“Effective parenting refers to carrying out the responsibilities of raising and relating to children in such a manner that the child is well prepared to realize his or her full potential as a human being. It is a style of raising children that increases the chances of a child becoming the most capable person and adult he or she can be.” Dr. Kerby T. Alvy
When it comes to fostering a life-long love of learning, parents are the biggest support for their children.
Here are my top 5 things parents need to teach their children so they are successful in school:
Teach Them How to Talk to and Respect All People: Students who cannot talk to or respect other people will have a hard time in school. There are so many students who are disrespectful to others; it is truly shocking. Having positive relationships in school affects students’ abilities to function in that school. Most issues are avoidable when one realizes it is caused by lack of respect, plain and simple. Teaching children how to respect peers and adults will help them to have great relationships and help them benefit from collaboration with teachers and peers.
Teach Them to Stand Up for Themselves and Others: Obviously, not all children will be respectful and kind to each other; it will be necessary, at some point, for a child to stand his or her ground. Parents need to have conversations with their children about when it will be necessary to stand up for themselves and others, and then give them the tools, words and confidence to say enough is enough in a mature way. Teaching this can be tricky as well. How do we teach our children to stand up to someone without turning into bullies themselves? There is a fine line, but it is necessary to know where that line is. Students who are not afraid to protect themselves and a weaker person have the makings of true leaders.
Teach Them the Necessity of Working Hard: A new trend in student achievement seems to be that even minimal effort should be rewarded with an A (according to some students and parents). If students want A’s, they need to be willing to put in the hard work necessary to get that A. It is unfortunate that parents are supporting this trend because it leads to students only caring about the grade, not the learning. Students who do not value working hard will be susceptible to cheating, which will lead to more severe consequences as they get older.
Teach Them Accountability and Responsibility: Students who are not afraid to answer for something they have done are more likely to make better decisions as they get older. If students cannot admit to wrongdoing for small things, and think they got away with it, the trouble they can cause and get into will intensify exponentially as they get older. Being accountable also means that students know their responsibilities. Students need to show up to class; they need to come prepared with all materials for that class; they need to be rested and ready to learn; and they need to find a way to connect with the material the teacher presents.
Teach Them Failing is Learning: Every self-help book tells its readers: Learn from mistakes. Learn from the setbacks. Yet, the current education movements seem to revolve around the idea that failure is not an option. Failure always has and always will be an option, and people can learn some of the best lessons from their failures.
This list comes from Uncommon Core: 25 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in a Cookie Cutter Educational System. Pauline Hawkins’ book is available on Amazon as well as directly from the publisher using the link in the right margin.
What roles do teachers have in creating kind and compassionate citizens?
Teaching is about investing in our future.
Teachers need to do more than teach content. We are so much more than knowledge transmitters and test proctors. We are human beings that have made it our life’s mission to improve the world through nurturing, guiding and educating the world’s children.
I became a teacher because I wanted to help children/teenagers become the best they could be. I had a few amazing teachers who changed my life, and I wanted to be that teacher for other people.
Teachers stand in front of the classroom and help a room full of people discover the beauty of knowledge, and discover who they are and who they can become some day. If teachers are not embracing the importance of their role, then they may be doing more harm than good. Whether we like it or not, we are role models; we are educational coaches and knowledge facilitators.
When I taught in the high school, I taught the whole child, not just my content area. I love English and everything in the curriculum: writing, grammar, literature and oral communication. But what I loved more was how the English curriculum lent itself to teaching my students life skills, particularly kindness, empathy, and compassion. I believe these characteristics are more important than content knowledge because they will help students become successful in all areas of life, not just in the classroom or with standardized tests.
As a mother, I am also a teacher and role model to my children. I am not the perfect parent by any means; however, I have been raising children for 30 years now; my daughters and stepsons are adults, living on their own, and enjoying happy, successful lives, through which they are contributing positively to society. Ian is thriving and making significant gains in school.
As I navigate through my parenting experiences, I struggle with many of the things parents and teachers are currently dealing with. I struggle as a mother on the other side of the desk with how my son is treated by teachers and students in the classroom. However, my experiences as a teacher have given me insight into my collaboration with my son’s teachers. What I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that if we all work at behaving as and creating kind and compassionate citizens, we can effectively help our children become happy, successful adults.
As important as it is for teachers and parents to model and teach kindness and compassion, students have a responsibility to engage with this part of their education as well. It is through the daily lessons, contrived or not, that students discover who they are and who they want to be. If we all work together, we will help students acquire the skills necessary to become civic-minded individuals who continue our work in improving the world through nurturing, guiding and educating the world’s children.
Much of this comes from the “Introduction” to my book, Uncommon Core: 25 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in a Cookie Cutter Educational System. I have changed a few parts to focus on the question at hand.
How do we teach young people the rigorous critical thinking and research skills to distinguish news from propaganda? How do we ensure the next generation is one which communicates civically, values honesty, and recognizes reality?
First, we have to have courses for young people to take that are centered on critical thinking. Most college campuses have an introductory course that stands alone or coincides with a writing class, but until college, most students do not have intensive critical thinking instruction.
In the critical thinking class I teach at GBCC, we read about and practice observation skills, word precision, facts and inferences, assumptions, opinions, viewpoints (and their filters), arguments, logical fallacies, and inductive and deductive reasoning. The most important part of this course is not the tests students take, but the discussions we have as we explore the concepts and share our experiences with critical thinking or the lack there of. What students learn is that they need to read, ask questions, be willing to say “I don’t know, but I’ll research it,” and then actually do it. They learn to spot those logical fallacies and not be duped by them. I tell them never to just believe anyone, not even me. They cannot trust the majority of sources, including mainstream media, because everyone has an agenda.
However, within the constructs of my high school English classroom, I still made sure students received some critical thinking lessons. During research projects, I showed students how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources, where to find those legitimate sources, and how to use them ethically. We also had a number of shared inquiry sessions during classes on the most controversial subjects that didn’t have easy answers. Here are a few questions I would ask during these sessions: Did George do the right thing when he shot Lennie? Who demonstrated the worst behavior in Romeo and Juliet? Who is responsible for the destruction of freedom and equality on Animal Farm? Through these discussions, students learned to listen to each other (regardless of whether they agreed with each other or not), go beyond their own experiences and care about people and/or characters outside of their own bubble, and look back at text support for their responses—all critical thinking skills.
Which brings me to me next point: Students need to read more, and not just for pleasure, but also for exposure to the human condition. Reading diverse texts will arm them with knowledge outside of their limited perspectives. People cannot be critical thinkers when they have limited knowledge and limited experiences.
Finally, it’s not just young people who need to learn these skills. We have far too many adults who are role models for these young people that do not have critical thinking skills. I’ve said it before and will say it again: We cannot expect our children to learn skills the adults in their lives are not demonstrating on a daily basis.
I know too many people who are not educators (and some who are) that are in favor of the choice movement in education. The biggest reason people want choice is to improve the education for their own children and then create competition so that other schools will be forced to improve or shut down. Unfortunately, both reasons are based in misconceptions about education.
I will concede that “choice” is not a bad thing when you are talking about businesses, service industries, and commodities. We definitely want businesses to compete for our money. Competition makes businesses strive for excellence. That’s why people, outside of education mostly, thought that “choice” would make all schools better, but it hasn’t.
Why? First, because education is not a business; it is a humanright (Article 26) that isprotected as part of our inalienable fundamental rights to which people are entitled simply because they are human beings, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour (sic), sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
In other words, if a business fails, the owners can start over, maybe poorer and a little wiser, but no real harm done. If a school fails, it has negatively affected the human rights of every child that went to that failing school.
So how does the “choice” movement hurt human rights? Bear with me as I try to explain this point.
If you are for “choice” in education, you want better “service” for your child. We all want what is best for our children–I’m not arguing that. But if your child is going to a failing school, and you have the money to pay for private schools, which is part of that choice movement, then you will no longer care about that failing school because you can give your child something better (unless your child makes a mistake which will result in an expulsion with no chance of return to that private school). That is great for you and your family, but what about all the other children who can’t afford to pay for private schools?
The next question is usually, isn’t that why people came up with charter schools, so that people who can’t afford private schools can still get a quality education? Yes. Charter schools, in general, are another great idea–on paper. You don’t have to pay for charter schools out of your own pocket—technically—but your tax dollars go to those schools. Our government gives charter schools a certain amount of money for every child enrolled in that charter school; so just like public schools, our government pays for your child’s education—that is if you are lucky enough to get selected, and your child behaves well enough to stay at that school. Most charter schools operate on a lottery system, so not all students will get in, and most schools will kick students out who make mistakes or make the school look bad in any way.
Once again, for those parents who want choice, this sounds great because those children who are selected have a great atmosphere for learning.
However, what people forget is that there are many students who will have to continue going to that failing school. If you can’t worry about someone else’s children, then just consider this: Pulling your child out of the failing school does not pull them out of the society in which they live. One way or another, the negative effects of that failing school will still affect you and your children.
Just to summarize the first point, education is not a business; it is a human right. Therefore, educational choice is about people only caring about their children—no one else’s. Those who can afford it will choose to pay for their children to go to private schools. Out of those that remain, some parents will apply to charter schools and a few lucky students will get selected. That leaves the rest in public schools because public schools will take every rejected and expelled student and do the best they can to educate those students within the confines of the system. Public schools also have incredible students who are successful despite the “choice” movement.
Is it any wonder our public schools look like they are failing if the wealthy and well behaved students are all going somewhere else? Along these lines, by eliminating the heterogeneous classroom in all three options, it makes it harder for those struggling students to see what work ethic, study skills, and perseverance looks like. On the other hand, a classroom that has students with different genders, talents, abilities, interests, backgrounds, and cultures will help all students work toward a higher standard. The students in heterogeneous schools can relate to the world better because they experience diversity on a daily basis. The homogeneous classrooms found in private and charter schools miss out on this necessary part of children’s education. Also, when you remove the top tier of motivated students, the learning culture deteriorates on multiple levels. Students with average ability, motivation, or interest lose that interest, and kids who struggle for whatever reason just give up. Remember, we want our children to be civic-minded and global citizens. How can they understand the global world or empathize with the struggles in our society if they grow up only relating to people just like them?
Second, it is important to note that private and charter schools don’t operate under the government’s watchful eye, which allows them to reject the highly controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and refuse to participate in the corresponding state tests. Since these schools operate independently, they don’t have to participate in the very reasons that people are complaining about public schools. As a matter of fact, many private and charter schools saw the CCSS as a flawed document right from the start and opted out of it.
Remember, CCSS and the state tests are mandated for public schools by the government, while at the same time, the government is pushing for more charter schools that do not have to follow the mandates of the government. Does that make sense? So how can this “choice” movement improve the quality of all schools, when public schools don’t have the autonomy to fix their schools?
Third, to make matters worse, the government is giving money to private and charter schools because of that “choice” movement in the form of vouchers—money that could be given to public schools to improve those failing schools. Of course private and charter schools are going to appear as the right “choice” when they have money to purchase the newest technology, have the freedom to be innovative, and can reject the foolish educational reforms that are more about money than about our children.
Those outside of education do not understand that public schools cannot choose to change their operating methods, so it is impossible for public schools to compete in this so called “business market.” Besides the fact that education is a human right and not a business, the business competition model cannot change public schools because public schools are at the mercy of the government that continues to cut the budget of public schools to pay for tests and to give vouchers to private and charter schools.
Fourth, people and the government are not paying attention to the problems with some charter schools. John Oliver did this great piece on charter schools that exposed the problems with the government funding these unregulated entities.
Many “nonprofit” charter schools are finding deceptive was to make a profit. Once again, if “choice” education is supposed to create competition and a striving for excellence among all schools, Oliver’s research shows how that business model is failing even in the charter school industry.
On the other side of this issue, though, I will admit, there are some amazing charter schools out there. This is my biggest frustration: If there are innovative schools that are working, why can’t we adopt those innovations in public schools?
If parents truly want choice, this is where we as parents and educators need to concentrate our efforts. In Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statement that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” should be taken literally and used to fix public education for all, not to give choice only to the wealthy and the fortunate.
If we want true education reformation, we need to make sure the public tax dollars are being used correctly to create an actual choice movement within the public school system itself: Increase money being spent on public education to improve ALL schools, regardless of location; increase teachers’ salaries to create a true competition for quality teachers; increase public school autonomy so that principals and teachers can use their knowledge and experience to innovate and create the right learning environment for their students.
If people are really concerned about choice, they should make sure their local public school is doing what their children need in order to thrive. Imagine a public school that has the elite academic prep curriculum of Phillips Exeter Academy for those students who are college bound; the innovation of The Ron Clark Academy for those who are creative or learn differently; the care and nurturing of the Learning Skills Academy for those with learning disabilities; and The Independent Project (https://youtu.be/RElUmGI5gLc) for those who want independence and a nontraditional education. Using these innovative schools as models to transform public schools would meet the needs of every student regardless of race, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status—not just the wealthy and lucky few.
How do you as teachers support children who are confused or frightened by events going on in their world?
As a parent, I had to calm my son down before he went to bed Tuesday night and when he woke up Wednesday morning. His “I’m scared, Mom” was difficult for me to hear because I had to take responsibility for his fears. I made negative comments before the election about Donald Trump in front of my son, and told him I was confident that Americans would not elect a person like that to represent our country. When we woke up to that shocking reality, I realized how I let my son down.
What I should have done is emphasized that the government was set up as a three-branch system to make sure that none of them would have too much power, so our president will always be tempered by two other branches, limiting his power and control.
What I should have done is told my son the truth about politicians: They work for us. They may make a lot of promises and threaten a lot of things, but politicians are supposed to serve the Americans they represent. They are supposed to, but that fact hasn’t actually been true for a long time. And, truthfully, we are responsible for letting politicians get away with serving themselves rather than the American people.
What I should have told my son is that many media sources want money more than they want to be vehicles for truth, so if they can get our attention with fear, they will also get money. We need to be discerning on how we get our information and what we blindly believe without investigating further.
Now, I am changing the conversation to empower my son and college students; I am speaking more passionately at home and in my classrooms about how to take our power back.
What I am now telling my son and students is that we have been given a wakeup call. There is no room for fear in our lives. Neither can we sit idly by and hope for the best. We have to let our representatives know what we want and what we will not accept. We have to investigate what our elected officials are actually doing with the trust we have put in them. We have to make our voices heard and back up our voices with action.
What I am continuing to tell my son and students is that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. If we want equality, then we must treat everyone as equals. If we want kindness and compassion, then we need to come alongside people in need to let them know they are not alone. If we want our voices to be heard, then we cannot silence those who see the world differently than we do, and that includes President-elect Trump. If we want to protect our environment, then we need to stop being wasteful and start supporting renewable, clean energy sources. If we want to feel secure in our beautiful country, then we need to stand up for our rights as Americans; we need to stand up to the bullies on the playground and in our governing houses—not with violence but with knowledge, courage, and solidarity.
Bottom line, as teachers and parents we need to support students and children who are confused or frightened by role modeling equality, kindness, compassion, intelligence, and fortitude.
How do you help students accept and work well with people of different beliefs, cultures, languages, socio-economic statuses, education backgrounds, and learning styles?
Acceptance and respect are best taught through example. As a teacher, I set the mood, tone, and pace of the classroom. If I mistreat any student in my classroom, it will give students permission to do the same. That old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” must have been coined by someone who didn’t understand human nature. If we want our children/students to accept those with different beliefs, cultures, etc., then we need to show them how it’s done. The number of teachers who have admitted to rolling their eyes, smirking, and/or belittling students in the classroom that they found weird or culturally different amazes me; then, those same teachers will complain about how nasty other students are to them or to other students. It’s easy to make the connection between the two situations, yet some teachers would rather blame children for the negativity rather than themselves. I know it’s hard to change children’s behavior in all aspects of their lives if their parents are modeling negative behavior, but teachers can impact students’ behaviors within their classrooms.
Not only do I model kindness and understanding in my classroom, but I also share with my students how every child/teenager/adult I have met and worked with helps me to grow. Every person that comes into our lives has something important to teach us. I’m always learning something new because of the diverse people in my life. While being exposed to a beautiful array of cultural differences improves my knowledge, it also improves my empathy—a necessary emotion that allows us to become healthy and connected human beings. Without empathy, we become selfish and in extreme cases, narcissistic and/or sociopathic. When we can look beyond skin color, clothing brand, religious symbols, and chosen paths, and care to hear the stories and see the similarities within each of us, we will realize that we have more in common than we think. Whether we know someone’s story or not, it’s safe to assume that everyone is struggling with something. Wouldn’t it be horrible to add pain to someone’s already difficult life?
The other important thing to teach children/students is the difference between opinions and facts. We are living in a society that believes in the validity of its own opinions. Although everyone is free to have an opinion, it doesn’t mean that every opinion carries equal weight, especially those opinions that have no basis in factual evidence. This is part of critical thinking skills, but it must be taught from the position of compassion rather than pure logic. Some opinions come from inductive and deductive reasoning, and others come from fear and prejudice. Regardless, all opinions are worn like a badge of honor. It is only through patience and informed discussions that we can help our children/students open their eyes to the biases that have formed those weightless, negative opinions. Through these critical thinking discussions, students will remember those role models and begin to practice empathy, learning to accept and work well with people who are different from them.
What are the important skills, behaviors, and attitudes that students need to become contributing global citizens?
These skills, behaviors, and attitudes are so important that I wrote a book about them. My book goes into detail about the specific skills and offers suggestions for parents, teachers, and students on how to cultivate these traits at home, in the classroom, and beyond. For the purposes of this discussion, I put the list into two categories that encompass the necessary skills students need to be contributing global citizens. The one skill that students will need in both categories, however, is a good work ethic. Students will need to have good time management and perseverance whether they are working independently or with a team.
Able to Work Independently: Students who can sit down by themselves and get the job done, no matter what it is, will contribute positively to society. Too many people wait around for help or a leader to give them direction. Students who are proactive and do what needs to be done will have an advantage over those who wait. Independent workers have learned to be problem solvers. They look at complications as problems to be solved, not reasons to quit. In our quickly changing world, students also need to be comfortable with not having a clear-cut answer to things. Sometimes it is through those supposed “failures” that we learn the most, which allows us to become successful. Students who can work independently are able to follow directions and complete a job correctly. Students who can work independently are also responsible for themselves. They don’t play the blame game; instead they know they are in control of their good and bad choices and are more than willing to be accountable. Students who are independent learners will also be curious, innovative, and creative. They are genuinely interested in what they are doing and not afraid to think outside the box to discover new ways to get the job done.
Able to Work with a Team: Students who can also collaborate with other people will be contributing global citizens. Working independently shows confidence in one’s abilities, but working collaboratively shows respect and trust for others. In order to work well in a team, students need to engage in a real way with other people. They do this by being good listeners and communicators when they are face-to-face with their group. They will also read well and write clearly, so they can communicate through email and letters. Working well with a team will require patience for those times when others are struggling and strength of character to stand up for themselves when they aren’t being heard. In a global society, students will also need to be comfortable with and accepting of diversity. Students who cannot respect people who are different from them will find it difficult to find their place in a diverse job market. Finally, students need to accept and understand the differences within other cultures. Our world is getting smaller. The homogeneous populations of the past are no longer part of our realities.
As some of you know, Ian has a YouTube channel (link). He’s been making and uploading videos since he was 7 years old. I have been monitoring his site. I get an email whenever someone comments on his videos, and then I delete and report anyone who makes a nasty comment. He’s been called names like retard, idiot, and fat. Up until now, I have protected him from the harshness of social media, waiting until I felt he was old enough and strong enough to deal with it on his own. However, I didn’t sit idle, expecting Ian to develop armor without help; so while I’ve been deleting comments, I’ve also been “training” him for these realities. Elementary school is the perfect time to build up the necessary armor. What used to be a middle school battleground has now filtered down to the younger years. Ian has had many opportunities to practice what I preach. It may seem unfortunate that someone so young would have to deal with children and adults attacking his intelligence, integrity, motivation, and character, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a blessing to be present and involved in these battles. Is there a better way to train him and strengthen his armor than while he’s in my presence, surrounded by my love and guidance?
So, when a child tells him, “I hate you!” Ian and I talk about what happened before that comment. Did Ian do something to that child? If so, we talk about making better choices and apologizing for his behavior if necessary. If not, we talk about the fact that we don’t know what’s going on with that other child. Maybe he has some difficult situations he’s dealing with, and the best course of action is not to retaliate and just walk away.
If someone says, “You’re stupid or weird,” I explain to Ian that those types of comments say more about the other person than they do about him. If Ian is just being himself and other children think he’s being weird, Ian doesn’t have to change to please other people. He can tone it down, if he wants, but Ian is allowed to have his own personality and be his own person, as long as he is being kind and not hurting anyone.
I constantly repeat this mantra to him: “You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do need to be kind to everyone. You can’t change how someone else behaves or feels, but you can change how you react and whether or not you let someone else control how you feel about yourself.”
That all sounds cut and dried, but situations aren’t always that simple. Yes, I teach my son to be kind, but I also teach him to stand up for himself and for others who are weaker than he is. We had one situation in which a girl his age got so angry with Ian’s goofy personality because he was “annoying” her, that she dug her nails into his shoulder to get him to stop repeating his “Chuck Norris” phrase. Ian knocked her arm away. Even though Ian had claw marks on his shoulder, she ran home accusing Ian of hitting her, which started a small group of children, along with this girl’s parents, calling Ian a bully—of course they only heard the story from the girl. No one present at the incident believed Ian was a bully, but there is nothing we can do to change how those other people feel.
In another situation, Ian defended a friend against a much bigger person. Ian stood on tiptoes to get in a high school boy’s face about something this boy did to one of his friends. Luckily, this older boy called him “little man” and appreciated Ian’s loyalty to his friend, resolving the situation immediately. Ian and I did talk about choosing his battles wisely though.
Usually, I let Ian take care of these situations on his own and give him advice when he asks or I see he really needs it. However, there have been times I’ve had to step in, like when two mothers ganged up on Ian and accused him of “bullying” their daughters and being a “liar” … about everything, I guess. I know Ian is not perfect; I need to discipline him for some of his choices, but the things they accused Ian of did not happen, and Ian had a number of other students who witnessed the situation and came to his defense. He was eventually vindicated, but there are a few people around him who still believe the lie.
As you can see, we have had many opportunities to practice these lessons over the last few years, which has helped Ian to develop a pretty tough armor. He’s strong and confident, and mostly immune to the nastiness around him.
The other day, someone made a mean comment on one of his parcour videos from a few years back. Ian made that video before he really knew what parcour was. This person decide to say, “You suck” on his video. Now that Ian has his own iPad, he received the notification of the comment as well. We both looked at our devices at the same time. Ian told me, “Apparently, I suck.”
“Don’t worry, bud. I’ll report it.” My heart hurt a little for him; I knew there would be more of that down the road, especially with his older videos, so I suggested, “You know, if you want, we can delete some of the older videos you have on your channel. You’ve grown so much that those videos aren’t really a reflection of who you are now.” I fully expected him to say, “Yeah. Let’s do that.”
Instead, Ian said, “No. Let’s leave them, Mom. We can just report the people who say mean things. That person’s words didn’t hurt me. Besides, how else are people going to see how much I’ve improved as a director, if they can’t see how I started?”
My mouth hung open for a little while. If I taught him that, why was I so shocked by his answer? Maybe the answer is that I just gave him the necessary tools so that he could fashion his own armor, according to the situation.
We all want to protect our children from pain, but pain is a requisite for life. Protecting my son isn’t about keeping him out of the battle; it’s about helping him develop the armor he will need to win the inevitable wars.
For those students who don’t want to continue their formal education but aren’t ready to go out into the world on their own, I’d like to offer them a philanthropic experience. Currently, only students actively involved with their churches have opportunities to have this type of experience. Students can participate in a “missions’ trip” that will concentrate on giving back to their community, whatever that community may be (local or global). This experience would need to be partially self-funded (travel and living expenses, but government can fund the supervision needed for those students). Once they’ve had that experience, they may come back and continue their formal education or have discovered what their path is and pursue that.
This is what Justin had to say about being one of those students and having that experience:
“A Brazilian Soul” by Justin Moore
From September to December of 2015, I spent three months volunteering in Salvador, Brazil, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. My comfort bubble was absolutely obliterated, and because of it, I am mentally, physically, and socially stronger. A year ago, I had no plans of doing any traveling or any plans in general. I was lost and unsure about what to do, and the future seemed like a terrifying monster called life that was going to chew me up and spit me right back out. I have always been that friend on whose shoulder people cry, and I have always been fascinated with foreign cultures. These two seemingly unrelated attributes led me to volunteering abroad. Thank god for Brazil.
Brazil helped turn me around even before I set foot in the country. With three months to go before leaving through the Cross Cultural Solutions program, my parents started nagging me about what I would do until then to make money. Their pressure and message of how only failures sit around all summer really impacted me. So I did something I had never done before: I got a job. It was a part-time, telephone-surveying job and paid about nine dollars an hour. The first week, I was terrified of making a mistake and felt as though I was wasting my time. It wasn’t until I received my first paycheck that I finally experienced a sense of pride and confidence. I never applied myself in high school, did terribly grade-wise, and never really achieved academically. After my first paycheck, I had this unfamiliar, rewarding feeling. I had worked hard at something and received something back from it. That money made me independent. It motivated me to work hard. And it showed me that I could succeed in life if I put my heart into something.
After a couple months of working, it was finally time for me to saddle up and head out. It wasn’t until I saw the people of Brazil that I accepted I was abroad. I had landed in a third world country in a city that was 80 percent non-Caucasian, was poor, and spoke Portuguese. It was a strange feeling to be the minority now in seemingly every aspect of life. A taxi picked me up at the airport and drove me to my home base in the heart of the city. Boy was that a drive! Here I was, an 18-year-old, middle-class, white Justin from America, looking out the window at what could have been Pluto for all I knew. All I could think was, “Justin, what have you gotten yourself into?”
I settled into a modest apartment and realized I had a few days before any of the volunteering began. The other volunteers hadn’t yet arrived; I had nobody to see an no place to be. I made one of the best decisions of my life and joined samba (Brazilian dance), capoeira (Brazilian martial art), and Portuguese (Brazilian language) classes. These classes helped me immerse myself in the local culture, make some friends, and boogie down too! Three months of samba and capoeira were amazing. Socially, I learned how to interact with those from other cultures and be more open. Physically, I lost 25 pounds and got into the best shape of my life!
The other participants of the program started to roll in the day before we began volunteering. I soon realized that not only was I the youngest, but I was also the youngest by 14 years. High school had taught me that the upperclassman were in charge. Strangely, that’s not how I came to think of the other volunteers. Living and working closely with my “elders” for three months, I began to feel more like their peers. We learned to respect each other, regardless of age, religion, and background; because of it, our group turned into one big happy family. I was not their son; they were my brothers.
The first place, and originally the only place1, where I volunteered was Orfanato Vo Flor (Grandma Flowers Orphanage and Daycare). Here, children between the ages of four to seventeen live or are dropped off each day if their guardians cannot provide a “safe environment” for them while they are at work. It is almost completely unstructured, and the children there run amok in a maze of broken glass and filth. One might say this is not a viable “safe” substitute, but these kids had parents who were drug addicts, physically or mentally disabled, and with little or no means. Sometimes they didn’t even come from homes at all and lived on the street.
I was incredibly nervous on my first day. When they dropped me off, I could feel every eye on me. I walked alone into the favela2 and stuck out like a sore thumb. I sought out the director of the orphanage and poorly understood the directions she gave me. We parted ways, and I stumbled back into the main area where all the kids were hanging around. I had no idea what I was supposed to do at the facility. I was terrified of being an awkward waste of space that just sits there and does nothing but consume oxygen. Then, out of the blue, a young girl named Ana Lucia ran over and pulled me into the best experience of my life.
Ana was the first out of all the children there to approach the intriguing but intimidating beast known as the American. Everyone else was too nervous. Once she did, however, every other kid swarmed in and started jabbering away and pulling on my clothing. I felt like I was in a petting zoo where I was the animal and they were overly enthusiastic humans. I spent the first day being dragged from place to place and shown a kind of love I had never experienced. The love was a sweet mixture of foreign fascination, friendship, and trust. It was insanity, and it was beauty.
I quickly went from exceptionally anxious to incredibly overjoyed at my situation. For the next three months, I spent my time cleaning, feeding, and playing with those kids. Every day, I would walk in and suddenly be absorbed into the gleeful screams and hugs of 30 children. The children loved me for who I was, and, in return, I gave them the love that they weren’t receiving at home. To them, I was American father, chio, –which is Portuguese for “uncle”—and brother. It wasn’t until I left that I realized how much I loved them, and how they were like my children.
When the volunteering ended and I flew back to the States, the experience and change in my life didn’t hit me until I lay back in my bed for the first time, crying, realizing what an unexpected miracle Salvador had been for me. The combination of the way I lived, the culture, and the work with the kids mixed together to give me a truly euphoric feeling. I had grown so much as a person, and the way I had gone outside of my comfort zone had allowed me to develop into a man who was ready to take the next step. I was confident, determined, and prepared to move on with my life. It was time to stop dwelling on the mistakes of the past and work towards my goals for the future.
Brazil is what gave me the confidence to start classes at Great Bay Community College as a full time student. Brazil is what gave me the energy and motivation to apply for a job at a software company, rock the interview, and then get the job. Brazil will always be remembered as the place where I blossomed into the man I am today. The friends I made and the experiences I had have helped me understand myself in a way I could never do in high school. I was that kid who had no idea what he was going to do. Now, I feel like an unstoppable force ready to take on the world. I miss my South American friends, Salvador, and the gift they gave me. I can truly say I will always have a bit of a Brazilian soul.
1 I originally only volunteered at Orfanato Vo Flor, but I also ended up teaching two separate English classes for adults and teenagers (Centro Redentorista Missionary) and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS (CAASAH). 2 A favela is an urban slum in Brazil.
How different our world would be if more “lost and unsure” students could have this type of experience.