This year, for the first time in a long time, I’m not spending this fall as a student in the traditional, academic sense. Instead, I’ve shifted roles to being the one teaching, supervising, coordinating, and tutoring. It’s been an interesting transition to say the least, but as my semester in Rome taught me, the real learning in life often takes place outside of the classroom–or in my case with Casserly House, on the other side of the classroom.
And to say that I’m learning a lot would be an understatement. Some things are deceptively simple–the names and ages and grades and birthdays of my students–while others are much more complex. Although the simple things are important and not to be underestimated (have you ever forgotten a 9-year-old’s birthday? it’s no laughing matter), it’s the complex things that I’ve been wrestling with.
The after school program began this past Monday, and I’ve finally been able to spend my time focused on what I signed up for when I agreed to do JVC. Over this past week, the hour and a half from 3:30-5:00 has become the most intense part of my day, as I spend my time running around… usually trying to do five things at once. While there’s a lot of the mundane involved in that work, there’s also a lot of food for thought.
One of the most interesting faucets of my work is how much it brings the reality of statistics home to me. Catholic Charities of St. Louis had this really great ad campaign over the past few years that featured pictures of easily stereotyped individuals, with taglines such as, “He’s not a statistic; he’s someone’s big brother.” These ads were actually quite powerful, and I feel like my work at Casserly House has had the same effect in bringing a lot of lofty ideas down to a personal level for me.
It’s one thing to know on an intellectual level that urban youth have a lot of problems to deal with, and it’s another situation entirely to know intimately what these kids are up against–that these third graders wrestle with more serious issues on a daily basis than I’ve ever dealt with in my privileged life. (Privilege is such a JVC-esque word that I almost feel cliche using it, but it’s also very, very true.)
Hearing statistics about the failures of the American educational system, students dropping out of school, neighborhood violence, and domestic violence only has a limited impact, but that can’t be said about seeing that these are the realities that many of the children that I work with live with every day. I can put names and faces on these problems now in a way that I couldn’t before. (I also do want to clarify that it is important to note that these problems are not ones that are unique to urban areas; that’s just the framework I’m currently working from.)
I have also struggled with wrapping my head around the idea that what I’m doing at Casserly House is so much more than just a job in the traditional sense; in someways, it certainly is. I show up from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and Casserly House provides me with health insurance and the means to pay my bills; basically, I get compensated for my work and time. And it’s simple to then conclude that what I’m doing is just a job, that it’s just a way to get a paycheck, it’s just how I spend my time between the weekends. But, frankly, it’s not just a job. It’s so much more, and that was the real point of choosing to do JVC.
I’m also learning a lot of practical things–how to write professional emails (tell me, how do you sign yours? currently, I’ve settled on “Best, Megan”), how to multitask like it’s my job (oh wait, it kind of is), how to outsmart an elementary school kid, and
how to be in five places at once… yeah, still working on that one.
So, in short, not going back to school is turning out to be one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve ever had. After so many years of focusing on academics in the traditional sense, I have to admit that it’s refreshing to finally see learning in a more practical way.