I wake up before the sun rises. I roll out of my sheets and into the dark world. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but the thought of not being there for my students is far worse than the thought of getting out of bed early. With their futures at stake, I have learned to accept some compromises.
I gather up my uniform. Some days, I find it difficult to convince myself that I’m half as durable as these boots, half as classy as this tucked-in white dress shirt. Still, I take one end of my shoelace in each half-asleep hand and weave them together until they’re inseparable, like exhaustion and dedication.
Backpack? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. I am no longer Paul. I am now Mister Paul. I step out into the quiet of early Seattle and look out over the foggy, distant lights of the city. Soon, I am walking through the rusted front door of my home away from home, Aki Kurose Middle School.
The early bird students are there every morning before I arrive, like clockwork. They keep themselves entertained with card games, Rubik’s Cubes, jokes, and harmless pranks. One student tells me he gets up at four every morning. When I ask why, he simply says “I dunno.” I don’t know either.
I pop into the classroom to say good morning to my rad partner teacher, a recent 8th grade Language Arts transplant from Connecticut with a wicked sense of humor and laid-back style. He jokes with me about the trials and tribulations of being married with children. I tell him I don’t know how he does it – that the hundred different kids I serve each day will last me a lifetime.
I set up in the City Year room at Aki, making myself a quick breakfast while mulling over notes from previous days and weeks. What happened to that student? He was on an upward spiral for the longest time. Now it seems he’s coming off the rails again. Gotta get him back on track.
Now it’s time for my fellow corps members and I to have our first circle, where we gather ‘round and share joys from our lives with each other. It sounds silly, I know, but you’ve gotta understand: City Year is a culture all its own. When still growing accustomed to it all, it seemed absurd to me, even cultish at points, but in time I’ve come to see that there’s a depth of thought and intention behind it all, and I’ve joined in the fun.
Circle’s over. Now that I’m used to the snuggly warmth of the indoors, it’s time to step back out into the cold dawn. Students are arriving, and we corps members get to welcome them, setting the tone for their day in a big way. Now’s our chance to dance poorly and draw a few smiles and high-fives. I don’t take this part lightly–if I look closely, I can see a few children’s’ eyes light up just because I’m there. The same could be said for any member of our team.
With a few smiles, the cold doesn’t seem so cold anymore. I follow the last straggling students in the door as the first bell rings.
First period. I say good morning to any students who might have been too cool to say hello to me in front of their friends. I get a sense of who’s coming into class ready to focus and engage, who’s falling asleep at their desk, who thinks they’re a sneaky Instagram ninja, and who’s too shy or ashamed to admit they need help.
The classes themselves are a blur. There are ten thousand variables in any classroom on any given day. That student who’s been my secret gem will, on some days, make me want to breathe fire. Other times, that student I never really clicked with will hit me with an act of grace so stunning I’ll be left speechless. If one thing doesn’t change, it’s my purpose here: to be the best possible version of myself at any given moment, because these kids deserve no less.
Some days, my best isn’t very good. My mind padlocks itself, and I find it impossible to chain together the words I need to explain a basic concept. Some days, I have rough stuff going on in my personal life, and the stress of a situation overwhelms me. I snap at a student and am humbled as I see their eyes lower, disappointed in themselves. I make a mental note right then, even in the midst of my frustration-hazed brain, to apologize to them later and remind them that they’re going to change the world for the better one day.
Other days, I float on clouds. I share a new approach to tackling a problem, and I can witness the enlightenment in a student’s eyes. I show a kid that I care about them and believe in them, and watch them fill with a new spirit. Yet another student goes out of their way to build bridges where just a few months ago they were burning them.
By the end of any given day, I’m spent. I want nothing more than to go home, grab a meal, shower, and rest. But more often than not, as I’m replaying the day in my mind, it isn’t the moments of conflict or the notoriously lewd (and often hilarious) comments of 8th graders that linger with me. It’s the moments of breakthrough, of endurance, of compassion.
Despite the volunteer wage, I have had no more rewarding job than this one. The reward is getting to watch my students improve and grow as human beings, as I improve and grow in this crucible along with them. For this one fleeting year, their fates and my fate are woven together tightly, like the laces on my exhausted, determined boots.