This past week is a week that I will never forget. I was on an alternative spring break service trip in the Dominican Republic teaching English to students in elementary school. One of the coolest things I think I have ever done.
Regardless, I have to say that it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Also one of the most challenging. I fell in love with every single kid that I interacted with and was heartbroken to find out that at the end of the trip, I couldn’t pack them in my suitcase. I was heading back to a life of luxury while the students were left in poverty, hunger, and broken families. It was difficult to see that. I could write a whole blog about my experience working with these kids in the Dominican Republic (and maybe I will), but for the purpose of this entry, I want to focus on one particular experience that occurred while I was there.
During reflection on the last night of the trip, I vocalized a thought that I had been creating in my mind since the first day of teaching. I realized that all the kids I worked with in the Dominican Republic, with the exception of one or two, were young boys from kindergarten to fourth grade. This surprised me. Never before in my life have I ever really interacted with young children outside of family members. And even then, I felt completely awkward about it. I was a grown man who had no idea how to interact with children at all. Even further, I rarely find that I can relate with other men. Most of my friends are female, I connect better with females…it’s just something that has always been a part of my life experience.
So I was surprised that I found all these boys in the Dominican Republic grabbing my arm, throwing their arms around my waist, and pulling me (literally) to their desks to work individually with them.
The thought I vocalized on the last night was this: the boys in the Dominican Republic didn’t see me as a twentysomething trying to figure out life. They didn’t see me only as a student or only as a professional or only as a twentysomething. They saw me as a person. They saw me as Michael, as a role model, as someone to look up to and build a connection with for the week.
It was an amazing feeling that I encourage you all to explore. In the states, I find myself being trapped within one particular identity. During work, I am my Professional Self, someone who is quick to avoid controversial issues, laugh at inappropriate jokes, or pretend to work harder than I actually do on days that are a little less busy. During class and during most of my free time, I am my Student Self, grinding away on papers, tearing through textbooks, and diligently studying until all hours of the night. Recently, I’ve tried exploring my Personal Self, the one who makes time to play piano, spend time with friends, and call family members back home more often.
Yet out of these three categories, I have yet to find Me. I am one of three, never just Me, an integration of all aspects of self. When working with the students this week, I found it. The students looked to me as Michael, my one self. They didn’t know I was a student, they didn’t know I worked full-time, they really didn’t know anything about me other than my name and that I knew how to speak English. To these students, my name was my identifying factor. Michael. And even though they pronounced the “i” in my name in a drawn out stretch, they could see me. They knew who I was. They didn’t need to know that I was a student, a professional, or anything else really. They saw me as a person, and found something within me that they could flock to.
One main principle of Outreach360, the organization that we worked with, was to Communicate Love. When working with other people, that’s one thing that I like to think I do really well. The kids could feel the love I had in the classroom. I really do care about these kids…in such a way that I’m considering altering my entire life path to work more with nonprofit organizations that specifically focus on education. Even though my Professional Self is screaming against that idea, I need to listen to Me. Myself. Love was reciprocated on both ends, a reciprocal relationship, and I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.
It’s exhausting trying to please three different ideas of self—Professional, Student, and Personal—all under the same umbrella of a lost twentysomething trying to find his way. Yet working with these kids, it provided me with a purpose. They made me feel a little less lost, and a whole lot more like myself.
And for that, I am forever grateful.