Today was our first day of service learning, a volunteer/learning project in which we all participate at the beginning and end of our semester. We are split into different groups and sent to sites all over the city, in order to experience “the District” and life off Capitol Hill. I was assigned The Fishing School, an after-school program that is based on the adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life.” Their catchphrase is even “Going fishing in the rivers of the mind.”
Today’s experience was more akin to fishing in a mud puddle.
We began our orientation last night with a showing of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which tells the story of America’s failure to educate inner-city kids in public schools. We all watched it and came out feeling determined to go volunteer and make a difference in the lives of inner-city kids through this after-school program. Even in the orientation held at their site in Anacostia, which was even recently renovated on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, we were all impressed by the quality that this program seemed to just…exude.
Here’s a comparison: The top photo is the renovated Fishing School facility; the lower picture is the house across the street. So, we naively expected our experience at J.O. Wilson Elementary to be the same: The public education is the house across the street, and the work we were going to do was the beautiful building that we would inevitably erect in these children’s lives.
Of course, this was not the case. Our service experience lasted only three hours, but it was exhausting and overwhelming. We worked in first- and second-grade classrooms with unruly, disruptive students whose teachers yelled at them and even raised their voices at us. Though we were told the emphasis would be on homework, neither of the classrooms in which I worked completed any homework. Instead, they colored a bit, read the Fishing School creed, ate a snack, and played outside…where the teachers sat back, ignored the students, and seemed to expect the volunteers to run around with the energy-rich kids.
I had been looking forward to working with kids and tutoring them in reading and mathematics, as the orientation had suggested we would. Instead, I corralled students, tried to staunch an unstoppable flow of tears, and followed them aimlessly. I couldn’t figure out how to be a good volunteer, because I did not know what was expected…and because what I got was NOT what I had expected.
It all makes sense now, though, why one of the teachers asked how long we would be volunteering. “Only a few weeks now and in November,” I said. “Heh, lucky,” he replied. Another teacher, who asked which grades we were working with, just rocked with laughter before saying, “Good luck! You’ll need it…” Ominous. It should have been a sign.
On the bright side, I made new friends, one of whom, Demerious, drew me a picture between sobs and cries for his mom. It’s on the cover of my WJC binder now. Awww…