By Eliana Borba*
*Eliana is a freshman studying International Affairs at George Washington University's Elliot School.
My encounter with the woman and man on my way to Bright Beginnings has without a doubt affected my experience there. It was a rather frigid winter day, with gusts of winds that made your fingers ache when you held your phone up to your face. That is exactly what I was doing after being dropped off by an Uber a few blocks from my community site. I glared at the progressively dimming screen of my phone praying that the battery percentage would miraculously stop declining and actually help me. I’d like to blame my barely there battery life on my getting lost rather than my inability to understand google maps, but I guess it doesn’t really matter either way does it? The fact is that I got lost, I, who had wanted to dress up to make a good first impression at the daycare for homeless children, was hopelessly lost and alone in a new and different part of town. I suspect that I was the perfect mark for that lady, walking down the street in heeled boots, pearl earrings and a bag big enough for overzealous first time mothers anxiously asking my phone for the right directions, I was practically screaming “PLEASE HARASS ME” and I suppose that’s why she yelled at me. This Wanda Sykes look-a-like stepped up into my personal space claiming, in a rather loud and aggressive voice, that I walked by her everyday and that I owed her money. She said that I thought I was so pretty and a bunch of other stuff I don’t care to remember. My first reaction as a suburban grown naive young woman was to kindly inform this lady that it was actually my first time in this neighborhood and that she had to have been mistaking me for someone else. Thankfully I refrained from doing that.
Even though this lady was encroaching in my personal space I kept walking with the clacking of my heels and the lady’s impassioned yells echoing around me. It was at this moment that my phone died and the neighborhood started to become overcome with graffiti and the sidewalk was more cracked and crumbled than solid. After ducking into a nearby Roti, comforted by the familiar delicious smells of Mediterranean food, I charged my phone, finally deciphered google maps and soothed my chapped, cold knuckles.
After doubling back the way i came, being sure to avoid Wanda Sykes 2.0, I was finally on my way, the right way. Just as things started to look up the wind decided to pick up, slightly sweeping me to the side with every step I took. Then it started snowing, giant flakes that melted into my skin and drove the cold straight to my bones. It was then that a man, I think he may have been inebriated, called out to me. He promised that he could take me anywhere I wanted to go and with a grimace and mounting anxiety I promptly picked up my speed. I had yet to even get to Bright Beginnings and already my idea of how everything was going to go had been shattered as easily as an Easter egg. I had pictured a neighborhood more like Foggy Bottom, mostly because I’ve barely been anywhere else in DC and that was foolish of me to think in retrospect.
The second “oh no” moment I had was when I finally arrived at Bright Beginnings, I was expecting it to be bright, shiny, clean, and happy. It was anything but that. There are large cement steps that lead up into the building, I think they’re very symbolic of the journey of the people of go to Bright Beginnings, easy to fall down them but hard to climb back up. After stumbling through the door I was greeted with a rotund desk behind which a security officer stood guard. Or rather where a rather uninterested guard sat all day monitoring the comings and goings of the building, kind of. After locating the main office for Bright Beginnings I was directed to go up to the third floor to see my GW correspondent who works there. Elevators have never frightened me before, I have also enjoyed the feeling of defying gravity, but when the door of this elevator, which had to be older than my grandparents, shuffled closed in a completely rickety way behind me I started praying and texted my mother, just in case. I felt the jerky motion of the cables being pulled taut and each foot that I ascended. It was terrifying.
When I finally met with the correspondent she brought me and another volunteer to a room that I suppose was a storage room and the lack of apparent organization baffled me and slightly set me off. By now after everything that had happened so far my nerves were singing as though I had downed a dozen cans of red-bull so when I was given a tour of all the classrooms the screaming children and the construction paper covered walls were a blur, each looking the same as the last. That first experience at Bright Beginnings was certainly an experience that I won’t forget and it most definitely shattered my idea of how my service there was going to go.
I have talked a lot about this initial experience at Bright Beginnings, I have analyzed it and written about it a million times for my UW class. I thought about my position as an outsider, I worried about the white savior complex and about hurting more than helping. I worried about and contemplated my motivations for doing this in the first place. I completely overthought it. I didn’t realize this however, until I talked to my mother one night. She praised me for going to work with needy children, my automatic response was that it wasn’t about me, that I wasn’t some hero. She talked over me as mother do and went on to say how amazing it was and what I must be doing for these kids, how I am impacting their lives for good. My academic brain refuted such claims and ideas, it wasn’t about me and I’m not some savior who is going to fix anything really I am simply another temporary volunteer. But my heart, the personal part of me that motivated me to sign up for this service learning class in the first place listened to her.
I realized that to these children I am just a white girl, I am not a volunteer, I am not a student or an adult. I am nothing to them besides a friend to play with or who will read them stories and hold their hands. Yes they notice the racial differences but they do not care beyond thinking it’s funny that my palms are pink and wondering why I have a white face, as one child asked me my first day with them. They just want to play with trains and blocks. I had this “ah” moment the night before I was to go to Bright Beginnings, it was only half of an “aha” moment but the other half came soon.
Two hours into my service one day my class, comprised of just under a dozen two year olds, went outside to enjoy the sun. The spongy ground of the play area cushioned each toddler as they inevitably fell and it was soft to sit on when I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I spent most of the time outside walking around smiling at the kids, occasionally sitting with one or throwing a ball with another. The moment came towards the end, all the girls were playing tag with one of the boys. He would roar at them and they would all scream and run away, I watched them from my perch on the plastic slide set. The girls were hiding on one side of the play set and when I turned and looked at them through the hole for the slide they giggled and screamed and ran to the other side. I pivoted my head and looked at them again and they giggled and screamed. It was that moment when I was playing a peek-a-boo type game with these giggling girls that I finally got it. The truth, my truth in all of this is that while the concepts and analytical tools we use in class are important it is the wide, bright, beautiful smiles bracketed by deep dimples and amplified by the light twinkling of young unblemished joy in the form of wonderful laughter that is truly important. My “aha” moment was that it’s not about the thoughts and ideas we create in class it’s about the emotions we invoke in the people we surround ourselves by and by being volunteers we chose to surround ourselves with the people who need what we are capable of giving more than others.