Saturday, August 9, 2008

I'm going to finally go public with this...

"Everyone is doing it from the Buddhists to the Baptists!" exclaims our site sponsor Martha Lee during the seventh volunteer orientation I've heard since I've been working with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. "Over 700 roofs have been fixed since the storm; we call ourselves the Righteous Roofers," she goes on to explain of the faith-based volunteer mission. A chuckle choruses across the fellowship hall. New volunteers are eager to begin their week of grueling physical labor and helping residents of the surrounding towns get back to their homes.

Every week we get a new crew of volunteers, and every week I hear these statistics. And every week these statistics never cease to amaze me. The moral of the story I suppose is never underestimate the power of people in large groups with large hearts. These are people in a different stage of life, mostly retired, who want to give back to society at large. They come with many skills or no skills at all, and work tirelessly for a solid week. I feel hopeless next to them; I've been here for seven weeks, returning to the same project even after winter break and by patience for all things disaster relief and construction is starting to wear thin.

Then I meet Janet, a retired high school French teacher. I have been assigned to the group she is working with to paint a house by the beach. We load the car in silence, but I can feel her staring at me. Why is she staring at me? Pretty soon I will get the question. The dreaded question: it pops off her tongue no sooner than we open the door of our worksite. "Why did you decide to join AmeriCorps*NCCC?" I want nothing more than to run at this point. There's no looking to my team members for help on this one, for I am the only person under age 55 there. I knew what it is before I heard it; I've heard the same question at the beginning of every week with a new volunteer crew.

Like many of my fellow Corps members, I joined this program because I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do with my life after college. I knew I didn't want to teach and I knew I didn't want to sit in an office. That doesn't leave much room for exploration for a girl with an education degree and AmeriCorps was my sort of delaying the real world gig. I sure wasn't going to admit that to this volunteer though. I managed to get something off about wanting to explore my options and travel while helping others after college, but I stumbled.

Clearly, this question makes me nervous. Can't she see that? I want to tell the truth about my past in the classroom and failing miserably at classroom management when I was on my own as a teacher. I want to say that I asked for help and was asked to resign. I want to say I'm a perfectionist who is lost in a world no one can dream of. I don't, though. I'm expected to be a strong leader of these folks, and I can't do that and crumble at the same time. It's not like I have practiced this speech enough in the past seven weeks.

I realized I must have struck a chord when, 30 minutes and one coat of paint on two walls later I'm engrossed in her life and career story. I listen intently because there really is nothing more to do. I learn that she was a teacher for ten years, and those ten years were the most miserable years of her life. "There are teachers and there are those that give back in other ways," she explains. I'm starting to believe that these other ways are OK, thanks to this woman and ten others I met this week. I don't know why this woman stuck out more than any of the other volunteers, all of whom came up to hug me before they lift at the end of last week.

Maybe I realized for the first time that I could do and be anything I want to be. I don't have to be a teacher and that is OK. I don't have to paint myself into a little box and settle down into a career and do that for the rest of my life. I don't have to spend the next 10 or 15 years in the same state of even country.

I listen to stories from volunteers like Janet, volunteers who are different ages, both men and women, and who represent a variety of professions, and I am renewed. I look forward to the beginning of every week. These people energize me to complete tasks for the Westminster community and Gulfport region once again. I am hopeful for my work during my team's final tow weeks in the Gulf. Yet, I am also reflective of my future and excited to begin seeking out plans for the months and years ahead of me. It's inspiring what I gain simply by opening my ears and heart and just being here.

It goes without saying that my generation is whiny. I am proud member of the millennial generation, for what it's worth. There are many great things that we have contributed to society (our work-ethic, commitment to a team and a task, and desire for success among them.) However, among those strengths are our greatest weaknesses: we are whiny, and we tend to make a BIG deal out of not much. Who knows the reason for this? I blow my resignation from teaching after less than a year out of proportion on a daily basis, possibly because I haven't had much else to complain about. As much as a career set back such as this one disappoints me, I have learned much.

Since my resignation, I have realized that I fill a support role in teaching much better than I fill a teacher role in the classroom. Thanks to AmeriCorps, I have been given a tremendous opportunity to meet people and see places and experience situations I never would have dreamed about as a classroom teacher. In my second year of service in Minneapolis, I was also given a second shot at teaching, but in a much less intimidating manner. Thanks to the City of Lakes AmeriCorps program, I have been able to work collaboratively with teachers and students to build the kind of teaching career that I might enjoy holding for the next ten years, at least. Then I can reassess.
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