Friday, November 5, 2010

Life’s Equation(s)


I help mentor and tutor in a program at a local domestic violence and homeless shelter in the city every Monday night.  As much as I am there to teach and mentor and be some kind of wise adult to these broken children when I meet them in the environment they’ve unfortunately come accustomed to I find I am more a learner than teacher.  I think I get more out of it than the kids do some nights.  Last week I was helping a 4th grader with his homework.  The question that taught me an important lesson in life is as follows:

Jack has 2 pencils.  If Mr. Young has 200 times as many pencils as Jack does how many pencils does Mr. Young have?  If the entire school has 5 times as many pencils as Mr. Young how many pencils does the entire school have?  Does the product of this equation have 2 zeros in it?

The child I was tutoring, let’s call him Sam so to protect his identity and privacy, started guessing at answers immediately.  His hands covered his face in frustration as he exhaustively pronounced, “this is too hard!”  I asked Sam if he understood the questions of the problem and requested him just read the paragraph sentence by sentence.  Again, he just started guessing and clearly communicated his irritation with this equation.  It is easy to assume as a mentor/tutor.  We often find ourselves assuming the child knows certain things or is even at a certain educational level.  We also assume that these children who are enrolled in one of the worst public school systems in the nation are receiving the direction necessary to complete the work.  To overcome these assumptions is a piece of work in itself, beyond trying to teach the child the best way they can comprehend.  I told Sam that he was thinking too hard and making this more difficult than it was.  I told Sam that he was letting it overwhelm him and that I know he can do it.  I told Sam to just go step by step.

How many pencils does Jack have?

Jack has two pencils.

If Mr. Young has 200 times more what does that mean?

Multiply…

Yes, now if he has 200 times more than Jack what would you multiply 200 by?  How many does Jack have?

2 x 200!  That’s easy, 400!

Great, Sam, see I told you that you could do this.  Now if the entire school has 5 times as many pencils as 

Mr. Young what does that math problem look like?

Uhhhh…5 x 400?

Yup, you got it!

OK, that’s 5 x 4, which is 20, then add two zeros, that’s 2000, right?

Perfect!  See how easy that was, you just needed to slow down and take it a step at a time and solve the little problems first.  Once you did that the whole problem was easy right?

I gave Sam some multiplication cards to help him improve his math skills.  I noticed that he was a very smart boy, but his frustration at wanting the answer all at once stopped him from seeing the simplicity of the small details involved in the problem.  I hope to see Sam next week, I hope I can help him with more of his homework and help him know that he can do it and that he is smart.

So what do pencils, Mr. Young, Sam, and some charitable mentoring/tutoring have to do with me?  Like I said earlier, some nights, I walk away from that group feeling a little guilty because I got more out of it than I think the kids did.  My epiphany, I am Sam.  We are all Sam.  There’s a little Sam in us all.  I get so overwhelmed with what life throws at me that I try to process it all at once, but get frustrated because it’s too much to solve all at once.  I put my hands on my face, cover my eyes, and voice my frustration, then quite.  I give up because it’s too hard.  Life is hard; I think we can all agree on that.  I truly believe that we were made/built with an intended way of life.  I think we as a creation, man, have fallen far from that and we squirm our way through life as we know it.  It seems so complicated, too many variables to calculate.  My finger math just doesn’t do.  In reading the Bible I’ve learned the life God intended for us to live, not because we will burn in hell if we don’t do exactly what it says, but because when we do we get to live this beautiful inspired life, as intended by our creator.  That complicates things further though because what I read isn’t what I see.  The world operates in a certain fashion and how I experience it is much different from what I read.  Trying to figure that out paralyzes me daily.  It’s too hard, this life equation is too much to ponder upon so I quite.  This Jesus thing is too much so I give up.  I sit with my face buried in my hands, defeat fuming from my overwhelmed mind, eyes staring blankly into the very thing I am consumed with trying to solve, life.  I felt this overpowering sensation the next day when trying to sit down and read the Bible.  I didn’t want to do it, why bother, it’s too much I thought to myself. Sam instantaneously popped in my mind.  What if I just slowed down?  What if I just approached this life a step at a time, detail by detail, rather than trying to conquer it all at once.  Instead of becoming frustrated and quitting because of my obvious inability to solve such complex equations what if I just focused on one thing at a time?  As I drove to the gym I offered up a simple little prayer to a God I believe is listening, “Please help me be kind tonight, help me be gentle when playing basketball.”  I wasn’t trying to solve the world’s problems, I was simply asking for help to be kind when my competitiveness wanted to be dreadful.  I find hope in that kind of thinking.  I find hope in the reality that I don’t have to figure it all out.  I just need to work on the problem one sentence at a time, one little detail after another.  May you find peace in knowing you only need to worry about what is right in front of you.  You don’t have to save the world or figure it all out, you just have to take the next step.

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