If I could sum up my public service experience in one sentence it would be this: everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher.
I haven’t always known this. In fact, I didn’t quite figure it out until a year after my first day of tutoring, during an interview where I told the following story:
On my first day at HYPE, I naively took the only empty seat at a table of fifth grade boys. They were passionately recounting the previous night’s NBA game while simultaneously inhaling cheese and crackers. Kobe, LeBron, the Clippers, the Lakers, the Cavs, stars of the past and present, it was all up for discussion. I voiced that knew nothing about basketball, and they were astounded.
In an effort to comply with “inside voices,” per the supervisor’s request, I bravely struck a deal with these five 5th graders: If they let me tutor them in math, I’d let them tutor me in basketball every week.
We commemorated our deal with a handshake; there was no turning back. Every week, they completed their math homework before immediately ushering me out to the playground. I answered their questions and they answered mine. They ran me up and down the court, taught me layups, jump shots, free throws, the works. For every shot I missed, I had to do five push-ups.
Needless to say, I did a lot of push-ups.
When I made baskets, they cheered; when I didn’t, they did push-ups with me. Never once did they tease or belittle. Not only were they my teachers, they were my advocates. It made me want to be theirs as well.
I felt moved to reciprocate their passions, on and off the court, in and out of the classroom. Being able to play basketball is what motivated them to work quickly and accurately every week. They were constantly chasing the opportunity to practice, to get better, to make the team at school. Their drive transcended everything about their current situation that could have been an obstacle; they cared about teamwork, success and growth in a way that I had never seen before.
It made me want to be better on the court, in the classroom, as a tutor, as a student but also as a person. Every week, it forced me to ask, “What am I chasing? What motivates me? What makes me want to work harder, better, faster?”
I never expected to learn so much from them, but it was in retrospect that I realized they schooled me. Everyone is a student, and everyone is a teacher. As a result, I discovered that in order to get the most out of community outreach, I have to consciously view every experience through this lens. I began to repeat my two-part philosophy as a mantra, both as a way to posture myself and as an encouragement to others.
Accepting that I can be served by those I’m serving is humbling; I cannot overstate this. I’m constantly reminding myself that I have more to learn from other people, that they bring things to the table that I lack. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn; every person has a unique ability to enrich and contribute to your human experience. It’s just a matter of noticing.
Many of the students I tutor have graduated or moved away, which is bittersweet every semester. I cherish the time I have spent with each of them, watching them grow from picture books to chapter books, and yet I’m proud to see them leave, to see them move on to better neighborhoods, bigger schools, brighter futures than the ones they had when they first started.
Being a part of the South Estes community has proven to me that service has a ripple effect in the lives that I physically encounter. We are all learning from each other all the time, even when we’re not intentionally trying to teach others.
It’s exhausting actually, to really think about the massiveness of that idea. The interactions we have all day long shape our development as humans, our behavior, our transformation into adults who contribute to society.
Knowing others is part of how we know ourselves, and that includes learning from each other. Subsequently, the better we come to know ourselves, the more fruitful we can be in our contributions to the world. Knowing what we’re good at, what we’re capable of, what we’re interested in, these are the questions we answer by communicating with others, whether it’s in a classroom or on the basketball court. The answers are what make it possible to pursue our goals, to cultivate our passions, and to encourage others to do the same.