Empathy and mentoring can only go so far.
The benches in the courtyard at Maynard Evans High School are some of the most important places to me in the entire school. The not-so-harsh 70-degree winters here in Orlando make going outside and chatting on them enjoyable—I use it as a mini vacation from our classroom—and my discussions with students while sitting on the benches have shown me that most of them see the importance of school and their own aptitude to succeed. But it's also where students have told me that they plan to drop out or that they honestly don't see how they can have a future beyond their current circumstance.
Before we started tutoring in schools this year, each City Year corps member was asked to write a mission statement. I wrote "I want to fully appreciate the irrevocability of this year in every student’s life, and then I want to make sure that I do something to positively affect every student that I come in contact with." At the heart of what I was saying was one of City Year's corps values—empathy. I've learned that being judgmental and controlling not only shows a lack sympathy, they're also ineffective.
Last month I wrote about the segregation of Evans and the Pine Hills neighborhood it serves. I thought that was a good example of trying to empathize and understand the circumstances and place our students were living in. However, soon after that I was reminded that there’s still a lot of context in the lives of these students that often goes unrecognized.
In particular, my interaction with two different students on my bench—their names and some of the more identifying details have been changed or omitted in order to protect their privacy— has deeply impacted my service. These stories aren't "cherry-picked." Each corps member at all five schools being served by City Year Orlando would say that they’ve heard similar stories. But these two deal with issues that, while I may be able to sympathize with, leave me wondering what I can do to change the circumstance for these students this year.
First, there's Joe. He’s a student that I try to work with in all three of our focus areas: attendance, behavior, and course performance. He's often disruptive during class and his most common quote to me is "I just ain't in the mood to do my work today. Okay?" But overall he's a pretty lovable kid. His gregarious personality makes him well-liked by his classmates and even the teacher that he expresses so much frustration toward.
However, last week Joe's misbehavior exceeded what I had seen from him before, so we went to the courtyard. After a few attempts to find out what was happening, he showed me a picture of his dad. He explained that his dad, who lives in New York, had come for a visit last week. According to Joe, his father moved to New York from another country in the late 1960s. His father never attended any school in his native country or in the United States.
"I would do anything for my dad Mr. Eron. I swear. I hate when he leaves. I just want to get out of here and move to New York. I’m just not good at school. And my dad… he never needed school," Joe said, shrugging his shoulders. I asked if his dad agreed that Joe didn't need school, but that only elicited another shoulder shrug.
Like Joe, Mathew’s story is really a story about family. Mathew came here with his father when he was in middle school. His mother still lives in their native country. Mathew is one of the older students I work with—which means he has a lot less room for error. Sitting in the courtyard last week, I asked Mathew what he wanted his future to look like. His response: "Right now, I need a job. My mom and my little sister need money. They're trying to come here. But they need money now. Can you help me with that?"
A week prior to that discussion, Mathew came back from a lengthy suspension. In order to pass his classes, Mathew had to talk to his teachers and complete the assignments he missed. The problem is that Mathew usually struggles to finish his assignments even when he's not behind. So during our discussion we talked about how important it was for him to finish everything. We made plans to find a way to get everything done and, although I had no idea how I could do anything, I said I would try to help him find a job. The day after our discussion Mathew was called to the guidance office and told that he would start the next week at the alternative school—something which Mathew and pretty much all of the students I talk to dread.
I joined City Year because I wanted to truly change things. I thought about my experience in high school and the dozens of students who somehow fell through the cracks without many people seeming to care. I wanted to make sure that I cared about every student. And while I do care, it's frustrating that I can influence such a small part of the lives of these students.
The impact that our social structure has on working class families or immigration policy is obviously outside my sphere of influence—and it cannot be denied that these are things that affect our students' opportunities to succeed. I can accept that I have to focus on what I can control and try to be a positive influence in the lives of students like Joe and Mathew. Though it may be pessimistic, I doubt pure empathy and words are going to do much to change Joe's mind about the importance of education or help Mathew see the long-term financial benefits of staying in school.
In my mind, the proper response to stories like these would be a unanimous national outcry. I also believe that if his father told him school was important, Joe would be in honors classes. If everyone stopped and really appreciated the predicament Mathew's in, we could change his perspective too. I'm aware something can still happen and that not all is lost. All I can think about though is, what happens to these students if nothing changes?
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Photo courtesy of City Year Orlando