“I’m spending this year volunteering for the Augustinian Volunteers out in San Diego.”
“That’s great! What are you doing exactly?”
“I’m teaching at a K-8 grammar school.”
“Wonderful! What do you teach?”
“I teach physical education, computers, and language enrichment.”
“Oh [silence] you’re a PE teacher?”
This is just an example of one of the many conversations that I have had over this past year revolving around my volunteer work out in San Diego. It also includes the conversation that I have had with myself countless times again and again. Am I really a PE teacher? Did I really trade in four years of hard work to obtain a business degree for a year of dodgeball, tracksuits, and a well used whistle? How am I going to change the world by monitoring kickball games and shadow tag? I have struggled a lot this past year dealing with the credibility of my job position in comparison to my roommates’ work with the homeless and orphaned children. I struggled to understand the importance of my job and the work that I am doing. And I struggled in my daily interactions with my students. Sure, being a PE teacher sounds like it would be totally easy and fun. I mean, the teacher just plays games with the students all day, right? Everyone loved PE when they were children. It is the class that all students claim as their favorite subject and every person looks forward to spending fifty minutes a day playing mindless PE games. Right? I wish it were that simple.
The student population at St. Patrick’s School is an array of students from different socio-economic households. There are kids who travel hours out of Mexico to come to San Diego for school and some who simply have to walk down the street. When I first traveled out here back in August I was worried that my Spanish would not suffice for the after school program I work with in San Ysidro. I never imagined that I would need to use more Spanish to teach at St. Pat’s (well, not necessarily in order to teach, but in order to understand all those comments my students make on the side while I am teaching). The dividing line is clearly drawn between the student population and the intolerance, hatred, and judgment that seeps through the cracks of these children’s facades is unbelievable. Call me naieve, but when I first agreed to teach I worried about the proper way to discipline my students and if I was creative enough to write lesson plans that would evoke joyous emotion from my students (ha). I never worried about having to deal with the fragile emotions of a third grade girl who has been told by all her friends that they no longer like her. Or that I would have to break up a fight between two eighth grade boys who do not like each other simply because they speak two different languages. It never once crossed my mind that along with teaching over two hundred students I would also be dealing with all emotional baggage that is attached to each and every one of those students. Trust me, that is A LOT of baggage. But, I welcome it. Hey, I count myself as a survivor of middle school and I feel it is my duty as one who has survived the trauma of adolescence to instill the wisdom that I had to learn the hard way.
Throughout my months out in here in San Diego my attitude has changed toward my job. I have struggled to find the importance of my work and questioned the meaning of my volunteer year only to realize that it has been staring back at me since my first day at school. I have the opportunity to interact with over two hundred kids who will one day be the changing face of this world. As Whitney Houston once sang, “children are our future.” And I believe it is the teachers who are the ones molding these children and guiding them to live to their positive full potential to help create a better future. Now, do not get me wrong, I do not think that I am going to change the world simply by teaching students for one year. However, some of my students at St. Pat’s have never known their school experience to not have an Augustinian Volunteer in it. It has almost become a game to them to figure out who the new “Augie” will be for each year. They are exposed to something that has become a growing trend in this country: volunteer work. And they are only as old as fourteen (and as young as four). Imagine the first time that you were introduced to volunteer work, especially volunteer work as a living. To these kids it is as normal as night and day. What I can barely allow myself to dream about is that one day I will receive an email from one of my students informing me that they have decided to dedicate a year of their life to volunteer work (even better if they choose to join the Augustinian Volunteer family)! I realized that my simple presence as a person who has made the decision to dedicate my time to volunteer is an immense guiding post for any impressionable child. Teaching them how to be kind to one another, to look at life as if the glass is half full, and to realize that there are more important things to life then worrying about yourself are things I only know how to teach by acting that way myself. These kids absorb everything and if they can have a person in their lives that they trust as a mentor and a friend living a life dedicated to volunteer work then maybe they will absorb the positive idea of giving back to others.
I like to think of myself as not just a PE teacher but as a person who finally made an intelligent decision in my life and became an Augustinian Volunteer. I am not just teaching my students the proper way to do a sit-up but I am teaching them the proper way to respectfully treat other people. One day, maybe I will be lucky enough to know that I have inspired two hundred children to grow into two hundred adults working to make the world a better place. Until then, I will continue to blow my whistle and yell at kids for not paying attention and imagine the wonderful people that my students can grow to be if only they would listen to my advice to “play nice with everyone.”
San Diego, CA 2007-2008