Maybe it was the sunshine flooding the sanctuary that mid-spring morning as the window shades, which had been drawn to keep the parishioners engaged and interested in the events of the service taking place within, were mechanically lifted by tiny, remotely-operated motors to reveal God’s creation outside in full May flower, bursting with promise and hope and possibility.
It happened every Sunday. As soon as the pastor’s sermon concluded, the organist deftly tinkled a few emotional notes along the melody of a hymn already deeply-embedded in the hearts of all except the most unfamiliar of the flock. And while the organist tugged at the heart through the special place in the viscera that familiar music touches, the pastor traveled a more circuitous route, seeking through the logic that arises from belief to finally also arrive there, imploring the parishioner’s heart to openly accept and acknowledge Christ’s deity and grace as was revealed through the sermon. Thus was the post-sermon time of the service the Baptists know as the “invitation”.
On brilliantly crisp and sunny days like that one—the kind a late spring cold front, perhaps the last of the season can sometimes leave in its wake, devoid of humidity or even the wisp of a cloud–the eyelids were hardly sufficient to prevent a preview of the effect intended by the raising of the window shades in the sanctuary. Their thin membranes simply weren’t up to the task of shutting out the sun that flooded in as the window shades motored up. By the time the preacher finally made his last altar call for any whom the spirit of the Lord possessed, the sanctuary was ablaze in the white light of springtime sunshine. It was as if the Apostle John’s observation that “God is light”, was being fulfilled, with His Holy presence washing over every pew and aisle and balcony and transept that fine spring day by the time the call to worship was sung.
The sermon that day was about missions, as it was mission Sunday, when all the various mission projects of the sprawling quasi mega-church (less than 10,000, but more than 5,000 members, which is as good a demarcation line as I can figure between a true mega church and one that’s only ‘quasi’) were on display in a forum in the fellowship hall after the service. Up until that day, I had mainly ignored all the calls to service and to witness. If I could be described as Christian, it would have been of the lukewarm variety at best, which as any good God-fearing Bible-thumping, hellfire and brimstone preaching Christian will tell you, is really worse than being a devout atheist. At least everyone knew where atheists were heading and could condemn and avoid them. With lukewarmists like me, the good Christians had to be always on their guard that I didn’t get heated up for God enough to occasionally finagle my way into the privileged sanctum they felt they deserved for their piety.
I went to church, but I did so mainly for my kids. Living in the buckle of the Bible Belt in central Alabama, people who didn’t at least occasionally go to church, or who didn’t at least give lip service to God as the bounteous fount of all blessings, were considered scoundrels and heathens. And that wouldn’t do for my kids, in their exalted status as the grandchildren of baby boomers.
I was, of course, raising my children for the benefit of their grandparents—my parents and in-laws—as that’s what the selfish, narcissistic baby boomers expect of the world now that their turn as its deserving heirs is coming to a close. Upon arrival in a world immensely enriched and made comfortable and safe by their parents, the baby boomers expected they had deserved the sacrifices of their parents. By the time their own children began coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties, they had so dissipated their inheritance that it seemed a miracle that their once proud country could beat a third-world worker’s paradise at hockey. Now that the boomers are old and contemplating their departure from this mortal coil, they imagine that their grandchildren were put on this earth for the purpose of extending their lives beyond the grave, (though a great many of them also hold out hope that there will be a cure discovered for death before they succumb to it—that they can, like their favorite movie director desires—achieve immortality by not dying).
It was my charge to raise these baby-boomer parent’s grandchildren in a manner that honored their grandparent’s legacy—something in the way that an Egyptian slave worked on a Pyramid for the Pharaoh, or a Chinese peasant helped build the terra cotta Army for Qin. And the grandparents, also being of upstanding, salt-of-the-earth Alabama native stock, proud Baptist and Methodist pillars of the community if you will, would not have stood for their grandchildren not receiving a good Christian rearing. And I had somehow learned from an early age not to fight the impulse to eternity in my fellows. Foolish and vain as it always presented itself, the human impulse to eternity, in all the various forms through which it finds expression, is still rather more powerful than any other impulse, aside from sex (which is usually actually an expression of the same striving), that human beings experience. But my heart was never much into organized religion. I thought most of it was hokey superstition and mysticism when it wasn’t sublimating the human impulse to tribalism. I just showed up at church, with my parents’ and in-laws’ grandkids in tow, snoozing through the sermon when I could get away with it. May the circle be unbroken and all that.
Something about this Sunday was different. I felt the Spirit move in me, or at least seemed to have had something of the feeling that spiritual people must experience daily on their walk with the Lord, always closely attuned as they are to the stirrings in their soul wrought of their Lord and Savior. I can’t say that I’ve ever been quite so spiritually connected, believing most of the stirrings of my soul to have something or another to do with stirrings of my belly or my loins.
But I was feeling particularly magnanimous towards God that day. My life up to that point had been one blessed event followed by another. There was the marriage interrupted by the war in which I had to fight. Thank god for the rush the war put on things or I’d likely never have gone through with the marriage, which was approaching by then a quarter-century of blissful servitude. There was the war itself, which provided valuable training in how to waste time without sinking into madness, a most valuable skill to master as I later learned that wasting time in some capacity or another comprised the balance of the ordinary adult’s day, no matter their allotted occupation. And I really felt the presence of God there in the deserts of Arabia, even as the Arabs were slicing off the heads of people who professed belief in Christ at the exclusion of Allah, who was anyways also Christ’s God. There was the first child’s first bout with leukemia, which drove home the point that no matter how poorly things might seem to be going, they can always get worse. God was most gracious in rendering that lesson for me, because only eight years later, the boy’s leukemia came back. But I was well prepared for it the second time, almost as if I had spent my whole life being prepared by God for that moment in time. And as the kid had finally gotten better a few years after taking another bone marrow transplant, but was still so frail and sick that we were never far away from reminders of God’s grace, I well understood I had so much to be thankful for. Tears welled up in my eyes, a lump lodged in my throat and my breast swelled nearly to bursting at the sense of gratitude at God’s grace in my life up to then, and at the boundless possibilities carried into the sanctuary on those sunbeams that day.
I wanted desperately to believe that man could be better than it appears is his lot. I wanted to prove as much of myself, and become gooder than I was, and figured there was no better vehicle for the purpose than involvement in a do-gooder organization engaged in missionary work. I followed the crowd downstairs to the fellowship hall at the conclusion of the service. I knew even then it was an exercise in futility, but I’m a stubborn, recalcitrant study. The heart, which is mostly utterly stupid except when it warns away an emotional entanglement, which when its impulses should be always followed, wants what it wants. On that spring day, it wanted for a moment to believe that the dialectic, the war of all against all, could enjoy an occasional truce.
There were booths lined up through the middle and sides of the hall, touting service opportunities for everything from building and repairing houses, to helping with a child’s clothing donation center, to helping out at the local homeless shelter. The one that caught my eye was a ministry for, as the paperwork described it, “internationals”. It was located in an abandoned church only a few miles away, and ran a food bank, but had as its primary focus teaching English to adults who spoke a different first language. I thought to myself, “Well now, I speak and write English fairly to middlingly well—surely I could help someone at least gain a passable fluency in it. Yes, I thought. I could do this. It might even be fun.” So I signed up with the elderly gentleman manning the booth who turned out to be the principal in the organization. Looking down at me over his glasses and across from a distended belly characteristic of so many older males in Alabama and elsewhere, even among the teetotaler, i.e., non-beer-drinking crowd (or, especially among the teetotaler crowd, as they also only rarely smoke, and smoking, for all its faults, helps keep off the weight), he gave me one of his business cards and a date and time to show up for classes.
I have never believed in altruism. I have never believed that anything is ever done for purely altruistic purposes. I’ll readily admit that there’re lots of things that are done in order for the person doing them to appear altruistic, because appearing to be altruistic is, ironically, one of the best ways to achieve one’s selfish ends. But nothing is ever done for someone else without which some benefit accrues to the account of the doer. It might simply that the do-gooder has a good feeling about themselves, or it might be that the do-gooder more cynically calculates how doing good will enhance his status in the community. Whatever is the individual cost-benefit calculus, the fact remains—all do-gooders do good because doing good enhances the do-gooder’s welfare somehow.
At the same time that altruism exists only in myth, it seems everyone, me included, wants to believe in it. All would desperately like to buy into the lie that people are something other than selfish, but down in their lizard brains where the essence of their being lives, they know better. So they’re skeptical of apparently unselfish acts, except those that they border on the extreme in apparent unselfishness (falling on a grenade to protect a squad of soldiers in battle, e.g.). In other words, even people who would love to believe that human beings are capable of altruism have to climb a wall of doubt over what the unrevealed motives might be, before they’ll accept an act as altruistic. So Robert, the head of the Great Savings Ministry (“GS” or “Ministry” hereafter) nonprofit where I signed up to help teach English that Sunday morning, was naturally skeptical of my motives. It appeared that I had nothing to gain from the transaction, and that drove his suspicions even stronger. And he was at least superficially correct in his assessment of what I might gain from the transaction. I hadn’t much to gain, in the ordinary sense of gain that do-gooders have.
I had no status at my home church worth protecting or enhancing. It was something of a mega-church and I knew almost no one except by face, and only those from having seen them at the services through sitting close by in our regular pew. The church had no assigned seating, but the pews were definitively burdened with various ownership interests for each service. We made the mistake one time of sitting at our regular pew for a later service than we normally attended and suffered a violent confrontation, if one done in complete silence through threatening bodily gestures and angry daggers shooting from the eyes. I actually wondered whether I might receive a Christ-like shove to the floor from a seventy-year- old woman if we didn’t move. Christ never talked much about the need to turn that cheek, I suppose. But we learned our lesson—always go a bit late to services not ordinarily attended so that all the pew claims will have been re-staked by arrival. Fortunately the impact of the confrontation was lessened because I personally knew none of the antagonists.
I had no friends at the church and didn’t want any. I had utterly loathed the last time I’d been involved in an adult Sunday school class at a previous church, suffering all the spiritual whininess and cockeyed theologies that a bunch of bored soccer moms and their quietly desperate husbands could dredge from the backwaters of their psyches. So I didn’t have anyone who might become aware of my “altruism” in a proper, status-enhancing way, though Robert wasn’t so much aware of that at the time—he was just suspicious because do-gooders are always suspicious of the motivations of others, as they always must cynically pretend that their own motivations are unselfish in order to enhance their status through doing good. Do-gooders understand and are suspicious of pretentions to selflessness because they are living, breathing pretentions to selflessness.
While talking to Robert at GS I bumped into an acquaintance, Suzanne—the parent of one of my son’s friends and one of those church and community busy-bodies—who after the initial cordialities, spent a considerable time making up excuses as to why she couldn’t get involved in the GS program, without my having even asked. She blubbered on in her rationalizations, but we both knew, perhaps her only subconsciously, but still, that the reason she couldn’t and wouldn’t help with GS is because volunteering with GS had no social currency. It would do nothing to enhance her status among the social groups that had settled into legitimacy in her heart, so she could no more have helped out GS than she could have run away to become a nun. True to suburban socialite norm, she never voluntarily did anything that held no promise of status enhancement among her chosen tribes. I mention Suzanne not to denigrate her, but to explain why nobody from my church except me took the GS volunteering bait that day.
But, dear reader, you may by now be thinking in the same manner as Robert—a bit skeptical at my intentions—wondering as to really why I decided to volunteer, doubting that momentary moment of inspiration as insufficient to compel such a thing. The chain of logic is twisted to the point of superficial irrationality, but the main points go something like this: I had no job, having quit mine to take care of my son during his last bone marrow transplant. I didn’t want or need a job, as I had made a lot of money in my previous job, and my wife, who had voluntarily gone back to work full-time before the transplant, had worked all the way through it and still was. We didn’t need any money. What I needed, the same as every bored housewife needs, was something to do besides Oprah or valium. I figured some volunteer work might be the ticket, and given my love for my own native language (else I wouldn’t be writing this), thought that teaching others who are new to it might actually be a fun and interesting way to spend some portion of my time. I had no delusions of saving the world, or of improving my status through altruism—nothing of the sort. I just sought a more enjoyable way to waste time. I essentially sought what Apple and Samsung and Google and Twitter, and etc., sell—wasting time in a manner that at least feels more poignant and important than watching the flickering embers of a fire in the evening, or reading a book, or gazing at the stars like our ancestors might have done before electricity lit up the night and relieved us of much of the burden of living during the day. But I personally find all that social media nonsense to be a trifling and banal means of wasting time. I really don’t care about how great your kids are, or how wonderful your exotic vacation was, or about how you think your unrequited love for me in high school should now be requited simply because of a social media platform, even while we both have spouses who might think poorly of such a thing, and we had every opportunity to requite the passion back then and didn’t and there must have been a good reason as to why. But I figured helping people learn the language would be at least as enjoyable as all the other time-wasting strategies of which I was aware, both ancient and near. So I put on my happy, do-gooder, save-the-world face (so I’d have a chance at fitting in with my fellows in the business), and showed up a week later for my first class.
Sharon, Robert’s wife, was in charge of the English as a Second Language (in the vernacular, “ESL”) program at GS. I quickly realized that she and Robert either did not talk much, or did not listen well when they did, or both. Sharon was quite surprised when I showed up on Robert’s recruitment, as if she had no idea what he was out and about doing. I told her what I had come for and she formed a most perplexed look on her aging features, as if she were flipping quickly through her files to see under which one she might find me, repeatedly coming up empty. After a time of confusion, she finally found the standby file in her brain, and stammered and stumbled through explaining how she needed me to fill out an application. “Now there was a new one,” I thought, “an application to work but for a job that paid nothing.”
I sat down at one of the cafeteria tables and started filling things in on the obviously word-processed two pages of the application. The tables were in what appeared to be the old fellowship hall of the Baptist church building and grounds that had been donated, I later found out, to the non-profit after the church had fled, like so many do, the squalor that came with urbanization, but before the onslaught of hipsters made urban squalor cool. It was on the edge of town where white privileged wealth gave way to the more desperate classes. Along the main drag leading to the church were title lenders and pawn shops and auto parts stores and a smattering of mom and pop strip-mall restaurants that ran the gamut of Oriental and Latino fare, serving everything from Korean kimchi to Salvadoran pupusas. Did I have any previous experience teaching ESL? No. Did I have any previous experience working with people of lower socioeconomic status? No, though I’m not sure what exactly was meant by lower socioeconomic status—lower than who? Me? Because no matter how much money I had ever made, which was sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, I had always felt the same inside. I have never understood how people reduced the value of a life to the income that it generated. And how does money confer status? I was born without the gene that revealed such mysteries to everyone else. Wasn’t money how machines and farm animals were quantified? Should it also be how humans valued each other? Curiously, the application never questioned my background outside of immediately relevant experience. It never even asked whether I could speak, read, write and generally understand English. It didn’t want to know what I might have been doing with my life up to the point I decided to volunteer. It looked as if it were put together in haste, more to satisfy some tax-exemption or donor requirement than to meet some actual need of the organization. It was probably only later that Sharon determined it might be gainfully deployed as a stalling tactic, when someone like me showed up with an unsolicited offer to help.
Being a novice at this English-teaching thing, I wasn’t sure what to expect through helping teach. But having learnt English to relative fluency as a child, without any formal instruction until I was almost seven years old, I figured that teaching English to an adult, whose mental capacity should be substantially greater than a child’s, ought n’ be that difficult. My parents, the same as parents everywhere, didn’t go out of their way to teach our language to me—they just let me pick it up as I went along. Presumably all the people here to take classes were fluent in their first languages, so definitely had the capacity for learning language. It seemed to me they just needed some English exposure. But then I wondered–why do they needed to come to these classes to gain it? Couldn’t English be learnt just by living in the American culture? That was certainly how I had done it as a child. Why couldn’t they? It is still possible to immerse one’s self in English in the United States of America, no?
Not knowing what to do with me, Sharon invited me to visit with a class she was substitute teaching that night—she didn’t routinely teach any of the classes, but filled in as required when the regular teachers were out.
The class was taught in the same manner as classes from elementary school on up through college are taught—with the teacher standing at the front of the class, lecturing. I was apparently too stupid to understand the brilliance of the pedagogy, because it seemed about as effective at imparting the skill of English fluency as all those classes I had taken long ago had been at imparting knowledge or skill of any form, which is to say, not very much. We have a model for language acquisition—the same model used by every human being in acquiring their first language, save a small few who suffer some mental or physical defect—by using it, just like a baby learns it. Lectures, unless printed so they could be followed along in a text, seemed pointless, and particularly so when the students haven’t achieved a basic level of fluency that would allow comprehension. But what did I know? I was there to do-good, and apparently this was good, even if perhaps not so much from the perspective of the ones to whom the good was being administered. I kept my mouth shut and soldiered on, not impeding Sharon, who was do-gooding in the old-fashioned, Waspish way—by inflicting pain to gain achievement. No pain, no gain, as body-builders and stern Presbyterian schoolmarms might say.
As I sat with my mind idled at the boredom that watching such pain infliction entails, I couldn’t recall any pain for the language when I acquired it. Maybe after acquisition, and a few salty phrases spat in a school girl’s face just to make her cry, did I remember pain. But that involved having learnt the language too well at such a tender age, to the point of knowing its, ahem, nonstandard words and phrases and using them tragically and comically (because I only sketchingly knew what they meant), but in a manner sufficient to get the little girl’s mom on the phone to my mom, and eventually, a few strikes of a paddle on to my backside. Other than that, there was no pain at all for having learned the language. It was a riotous joy as a child to learn how to communicate with more than grunts and squeals and screams and finger-pointing. And nothing before or since has rivaled learning how to read and write. It wasn’t pain. It was the greatest joy imaginable. Leave it to that deep strain of Calvinism lingering still in the majority British/Scots cum American psyche to make every task a chore to be endured, and to rank every accomplishment in direct proportion to the pain and suffering required for its achievement. The more pain, the more gain it seems is where the logic leads, but fortunately, it’s not actually true. Just because Sharon didn’t know as much didn’t make it any less a fallacy. I knew that learning English, or anything else, could be fun, or at least something less painful than a root canal, which is about what I felt I had endured after an hour of Sharon’s lecturing.
There were a few more weeks of the same, except that after the first session with Sharon, I visited all the remaining classes at GS, one by one—the students were parceled into five levels of fluency. The highest level learners were the most fun, as they could actually ask intelligent questions about the subtleties that nuances in grammar and vocabulary sometimes presented. The best question was from a Chinese woman, who had overheard two coworkers discussing a third, describing her as “humble”. She went home and asked her English-fluent daughter (as so many of the children of the adults in these classes were) what it meant. Her daughter told her that it meant the woman was wise.
As we explained to her in class, ‘humble’ is an unusual way in today’s society to describe someone in a complimentary way—people here, much more so than in China it seems—celebrate brashness, hubris, self-aggrandizing displays and the like. Humble connotes meekness, and though this may be a nation founded on Christian principles, nobody here anymore believes that the meek shall inherit the earth as believes that New Testament strictures (turn the other cheek) were meant to trump the Old (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). After all, Jesus said he came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. Had Christ not been Jewish, incorporating within Christianity the Torah and its stern precepts governing social and individual behavior and turned to the purpose—nation building—for which they were originally written for the Hebrews, it’s likely that nobody today, with the possible exception of the Muslims, who don’t consider Christ a deity but respect him as a prophet, would even know he had ever lived.
But what of the connection between humility and wisdom? The Chinese lady was having difficulty understanding it, but probably only for her limited vocabulary, rather than for a reasoning capacity limited by her culture. With a proper vocabulary, she would have had no problem understanding that anyone who is wise must also be humble, because the starting point for wisdom is humility. It’s doubtful, even with a proper vocabulary, that there are many Americans, especially many hubris-besotted Americans of indeterminate European ancestry (i.e., whites), who could understand that wisdom and humility are two sides of the same coin of understanding regarding mankind’s place in the cosmos, and of his relationship to a being (God) who he considers as having omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. The wise and humble man realizes he is none of those things that God is; that he is a finite creature with finite capabilities and existence, and that he could only ever perceive an entity with those attributes as if through a looking glass, darkly. Ironically, the Chinese Confucian has a better cultural foundation for grasping the idea of Yahweh than does the American Christian. So it wasn’t terribly difficult, after getting over the vocabulary hump, to explain wisdom and humility to a woman raised in what is still a Confucian culture that celebrates wisdom and humility. America loathes the very idea of wisdom. It is infantile in the extreme. It worships anything new and different, even if the new and different are decidedly less desirable than the old and familiar. Elsewise, explain leisure suits.
Of course, that more Chinese are learning English than English speakers are learning Chinese is at least partly for the advancements than can obtain when the past is discarded. The Chinese language is so insufferably difficult for non-native speakers to learn that there is very little chance of it ever enjoying the international status afforded English. And it is so difficult to learn precisely because the hidebound Chinese have until now refused to abandon their manner of writing where ideographic symbols are used to denote syllables, and further, have refused to allow the written language to adapt to the manner in which it is actually spoken. Ideographic writing is a system of writing that preceded alphabetic writing such as in English, where letters represent sounds, and the Chinese were one of the first civilizations to develop writing. English, however, has become a bit ideographic, as the pronunciations of words have often so far strayed from their spellings that it is sometimes of very little help in pronunciation to know the spelling. Writing changes more slowly than speaking, and might not change much at all if there is a powerful administrative bureaucracy devoted, either explicitly or implicitly, to its stability, such as there has been in China these last 2,000 or so years, and in Britain and the US for about 500 between them. Since the Chinese writing system was ossified at a much earlier age than was English, it by now is almost a language unto itself. The Chinese are determined that their archaic writing system will not be cast upon the ash heaps of history, which is why when they step foot out of China, they seek to learn English, the language that has become the world’s lingua franca. I offer this little tidbit to show that it helps to know a bit of the big picture, such as a thumbnail sketch of the relationship between English and Chinese, of whatever project one becomes involved with, but I didn’t get the sense that such things were commonly understood or acknowledged among any of the teachers whose classes I visited, even if a couple of trips to the library were rather helpful in that regard for me.
In all the classes I visited, I was treated moderately well, but, in something of an extension of Robert’s skepticism at why I wanted to help, I was not welcomed. At best, I was tolerated without overt hostility. Teachers are a naturally territorial bunch when it comes to their classroom authority and the influence they have over their charges. I found the impulse to territoriality magnitudes greater when the territory is less clearly defined, and when authority and influence are more tenuously grasped, as is the case with teaching ESL to adults. All that ESL teachers really know anything about that they could teach to these adults was the English language, something which pretty much any reasonably-literate English-speaking native could do, or for that matter, something that their fluent children might do. In a manner not likely so powerful in a formal classroom setting where the authority of the teacher is bestowed by state certification and her age relative to the students, my presence must have seemed a clear and present danger to the teacher’s authority and influence. Even though I tried to assure the teachers that I was just visiting and trying to learn a bit about the program and how I might do some good through my involvement in it, they were quite wary of me and my intentions.
In fact, thinking about it in hindsight, I’ve bought drinks for women who were less suspicious of my motives (sometimes actually seeming to believe me when I said I just wanted to talk) than were these do-gooders of my interest in wanting to help teach English. What sort of ulterior motive did they imagine I might have in volunteering to teach English as a second language, for free? Perhaps they thought I was secretly recruiting suicide bombers for a terrorist ISIS cell I was implanting right there in the middle of Alabama. Or maybe they figured that since they were otherwise doing good vis a vis the internationals, they could go on treating their native brethren like dirt—what a refreshing thing I imagined it might be to have been on the other side of the international divide, where the pettiness of cliquishness and class and social stratification among these people didn’t exist. GS was a Christian ministry, founded by a couple who was heavily involved in one of the large, local Baptist churches, from which almost all the ministry’s workers (save me) were drawn. But my first few weeks trying to help out left me feeling like a tax collector or a prostitute without their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ standing by to intervene on my behalf.
And I hadn’t really even done anything, yet. I had gotten in on the tail end of the ESL program’s annual term, which roughly mirrored the school calendar, so had only made a few of the classes, which met once a week in the evenings, and only as a visitor.
In the summer between the session, the ministry held a one-week bible school for the kids of their adult ESL students that I was invited by its head, Meredith, to help with. Meredith was the only one at GS who ever seemed pleased that I was willing to help the ministry, so I figured I ought to show my commitment to do-gooderism by agreeing to help out. This would be difficult. As soon as my kids had gotten past grammar school, my tolerance for grammar school age children had shriveled to nearly nothing. Once the chore of raising one’s own children is complete, for more parents than would admit, the squeals and howls of the children of others sound something like fingernails on a blackboard. I committed to helping with one of the classes, and did, but felt something like a bull in a china shop, tiptoeing around all the delicate sensibilities of the children, and particularly, those of the other teachers. It was either beyond awkward, doing silly songs that had accompanying choreography, like swinging one’s arms like an elephant’s trunk, or it was painful, listening to the high-pitched whine of the lead teacher, who ended every sentence with an upward lilt of her tone like a Valley girl ends every sentence as a question.
Similar to so many others that I had run across in this do-gooder community for the internationals, the lead teacher treated the recent immigrants’ children as if they were stupid for not having had the good fortune of being born in the US of A and learning English as natives (though some were surely born in the US and all spoke near-native English). She was a retired school teacher who seemed to believe that her ministry teaching the international kids at bible school was just part of the burden she carried with her racial and cultural superiority. To her mind, it no doubt was Manifest Destiny, i.e., a destiny manifested by God’s design that propelled the European races past all the others, that landed her in that classroom. This was just as God had designed things, with her, in all her vainglorious pallor, standing before her brown-skinned charges teaching them how to be more like Americans, because Western values and mores, as embodied in the American ideal, were demonstrably the best.
I suffered through a week of doing good through the children’s bible school, hurrying home, each evening to wash away the slimy coat of do-gooderism left by the day’s pretentions. Then finally, when the fall session of ESL classes rolled around, I figured I might get the chance to do what I had volunteered for. After all, I had taken the one day certification for teaching ESL at the local literacy council and done everything else asked of me in order that I might be allowed to do that for which I had originally volunteered. I was also a graduate of a top law school, and before that, a graduate with highest honors of one of the state’s leading institutions of higher education (which the Ministry did not know about, because it never asked), and a native speaker of the language who had successfully helped two people learn it already (i.e., my children).
But first, there would be more Herculean tests of my commitment to doing good. Another part of the GS ministry was a food bank, which, translated from the politically correct world of do-gooding, means that it had a program for giving out free food to people who ostensibly needed food. The manner with which this worked was that GS got a donation of food from a community food bank who had received the donated food from various food retailers or distributors, or even directly from the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture still (ever since it started doing so during the Great Depression) buys up excess food to support the prices farmers and others receive for their output, and then doles out the excess food to people too poor to afford the prices its policies have artificially inflated. It has apparently never considered that it might simply let prices settle where they may, with no price supports or food donations. The prices might even settle at a level where food becomes affordable for a great many who can’t now afford it because of their policies. On a much grander scale, the Department uses the same market-queering strategy in its food bank operations as it does in doling out food stamps for people to use in buying food whose price has been supported through agricultural subsidies.
But the food bank doesn’t just dole out food to anyone. It only gives out food to people who have been properly vetted by a social service agency, usually of the state government, but in any event, one that passes muster with the Department of Agriculture (else it won’t allow the community food bank to donate to the ministry). The Ministry’s food bank “clients”, thus vetted, are assigned a particular Wednesday (1st, 2nd , etc.–Wednesday is the only day the GS food bank is open) of the month to come and receive their allotment, the amount of which is determined by how many are in their household and how much food is available for distribution. The process for determining who is eligible is very effective at ensuring the truly hungry (the homeless, etc.) have little hope of getting free food. You have to have an address to be vetted by the social service agencies, and the truly needy don’t have them.
After helping with the food bank a couple of times, I quickly surmised that the client list of GS mainly included morbidly obese black women, who would pick through the donuts and bagels and pastries in the bread line like concentration camp prisoners, ignoring their own bodies’ desperate, diabetic pleas for relief from the onslaught of un-process-able, nutritionally-empty carbohydrates. Many of them had canes for walking, no doubt because the diabetes left their circulation so poor that their feet no longer worked. One woman shunned the bagels (in this case directly donated by a local, hipsterish-cool bagel shop that made bagels the size of bread loaves) because of “the diabetes”, she said, while balancing her goodie bag in one hand and her cane in the other. Instead, she reached for the tray of pastries.
The notion of doing good through charity work grew ever more problematic for me. What good is there in giving a morbidly obese person food? The food bank seemed more like a methadone clinic for food addicts, where they came to get their caloric fixes to keep the DT’s from setting in. How is this helping anyone? At the very least, couldn’t we refuse to dispense two-pound, carbohydrate-loaded bagels to people who are so obese that simply moving about presents serious life challenges?
While it’s true that nobody can be helped that doesn’t want help, is it then okay to harm them by enabling their addictions? Food is the most heavily abused drug in the world and has been ever since its abundance meant there was always more of it than sustaining life required, which is to say, in most places, for the last century or so. There have been famines, but practically all of them since the end of the 19th century can be traced to either governmental stupidity or its nefarious intent. Not much of anyone has lately starved except that their government was too stupid or too evil to allow them to be fed.
I did a few weeks of the food bank, but really, my heart was never in it. Aside from the dubiousness of the need it purportedly served, there were always more than enough workers to get the food distributed without my help. I was mainly in the way, which forced Mary, the spry little firecracker of a seventy-year-old woman who ran the place, to find me something to do so that I wouldn’t be bored, taking her time away from doing something that might actually be useful, beyond fulfilling some psychic need of mine to feel useful.
The first rule of charity work, or of life generally, should be a synecdoche of the physician’s creed—do no harm. By volunteering where I wasn’t needed for a service that filled a need that didn’t really exist (except perhaps the need for people to feel good about themselves handing out what seemed like life-saving sustenance that was instead poison), it felt like I was doing a doubly harmful thing. I wasn’t doing good—my actions, though arising from what I considered a pure and untarnished impulse to waste time in a more or less productive manner, were actually accomplishing evil. But it’s something like my old football coach used to say when I’d miss a block and plead an excuse—the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case it wasn’t for lack of execution that my good intentions were leading me and the ministry and its clients to hell. I hadn’t missed my block. I was doing exactly as the ministry intended. It’s that the ministry failed to see how their strategy of doing good, while immensely popular among both the clients and the workers, and even generally considered to be good among the general public, was in fact harmful. The clients needed love, but not the sort of love that equates to indulgence. They needed some tough love. For most of them, the best thing that could happen would be the food occasionally running out. If there were anything I might have offered them, it’s that food is only really enjoyable when you are good and truly hungry. If food is your drug, the less often you take it, the better is the high it affords. Lay off the hipster bagels. They’re not for you. Not even the hipsters would be fitting into their skinny jeans if they ate those things all the time.
After a few weeks of helping out at the food bank, the new year of the ESL program finally rolled around. I was hopeful that I might finally get to do what I had aimed to do when embarking on this little adventure. Not so fast, said Sharon, through her actions, if not her words. Except for listening to what she did, I could never have understood a thing she said. She put me in a class of basic level learners, paired with another someone she knew from church, who was to be the lead teacher. I hadn’t quite figured out by then, but clearly see it now, that there was no way I would ever be allowed to be the lead teacher for any of the GS Ministry’s English classes. It had nothing to do with my teaching skills and everything to do with my lack of in-group status.
The GS Ministry, though it otherwise claimed independence, was, like most small ministries of its sort, a subsidiary of a local church, in this case, the Baptist church where Sharon and Robert were members. It culled practically all of its volunteers from the Church. As such, it would have been hard-pressed to justify allowing a non-church member teach, unless their usurpation could be attributed to superior credentials (always a pertinent thing in the teaching profession, even as most teaching credentials are next to worthless in revealing competencies and are only relevant for the authority they are believed to convey), as the credentials could diffuse somewhat the bigotry (in the broadest sense of the word, which holds that bigotry is simply favoring one’s own group over others) that church members felt towards non-members, but even then, there would have been resistance. The people from the church who were volunteering did so because it enhanced their status within the church, which in turn aided their chances of getting to heaven.
To return tangentially to the original exegesis on why I took my kids to church, ever since mankind discovered his own mortality, he has been striving for ways around it. The idea of an eternal heaven, accessible only by the true believers (if Baptist) or by the chosen (if Presbyterian) or through the Pope (if Catholic), has been one of many he has conjured for relieving him of the unbearable lightness of being. The idea of heaven, or specifically, of striving to attain it, is one means of quelling the anxious feeling of gnawing emptiness that has afflicted man since he first gained conscious knowledge of his own death. And if doing good at the GS Ministry enhanced the chance to get to heaven through the intercession of the Baptist church from where it culled its volunteers, then what was I doing there, taking up a do-gooder slot that could have been used for a church member to better their odds? For if the church could be seen as a collective, cooperative enterprise devoted to seeing its members to heaven, and the GS Ministry as a vehicle employed to enhance the chances its members might do just that, then my presence at the Ministry could only be considered an unwelcome intrusion, a diversion of the church’s and Ministry’s resources from their ultimate ends.
It was through a bared-tooth smile that Sharon told me of my appointment to teach with Janie, and assured me after I expressed some doubts, that of course my services were needed and desired—that Janie would be taking off in November to go to Peru for vacation so it was desperately important to have me assist in the meantime.
I found Janie, a rather, large (in the sense of tall and big—not obese) ginger complexioned woman, in her mid-fifties, never married and with no children, to be rather disagreeable. It was clear from the very beginning that she did not want me there. And so it took no time at all until I decided that neither did I wish to be there. But I had made a commitment, so I stuck it out, which mainly meant sitting idly by in one of the chairs at the front of the class, biding time while I and the students listened impassively to a lecture on some very basic aspect (“this” means close by, “that” is further away) or another of the English language.
The first rule for Janie’s class was that only English would be spoken while in class. All the students spoke Spanish as their first language. Janie probably didn’t even know what como estas meant, which meant her rule conveniently alleviated any need for her to try to meet the students in the middle somewhere, or for her to even take a stab at learning something new.
I found it a common thing for ESL teachers to bar any other language but English in their classrooms. But if a class has speakers of several different languages present, then the rule is mostly unnecessary, as the students would likely have little in common except a bit of English. If, however, the class is fortunate enough to have just one native tongue, then refusing to use the student’s first language to teach them their second is tantamount to teaching malpractice. Put another way, if I were seeking to learn Spanish, all the teaching and instruction materials provided me would use English to further along my learning of Spanish. Why then doesn’t it work the other way for English language learners who speak Spanish, as everyone in Janie’s class did? Simply because so few native English speakers—the people teaching these classes–have learnt another language. Why would they? They already know the international lingua franca.
Janie’s attitude about her student’s first language was hostile and condescending. She seemed to feel that since she wasn’t the one who had bothered moving to the United States she shouldn’t have to bother with learning their language. It was an attitude typical of mid-level bureaucrats (which she had been, having served as an insurance adjuster in her main career) in any of the various empires scattered throughout history over the globe. The Romans didn’t bother learning the tongue of the Barbarians, instead expecting them to learn Latin. With the exception of Greek, they couldn’t be bothered to learn any other language, and knowing Greek was considered the rough equivalent to knowing French during the early days of the British cum American empire—it was expected of the elite, operating as both an indicia and a protector of status. The Chinese still generally refuse to learn anything but one or more of the various dialects of Chinese, but why should they? So long as they know the predominant dialect (a Beijing derivative) the whole of China, with its 1.3 billion people, is open to them. And the Middle Kingdom, until late, has always been more concerned with its own affairs than those of the world.
People have always used their mastery of a language, even if the mastery is an accident of birth, to confer status. To Janie, the fact that she knew English and was teaching it to others was nothing less than an expression of the superiority of the culture into which she was (accidentally) born, and particularly of her exalted status as a medium-level bureaucrat within that culture. All successful empires have conferred undue status on their subjects (and on their official languages). A very average knuckleheaded British schoolboy could grow up and go to India during the Raj and live the life of a royal potentate, just for the good fortune of having been born British. Knuckleheaded Americans luxuriate today in their mid-to-upper level technocrat/bureaucrat jobs without much of any clue as to how life for them had so easily turned out so well, not understanding that without the accident of their birth as American, they would be scraping to survive in the same manner as the vast multitudes outside of the empire now do.
So far as Janie was concerned, the universe was right and proper and secure so long as her large self (which through size and volume, projected something of a larger than life image in front of the classroom and seemed a perfect expression all that being American meant) was justly positioned among its ruling American elite, including standing in front of the whiteboard, lecturing to her brown-skinned pupils on this or that vagary of the English language. Janie’s classroom was British colonial imperialism, with its stratified hierarchies and noblesse oblige all over again.
Janie had not, like most of the Hispanics in the class, gathered her family and sallied off to an unknown land in order to stake out a better claim for herself and her family. (She hadn’t any family, in fact, which made her lecturing to the students on how to raise children seem a bit preposterous as most of the students were parents). She essentially had inherited everything remarkable that she might claim, and lorded that fact over those less fortunate than her just like a spoiled trust fund baby might.
As an extension of her imperial attitude, she made a mistake common among language groups about people who don’t yet fully know their language—that people who have only a child’s mastery of the language are children in all other realms, no matter their age. This is obviously not so, but language skills constitute so powerful a categorization criteria in the mind that it often must be consciously overcome, which teachers of the language should readily understand and accomplish. People who are adults in their first language are adults through and through, even as they pass through the child’s stage of mastery in their second language. But for Janie, ugly American imperialist queen as she was, there was never any attempt, consciously or otherwise, to quell the instinct to treat her adult charges as children, as it appeared that was what she more or less considered them to be.
It was a dreadful year. Janie clearly did not want me there. We managed a compromise on the English-only rule—I kept a Spanish-English dictionary handy to look up words we were trying to explain, but that was about as cordial as things got. Even she eventually came around to the idea that it is so much quicker when trying to define or describe an English word if, instead of using the English language, you simply find the equivalent word in the person’s native language. But our relationship deteriorated quickly to outright antagonism after one class where Jane had attempted to explain that failing to understand English might lead to being killed by an estranged spouse. There had been an incident in the news in New York about a woman killed by her spouse, after she had tried to file a police report in Spanish, but it had never been translated. The story and its sensationalized headline made out that the woman’s murder was the result of the failure in translation. After Janie spent the class trying to use the story and the fear it elicited to sell the virtues of learning English, I told her (once the students were gone) that I thought the story and its premise was nonsense. Women are killed all the time by ex-husbands and ex-lovers/boyfriends, no matter how clear is the English they use to communicate their fears to the police. Once a man sets his mind to killing his former sexual partner, there is precious little can be done to prevent it. I objected to her attempt to scare the students into wanting to learn English, pointing out that there were many positive reasons for learning English that didn’t include the fear of being killing by an ex-husband/boyfriend because a police report failed in the translation. Filing a complaint with the police can only do so much.
She was apparently not accustomed to people disagreeing with her. She had a forceful, overbearing personality, again, quite representative of the empire she implicitly represented. Most people probably just avoided anything hinting at controversy around her, so far as they were able, so she never became accustomed to suffering disagreement or justifying herself. I figured with as much as I was being paid to put up with her (which was nothing, mind you, except the joy of helping people learn English, which she was impossibly impeding), that I had the right to have my own opinions not be trampled and obscured in cloud of dust kicked up by hers. We barely talked after that week she lectured on the spousal abuse issue. And from then on, when she’d lecture, she’d turn her backside of quite ample width to me, and strut forward of the first line of desks, so that she might more effectively ignore my presence.
I think she felt threatened from the very beginning by my presence in the classroom, in much the same manner as all the other teachers when I had visited their classrooms the year before. I believe she thought I had a mind to usurp her power and authority—that I was competing with her for the attention and affection of the students. But I had never given her any reason to suppose such a thing. I practically kowtowed to her every whim in the first weeks of my service with her. It was only after she had taken a month-long vacation, leaving me in charge of the class, that I started to assert my own prerogatives, and not to her detriment in power or authority, or to supplant her teaching, but to supplement it.
By the time the ESL classes ended for that term, it had been a little more than a year since that fateful moment of inspiration at church that fine spring day. I have no regrets for having acted, perhaps foolishly, on the inspiration. I say “foolishly” because all hopes that are even remotely precipitated on ideas that require a different nature for mankind than actually exists are doomed to failure. And as is common at the inception stage of a great many endeavors of mine (and others, to be sure), there may have been in me the slightest twinge of giddiness that teaching English to foreigners might be the one area of endeavor capable of alleviating some of the droll banalities of man’s self-interested nature. Of course, it was not to be. Humans are everywhere and always the same. They are not capable of altruism, but only of feigning an altruistic heart, a highly valued skill that everyone wants to possess, but only secretly. None of the do-gooders were doing good for anyone but themselves. Within the do-gooder organization, all the petty hierarchies and cliques and clannishness and gossip-mongers were as prevalent as in any sort of organization. The only difference between a non-profit organization like the GS Ministries and a for-profit organization like a too-big-to-fail bank was the manner with which profits were measured. Both organizations existed, like all others, to continue to exist. The people within them were valued by the organization according to the contributions they made to the organization’s prospects for continued existence.
The whole affair was a bit depressing, while at the same time, enlightening. Even I, skeptical as I am, like to occasionally suspend disbelief and imagine that people can be something more than selfish little survival and propagation machines. I have now yet another example that no effort or purpose is so compelling that it can support a suspension of such disbelief for long. Just as we must spend all our moments subject to the laws of a gravitational force we barely understand, we must spend our lives relentlessly driven by evolutionary laws we similarly only vaguely comprehend. We must dance the dance of survival and propagation, to an eternally playing tune. There is no escaping it. Not in our schools or churches or governments, or even charities.
It would be trite to say that we are flawed, fallen individuals because of our inability to rise above our selfish prerogatives and practice true altruism, a position that roughly equates to the Judeo Christian doctrine of original sin. But I don’t buy original sin. It can’t be that an all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing creator somehow flubbed when we were created. No, we were meant to be selfish. But the same reasoning brain that allows us to peer in the future and imagine our own deaths also allows us to understand that we better our own selfish prospects for survival and propagation when we help others with theirs.
But my year of living charitably wasn’t a complete fail. Even as serving charity or God or some notion of good could be just as disheartening as any other cooperative endeavor involving human beings, who inevitably and always will behave in decidedly ungodly, uncharitable ways, it was better than watching Oprah or popping valiums or doing the Facebook all day to get by. I didn’t do much good, but neither do I think (with the exception of the food bank) I did much bad. It was probably a wash. It was meh, like pretty much everything else–the best can be hoped for.