My Greatest Teachers in College are Seven Years Old

Every Tuesday, I spend two hours of my afternoon volunteering at the local elementary school that is down the street from Kenyon. This is something I started doing last year; I signed up for the opportunity because I love children and wanted to be involved in the community somehow. Though it quickly became so much more than just an extracurricular. During the hour that I volunteered, I worked with second-grade students out in the hallway who needed extra help on various assignments. I played spelling games with them, practiced math facts, worked on reading comprehension, and helped them correct mistakes on assignments they had gotten back. I got not only to help them with their school work but also to hear about their lives. I would ask them what they did that weekend, what they were planning on being for Halloween, what kind of superpower they would want and why. For them, they were just answering my questions, but for me, their answers reminded me of what it was like to be a kid. Volunteering at the elementary school became a break from the crazy world of college. A place where I could forget about the stress of an upcoming exam and where the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is actually exciting.

It was disappointing when I wasn’t able to volunteer during the second semester of my freshman year due to being in a sport, so I was eager to get back to volunteering when my sophomore year started. This year I am in the same second-grade classroom helping with their “writing workshop” time. The students have just finished writing personal narratives, and a couple of weeks ago they were working on a class “safety book” where each student contributed a safety tip. One student came up to me and said excitedly, “Can I show you my safety instruction?” He held up his construction paper star that in uneven, second-grade handwriting said, “Throw away cigarets because they have nickating in them.” I laughed to myself, endeared by the misspelling of cigarettes and nicotine, but also the innocence that that safety tip held. The world is so black and white for children, and as a college student, I want to be someone who reinforces that their naivety is not something to be ashamed of. 

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at a table with some of the girls in the class while they were working on their personal narratives, when one of them asked, “Why are you wearing lipstick?” I responded that I think makeup is fun, apprehensive about where the conversation was going to go. Another girl piped up, “I like it when my mom lets me wear colorful eyeshadow for special occasions. I look pretty.” There it was: the association of makeup with being pretty. I paused for a moment, very aware that what I said next carried significant weight: “You don’t need makeup to look pretty. Makeup is fun, but not something you need. You all are already very beautiful girls.” The girl looked down at the picture she was coloring, “Yeah, I guess.”

I don’t want any of those girls to believe at 7 years old (or at any point in their life) that they need makeup to look pretty. But that is also a truth I have to remember for myself. Every week, when I go in for volunteering, I am reminded to slow down and remember what is actually important in life (and it isn’t the exam I could be using those 2 hours to study for). I remember what it was like being that age, seeing the high school girls at my K-12 school or having a college-aged babysitter come over, and thinking they were just the absolute coolest people. I wanted to be like them and look like them, and any time they spent acknowledging me was exciting. Now I am on the other side of that. The next week, I didn’t wear makeup to volunteer. The girls didn’t say anything, but children are like sponges. We might think they are in their own world, but they notice and remember everything. To this day I remember the babysitters I had as a child and the high school girls who took me out to lunch when I was in middle school. The students who I see every week will remember me, even if unconsciously. In college, it is so easy to get sucked up in our own world, to forget that how we treat those around us matters, and that there is always someone looking at us as an example. For me, volunteering is more than just helping students with math homework; it’s a privilege to be let into their little world and be retaught all the simple life lessons that I forgot as I grew up. 

 

Image Credit: Feature, 12