The team: Me on the left, Nick center, and another collegue on the right.
I work for Americorps at an elementary school in Santa Rosa, California. Sometimes people ask me where I work and when I tell them they say, “wow, how cool!” and look at me approvingly as someone changing the lives of the young ones as much as Julie flippin’ Andrews in The Sound of Music.
Though my coworker and I did joke about singing “Do-Re-Mi”with our 5th graders, the reality of my job is not quite as picturesque as Julie made it out to be.
I work for a specific program in Americorps that manages a volunteer mentoring program meant to enlighten 5th and 6th graders about the perks of higher education. During the school year our team recruited volunteers from the community to be one-on-one mentors for students in elementary schools within Sonoma County. Now that it is summer, our team has dispersed into summer school programs in various elementary schools in Santa Rosa. We were given creative freedom to develop a fun “higher education” themed curriculum for the 5th and 6th graders and taking two or three of them out of their usual classes for about an hour a day, allowing us to see all which allows us to see all the students once per week for the three week long summer school.
I got assigned to a school working with Nick, a tall, blonde Harvard grad with a boyish nerdy charm. He says sorry too much, laughs at everything, and is always agreeable. He is also kind, conscientious and generally happy, often times laughing at his own silliness as he rushes through his speech, often ending his sentences with, “or whatever”. Nick is always himself and would never try to be anything else. I have never heard him say anything negative about another person.
The first week we had the kids make “goal collages.” Some kids really went for it, cutting out letters to make their names and pictures of soccer players or doctors that they aspired to be like while others strayed from the general theme.
The second week we created a scenario in which we explained to the students that they were going to infiltrate the white house. We explained that this would be done by them applying to jobs using fake identities. We provided resumes for their new identities and then conducted mock job interviews with them (props to Nick for that idea). This worked well with the kids and we had fun too. When we asked “what is your greatest weakness,” three of the kids said that their greatest weakness was being ticklish.
Though these activities are exciting, they only last a few hours of the day which leaves Nick and me with lots of time to bum around the campus, play basketball at recess, sit in on the classes, and stare at the clock.
The second Monday of summer school I wasn’t having the best day. I was experiencing a lot of social anxiety and I was feeling like I wasn’t contributing much to the job. Nick and I were hanging around the main office trying to look busy when Nick had the idea of working in the garden. The school’s garden is a really large fenced in space with lots of overgrown grass, a few sheds with tools flung everywhere, a few fruit bearing trees, a large lavender plant, some tomato plants, and some lonely looking garden beds with dry soil and stubborn weeds.
But growing all around the fence of the garden were thick blackberry bushes.
Most of them were still pink and sour but Nick and I found some ripe looking ones and ate them, and to our satisfaction they were sweet, juicy, and had that classic blackberry taste. “I should make some blackberry pie,” he said.
And those blackberries did it for me. They flipped some switch in my ridiculously thoughty mind and I felt like I was a kid again reaching into that towering thorny bush not caring if my arm got snagged on a brier. It was worth it to find that perfect blackberry. All my anxiety disintegrated like the berries in my mouth. The sun was hitting Nick’s and my blonde hair as we plucked blackberries from the prickly plant; I was content to just sit and chomp away like the bear cub in “Blueberries for Sal.”
I felt then that it was okay to be out there instead of in a classroom, that I was serving a purpose just standing in the sun eating blackberries with Nick.
Sometimes the best way to respect life is by finding some berries and gobbling them up, letting the juice stain my fingers and face, letting myself go back to that childlike me.
Thanks for inspiring me, Nick!