A couple of years ago I began volunteering with an after-school program every Wednesday. I had this dream of swooping into the lives of kids in difficult situations and solving their every problem.
So far, they still think my name is Tom.
Each Wednesday, after a long day of work, instead of the usual sigh of relief that accompanies the walk from the office to my car, my stress level only increases. If you knew how my stomach churns en route to the program, you would think I was headed to a dental checkup. But I do this every week. The routine is always the same, and the kids are usually wonderful. Why am I still so intimidated?
There are few of us volunteers each day, so the demand for homework help is high. To try to curb shouting from the kids, my one rule when I enter the room is the first kid who raises his or her hand gets my help. I don’t want to show favoritism.
As I walked in the door one afternoon, I saw someone’s hand immediately dart into the air across the room.
It was Robbie. Anybody but him, I thought.
Robbie always has this sly expression that makes you feel as though he’s one step ahead of you— as if he’s catalogued your supervision tactics, and sees right past your façade of leadership. Instead of quietly working on his homework, he heckles other students, usually crudely and in Spanish, because he thinks the adults don’t understand. When he’s within a foot of other students, he cannot resist the urge to push them out of their seats, or throw whatever he is holding at them. Even in those good moments when he obeys a request, he treats it as a gift to you, and not something he does out of respect.
I forced a smile. “Hey Robbie! What can I help you with today?” We found a free end of a couch and sat together as he pulled a notebook from his Angry Birds backpack.
At this point, I would normally spend half my time trying to coax him into telling me which worksheets needed to be done, and the other half actually helping him work. And by “work,” I mean he would give only outrageously incorrect answers with that sly smile to let you know he was being intentionally difficult.
Even in those good moments when he obeys a request, he treats it as a gift to you, and not something he does out of respect.
In writing, this all sounds so trivial. In person, it’s exasperating.
Mentally, I was preparing for an hour-long battle of wits. But Robbie continued to open his notebook, pulling out the pages that needed to be completed for the day. This particular day was math, and instead of shouting a string of incorrect numbers, he thought through each problem, counting with his fingers to solve one equation after another. Even when he was wrong, I could tell he was trying.
After homework we all went outside to the playground. Robbie walked up and lightly tugged on my arm. “Mr. Tom, will you color with me?”
For the rest of our break outside, we colored a unicorn together. Just Robbie and me, quietly passing crayons back and forth, working on a single page from an activity book. Despite sitting among the shouts and excitement of children playing tag, it felt as if time were standing still just for the two of us. I could almost hear the wind whistling a happy song through the nearby trees. There was no need for words—Robbie’s message came through loud and clear: “Thank you for your sacrifice to enrich my life, Mr. Tom.”
One of my favorite movies growing up was Mr. Holland’s Opus. In the film, a high school music teacher named Glenn Holland spends a lifetime working on his crowning achievement: an orchestra composition. While his day job was merely meant to tide him over as he composed his way to greatness, it ends up becoming a decades-long career.
I whistled all the way to after-school, anxious to check in on the students and see who I could impart my wisdom to next.
When he was finally forced to retire, an auditorium full of past students touched by his life come together to surprise him. They’re all prepared to play his composed masterwork. And at that moment, he realizes what he had missed for so long—that his students were his opus all along. His life’s actual significance was not in achieving the dreams of his youth, but in the meaningful impact he had on each student’s life. Watching in my early teens, even I was moved to tears.
And now, obviously, Robbie had become my opus.
The next week, with an extra skip in my step, I whistled all the way to after-school, anxious to check in on the students and see who I could impart my wisdom to next. As I entered the room and surveyed the flurry of hands bolting into the air, I looked for Robbie’s. I found him and another kid fighting over a spot on the couch. Instead of working hard on his education, he spent most of the afternoon bullying others and myself. I was blindsided by the realization that the perfect previous Wednesday was just as rare as the unicorn he and I colored together. I gave serious thought to walking out that day.
Doing good isn’t always fun and heartwarming, and it shouldn’t be. There can absolutely be inspiring moments in the experience of serving others, but to expect it as a given is unrealistic and usually the cause of disappointment and burnout. Good work is usually hard work, which is probably why there is so much need.
When we watch Mr. Holland’s Opus and other similar stories, we put ourselves in the shoes of the hero. But if Glenn Holland had for one moment thought about his students with an anticipation of any future reward, he ultimately would’ve been unworthy of it.
Jesus didn’t put aside the hours between 5 and 7 p.m. and label them “service.”
As long as serving is relegated to a hobby I do to “give back” or abate my guilt for my first world lifestyle, I will always try to see what I can get out of it. I treat it like a transaction, and once I’m no longer getting what I think I deserve, my eagerness to continue will wane. Yet there will be days, months, years, where the work can feel exhausting and fruitless. But does that mean we serve others only when we know the outcome will be positive? At what point do our distorted ideas of success get in the way of our faith? Jesus didn’t delineate between regular life and serving life. He didn’t put aside the hours between 5 and 7 p.m. and label them “service.”
Every Saturday morning, I make pancakes with my sons. My oldest helps set the table while I rein in my middle son’s stirring of the batter. On Friday afternoons, other neighborhood fathers and I let our children loose in the backyard, and we sit outside, regaling each other with stories from our week while keeping our kids from injury. Then on Wednesday afternoons, I walk with my oldest son to the after-school program to provide homework help and dinner for Robbie and a couple of dozen children. Helping Robbie is not a task I need to succeed in—it is a part of the ebb and flow of living in community.
There are several weeks where I skip the after-school program. I’ll purposely get caught up in too many meetings at work, or just convince myself I’m not feeling well enough to attend. Sometimes the emotional toll just isn’t worth it. There are days where I struggle with the fact that not much has changed in the lives of these students. Robbie is still, after over two years, a very difficult and troubled kid.
When we approach service knowing that it’s not a series of tasks but an outcome of living intentionally with others, we realize we don’t do it because of what we can get from it—we do it because Robbie matters.