When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to host dinner parties. Every few months, the good china would come out. The smell of banana nut bread and chocolatey sweets would waft out of the kitchen. The lamps and tables that only got dusted when company was coming would shine with a mirror finish. When everything was in its place, my brothers and I would be given orders to stay upstairs, or maybe to spend the night at a friend’s house.
One November evening, I saw the familiar ritual taking place as my mom unpacked grocery bags of baking goods and my dad popped in a new George Winston album for ambiance. A few hours later, when my parents asked my brothers and me to meet them in the dining room, I knew what to expect. The silver serving trays had been polished and were filled with a smorgasbord of freshly prepared h’ordeuvres. The dining room and hallway were a glow with the dancing flames of candlesticks that I wasn’t sure I had ever actually seen lit before. The stage was set for a perfect evening. “When will everyone start to get here?” I asked, cutting to the chase.
“This is it,” my father said. “Everyone’s already here.” The candles, the sweets, the music, the polished silver, the little sausage balls cooked in gravy that I could never get enough of – it was all done just for me and my two younger brothers. The food was good and the music was festive, but what has made this memory stick with me over the years is the attention that I know went into it. This was an evening when my parents were entirely focused on me. The busyness of the world outside, the never-ending responsibilities of work and the constant call of the phone and media were set aside. What mattered most was being together and focusing on one another. I knew I had their full attention, and I knew I was loved.
I thought of this scene this past week as I was spending some time with tutors at church getting ready to meet students for the beginning of a new year of our Wiley-Pullen Tutoring Ministry. For 12 years now, Pullen has provided after school tutoring and mentorship for at-risk students from Wiley Elementary School. Many of the students have continued coming back to Pullen through middle school and high school, as much as possible, because the connections they forged with their tutors become so important. The students receive help with their homework and build their confidence in reading while working one-on-one with a tutor.
For one hour each week, they also get to experience what it is like to be the focus of someone else’s attention. During tutoring, they are not one among 30 students that a compassionate but overworked teacher is desperately trying to give equal attention to, or one of several siblings sharing responsibilities and chores at home. In the tutoring classroom, they are all that matters. They are the focus of a caring adult’s attention, and they can trust that they are loved. And that’s no small thing.