by Savannah Jones (Kansas City, '17)
My year of service began with a personal invitation to help track down Big Foot, and that is how Simon* made his way into my heart. The class’s daily writing prompt sparked his imagination and he planned to make his way to Big Foot, whom he believed lived in Tennessee. As I strolled past his desk to check his work, he asked if I was “down for the hunt” and we sealed the pact with a fist bump. The 13-year-old student and I formed a bond analyzing the possibility of mythical creatures. We were a funny sight for sure, with him standing more than a foot taller than me. I would trail behind, trying to keep up with his wide steps on our many hallway strolls.
The mornings I struggled with my piercing alarm clock and my bed urged me to sleep in, I got up and put on the red jacket knowing an adventure with Simon was waiting at school. Whenever faculty saw me without Simon, they were quick to ask, “Where’s your best friend?”
Behind his uncontainable smile and knack for pop culture trivia, however, Simon had low course grades and was writing at a first-grade level, despite being a seventh grader. He struggled with behavior management and was prone to destructive behaviors when upset, such as punching lockers. Daunted by school work he felt unprepared to handle, he would act out in class, cracking jokes and distracting his peers. This behavior was the exact opposite of how he’d act when working one-on-one with me in the City Year office, so I decided to explore ways to bring the environment he liked in the City Year room to his classrooms, too. My partner teacher and I could see the capability and creativity of this young man. We wanted to help others see it, too, so we campaigned for him to be enrolled in classes equipped to break down the work and provide Simon specialized assistance.
The faculty were very pleased with the strategies and routines my partner teacher and I set in place for Simon. It was during our one-on-one times that I taught him breathing exercises to control his anger and work to improve his grades. I also implemented a behavior contract, which Simon signed daily. If he behaved responsibly and respectfully at school, he could eat lunch in the City Year room on Fridays.
Some days there were slip-ups where he would get distracted in class or get angry and storm out. Bad days left me disheartened, but my team would remind me how much improvement Simon was making overall. They reminded me to appreciate Simon’s little successes, like when another teacher complimented Simon and called him a “fine young man.”
Despite setbacks, we successfully made it to the end of the school year without him being suspended for misbehaviors. On the last day of school, my partner teacher sent me a personal goodbye, that Simon asked her to film for me. There he sat at a desk much too small for his massive height as he expressed his gratitude for my help. He thanked me for taking the time to work with him on his anger. I cried looking at the screen of my phone as I watched his goodbye.
I could not have mentored Simon the way I did without his dedication and promise to push himself to be his best. Every time he would sneak out of the classroom wearing my City Year red jacket or try to convince me to move to his neighborhood so we could be neighbors, I knew I was making an impact and forming a friendship with a student who taught me to seek joy.
Six months has passed since my time with City Year, and I am still working with AmeriCorps but in a different capacity as a literacy tutor at a pre-school. My two years of service inspired me to become a teacher and have my own classroom to serve as a safe place for all my students. I’m thankful every day for my time with Simon because if we had never met, I would not have realized my own potential as an educator. Although I don’t serve at his school anymore, Simon keeps the new AmeriCorps members on their toes and I am positive he is preparing many future educators, as he did with me. Before he embarks on his dream career as a WWE wrestler, he plans on donning the City Year red jacket as an AmeriCorps member himself.
* Name changed to protect student’s privacy