Thursday, September 3, 2009

Reflections on Work and Its Rewards

Every Sunday, the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg has a lay person assist the minister as a lay liturgist. That person is expected to provide a three-to-four minute reflection, usually on the topic of the day. It's my turn this Sunday, and the topic, appropriately enough for Labor Day, is "Work and Its Rewards." In lieu of a proper blog entry, here is my reflection, which has been taking up most of my writing time the last several days:

Good morning! My name is Tom Hayes. I’m a pledging member of this church and the Lay Liturgist for this morning’s service. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years. Some of them were taken simply to pay the bills, like when I was a dishwasher for a chain restaurant. I’ll never forget when I was the only one to show up to work one Mother’s Day, and I put in 24 hours straight scrubbing roasting pans. Talk about your dishpan hands. But most of the time I’ve been pretty lucky in my work, doing something that I either wanted, or loved, to do.
When Megan and I first came to Harrisburg, it was because she had been accepted into a Family Medicine residency program here. I left a job at the Medical College of Virginia as one of the hospital librarians and came here with her, without a clue as to what I was going to do. Within two weeks of arriving here, I saw an ad in the paper from the York County Library System, which was looking for someone to manage a new literacy program they were running in the York City Schools. I had a background in library work, and prior to that, in children’s theater, and the job seemed to be right up my alley. I went down to York and had one of the best interviews I’ve ever experienced. I was hired the next day.
The program had two goals: the first, to put books into the hands of children who otherwise would not have books of their own, and the second, to encourage a family member to read aloud to that child. My job was to visit every classroom in all seven elementary schools, read to the kids, hand out books, and get the kids to get someone at home to sign a little certificate promising to read aloud at bedtime. Obviously, there were a lot of nuts and bolts involved in getting books, and scheduling, and so forth, but the best part of my job was reading to the kids. I tried to find books that were a little unusual, and funny; books that I could not only read, but perform. I remember that the kids were often surprised, and I think a little impressed, that I memorized the books before I came so that I could show the pictures while telling the story.
I remember one little boy in particular. Malik. Malik was always one of the most delightful and enthusiastic kindergartners I read to, but he never brought back his signed certificate. His teacher told me that although he was a gifted child and an avid reader, he also never brought home his free book; it stayed in his cubby at the school. The next time I was scheduled to read in his classroom, I stayed and talked to Malik and tried to find out why he didn’t want to be in the program when he obviously loved books so much. His teacher and I finally convinced him to take his book and his certificate home to be signed.
Two days later I had a visit from Malik’s father at the library. He was very upset and angry, and made it very clear that he wanted no part of the program. After I got him calmed down, I realized that Malik’s father himself was practically illiterate, and that he thought that the reading program was a book club that he would not be able to afford. He was furious with me for putting him in a position where he was forced to say “no” to his son. Again.
I was finally able to explain the program to Malik’s father. We ultimately got him enrolled in the adult literacy program. He did sign up Malik to be in the Read-Aloud Program, but with one difference known only to Malik, his dad, and me: At bedtime, Malik would read aloud to his dad.
Ultimately, the money for the program dried up, and the library transferred me to a different department where the work was far less interesting. Not much later I decided that I would feel much more fulfilled by staying at home with my young daughter and becoming a full-time homemaker. I was right; I absolutely love what I am doing with my life now! But If I accomplished nothing else in my time at the York library, I’m proud of how things turned out for Malik and his father. It’s one of the few times I was consciously able to bring our Seven Principles to my work. And I’d like to think that there are a few more kids with parents who are reading to them than there might otherwise have been, and I’m glad to have had a part in that, too. I guess sometimes the work really is its own reward.

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