Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
The way society views and treats people obviously has an enormous impact on the individual. David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor is a book that takes us inside the lives of the misunderstood and thus mistreated among the American poor. One poignant story is that of Wendy Waxler, a woman who, throughout her life, found herself taken advantage of in too many ways. From the outside, people undoubtedly judged this woman, but they never knew all that she went through, and they would never know the relatively successful, independent woman she grew up to be—she eventually got work as a mail messenger supervisor for a big law firm—if not for Shipler’s work.
Tutoring people taking ESL (English as a Second Language) courses at Bunker Hill Community College in Chelsea, I was privileged to meet similarly strong, courageous people. One woman I tutored the whole year, named Reina, experienced a lot of prejudice and neglect in her native El Salvador, where she says that women are not seen as equal to men. Coming to America illegally, she now works in a bakery and is learning English to help herself out at her job. Reina is a warm, kind, caring soul who wants nothing more than to give her children a better life than the one she lived.
Waxler and Reina are prime examples of the strength and courage it takes to overcome societal judgments and start working your way up toward earning society’s respect—but should these people even have to do so much to earn that respect in the first place? What can we do, if anything, to avoid the problem with self-esteem: the conflicts and inequalities it engenders?
I have worked with people I never had any particular sympathies toward before—illegal immigrants, alcoholics—and I found myself so moved by their stories and their drive to improve themselves and really “make it” in society. Sure, I tutored English, and sure, their English improved. But infinitely more important was the reciprocal action and compassion that I felt in those tutoring sessions. It was not merely a tutor and his tutee sitting there learning English. It was a human being sitting with another human being, in their shared humanity, and, through action and compassion, serving one another and living an ideal: “To hell with whatever societal inequalities and conflicts there may be. I’m here, you’re here. We’re two human beings, and we have no need for conflicts and inequalities.”
Some might tell me that I am thinking too deeply about what a volunteer tutor does and that my thinking takes one thing, as good as it might be, and transforms it into some pretentiously higher, more profound ideal about humanity. Some might tell me that there is no profundity in two people—who society views as very different, namely, a college student and an illegal immigrant—sitting together as equals and supposedly living out some ideals about action, compassion, and shared humanity. Some might tell me that it is all a bunch of baloney and irrelevant to everyday life.
I would reply that when someone no longer sees anything profound in making contact and talking with another human being, we have a greater social problem on our hands.