How to Learn

by Rachael Hemsi

I hate learning things. I hate not knowing. And I hate looking stupid. I love to teach what I know. I have no judgment on people not knowing. I can teach those afraid of math, math. Don’t know how to do something? I will walk you through it. I had a friend who didn’t know how to take the subway. I had so much fun making videos for her. She said, “This is fun, you have no judgment that I don’t know.” That is right. I will tell you what I know with joy. But admitting I don’t know is not easy. I don’t lie much, but I will lie and say that I know things that I don’t.

I grew up before special ed was a thing. I couldn’t read until I was much older. I went to untraditional schools. My mom was my teacher. I remember throwing a book across the room and telling her that periods and comas were stupid, and I hoped I never used them. I talked to trees, read peoples’ souls, and was great at math. I hoped I would never say spaghetti instead of pasketi. I always thought I was stupid, but I am just a different learning style. I would do my best and then hope someone else would take it over. My high school teacher said, “You work harder than A students, so you are a C student who gets Bs.”

When I graduated college, I drove across the country and listened to books on tape. I somehow rewired my mind and after that I could read. And read I did. I loved it. I once read an article in the NY Times that says a disproportionate amount of business owners are dyslexic because they had to learn to think outside the box. Learning differently from others makes them inventive and creative.

Some things I have learned about learning are:

Nothing is at it seems. I came a little late to women’s fashion and style. Do you know that you use a straightening iron to get curls and a round brush to blow out your hair straight? Nothing is as it appears.

To learn something new, you have to admit you don’t know something and then be open to learning. At the same time, you have to know you are brilliant, you are just learning a new skill. Not knowing is the only way to grow. I hate not knowing; I will make it up. Try on my own or have you do it for me. I have a friend who started teaching me things I don’t know with so much kindness and love that I started being open to learning.

There is a middle ground of staying engaged and watching how someone does something: Take in their genius and then learn how to do what they do.

I recently started Free Food. My genius is that I can make something out of nothing. We had no money, no facility, and no people, but we had a dream of a Michelin style, sit-down restaurant with three-course meals. Where did we start? Burritos on the street made by three people in our tiny NYC apartment. Oh, the joy of handing out those burritos. If you ever want to experience love, give something away in Harlem. People in Harlem have nothing and give everything. My best example is some of the volunteers at Free Food have very little. They can barely afford the bus to come volunteer. We had the Senegalese come in to eat with no warm clothes in the middle of winter. Do you know Joe, who can barely make ends meet, without thinking took off his favorite sweatshirt and gave it to them. “They need it,” he told me. That is Harlem love.

I am good at loving and creating love. It got cold. We found a church. Inch by inch and row by row we manifested a restaurant. Through a series of situations that looked like failures with nothing, we now serve three-course, sit down, Michelin-style meals to the homeless. It is something for hearts to behold. Now this is wonderful, and I am a genius at chaos, not so good at creating structure.

Finally, after near collapse, I put my pride aside and admitted defeat. I said, “I need help.” Not an easy move. I don’t usually ask for help. I thought, “What am I too stupid to figure out a system?” But nothing I was doing was bringing us out of chaos. My brilliant friend came to help. The first day we sat down and went through everything.

“You know all this,” she said.

“Yeah, I know it all,” I responded.

“You don’t even need me,” she said as we headed to bed after a day of lists. “Yeah, I know it, sure.”

I woke up in the morning and said, “I don’t know how to do what you do.” That was not easy to say. As she was saying everything, I did know what she was talking about. And yet I don’t know how to put it all in the order that she did. Slow down. That is the key. Slow down and write my paper all down, if needed with help. Put it in categories. Look at every last thing on your mind. Write down the checklists of what every topic needs. Assign someone to each one of these topics. Goodness gracious. Simple but not easy. I wanted to just hand the whole thing over and say, “Great you do it!” Instead, I stayed connected and watched and learned. When all the thoughts are jumbled in my head, I can write them down. How does she pick what is important and what is not? My brain went from, “I am dumb,” to “Who cares!” to “Holy crap this is so cool to learn.”

One thing about my different learning style is that I go too fast and miss words. Then I can’t understand what I read. I skip around. Her mind was training me how to put structure to my fast-moving mind. Give me chaos, and I can give you beauty. How do you stabilize that? Well now, I know a lot more on how to do it. It isn’t second nature yet. But I am learning. What a gift it is to learn.

Director of Free Food Harlem, Rachael Hemsi can be found serving meals, fundraising, or scavenging for clothing donations for our guests.

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