Hope Through Tutoring

Carol, a tutor for more that a decade, not only helps her students learn to read but she helps them experience God’s love through her Christlike spirit reflected in her patience, kindness and genuine concern. Photo by Boyce Bowdon.

By Boyce Bowdon –

For nearly a decade, my friends Kate and Barry Miller have served in a remedial reading program their United Methodist church provides for students who attend an inner-city elementary school. Along with about 30 other volunteers, most of whom are also seniors, they help students the school administrators believe are most likely to benefit from one-on-one tutoring.

Seated in a classroom at their church, I listened as the Millers told me enthusiastically about their life-changing journey as tutors. “The kids who had the most influence on us,” Kate told me, “were twins: Jean and Jerry. We started working with them the third year we were tutors — they were nine years old then.”

Barry explained that they didn’t know a lot about the kids when they started tutoring them. One of the administrators of the church’s tutoring team passed on the assessment from the school liaison: Like most children in the remedial program, the twins had serious problems both at school and at home.

The Millers were told the twins had academic and behavior problems at school. They lived with their mother, Beverly, a nurse in her thirties. She divorced their father a few weeks after the twins were born. He sent child support checks a few months, but after he was convicted of robbery and went to prison, the checks stopped. The kids had never seen their dad except in photos.

“Even before we met the twins, Kate and I felt sorry for them and wanted to help them any way we could,” Barry said. “We started asking God to give us what we needed to help them and their mom.” When tutoring time came the next Tuesday afternoon, Barry began working with Jerry and Kate partnered up with Jean.

“Jerry seemed angry that first afternoon when he came into the classroom,” Barry said, sharing his memories with me. “I asked him if he wanted to tell me what was wrong, and he shook his head and grunted something. Later I learned that earlier that afternoon he hit a boy in the eye who made some remark about his mom.”

Kate also has vivid memories of her first day tutoring Jean. “While I was getting out the assignment we were going to work on, Jean got down on the floor and started screaming and kicking the table with both feet. I reached out to touch her — hoping I could calm her — and she jerked back and yelled. ‘Don’t you touch me!’ I decided the best thing I could do was let her scream and kick until she stopped, and she did in a couple minutes.”

Despite the kids’ behavior that first afternoon, Kate and Barry say they managed to keep calm. As the weeks passed, the Millers and the kids gradually felt more comfortable with one another. “Some days were better than others,” Kate said. “By the end of the year their test scores showed they were improving their reading skills. Both kids still had plenty of problems, but their behavior and attitudes were getting better.”

Barry remembers that the summer break passed quickly and when school started again that fall, he and Kate — to their surprise — were actually looking forward to seeing the twins and working with them another year.

“That first day when tutoring started in the fall, the kids seemed glad to see us, too,” Kate said. “But we could tell they had something they wanted to tell us. And right away they did. Their mom’s cancer was causing her excruciating pain. She could no longer work. She could not drive, or even leave the house. We asked what we could do to help. They asked us if we could take them to buy groceries. Of course, we were glad to.”

So, the next Saturday afternoon, Barry and Kate picked the kids up at their apartment a few blocks from the church and took them grocery shopping. When they got back to the apartment, they helped the kids carry the groceries upstairs. And that’s when they met Beverly sitting in a recliner in the front room.

“Beverly apologized for not getting up and explained that the recliner was the only place she could be comfortable — she even slept in it. And she thanked us over and over for tutoring the kids and taking them shopping.”

During that visit, Kate and Barry had a few minutes alone with Beverly. “We already assumed that the kids and their mom were struggling, but we quickly realized they faced problems far more overwhelming than they could handle alone. Beverly was under so much medication that she slept most the time,” Barry said. “Since she was not receiving a pay check, they were living on government assistance, which they managed to skimp by on.”

Kate pointed out that the kids were fixing meals for their mom and themselves. And doing all of the housework. “I was surprised how clean and neat their apartment was,” she said. “The kids seemed to be doing a good job doing what had to be done.”

Barry recalled that after they left Beverly and the kids that afternoon, they couldn’t keep from thinking about them. “Kate pointed out to me that even though the twins were fulfilling adult roles, they were still kids,” Barry said. “Since their mom wasn’t able to supervise them, they were watching whatever television shows they wanted to watch, playing video games as long as they pleased, and staying up as late as they could.”

“Barry and I had seen enough that afternoon, to understand why the kids were having problems at school,” Kate said. “Their mom was terminally ill, and she was probably going to die soon. What was going to happen to the kids? They had to be wondering.”

“Now we understood why the twins behaved the way they did,” Barry said. “No wonder, Jean got down on the floor and screamed and kicked. No wonder Jerry could care less about learning to read.” Kate summed it up: “The poor kids were in survival mode, just trying to get by from one day to the next.”

The next Tuesday, before the church van arrived with the kids, the Millers and the other tutors had a brief meeting, “We told them what we learned when we were with the twins and their mom,” Barry said, “and they felt the same way we did. We needed to do everything we could do to help them get through their crisis.”

The tutors went to work. “Liz took Beverly to her doctor’s appointments and stayed with her during her chemotherapy treatments,” Kate said. “And while they were together, she not only found out what Beverly and the kids needed, the two of them became dear friends.”

The Millers also shared their concern for the twins and their mom with their Sunday school class. The class create a fund to help with emergencies the family might have. Kate and Tom said they knew what Beverly craved more than anything else. She had confided to them that she knew she was going to die soon. She said she was afraid that after she died, the children’s father might appear out of nowhere and demand that the kids be given to him.

She told the Millers she had been talking with a special friend, Kay Brown, about taking care of the kids. Kay and her husband, Jim, both devoted Christians, had known the twins for several years. During her illness, they had kept them in their home many weekends, and they enjoyed being together. The couple had three children. The youngest had just graduated from college and all three now had their own homes. Still in their fifties and in excellent health, they had the financial resources to care for the twins. Most important of all, Beverly said, the Browns loved the twins and the twins loved them.

The Browns were eager to visit with an attorney who could help them make all the legal arrangements so that in the event of her death the Browns would become the guardians of the twins. The Millers knew just the person to help them: Molly, a prominent attorney who was a member of their Sunday school class. Within a week, Molly met with Beverly and the Browns and together they worked out the legal arrangements that guaranteed that when their mom died the twins were going to be part of a loving Christian family — the Browns.

Kate said in less than three months, Beverly died. “She died knowing her children were going to be cared for by a couple who loved them. Several years have passed now,” Kate said. “They are doing great in school and they are active in church, and the Browns are arranging for them to go to college.”

After the Millers told me about their experiences with the twins, I knew why they had become tutors and why they have stayed with it. I knew they had made a difference in the lives of kids and I knew the kids had made a difference in their lives.

“It’s been more than a decade since that day when Kate told me she was going to be a tutor,” Barry told me. “I understood why she wanted to. She had taught in elementary school 25 years and loved working with kids. But when she suggested that I become a tutor, I thought she had to be kidding.

“Me, a tutor? I had been an accountant all during my career. I didn’t have a clue about how to help a child learn to read. But Kate convinced me to give it a try. I did and l learned that the Apostle Paul wasn’t kidding when he told the Ephesians that God is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Barry paused, smiled, and told me, “I wouldn’t take anything for learning that lesson.”

Kate said she learned that when members of a congregation come together and pool their talents and other resources God has given them and do what they believe God is calling them to do, lives are transformed — including their own. “I’ve learned that when we are who God calls us to be — the Body of Christ — God uses us to overcome evil with good, to heal the sick, to bring hope, to change the world!” she declared..

Boyce Bowdon, a frequent contributor, was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and director of communication for the Oklahoma Annual Conference for 24 years.

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