“It’s Perfectly Unclear, Where I Will Be This Time Next Year”

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A year ago, I can tell you, I was really really nervous. My bedroom was full of half-packed bags, my day was full of errands, and my head was full of questions. Most of them seem ridiculous now: will my roommates think I’m not JVC enough if I pack a hairdryer? Is it wrong to stock up on some things ahead of time? How can I possibly work with 12-year-old boys? What will my neighborhood be like? Silly, right? This post’s title courtesy of “Oh No! Oh My!” (yes that’s their real name).

I opened up my old journal today, and read through the pages from last summer, trying to get a feel for what a year has meant to me. It’s not all that interesting reading, a lot of anxiety about a whole new place and all new people, a lot of fear about starting all over again. And then, I read this line,  “I’m going to be 22 in a few weeks. That seems old. It seems like by 22 you should be really truly brave. And I’m not. I’m still shy and anxious and confused.”

 I don’t always know what bravery means. I saw a lot of it this year, in my community members, and my coworkers, maybe especially in my students, but I can’t really define it.  In just a few hours, I’ll be 23, and am I still shy and anxious and confused? Yes. A year hasn’t changed that.

But, at almost 23, I’m pretty sure I was pretty brave this year. We all were. Despite all of us being very afraid (I now know I wasn’t alone in that), we moved to a city with strangers, started a new job, and settled in for a year of challenge. We put our hearts on the line with each other, with our clients, with ourselves. We worked to improve our own character, to change our habits, to see things in new ways, and then, perhaps the bravest thing of all, we admitted it to each other. We said, “this is really difficult for me,” or “I’m really trying to work on this.” We held each other accountable, even when it was scary or frustrating.

The reward for bravery is experience, adventure, a sense that you have taken a leap and landed (at least somewhat) on your feet. For our last community night we did an activity in which we took a piece of string, and passed it to someone who had taught us or given us something this year, and explained what it was, and so on, until all 7 of us had said something to the other 6 (that’s 42 little speeches, 42 things learned or given). By the end, we had created a web between our fingers—a very physical reminder of what we’ve meant to each other, and what we will carry with us, always. Because we were brave we got this. Because we were brave, we will always have a sense of home together.

I feel like I’ve been saying goodbye for months, now. I’ve got to say, not fun. And now, I have to say goodbye to this blog. I want to thank anyone who ever read this, anyone who ever commented or said something to me about it. It’s honestly been a huge part of my experience this year—not only because it was a way to reach out to those I love who I wouldn’t necessarily be able to stay in touch with otherwise, but because it kept me in reflection, reminded me what I was thankful for and happy about when it was hard to remember, and gave me a sense of perspective. I’ll start another one soon, I know, but it’s kind of hard to let go of this one.

All this perspective, all this looking back, has made me realize something. We are always looking forward, always thinking about next year, but we never know what we’ll write in our journal a year from now. I certainly didn’t know the relationships I would form, the places I would love, or how I would change. So, what’s next? What is 23 going to mean? It’s perfectly unclear. But hopefully, I’ve gained a little bravery, and a lot of love. And that’s what carries us all, isn’t it?

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(One Year in JVC, the Harlem ladies)

“Whatever I Got, You Gave Me, Whatever I Am, You Made Me”

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It’s August, and, inevitably, the last month of JVC. Having made it back from the (aptly named) dis-orientation retreat back at Blue Ridge Summit, I am very aware that July flew by. Summer school for both the boys and girls is over, so my job feels finished, and we have about one more week to pack up and move out. Blue Ridge was a bright spot. It was just as beautiful as it was a year ago. We watched storms roll in from the front porch. We hiked just a bit of the Appalachian Trail. We saw bats, and heard crickets and cicadas and tree frogs. It was the perfect way to come full circle, the perfect space to learn how to give thanks for each other and this year and say goodbye (with the help of the other JVC East communities and some great speakers). This week’s title from the ever-talented, ever-lovely, Nina Simone.

St. Ignatius Loyola had this idea that we should all save up our moments of consolation, whatever got us through difficulties, to tide us over, and remind us of what’s important or worthwhile during periods of desolation. So, at the suggestion of my spiritual director, I am following the lead of my housemates and making a list of things I learned/things that helped me/things that consoled me over the course of this year, so as not to forget. The list is incredibly long, so here are the top 10 from community, Harlem, and school. My community members, coworkers, and neighbors were amazing teachers. It’s kind of like my adapted version of “What I did This Summer.”

This Year I Learned:

1. To give openly. To rid myself of possessiveness.
2. That self care is an actual thing (did you know that was a thing?), and that it’s something we should all actually practice for our good and the good of others.
3. To be spontaneous…sometimes.
4. To get off the phone. To realize I can’t take care of everyone everywhere at all times. To be present to those around me. To be present to myself.
5. That living and working in the same neighborhood offers a much richer sense of community than commuting.
6. Parks are important. Clean streets are important. Public art is important. Flowers, trees, and urban gardens are important. Quiet is important. Fresh air is important. Environment, even in the most aesthetic sense, is just as important to the livelihood of urban inhabitants as its governmental structures.
7. A Sense of Humor (and the ability to take either an insult or an inappropriate comment with grace) is an incredible tool in the classroom, on the street, and in life.
8. To keep nagging kids to practice their passion, even when they pretend they don’t care or fake annoyance.
9. We underestimate the impact of telling our loved ones or our students that we’re proud of them.
10. A lot of times, most times, all you can do is be the person who shows up every day, the one who cannot be intimidated, frustrated, or embarrassed away. It’s all you’ve got when resources are short.

That’s all I have to say for this month. Whatever I’ve got, whatever I am, at the end of this year, it was given me. And I will be giving thanks for what I’ve learned every day for a long, long time.

Oh! In one week, I turn 23. Expect an extra wrap-up/birthday post in the near(ish) future.

“I Am on My Way, I Am On My Way Back to Where I Started”

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I hesitate to even call this a June post, both because it is just so late, and because these last few posts are more about transition than about a month at a time. Let’s just call it the first of the true reaching the end posts. Check back for dis-o reflection next month. This post’s title from the absolutely lovely The Head and the Heart. Pretty sure they read my mind once in awhile.

First, as quick a recap as I can make for a very busy month and a bit. June was mostly about the end of school, as I’m sure you would have guessed. The St. Al’s Express was distributed with pride. I was kind of shocked that after all that faking it, we actually made it. Between the end of school and the two weeks of summer school with the boys, I went on lots of field trips—during which I was sunburnt several times (“ewwww, what is wrong with your forehead, Ms. F.-S.”) and was at one point hit in the face with a basketball. There may or may not be a video of that which you will never see. Graduation was beautiful. That fact really is something when you consider the horrendous rehearsals we had. I was incredibly proud and only almost cried several times. Not too shabby. Now that summer school’s over, too, I feel like I have an empty nest. It seems impossible that my work with my baby boys (as I do often call them, much to the amusement of my housemates) is finished. If I’m honest, I spent more time with most of them than I did with my friends, my housemates, or my family. Weird, isn’t it? I gave out hugs and quotes (a little trend I started by accident with the eighth grade in the winter). I’m trying to let go with at least some grace and dignity, and only mostly failing. My housemates and I have had many many outdoor in NYC adventures (fireworks and picnic for Fourth of July being one pretty amazing one). I had a really beautiful day with my family a couple weekends ago in which I got to show them a lot of things I love. We have one week with the girls’ summer school before we head to Dis-orientation, to prepare us to leave JVC. All is well, if often bittersweet.

Having just looked at the dis-o packet, and answered an email from our favorite program coordinator about heading up local orientation for the new JVs, I have the transition on my mind—as if it wouldn’t be otherwise. Our year here is ending in a month—true—but it feels more as though it is coming full circle. We are coming back around to our former selves, our former places, our former states of mind, with an entirely new perspective. Suddenly, we find ourselves cleaning out the cupboards and cabinets and overflowing shelves of our house to prepare the way for the next group of JVs. Most of us are corresponding with the incoming house about the jobs and homes that will soon be theirs, and repeating activities that we did a year ago—taking a picture by the Cloisters in the exact same place we did last August, going to see a movie in Bryant Park like we did on our first day of work. It is disconcerting. As though we are living as two selves, reminiscing so often, that we are both the brand new JVs we were last August, and the works in progress we are now.

A year later, New York has eaten both my shoes and my feet. I look at the soles of my shoes and am reminded of just how many inches of this enormous city I have walked, how I have loved the discovery of turning a corner and realizing I’m in a wholly different place than I thought I was, the surprise of a smile from a stranger that means nothing other than good morning, the laughter and shouting I’ve heard, the eager, anxious steps I’ve taken to work, the slow, reflective ones I’ve taken home. In June, I walked all the way from work on 130th in East Harlem to the Met on 82nd in the rain, and watched the neighborhoods change—the projects turn to gleaming white apartment buildings, the public schools lose their graffiti, the shops change from bodegas to boutiques. Last night I walked with Janie all over Harlem—all the way to Riverbank Park on the Hudson, wending our ways through Convent Avenue, Hamilton Heights, finding an absolutely beautiful mural inspired by Seurat, but set in Harlem. We saw the intersection of cultures as they moved in and out—the intersection of history and tradition. All this is a way of giving thanks, of saying that I am still amazed every day that I am here. I am not jaded. I am not over it.

How wonderful is that? Yes, we are all nostalgic, tearful sometimes. It does seem a little cruel. JVC finally feels really natural—not like something I’m trying to grow into, and then it’s time to go. But right now, (though still emotional and stressed, Lord knows), I’m not sad. At least not about leaving JVC, leaving my roommates and my job is much harder. Instead, I am thoroughly joyful to have this place and this job and this experience to hand to someone else. We focus on our individual experiences–what I got from this, or how I did my job, or my community, or on my spirituality, or on my sense of social justice. That’s completely valid and necessary, and I’m sure my next post will be all about that. But I want to take this moment before I focus solely on my experience, to remember that we, all of the JVs, are part of a bigger purpose—a bigger mission if you want to put it like that. Our experiences are shared by every group that comes into every house, by every group that meets at Blue Ridge. We are all a community. And in a few weeks, I will get to welcome new people into this community, and say, here, do with this incredible opportunity and place what you will. We go back to where we started, so that more people can begin the journey. We are just a tiny part of this big program, and this big world. About a week ago, I went to see one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen—Beasts of the Southern Wild. The heroine, a bold and wise little girl named Hushpuppy, put this idea in the most beautiful way. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe,” she says, “and that makes things right.”

“These Wild Young Hearts”

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So, suddenly it’s a beautiful day at the beginning of June, and May has already passed me by. Around the little bud of peace that was its first week of silent retreat, sprung a chaotic, noisy, sprawling month, in which there was too much rain, but we made the most of the pockets of sunshine. We had a great rooftop party a couple weeks ago, and spent Memorial Day on the beach at Coney Island. School has mirrored our JVC life—full of end of year events. We are finally finishing up the writing club literary magazine (The St. Al’s Express, to be exact) in interspersed fits of pep and angst. And, yes, in less than two weeks, graduation is actually happening. The boys are writing their graduation speeches, “studying” for finals, practicing their graduation songs, finding graduation suits. The building is full of the slightly manic emotion of thirteen-year-olds experiencing separation anxiety—picking fights, crying over nothing, alternatively clingy and biting. This post’s title thanks to the Noisettes.

I’m pretty sure everything I’m about to say about May  I’ve said a million times before in some ways, so I apologize for unoriginality and beating a dead horse. The eighth graders are not the only ones experiencing separation anxiety. The Harlem House has been seeing the first signs, and I am not immune. In May there were a lot of tears, a lot of indecision, a lot of doubt. This young heart is experiencing a kind of pre-missing—for my precious eighth graders I’ll lose way too soon (if you’d told me they’d be the ones I was going to miss the most in September I would have laughed at you), for the Harlem village I’ve come to love, an old-fashioned place, really, where everyone knows everyone else, where friends sit together on front stoops and barbecue on the street, where roses grow in every tiny garden, and for my household— the hum of all of us together in the house that we have built, the love that we string our days together with.

I’ve been talking with the boys about next year often. A lot of them promise they’ll stay in touch, send me writing, fill me in, but I know well enough that they will be busy and I will, too. The likelihood of our staying in touch is much lower than I would like. Last Friday, as a few of my roommates and I were walking down to 125th, we passed the park where most of my students hang out. A bunch of them were there, and once they saw me, they ran out and gave me a huge hug, and were very happy to realize that “Ms. F.-S., you have friends!” There is just nothing that a job description can offer right now that seems better than that, you know?

The beautiful thing about silent retreat was the sense of calm and comfort it carried. I sat on a bridge across a stream in the middle of the woods, and felt assured that things were going to be all right. The next chapter of my life would be a bright one, the universe knew what to do with me. At a time that I was afraid all my emotions and fears would come crashing in on me, instead I felt them simply quiet, enough to hear my breath, my thoughts, a flutter, a call. But when we were back in the cacophony that is the city, the panic that had been sitting just below, rose up, making sleep difficult, and my patience short. The voices of everyone with advice about the next year, or the future in general have been so loud, that I can’t hear my own. I feel like we’re all already in mourning for the richness of the experience of this year. I doubt myself, and my plans—to figure it out, to take time to get a portfolio together, to just try to take things one step at a time for once. And in this rush of ending it seems certain that whatever I do next I will surely disappoint, not fulfill, let someone (myself?) down.

It’s been rough for all of us, I think, and not just here, but for my friends across the world experiencing the same things. These wild young hearts, they have to love and leave too often, re-evaluate, re-set sights, all the while hearing how bad it is out there, and holding everyone else’s hopes. We all just desperately want to make it work.

But maybe we need to remind ourselves, or keep people in our lives who will remind us (thanks, Mom), that what is happening now is the grace-full, shining thing to hold onto. That youth itself is a gift of feeling things out. That we will worry all our lives, but that the JV year (and whatever other awesome program or job you did this year) only comes once. So pay attention, don’t waste time on anxiety. There is time. One of my favorite bands, The Novel Ideas (check them out here: http://www.thenovelideas.com/) sing one line I’m trying to keep in mind : “Don’t grow up too fast, stay young, do what you love.” Yes, I needed this reality check in September, but I think we all need it even more now.

Tuesday night, it was excruciatingly hot and stuffy. We were all sitting around, doing our own thing, get some stuff done, when it started to rain, then pour, and a bunch of us ran up to the roof to see the thunderstorm. We laughed and screamed when we heard thunder and let ourselves get soaked. And I thought, here we are, just grown up little girls jumping in rain puddles on our incredible roof in New York City, doing just what we love. I’ll never forget this.

“Roll Away Your Stone, I’ll Roll Away Mine”

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I think it’s a writer’s thing to engage in a struggle over how accurately you can describe something, how perfect the words you choose can be. Often, when I’ve been working on a story or poem, I’ve gotten stuck on a feeling I know so absolutely well but just cannot express accurately. I sit, trying to type my way into the right words, and not quite getting there. That is a little like how I feel about this month’s post. So, I guess I’m ready as I’ll ever be to share my vignettes of April, one day late.  This post’s title courtesy of Mumford and Sons. 

A few weeks ago, I was struck by this thought from Rumi: “your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.”  The second I read it, I realized that that was basically my main goal in JVC, and also, maybe in life: deconstruct my barriers, to let people in, to let myself really feel things thoroughly. (I could talk about the Enneagram, a personality thing that half my house is obsessed with, but I just won’t)  

I have a point, I promise. In a lot of ways, April has been about trying to share my experiences, without protecting myself. It is so much harder for me to be honest in person, to not add “but it’s fine,” to the end of a complaint or negative observation. This is partly because  of my general sometimes disturbingly  optimistic worldview, but it’s also a real fear of being vulnerable, something that I think most of us share. As someone who tends to feel things deeply, it’s scary to think of what this soft heart would do walking around without its armor.

So, I’m trying. Both to be more honest with myself about how I feel about JVC experiences by taking some quiet, intentional time each day for prayer, yoga, journaling or just to sit with my thoughts—and to be more honest with those I love. I’m trying to believe the whole JVC thing, that when you don’t allow yourself to receive love and comfort, you take away from another’s opportunity to be present to you, and for both of you to share in each other’s joys and sorrows. It’s not easy. As I told our program coordinator when she was visiting last week (and was trying to be honest), I get a little awkward turtle when trying to talk about myself.  Sometimes I just don’t know what to say.

Which brings me to an experience that I don’t know how to share, or perhaps, like I said at the beginning, just don’t have the right words for. Today, I said goodbye, I think probably for the real, true, last time, to a student I’ve worked with all year. It was a long time coming, he’d had a million last chances, had just come back from a two-week suspension, and maybe you’ll tell me it was bound to happen. Watching him this year was like watching a very very slow car crash, a long, drawn-out self-destruction. But part of me held onto this hope that he could hold on till the end of the year, could just keep his head down, change his attitude a little bit, just a smidge, and would make it. Working with him was frustrating and exhausting, but I have so much love for him and wanted so much for him to have some love for himself. I cannot help thinking about where he is now, and where he’s going. I cannot help thinking that he will slip through the cracks. Even now, it is hard for me to try to tell you about it. How can I explain how I feel about it? That I know that it may have been better for his class and the school if he had left months ago, but that I still mourn his loss? That it was a weight off my shoulders every day that he was absent, but that I can’t bear to see him go? That my interactions with him, my failures with him, are one of my greatest sources of desolation?

And it sits with me now, that he is a boy who is terrified of vulnerability, maybe not too differently than I sometimes am. He has come through so much already, that he holds his heart tight in his grip, keeps it out of sight for safe keeping. Sometimes, I could see its light through his fingers, but it was always only a glimpse before he hid it away again. He is not the only one I know like this. I find myself constantly trying to show these ones that I care about them, love them. I try to tell them they are all right, that letting people in won’t break them. But there are times, when I hear their stories, that I don’t even know if that’s the truth.

He told me today that I would forget him. That soon he would be just another student who was at school for a while. I don’t think that’s true.  I hope that’s not true. But he’s right in a way. Life goes on around these things. Not to give the whole, “but it’s fine,” like I promised I wouldn’t, but it’s mostly been a really fun and happy month. Telling stories like this makes it seem that these moments that loom large are the only thing. When really, this last month was long hours, state tests, ridiculous field trips, small struggles, home adventures, good books, chats with old friends, letters, laughing with family, and nights with the roommates, grateful suddenly, that we take the time to say goodnight, to tell each other to have a good day.  

And here’s the thing, for all our self-work, for the occasional thankless days, there are gifts. For volunteer appreciation week, the head of our program had each of the boys write me a card. Forty cards. All different, all with different thanks, a different sense of humor, more or less artistic ability, all with different things to say, as different as the boys themselves. I was overwhelmed. And yeah, I was pretty awkward turtle, frankly, but that’s beside the point. When I brought them home, read each of them, hung them on a string and posted them on my wall, I was touched in a way I’ve never been before. They remembered things I didn’t even remember—times I took care of them when they were sick, books I found for them, things I said. Each sentence on a card felt like a smooth stone for my pocket, something to carry with me on the hard days—that at least one time, I had helped a boy be himself, or control his anger, or make the right choice, be a writer, or have someone to listen to him. It was an incredible gift to receive—maybe the best—because they were given with such love and with their own funny, sweet, little kid-goofiness.

I could be wrong, but I think those moments of connection only come when I can bring myself to school, into my community, into my friendships, saying simply, with no defenses, fear aside, here I am. So for the sake of those moments, as we head into the challenge of silent retreat this weekend and our tenth month in JVC, I’ll keep working on my barriers, I’ll roll away my stone.

“So Bless My Heart, Bless My Mind, I Got So Much to Do, Ain’t Got Much Time”

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I sat down to write a March post seven thousand times. Yes, seven thousand exactly. Each time, I was midway through, when something new occurred and I thought, actually, I should definitely write about that, scratched what I’d written, and started again. Since it is now the last day of March, it’s time to just cut my losses and write something, whether I actually get at the heart of what this month has been or not. Forgive me. Post’s title courtesy of the Alabama Shakes.

Yet again, Lent has rolled around with its usual questions, Catholic guilt, and promises. It happens to have arrived this year at a sort of breaking point in my search for spirituality during JVC. Coming from a very dynamic, accepting, interesting faith community at Holy Cross, my search for something similar in this huge city has been very difficult. Honestly, I came home last month after one mass, sat down with some of my roommates, and said, simply, “I just don’t know if, or why I am Catholic anymore.” March has been full of wrangling.

A huge part of this feeling has been the new mass language.  Though they may seem like small changes, and though the church has been constantly trying to convince Catholics that either 1) language just doesn’t matter, it’s coming together for worship that counts or that 2) the new language is the real language, I refuse to be convinced. I’ve spent too much time in religious studies classes in the past few years learning about the massive changes that have occurred in the church because of one tiny language choice made at the Council of Nicaea, to believe that language doesn’t count. When it comes to community, to spirituality, to the naming of belief, what counts more than the words we use? And, frankly, I resent the implication that I, or that Catholics in general, are just too stupid or too well-trained to notice or to resent a wall placed between the people and their God. I notice, I am alienated by it, and I am going to announce it.

I think, had I not been in JVC this year, I probably would have ignored the whole thing. I would have said, I’ll continue to be connected to God in other ways, and just stop going to church. But, JVC has asked me to keep questioning, to keep searching for spirituality, and to stay engaged, and SO, I just keep hunting. Thanks to some very rebellious nuns (“I think the liturgy is deadly,” one said) and a church in Harlem called St. Charles with a lively parish and an awesome Jesuit priest, as well as a lovely spiritual director who is trying to convince me I just can’t do this wrong, I’ve found some renewal, and though I’ll keep asking the questions, at least I can know that I’m not the only one.

One of my students said last week, “Miss F.-S., March is the worst. Every year, March comes, and it’s just the worst.”  Though I don’t totally agree with him, it’s not a super pleasant month. Too in between seasons. Too without holidays or breaks. And sometimes, I think, we 22-year-olds feel just like the 12-year-olds I watch over every day—a little confused, a little unacquainted with ourselves. The other day, the Harlem house looked at some pictures from the very beginning of the year, and we all, within a few minutes, said the same thing: we look so much younger. Which is probably not true, but it’s sort of the principle of the thing. You walk through experiences and come out seeing a new face. I walk through Harlem, do things on my own, say something at my school, and look at myself and say, suddenly, who is this person? Who am I becoming? It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way, but it makes the question of what I’m doing next year seem all the more important. Where do you go from something this meaningful? What do you do when you’re kind of waiting around to do what you really want to? It’s all very unsettling. I walk home from school, winding my way through a neighborhood I know so well now, my mind buzzing with the sense that time is running out. There is just so much to do, here, and in life. How am I going to do it all?

Thank God I have a community to rely on. And thank God I have good friends and a beautiful family to rely on. And thank God, finally, that I have a job that reminds me constantly that the now is too important to miss because of useless anxiety for the future.

There have been so many moments at school I could talk about this month—both joyful and awful, exhausting and hilarious. But I’m just going to focus on one that I hope I’ll remember for a long, long time. Tuesday afternoon, one of the eighth graders was really upset. He has some anger issues and has a lot of trouble controlling his emotions. One of my earliest memories of him is when he almost punched another boy and then sobbed on the stairway while I just sat with him for almost an entire class period. He was angry on Tuesday, frustrated, with other students, with his work. It led into a really upsetting conversation that I won’t go into here, but at the end of it, knowing that he writes some really good poetry, I told him to go home and write about all this. “No, Miss F.-S.,” he said, “I’m done with poetry.” I shrugged my shoulders, and said I was expecting a poem the next day anyway. The minute I saw him the next day, he grinned and said he had a poem for me, pulled it out to show it to me, and then stopped and said, “Umm, just one minute, I just have to…” And ripped piece of it off before handing it to me. Before he did, however, I saw what he had written, just Thanks, Miss F.-S., in small letters at the bottom of the poem. The photocopy I have just says Thanks now, but I’ll remember. What else is there? What more can I ask for than that?

So, I meet the end of this complicated and bizarre March with a grateful heart that I made it through, and that despite some of its complexities, there were so many very simple gifts. A middle school dance where I could be proud of the boys and truly enjoy, the chance to show loved ones the Harlem and city I love so much, so many phone calls, coffee dates, meals, moments of laughter with my community, packages from home, so much enthusiasm from my little writing club, so many kids reading books I recommended, so many moments of camaraderie with my colleagues. I am just so blessed. And I’ll be damned if I don’t remember it.

“Uptown, Downtown, a Thousand Miles Between Us”

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In New York, February has been characterized by a dull greyness, while the temperature bounces erratically and irritatingly between unseasonably warm and seasonably cold. That is a long way of saying that it had better be spring soon.  Sorry these posts just keep getting longer, as one of my ever-wise roommates said once, “I just have a lot of thoughts and feelings.” My bad. Just a warning , too, this post isn’t a super happy one.

The song I took this post’s title from is called “East Harlem,” by Beirut.  The song opens with the phrase, “Another rose wilts in East Harlem.” Our house has taken it on as a kind of anthem, and I’m doing my best to learn it on the Ukulele (yeah, I have an endless thirst for hobbies, apparently) I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week, as we at St. Al’s, lost a really wonderful person, a nun and staff member at the school who meant a lot to all of us. There seemed some correlation to me, though it might be totally unclear to anyone who’s not in my head.

Even besides that loss, school has been a veritable minefield.  And maybe I should be more used to it by now. Maybe all the strangers who have warned me off middle school know something I don’t.  Whenever I introduce the topic of my job, and middle school, I tend to get the same sorts of responses— Uhh, how’s that going for you? You’re a saint. Jesus, that sounds like hell.

It’s not hell. I do not deserve sainthood. And, most of the time, it’s going pretty well. Sometimes, even most of the time, I am so blessed by the beauties of this age group that I am able to overlook the rest of it. The vulnerability of these middle school boys, who cry in front of me, who attach themselves to me, who love to read, and offer up their writing to me (seriously, ninety percent of them write in their spare time, how cool is that?), and who make me laugh, make them fun and inspiring.

But lately, middle school has been getting to me. So here is a mini-rant about the annoying/difficult things about middle school. They almost always say the absolute wrong thing, when they’re frustrated they will personally attack you, they are overly emotional, overly physical, overly selfish, and overly stubborn. They are in love with you, or hate you, often with the span of a minute.

But more than all that, I am flattened by the issues I see every day that we have a complete lack of resources to meet. Last week, one student I work with often, completely shut down. He’s done so before, but this was the worst I’d seen him. As his supervisor during the day while he refused to go to class or do work, at one point he said, “Miss F.-S., I want to drop out. I want to transfer from school to school until they don’t notice I’m gone. Then I’ll drop out, not get a job, end up on the streets, and die there.” Though the day ended on a decent note, it was not solved by any means. I also learned about the abuse he had suffered as a child, and the emotional and psychological issues he had had over the past few years. For the first time, I understood why he was constantly pushing my boundaries, trying to test how much I would withstand, before he could trust me. I went home teary-eyed and desolate.

This is only one example of the kind of challenges the boys face. Another student told me all about how many times he’s been “pressed” (read: had his money/belongings taken on the street) since he was a child with absolute nonchalance. Another is working on coming out to his friends at school (the homophobia and sexism issues are crazy at school), and through his poetry. The things they go through are painful, ruthless, impossible. In the face of it, I am someone standing outside a window looking in, hand to the glass. I can never understand their lives, because, God knows, there’s a thousand miles between us, even if I only live a few blocks away.  I constantly have to remind myself that I am not there to fix them or their lives, but to be present, to accompany, to walk with them. Sometimes that helplessness is impossible to accept.  It is a crime to me, that most of these children probably won’t get someone who is qualified to help them with their academic or emotional problems.  I am it, sometimes. And that is an injustice in and of itself.

At re-orientation, one of the speakers told us that part of processing our experiences in JVC would be allowing ourselves to be broken by the people we met and interacted with. I think I am doing that, at least most of the time. And while it is valuable, that vulnerability is terrifying to me. But those days when I come home, scared and tired, empty, flat, hollowed, tearful, stay with me because I know that they are the days I am being changed, the days that I am allowing myself to connect, and to be transformed by my experiences. I expect that in a year or two, I will treasure them more than any others.

In a way, I think that is why I’ve been trying to take more joy in those moments when I am just myself, and not meant to be a kind of receptacle for emotion, with my community, my friends from elsewhere, my family.  I spend time on playing instruments, crafting things, reading and writing, and listening to music, because that reinforces the fact that I am still…someone. I’ve been loving my walks lately, getting off a stop earlier than I could, and just trying to see the city from different angles, finding new favorite coffee shops (Lenox Coffee at 129th and Lenox, so great), new little shops to walk through, new views.  I cannot wait for spring to come, to make more of that discovery possible.

Together, as a house, we all seem to be coming to terms with the fact that this will end. This year will end. JVC will end. And the likelihood is, I will no longer be in this city. I will certainly never be in this city at this same age, in this same place in my life again. I am trying to savor those moments when I’m really aware of where I am and why, while making lists entitled “things I could do next year and still be happy.” In the meantime, I’m just happy our plumbing and heat are finally fixed, and trying to stretch out my toothpaste supply. In the back of my mind, though, I think, I’m sure,  that as the song says, I’ll come here–home–again. Someday.