Baby Steps

"Baby" -- In the past, the term had only be used when referring to a newborn child, but now, in many ways, it has become a recent idiomatic phenomenon in American English. When people talk about their "babies," they could be making reference to their children (young or old), pets, friends--and for many of us corps members--students.

We all follow one cohort of students, and always display a lot of pride when speaking of them. One of our sixth grade team members has a reason to be proud...

There are numerous after-school programs that all diffuse in one building, which is conveniently that of our middle school. (awesome...) This can create some opposition from the students when we are forced to separate them in the cafeteria during snack time  Afterwards, all of the programs go into separate locales within the school.

During snack time, one student from another after-school program (but also a sixth grader attending our middle school) keeps beaming at me. I don't know what to think of it, so I only smile back, knowing I have a lot of things to do in the next few minutes. However, after the third time, I felt obligated to say something.

"Hey man, how's it going?"
"I want to be in the City Year heroes thing... :-/"

This student had discussed with the corps member stationed in his class that his mother wanted to keep him in his current program, and he expressed that he enjoyed it. While we all would love for all of our students to be in our after-school program, we believe it's mostly important that the students participate in some program, City Year or not. However, this new response was very different from his prior one. I asked him...

"Well, I know you are already signed up for this one, but would like me to get you an application?"
He sheepishly nodded and returned to his seat, watching me as I left the cafeteria to retrieve a blank application.

This gave me a lot of good spirits as an after-school coordinator. I was proud of the team, and the curriculum we had established. I hurriedly returned with the application, expecting a basic hand-off. But he stopped me.

"Hey, how old do you need to be to be in City Year?"
I grinned. "Well, you need to have at least graduated from high school. Most of us are college-age students."
"So can I graduate from high school, do City Year, and then go to college?"
"That's what I'm doing, so you definitely can too!"
"That's awesome! I want to be just like you all when I'm older. I want to be in City Year forever!"

After commending his enthusiasm, I had another one of those "Aha!" moments. Maybe I want to be in City Year forever too? Well, maybe not City Year, but at least something like it. 92% of people have found jobs in this country, but how many of them have found a passion? I feel so lucky to have found that at such a young age. I initially took a gap year because I needed a break from regimented education, and wanted to volunteer and travel. Now, at age 18, I am confident that I have a clear direction I want to take in my life (at least for now).

So, I guess this path I am taking is my own pet project--my "baby," if you will. I don't know where I'm going to go, what I'm going to see, who I'm going to impact, or what type of effect I am going to have on other people. But I do know this: I am going to feel happy and fulfilled. So, what's your baby?

Ubuntu... whut?

At this point, you may be wondering, "What is Ubuntu?" I'm glad you asked, so let's hop to it!

City Year has ten core values--empowering action words or phrases around which any hopeless optimist like myself can choose to guide his life:

  1. Service to a Cause Greater Than Self
  2. Students First, Collaboration Always
  3. Belief in the Power of Young People
  4. Social Justice For All
  5. Level Five Leadership
  6. Empathy
  7. Inclusivity
  8. Ubuntu
  9. Teamwork
  10. Excellence
I know, you're tearing up just reading this munu of inspiring ideals for the perfect utopian society. (Don't worry, I promise we're not a cult). Upon first reading this list, I wasn't too surprised with the qualities listed. In fact, these ten values could pretty much be extrapolated into my official job title. It was very easy to familiarize myself with most of these values, considering nine of them are clearly indicative of my role as a mentor, tutor, community server, and leader. However, I was taken aback by number eight: Ubuntu... whut?

The following is paraphrased from City Year's explanation of Ubuntu:

Ubuntu is a term borrowed from the Zulu tribe of South Africa, which roughly translates into english as, "I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours." The concept expresses an essential spiritual truth about the world: we are all connected to each other through invisible webs of interdependence. We share a common world and a collective destiny, and the struggles of the few affect the many. In a very real sense, there is no "us" and "them,"... there is only "us." We deepen our own humanity when we strengthen our capacity to recognize and honor the humanity of others. 

Ubuntu informs our commitment to treat everyone we encounter with deep respect, and to act from the belief that supporting the success and empowerment of others supports our own success and empowerment. Ubuntu is a way of being and a quality of presence that we should aspire to bring to all of our relationships.

Tye and I after a long day of training at New York Life exhibiting "Ubuntu."

After weighing the risk of making this post even sappier, essentially "we're all in this together." In my City Year experience especially, it has been incredible to be forced at times to connect with someone with whom you wouldn't normally connect. For example, during our basic training retreat in upstate New York, we participated in an Ubuntu workshop. It only consisted of finding a random person in the room and conversing with them for approximately 40 minutes. Our hearts dropped in the room... we already found our niche, we've already formed a team, why do we have to be put under more social anxiety?

I said "hello" to the first person I saw with whom I had never spoken before. His name was Will. As directed, we found a location more suitable than a room of 300 people to have a good ol' fashioned "bro-talk." It turned out we actually had a lot in common--similar backgrounds, similar aspirations, similar ways of thinking. It was almost shocking.

It's difficult to find friendships with which you feel comfortable to speak about very personal things. And even after you find them, they may take a while to reach that point. After this activity, I realized the barriers that form between interpersonal connections are solely formed by us. We don't have to place them there. In fact, if we wanted to, we could engage in the deepest of conversations with a complete stranger. There have been a few times in my life where that has happened, and I always draw back to those conversations when I want to tell a good story. Why must they be few and far between?

At the end of the day, we make the choice to do everything we do. So, as Ms. Frizzle says on The Magic Schoolbus, let's "take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" What do we have to lose? We are all interconnected in some way, shape, or form. Even if the connection seems negative at first, the worst it can really do is offer a different perspective. Shared perspectives are Ubuntu. And Ubuntu is awesome.

Watch Nelson Mandela elaborate on Ubuntu:

¡Vamos! I'm ready!

Today, I impacted a student in a way I never thought I could. I was told since the first day of City Year on August 13th, "You are going to have a great impact on all of your students, you will have difficult conversations, and you will build positive working relationships with students that will help you both achieve each of your individual goals, as well as your goals devised through student-corps member intervention."

I was always intimidated by the unceasingly inspirational pictures taken of City Year corps members in service. Many would be looking at some piece of material with writing on it or working on a service project displaying "big, cheesy smiles" on their faces and plenty of "can-do attitude" in spirit. All of the students would beam in such a way that suggested, "Hey, I'm getting this, and you are not only helping me achieve my goals, but you are also a positive role model and a great support system." If only smiles could convey a thousand words...

Would I be able to form those types of relationships? I wasn't sure.
However, I am pleased to say, that happened today. Today marked only the second day of our after-school program called, "After-School Heroes." I had been relatively distracted during the week prior since I am one of the afterschool coordinators for the team, responsible for developing and implementing the program. It is delivered to us with only two guidelines: one half must be homework help and the other half must contain enrichment or service-learning activities.

During the homework help portion of the program, students took out their materials and readied themselves to complete most of their homework during the next hour. The class clown of the sixth grade was performing his usual routine: dancing and traipsing all over the room, yelling some Spanish obscenities, and just plain being sassy. I approached him, asking about his homework situation to get his mind refocused on academics. "I don't have any homework," he lies. The students are assigned homework in every class, every day; it is required by the principal. Considering I had helped him with his math homework yesterday, I asked what he needed to complete for that class. "I don't have the paper; I can't do it."

I soon found out that the corps member stationed in his class had written down the homework for him because he refused to do it himself. After I had the possession of his work for math, I prompted him to complete it. Over the course of the next five minutes, he probably stated nearly twenty times, "I don't want to do it." When I asked, "Why?" or "Is there an issue outside of math you are upset about?" as well as some additional questions, he either replied with the same response or said nothing at all.

I was stumped. After all my years as a camp counselor and as a tutor, I had no idea what step I needed to take next. I did not want to give up on him like some adults had done in the past, therefore I couldn't give up the fight to finish this simple worksheet on reciprocals and dividing fractions. But then, I realized, it's not necessarily the material with which he has an issue.

"Do you like your teacher?"
He shakes his head.
"Is that the issue?"
He nods. After I ensured some mutual trust that I will not mention anything said to his teacher, he says, "I'm not going to do any more work for her, never."
"Why is that?"
"She always says mean things to me, never to anyone else."
"Can you give me some more detail?"
"Mr. C, I'm not going to do the homework!" He put his head in his arms and remained silent, something "unheard" of concerning this student.

However, I decided that I was going to talk about this, whether he liked it or not. He needed to complete this assignment, but more importantly, he needed a totally different mindset walking into that classroom.

Then, I started talking, talking, talking. "I have had many teachers who have not inspired me, teachers who I felt had disrespected me, and teachers who have tested me on material that they did not even teach. Yes, all of them made be very frustrated, but you have to realize that this is not your teacher's education, this is your education. I know you're trying to get back at her because you don't like her. I know you don't want to complete this assignment because you want her to get angry. But, why would that make her stop calling you out? Why would that make her stop coming up to you individually to discuss your behavior in her class? If anything, everything you hate about her will only get worse. So, she gets angry, that gives you short-term satisfaction, but like I said, this is your education. While she wants you to succeed, she can't make you stop making the choice to do your work. Yea, this might be one little assignment, but it will affect your grade, your understanding of the material, and your enjoyment of the class. The only issue it will add for your teacher is writing a lower score in her book versus a higher one. Your success in math this year, next year, and for the rest of your life is completely in your hands. If you want to join the Air Force, they need to see some great math scores (white lie, whatever) if you want to be accepted. High schools, colleges, and the armed forces alike will not like the answer to the question: 'What's up with these math scores? Why are they so low?' to be 'Oh, I just didn't like my teacher.' Don't let one person stand in between you and your biggest dreams; you are too smart and too mature to let that happen. You do not have to like any teacher you have, but you do need to treat them all with respect. I will always be here to help you, but I can't help you achieve your goals until you set them for yourself. As long as you do not give up on yourself, I will never give up on you. If that means I will have to sit here until 10pm waiting for you to complete this assignment, then that's what I am going to do."

I talked for twenty minutes, occasionally pausing, hoping he would chime in. He slowly went from having his head slumped down to looking right at me with epiphany in his eyes. "Alright, I'll do it!" he finally interjects. "¡Vamos! I'm ready!"

Clearly, he had not payed his teacher much attention that day because he did not understand any of the concepts. So, I needed to quickly reteach the lesson to him. He finished the worksheet after about 15 minutes. The smile on his face was worth all of the time spent; he even ran around to some of his friends bragging that he completed the assignment. While I'm no fan of gloating, it was great to see that he was proud of what he had accomplished.

I had never spoken to a brick wall for over a half hour before, but I slowly made it crumble. This is the greatest job in the world. While I am not making much money or earning any college credit, I am teaching many students valuable academic, social, and emotional skills they can use for the rest of their lives. I am making them happy, and I'm making myself happy doing it. That's all that really matters.

A brief intro

Well, here I am, just another youngen preaching to a choir of close followers in the form of a blog. Most likely, you are here due to one or more of the following reasons: 1) I suggested it. 2) You are a close friend or family member to whom I am too lazy to fully describe what I do. 3) You are a paranoid student or teacher that has gone about every which way of finding my online presence just to hear about what I really think about you. For whatever reason you are here, it is unlikely I need to convince you that my job is awesome. You know me well enough to have heard me tell you ad infinitum that my job is awesome. So, I'm going to do what other youngens do on these things--I am going to tell you about things that I have seen: from emotional and physical abuse to empowered spirits and opened minds. I will discuss the things I have done, the things I am doing, and the things I hope to do soon. But, most of importantly, this is not my blog. This is a blog that has a student voice--the voice for which I serve and the voice for which City Year dedicates its organization. This isn't about the life of another liberal suburban white boy trying to change the world; it's about the stories of forgotten youth, the stories of students who have given up academically, it's about the team of encouraging 17 to 24 year-olds that work 50 hours a week to ensure success and happiness for the most important individuals in our world today.