After many decades of being a perfect bastard, I decided around three years ago to impersonate a good person, and to do volunteer work in my semi-native Los Angeles. It didn’t so spectacularly. I worked one lunchtime as a server at a place that fed and sheltered recovering addicts if they accepted Jesus H. Christ as their Lord ‘n’ saviour, but the prospect of my fellow do-gooders joyfully reciting their favourite Scriptural aphorisms to each other while keeping the paper cupfuls of tasteless fruit punch neatly lined up wasn’t enticing, so I never went back. I volunteered to tutor persons hoping to improve their English in the Los Angeles Public Library’s adult literacy programme, but took to inviting my students up to my apartment in the sky, rather than meeting them at Starbucks or the nearest branch of the library, and offered one, whom I’d come to regard as a friend, some of my medicinal marijuana when she advised me, well after a tutoring session’s end, of her curiosity about it.
The programme’s director reacted as though I’d gotten someone’s seven-year-old daughter sold into white slavery, or addicted to meth.
I moved back to London yet again, and applied to tutor English. I went to an orientation session in the shadow of Waterloo Station. The group leader posited a succession of situations, for which we prospective tutors, divided into groups of four, were supposed to… brainstorm appropriate responses. We were asked things on the order of, “Do you think it’s a good idea to praise a student for having mastered a particular idea?” I had to keep biting my lip, and to stifle both yawns and guffaws.
I hate brainstorming, but nearly as much as I hate bullet points.
I actually did some tutoring, of 15-year-old boys at a state (that is, publicly funded) school in Hammersmith. All three of the boys wrote better English than 95 percent of the high-powered corporate attorneys for whom I’d processed words in San Francisco back in the 1980s. All three were able to explain the difference between “No one respects women more than me” and “No one respects women more than I.” I felt as though gilding a lily, rather than actually helping someone who needed help.
I signed up to help younger kids improve their reading, and was told that, before I would be allowed to do so, I would have to travel 10 times across the city for training. I marvelled at my having taught my daughter to read, and read well, without any training at all, but just a natural flair for language, and great enthusiasm.
I signed up to man the telephones for an organisation dedicated to preventing suicide, and went to an orientation meeting very much nearer my home than Waterloo was, and remains. The meeting was to begin at 19.30. I arrived at 19.20. Those who turned up at 20.05 weren’t reprimanded. “Grr,” I thought. Why do I go to the trouble of being on time? I absolutely can’t bear others being flagrantly late without penalty to something for which I've taken pains to be punctual.
The main guy kept posing rhetorical questions like, “What issues do you suppose our callers typically want to talk about?” One of us prospective life-savers would mumble, “Financial worries,” for instance, whereupon Main Guy would glow paternally — what clever children were we! — while his assistant dutifully inscribed “financial worries” on a big whiteboard. (Some of us, to my horror, were actually writing down that which made it onto the whiteboard— possibly to keep themselves from dozing off, as I did, perhaps half a dozen times.) This went on for what seemed 12 hours
Why do charitable organisations assume that their volunteers are idiots?
It emerged that none of us would be allowed to actually speak to a prospective suicide before we’d undergone several weeks’ — you guessed it! — Extensive Training. In bloody March 2017. So much for being able to get a sense of benefitting my adopted community now, when I very much need to feel like something other than a useless old embarrassment!
It further emerged that, once having undergone the Extensive Training, one only listens to callers. One neither passes judgment, nor tries to discourage the caller, nor offers advice. Which is to say that one undergoes Extensive Training to prepare him to keep mumbling, “Hmm, I see,” or, “I understand,” in a sympathetic tone.
It looks as though I’ll remain a perfect bastard for at least a few more months.