“Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and forgiving heart one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”
What an eye-opening, life-changing week! Every day after coming back from Hillside Middle School to teach English and Mathematics to refugees, I would plop down on my sleeping bag, exhausted. To me, feeling exhausted is a way of feeling fulfilled. I felt that way every day coming home from Tufts Medical Center. I even felt that way today after coming back from my Intro. to Spanish-American Literature class — the most advanced Spanish course of this semester. Yes, I’m an overachiever, but that’s not the point.
No lie, I had a flare up of panic attacks prior to this Winter Break Alternative Service & Solidarity trip. But, my mom kept reminding me that I’ll be doing something I love: service. And I knew my Spanish double major would come in handy on this trip. I couldn’t stop fidgeting and shaking during the send-off mass, and even stumbled upon my words while reading (every lector’s nightmare). It wasn’t until we actually started working when I felt more at ease.
That Monday, I and another girl on my trip drove to Hillside Middle School for the first time. The coordinator had no idea we were coming, so they let us help out with “lunch buddies.” We stayed with the girls while the boys went off with the principal. The girls were working on a “positivity project” with a woman from Girls Inc. It was a collage of words from women’s magazine that promote positivity. It seems as though the media only promotes being perfect, flawlessness, and almost fakeness. Yeah, you’re trying to advertise your products and clothing. But what real girl is going to buy them to make themselves feel beautiful when these products can only make you feel “plastic.” I remember being in middle school thinking I had to have all these different couture items to make me feel like a celebrity. I was sad that I couldn’t see the girls’ finished projects.
My English major and knowledge in the sciences came in handy, as well. That Monday afternoon, a handful of us went to Elmwood Gardens to help with homework. After helping girls with English and science homework, I was asked by one of the coordinators to lead group discussions — something you’d think I’d be used to. The girls and I talked about random stuff that happened in school, well at least they did. These girls definitely reminded me of myself when I was middle school — inside jokes and talking about boys.
During one of our reflections, we talked about the inevitable: the future. I hate talking about the future with all my heart because I’m more of a “live in the moment” kind of gal. I couldn’t help but feel not so much “on the trip,” unless I was at Hillside or Elmwood, because I felt like I have to tend to you loyal followers and be in constant communication on social media. Let me just tell you this: you’re not going to enjoy the gift of the present if all you’re thinking about is what you don’t know what you want! You simply don’t enjoy life like that. So, it is better to cherish your present in order to not take it for granted. What you want in the future may or may not even work out! I just wish people could stop saying stuff like “I think I’m going to go to California (or wherever) after graduation!” as if they’re so certain what they’re going to do. Just have a realistic plan! I know, I’m only a sophomore in college and I’m going off on this tangent. But this is where I say to myself: “April, stop being this critical because you’re still torn between being a lawyer and a journalist.”
But, as I watched a Ted Talk given by a young woman from Bhutan, she mentioned that people like her look to have a future based on happiness and to be willing to drop to the lowest social status to obtain this future and to be happy. That was me in my freshman year of high school when I went from public school to private Catholic school. There’s so much sacrifice to live this ideal life. Sacrifice has always been a theme in my life, not just mine, but my family’s. I’m not the only one, I’ve come to realize. The day before, we went to the airport to pick up a family from Bhutan. It was like watching The Good Lie — a movie we watched about Sudanese refugees coming to America. I couldn’t tell if I was going to cry with happiness (for them), if my heart was so full for them, or both. I just wanted to give the grandmother the shoes off my feet so hers wouldn’t freeze in the sandals she was wearing.
I can honestly say I have a somewhat understanding of what my dad and his family went through when they moved from Italy to the United States. There was this one line from The Good Lie: “You come to America and this is how you choose to live your life?” Believe it or not, my dad actually gives semi-good life advice. Because of him, and what my family has been through, and my mom even told me this as she drove me back to school: live life to the fullest and it’s what YOU make of your experience(s). I will never take where I live for granted. I only ever moved to one state, and I used to be so bitter about it. These refugees we were working with were moving to completely different countries on completely different continents with completely different cultures and norms — COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
There’s another thing that comes with working with refugees: patience. I now know what it’s like to be a teacher and having to control your rowdy eighth graders to get them to do their work. As I help these refugee kids out with math, I’m reminded of when I was an eighth grader with mono and could not grasp the concept of exponents. Well, look at me now, I’m teaching math I couldn’t do when I was in eighth grade! Take that! My favorite subject to help them out with was English (no, duh! I’m a writer!). So my writing assistant skills were put to the test, as well. I felt like my high school Spanish teacher by saying things like “¿Listas/os?” and “¿Necesitas ayuda?” I learned a lot from my mother about teaching, that’s for sure. It was exhausting, but rewarding. My thoughts were on food and sleep after each day as I dozed off on the carpeted floor, writing this all down. Headaches and being “hangry” was another thing.
There was one reflection that I won’t forget. So, let me ask you a question: have you ever wondered where your hands have been? What they’ve touched? Who they’ve touched? The other hands they’ve shaken? How many times they’ve bled or have been callused? Hands might as well be their own living organism. Hands aren’t something we can necessarily control, unless your brain tells them to do something. Like humans, they do things they regret. I can’t help but refer this to both Pontius Pilate and Macbeth. And like humans, they, literally and figuratively, touch the lives of others.
The last day of WBA was ever so bittersweet. I had to say goodbye to those whom I served. We took a brief trip to Mount Uncanoonuc. As I looked over city of Manchester, I came to two conclusions:
1.) We’ve touched (with our hands) the hearts of people from Manchester and refugees from countries around the world.
2.) Toto, we’re not in Manchester, anymore. We’re the whole world in one city.
Enjoy these pictures!