I would like to introduce you to someone.
She can barely read and cannot write in full sentences. Her arms are covered in old, (and not-so-old), scars from nights darker than I can imagine. She walks quickly, speaks quietly, and makes herself smaller to stay out of trouble. She is the purest person I have ever met, and I mean that.
This is not a student that I know very well, nor one that I see very often. When we do meet, it is in passing across the green between classes, or when almost slamming into each other braving the chaos of the lunch room, or even by random chance having to ask the same teacher a question at the same time. I have asked her how her day is going, congratulated her when I find out something good had happened, and complimented her picture-day outfit. I have smiled and said her name, and that is it.
Five days ago, this student said to me, “I like your entire being”.
My entire being. Just me, being there, with her.
We have probably spoken less than ten lines to one another, and yet she likes my entire being.
Yesterday, that same student told me she would like it if I stayed at Collier long-term. While I was floundering around to find the pieces of my heart that had just exploded, I accidentally caught a glimmering bit of realization instead. I may not ever know what it feels like to be overcome by the physical need to harm my own body or to be beaten by my parents like some of our students do. I may not ever truly feel that telling someone my name is a waste of my breath and their time. I may not ever know what it feels like to try to tell a distracted teacher about my new pair of blue jeans just because no one else has the time to listen, but I do know what it feels like to be loved. That love starts with respect, and respect starts with being present.
My community mate and I had this ongoing debate about who was more qualified to be here from the moment we arrived. We both argued that our experiences made us too vulnerable with this particular population of students: too similar, too dissimilar. We argued for and against our current level of emotional stability, our understanding of New Jersey high school politics, and our grasp on reality. Our approaches to every situation are different, as are the staff we look up to and the students we connect with. We expounded upon the fact that the other was going to be a better fit for the community, and that we would be left feeling inadequate. That is what we used to do.
Then we realized that the most qualified to be here are those who can do just that: Just be here. They are the people who can admit they don’t always know the best way to handle a situation or know what advice to give. They are the people who believe that what each child needs is to feel valued and respected. They don’t have to agree with a student’s preferences or opinions, but they know what it means to give them a chance to learn and grow and express their individuality. They need to love them, no matter what kind of trouble they may have caused or they may be in.
In truth, my community mate and I are more qualified than we ever thought possible. We just have to remember to be. Just Be.
Collier Youth Services
New Jersey Community, ‘17-‘18