My year as a member of the City Year organization is challenging to put into words. City Year is similar to, but not quite, Teach For America. We didn't actually teach in the classroom, but our role was much more than simply being mentors for our students. We were at school for 12+ hours a day. We wore a City Year uniform every single day -- to remind the kids and ourselves what City Year stands for. It stands for service to a cause greater than self. It stands for belief in the power of young people.
We intervened with kids and families, working to improve learning and behavior. The easiest way to show you what we did is to look back on my year ... and let me try to explain how City Year worked to #makebetterhappen.
My City Year experience began with an intense training period. It was an immediate whirlwind of cult like chants, heinous khaki uniforms, a dizzying array of new people, an incredible infusion of City Year culture and commitment, and hours upon hours of learning and development.
Thousands of questions stirred my brain daily. What if the kids didn't like me? What if they knew I grew up more privileged than they were -- would they shut me out? What if they were scary? What if I couldn't connect with what they were going through? What if I didn't make a difference in their lives?
I had gone through those questions in my head over and over, when -- in an instant -- the first day of school arrived. Let me tell you there is no time to drive yourself crazy with "what if" questions when you are dealing with the chaos of hundreds of 8-12 year olds at a school in its second turn around phase. (Meaning for the second time, Trevista had tested in the lowest 5% of all schools in the nation and therefore, once again, had to go through rigorous changes to "turn the school around.")
I was now in an environment where wearing red signified gang affiliations. "Miss" was my one and only name. Fistfights happened regularly at lunch. I quickly got used to hearing things like "my dad told me if I don't hit him back I'm not standing up for myself" or "I couldn't finish my homework because I watched my 8 siblings while mom visited dad in jail."
Words like "homeless," "unemployed,""food stamps," "addiction," "evicted," and "jail," would roll off my 8-year-old students' tongues regularly. I was overwhelmed by the hardships they had to deal with at their young age. It broke my heart. I wanted to take every one of them home with me every night. I wanted to feed them, hug them, and tell them how amazing they were. I wanted to assure them that everything was going to be alright. But of course, I couldn't.
I was able to go home, decompress, and try to understand how to deal with my emotions at the end of each long and exhausting day. My students on the other hand, went home to no parents, no dinner, no options, and responsibilities far beyond their years. However, after a few months of daily crying sessions, I realized how to push my emotions aside, and began to learn from my unintentionally heroic third graders.
There was one day that will both hurt my heart and make me smile with pride whenever I think of it. Just two weeks after coming back to school from winter break, we were faced with the toughest challenge of the year. We, as staff, were told that Trevista's middle school was going to be shut down. How were we going to tell the students that their hard work hadn't mattered? How were we going to tell them that the school that had been open for 90+ years, the school that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had gone to, was now going to be a completely different place? How were we going to tell them that there was nothing we could to do change this outcome? It was just one more circumstance where no one was advocating for the kids who need an advocate most.
I will never forget watching the students learn this news. We City Year corps members sat in the back of the room as the administration told each middle school grade that next year Trevista at Horace Mann would no longer be the place they had called their home. Across the room, faces crumbled -- holding back tears was not an option. I could feel the sense of devastation and utter sadness in the room. Delivering this news over and over again that day was like a punch to the stomach every time. What was truly amazing however, is what happened in the days and weeks following.
We expected attendance to fall, behavior to be uncontrollable, grades to plummet, and the school to take a thousand steps backwards. Quite the opposite occurred. Our school's community came together in a stronger way than ever before. The students and their families now represented the legacy of Trevista, and making that reputation a positive one became all that mattered to them.
Even kids who's parents were "absent," (often because they were working three jobs to support their families however they could) - did their best to engage as families in the "cause." The kids continued to work hard on state testing even though they knew that essentially those scores wouldn't keep the school open. They continued to come to school, work hard, and support each other, because as the students said themselves, "this is our home, and no one can take away what we made here."
I was completely inspired watching these kids pick themselves up time after time. They changed who I am today. I stopped letting words like "homeless," "unemployed," "food stamps," "addiction," "evicted," "rent," and "jail" scare me and separate me from my kids and their world. I embraced the fact that I now was a part of this world too. I saw how each student was proud to be a part of this community. I saw them rise above what was expected of them and be so much more than they had ever expected of themselves. I saw them come together.
I watched them refuse to allow defeat to trump hope.
I started City Year worrying about "what ifs" like "what if I can't make a difference in my students lives?" "What if they don't like me?" "What if I can't connect to their challenges?" Now I realize the "what ifs" are so much bigger than me. What if the kids' hope is permanently diminished? What if circumstances beat them down once and for all? What if no solution is in sight? What if organizations like City Year didn't exist? What if school funding continues to struggle? What if society doesn't find a way to advocate for these kids and they are permanently left on their own?
I was fortunate enough to have an experience like City Year to open my eyes and heart. What I know now is that I plan to spend the rest of my career advocating for kids who need voices. What will you do?