I spend my weeks feeling miserable, overjoyed, depressed, elated, exhausted, energized, lonely, accompanied, discouraged, confident, brave, cowardly, hopeful, without faith, and with a renewed connection to God. Things are never the same and, over time, I am slowly growing accustomed to that. So it’s become routine to have no routine. (November 2012)
Seven months ago, I graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in Sociology. Today, I am teaching in the inner-city, living in the inner-city, and quickly growing accustomed to the violent, impoverished, neglected, and ignored realities found in our City of Angels.
My experience at Gonzaga was profound. Beyond my preconceived potential, I was challenged by an education rooted in experiential, academic, and spiritual progression. I was charged – as are most Gonzaga University graduates – to dedicate my life to the improvement and optimal development of the human condition, to change the world for the better.
With my post-graduate service placement, I teach English and US History at an all-boys high school in Los Angeles, working in a program known as the Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education. My school neighbors the district of Boyle Heights and I live in the western-most part of Compton. Both regions are overcome by a violent and poverty-stricken reality, a brilliant contrast to the ever-appealing “fabulousness” of southern California.
The conditions of my students are difficult to describe, not because they are indescribable, but because they are so heavily disheartening. I genuinely evade conversations about detail, admittedly because detail consequently necessitates another night of sleeplessness, worry, and hurt that I have never yet known. Detail necessitates recognition and – as is so often apparent in today’s time – it is often preferable to silence or hush the harsh realities of this life, so as not to be hurt by them.
Not everyone can silence or hush reality, at least the worst of it, and it is a telling sign of privilege for those who can. Indeed, it is a difficult reality to be faced with, overwhelming by nature and propagated by all forms of indifference and disregard. My students are immersed in a life I need not otherwise ever know; they live in a world which, by nature of my privilege and social establishment, I find difficult to even imagine, let alone influence. So you can’t be surprised when you ask yourself, “What can I do here?”
How do we serve? How do we serve when our differences so dramatically distinguish our realities? What do you say when a student describes his earliest memory – when he tells you that, at the age of six years old, his friends were shot dead in the front yard while playing tag. What do you say? What do you do when your student can’t afford to wash his uniform? Or buy his lunch? Or take the bus home? What do you do? And at what point do we recognize that this is all happening here, in our own backyard? And should that even matter?We are told, in light of questions such as these, that accompaniment is the heart of service, that understanding and empathy come second to companionship. This may be true, but this is not enough. I cannot save my students, I cannot rescue them – despite my earlier ambitions to do so – and their conditions will not change with heart alone. Heroism or salvation must not be our only understanding of service and, if they are, they must dissolve. Indeed, we must walk beside one another – to the best of our ability – but recognize also that notions of kindness, love, and hope must be accompanied by equivalent reflection, contemplation, and action.
If I cannot rescue my students, if my only service to them is an equally entitled education and form of accompaniment, then I must do everything in my power to communicate what I know, through whatever lens I know it, to those who know otherwise.
Service, of course, is difficult. At Gonzaga, we are asked and reminded to recognize our privilege and, by our understanding, use it wisely. I have been challenged to see privilege in a new way, reminded that no person – regardless of our preconceived understandings – will ever choose poverty, or violence, or pain without other forces of influence upon them. Whatever element of choice we think exists, must also be accompanied by some element of thoughtful realism and consideration, and of course, heart.
I am reminded and comforted by the fact that, when the day is done and the school bell rings, my students are just as human as am I – and sometimes we need be reminded of that. No doubt, the conditions of my students are dramatically different than my own, but our humanity is the same. These young men, though hurt and affected by the world they know, still believe in love, in adventure, in friendship, in hope, and in one another. They have not quit on humanity, and humanity must not quit on them, for they are both one in the same.
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. – Mother Teresa