By Sarah Oleisky, AmeriCorps Member at South High School
J always makes me laugh. His warm and inviting personality was the first thing that I noticed about him; he is so goofy. J isn’t always like this, however-- he will have good days and he’ll have bad ones.
On the good days, he’ll be the rambunctious student we know and love, but on bad days, it’s as though he’s a completely different person. You can always tell when something’s up because he’ll come into the classroom, head slumped, and he’ll walk straight to his desk to put his head down, refusing to do any work.
I quickly realized that the way to break him out of this and build rapport with him would be through humor and by proving to him that I was on his side. He needed someone to be consistent and caring. I did this by sitting next to him when he’d get distracted in class so that he wouldn’t bring attention to himself or by gently reminding him to keep comments that would get him in trouble to himself. Soon enough, he became one of my favorite students.
One day, however, when J didn’t show up in class, I learned that he had been arrested and put in the Juvenile Detention Center.
Weeks later he returned still a child, but gone was his youthful exuberance. What replaced it was a deep bitterness for authority and a cruel knowledge about the ins and outs of a youth detention center, something no child should know so much about. And because he had been gone for several weeks, his grades had plummeted and so had his determination and attitude toward school. I was happy to have him back, despite the fact that he was either wreaking havoc in the halls, skipping class, or in disciplinary trouble. But what do you do with a child who has experienced the harsh realities of a detention center? I continued to let him know that I was happy he was at school and that I would always be there for him.
It was during his first few weeks back that we really bonded, as he shared with me why he is always so angry. After hearing his story, I had never empathized with a student so much—we had both experienced an unimaginable loss due to gun violence. I felt his anger and pain. That day we both gained a deeper understanding and connection with each other. Since then, J has come to me on several occasions whether it’s him opening up to me about what happened the night he got arrested, coming to find me instead of fighting with another student (because he’s heard me say, “J, people will try to provoke you, and you’re the only one who can control your own behavior. If you feel like you’re going to snap you need to remove yourself from the situation”), or just walking into the City Year office to say hello.
Things have certainly not been easy for J. His grades aren’t great and his relationship with teachers and administration is rocky. But he knows that with me he is able to open up and express himself, even when it seems like no one else is there for him. It fills my heart with joy to know that this boy knows that, as his mentor, I am always his advocate. City Year has provided me the opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships students outside of the classroom, and I am so grateful to have met students, like J, and help them to develop a strong sense of self and purpose in the world.