worth in acknowledging problems you can’t fix. But how often have you laid awake, wishing someone would acknowledge your struggles and fears and battles?
When that’s all you can do, it doesn’t seem like much of a gift. It doesn’t seem like a wonderful and clever gift to be able to get inside of the person full of hurt, and it doesn’t seem like you’re offering much of a gift to say, “wow, it’s full of hurt in here!” I can only hold out hope for that thin, quiet voice inside of me that said, “There. That was the first thing of any real value you’ve done for this person. Physics be damned; she has a husband to take care of.”