When I sat down to write this blog I had trouble deciding where to begin. At this point in my year of volunteering, I can distinctly recognize the beginning, middle, and now ending stages. It has been almost nine months since I met my roommates in the apartment in downtown Philadelphia; the “beginning”. The middle months flew by and I now find myself entering the home stretch of this volunteer year.
The year starts as a massive overload of new things. New people, new relationships, a new city, new experiences, new responsibilities, new mind sets, new goals, and new challenges. I came to Chicago for the first time and was entering an atmosphere entirely filled with unknowns. From having just a basic understanding of what being Augustinian really means to living with five strangers to working in a school where I would be in the minority; each of the unknowns created a different challenge which I alone could not handle overcoming.
Which is why it was a good thing there were six of us to figure it all out.
I am talking, of course, about my roommates. Six different people, all coming from different backgrounds. When we met in Philadelphia and I sat down on the couch next to the four girls from Massachusetts and my fellow Villanova grad whom I had never met, while we knew nothing about each other, we instantly had something in common - we were all starting this unique experience together.
And together we went for our week long orientation; touring around Philadelphia, choosing household responsibilities, telling the story of our faith experiences, getting to know each other little by little. As I said, there were many new things going on. New things which in the beginning weeks we would learn a lot about; we learned about our city, our jobs, our neighbors, our Augustinian community, and about each other. Amanda, Claire, Jeannie, Pat and Susan made those beginning weeks so much easier then I ever expected.
The biggest challenge as a volunteer for me was figuring out my role. I knew my job title; computer teacher at St. Margaret of Scotland School, but what exactly did that entail. When I was given my job assignment there was a list of different job expectations, but those were very general. Figuring out my role at the school took a long time. As I see it now, the computers in my classroom were simply the instrument I had been given to allow me to achieve what it is I sought out to do with my volunteer year. Jeannie was given books and a library, Claire, a classroom of preschoolers, Amanda, pregnant teenagers, Susan a school of pre-K through eighth graders, and Pat an all boys high school. Each of our jobs were our instruments to allow us to perform our duties as Augustinian Volunteers.
While learning about computers is an important skill for these students to learn, you need to learn to crawl before you can walk. At times through out my year at St. Margaret I often wondered why this school in desperate need of so many things (like a sufficient number of qualified teachers for starters) has two computer labs filled with brand new desktop and laptop computers. How was I, with no background in education, expected to step into this computer classroom and teach computers to students who struggle with following directions, being on time, being attentive and respectful in a classroom.
I realized on the first day of school at St. Margaret of Scotland that all students in the school knew exactly who I was. I was the 20 something white male college graduate from the east who would be gone at the school years end. Just like the computer teacher here last year. Just like the computer teacher here before him. The students can trace my position back probably five years when the Augustinian Volunteers first came to Chicago. To them, everyone who held my position is very much the same. What that means is that I was entering a situation where I had very little understanding of my new surroundings. I was very lost, very confused, nervous, and unsure of what I am doing at this place. I was supposed to be the teacher and knew very little. My students on the other hand, seemed to know everything about me and were very familiar in their surroundings. It seemed a little backwards that I was the one getting the education.
My job title was computer teacher, but like I said, I started to think of my computer classroom as an instrument rather then a place to develop future computer technicians. To the best of my inexperienced ability as a teacher, I wanted to try to do things with these kids that would allow them to be independent and figure things out for themselves; problem solve, trial and error, cooperation, dealing with frustration, being respectful, and understanding the limits of how you should act in a classroom. In the process, if they picked up some useful computer skills then all the better.
In order for me to be a successful teacher, I think it was important for me to keep my own mind sharp and fresh through out the year. The best way I have been able to do this is through living in community and the prayer life. Prayer was a new concept to me; or rather, it was a misunderstood concept for me. It was an aspect of this year that I can honestly say was a concern for me coming in. I would ask myself, is developing my spirituality with five strangers something I am looking for in my year of service. I am not sure I answered that question before I committed to this program, but I know now my answer is community and prayer life is what has kept me strong and sharp through out this whole year. The reason I say it was a misunderstood concept because I always viewed prayer as kneeling in silence, candles lit, having a conversation that started with Dear God.
I discovered prayer can come in many forms and it is really nothing that should make you uncomfortable. We all entered prayer life with very open minds which is the only way you can have an effective prayer life. It made developing our own personal prayer life as well as our prayer life as a community a very comfortable and rewarding aspect of our experience together. Each of us brought our own perspective and style to prayer and it has made it an awesome experience. In a year where it seemed like we were always on the go and always had something going on, prayer provided that time for us to step back and take into perspective what it is going on in our lives.
As the finale to the year of service rapidly approaches, the next challenge is to determine how it is I will maintain the influence this year has had on me after the year has “ended”. However, the catch is the year never really ends. It is an experience that will always be a part of my life. It will be important to hold on to every aspect of this year; the goods along with the bads, the highs and the lows. Through this experience, many of those unknowns have become knowns. The questions I once had have been answered. Things that were once concerns to me are now comforting. As I face the departing stages of the year, I know all the things that happened this year will always be a part of my life.
Chicago, IL 2007-2008