A City Education: Learning What Idealism Looks Like in Action

Posted by Eron Jenkins

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In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

City Year's slogan is "Give a Year. Change the World."

The plausibility of this idea is the reason I wanted to become a corps member. I believe what happens in the margins matters, and therefore my small contribution and my attempt to do something positive can actually change something. When I and the rest of City Year Orlando’s corps members began our year service in July, we were introduced to a bit of City Year culture called the "idealist's journey."

The idealist's journey is a space for corps members to reflect and to find solutions to help ensure that our year of service is meaningful. In one of our reflections we were asked to create a personal mission statement. I wrote, "I want to fully appreciate the irrevocability of this year in every student’s life, and then I want to make sure that I do something to positively affect every student that I come in contact with." My goal was to help every student.

After working at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida for the past three months, I don't have to ponder the plausibility of change; I can see the reality of educational inequality and I can better question my ability to get students back on track so they don't drop out. However, this is also fairly difficult work. It turns out that in order to affect people positively, I have to almost constantly be positive. In July that sounded easy. But it’s not easy to see the reality of a squandered opportunity and not be jaded or cynical about the future. It's not easy to see a student with enormous potential buy into the low expectations they hear forecasted and not also believe that poverty and exclusion are an inevitable tidal wave that I can't possibly halt.

In the introduction of the idealist's journey workbook there's a quote from The Diary of Anne Frank that says, "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out… I feel the sufferings of millions yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."

This isn't a story about how I was naïve before, but now have somehow come to fully understand the plight of the people in the community I'm serving in. It's about whether or not I'm able to do what I came here to do. By the end of this year will I have actually changed the world?

Similar to the spirit of Anne Frank's quote, it's hard to be in the moment—literally in the middle of another daily grind—and think, "Yes, I'm changing the world. I'm changing people's lives.” Because, even the most self-assured corps member would admit that our service isn't immune to tedium and fatigue. But what gives me hope is the idea that change can't truly be measured by records because change isn't a battle between winning and losing. It's not a zero-sum game in which if I can't help every student love school and learning the same way I do, then I've lost.

The idealist's journey workbook reminds me that I have to focus on the things that I can control. So I reflect on who I want to be and why I'm here. I learn to adapt quickly and find new skills. I’m learning to do what I can to affect change by trying to remember what it was like to be in ninth grade and not giving into cynicism or depression.

It reminds me how when arguing the importance of maintaining the union while abolishing slavery—a task that must have seemed implausible at times even to the President—Abraham Lincoln reminded Congress in 1861 that, "The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also."

Our jobs as City Year corps members are difficult and it can be a struggle. But it helps me to remember that the measure of my success has to be judged in an unlimited context rather than at the end of a single afternoon. The impact I make on a student may not be immediate aptitude. However, I think my duty as a corps member is to try to change the world in a positive way for that vast future ahead. 

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Photo courtesy of City Year Orlando