Every Wednesday morning I take the train to the Holmesburg neighborhood of Northeast Philly for my tutoring session at Riverside Correctional Facility.
RCF is a women’s prison. Every week, I tutor a group of about five women who are hoping to earn their GED before they re-enter society.
Many of the women I work with struggle with reading comprehension skills and simple multiplication. They also struggle with having confidence in their ability to even attempt class work.
There have been days I’ve gone home from RCF in tears. It saddens me to see 30-year-old women struggle to read basic sentences. But I find myself the most heartbroken after sessions where a student calls herself stupid or says she “knows” she can’t do a problem, even before reading the question.
Maybe I’m arrogant or just naive, but there’s never been a homework problem or academic task that I thought I wouldn’t eventually be able to understand with some practice.
After tutoring at RCF, I’ve realized this is because I’m lucky. My confidence is undoubtedly because of the many people in my life who have believed in my ability and talent, but most especially because of my grandmother.
For a time I lived with my grandmother growing up, and she kept me focused on my school work. As my parents went through a nasty divorce and my father struggled with substance use, it could have been easy for me to fall off track academically. But my grandmother is a large part of the reason I excelled instead.
She picked my sister and me up after school each day, and I remember being excited to talk with her. My excitement peaked on Wednesdays because this is when we brought home our graded tests.
I took joy in telling her how many tests had “100 percent” written across them in red ink. In truth, I became a bit of a showoff.
She would proudly display my honor roll certificates and other awards on her fridge and boast about me to friends.
One time, she helped me memorize a study packet with dozens of pages filled with words in preparation for a middle school spelling bee — I got out in the second round. I’m sure I was upset at the time, but now all I remember is that my grandmother spent hours helping me study.
For years, my grandmother also helped pay the tuition for my sister and me to attend private school. And at my high school graduation, she teared up as I won award after award — probably not realizing how much credit I owed her for my success.
I didn’t realize how much her presence in my life positively impacted me, and how much she taught me just through her actions until lately.
By taking the time to study with me all those years, she taught me that hard work is all that’s necessary to achieve my goals. By telling me the story of how she married my grandfather before graduating high school, but returned to earn her GED in her early 50s, she taught me the value of education. By watching the nightly news with me and shedding tears at any sad story, she taught me compassion.
My grandmother taught me a lot, and I miss her deeply since she died last year. I often wonder if the women at RCF were fortunate enough to have role models like her in their lives as they were growing up.
I’ve never asked. In tutoring sessions, I don’t pry into students’ personal lives or ask questions about what factors may have led them to prison. Still, I can’t help but wonder.
But I simply try my best each week to teach them with the patience, compassion and encouragement my grandmother showed me.
I’m never completely sure if I’m making a real difference, but as of late, I’ve begun leaving tutoring sessions with happy tears welling up in my eyes.
Just a few weeks ago, a student named Julie said she was having trouble with a problem. I asked if she actually read it.
“Yeah, before you I didn’t even do that,” she told me.
It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.
Ultimately, I hope when my students feel like no one thinks they can succeed, they know I believe in them. But eventually, my year of tutoring will come to an end, and I won’t be there each week to tell them this in person.
By then, I hope they believe it for themselves, and they can leave incarceration and achieve their dreams, while helping and encouraging other women along the way.