Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Do-Gooder Gone Bad

I had time on my hands, and some talent, or at least skills, and thought I’d test the idea that helping others makes one feel better about himself. I found a Website that listed volunteer opportunities, and began contacting organizations looking for graphic designers and videographers who’d work free.

It wasn’t gratifying. In some cases, an organization for which I’d worked for a couple of days on a snazzy brochure, and then a couple more when it was discovered that the CEO wanted the brochure to include photographs not originally supplied to me, wouldn’t trouble itself even to acknowledge the work. In other cases (the Alzheimers Association), my contact person would say the words a graphic design most dreads — “’Why did you leave that area blank?” (The answer to which is of course: Because good design absolutely requires negative (that is, unfilled) space in harmony with images and text.) Several “clients,” like the Mar Vista Family Center, professed great delight with the work I’d done for them, and then never asked for more. It wasn’t making me feel better about myself. What it was making me feel was bad about most of them. Ingrates. Philistines,
I signed up with Taproot, an international organization in the business of providing marketing, design, technology, management and strategic planning to organizations working to Make the World a Better Place. I attended a meeting at their downtown Los Angeles office at which we assembled marketing, design, technology, management and strategic planning professionals were assured that our having been invited to the meeting evidenced our being the cream of the marketing, design, technology, management and strategic planning crop. The problem was that they seemed intent on thinking of me as a photographer, and not as the  designer, copywriter, and creative director I really am. It took me months to change their minds, and then all that came of it was a call from a Project Manager who wanted to assess my fitness for a team (as in team-building!) that was going, over the course of several months, to produce a four-page brochure for an organization working to Make the World a Better Place. I don’t think he liked my being amazed that he anticipated needing three months and multiple meetings to produce an effective brochure. In my (admittedly scant) corporate experience, I have rarely attended a meeting that I thought anything other than a wanton waste of everyone’s time.
By that point, I was definitely not feeling better about myself,  though perfectly awful about Taproot.

When my daughter was in elementary school, I’d hugely enjoyed working one-on-one with those of her classmates who were having trouble keeping up. When one of her mentors told me I was a natural teacher, it felt almost as good as that time during my (very!) minor rock star days when someone (someone admittedly not very discriminating, or bedazzled by my sexual charisma) said she liked my singing. It occurred to me to look into tutoring.
It turned out that the Los Angeles Public Library needed tutors for its Adult Literacy Program. They didn’t seem to insist on training prospective volunteers, as they had in New York’s Hudson Valley. I could barely fill out my application quickly enough.
Five minutes into my first session with my first student, Alejandro [student names and details have been changed], a busboy born in LA and raised in Oaxaca, I felt I’d found my calling. If I’d encountered him on the bus (on which I, carless, depended to get around at that point), I’d have presumed our inability to communicate either effectively or pleasurably, and boy, would I have been wrong. He was both extremely bright and infinitely sweet, in spite of being the son of an abusive (and probably mentally ill) Jesus zealot.
He hoped to get his GED, so we soon stopped working only on English, and worked also on math. Even though I’ve always hated math (in the way a shy adolescent may hate a classmate after whom he lusts, but who is very far out of his or her reach), I came to look forward eagerly to our weekly meetings.
As I came to look forward to those with Isidro, a tiny 29-year-old Latino who’d grown up on the edge of Law’s Chinatown, but been bussed to a nice white San Fernando Valley high school at which he’d spent most of his time partying (that is, drinking) or fighting, or both. At our first meeting, his shyness looked like the sullenness of a cholo — a thug — but Isidro too turned out to be a joy with whom to work. He yearned for a GED of his own, which he thought would free him from the “dummy” (that is, mindless) work he’d come to regard as karmic payback for his having spent the latter half of his adolescence partying. More math!
I got my first woman and first Asian student, whose Western name was Evelyn. At our first couple of meetings, she was shy to the point of inscrutability, and therefore not nearly as much fun as the others. But how deeply gratifying it was when she began to open up to me a little bit, and when our relationship began to seem in substantial part like a friendship.
By now, I was feeling pretty darned good about myself. I’d effectively doubled the number of friends I’d had when I’d returned to Los Angeles from my 28-year self-exile 18 months before. But it was about to get even better. I came to love my next student, Ibrahim, from Sierra Leone, as a son — even though I was barely able to understand a word he said, by virtue of his dense accent. He wasn’t only extremely bright, and hard-working, and sweet-natured, but also…got my very arid, if very puckish, sense of humor. Working with him was exhilarating, as was the knowledge that he’d come to value me as a friend and mentor.
My tutoring career was by no means without setbacks. I worked for a while with an extremely shy Guatemalan parking attendant, Cesar, who ceased showing up, and then went incommunicado, for reasons at which I could only guess. Worse, when my first (and only) male Korean student, an acupuncturist of approximately my own vintage, said that after something like 25 years in Los Angeles, he’d never had a non-Korean friend, I eagerly applied for the job, inviting him and his assistant over for dinner after our third tutoring session. They took me to lunch. I designed a business card for him, and did a video to promote his practice. He was touched by and excited about the work I did for him — gratis! — and then abruptly and without explanation withdrew from our relationship. 

Evelyn and her family returned to Korea, leaving a little hole in my heart. I eagerly accepted as a student Suzanne, whose husband worked in the Korean embassy in Los Angeles. She purported to want only to become better at reading English so that she could read her 6-year-old daughter bedtime stories, but it turned out she wanted even more to improve her conversational skills. I was pleased to oblige on either count.
If Evelyn had been terribly shy at our first sessions, Jean, the childless wife of an accountant, could hardly have been more ebullient. She hoped to study psychology at UCLA and to become a psychotherapist, but felt impeded by her English, which was in fact better than any of my other Korean students’. There was no shutting her up. I told her at our first meeting that she was more vivacious than anyone I’d ever met. She looked it up on her little translation app and seemed delighted.
I thought she and Suzanne might find that they had much in common, and come to be pals, and invited them over for lunch together. Both pronounced the quesadillas I made for them delicious, and I don’t think it was just their good manners talking. I was feeling better and better about myself.
Later that week, Jean made me lunch and brought it over. Over the course of a two-hour study session, we had an interesting, very fluent, conversation about some of the differences between our two native cultures. She told me that many Koreans had only one sexual partner their whole lives, whereas Americans who’d become sexually active after The Pill had very often had dozens. Comparing our governments, I told her that I regarded the War on Drugs as tragically stupid, and confided that, as someone who’d smoked marijuana from the age of 19, I knew it first-hand to be more benign than alcohol.
We met the next time in front of the building, where we sat conversing in the sunshine for 90 minutes. She laughed a lot, and seemed to enjoy herself. She noted with gratitude that I’d once again given her a lot of my time. I told her it was my pleasure, and she gave me a little hug as we parted.

And then, apparently, went home, called (or received a call from) someone from the Adult Literacy Program, and told him or her that I’d offered her drugs and advanced on her sexually. And there went my career as a tutor for the Los Angeles Public Library’s Adult Literacy Program. Kelly Something phoned to advise of the charges against me, and to say that she had launched an investigation of them.
Her investigation — which apparently began and ended with her hearing Jean‘s (I’d talked about pot with Ibrahim and Armando, the reformed gangbanger, but neither would have stabbed me in the back in a thousand millennia) allegations. Kelly phoned back within 24 hours to say that her investigation had been concluded, and that I was neither to consider myself associated with the Adult Literacy Program any longer nor to contact any of my students. I, seething, but trying not to sound like it, pointed out that, in every case, my students had come to be friends too, and that she was very sadly mistaken if she thought she could tell me when, where, and if I could communicate with personal friends. And then, to my discredit, I hung up on her.
I sent Jean a text message asking essentially how she could do what she’d done. She didn’t reply. I sent a text message to Suzanne, hoping to agree on a time for our next meeting. Her heartbreaking reply: “I am so sorry. I am not going to get the class any longer.” My reply to her reply: “Did I not treat you kindly and respectfully? Am I suddenly no longer your friend?” She apparently didn’t think that deserved a response. A third Korean woman conveyed that she too was going to do as The Library told her to do. A friend who has spent a lot of time in Asia speculated that they were behaving as Koreans are taught from earliest childhood to behave — deferring to a faceless institutional power rather than following their hearts. My own was no less broken.
Well, I thought, at the very least I can count on Evelyn. Or could I? From her I received this email:

Yesterday and today I feel so hurt. I got the call going on in the library. What happened?  I trust you. But I'm very coward.

I already had one the principles broke. That's what it is, "Not to go to the dangerous situation". I was a man is going home, I couldn't really imagine.

If i see you  Another my who violate the principles. You know how much i like you? and I can't tell you how grateful i am. so I am very sad.

I hope your arm will get well soon [I had my shoulder replaced a month ago]. I will miss you so much.

If you find that difficult to decipher, you find it no more difficult than I. (I’m realizing that writing English may be a lot more difficult than conversing in it.) I wrote a response saying I hoped that Evelyn would verify that I had never treated her with anything other than kindness and respect. As I write this, she’s had 96 hours to respond, and has not responded.
About myself, I’m not feeling bad — or at least no worse than is par for the course. I know that I gave a great many students a lot of time and a lot of love, and that I never betrayed their trust in me. About the Los Angeles Public Library Adult Literacy Program, and its having libeled me and alienated several friends, I’m feeling very bad indeed.


  1. I love this story. It explains why school bus driving was a dream job for me.

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