Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

It’s almost impossible to believe that the “lasts” are starting. This is our last blog on our last full week of classes, today was my last day at the Caroline Center and tomorrow is my last day at Guilford Elementary. Three months ago I signed my Service-Learning contract and my contract with CCSJ with the ideal goal of coming out of my experiences having developed lasting relationships with members of the Baltimore community and inkling that these would be life-changing opportunities. Then I jumped right in, with no idea as to whether those statements would become reality.

In these last two weeks I have learned about “cry time” at Guilford and held hands in a circle of prayer, nearly in tears with the women of the Caroline Center, at the realization of the fact that today was our last day. These people that I have come to know in the past few months have let me in to their circles of trust, changed my outlook on both education and the Baltimore community as a whole and turned my ideal goals from the beginning in to a definite reality. If I had to choose one word for Guilford and the Caroline Center it would be patience and perseverance, respectively.

Guilford Elementary is patience because to be there, especially as a teacher or administrator, you have to put aside anything that might be going on in your life and put yourself in the shoes of the children in your classroom and in the halls and on the playground. When I enter the building I am greeted with an uproar of noise unlike anything I’ve heard before and it is constant, even after hours. As the last few weeks of my time at Guilford was mostly occupied with grading papers and entering scores I had the unique opportunity to overhear teacher-to-teacher after-school conversations about the day’s fights, suspensions and detentions. Also during this time, students come in and out of the classroom asking Mr. Smith, my supervisor, questions and playfully messing with him yet in their interactions you can see the genuine respect they have for one another. One day, after such an occasion, I looked up from my tests and said “It must take a lot of patience to do what you do” and Mr. Smith just laughed and said “You have noooo idea.” He told me that I wouldn’t believe how many students come in for their “cry time” regarding situations at home. The majority of the students come from broken families; to be specific, only 10% of the children in the area come from nuclear families. He said that 10-15 parents total out of the entire elementary-middle school (grades 1-8) come to PTA meetings. It was suddenly clear to me the reason for the wide spectrum of test scores: many scores were fails, far below just a 50% yet the few that were 80 and above—the ones that I silently celebrated and often awarded smiley faces—were the result of parental involvement. The curriculum is even set up, it seems, to include current events and facts that connect to the children personally and to make them aware of the importance of education. For example, on a 6th grade test on Egypt there was a question asking the students’ opinion on the Arizona senator who wanted to put parents in jail for not sending their children to school. Most of them said that they agreed—that parents needed to be involved. Which takes me to the Caroline Center…

Perseverance. The women at the Caroline Center are there not only for themselves but so that they can get a job that pays a living wage so that they can support their children and families. They come every day and do the lessons no matter how difficult it may be and they have improved remarkably from the first day I met them. I have developed a special attachment to one woman in particular. She says she is my “problem child.” That is far from the truth. She is just the quiet one, the one that lacks the confidence. She looks like she is no older than 35 but she has a daughter who is my age and a granddaughter. She is getting her GED so that her daughter can get an education and not have to go through what she did. The first time we started working on developing ideas for essays she could only think of two and could barely form them into a sentence. Today she filled a page. The first time we did reading comprehension she said she didn’t understand anything; on Monday she got all the answers right. That is perseverance. I gave her my phone number today so that she can call me when she passes. I will never forget her face and voice when she realized that today was my last day saying “I am truly going to miss you.”

What these experiences and this class have taught me is that you truly do have the power to define your own future and the future of the world. All you have to do is take the first step and keep taking steps until you find what it is that you want. The children at Guilford just have to keep coming to school, whether their parents are there to take them or not. The teachers like Mr. Smith have to keep believing in them. The women at the Caroline Center are proving that they will not end up like their friends or maybe family members. They found a way out and they are pushing through until the end. When I started out the semester as a volunteer I thought that would be it and I still had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated. I thought that I had to find a paying job no matter what it was doing in order to fit in with everyone else. Now I am applying to unpaid internships and to be an AmeriCorps volunteer at either the Caroline Center or Boys Hope Girls Hope. Not only am I taking the steps to define my future but all of the people I have met along the way have helped me to define it as well.

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