Within President Obama’s inaugural address on Tuesday, he sounded a national call to service, for people to “find meaning in something greater than themselves” and to boldly enter a “new era of responsibility.”* Now each of us cling tightly to the words that affect and inspire us, and these definitely took my breath away.
You see, back in the fall of 2001…(yep, I was well overdue for story time)
…I was about to start my senior year of college and that all-important question of “what will you do in the future?” crept around every corner. I had spent the most wonderful summer abroad studying and playing in Western Europe, and had returned home to spend my final weeks before school finishing an independent study essay on the voting patterns of coalition governments (trust me, it IS thrilling stuff!). While I was twittering away at my essay, which was due on my mom’s birthday (Sept. 12th), something pulled my life away and never really left it at all. My mom had run into my room at 6am as she readied for work, yelling something to me in my unconscious state about what was happening on TV. By the time I realized what she was saying, it was 7am, and the world was changing before my eyes.
I sat at my laptop computer that day, September 11th, only inches from the TV flashing ticker messages from CNN, trying my best to get out a sentence, a paragraph, something that would put the beast to bed and allow my brain the freedom to deal with what was happening. I couldn’t do it. I emailed my professor for an extension, it was granted, and I postponed the agony of words in exchange for the agony of reality. The essay was done a week later, and it was perhaps the worst thing I’ve ever turned in. I received an A- no less, with the sympathy of a professor who probably didn’t have the heart to grade down anyone who actually turned something in to him during those weeks.
I returned to campus with a heavy heart, and since it was late September, there was a lingering air of uneasiness since we didn’t get to mourn together. We went to the Rose Bowl and watched a football game, in spite of the terrorist threats and the armed guards at every gate. We studied politics as if the rules of the game hadn’t just changed under our feet. And we all looked at each other as if to ask, what do we do now?
That fall/winter, I sat in the prep sessions for the consulting firm interviews, but realized that I could not bare to sculpt profits for people/companies that already had a lot of money at a time like this. I ran to a worldly professor for advice on graduate school options, and he told me to get out and live the world before returning to academia, so that I had a true purpose in my calling rather than just an impulse to learn more. I felt silly pursuing a dream of talking on camera about something that just didn’t matter that much to the world. So my heart sat empty, until I heard the call to serve in a short announcement after a weekday lecture. And I answered the call with an application to Teach For America that I filed that same night, and 4 days after graduating in 2002, I was in the front of a Bronx classroom, teaching.
I served for three years in communities, South (Central) LA & MacArthur Park/K-Town, only a short drive from my westside LA home, but leagues away from anything I had lived in. I worked from 6am-5pm in a classroom, pushing and pulling adolescents through books and facts and life, all in a relentless pursuit of educational equality. I cried to my Dad, on the way home, when my plans for the day went miserably astray. I cried to my Mom when I heard the news on the radio about Byron on my way to school. I cried with my partner teacher Sara, when she called late one night to share the news about Luis. I cried when I got the myspace message from Cecybeth that she had been accepted to UCLA. And after 565 days in front of the students, I exchanged my podium for a seat in the classroom, in search of a way to serve more children than just those who set foot inside the walls of my school.
My service wasn’t any sort of charity, but rather a long life lesson that has impacted my entire life path. That service I gave… it gave me my life in return. And so when our new President asks each American to serve, I simply smile with the hope of the lessons that will be shared, the eyes that will be opened and the compassion that will be built in our country.