One of the three jobs I have consists of working at Alpha Scholars, a federally funded program that works with students with disabilities. This includes disabilities of all kinds, including physical and learning disabilities. I absolutely love my job with Alpha. My coworkers are great, my bosses are fantastic, and the tutees (yes, it’s a real word) are amazing. These are students coping with difficulties that the majority of the population will never experience. They are constantly inspiring me and challenging me in so many ways.
One student, however, is not always so wonderful to work with. For purposes of privacy, we will call him Sam. I do not know what Sam’s specific disabilities are or what causes them. I do know that Sam struggles with communication and social interactions. Our interactions are humorous at times and saddening at others. He insists on calling me Ms. Holley, no matter how many times I ask him not to. One day, after meeting with him twice a week for two months, I found myself standing in line in front of him in the school cafeteria. I greeted him and he stared back in confusion. He asked if he knew me. Stunned, I reminded him who I was, and he answered, “Oh. I didn’t expect to see you here.” I suppose he assumed I just don’t eat food.
School is very difficult for Sam. I work with him on his assignments in English, which usually consist of writing papers that take several weeks. Our tutoring sessions are arduous affairs and I often feel helpless to assist him. There are times when I feel like giving up, certain that he doesn’t know the answers and he never will. However, he frequently surprises me by pulling brilliant answers out of nowhere. I’ve learned that the trick is to pose the right questions and be willing to wait in long, awkward silences until an answer is found. Additionally, I don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer, because I know that isn’t true.
I am realizing that the greatest obstacle to Sam’s academic success is not his disability or the demand of his classes. Sam is Sam’s greatest obstacle. He constantly tells me that he can’t do what is asked of him, that he can’t figure it out. He rarely speaks, but when he does it is often self-deprecating and very blunt. One day he told me, without making eye contact, that if he succeeded in English it would be because of me and not because of anything he did. That absolutely broke my heart. I assured him it wasn’t true, and it’s not.
Today, Sam and I had a very interesting conversation. This afternoon we worked through probably the most excruciating session we’ve had so far. In the middle of it, he abruptly let me know that what we were doing “wasn’t even worth the effort.” At the end of the hour, I felt like we hadn’t accomplished much and I was concerned about the outcome of the assignment. I could tell that he felt the same way. I told him to finish his assignment at home using the tactics we’d used earlier and to email me or go to the Writing Center on campus if he needed more help. I added that I knew it was tough, but I also knew that he could do it. As we packed up, he paused in zipping his bag and looked at me.
“You know something? I’ve noticed that you really seem to have a lot of confidence in me.”
I was startled his boldness. I stumbled over my words, but as I spoke I became more firm. “Well, Sam, that is because I do have confidence in you. I fully believe that you are capable of doing this.”
His next question was even more surprising. “Why?”
I’ve never been asked that before. I’d never really thought about it.
“Well,” I said slowly, “a couple of reasons. Partly because you’ve made it this far. Lots of people give up earlier, but you haven’t. So that’s one thing. And the other thing – and this is hard to explain – is just that I choose to believe in you.” He waited expectantly for me to explain. I pursed my lips. “It’s kind of circular thinking. But I think that the first step to being able to do something is believing that you can. And then – you can. If you don’t believe in yourself, then you can’t do it, and you can do it because you believe in yourself.”
Sam seemed unconvinced. “Yeah, but there’s more to it than just believing in yourself.”
“True, there’s effort and ability involved too. But if you don’t believe in yourself, you will never make it to those things at all. So,” I finished, “I believe in you because I choose to. I know you can do this.”
In typical Sam fashion, he promptly zipped up his bag and stood up without saying anything else. I called goodbye after him and sat for a moment, thinking about the conversation. I’m not sure if I actually got through to him. I don’t know if it will make a difference in his ability to succeed or if he will believe in himself. I do, however, suspect that he might never have been told these things before.
Even if Sam doesn’t do as well as I hope he will in his class, I now feel like my time with him is not wasted, and I am reminded of why I do what I do. I am reminded of why I tutor and of why I work in ResLife. I am reminded of why I want to minister to others. I am reminded of why I loved my work in Africa with children and teenagers. I am reminded of why I love being a big sister and of why I would like to be a mother. And I am reminded of why I want to be a teacher, or possibly a counselor, someday.
I do this because I want other people to know that they are worth it. I want them – my friends, my family, my residents, my sisters in social club, my coworkers, my tutees – to know that they are intelligent, beautiful, strong, competent, and capable. I want them to know that they can do anything they want. I want them to choose to believe in themselves, because they were made by a God who can do anything. He has made them to be exactly who He needs them to be, and He doesn’t make mistakes.
In 2 Corinthians 3:5, Paul is speaking specifically about the Corinthian church when he argues that the church is evidence of God’s work through him. But I think that it is still applicable and true in all areas of our lives when he writes, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” Our gifts and our abilities are not our own. If they were, they would probably not be very useful or effective, and we wouldn’t be good at much of anything. But because we are made by God, we are competent and capable of doing great things, in all areas of life.
So here’s my message to you, Dear Reader. Believe. Believe in yourself, because you can do it, whatever it may be. Believe in yourself because you were made by a God who has put you here for a purpose, and you were bought at a price. I promise - that price was worth it.
Believe in yourself, because I believe in you.