My Only Job

Alumni story
Tyrel Nelson St. Paul

“This is my last day!” I spun away from my laptop to see a frustrated coed stomp through the door. “What happened?” I asked her. “They just couldn’t stay on task!” “That’s too bad.” “It is. I’m going to borrow a pen.” She darted to my desk and snatched a ballpoint. She hustled to the three-ring binder atop the file cabinet on the other side of my office, furiously flipped through its pages, and hastily recorded her final hours as an English tutor. Then she looked at me. “Is this your ONLY job?” she inquired before abruptly turning her back to me. With her question still registering, I leaned back in my rolling office chair. I bit my tongue while she walked out the door.

I spent the next several minutes thinking about what she had said. I reflected upon all of the hard work I had put in to start the program she had just quit. I was a little upset. But I soon shook it off—it wasn’t about me. I refocused on the almost 20,000 students in St. Paul who were not proficient in math or reading. They deserved my attention. They were the reason for my job.

Serving on behalf of the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, my position was created to implement a tutoring program with the goal of increasing proficiency in math, science, and literacy at Humboldt Secondary (one of thirteen schools participating in the SPPS Foundation’s Tutoring Partnership for Academic Excellence); a very diverse, 7-12 institution located in Minnesota’s capital city. The tutors would be required to volunteer for at least one hour per week. And due to lack of space, I was asked by the principal to use the “push in” tutoring model. In other words, the volunteers were to act as “floats”—assist the teacher by moving around the classroom to help struggling students.

Starting my VISTA year at the end of November wasn’t ideal. The Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks were huge recruiting roadblocks; people were focused on the holidays, not tutoring. No one seemed willing to brave the biting winter to offer their time at Humboldt to boot. So 2010 got off to a slothful start. Zero volunteers had shown up through January. In February, I did a handful of orientations, but still no tutoring had occurred.

I remained persistent though. My steadfast recruiting—countless emails, phone calls, and meetings—eventually paid off. At the end of March, I had four; thirteen more were added to the roster in April; and by June 30, as many as twenty-three people had consistently tutored in Humboldt math, science, and/or literacy classes. Despite those first dismal months, I had managed to get a program up and running after all. Other people had noticed too. On the last day of summer school, I was approached by one of the English teachers. “I can’t tell you how much your tutor has helped me,” he said. “Thank you very much.” He shook my hand. I smiled. Although it was a small gesture, the handshake reminded me of why I wanted to be a VISTA in the first place: to make a difference. Is this my only job? Yes, and I’m very proud of it. 

Decade: 2010s