MEET THE TUTOR: R.J. JENKINS
There are some people who walk into your life and brighten it immediately. These folks make you smile, laugh, and look at life with a new perspective. R.J. is that kind of person for many of us here in Marion County. R.J. joined the Literacy Council team as a volunteer tutor in March 2017 and became a Board member for the Council shortly thereafter. R.J. serves as a curriculum designer for the Center for Veteran Transition and Integration at Columbia University in New York City, faculty coordinator at Webster University here in Ocala, and the founder of Pyxis Admissions, a boutique college consulting company. Read more about R.J. and why he chose the Literacy Council as vehicle for creating positive change in Ocala and Marion County.
R.J., please tell us a little about yourself?
I was a pretty bookish kid. I wasn't crazy nerdy or anything - I played sports and had friends and whatever - but I loved reading the way other kids loved playing video games. I used to smuggle Jane Austen novels into school and, when class would get boring, I would hide in the bathroom and read. Gross, I know. My love of reading came in handy in college, and I ended up pursuing doctoral work in English literature, because, um... I'm still not sure. People always ask me about my favorite book. It's The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, a novel about super rich, super backstabby women who have nothing better to do than try to destroy each other socially. I mean, what's not to love, right? OMG it's so good.
Why did you decide to become involved in the Literacy Council?
Like most helping professions, teaching is a calling, and if you're called to do it, then it's tough to ignore that call. I taught as a graduate student at Cambridge and Harvard, and I taught when I worked as a dean at Columbia, and so when I relocated to Ocala almost two years ago, I knew I had to find a way to keep teaching. The Literacy Council felt like a wonderful way to continue doing what I love and help people at the same time. Also, teaching English to speakers of other languages affords me ample opportunity to feed my inner grammar snob. Like, it's literally my job to make sure that my students understand the difference between "there," "their," and "they're." Being able to nerd out shamelessly about grammatical minutiae is a real perk of the job.
In what capacity do you serve the Literacy Council?
I teach elementary, intermediate, and advanced ESOL classes. I also serve as a member of the Board.
What have you found to be the most rewarding part of serving at the Literacy Council?
The students. No question. Watching women and men work hard to become more capable, more confident speakers of English is incredible. As someone who learned to speak another language as an adult, I appreciate the time and dedication it takes, and the sacrifice it demands. I also know that learning a new language, especially as an adult, requires real humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable. What's going on in these classrooms is extraordinary, and I have so much respect and admiration for our students who have decided to enrich themselves, either by learning to speak, read, and write English, or by learning how to read. What they're doing takes more than just hard work; it takes courage.
Why should others care about Adult Literacy?
People should care about adult literacy for the same reasons they care about child literacy - because we know for a fact that quality of life is better for people who can read than for people who can't. We also know that people who can read are better able to contribute in meaningful ways to our community and to our economy, and so making sure that folks in Ocala and Marion County can read makes good economic sense as well as good ethical and moral sense. At the risk of sounding like the bleeding heart that I am, a community is only as good as it treats its least fortunate, most vulnerable members, and so I was thrilled to learn when I moved to Ocala that the Literacy Council - and so many other amazing organizations in town - are working hard every day to help folks who need it and are willing to work for it. A rising tide lifts all boats, and I see a lot of individuals and organizations out there trying to raise the tide here in Ocala. It's exciting, and I think it says a lot about what kind of a community we are, and what kind of place we aspire to be.
What other groups are you involved in?
I serve on the Associate Board of the Reilly Arts Center, and I work closely with the Historic Ocala Preservation Society. Both are amazing organizations full of caring, smart, super talented people committed to making Ocala an even better place to live, work, and play than it already is.
How has serving with the literacy council changed you, personally?
I'm not sure that my service with the Literacy Council has changed me so much as reminded me - acutely - of the incredible power of language. We live our lives in language: we do business in language, we raise our children in language, we conduct our relationships in language, we fight and we grieve and we fall in love... all in language. There is nothing outside of it; everything we do and say and even think is only possible because language makes it possible. Imagine, then... what must the person feel like who doesn't fully command that language? How frightening and frustrating and alienating must it be not to understand the language your life is written in? And how empowering must it feel to learn how to navigate - how to read and to write - in the language that makes up your whole world?
I'm reminded of these questions every time I teach. Literacy isn't just learning how to read and write. It's learning how to be - how to live - in a world made up of words.
What advice do you have for prospective tutors or volunteers?
Just do it. Come visit the Literacy Council and learn about what we do, and figure out how you can help. Maybe that's tutoring one of our English language learners one-on-one for an hour a week. Maybe it's helping someone earn their GED. Or maybe it's teaching someone how to read. Whatever it is, it will help, and it will make a massive, positive difference in someone's life. Seemingly small acts can make big impacts. Make your impact today.