Give a Year
An alumnus makes change
By Kevin Fish ’11
I thought I had experienced culture shock when I left my rural Massachusetts town of 2,000 people to study abroad in the metropolitan center of Europe in Milan. The high-fashion consortium of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds all seemed to be the polar opposite of what I experienced growing up, and I could not get enough of it. It was not until I entered the doors of the English High School in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, that I realized what culture shock truly was.
After I was accepted into City Year Boston—an Americorps program aimed to decrease the high school dropout crisis—straight out of college, I was excited to find that I would be serving in a ninth grade classroom of 32 boys for one year of full-time service. As a City Year corps member, I would be mentoring, tutoring, and modeling positive behavior for my students. It was my responsibility to ensure that a certain percentage of my students move from “off-track” to “on-track” to graduate in one school year.
I found it very interesting that the English High School separated its 9th and 10th grade classrooms by gender, and I was a bit embarrassed to find that I was intimidated by the thought of being in a classroom with all inner-city males. I was starting to realize my own ignorance and resulting prejudices about people I knew nothing about, and I really struggled with my responsibilities while challenging my own views.
I walked into the classroom on my first day and was unable to hide the fact that I was the only white person in the entire classroom and one of four on the entire floor. For the first time, I was in the racial minority, and my students were quick to point it out. My students said that my biggest fault was my constant need to smile. I would later learn that smiling was considered a sign of weakness among this group of inner-city students. They even adapted the popular Goldfish snack jingle to make me my own personal theme song; “The cracker that smiles back: Mr. Fish.” Needless to say, I knew it was going to be a long year, and I made sure to tell them that I expected that same level of creativity on all of their school assignments.
One day, I was doing my usual rounds during physics class, when I saw my student, Darwell* drawing graffiti on a desk. Darwell is infamous for “borrowing” random office supplies with no intention of returning them—especially Sharpies. He often uses these pillaged items to express himself on desks and tables. I immediately approached him with a container of wet wipes to clean it off when I noticed what he was writing.
My jaw nearly dropped to the ground when I saw Darwell had written “City Year” in plain, legible text. He noticed my awe and smirked at me, so I informed him that just because it said “City Year” did not mean I would allow him to deface the school’s property. I then asked him why he decided to write that on the desk. He told me that City Year was his way out of there, and that we were the reason he was going to graduate.
Not a day goes by that I do not think about this interaction with Darwell, and although I am aware it was not just my actions alone that got him back on track, I like to think that I had a positive impact on Darwell that he will pass on to others.
City Year’s motto is, “Give a Year. Change the World.” Seems a little ambitious, eh? I grappled with this motto all year. I always thought to myself, “How can an organization make such an idealistic claim?” It almost seemed naïve of City Year to tell me that I would be able to tackle in just a single school year the seemingly insurmountable issues of our nation’s public education system.
I was months into the program for before I realized that I had been looking at City Year’s slogan completely wrong. It is “Give a Year. Change the World,” not “Give a Year. Fix the World.” I should have given City Year’s two founders, Michael Brown and Alan Casey, more credit—they knew that the issues we were facing as a nation were unable to be remedied in one year. I came to the realization that my purpose this year was to create positive change by being a constant, positive presence for my students. My students have taught me more than I could have ever anticipated, and I believe that my presence in their school for this short “City Year” has benefitted them as much as it has me.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the student