By Maya Jefferson
AmeriCorps member on the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative team serving at Cesar Chavez PCS
My kids are the screaming, joking, and dancing 8th-graders that inhabit middle school hallways, glossing walls with eraser marks and transforming into interior decorators as they change the layout of the classroom every day. I want to tell them that they are capable, that they have a future outside the ‘hood, and that they can have dreams that surpass expectations. Being a part of City Year illuminates my idealistic views of my kids, society, and myself – and at the same time I wonder, “When should I tell them the truth?” While I sincerely want all these things for them, I am faced with the reality that I am helping them succeed in various systems that are customarily working against them.
My students have the leadership skills of Malcolm, the resilience of Nelson, and the intuition of Thurgood. They have good spirits and big hearts. They crave human connection and thrive on peer-interactions. Of course, there are off-days and outliers, but when you expect more from them, they exhibit a will to be better. When I walk through Cesar Chavez Parkside Middle School, there are many students who yell, curse, and hit their peers. Yet, just the day before, these same students helped a teacher clean up and held my hand on the field during sports club. These kids want to be good. I choose to believe that and so does City Year.
I help my students develop important social skills like respect, discipline, self-advocacy, goal-setting, and active listening. I track and collect data on their daily behavior on charts. Most have low ratings, which is why they are on my focus lists. Many of my students are assigned to social workers to help them react and cope with what occurs at home. My students have endured tumultuous family trials, violence, or have had a parent in jail. Considering all this, they have to be exceptional to accomplish all the dreams I have for them. They have to be even more resilient to reach their own aspirations.
As an AmeriCorps member, I hope to direct students down a better path. Every week, I have to re-evaluate just how difficult this task is. I don’t know how to explain that their struggles are not episodic, but symptomatic of deeper systematic issues that all of us must help to alleviate. A different question pops up in my mind each time.
My kids should dream of attending top colleges and universities. When do I tell them about the 56% dropout rate so, that they can be an exception to that rule?
Will telling them this encourage them? Or make them feel defeated?
I am a firm believer that it’s important for fish to know what type of pond they are swimming in. I love my kids. They deserve my support, understanding, patience, and the truth about the city where they live. I’m just trying to find the right way to help them swim upstream.