Written by Jon Morris, proud Impact Manager serving at City Year Baton Rouge.
Anyone who has either served with City Year directly or seen a corps member in action knows that there is no organization quite like it. On paper, it sounds quirky and sort of crazy. Getting paid a stipend to transplant your life for ten months in (likely) an unfamiliar area so that you can then work to move students on track in some of our nation’s toughest school districts for up to fifty hours (or more) per week probably sounds irrational to most people. However, what I have found is that City Year attracts some of the most curious, selfless, adventurous and maybe just a touch zany people.
I arrived in mid-July of 2012 to begin training at Istrouma High School with a bunch of strangers to find out what exactly I signed up for; it was a bit more than I expected. I remember thinking, what exactly had I stumbled upon? The moment I remember with most clarity from Basic Training Academy that summer was the day we were selected for our school teams. I wrote no preference on my selections form. I only mentioned that I wanted to work with older students, but I was chosen to serve at Broadmoor Middle School. After that reveal, I remember feeling slight disappointment because deep down I really wanted to work with students in high school. However, what this moment and many others while working with City Year has taught me is to maintain my expectations. I learned to curb my disappointment when life didn’t go my way because if something did change, some grand lesson or meaningful moment could come from it. That’s really what City Year has been all about to me. It’s about the moments.
I was fortunate to be placed within 8th grade math and ELA classrooms to work with some of the brightest and most hilarious students I’ve ever met. I quickly found out that the best way to open them and myself up was to be authentic, actually listen to what they had to say and not be afraid to jump right into both teaching them and learning just as much (if not more) from them. In one of my very first interactions with one of my eighth graders, he asked me where my family is from. I told him that my mother was from Guatemala and so I was part Latino. Later that day, I pulled up a map and we had ourselves a geography lesson. That student ended up being one of my favorite people to go to for a good laugh together.
For CYBR’s 2013 School House Rock Annual Gala, I was selected to be the master of ceremony for the program. I was honored, but even more thrilled that I was able to do so with *Kendrick, one of my focus list students. Kendrick was not only going to be my partner in helping me speak to and entertain an entire audience of supporters, champions and donors, but his grandmother was also going to be in attendance to see him shine. Anxious at first of the thought of such as task, Kendrick ultimately knocked it out of the park and was the night’s brightest star. The profound joy on his grandmother’s face when she was called on to stand during the program and celebrate her grandson’s achievements will be something I will never forget in my lifetime.
While I was able to impart some lessons to these students, I feel that I gained much more from them. They included me in their groups, sought out my attention and approval, taught me about Louisiana culture and proved to me that just because they didn’t possess at that moment in time the level of scholarly knowledge I expected from students about to enter high school, they were absolutely were more than capable of making tremendous ground and showing me up a little along the way.
After a great year of learning and instruction, I became inspired from those eighth graders. I decided to apply to become a team leader to help future corps members with their students. I was placed back at Broadmoor Middle School and worked with 16 fantastic corps members. During my senior corps year, I was walking to the office one morning when I heard someone say, “Mr. Morris?” I turned around and it was Kendrick’s grandmother and little brother! I gave her a big hug and we discussed how Kendrick was doing in his first year at high school. He was behaving well, and she asked if I could ever go back and work with him on his academics like old times. In the middle of the conversation, his brother said, “Mr. Jonathan, you were such a big impact on my brother and I was wondering if you do the same for me.” That melted my heart and was my ultimate City Year joy. It was a glimpse of the impact we can and do have on the students and communities we work with and a moment I will always cherish. After learning so much from the challenges and successes of that year, that sealed the deal and I decided to apply to become an Impact Manager to continue to serve.
I became a part of the site’s staff and transitioned to Merrydale Elementary School where I was able to work with a fantastic team to make some tremendous strides in the school’s culture and success. I learned and practiced the act of being a servant-leader, putting myself at full disposal for my City Year team at the school, along with the teachers and administration as well. I took on more responsibilities and worked longer hours, but was able to keep a genuine smile on my face all year because that is what AmeriCorps, City Year and East Baton Rouge Parish embodies and strives for together: improving the lives and education of our students. This makes my role such a joy each and every day.
It is the work that we all do here together that allowed me to march into this year at Merrydale once again with eagerness. We have a new City Year team with new and familiar challenges, but I believe it will be one of our greatest years of service yet. We have in common a belief in City Year’s mission of collaborating with each other and our communities so that we may work with excellence in doing what is best for students first and foremost. I believe in this mission. I believe in the great people we work with. I believe in our students. I have believed in making better happen for three years now and will continue to forge ahead believing so for years to come.