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Unexpected Learning This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     I am apprehensive. Although I have volunteered at PADS before (a homeless shelterwhich moves from church to church), this is my first time at this location.Instead of just serving food, volunteers here sit with the homeless after themeal. Because I volunteered as part of a project on homelessness, they allowed meto skip the training and start right away. I am a PADS renegade, and my lack ofknowledge suddenly seems all-consuming.

As I pour the juice for thetable, I try to think of conversation starters. What can I talk about with peoplewho have lived lives I can't even imagine? Everything I think is importantsuddenly seems superficial. The emphasis our culture puts on clothes and statusseems inane. I glance down at my Blue's Clues t-shirt and plaid pants and feelnaive.

Balancing the tray with fake confidence, and impeccable style, Iwalk over to my table. A middle-aged couple smiles brightly at me, and ahunched-over old man listens to an archaic Walkman. I serve the couple first, whograciously thank me, and then the man, who hardly looks up. As the mealcontinues, so does this pattern, with the couple being the picture of politenessand the old man mumbling.

Then comes the time for me to sit down at theirtable and talk. The couple tells me about their lives, explaining how they endedup in their position. They tell me about bouts of depression which made holdingjobs difficult. The woman blushes as she admits that she was more interested inboys at college than academics. After a while I begin to feel guilty forneglecting the old man and turn my attention to him.

Although I have a lotof trouble understanding him at first, I find listening to his enthrallingstory-telling to be its own reward. He draws me into the story of a young Polishimmigrant who attended school for only one year in the United States before beingpulled out to go to work. A story of working long days in a hot factory andcoming home to study and teach himself English, and then German, Russian, Spanishand French.

Wanting to believe him, but a bit skeptical, I speak a fewsentences of the German I am learning in school. He responds in fluent, eloquentGerman; all but a few words are too advanced for my beginner's ears. Aware nowthat this is about more than attention, I scoot my chair closer and listenintently. He tells me how he moved West and worked as a cook in the homes of theelite. He tells me stories that rival the tabloids of the rich who drank toomuch, what ends they came to, and their bitter spouses.

The point of hisstories is that I must never let alcohol, or any kind of instant gratification,distract me from what is truly important. He emphasizes that I must commit myselfto learning, because I have amazing opportunities. My ears strain to catch hisevery word and hear how important it is for me to continue with my German, orlearn another language, because communication opens so many doors. Although henever finished school, he tells me the most important thing in his life hasalways been knowledge. He says that no matter how much he worked, he always madetime to continue learning, through reading. He shows me his little Walkman, andtells me that even when that his eyes are too tired to read, he tries to keep upon the world.

Although he has nothing else, he still has his mind, andhis awareness of what is happening outside this little church basement to keephim company all the time. He tells me to see everything that I can see, but becareful not to end up as he had. I learn from him the value of knowledge, and howlearning is more than a stepping stone, but a way to better yourself. I learnthat my goals must be my focus, and that what society tells me to do isirrelevant. He tells me never to take anything for granted.

In hisslightly garbled speech, he adamantly expresses that I should continue tovolunteer, so that I can remember how fortunate I am, but warns me not to cometoo often. When I ask him why, he explains that he is worried that being aroundthis hopelessness will depress me, and make me lose my motivation to do the bestthat I can. He wants me to know that I still have the world, whereas the peoplehere are tired.

What I never heard is what brought him here, but I acceptthis as a hole I will never be able to fill, and respect him for trying to keephis dignity by focusing on what he thought I should know, and not his bad fortuneor mistakes.

When I tell this story to others, they often question how Iknow his stories were true. Quite honestly, besides the snippet of German hespoke, I have no evidence. In retrospect I wonder if the facts are even relevant,because I recognize the emotional sincerity behind his words. He was just an oldman, looking back on his life and trying to pass on some wisdom. More importantthan whether he really did cook for the rich and famous, or teach himselflanguages in a little run-down apartment, is what I learned from him.

Although I have volunteered at PADS many times since that day, I havenever seen him again. As I apply to college, I find myself thinking about himmore than ever. I know that I am doing the best I can to get a good education,and I hope that he would be pleased. The irony is that the old man told me beingat PADS might make me lose my motivation. In fact, it has done just the opposite.




This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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