When I was young and full of fire to change the world, I was rather disappointed to realize my lack of impact.
My purchase of lunch for the homeless man I saw each day on the downtown streets near my office building was a crapshoot. I never did know if he ate the ham and cheese sandwiches or tried to pawn them for liquor.
And my switch to recycled paper and soy inks for the newsletters I ran was a drop in the bucket of environmentalism.
But the beautiful thing about being young and me was I believed there were plenty of others like me out there. And that, collectively, we were changing the world.
I can point to only one firm instance of my impact and her name is Gladys.
I was in my mid-twenties and she was not much older. After musing about how I could have a measurable impact and discarding several ideas (Habitat for Humanity? Nah. No carpentry skills. Doctors without Borders? If only I’d gone to med school. And more than barely passed high school chemistry.), I settled on teaching someone how to read. I have been a book nerd since birth and am pretty good at making things simple. Within a month, I had the training necessary to be matched with a student as a literacy volunteer.
My student came in the form of Gladys—several years older than I was, with a young daughter. We began to meet at the Lincoln Park Library once or twice per week, after work and on weekends. I learned Gladys’ parents had not really spoken enough English to be of help to her in school. She had gone to the Chicago public schools at a time when just about everyone matriculated, whether merited or not. It was a cattle call of epic proportions.
I soon realized the texts the volunteer organization gave me were of no use. She could have cared less if Jack saw a rat or Jane ate an apple. At about a second- to third-grade reading level, we began to humbly and painstakingly work our way through Glamour and Cosmpolitan. Sure, she learned words like “conditioner” and “facial” before loftier ones, but she was hungry for those beauty tips. And the pics sure beat Jack and Jane. Her homework started to get done.
We worked together for about three years, Gladys and I, switching libraries as I moved to new apartments. Her daughter in tow, we’d hunker down at a table and work on more concrete items, like job applications and driver exam study booklets. The librarians, once they figured out what was going on, interested her young daughter in a bevy of books. Her homework also started to get done and her grades went up.
I thought I was just there to teach reading and comprehension but it was so much more. Gladys ended a bad relationship she’d been in for years, after seeing how my boyfriend treated me. She enrolled her daughter in summer camp because she said she realized she needed to “do things” and “be active.” Gladys got her driver’s license, studied for her GED and took a better job.
It was one person and her daughter, yes. But I realized without my coming along, things might have turned out much differently for them. It was humbling. And awesome at the same time. I had been used for a purpose that was more than worthwhile. It was a good feeling.
Gladys and I still send Christmas cards. She has called me several times over the past few years and I am guilty of not staying in touch as I should. But as I write this, I realize I have a saved voicemail on my cell with Gladys’ sweet voice and a phone number. And I think I need to use it sooner rather than later.
She still calls me “Kristy”, a name I only allowed my grandfather to call me. But something about Gladys makes me let her get away with it.
I know I’m not alone. I know you all do phenomenal things out there in the world, big or small, for one or many. Will you share in the comments? I’m thinking we could all use a little inspiration on this Monday.