Earlier this week a student left a note for me in my mailbox. The topic of the note consisted of self-esteem troubles, arguments with peers, and other typical thirteen year old challenges. Towards the end of the note though, this student wrote that they wished that they had “a perfect life like [me].” I let out a sarcastic laugh when I read that sentence.
I’m now two months into my placement, and every day continues to present its own challenges (in addition to dealing with coffee stains). In case you’ve blocked out ages 11-14 from your memory, life for the average middle schooler is a constant battle of juggling school work, sleep, extra curriculars, and of course, socialization. Now add in factors such as poverty, violence, abuse, limited food, lack of sleep, death, sickness, and a public school system that continues to fail into that equation. The world has been against most of these students for their entire lives, and now it’s up to a small group of passionate and determined teachers and staff at a small school with a bright red door to take these students who have been living tragedies and show them that they can make their stories into an epic, if they’re willing to push through the pain and suffering in order to get there.
As a bright eyed and optimistic 22 year old recent graduate, it’s easy for me to dream about a future where underprivileged children overcome the obstacles placed before them and become the world’s best readers and write stories that get turned into movies and go on to graduate college and become doctors, lawyers, and teachers; creators and dreamers and world changers in their own right, all because of what education was able to do for them.
Before moving to Philly over the summer, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to use the phrase “present over perfect” as my motto during my time of service. Throughout my time so far at Saint James, this simple idea of being “present over perfect” has morphed into my mantra, my battle cry, and my whispered prayer on days filled with chaos, spilled coffee, bruised hearts, and tired eyes.
In order for these future world changers to become successful, I now understand that there are going to be days where I feel helpless, where I feel like I’m failing and wish I had stayed in bed. There are times when the future violinist decides he doesn’t want to do his reading homework, and the future doctor gossips about the future actress and the future athlete lets a moment of anger and frustration turn into a half hour long temper tantrum.
Vowing to be present over perfect means that I still get out of bed on days when I feel sick and dread the long day ahead. It means saying “Good Morning” and shaking a student’s hand even when they refuse to say hello back to me and accuse me of not caring. And when a student brings me to the point of tears, it means that I have the courage to walk away, take a deep breath (or a hundred), and try again the next day.
Throughout my time at Saint James School so far, as I focus my time on being present in the moment, I’ve discovered that even with the long hours, sore feet, and stuffy noses, I’m learning how to appreciate the journey in front of me more and more. I still have goals and I still have hopes and dreams, but the stories of the kids who can’t read or who break down on a daily basis, the ones who hate math and refuse to write-they are a part of something bigger, and I get to play a part in this story.
I’ve found that when I take the time to pull the future nurse aside and talk to her and ask if she’s okay, when I eat lunch with the fashion designer and sit next to the artist in class and work besides them on their level, I am able to show them that I care-that their progress each day fills my heart with joy. And as a result, we all move a step closer towards healing and creating a better future filled with real life superheroes and world changers..together
Michelle's Ministry Placement is at St. James School as an Instructional Assistant.