Eana Meng ’19
13 March 2017
“The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward.” – ‘Abdu’l – Bahá
“What are you guys doing here?” the teacher asked us in one of the three languages taught at the District of Columbia International School.
It was a sincere question – blunt in English translation, but honest in its meaning. We sheepishly answered, “We’re here to be as helpful as we can be.”
Today was our first day volunteering at DCI School, a public charter school aimed at fostering “multi-lingual, culturally competent and committed” students (from their Mission Statement). We arrived in the morning, around nine, and had a debrief meeting with the principal of the school, Simon Rodberg. A journalist-turned-educator, Mr. Rodberg has spent time at our rival school, and later at our very own Harvard Education School for a Master’s degree. He is a deeply committed and passionate man, and cared about catering to our interests and skillset. He was given a hard task – our plans with a previous school fell through the weeks leading up to our trip, and Mr. Rodberg graciously allowed us to volunteer at his school. Taking seven college students and putting them in the school for a week is akin to placing seven new but temporary parts in a complex machine with its own rhythm and hum. How can those seven pieces fit in without disturbing the machine’s pace and efficiency, but maximally be both utilized and benefitted? There is no perfect solution, and it requires a lot of – pun intended – adjustment.
Adjustment takes place on all fronts. For the school’s students, it’s getting used to seeing a college student in their classroom for a few days. Curiosity abounds for them and there certainly was no lack of direct questions today. From “who are you?” to “what other schools did you get in to?”, the students, refreshingly, asked exactly what they wondered. Teachers, too, were curious. For them, adjustment takes form of how to make use of us while also considering what we wouldn’t mind doing. When asking if I would be okay with taking three slightly-on-the-rowdy side students to the library to help them finish their work, the teacher seemed apologetic, as if it was a lot to ask of me. Later, when she learned that I was hoping to become a doctor one day, she was shocked. She didn’t verbally ask the question, but the sentiment was the same as the first teacher’s: what was I doing there? Why was I spending my spring break helping make a chicken dish, encouraging a clearly very smart but disinterested middle schooler to finish his vocabulary practice, or sitting next to a focused student, treading the line between engaging her in a conversation in a foreign language and allowing her to finish her work?
We here for both them and us, undoubtedly. There is no shame in doing service for the sake of learning and educating oneself; this experience is invaluable in understanding and figuring out how to best help. One teacher told us that this is a “ground zero” of sorts, the realest of realities of our American education system. The day to day in and outs of education are not pretty – as the minute hand ticks by, the long hours are filled with nearly every imaginable happening. Students yelling at each other, throwing things at each other, students yelling at the teachers, students listening perfectly to the teachers, students finishing their work quickly so that they can read a book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, students eager to learn, students who simply just do not want to be at school – it’s all there. The school is truly a microcosm of the larger world we’re all living in, and it’s an amplified, unrestrained version.
But, we’re just here to be as helpful as we can be. In whatever shape or form that takes, there is nothing beneath us, nothing too “mundane” to ask of us. Of course, there are things we feel more comfortable, more interested in helping with, but that’s where our adjusting comes into place. We’re learning and understanding that most teaching moments are not romantic, only the very few select instances are – a teacher’s small sigh of relief, a student finally getting a concept, a student feeling a boost in her confidence. These small moments might not have changed the macro-world, but on the micro and equally as significant level, they might have made that teacher or that student feel just a little better – and for us, that’s the best we can hope for.
Over a home-cooked dinner tonight, we all wondered, what impact are we making here? We may never know, but for me, that’s okay. My high school English teacher once told me that seldom does he ever get to see the products of his time and love, and he counts himself very lucky when he hears from a student years later. And he’s okay with that, and carries on with just as much hope and dedication – safe in the knowledge that education has been, and always will be, what defends us from a deluge of ignorance.