Most people pretend to know what AmeriCorps is. “My niece’s friend is doing that,” they say, clearly lying. I rarely wish that I had chosen the Peace Corps instead, but when I do, it’s strictly for the name recognition. While pretending to believe them, I go on to explain that we’re something like the domestic equivalent of that better-known program: we’re “paid volunteers,” given a small monthly stipend and placed in underprivileged communities here in America instead of abroad.
I was hired last September for a program called Operation Jump Start in Denver. Our members are placed through Catholic Charities at a variety of institutions, but most of us, myself included, work in Head Start classrooms with children and families in poverty. I am still not at all sure why they hired me. Apart from occasional babysitting, I had no experience working with children of any age.
I was not prepared; I don’t know how I could have been. I still know almost nothing. There are a few things I know about today, though. That I will be told, for example, that a dinosaur, shark, or dragon will eat my head. That I will respond, “You know he’s going to eat YOUR head, so don’t even try it.” That someone will spill his milk. That the geraniums we planted yesterday (I have never seen so much dirt on a floor, or possibly anywhere) will grow. That I will say a variety of things I never planned on saying, including, “I don’t care who started it,” “Keep your hands on your own body,” and, “An octopus is going to come out of that office and visit everybody who isn’t asleep in one minute.” (They are deeply suspicious of that animal.)
I have been mean to children. I have, as a friend warned me I would, wanted to put them outside, close the door, and leave them there. I have cried in the bathroom because they screamed at me and because I’ve been told about the horrible things that others have done to them. I have no certainty about their future, and sometimes I think it’s better not to know.
But one day, looking through my notebook, I found two quotations I had written down on the same page. One was from Gail Godwin’s novel The Odd Woman: “If there is such a thing as sin in this world, I think it must be shutting oneself up against hope.” The other was from one of my students, who, on the playground, had shouted, “Teacher, look!” I automatically responded as the other teachers in my room do: “My mama didn’t name me Teacher.” Immediately she said, “I named you Teacher.”
This I believe: that if such a frustrated, irritable, and generally inadequate specimen as myself can be named Teacher by these children, then maybe there is a little hope somewhere, for me and for them.
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