by Soraya Jean-Pierre, Corps Member on the National Grid Team serving at PS 213 in East New York
When people think of becoming great, thoughts of service rarely enter their minds as the means of becoming so. Martin Luther King, Jr. grasped the essence of true greatness as he saw it when he spoke the words that still ring with meaning today: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”
Exactly a year ago, City Year was completely foreign to me. During that time, I was entering my last semester at Oakwood University and had no idea that I would soon be spending ten months working as a tutor and a mentor. I thought I had seen everything in New York City because I spent the first 17 years of my life living here. I was educated by the NYC public school system, and assumed that because I was able to do well, so were others, and that students failed because of their unwillingness to work hard. But I was wrong.
City Year has placed me on the National Grid Team serving at PS 213 in East New York, an area of the city that has one of the lowest graduation rates at less than 50 percent. This statistic comes to life for me when I walk into a third-grade classroom where many of the students are still on second-grade reading levels. “How can I help them?” I ask myself as I look into the faces of children needing my attention. The task seems too great for one person to do, too great for me to do alone.
What keeps me going is knowing that I am making a difference.
When nine-year-old Kaleel became furious because his peers were teasing him, I pulled him aside and spoke to him about learning to control his feelings. I told him that it is okay to be upset, but that it is not okay to allow anyone to control his actions and cause him to go into an angry fit. I gave him tips: next time he felt angry, he should take a walk or isolate himself until he cooled down enough to talk about what was bothering him.
Two weeks later, I walked into the cafeteria during breakfast and I saw him sitting alone in the corner with tears streaming down his face. “What’s wrong, Kaleel?” I asked. “They keep bothering me, so I sat over here by myself because I’m angry and I don’t want to fight anybody,” he said. I told him, “I’m proud of you Kaleel. ” Yet those words did not adequately describe how I felt as I realized that when I talked to him about dealing with his peers two weeks ago, he listened to every word. If I continue this work and never have another opportunity to see a child that I have spoken to make a change, Kaleel’s story is enough.
I ask you to consider whether you can describe yourself as great based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s definition or not. If not, why not start by volunteering for just one day, in honor of Dr. King’s legacy on January 17th?