Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What JVC Taught Me

My last day of JVC/Casa DK/Urban Compass was August 3rd. The last few weeks were a prolonged goodbye--birthday celebrations for me and the Mikes, DisOrientation, blessings, goodbye parties... it was hard to say goodbye to everyone. The kids had varying reactions--some were genuinely angry with me that I was leaving, some cried, some didn't seem to grasp the situation. I fell in love with the children of Urban Compass and I miss them so much already. As they get older, they may not remember me, but I know I will never forget them.

As for my community and coworkers--I cannot imagine my life without them now. It has been bizarre having less contact with them in the last month and a half, but we are trying to still stay in touch and be involved in each others' lives, though obviously it cannot be at such a high level.

It's been almost two months since the end of JVC and I don't think I've adequately written about this year, so I present to you: What JVC Taught Me.

JVC taught me about humility. From the very beginning of orientation, we were warned that we would not be able to "save" our students/clients/the world with our work. And as much as I heard those words, I don't think I truly understood how small a piece of the puzzle I was until I had worked at Urban Compass for a while. Cerebrally, I knew the challenges and the struggles that my students faced, yet how could you be prepared for the stories they told? How could you be prepared to have a second grader tell you how she witnessed her uncle's murder in a carjacking? How could you be prepared to hear the story of a father's deportation? How could you be prepared to hear about the abuse? I was reminded daily of my humanity. There was no way I could just take these children out of the poverty and violence of their lives; there was no way I could even singlehandedly guarantee that they would make it to the next grade level.

But what I could do was commit myself wholeheartedly into my work at Urban Compass and give my kids my whole self every afternoon. I helped them with their homework. I listened to their stories. I encouraged them. I disciplined them when needed. I hugged them. I loved them--and that was all I could do. It's hard to realize how little control we have on other people's lives--but taught me an important lesson in humility. I will not save the world. But the world might save me.

JVC taught me about taking chances. Living in community, we ate meals together a few times a week. I'm not much of a cook, but to hold up my share, I started cooking more often. (Though, honestly, not nearly as often as other members of my community, but I did try to make an effort) Not every dish was excellent, but I started to have a few signatures that were even requested. I've always loved exploring, and living in LA for a year meant a whole new world to see. We made a LA Bucket List, and tried to knock off something every weekend. I went and saw Wicked at Pantages alone with Christmas money. LA has so many museums, and I loved exploring them. Moving to LA itself was taking a chance, and brought on a new mindset for me in my year in JVC.

JVC taught me about making connections. I have long made connections through dance--and this year was no different, even if I didn't dance as much as I would have liked. One of my favorite memories with one of my favorite students was a day we had a dance party in the classroom after homework time was over. Putnam and I went dancing a couple times, and I started actually letting him lead when we danced. I taught "Shackles," a dance we did in Heavenly Expressions at Mt. Level to my community. A fourth grader and I did the entire "Single Ladies" dance one day in the program (she knew it better than I did, I have to confess). The ladies of DK went to Richard Simmons' workout class, and sweated our butts off and had the time of our lives.

Besides dance, I learned to make connections other ways. Hayden and I sang duets occasionally; our best one was "Jackson" but I think "Another Day" was pretty good too. We had dinner as a community about four times a week, which I think was one of the most valuable aspects of our community. We'd recap our days, share our joys and struggles, laugh a lot and often get into deep discussions. This was one of the more informal ways we came together, while our support team, Shannon and Maria, had us come together more formally. Our support team came over every other week and we had structured time as a community--they facilitated conversations that needed to be had and brought out parts of us that we were more reluctant to show. I have learned there is a place for both of these situations in forming lasting connections. Sometimes you need to have structured conversations, but sometimes you just need to spend some time together, and laugh.

JVC taught me about faith. Once a week we did spirituality nights, and we took turns planning them, occasionally teaming up. We watched movies and documentaries, danced, prayed, wrote letters, poems and journal entries, read essays, listened to talks, faith shared, made resolutions, read the bible, meditated... We explored and expanded our spirituality both together and personally. The JVC Silent Retreat was in early May, and came at a time that I most needed to recharge my faith. Immediately after this retreat, I headed home to see my mom in the hospital. There were some structured activities, but in general it was up to us to be silent and listen to God and embrace ourselves as spiritual beings. At our final "DisO" retreat, different Casas led the group in prayer--and many were very powerful, all about making peace with the year and moving forward. It was a renewal of my faith that I could move forward and take this experience with me.

JVC taught me about perseverance. The first time I was in charge of a classroom was at age 18, teaching Vacation Bible School at Mt. Level in the 2/3 year old classroom. That week was one of the most stressful of my life and I was not too interested in teaching after that. Fast forward to the summer before JVC and teaching VBS at First Baptist--things went a lot smoother. I was teaching older kids (the same age as I would be teaching later at Urban Compass) and I had a better idea of what I was doing.

When I accepted the job at Urban Compass, I hoped I would be working with older elementary--age 8 to 10 or so, but instead I was placed in the K/1 classroom. I was very apprehensive about this, and I had a very difficult time at first establishing routine, rules and consequences. But as time passed, the job got easier. I became more comfortable and the kids started responding better to me. We had our bad days, but by the end of the year, I was much more confident in my teaching abilities.

JVC taught me about beauty. Through our exploration as a community, and mine personally, I found myself constantly encountering God's beautiful creation. As a community we traveled to San Diego, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. We went to the beach pretty often; the many beaches of the Southland area are all beautiful in their own way. One of my favorite places I found was the rose garden at USC. I fell in love with those gorgeous California roses and loved spending time there when I needed some time away from the house.

JVC taught me about compromise. I grew up in a big family in a small space, so I figured living in community wouldn't be too hard. Well, living in intentional community is hard. There's a lot of compromise that goes on, from taking turns cooking to taking turns doing the dishes, from noise levels to movie choices, from being chatty to being quiet, from diet restrictions to trying new foods, from keeping personal stuff in common areas to a minimum to hanging out in the common areas and intentionally spending time with one another... and then of course, what to do with the cat that just walked in the house. There were a lot of arguments. But when it came down to it, we were not willing to let these things come between us as a community, and we always managed to compromise.

JVC taught me about being silly. Taking on a full time volunteer job at a nonprofit that worked with children that live in the biggest housing development west of the Mississippi was a serious undertaking. Fortunately, children are silly, and brought out my silliness. Outside of work, as a community we also took time to unwind. A particularly memorable night was Halloween, when we bobbed for apples and ate donuts off a string... We threw and attended many house parties (that's how to have fun on a budget), many of which were themed, most notably 90's prom. We'd go to Yogurtland and only eat samples (dessert on a budget) and I began to perfect my rendition of Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" as my go-to karaoke song. And the only celebrity I really had contact with was Wayne Brady when we went to a taping of "Let's Make a Deal," where I touched his leg when he walked by. (Yes, that's my big LA celeb moment)

JVC taught me about hope. At the beginning the year, I started the quote wall at DK. I updated it pretty often, and when we left, there was only the bottom quarter of the door uncovered. These quotes were a daily reminder to us of what we were doing, and why we were doing it. They reminded us to hope. The stories that we told at the dinner table or during community/spirituality nights gave me hope too. Though the stories were often painful, I was hopeful knowing that my community and I were working to give others hope; we were committing our lives to people who needed hope.

My classroom, Room 203, gave me hope. More specifically, the sixteen loud and crazy 5/6/7 year olds that seemed to rarely actually be sitting down in it. I loved seeing the Aha! moments on my students' faces when a math problem made sense or they read a sentence perfectly. The resiliency of those children gives me hope that they will be able to break the cycle of poverty and violence they were born into. And when the fifth grade of 112th St graduated and sang "We Are the World," I found hope that these children will change the world.

JVC taught me about strength. JVC is no picnic--we are placed in difficult, demanding jobs, live with strangers, are far away from family and friends... As someone who already struggles with depression, there were times during JVC that my spirits got to an all time low, but each day I managed to get out of bed in the morning was a victory. I marched for Trayvon Martin and it was a rare monsoon rainstorm in LA--my umbrella broke and still we marched in the flooded streets; all I could think was it was the least I could do. I may have been soaked all the way through, but Trayvon Martin had been murdered, and I wasn't going to let the rain stop me from showing my solidarity.

The real test of my strength, though, came in early April with my mom's diagnosis. I didn't know how to handle it. I spent a lot of time hiding in my closet, because it felt safer in there. My community supported me. And I found strength from my mother. The first thing she said to me after she was diagnosed was "I'm a fighter, baby. We can trust God. I gave my life to him long ago, and I do have a deep peace right now. It won't be easy tho, I'll need my number one fan to cheer me." Those words came from the woman I am so much like both from genetics and because she raised me--and I knew that her strength was in me too. And she told me she wanted me to stay in JVC for the rest of my year--so I did.

JVC taught me about love. I fell in love with Casa Dorothy Kazel. I fell in love with Urban Compass. I fell in love with the City of Angels. I saw whole new worlds through my community's and kids' eyes. I found love as Ms. B/Queen Bee/Nay/Shanaynay in a city with so much to offer. I lived and worked in South Central LA, a fact that makes people gasp. People gave it up as hopeless. I found love in that hopeless place. And I found that it was hopeful. I found love in a hopeful place.