The kids are gone. My coworkers are preparing to move out. The program is over and I am left with memories of what has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had the privilege of being part of.
I love the kids I met this summer; so many of them found their way into my heart and will never leave, even if we don’t see each other again. Working as their RA showed me a lot about what life is like for their generation now and how they cope–and just what kinds of lives these children lead; the struggles they face and the obstacles they overcome. Working as a teacher for one of their classes, I learned more about what is expected of our students and what our students expect from school. I gained confidence in presenting material I’d collected myself, and I learned methods of facilitating respectful and engaging debate. And as the students’ friend, I learned more about being a person. I learned what it’s like to be seen as a role model, as someone who’s seen more of the world than you and can help you through it. I learned what it’s like to be seen as an equal, to be sought out for a good time or a good talk. I learned what it’s like to be looked down on by someone younger than me, to be seen as a nuisance and to have my work go unappreciated. I learned methods of fostering positive relationships and ground rules for a safe and respectful living environment. I learned that there’s no such thing as an off day when you’ve made an emotional investment in something or someone. At any moment a dynamic can change, an incident can spring out of the blue, a situation can prove to be to much for someone to handle–and you have to be ready for it. There’s no turning away when a child depends on you for support. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.
Or maybe I can. But just from the other perspective.
This year I started working with kids more as I’ve explored the option of a career in youth development or advocacy. And as I’ve done so I’ve started to look back on my own childhood and how it impacts me to this day. I saw a quote on Tumblr once–“Be the person you needed when you were a kid.” As soon as I saw that I knew that was what I needed to do in order to feel complete. The mark I make in this world, if anything at all, at the very least must be this.
Working in this program, I started to wonder how my childhood would have been different if I’d been in a program like TRIO. I feel like I could have used the support, the social experience, the adventure of being thrust into a strange environment and taken to so many new places.
That didn’t happen to me, though. Instead, I got to work here. I got to fill the role I felt I might have needed. I got to help kids have an experience I never had.
One if my kids wrote me a letter before she left, and among other things she said she wanted to thank me for teaching her that it was okay to be childish sometimes. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re compelled to grow up too soon. She was the oldest in her family and mature beyond her years, already taking charge of her life in a way some have the luxury of putting off a few years. The most touching thing for me was to know I had given her some space to step back and be a kid again. To know that responsibilities don’t automatically take the fun out of life. Especially as this is something that I struggle with myself. If she got that from me, I must be getting better at knowing it for myself as well.
And if I gave her those moments where she felt like she could be childish sometimes, then I have already done for one person what that Tumblr quote requested.
The most important thing to me is that we let kids be who they are. Find their identities and let that shine. That’s what I needed when I was a kid. I needed someone to brush me off and see me sparkle. These kids are all diamonds in the rough. My team and I took eight weeks out of our summer to help polish off some of the grime life covers its youngest with. Hopefully they’ll go back to the world a little brighter than before. And I am so lucky to have been a part of that.