By Sarah Farbman
Okay, so picture this. You’re racing home from work as fast as your little legs will take you. The sinking sun bleaches the color out of the street and you swerve through the crowded sidewalk, around school kids and joggers and women pushing strollers. You treat the little red hand as a summons instead of a stop, you can’t afford to stop, and then you’re crossing the threshold to your front yard, you fumble for your keys and you’re unlocking the first lock…the second lock…now the third lock and the fourth why do we always lock all four locks you practically throw all your stuff to the ground almosttherealmosttherealmostthere take a quick left down the hall and yes! target spotted. You zip into the bathroom and breathe a sigh of relief.
But it turns out that your struggles aren’t over. This moment, this release, this redemption is spoiled by what happens next. You turn to your right, reach for the toilet paper, and…t’s gone. Somebody used the last of the toilet paper and did not replace it. Well that’s just great. Didn’t you make a polite and gentle reminder about this very situation at your last house meeting? Do your good-for-nothing, toilet-paper-grubbing housemates have no brains between their ears? Do they not have a basic sense of human decency?
Now, we all know that there are only two fitting punishments for toilet paper delinquency, which are, of course, coating the offender in peanut butter and then mummifying them in a thick layer of Charmin Ultra so they’ll never forget again, or, barring that, simply buying them a one-way ticket to Timbuktu and conning them into getting on the plane. But of course, you don’t do any of that. A Jewish co-op of 13 people wouldn’t work if you were always doing that. So you take a deep breath, wash your hands, and get two fresh rolls of toilet paper from the hall closet.
When not chilling in my 13-woman bayit, I am spending my year at AVODAH working for a community-based organization called Teens Run DC. It uses running and mentorship to help kids develop life skills, improve emotional intelligence, and find a sense of connection to a warm and welcoming community. The program is free and open to any DC teen, but especially those who wouldn’t have a chance to develop those skills and connections elsewhere. The heart and soul of the program is its Saturday running practices, where the atmosphere is festive and caring, with the slightest undertones of fevered relief.
New in the past few years, TRDC has branched out into five DC schools, which is where I come in. I have been placed at DC International School, the only charter school in the bunch.
During the school day Monday through Thursday, I work closely with DCI’s PE teachers, teaching two classes a day on my own and assisting in one more. Rather than emphasizing physical activity, my classes emphasize relationships with students and social and emotional activity. Knowing yourself, being able to label your emotions, being able to recognize your peers’ emotions, taking responsibility for your actions, even when they are motivated by emotion. All while playing dodgeball. Or volleyball or relay races or whatever I decide that morning will be the activity du jour. Not an easy task, all things considered. I also take kids for walks or runs during their lunch, a great way to get to know students better, and it’s a similar deal for an hour a day after school, except instead of PE class it’s a more focused running club, cross-country practice, or, new this quarter, basketball practice.
For the first few weeks, my mind was filled with classroom management strategies and jargony curriculum development manuals and a thousand new names to learn and classroom protocols and chains of command, not to mention which forks could be used where back at the bayit.
But when I began to feel like I was treading instead of drowning, like I could stick my head out of my newly-inhabited gopher-hole of work, I started paging through previous AVODAH blog entries and listening more carefully to bayit dinner-table conversations. And I began to notice a pattern I wasn’t expecting. Many of my predecessors write about coming face-to-face with gaping wealth disparities through their work, meeting and interacting with people who have been sleeping on the streets for years, or who have homes with fridges that are on but utterly empty. Some of my housemates talk about meetings with clients whom they have never seen sober, or who break down in tears of gratitude when they are given groceries for the week.
At first blush, I couldn’t see what these tales of eye-opening, world-view-changing experiences had to do with my own AVODAH day-to-day. If my ‘clients’ cry it’s because the kid next to them punched them. And frankly I was starting to feel a little cheated, somehow. Isn’t this year supposed to be, like, radically life-altering?
Social-justice-ly speaking, in some ways, what I’m doing right now doesn’t feel all that different to me from my time in college. I become aware of gaping structural inequalities and failures in our society, study them, read about them, hear about them second (or third or fourth) hand, discuss them at length with my peers. But at the end of the day, I spend my days in a school, the way I always have, and I come home to a warm house with food on the table and leftovers in the fridge. My daily concerns involve leaving the house on time for work and getting a group of twelve year olds to bump volleyballs instead of chuck them at each other.
I do believe in the importance of youth development, the approach to working with young people in a way that emphasizes their strengths in a positive environment. At least, I hate being in a room where kids are being senselessly yelled at, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t help anyone ever. AVODAH is an antipoverty organization, and it is clear to me that one of the most important steps in breaking the cycle of poverty is to have a sense of self-worth and to be able to relate to others.
The larger picture of my work, the theoretical, the vision, all that is fine. What I was having trouble with is the nitty gritty. This is a new position in a new school, sponsored by a newish organization. I’m new. New to the city, new to teaching, new to sports, new to psychology, new to freaking adulthood in general. And while my peers are starting book groups for people experiencing homelessness, or helping people who struggle with addiction to manage their money, I am leading a line of middle schoolers down the street to the park, blowing my whistle and flapping my arms and crossing my fingers. You can see, then, how easy it is to lose sight of that pretty little vision, two paragraphs up, that tells me that this work is important and valuable and, like, fighting structural injustice.
But when my thoughts get to this point, I think about the toilet paper. Metaphorically, anyway. I may be young. I may not have any formal training in psychology, education, sports, or youth development. But I have the right combination of personality and circumstance that has given me the blessing of learning to love myself. And from this place of self-love grows a love for my community. So when egregious toilet paper sins are committed in my co-op, I am learning how to gently and effectively address them. And when (not that this ever happens…) I am the one who forgets to put the toilet paper back, I am learning to accept the constructive criticism of my housemates.
And I’m finding, as I swim through streams of middle schoolers on a daily basis, asking them to think, really think, about why they thought it was okay to steal a ball or kick a classmate, that I can turn those skills inward. Even though it’s tempting to just race outside when I’m late for work, why do I think it’s okay to leave the door unlocked? For love of my community, I will go back and lock it, even if it means missing the bus.
I am coming to believe that, at the end of the day, this world is about relationships. Not in the self-interested, business school, network-y let-me-give-you-my-card way, but in the sense that loving yourself and at least a few people around you, emotionally and as an active, transitive verb, is the whole point of it anyway.
And so the annoying inner-monologue continues. Yes, I am essentially a PE teacher, a position that I, as a self-declared gym-class benchwarmer, never expected to have. And no, sports in general and running in particular are not my passions. Those are not the gifts that I am brimming over with, that I am excited to share with the world. I am not heroically Feeding the Hungry or Eradicating Poverty. And I often don’t feel like I know what I’m doing and, hey, half the time I’m worried that I’m just upsetting kids or exposing them to the teasing of their peers that I can’t always stop.
But I realize that at the same time that I am (slowly) forming relationships with my students, I am coming to love and appreciate more and more, not just my housemates, but the warm community we’re building together. I am learning to love and to think about love in a way that is just a little different than before, and who knows? Maybe some of that learning will even rub off onto my students. And isn’t that service?
Sarah Farbman is from Arlington Heights, IL, attended Grinnell College, and is a School Site Coordinator at Teens Run DC.