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Week six: reality hit hard, some of it’s surreal

A different kind of air was felt this week at Markham Middle School for students, teachers, staff and the corps members.

Earlier this week, in the morning, some classrooms that are close to the gate that borders the street and Metro blue line heard gun shots. The teachers closest to this area dismissed it. Later, the administration found out that it was gunshots related to gang retaliation from a killing that had happened a week before.

One man was buying tamales when a car rolled up and shot him to death. The man who was shot had two children at Markham – both in the 7th grade. He also had a brother. The other man, I believe, had a nephew at Markham (excuse me if I’m getting the story mixed up, but this is what I’ve pieced together). The gang-related incident was racial (black v. Latino) and we’ve heard the gangs are still in retaliation-mode. The vice principal personally drove home the children of the man who died as soon as it happened. All the students that were affected by this personally are in 7th grade City Year classrooms. These kids are some of my teammate’s students. That very day we had our third lockdown after school – a man was bordering the same area with an AK-47.

Tensions were high this week at Markham. The administration told us that before school, during breaks, lunch and after school we should drop our clubs and other activities and instead just patrol the campus for students acting out. On the way to my 6th period break on Wednesday, I caught two students clobbering each other. No administration was around. I squeezed my body in between the two kids and stood there like a wall. Although they still tried to hit each other, they finally realized they had to stop because they could potentially hit me; I was standing face-to-face with one of them. I got lucky in that situation. Some corps members haven’t had the same experience and have actually been hit when trying to break up fights.

You could just feel a different kind of atmosphere – some students were timid, some students were depressed, others acting up and others questioning why instances like this had to happen. Why can’t we all just get along? One student wrote in a poem she was working on with me.

The day after the shooting, many of the teachers discussed it in class with their students. The one class that had the two students in it made a bunch of cards and a big poster for the students. That was so hard to look at and read. After my English teacher talked about it with my students, some started raising their hand and saying, “A similar thing happened to my cousin.” When my teacher asked them why incidents like this happen in their community, my little project (my 24/7 misbehaving student) raised his hand and said, “ignorance.” How eloquent, right? From things he’s said previously, I think that he’s lost family members due to gang violence. That made me happy to hear that he was able to understand the root of the problem and not talk about retaliation. After this incident, reality set in for me: These students deal with stuff like this on a daily basis. It’s hard to believe and relate to. They’re only in middle school!

One of my students after school was a crying wreck. I took her away from our after-school program and talked to her. She opened up to me and told me things she says she hasn’t told anyone. The shooting reminded her of losing her grandfather – who had a heart attack right in front of her. She recapped stories about her time with him; I just let her talk. Her grandfather pushed her to be a writer. She has a little journal that she writes fiction stories in. Her next one is about an armadillo. I kid you not, I wrote a story about an armadillo at her age. She reminds me so much of myself in middle school because she just writes random fiction stories. She said she’s nervous about having other people read her work, but I just kept telling her I’m going to make her a writer this year. We’re going to do it for her grandfather.

Her and her grandfather used to sit under a tree and just read together back in Mexico. We made a deal that we’re going to plant a tree around Markham and watch it grow. Although she has to be patient, I told her that ten years from now, when she’s 22, she’ll be a college graduate. That tree – that will be grown by then – will be a symbol of her grandfather and he’ll see her as a college graduate. I’ll find a way to make this happen and plant this tree if it’s the last thing I do.

One student is scaring me a little about mental health issues. The student was telling me all these intricate stories that were obviously made up, but the student really believed they were real and had happened from what it seemed. It reminds me of somebody in my immediate family that suffers from a similar issue, which I believe is a personality disorder: She doesn’t live in reality, but rather he own reality. What she thinks is happening her head is “actually” happening in reality. She believes it so much that it becomes the truth.

I still have to spend more time with this student to really get in the student’s mind, but just from having experience with someone who thinks like that, it scares me just a little bit.

What gets any of us at Markham through a tough week is our team. Our team is seriously a family. We laugh, love and even cry with each other. We’ve got each other’s backs through thick and thin. Every single person on that team I’ve already learned from. Likewise, every single person on that team I already consider a close friend (or should I say brother or sister?!)

Things are different at Markham than other schools CY works at. I’m definitely not saying it’s harder than other schools, but there are just other factors (like the gang incident, fights this week) that come into play more often. CYLA could not have put together a better or stronger team to get through this year. We’re all in it together. I could go on forever about how much I love my team…yet again.

Our program director, Andrian, came to Markham during one of our break periods this week to just debrief with us and get us back on track after everything that had happened. He told us a story about a time when he was teaching in West Oakland and this one particular student. He couldn’t stand this student; this student was the reason why he quit teaching.

After school one day, the student was going to be beaten up by some gang members. He was crying and shaking and begged to get in Andrian’s car. He let him in. Another student, I believe a friend of his, was killed. After that day, I believe he got his life together. Just recently, after Internet-stalking Andrian in every possible manner, he sent him an e-mail saying he’s headed to UCSB. He thanked him for being one of the only teachers that believed in him and that got him to where he is today. He wrote about that day as his personal statement for college.

As corny as the Markham team was, it got most of us teary-eyed. It got us pumped up again that that’s why we’re here. We might not see progress in our students – just like he didn’t – and they might frustrate the living hell out of us at times, but in the end, we are getting to them. Whether it’s a little moment, like this week when I got my problem child to sit down and do ALL the math problems right with me, or a bigger moment like Andrian’s, in the end it relates to the bigger picture.

On a happier note, yesterday I had my Peace Corps interview. I was nominated on the spot! I usually get very nervous for interviews, but I was so laid back at this one. My recruiter, Lindsay, and I talked for about 2 1/2 hours just about her Peace Corps experience and why I’d make a good volunteer. I had gone over some of the questions the whole week with my Unofficial Peace Corps Handbook and Jamey, my roommate who had already passed the interview process. I think this interview was so easy for me because I whole-heartedly believe that this is exactly what I need to be doing with my life and I am so passionate about it. Luckily, my recruiter must have seen that in me.

I was nominated for either a youth development or English teaching position. I need six months of working with at-risk youth before becoming qualified for youth development; I’ll hit that mark in January with City Year. However, because I am part of AmeriCorps and City Year, my recruiter said she is going to try to petition me into a youth development opening for this summer so I wouldn’t have to wait until January. Although it’s likely the spots for that will fill up quickly, it would be youth development in South America. That’s my roommate Jamey’s assignment. It could be possible that I could be doing a similar project or close in geographic proximity to him if I made it into that batch of youth development positions.

However, it’s more likely that I’ll get my assignment after the December 1st positions open up. Those are mostly for English teaching positions. That means I’d be leaving sometime next fall.

The Peace Corps is all about being flexible. So, I have to be flexible if my recruiter were to push my leave date back to the spring of 2013. The Obama Administration expanded the Peace Corps budget, but with the current government financial crisis, the funding was cut down again. Thus, the Peace Corps made more positions because the organization was supposed to expand, but because the expansion didn’t really happen, it nominated more volunteers than it has positions for now. Some of these volunteers are still willing to go, so their spots have to be filled before spots like mine – who just applied – are filled.

The next step of the application process is to get an actual letter and e-mail from my recruiter about being nominated. I believe they usually send this 3-4 weeks after the interview to tell you if you were nominated or not. I don’t have to wait anxiously for this though because nominated me at the interview! The nomination letter will give me an idea of the project I’ll be working on and geographic region I’ll be in. I know the project I’ll be doing, but geographic region is still a question mark. English teaching positions are predominately in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Then I’ll get a HUGE packet of medical and dental work I’ll need to get done (x-rays, samples and all that). THEN, if I pass medical and legal, I’ll get my actual invitation – exact country, community and project and leave date.

I set aside this whole year after City Year for my Peace Corps leave date, so I’ll just have to be as patient as I can be. I plan to move home and work at a restaurant, save money, then go when they tell me to go. If I have to wait until next spring, I’ll live.

I had a little break down on Friday at work. It’s so surreal that I could be living in a whole new country as quickly as nine months from now. Another way to put it: I was OVERWHELMED. I refuse to leave this country without some of my closest friends not being a part of my life.

I told my recruiter that I know for a fact my relationship with my friends from home won’t change during the 2 1/2 years I’m gone and that’ll be a motivation for my service abroad. I know we’ll pick up exactly where we left off. Just one promise you guys: NO WEDDINGS WHILE I’M GONE. SERIOUSLY. WAIT FOR ME!

That’s all for now. This might have been my longest post yet… sorry!



Here’s me at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The dream has become a reality!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Dwight Warden #

    Tough week. Thanks for making a difference in the lives of these students. You may not see what happens in 5 or 10 years, but they will remember you.

    October 18, 2011

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