2016-07-14

By Brendan Anderson '16 of the Staples, Inc. team with Curley K-8 School

Seventeen hundred service hours or so ago, we first stood as a corps on the steps of Excel Academy and waited. I, for one, after months of emails and Facebook notifications, was eager to finally begin and meet my fellow idealists, but unfortunately had no idea where to actually start. We may all have looked the same in bland white shirts and dark jeans, but finding things to talk about was surprisingly hard, especially at what then seemed an early hour.

Then, red jackets glowing in the August sun, the team leaders started to cheer: “P-O-W-E-R, we got the power ‘cause WE are City Year” and many more even more energized songs. It was amusing, confusing, and many people stood staring, wondering what they had actually signed on to do. I, however, noticed that even though the chants were silly, the people declaring them did not mind as they welcomed us, the new change agents, to City Year. A few weeks later, as I greeted students to their school with the same power-proclaiming rhymes, I tried to inspire the same realization I had that day: you belong here.

That morning, the jacket started to mean something more than a part of organizational attire. It was unity, an all-affirming welcome, and it meant a feeling of “I-cannot-wait-to-wear-my-own.” Six weeks and an eternity later, as we finally received our jackets and each new corps member shared a reason to serve, I realized the red bomber was not just about a single year: it was the culmination of everything we had spent our lives working toward. As we shrugged on layers of polyester, we also donned the responsibility of being our idealized self: the person our students saw.

It was often hard to remember that this year. Many times I forgot myself as day after day of rising before dawn and returning after dark blurred seamlessly together. There were nights I went home terrified for my students and mornings I couldn’t think of a reason to get up. Students shouted at me to go away and asked for help I can’t give through desperate tears. My heart broke each time a student despaired of succeeding without trying and, far too often, I became another voice telling aspiring adults to sit down, be quiet, listen. I’m not the only one either: every corps member I know has tried to shoulder a student’s burden and nearly broken.

But, somehow, sadly, happily, confusedly I made it. Most days were an effort of will, fueled by optimism and coffee, but even those wouldn’t have been enough without the teammates and friends who offered jokes on the tough days and hugs on the harder ones. Even then, I doubt I would have stayed without the students who repaid what I gave. There were many hard moments this year, but also countless joys in the simple, small acts of kindness between students and the smiling, wink-in-the-eye of a child once lost in confusion who suddenly understands.

There’s one student in particular I wanted to mention: a 3rd-grader named Kenny*, who I was fortunate to know very well this year. Now, Kenny was not exactly a quiet student: hilarious ideas bubbled into his mind, which were too good to not share, so he shouted them out. Unfortunately, this frequently happened during lessons, so the teacher and I give reminder after reminder, until he despaired and loses enthusiasm. When I first met Kenny, he could barely make it through a day without hiding under a table and crying, but, over the past nine months, Kenny shared some of his dreams with me. One day, for instance, he said he wasn’t sure if he should make video games or play football, so I suggested he go to college for game design on an athletic scholarship and he stood amazed.

My proudest moment, however, began when the class started reading Charlotte’s Web and Kenny decided to hate the book before reading and disrupt the lesson. I asked him to take a walk in the hall with me where I then described the opening scene: the girl's question, Papa, the axe, her outrage against injustice, and the father's mercy. When we returned to class, he was willing to listen, and soon after, he fell in love with the book. From then on, whenever we read Charlotte’s Web, Kenny sat in his chair, eager for the story.      

Every AmeriCorps member has had an experience with a student like Kenny and a story that made this City Year—and all the time spent waiting—mean something. Now we have gone off to make better happen in medicine, law, the arts, sciences, and so many more, and it’s hard to leave. We have changed since first we wore the jacket and we doubt our impact here, but I believe the smiles we gave, the lessons we taught, the walks we took, the books we shared will not fade in the memories of those we leave behind, anymore than they shall in ours. Personally, I’m going to cherish the note Kenny gave me on my last day in class as a reminder that all the sacrifices meant something. It’s a simple note with a picture of a glowing red “City Year” coffee mug and one short, incredible sentence, saying “Thank you for always thinking I can do everything.”

While I have graduated from City Year, but I don't think City Year has left me. Kenny said that I believed in him, but it is because of him and all the other students whom I served this year that I will meet whatever comes next. I have seen them overcome the impossible, laugh in the face of despair, and cheer my spirits when the harsh inequalities of society seemed impossible to beat. Moving forward, I will never stop believing in the young people still learning to realize their amazing power, nor will I ever stop trying to make a better world for them to grow.

And I will never forget the students who always believed in me.

*Name changed to protect student privacy

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