Just a few weeks into the school year, I was almost late taking my first grader to school. But on my way back, I heard screaming from inside a car in a neighbor's driveway.
I knew the one. There is only one car there now, where there used to be two. That one belongs to a mother with three little girls, one barely more than a toddler. They were always known for being quiet and keeping to themselves but things have been hard in the last few weeks.
Her husband left her just before the first day of school. And she works at a school as well. Still she's late. Really late, if I was nearly late and I'm already back.
I hope my face shows my concern and empathy. But she probably just wishes no one was witnessing her family struggle, her kids screaming and fighting in the car, the lateness, the frantic stress.
She's a very private person. I am on good neighborly terms with her, trading waves and gardening tips. But she has never been open to deeper friendship. I only know her husband left because my kids overheard a gossiping neighbor and brought the tale home to me. The woman herself has not told me, and I don't think she'd appreciate anyone approaching the subject from the outside.
And yet, I wish I could help. And I could. My kids went by there a few times in the past weeks and found a paid babysitter with her kids, something almost unheard of in this country, where parents and grandparents are expected to be on hand and babysitting isn't an industry. I could watch her girls for an afternoon and it would mean only a bit more attention than just watching my own kids. I could water her garden in a pinch.
I could just listen and make her a cup of tea. Easily. My life is hectic but that much I could do.
Yet I can't do much at all, if she keeps up the appearance that everything is fine, if I know of her trouble only through unwanted gossip. And when I ask her if she would like to come to tea, she just looks harried and too busy. She says, "Sure, sometime. I'll let you know," but she never does.
I suppose this is what people mean when they say that many people don't ask for help when they should. I've heard it so often in the past few years, that it is becoming annoying. Whenever experts talk about 'self care" or social skills these days it seems like they always tack this on to the end: Ask for help.
"Overcome your aversion to asking for help and just ask."
The connotation is that help will be readily offered.
And yet I know full well why this woman does not ask for help. Help often isn't forthcoming. If she asked for help, she would have to ask many times--embarrassing herself, damaging her reputation and exposing her children to potential ridicule--before running across someone who would help.
You doubt it? You think most people will readily help?
A recent UNISEF video documented an experiment conducted with a six-year-old girl. The child was dressed in ragged clothes with messy hair, in order to look like a homeless child and positioned on a busy street in a major city. A team o adults watched from a distance and filmed the child standing alone amid the hurrying crowds. No one stopped to ask if the child was lost or in need of help.
Then the child was dressed in expensive, fashionable clothing, combed and clean, and positioned in the same place. As soon as the child was alone several people, primarily women, stopped to ask if the child was lost or needed help. Some started calls on their cell phones seeking help for the child from authorities.
Next the experiment sent the child into a restaurant, first in the expensive clothing--in which she was engaged cheerfully by diners and praised as she wandered among the tables--then in the ragged clothes. When the ragged child moved around the tables in the restaurant, she was insulted and told that she had to leave and never come there again. This, even given that the child did not touch anything, speak or do anything but walk around and sometimes make eye contact.
Eventually the insults and harsh words were too much for the six-year-old and she fled from the restaurant crying and continued to sob even while being comforted by familiar adults. The experiment had to be called off, given the potential for emotional trauma. An eerie follow-up took place when the video was posted on social media, in which the large majority of comments make illogical excuses for the negative behavior of adults toward the child.
Most of those who did not make excuses in their comments professed shock when they saw the videos. But I'm not shocked.
Today I return from the school with a heavy heart. There is a school choir my daughter wanted to be in, but the school building for some of the first graders--including my daughter--is several streets away from the main school where the choir practices are held early in the afternoon. Because I can't drive, I would have to go three miles on foot to bring my child to choir practice in the middle of the day and then return to teaching my own classes. My work schedule won't allow it. I have strategized and shuffled things around every which way. But it won't work.
I asked the school for help--the classroom teacher, the aids, the extracurricular coordinator, the choir teacher. They insisted that it is the responsibility of parents to transport their kids between school buildings, and that the fact that many first graders have their classes in the building with extracurricular activities but my child doesn't is simply my own problem, rather than an unfair disadvantage. I asked other parents too. No one is willing to help though some will drive their own kids to choir.
When I asked, one lady even said, "Do you expect me to pity you or something?"
No dear, I asked for for help, not pity. Somehow our society has become confused about the difference.
I don't mean to be depressing. I try to make my writing uplifting and nurturing. So, this is the nurturing part. If you are like me, you have heard many times that you need to learn to ask for help at times. You've heard it from experts, from from the media, from self-help books. So, you end up feeling inadequate yet again. Not only do you fail at meeting the ideal of perfect independence and emotional self-sufficiency. You aren't even any good at asking for help, otherwise, the experts imply, you would have it.
Well, they're wrong. It isn't you. It's the times.
I'm not saying don't ask for help. Do ask. There are people who want to help, not out of pity but out of the knowledge that a strong community is our best protection in hard times and the most important thing in a survivalist kit. It is not your failing that not everyone has that knowledge.
Keep asking for community and be assured that no matter how small your means or how difficult your physical life, there are ways you could help a neighbor or a stranger in need. Find them. Make yourself interdependent. That is strength that lasts.
I'll be on the look out for a chance to help my neighbor with the three little girls. Today I'll call a mother who's in her ninth month of pregnancy and offer to pick her son up from preschool and keep him a couple of hours. And just this week, a migrant woman who speaks little of the local language admitted to me that her husband has been beating her severely and I was able to connect her with a specific counselor at a reputable organization with shelters and legal aid.
As for my daughter's school, the principal asked me to help her find someone from an English-speaking country who would like to be a semi-paid volunteer in their English teaching program for a year.
And I can help in their search because I know many English-speaking people. Sometimes even school administrators must learn a lesson and this one is about community.