An alien across the overpass

I can safely predict that this will not be the last post about the five hours a week I volunteer for the Boys & Girls Clubs. The vault is already filled with captivating personalities, unusual conversations, and frequent meditations on chaos. Chaos is the best one-word description of what each day brings.

What strikes me about after-school program I work at is how alien the students and even the Boys & Girls Clubs can be. The focus is on high school graduation, as less than half of the students in the communities served are able to finish. Coming from independent private schools, it would have been utter madness to aim so low. Expectations started high and then were jacked even higher- advanced classes, SAT prep, college visits to the Ivy League and their kin. The question was about what high-power profession you desired after your posh education. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my first girlfriend was, and still is, an aristocrat- not only focused on wealth and influence, but to the point that lower rungs of society don’t exist.

Back in high school I considered myself socially conscious. My leftist politics emphasized egalitarianism, ending imperialism, and improving the lives of the poor and ostracized. However “minorities” was a demographic accompanied by a depressing statistic. I wasn’t referring to people I knew or had seen- I used the same tone to talk about nuclear weapons stockpiles.

I drive a couple miles, across a highway overpass into a small residential neighborhood. It’s the same city, with the same police, same recycling pickup, same city council. But there is one key difference.

I am a minority.

It transcends just being a minority. I am the sole representative- the only white male they see during their hours at our program. So I am not just a fellow with a rarely-seen skin tone; I represent white society. I carry all the stereotypes, culture, and history of millions of people. It’s a strange burden.

Talking to a kid at the end of the day, he said that I was the “first American he had met” at this school.

Stunning, isn’t it? Their conception of America has little in common with the conception across the overpass, in the affluent half of the city. These kids, almost all Hispanic, have a much different story to tell. Were they born here? What about their parents? To them I feel like a statue, watching them pass me by. I feel static, like my actual self is buried beneath what I represent. American, white, rich, nerdy, ignorant.

And I am ignorant. I can’t truly appreciate what they have gone though. Incarcerated fathers, abusive families, living in fear of the police. Food stamps, hunger, never getting to see a doctor. Gang pressure, weapons, drugs. A media that ignores them. A city council filled with pretentious rich people who don’t give a shit about them or their community.

Each day another issue comes to my attention.  My experience is feeble and it feels like high school again- these problems are a statistic, a point raised in a discussion and eventually left to talk of more pleasant subjects.

Volunteering is a paid job. Your efforts are paid in hardship. Paid in wisdom. Paid in revelation. In three months I have come to re-evaluate my whole time in school, my time in sleepy suburbs, the mentality I had when I was 12. The reward for volunteering is a new past, complete with more perspective and understanding.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

2 thoughts on “An alien across the overpass”

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