By Malcolm Merritt, City Year Washington, D.C. AmeriCorps member
This year, the holidays will feel a little bit different. There will be no major changes at home - my family will still be the same - and there will still be two turkeys: one baked and one fried. There will still be the mix of Haitian and African-American culture as the accents collide and the dishes follow the same trend. However, there will be one significant difference this year compared to others. This year, I am serving as an AmeriCorps member. My name is Malcolm Merritt and I proudly serve the young Kings and Queens of Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8 of Washington, DC.
This year, I have a different outlook on Thanksgiving because I am more thankful than I have ever been, and I think the cause of this is my current situation. I am 21-years-old with one year left of college, and I decided to take a leap of faith and spend a gap year serving with DC public schools in the DC communities that needed it most. In the beginning, my decision was slightly selfish. I wanted to find a way to pay for school, while also boosting my resume. At first, I thought it was just a logical course of action. But once the year started and I began to get to know my students, my reason for serving with City Year began to change.
I spent my first month serving at Stanton simply trying to learn the names of the kids I serve. There were two kids whom I would often confuse, Kamal* and Nico*. For me, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. Kamal is slightly taller, but both students have a similar wide-eyed expression, had similar interests and wear a similar school uniform. I was convinced they were twins for the first few weeks. But as I mixed up their names on a regular basis, they began to make their differences clear. Each time I made the mistake, Kamal would playfully grab my hand, exclaiming, “I’m not Nico! We look nothing like each other!” These experiences made me feel renewed as I realized how important it was for me to see my students as individuals. I really enjoyed the whole interaction and with that came an appreciation for the students I see every day, not just Kamal and Nico, but all of them.
That appreciation for my students was accompanied by an understanding of them. The year tumbled on, day after day, class after class, small group after small group, and while a routine was coming into form, the minute interactions I had with the kids throughout the day were essential. With each conversation, I learned something new about the Stanton community and its people. These interactions gave more depth to my original “Why I Serve” statement – to show the scholars here what they are capable of.
All of this factors into my renewed outlook on Thanksgiving. I’ve seen what my scholars have and don’t have available to them, and how the people in their lives have direct influence on their daily thoughts and actions. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own upbringing.
In addition, I’ve been challenged by living off the City Year stipend that is provided to me this year. I’ve had to learn how to adapt, how to quickly think on my feet, and how to manage my time wisely in the few hours I have to myself at home. I’ve begun living on a budget, and it has been driving me to grow and mature quicker than I would have without City Year.
With these new situations, along with my honest attempt at “adulting,” I’ve changed my outlook on Thanksgiving and being thankful. I guarantee that when I go home to New Jersey this week, the food will taste a little bit richer, the “hello’s” will be warmer, and the “goodbye’s” will be more sincere. When I finally get to see my little brothers, whom I’ve gone months without giving a fist bump, it will be the sweetest moment of the entire weekend. I’ve moved into a new stage of my personal life where because I am living off of less, I am appreciating more, I am becoming more and I am doing more.
I am thankful for so many things in my life right now. Trying to adjust my life to accommodate serving with City Year has been quite the transition, but one that I am happily making with the help of my loved ones. I couldn’t be more thankful for the students, who even on the worst of days, find some way to put a smile on my face and encourage me to keep on pushing. I appreciate my teammates more than they know, and I feel lucky to be placed on a team with them. Their presence in my life, and the lives of the students we serve every day, has had a huge impact on each of our trajectories.
City Year is preparing me this year for my future. It is forcing me to remember lessons I’ve learned throughout my whole life, and apply them to the present. City Year has truly done its part in ensuring that I am always ready. So, thank you, City Year.
The next seven months will unfold quicker than the first four have. I can’t wait to experience every second of it and to take an introspective look at the difference between who I was, who I am and who I am becoming.
* names changed to protect students’ privacy.