Part of N.C. State’s motto is being globally engaged but locally responsive. For most students this probably remains an abstract concept, fuzzy words that don’t mean much from one day to the next, but for those in the Alternative Service Break program, it’s engrained in every trip: Not only do we have a service project in diverse parts of the world, both domestically and abroad, we also have a service project in our local community.
Last year, before my team went to Belize to build a drying rack with cacao farmers, we spent one weekend helping rebuild a house with Habitat for Humanity. The work with hammers and nails was certainly invaluable experience to get us started.
This year’s service project no doubt has prepared me just the same for Alaska.
A week ago we met at a local middle school to help students prepare for an upcoming science contest with elements like trivia, constructing towers to a specific height or weight capacity, or dropping eggs from a height of thirty feet–without breaking them.
That’s the group I was assigned to.
The egg drop.
I’ve been through physics. I get forces and velocity and momentum, inertia, all that. But I’ve never had to drop an egg without breaking it. In fact I’m usually in the habit of trying not to drop eggs. And I’ve also never worked in a classroom quite like this before.
So I was a little nervous heading into it.
We found our classroom and the first teacher came in with a group of maybe eighteen kids in the fourth or fifth grade. He explained the rules while my partner, another member of my ASB team, helped me prepare the material for each team of students: some string, some popsicle sticks, some tape and rubber bands, some drinking straws, a bit of printing paper, and then two sheets of tissue paper. It doesn’t sound like all that much to protect an egg when dropping it from of a height of ten meters. That’s pretty far to fall.
There’s a strange thing about service, though, and at first it made me hesitate to help: Service isn’t about me. It’s not about the one serving, it’s about the one being served. Just jumping in and doing what I think will help them won’t necessarily help them. Just jumping in and trying to fix problems might not address the problems they actually have–if they have any–or solve them in a way that’s beneficial to them.
Serving is more about meeting people where they are. It’s about sharing something. Even if only for a brief moment that passes before we realize it, that one instance of connection is sometimes all it takes.
We were fairly autonomous when we assembled the supplies for each group: Time was limited (multiple groups would come through our station today), and here was somewhere we could help without any ambiguity. Besides, at the competition itself, the supplies would be prepared for each team beforehand just like this.
When their teacher let them start, he was pretty clear he didn’t want us giving any of them answers or tips–this was a day for discovery and experiential learning, after all–but we could check in on each group and help keep them engaged.
So I thought back to my own lab professors. What had they done? Most of them sat at the front, grading papers, but on the rare occasion they stepped in to our experiments, they asked us questions. And I thought back to a wonderful workshop on ethics I went to in which my presenter–one of the sweetest, most exuberant people I ever met–said the most important way to show our respect to another person is to learn their name.
I went to the students and crouched down at eye-level. I wasn’t their teacher today; I could hold myself as an equal. I asked their names. I tried (and mostly succeeded) to remember each of them. And then I just asked what their plans were, and when they answered, I listened intently. Occasionally I asked a follow up question about the material they planned to use or how their contraption might land after the fall; mostly they knew (or could easily figure out) the answer and all they needed was a little nudge to help them find it inside.
I moved from group to group, giving each student the entirety of my attention. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single moment I stopped smiling all morning. Their excitement made me want to build my own devices; I took note of their designs and thought of ways I would improve upon them, testing different structures in my mind and then tweaking them further. But I wasn’t there to do. I was there to serve.
After our first group or two, a connected classroom filled up with high school students working on the same project, and since two of us weren’t needed in the same classroom, I began to help this second teacher for the remainder of the day. Here I could ask more challenging questions and really start to nudge these students to recall the concepts they were studying. It was great fun–for all of us.
Finally we gathered around a stairwell to drop them all. To say some shattered upon impact might be too polite for a small number of samples, but the satisfaction when an egg survived was overpowering: Except I hadn’t done this–these students had built these baskets and parachutes. All I did was ask a couple questions and listen. They had done all the work. And it made me feel euphoric.
There’s this lovely yet unknown word compersion. It’s defined as the opposite of jealousy and refers to happiness and excitement for the accomplishments and well-being of others. That’s what I felt that morning, and by the end of the day, I knew my plans to go into teaching after college are really the best plans for me: I want to help others learn and achieve–not for egotistical reasons, but because I genuinely love seeing others reach their own potential, the look of discovery in their eyes, truly having passion to learn.
And if I can help make that happen, all the better.
I know this Saturday morning was not a typical school day, and certainly it wasn’t a preview of the classrooms I’ll be serving in when I get to Alaska, but it made me all the more passionate about this opportunity. I want to help kids love math. I want to listen to them read. I want to let them know they matter, if they don’t feel like they do, and I want to see them love learning and all the amazing things learning brings us.
I’m still fundraising for the trip, and I plan to share my experience with everyone who donates. Will you please make a donation today?