My worst nightmare has come true. Our last day at Markham Middle School was on Wednesday (actually, one of my students said his “worst nightmare would start on Thursday” because City Year would no longer be on campus).
I can barely write a blog post because so many emotions have been going through my mind this week — I’m anxious that I’m leaving the country in 33 days, depressed that I am leaving my students for good, excited for the future, but not ready to say bye to everyone I’ve met this year.
This year has truly been amazing. I have learned so much from my school, my students and my teammates. At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t have expectations. I didn’t know if this year would be bad, so-so, or great. It exceeded greatness. Why? Well maybe because I learned so much:
- Markham Middle School and Watts showed me a reality so many others aren’t aware exists.
I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience an urban and struggling school like Markham, as well as a community like Watts. I saw the issues facing our public education system upfront. To name a few, students violently fighting about anything and everything (gangs, gossip, family issues, community issues) before school, during school and after-school. Obviously that affects any learning environment for students — being surrounded by violence at school of outside of school. For example, just the other day when my class was coming back from a field trip on the metro, a rider was walking up and down the train yelling with a gun in his pocket, and then just five minutes later a group of men trying to fight each other at the metro station by Markham. The day after I watched my teammates break up a crazy fight between a boy and a girl before school that was related to outside family/gang retaliation. Scenes like that in the neighborhood and at school I know would make me frustrated and mad, so I’m sure students feel that way.
I saw how the public education system has failed so many students: so many are behind grade level and unmotivated to keep trying because the work is too hard for them to complete. I witnessed prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse in the community — every morning driving or walking to school. The litter, graffiti and homeless camps throughout the streets with boarded up buildings are a familiar sight. I learned that my student’s parents sometimes work three jobs to support them and traveled as far as 50 miles one-way on public transportation to get to the jobs. I faced the hard reality that some students I knew were foster children due to substance abuse in the family.
The neighborhood of Watts is also just a bunch of houses, housing projects and convenient stores, soooo, where are the jobs for the struggling families and the kids turning to gangs and violence? The area is forgotten because so many in Los Angeles don’t really realize the extent of the problems here and that it’s a reality for many people. Now that I’ve worked in this reality for ten months, I will never work a day in my life that isn’t dedicated to a cause that will help change this stark reality so many people face in poverty-stricken areas of major cities. Granted I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Los Angeles, but every city has its Watts and that’s exactly where I belong.
- My students showed me that I have empathy and compassion I didn’t think I had.
Due to various situations I’ve dealt with with my family, I thought I lost all sense of being empathetic. I usually just think, “Well, that’s your fault for the way you are and you can change if you want to” or I refuse to deal with someone I know won’t change. But that’s not the case in all situations. I found even the worst behaving students in my class to hold a special place in my heart because I saw them outside of their behavior problems and caught them in their squishy moments — i.e. one student always talking about how much he loved his baby brother. That one always got me: “You want to be a role model for your brother, right? Start behaving in class! He’s depending on you.” My students gave me the hope that people do change and will change; now I can believe.
- It’s chance that my students were born into or moved into Watts and went to school there.
They have dreams too, just like any other Los Angeles kid. However, it’s going to be much harder for them to succeed based on their reality. Life may never be fair for minority students and students of such communities, but at least we can work to bring some justice to these communities through work like City Year or just teaching in these schools.
- My team was so incredibly diverse and I tried my hardest to not have first assumptions about people, but let’s be honest, everyone has first impressions of people.
Everyone is amazing in their own way and every person on earth has an interesting life story. Give people a chance and they’ll surprise you. My team ended up being the most hilarious, intelligent, inspiring and caring group of people I’ve ever met all at once. I vow to not make any assumptions about everyone I will cross in South Africa, whether that be another Peace Corps Volunteer or someone from my village.
- Time apart shows you who your real friends are.
This year has been so crazy busy that I lost contact with many people. The best part about losing contact with people is when you see them again and it’s not awkward you know it’s a real friendship.
- Keep calm and never doubt.
There were countless times this year that I wanted to give up. I was working toward improving issues that are bigger than myself. I realized that the only way any work would get done at school is if I was calm about it and never doubted the situation. I still doubt a lot of things, but I added a couple of points higher on my positivity scale (special thanks to the teammates and roomies Marissa and Daniel for teaching me this).
- Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Change doesn’t come overnight. Any work I did with my students may show in a couple of months or years or maybe even never. You come into City Year thinking you are going to change your student’s academic abilities so much, but you don’t understand how patient you have to be with this process. Maybe I didn’t change my student’s academic levels, but I know I made a difference because students looked up to me and the rest of City Year as friends, mentors and role models.
- I now know what I stand for.
I stand for the voiceless of the world. I am here to be a voice for the voiceless through my writing and volunteer work. Whether it’s a neighborhood like Watts or a rural South African village, I will be that voice that forgotten communities lack.
I’ll never forget this year and the students I got to work with; I’ll carry the memory of Markham Middle School with me wherever I go in life and it’ll definitely be a factor in choosing my final career path. Everything I learned will serve me well in South Africa and this year has prepared me more than ever for my Peace Corps adventure.
It still hasn’t really hit me that I won’t see my students next week. I think it’s going to take at least two weeks for it set in that this year is actually over.
One of our students wrote a letter to us and read it aloud after-school when all the corps members and students were saying goodbye (yes, many tears were shed):
Dear City Year,
I hope you guys visit us and I hope you guys find a good job. I will always remember you guys, you guys are like my big family. I hope you guys have fun in your new job and I hope you guys have fun in your life.
Thank you Markham Middle School for changing my life. Next year’s Markham team really has to uphold everything we created this year. My team built the foundation for next year’s team to succeed because City Year wasn’t at Markham last year and it seemed like the school was apprehensive about having us back, but now they can see it worth it and that we really made an impact. The students trust us and love us — next year’s team needs to carry over our love, passion, dedication and care. I have faith they will.
Sadly, we graduate City Year tomorrow, but it’s not goodbye, it’s a new beginning. Three more weeks in Los Angeles. Seriously? Gotta make the best of it.
One of my students begged my teammate and I for our yellow bomber jacket. My teammate Chariya is giving him one of her yellow jackets. I hope he’ll look at the jacket and always remember what we taught him.
My team leader made pictures of all of us and put them on the wall in the City Year room for students to sign. Once again, to show love, one student wrote “you ugly” on everyone’s, but mine was even more special. “don’t know you, but you still ugly.” Oooohhh Markham.
What will I miss about Markham the most you ask? Based on the pictures above, I’ll miss the hilarity.
Although I’m graduating tomorrow, I’ll still be “yours in service” (South Africa in a month),