Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 10-Minute Volunteer

Working in a high school environment, I have come to appreciate the value of small fragments of time: five-minute passing periods, ten minutes for brunch, and thirty-five minutes for lunch. Usually the adults skip those latter two increments. There is one round institutional clock in every room, sometimes two, each being a few seconds or a minute apart. I have learned exactly how much time it takes to trek from one end of campus to the other: five minutes from the north portables on the Embarcadero side, to the science classrooms in the 1700 building. We move with the sound of the bell, a pattern that has caused me to jump even when I hear a telephone ring: "Time to go," my brain signals.

Today, the clocks and bells sounded louder than ever in my mind, deadlines and expectations mounted with the hours and I soon felt overwhelmed. That's when I usually go into "tidal wave" mode, and just try to keep my head above water: invite 250 students to Saturday school, meet the career day guest speakers and publicize the next event, field parent calls about their students' attendance, find the microphones for today's career day. My jobs at Paly are completely disconnected but somehow I weave threads from one student to the next: one thousand eight-hundred or so of them, and one of me. At 3:50 p.m. this afternoon my nearly-sixteen-year-old daughter Grace called to remind me that I promised to take her to sign up for Drivers Ed. "No way," I thought." I stayed last night until 6:00 p.m. and tonight doesn't look any better." Then I heard something louder than clocks, bells, or telephones in my head; it was the "Cat's Cradle" song by Harry Chapin, reminding me about the fleeting years with my kids.

A substitute whom I had already complained about came in rather abruptly, looking for her paperwork. There were six other people standing outside the door waiting to be helped and I didn't care about anything anymore; I just wanted to go home and pick up Grace to sign up for driving lessons. I'm not sure what was going through the substitute teacher's mind, but she must have seen I was outnumbered. She said, "You know, I have ten extra minutes until my ride arrives so I'm going to give you a hand. What can I do?" I was shocked. I knew she wasn't getting paid to be there, or to do anything more than cover her classes for the day. Exhausted from working alone when there should have been two of us in the office, I pointed to a pile of envelopes and asked her to file them. She fanned out the envelopes and tucked them away, then offered to do another job with her remaining four minutes. "I can see you need some help," she said, as I attempted to take phone calls. She would have stayed longer, but I knew the price of missed driving lessons would be worse than Harry Chapin's warning so I told her the office would close for the day regardless of loose ends hanging. Irene didn't have another assignment lined up for the next day, but by volunteering out of kindness to help for just ten minutes she proved her worth. I arranged to hire her for tomorrow!

Volunteering often leads to paid work, see The Ladders Article:

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