I remember sitting in a room full of young adults all wearing khaki pants and white t-shirts or white polo shirts. I had just graduated college two months before and spent the first summer months working at camp with 4th and 5th graders at the pool. I remember looking around and thinking how similar we all looked, dressed alike, we looked like a branch of the military or a bunch of school children in an assembly. And yet we all looked so different. Everyone had bright faces and sleepy eyes. It was probably the earliest any of us had to wake up in a while and no one wanted to be late so everyone added the extra fifteen minutes to their morning commute because while we didn’t know much about this coming year, we knew the traffic in the city of Baton Rouge was anything but predictable.
There was a big map at the back of the wall, little star stickers stuck all over showing where people had come from. There were a few stars near and around Houston, Texas. Two stars up in Minnesota. So there were people here I could maybe connect with about sports teams and snow. I sat between a bunch of strangers and grabbed the binder from under my chair and started doodling on the empty pages and dividers. I had run into a few people at my apartment complex and I started connecting faces to Facebook profiles of the people that were constantly posting in the Facebook page that I had eventually muted. Someone jumped up in front of the crowd and everything started and I know the first thought in my brain was “Here we go.” Twenty months later and I think back to this day and I can’t help but think, “Here we are.”
That day a lot of pieces were put together. City Year had been an application and an on screen, virtual thing until this day. Finally, I was seeing the red jacket on a person and I was seeing what I had been reading about for months. That day everyone was introduced to a bunch of stories. Stories that helped lay the foundation for the ideals of this organization that I was so excited to be a part of. I remember one in particular stuck in my mind. A story about a lighthouse. My grandma was obsessed with lighthouses. She used to collect little figurine lighthouses and so the story got stuck in my brain. “Humility is not only a force multiplier, but an idealist’s paradox: to care so deeply about a cause larger than self, one needs, as has been noted, to lose oneself.” Lose oneself.
Later that training, a woman stood up and talked about a group you could apply to. It was called Communications Team, and you got to use social media for work. Sounded nice. I love Twitter and Instagram. So I grabbed an application and let it linger in my brain. To be honest, over the course of the next week or so I totally forgot about the application. All of this information was swirling around the different rooms and buildings our trainings brought us. I was struggling to learn names and trying to make good impressions. I had no idea what the difference between the I10, I110, I12 and Airline Highway were, but I know I had to use a combination of them to get to work most days. It was a mental work out that I was unprepared for, but excited to be a part of.
The deadline for the application came up and I dug through my back pack or “book sack” as I had been instructed to call it. I found it crumpled at the bottom of my backpack with what I assume to be goldfish crumbs smashed into the paper. I used my binder to straighten out the paper the best I could. I flipped over the paper and began to write. “What does the phrase ‘give a year, change the world’ mean to you?” My mind jumped back to the story about the lighthouse.
Just like the fog of all the information pouring into my brain, and just like the darkness of the unknown pieces of City Year those first few weeks, I was able to navigate my way not only through one year of service, but two. I had to succumb to the vulnerability of “losing myself” in this large sea of problems and solutions. While living in Baton Rouge, there have been pushes and pulls for social change in this city. There have been natural disasters, there have been instances of injustice, and nothing has been smooth. Everything happening around me gave me fuel to go forward, and the people leading me helped me to adjust my course as I went. I wrote my application for Communications team. I wrote about the lighthouse and I wrote about working towards losing myself in this experience so that I can try my best to hold on to my humanity while allowing myself to be fueled by the struggling society around me so that I could be a social justice warrior. As I close my second year of service I find myself still struggling sometimes to lose myself but inevitably always having to find a way.
I leave this year with the acceptance that we are all looking for control but we hardly ever get it. From the moment I walked into City Year, I was looking for something to help control my experience. I was looking for people to connect with, I was looking for the puzzle pieces to come together, I was looking for guidance, I was looking for peace in this world and I was looking for acceptance into the right groups. I see students every day on this same journey in the classroom. They are constantly looking and City Year is often a place where we help those searching kids make some kind of connection or find some kind of understanding.
All of that looking led me to understand that sometimes if you “lose yourself” a little bit, the things you are searching for may soon find you. Just like Eminem told me, and just like I wrote on that communications team application that eventually became a home for me in this crazy bubble of City Year, “you gotta lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a life time, yo.” I was lucky, I got two chances, and I was able to lose myself twice in different groups of people and in different ways. My students will probably never understand, but they are my lighthouse. They have kept me humble and ready to fight. They have made me an idealist. They have made me more grateful for this experience. They have helped me find rappers much better and much worse than Eminem. They are a light in a dark foggy night that we should all be so lucky to have shine on us and help us find our way and help us keep going forward so we can stand up for them and make this world a better and just place.
Colleen Morgan served as a Senior AmeriCorps Member at Kenilworth Science & Technology School during the 2016-2017 year and as an AmeriCorps Member at Merrydale Elementary School during the 2015-2016 year.